Month: May 2012

Killer Elite (2011)

Killer Elite (2011)

(On Cable TV, sometime around May 2012) It’s surprising to see how quickly a film can affirm its dull unspectacular barely-exciting nature. So it is that Killer Elite takes us back to 1970s England in order to present a semi-thrilling story something supposedly based on true events. But never mind that last part; the only thing inspired by true event seems to be the serious rainy atmosphere in which the entire film is bathed. While Robert De Niro, Jason Statham and Clive Owen are a spectacular union of tough-guy heroes, Killer Elite doesn’t seem interested in most of them: De Niro is barely on-screen for fifteen minutes, Owen is hampered in a bad-guy role while Statham plays nothing more (or less) than his usual screen persona. Still, the script doesn’t give any of them much to do. The directing is competent but unspectacular, and that goes for Killer Elite in general. The script gets needlessly complicated by the end, and it’s really the actors who carry the film to the finish line. I had to go back and review my year-end notes in order to realize that I hadn’t actually reviewed Killer Elite upon initially viewing it, and I’ll let that speak for itself.

A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin

A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin

Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 2005 original, 1104 pages, $C10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-58202-4

One of fiction’s most fundamental narrative engines is the balance between tension and release.  Typical fiction-writing advice is to send your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them.  The more rocks you throw, the sweeter their success once they climb down the tree.  Authors spend most of their time setting up dramatic payoffs –the fun is in releasing all the tension the closer we are to the end of the story.

This ties in A Feast for Crows insofar as this novel is almost entirely pure buildup.  As fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire series know, Martin first planned on a trilogy.  Then the trilogy grew to a planned six books: two linked trilogies separated by a gap for five years in the internal chronology.  But life seldom goes according to plan, and that’s how Martin found himself with a fourth volume so big that it couldn’t fit between the covers of a single book.  Unusually, he split the book in two halves, following a different set of characters separated by geography.  (It helps when you’re writing about an imagined world so big that characters can go entire novels without meeting each other.)  A Feast for Crows is the first half, A Dance With Dragons following (six years later!) to complete the experiment.

The first discovery of A Feast for Crows is the realization that it’s meant to re-start the series with a chunk of new characters.  (This isn’t surprising given how many died in the third book.)  Alas, the first hundred pages of the novel is laborious, as the usual fatal prologue is followed by two chapters going off to the Iron Island and Dorne in order to open up new plotting avenues.  There’s a definite break in structural form as Martin titles chapters using mysterious titles rather than the names readers were used to see.  The three leading characters by number of chapters aren’t even from the Stark family: Cersei, Jaime and Brienne have much of the book to themselves, although that usually translates into interminable treks in a devastated post-War Westeros.

The title of the book hints at the gloominess of the setting (which turns into autumn as the foretold winter is coming), as the continent of Westeros wakes up from the ravages left by the War of the Five Kings.  Brienne and Jamie, in particular, each do their tour of the land, meeting ancillary characters while smelling the carrion.  Brienne remains herself, while Jamie continues his unlikely narrative redemption as one of the sanest characters left alive.  Meanwhile, the ten chapters given to his sister Cersei’s viewpoint do nothing to make her more likable: If Jamie got more likable as we got inside his head, Cersei gets progressively more despicable even as we understand her particular brand of madness.  Her inner monologue is that of a paranoid sociopath, and reading her chapters are like being stuck in a very unpleasant mind that keeps plotting (not very well) against a plethora of enemies both real and imagined.  Additionally, we do get a handful of interesting chapters from the perspective of the two Stark daughters, another not-so-interesting handful of chapters from Dorne and the Iron Island, engaging episodes of Samwell Tarly’s fearless journey to Oldtown and a few more new characters that, frankly, don’t do much to earn the reader’s affection.

The problem with A Feast for Crows, however, isn’t as much with the characters as with the fact that little actually happens.  As the opening of this review suggests, Martin is setting up a new tetralogy’s worth of narrative threads, and with a series of this bulk, it takes time to put everything into place –so much time, in fact, that we can expect A Dance with Dragons to be more of the same.  (Late in this book, Petyr Baelish has a few lines about “wishing he had four or five more years” to set up his plans that hilariously reflect Martin’s own experience with the series.)

This translates into a curious reading experience: While the main attraction of the series has been its deep immersive nature alongside a cast of thousands (no, really), it’s not designed for fast reading.  A Feast for Crows is even slower than any of the previous three books, and the conscious absence of half the characters only reinforces that this book feels like imposed exercise before getting to the good stuff.

Not that there aren’t any rewards in here.  In addition to the numerous chapters of palace intrigue in King’s Landing there are plenty of rewards in-between the cracks of the novel: Alert readers will notice a short homage to “Archmaester Rigney”’s Wheel of Time series; and those who, ahem, go look up online concordances will find a lot of fascinating back-stories, some of them even acting as possible epilogues to striking characters from earlier books.  Martin appears to continue his heartless dismissal of beloved characters with a few minor deaths and what looks like a big cliff-hanger.

Still, A Feast for Crows isn’t nearly as satisfying as the previous books in the series.  The events on the Iron Islands are dull (the ironmen are not sympathetic characters to begin with, and nothing that happens in this novel makes them look any better), while the Dorne chapters don’t seem to amount to much.  Much of the novel is spent setting up new elements, or looking at the wreckage left by the previous books and saying “well, that happened.”  Meanwhile, nothing (much) is happening, even though some of the latter chapters hold some promise.

Fans of the series will read the novel anyway: it’s an essential bridge between A Storm of Swords and whatever form the continuation of the series will take.  It keeps up A Song of Fire and Ice’s immersive sense of detail, but it may also present a lesson of sorts to writers embarking on very long series –it’s not hard to feel as if Martin’s control over the story has slipped away from him, and that the book is a lengthy attempt to start wrestling it back.  Ultimately, we will have to wait for the entire series to be completed before passing final judgment on its installments.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Scholastic, 2008, 384 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1

So, what are the kids up to these days?  From the best-seller lists and the mass marketing push accompanying the release of The Hunger Games movie, it’s obvious that they’ve moved on from Twilight and Harry Potter onto Katniss, bow-wielding heroine of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.  Tell no one, but I enjoy reading Young Adult books to find out where the zeitgeist’s at: They’re usually good books, don’t take too much time to read and they give conversational material in case I unaccountably find myself hosting a middle-school party.

So it is that The Hunger Games (first volume of a trilogy by the same name) introduces the world of Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America that has the luxury of dispensing with every familiar social institution in order to set up a tyrannical regime in which the twelve districts of the empire are kept in their place through a cunning piece of social engineering: Annual survival games in which the districts each send two teenage participants.  The last of the 24 contestants left standing wins a title, and the district gets extra food rations. 

As a premise, it’s far-fetched enough to make SF readers reach for their “one big deviation from reality is allowed” suspension-of-disbelief card.  There’s practically no precedent in American culture for this kind of deadly contest (no, reality TV doesn’t count), and you’d think that sacrificing 23 teenagers per year would stoke populist anger rather than put it in its place, but hey –one big deviation from reality is allowed.  This is a YA novel and its whole point is to pit teenagers against each other in a fight to the finish, no matter how thin the rationale leading to this point can be.

Our heroine to guide us through the inevitable rebellion (but not yet, not in this first volume) is Katniss, a bright sixteen-year-old girl from poor District 12, the coal-mining Appalachian backwater of Panem.  As the novel begins, Katniss is struggling to put food on the table for the ineffective mom and younger sister.  Fortunately, she’s handy with a bow and isn’t afraid to venture beyond the fences of District 12 to hunt down wild game.  Otherwise, she’s got an ongoing not-quite-romance with neighborhood boy Gale and seems headed for a quiet life of eternal desperation.  But then… the games come calling and her sister is picked as a District 12 representative.  Fortunately, she can volunteer to take her place, and that’s how she ends up on a train to Capitol, stuck alongside a boy with a crush on her (Peeta) and a boozy mentor who hates them both.

Things get more interesting during the lead-up to the Games, as Katniss and Peeta are groomed like reality TV contestants, a romantic storyline manufactured out of thin air to make them seem more compelling to the audience.  We get to see them undergo wardrobe design, physical training, TV interviews… and a few political games alongside hints of Capitol’s terrifying power.  Little of the background details sustain any kind of scrutiny: there’s enough advanced technology around to fix the problems that the Districts seem to be having, suggesting either a deliberately cruel society, or more plausibly incompetent world-building.

Fortunately, there’s more to The Hunger Games than cardboard-thin landscapes: Katniss’s first-person narration is a no-nonsense blend of clipped sentences, tangled emotions, descriptive statements and overall skepticism when confronted to the wonders of Capitol.  She’s not buying into the mystique, but there’s little choice than to comply in order to get to the games.  She doesn’t have any illusions regarding her chances for survival, especially when confronted to the contestants from the richer districts that actually have training programs for Game contestants.  It doesn’t really help that Peeta reveals his crush on Katniss, and that their mentor seems particularly ineffective.

Soon enough, though, the action moves into the gigantic arena of the Games, where fairness is just a concept to be discarded by the game-masters, and where some contestants band together to hunt down their isolated counterparts.  The book isn’t particularly sentimental about the violence perpetrated by the contestants (there’s even a mention of a particularly psychotic past contestant), all the best to raise the stakes against Katniss.  Much of the action takes place in a wilderness fortunately similar to District 12’s forested hills, and Katniss soon finds herself in the last half, then the last quarter of the surviving contestants.  There’s no doubt that she’ll survive, but it’s all in the way she defeats her opponents… some of them outside the arena.

The Hunger Games survives its unconvincing premise thanks to a blend of effective prose, lively plotting and an admirable heroine.  Katniss is both endearing and credible: her abilities are impressive, but she has the self-doubts, indecision and cynicism of a teenage girl.  She’s not a victim, not a prize to be claimed by someone else and actively resents the “star-crossed couple” narrative imposed by the game organizers on Peeta and herself.  Even by the end of the novel, it’s not too clear whether her emotions about Peeta have settled in a definitive form.  It’s not surprising if the book has found a large audience in its target market, especially with young women.

Given this, the success of The Hunger Games with its teen audience has a comforting lining to the edge of its violent premise.  It’s an engaging read, and while it’s hardly surprising, it does wrap up nicely and it sets up its two sequels effectively.  Better yet, it gives some compelling reason to read those two sequels… and given that a lot of box sets of the series are being sold in the wake of the film version’s success, that’s a really good thing.

The Number 23 (2007)

The Number 23 (2007)

(On Cable TV, May 2012) Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Jim Carrey is still primarily perceived as a comedian, and part of the appeal of psychological thriller The Number 23 is seeing him headline a fairly grim tale of obsession and death.  As an ordinary guy suddenly fascinated by a book explaining the numerological intricacies of the number 23, Carrey does well –especially when the film take a meta-fictional bent and start presenting both the character’s reality and the heightened fiction that he reads.  The Number 23 is never more enjoyable than when it’s weird without explanations, going from reality to fiction to increasing paranoia.  When comes the moment for the movie to lay down its cards and tie everything together, you can hear the creaks of the tortured storytelling (in which characters do bizarre things for no better reason than to look suspicious later on), the disappointment of threads being tied up and the lousiest plot cheats come up again.  Still, the film feels underrated: Ably directed by Joel Schumacher, it has a potent visual kick, a strong directing style and some stylish cinematography.  Carrey is believable in the lead role (though not distinctive enough to be worth the rumored 23 million dollars he was paid for it), while Virginia Madsen and Danny Huston provide able supporting work.  The plotting certainly isn’t airtight (the boy’s age doesn’t match the chronology), but the film makes a compelling case for itself as a visual piece of work.  Schumacher may have burned out spectacularly after Batman & Robin, but he has since been turning in some interesting niche movies, from Tigerland to Trespass and now The Number 23.

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games (2012)

(In theaters, May 2012)  Massively hyped as The Next Big Thing in teen pop-culture, The Hunger Games generally lives up to its billing as a decent piece of filmmaking.  It’s hardly perfect, but it keeps getting better as it goes on: Viewers will have to make it past the drab cinematography of the first section of the film and a premise that doesn’t sustain a moment’s scrutiny to start enjoying the film.  Jennifer Lawrence is remarkable in the lead role (the first few minutes suggest the same self-sufficient Appalachian character she played in Winter’s Bone) but director Gary Ross’s work is a bit shaky at first.  The Hunger Games only gets going on the way to Capitol, and then in the wilderness where the teenage protagonists start killing each other off.  The script has its moments (as well as its anti-moments, such as blatant game manipulation that would send Games audiences in a righteous rage) but don’t expect much more than competence in this middle-of-the-road adaptation.  Lead character Katniss comes across as more admirable than most film heroines, tapping into that same hunger for positive female role models that helped the book become such a success.  Compared to the book, however, The Hunger Games comes across as a bit less disturbing (no mentions of the enslaved Avox, no hints as to the Wolf Mutts’ origins, fewer injuries to the participants, mere slight ambiguity as to Katniss’ true feelings for Peeta) and seems to err in trying to replace Katniss’ clipped narration with exposition-heavy scenes featuring third parties.  Still, the result isn’t too bad once you can make it past the dreary first section and the dubious premise.  Woody Harrelson turns in another winning performance as an over-the-hill champion, and the film finds a certain rhythm once the game gets underway.  The film lags a bit toward the end (and makes sure that Katniss doesn’t really kill anyone in cold blood) but who really care?  Preordained to be a mass pop-culture phenomenon from day one, The Hunger Games has the good luck of being actually watchable even by people who don’t buy into the central premise.