(On Cable TV, June 2012) Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the strength of their cast, so it’s a relief to see that nearly everyone headlining Crazy, Stupid, Love is at the top of their game. Steve Carell anchors the cast as a recently-separated middle-aged man seeking lifestyle counsel from a capable womanizer, but he’s surrounded by more great performances by a variety of known names in a variety of large-and-small roles, from Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling, alongside newer names such as Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. Veterans Tomei and Bacon are hilarious to watch in small but effective roles, but Gosling is particularly noteworthy, charming his way through a character that could have been immensely repellent in less-capable hands. After focusing on the protagonist’s attempt to recapture some of his male seductive powers, Crazy, Stupid, Love soon expands into a mosaic of romantic subplots, occasionally palming a few cards in order to deliver a few almost-cheap twists along the way. No matter, though: it leads to a relatively pleasant conclusion despite the overused (but subverted) graduation-speech plot device. Such genre-awareness is a crucial component of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s moment-to-moment interest: Beyond the well-used soundtrack (including a striking usage of Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La”), the sharp dialogue and the snappy direction, Crazy, Stupid, Love is just a joy to watch: so much so that even the tangled subplots and tortured twists seem cute rather than annoying. And that, one could argue, is a measure of the film’s success.
Scholastic, 2009, 391 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02349-8
The plot summary for Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, sequel to The Hunger Games, almost reads like a cheap joke: After surviving the deadly Hunger Games of the first novel, protagonist Katniss has to… do it again. It’s a legitimate tactic for sequels to repeat favored plot elements from previous books, but… really?
Ah well; this isn’t the series’ first uncomfortable encounter with the problem of basic suspension of disbelief, and while one could fault the author for going back to the same formula, Catching Fire does feel different enough to hold our interest.
It’s clear from the beginning that series heroine Katniss Everdeen has been severely damaged from the events of the first volume. Back in her home environment of District 12, Katniss has been freed from daily concerns: her victory ensures that her family and her district are well-fed, but at the same time have isolated her from any semblance of normal life. It’s also clear that she has made powerful enemies during her time in the arena: A surprise visit by oppressor-in-chief President Snow makes it clear that her stunts have not been appreciated by the ones in charge, and that she better behave.
Of course, things don’t go as planned, and telling surly Katniss how to behave is bound to backfire. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the entire country is about to go in flames, with insurrections fanned by Katniss’ own behavior.
The twist of the knife becomes more obvious mid-way through, as the Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games participants are culled from past winners… landing Katniss and her ambiguous paramour Peeta back in the arena. These Games, taking up the last third of the book, are a great deal more fragmented than the first ones, in-between Katniss’ increasingly fragile state of mind and various manipulations by the game-masters. And that’s not even mentioning third-party interference in the conduct of the games…
While The Hunger Games focused on the Games in a general contest of rebellion against authoritarian rule, Catching Fire clearly shifts the emphasis of the plot onto the growing insurrection. For Katniss, the political becomes undistinguishable from the personal as she and her immediate circle of friends and family are directly targeted by the regime. Surviving the Games once was enough, but being thrown in the arena again? It’s a wonder the regime in place actually expected that to work.
This, if dwelled upon, rapidly leads us back to the series’ severe credibility problems. In fact, the more we learn about the future world of Panem, the less-believable it becomes. We’re supposed to believe in a mixture of very advanced technology intermingling with a poor coal-producing District 12 with a few mere thousand citizens. This lack of believability is where Collins’ series continues to run aground, but it’s not clear whether this is a evidence of Collins’ lack of skill in world-building, or an unsuccessful attempt to simplify a plot structure in order to make it understandable to young adult audiences.
Fortunately, there are more interesting things to discuss than the series’ unconvincing background. Katniss’s narration seems even more fragmented here than in the first volume, lending a clipped rhythm to the prose that does a lot to propel readers forward. Her refusal to play anyone else’s game seems even stronger here (especially now that’ she’s dragged back in the arena rather than volunteering for it. Her attempts at self-sacrifice get less and less effective.) Collins also adds a number of other characters to the series, adding complexity and nuance along the way.
The science-fictional nature of the story seems more obvious in Catching Fire, which suggests spectacular visuals given the inevitable movie adaptation. Adult readers with an interest in the current cultural teen zeitgeist will find little that’s objectionable here for young-adult readers, and even quite a bit of entertainment along the way as they zip through the book. It’s a middle-of-the-trilogy book, but a competent one… and readers who make it to the final line of Catching Fire will immediately jump to concluding volume Mockingjay to find out what happens next.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) You can almost picture the meeting in which this film was greenlit: “We need a low-budget thriller for cable TV… something like Saw II, but not as gory and with a bit more class.” Months later, there it is: Die, a thriller in which six people find themselves locked up and subject to a deadly game with a slight possibility of redemption. It plays about as well as this kind of made-for-cable derivative film ever does: it’s entertaining only if your expectations are set low, but it’s not offensively bad. What really works well is the visual polish of the film, draped in green and gold beams of light. Director Dominic James has occasional visual flourishes, and the film makes the most of its dark and mysterious locations without indulging in trash aesthetics. Otherwise, though, the film is so similar to Saw that the viewer comes to ask what’s different about it. While Die will strike most as being thankfully not as nihilistic as the Saw films, it doesn’t do much with its various innovations to the formula. In fact, as the third act blunders into a large-scale development that robs the film of its intimate power, Die becomes more and more pretentious, putting questions of personal control over one’s destiny that the cheap and mean thriller mechanics of the film are ill-served to illuminate. It ends up feeling cheap, and at odds with the care with which the film is presented visually. The quality of the script itself isn’t transcendent: the dialogue feels flat while the actors don’t get to elevate the material. Die is, in so many ways, exactly the kind of film that Canadian cable TV chains feel forced to produce in order to meet their Canadian Content requirements. It’s not, in this light, terribly bad. But it plays things safe by aping familiar formulas, and falls flat on its face once it tries to push that formula a bit farther. At least it looks good while doing so.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) It’s hard to resist a well-made nature documentary, and African Cats has the added appeal of combining both the irresistible visuals of big cats with the technical innovation of digital filmmaking. This means that we don’t just get to see cheetahs and lions standing still: we get to see them in high-resolution slow-motion tracking shots. It doesn’t sound like much, but the first few minutes are spectacular, especially when seen on a high-resolution TV. The narrative, pieced together from two-and-a-half years’ worth of footage, centers around a cheetah single mom raising her cubs and a weakly-led pride of lions being threatened by a pack of stronger males. It’s compelling ways-of-nature stuff, helped along with splendid visuals. Samuel L. Jackson’s narration on the American release, curiously enough, doesn’t bring much to the film –It may be interesting to compare it with Patrick Stewart’s narration for the UK release. As a product of Disneynature, the film is kid-friendly without being too disingenuous about the bad things that happen in the story. Strongly structured around a basic plot, African Cats may not be as visually diverse as Disneynature’s previous Oceans, but it seems to have a bit more heart, even when this sentimentalism becomes a bit anthropocentric. (The cub sequences have been optimized for maximum awwws, and there nothing wrong with that.) The cinematography is gorgeous, though, and the end credits have quite a few laughs.
(On-demand Video, June 2012) If shouldn’t be a surprise if a fluffy romantic crime-comedy novel ends up being adapted as a fluffy romantic crime-comedy film. Janet Evanovich’s “Stephanie Plum” series is a formulaic blend of criminal laughs and romantic thrills, and this big-screen adaptation generally operates in the same vicinity. Katherine Heigl looks good as a curly brunette protagonist who turns to bounty-hunting, and her attitude is more or less faithful to the novel as well. (Heigl won’t allow Plum to be anything but glammed-up, though: no baggy clothes on display here.) Plot-wise, One for the Money can’t escape the limitations of the original novel, which conveniently has the heroine chasing after an ex-flame and repeatedly meeting him thanks to the flimsiest of coincidences. The plot is filled with contrivances and happenstance (which doesn’t really matter), as well as sudden shifts of tone and casually dismissed violence (which matters considerably more). There are also a few issues of stereotyping and sexism that don’t work as well on-screen than in an unabashedly romantic novel. To be fair, tone is tricky in a criminal romantic comedy, and novels operate on slightly more forgiving grounds than films. What seems OK on the page can feel silly on-screen, and that’s where One for the Money loses some credibility. While the film is intended to launch a franchise based on the seventeen other novels in the Plum series, that project seems like a non-starter at the Cineplex: There isn’t enough going on here, and a TV miniseries may have served the project better. What is on-screen isn’t terrible, but it’s not much either: it’s almost instantly forgettable, leading one to suspect that there will never be a Two for the Show.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) It’s easy to be dismissive of the entire Twilight series as pop-culture fluff for teenage audiences, but the continued appeal of the franchise hints at something deeper than marketing brainwash. While Breaking Dawn is widely acknowledged as the weakest novel in Stephenie Meyer’s series, it does continue the “romantic fears thinly transposed in fantasy terms” trend of the series so far, what with the heroine getting married, having sex and getting pregnant. The pregnancy is terrifying enough without the addition of dueling vampires and werewolves, but that’s the kind of series this is. After the relatively sedate and well-handled Eclipse, which was just good enough to escape ridicule, this first half of the fourth novel renews with insanity and unintentional laughter. The birthing scene is about as well-handled as the material can be, meaning that the most ludicrous scene in the movie is the following battle between the vampires and the teddy-wolves: the CGI of the wolves is noticeably bad throughout the film, and it’s never as bad as when they’re thrown around by vampires. The “imprinting” thing is also very… special. Otherwise, the film plays on the same register aimed at fans of the series: The leads’ acting abilities are still as limited as ever (Kirsten Stewart glowers; Robert Pattinson broods and Taylor Lautner growls), the pacing is deadly slow and the quirks of the series just sound dumb to anyone who’s not emotionally invested in the plot. It’s made a bit more colorful due to the Brazilian honeymoon, and the more adult-oriented plot completely escapes high-school now that Bella is an unemployed pregnant newlywed. The film still works by fits and starts, although some choices (the editing of the wedding speeches, for instance) seem jarring given the series’ demonstrated lack of interest in directorial showmanship. Something that may not affect people who see the film without close captioning is the jarring atonality of the endless song lyrics displayed on-screen. Oh well; if nothing else, Breaking Dawn, Part 1 feels far more self-contained than anyone would have expected from a “Part 1”: The immediate dramatic arc is more or less settled by the time the film ends, with only slight cliffhanger elements. As for the rest, well, it’s a fair bet that no one will see this film completely cold: you will get what you expect from it.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) As far as low-key low-budget dramas go, Handsome Harry is about as representative as it gets. The cinematography is washed-out, the scenes drag on, the pacing is slow and the silences are numerous. As a man sets out to re-acquaint himself with old navy buddies in a search for truth and absolution, the film is a series of staged set-pieces allowing actors to play against each other. Steve Buscemi is announced as a headliner, but he’s on-screen for less than two minutes: the real star of the film is Jamey Sheridan, turning in a great performance as the conflicted lead of the film. Surrounding him are a few other actors doing their best, which turns into a formulaic series of conversations in which things quickly turn wrong. Still, the film’s not unpleasant to watch, and even the lengthy third act isn’t enough to spoil things. Handsome Harry probably could have been a bit better, a bit snappier and a bit more memorable with a few tweaks, a bigger budget and a faster-paced third act, but what’s on-screen isn’t too bad already, and the actors all do a fine job.
Harpercollins, 1999, 482 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97630-7
If you’re looking for a review of the science-fiction short-story anthology Far Horizons, edited by Robert Silverberg, I suggest that you look elsewhere. Because as I close the book, I have plenty of things to say… but few of them actually have anything to do with its specific content.
I suppose that a few declarative sentences may not hurt in setting the stage, though, so here goes: Far Horizons is an all-original anthology in which Silverberg has asked an all-star roster of Science Fiction authors to write short stories set in their well-known fictional universes. The result brings together new stories set in David Brin’s Uplift Universe, Ursula K. Leguin’s Hamish universe, and so on. Niven’s Known Universe may be missing, but otherwise what you get is a series of call-backs to SF’s best-known universes from the 1960s to the 1980s. Nearly every story has an award-winning pedigree, and even moderately knowledgeable readers will know every single name in the table of content. As far as sheer SF star-power is concerned, I don’t think there’s been quite another anthology like this.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories are good, new, inventive or even enjoyable. Most of the writers try to position their stories in cracks left by their novels. Orson Scott Card, for instance, uses his story to describe an interlude in-between Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (that story was later collected in First Meetings.) Minor episodes are what Far Horizons has to offer, although the story I enjoyed the most, Pohl’s “The Boy Who Would Live Forever”, is set to run in parallel with its parent Heechee saga. (That story first had me thinking about re-reading Gateway, only to recant as I was reminded of just how weird the later Heechee novels eventually became compared to the first novel.) Some of the stories from writers I was eagerly anticipating, such as David Brin and Dan Simmons, left me almost completely cold.
Still, even in disappointing, the anthology got me thinking about the renewal of the SF genre and how to let go of the past.
Readers should be aware that the next few declarative sentences are far more personal in nature, and have even less to do with Far Horizons: I became a father in 2012, and (newborn duties obliging) took a voluntary year off from freelance reviewing. This “semi-hiatus” isn’t absolute (hence this review), but it has shaped my reviewing choices so far this year. I’m reading a lot of books that I don’t expect to review, which includes anthologies. I rarely review anthologies because they’re seldom coherent enough to offer a solid reviewing thesis, and also because I tend to skip a lot of stories if they don’t grab me by their second page. I can finish an anthology in two commuter bus rides, but it won’t be because I have read them from beginning to end.
I’m also using this semi-hiatus to put some distance between myself and what I used to do out of routine. Becoming a father changes things (everything), and my relationship with reading genres is being tested: What was I doing out of inertia, compared with actual honest interest? I have nearly stopped buying books “to take a chance” on new or marginally-interesting authors. My book reviews are now motivated by creative impulses rather than habit. (ie: “I’m going to blow up if I don’t write this down right now!”) And, perhaps inevitably, I’m using this distancing to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about such things as Science-Fiction.
I started reading SF by the truckload in the mid-nineties, taking the list of Hugo and Nebula-winning novels as my primary reading list. Taking advantage of used-book sales and the accumulated mass of SF commentary then available, it’s natural that I regard the 1960s-1980s era of Science-Fiction as my natural formative period. An era that happens to match almost perfects with Far Horizons.
But Far Horizons dates back to 1999. One of the authors in the table of content has died recently, and many of the others have seen their relative profile within the genre fall precipitously in that they no longer command the same kind of attention they once did. Meanwhile, the genre now looks very different from what it was in 1995 or 1999: media SF is more pervasive, video-games are narrowly trailing movies as a dominant vector for genre visuals, and print SF is now quite a bit more diverse than it used to be. There are relatively fewer pure-SF readers, and even the dedicated ones now have trouble placing Heinlein, Niven and Sturgeon, just as I’m fuzzy on earlier SF writers such as Weinbaum, Nourse or Kuttner.
I’m not bemoaning the death of an era as much as I’m finally acknowledging that it’s happening, and trying to look forward. SF-as-a-genre has died and been resurrected in radically different ways a couple of times in its history (from magazines to books, from paperbacks to hardcover bestsellers, and now from paper to electrons), and that’s OK. I’m all for change if it means that I get to read great stories that wouldn’t have been welcomed in the old-school SF ghetto. More diversity, more viewpoints, more takes on our possible futures? Yes, please!
Heck, the amount of physical household space re-arranging that a newborn requires even had me chipping away at the certitude that well-stocked bookshelves are an unarguable boon. I’m nearly convinced that I can enjoy ebooks without having to purchase a physical copy. I suspect that the way I’m defining fixed spaces for my CD/DVD collections and then culling ruthlessly is a harbinger of things to come for my book collection. Isn’t it easier to make a backup on separate drives than to move books from shelves to shelves as the collection expands?
As I focus on the health, safety and happiness of the cutest baby in the world (another declarative sentence; no argument tolerated) you can say that I’m looking forward to the next generation of readers in more ways than one. I will eventually return to reading current SF as my backlog of unreviewable books gets exhausted and as I catch up on my accumulated sleep deficit, but I have a feeling that the pause will do me some good. As with all genres that are in conversation with themselves, SF renews itself and a fundamental disservice that older fans may bring to the table is an obstinate inability to acknowledge the current state of the art. Old-school SF as showcased by Far Horizons is still great fun to read and has provided happy memories to generations of readers, but it’s not the culmination of the genre, nor does it reflect the best of what’s now possible to do with the tools of the genre. Rather than rant at the disappearance of the good old stuff, I choose to welcome the even-better new stuff.
Bantam Spectra, 2011, 1040 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80147-7
So, here we are. After manfully resisting the impulse to start reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series before it was published in its entirety, the TV show made me break down and now I reap the consequences of my folly: I’m done reading the fifth volume, and now I have to wait for the rest of the series like so many other readers. At the pace Martin is writing his thousand-page doorstoppers, the next volume isn’t expected until 2014 at the earliest, and the planned concluding volume of the series probably won’t hit shelves before the end of the decade. So it goes; I’m joining the club of impatient Martin fans.
The wait is made even more maddening by the unusual structure of the series. It started out as a trilogy and then escaped all control, growing into a pair of linked trilogies, then grew even more misshapen when the fourth volume was split up in two based on the geographical location of its characters. A Dance with Dragons is the second half of this split, and it covers the characters missed by the fourth book A Feast for Crows until its last third, at which point the entire story once again starts moving forward in time. Readers hoping for significant forward progress may want to temper their expectations, though, since this is really still the beginning of a new story arc: This fifth volume is so busy setting up its pieces that it practically forgets to deliver any payoffs. The last third of A Dance with Dragons doesn’t really move the story forward in time as much as it sets up cliffhanger after cliffhanger, all leading to… the next volume in the series. Which is at least a few years away. But I repeat myself.
Fans of the series will, at least, get to spend some time with familiar characters. Lovably modern Tyrion is finally back in-narrative after a sorely-missed absence in A Feast for Crows, and the adventures he gets into while exiled from Westeros are good for a few picaresque thrills. Meanwhile, at the Wall, Jon Snow gets busy with the business of leading the Night’s Watch, preparing for winter while setting up defenses against the foreseen invaders and managing the influx of refugees clamoring for resources and protection. Alas, A Dance with Dragon also goes back, at length, to dragon-queen Daenerys Targaryen, who has decided to stop traveling for a while and try to lead for a change. It doesn’t go well, but the Mereen chapters of A Dance with Dragons have a bigger flaw: they’re remarkably repetitive, with Daenerys occasionally reverting back to love-struck teenage moping while the situation around her goes from bad to worse. Even the convergence of plotlines and characters toward her doesn’t reach a meaningful conclusion in this volume, a long-promised battle being pushed into the next volume. And that’s without mentioning another battle in a land far away, much-teased but not delivered.
At this point, not having any idea how this turns out, much of A Dance with Dragons is, as with A Feast for Crowd, just set-dressing. Martin introduces a lot of new characters here, and their importance isn’t particularly clear. Some of it feels arbitrary, as when another pretender to the Iron Throne is introduced without too much ceremony. Some of it feels dull, as with the Iron Born racing from Pyke to Mereen. Some of it feels pointless, as with the entire Quentyn Martell storyline. None of those new characters can measure up to the ones introduced in the first three books and imprinted onto the readers. Maybe it will all make sense with the added resonance of the next volume. At this point, though, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that Martin has lost control of his series.
At least the novel is more satisfying when it comes to its established characters. Red Priestess Melissandre gets an intriguing passage told from her own point of view, whereas Arya features in a pitch-perfect chapter titled “The Blind Girl”. Tyrion is as self-aware as ever, and despite some reprehensible acts at the end of A Storm of Swords, seems to be one of the few characters with a sense of humor about his own trials. Everyone who went through A Feast for Crows hoping that paranoid sociopath Cercei would get some comeuppance will get their wish here, although in typical Martin fashion the punishment seems rather harsh, and leads to a closing passage with ominous overtones. Still, her retribution is nothing compared to what happened to a much-hated character after his last appearance in A Clash of Kings: returning as a spectacularly damaged shadow of his own self, “Reek” shows how mean Martin can be to his characters, and how readers’ expectations about some characters can flip from one book to the other. (Also see; Jamie Lannister) Finally, the epilogue of the book marks the bloodthirsty return of a character who had disappeared almost completely after the third book, setting up bigger questions about true allegiances and what that means for the rest of the series.
But, as tantalizing as those developments can be, it’s easy to feel as if the last two volumes have been a spectacularly overblown exercise in throat-clearing. It’s not clear whether the relevant plotting in this huge split-up mess couldn’t have been condensed in a single snappier tome, or whether the incredible amount of detail in this series has grown too unmanageable to handle. It’s all nice and well to feature dozens of protagonists, hundreds of secondary characters and somewhere around 1500 named characters spanning an entire world, but keeping up with all of these people takes time, and Martin is still adding more complexity to the mix. His ultimate success will be judged after he delivers the ending of his saga; in the meantime, it’s not as if any fan of the series will skip a volume on their way to the conclusion.
A Dance with Dragons does at least feel like a step up from A Feast for Crows. During the last third of the novel, as more and more plotlines were advanced forward, I even found myself getting back some of the pure reading joy I had last experienced in the latter half of A Storm of Swords. That joy was muted when it became more obvious that this was just another round of cliffhanger-making in time for another long wait. It’s a bit of a shame, from a reviewing perspective, that appreciation for A Dance with Dragons is so closely linked to unknown factors. Maybe the conclusion will wrap it all brilliantly. In the meantime, readers are left hoping that the next volume will step on the gas a little bit.
(In theaters, June 2012) It’s almost too bad that I didn’t write this review right after stepping out of the movie theatre, because once you let its beautiful visuals fade away, Prometheus gets worse the longer you think about it. Let’s get a few things out of the way: Yes, Prometheus is a Ridley Scott SF movie set in the universe of Scott’s 1979 Alien, but no, it’s not a coherent addition to the mythology: Thematically, the film is very different from the Alien series, but it’s really the muddled script that doesn’t really care about making all the parts fit together. It’s still a monster movie in the most classical sense (explorer discover a terrible threat, almost everyone is killed, etc.) but as far as monster movie go, few have the amount of visual polish and technical expertise than Prometheus enjoys. Visually, the film is stunning, with complex special effects well-used to create a state-of-the-art vision of the future on an alien planet. You can revel in the ways the film has advanced far beyond the now-primitive effects in Alien, or reflect at how thirty years have changed our expectations of what the future will look like. Scott is a gifted filmmaker, and Prometheus’ high notes come when he’s able to use all the tools at his disposal to explore fear, wonder or awe. There is a terrific medical-intervention sequence at the three-quarter-mark that is as good as any of the thrills delivered by the Alien series, and a lesser director could have blown it by lack of expertise. Scott’s moviemaking skill makes it easy to watch the film and let it wow you… unfortunately, the effect wears off as soon as you start asking questions. In terms of SF ideas and concepts, there’s little in Prometheus that hasn’t been picked clean in written SF by the 1970s, and few writers have ever felt the need to revisit those issues in the same pretentious ham-fisted ways than Scott does here. Basic fact-based objections to the panspermia theory are, in the movie, swept away with a simple declaration of faith, and it’s not the rumors about a more theologically-charged director’s cut of the film that will save Prometheus from charges of muddled thinking. But never mind thematic issues when it’s the plotting nuts-and-bolts of the film that don’t make sense. Characters are moved around like puppets, making the same dumb decisions as their counterparts in B-grade schlock monster-movies and dying in various ways that seem inconsistent with how smart they’re supposed to be. All the good actors in the film (Michael Fassbender is particularly effective as the de-rigueur android) can’t compensate from an undercooked script that doesn’t seem to care that we’ve seen that monster-movie stuff play out dozens of time since 1979. It makes for a curious viewing experience: Impeccably executed, but from a weak script that blends pseudo-profoundness with idiot plotting. It’s still well worth a look for the visuals and the atmosphere, but even measured against its own intentions, Prometheus is ultimately a disappointing mess.
(In theaters, June 2012) As much as I loathe superlatives in my movie reviews, there’s a good case for considering The Avengers as the best superhero comic-book movie adaptation ever made. While other adaptations have been better movies or been more interesting, The Avengers seems to be the first film to successfully manage the transposition of superhero comic books, in all their flawed qualities, onto the big screen. It doesn’t try to be a parody, an exploration of deeper themes using superheroes (like Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies) or an action movie with incidental superpowers: It’s a committed attempt to recreate the Marvel comic-book experience in live action, and it works about as well as this kind of storytelling can work. Protagonists fighting short inconsequential bouts among themselves? Yup. Alien menace from outer space, curiously concentrated around an urban area? Indeed. A lot of witty banter as the heroes band together as a team? Absolutely. Canny writer/director Joss Whedon has added plenty of humor, attitude and special effects to minimize the exasperating nature of fanboy-driven plotting and the result is curiously enjoyable even for people who haven’t dedicated their reading lives to following the intricate mythology of the Marvel universe. The Avengers, for Marvel Studio, is the crowning success of four years and five movies’ worth of scene-setting: it seemed like an insane gamble in 2008, but it pay off handsomely here as the headliners start interacting with each other. Robert Downey Jr. is still a star as Tony Stark, but Mark Ruffalo also does fine work as the best incarnation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk on-screen so far. It’s true that the villain is a bit weak, and that the first half-hour drags until all the pieces are assembled, but the third act fight through New York City is the brightly-lit action set-piece many superhero movies promised but never delivered until now. Still, the film is seldom as good as when the actors are talking amongst themselves, and it’s this attention to characterization that makes The Avengers work despite its limited aims as a super-hero comics adaptation. It doesn’t try to do anything else, but it’s really good at what it does.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, June 2012) Now that The Mask is nearly old enough to vote, what can be said about the best of Jim Carrey’s three big breakout hits of 1994? Mostly that it has aged better than anyone would expect. Oh, sure, the 1994-era CGI is noticeable: There are numerous times where the live-action Mask is replaced by CGI enhancements, and from today’s perspective, the lack of fluidity of the seams are far more easily perceived today. What hasn’t aged, on the other hand, is Carrey’s exhilarating rubber-faced performance as the unleashed id of The Mask –a green-faced transposition of Tex Avery cartoons. The Mask is still a compelling character, and even the overused one-liners that everyone remembers are still amusing in context. On a tonal level, though, The Mask has a number of problems: At its best (such as during its riotous “Hey Pachuco!” musical number), it’s a jazzy and harmless cartoon –at its worst, it’s a mash-up between violence and stupidity. One could argue, for instance, that the silliness of The Mask should revolve around its masked character rather than in the idiot-plotting universe surrounding him. There are also problems in the way some of the violence is handled too blatantly (although, reading about some deleted scenes, it could have been worse.) Also worth noting is Cameron Diaz’s first big-screen performance: she looks amazingly good here, and she holds her own against an unleashed Carrey. The thematic underpinning of the film are more than highlighted (the mask as self, the Tex Avery comics), but the film’s silliness doesn’t require a lot of subtext. See it for Carrey and Diaz… and the Mask.
(On-demand video, June 2012) Director Steven Soderbergh likes to tinker with established formulas and he also seems to be increasingly fond of casting coups. This explains why Haywire is a lot like his previous The Girlfriend Experience in casting a non-professional actress in the leading role –this time, martial artist Gina Carano as the tough heroine of this revenge film. Small touches everywhere make it clear that this is an artful take on a stock exploitation premise: The rhythm of the film is a bit slower than most revenge thrillers, the script makes use of a half-hearted framing device; the direction tries to avoid most of the prevailing action clichés. But it’s Carano’s odd performance that sets the film apart: she’s both unpolished and convincing in ways that leap out of the usual Hollywood mode. She’s not from the same acting schools as other female performers, and Soderbergh seems perfectly happy to indulge in the rough edges of her acting. It makes for a thriller that’s less slick and perhaps a bit more intriguing than similar offerings such as Colombiana or any of the half-dozen female-assassins films of the past decade. The script could have been polished to a more accessible whole (the dialogue seems self-consciously cryptic at times), but Haywire is definitely a Soderbergh film in how it refuses to take the safe, broadly-accessible choices. Viewers coming in with set expectations of a run-of-the-mill thriller may find themselves bewildered by what makes it on-screen. On the other hand, viewers with some appreciation for genre experiments will, much like last year’s Hanna, find intriguing things in the result even as the film doesn’t succeed in being conventionally entertaining.
(On Cable TV, April-June 2011) The first season of Game of Thrones was an astonishing adaptation of a long and complex epic fantasy novel into an easy-to-digest, well-produced, well-written ten-hours TV series. The second season may not be as groundbreaking, but it, too, manages to adapt a lengthy novel with a cast of hundreds into a fairly successful series of episodes. This time around, though, the changes from George R.R. Martin’s source text are more apparent: Sometimes for cost, sometimes for dramatic balance, sometimes to exploit the talents of the series’ actors, and sometimes to keep fans happy. The result is, despite a few noteworthy weak moments, generally successful. The War of the Five Kings is successfully brought to life despite the limited budget of the series, and the ninth episode, “Blackwater” is noteworthy for dispensing with the story’s multiplicity of subplots to focus exclusively on a spectacular military engagement. The story adds many more characters, but nearly everyone turns in some distinctive work: Peter Dinklage is up to the standards set by his Emmy-winning first-season work, but there’s also some fine work by Maisie Williams as Arya and Lena Headley as Cersei. Story-wise, many subplots hidden in the novel are shown onscreen, Arya’s travels are successfully condensed (something that led to the addition of a few gripping all-new scenes) and Theon’s inner conflicts are made more obvious while Daenerys’ time in Quarth is clumsily altered for greater dramatic suspense. These alterations to the original text are enough to keep readers engrossed in the series, even as they serve to adapt the original material on-screen. It’s unclear whether Game of Thrones will be able to juggle all of the extra subplots to be introduced in the next season, but the adaptation so far is amazingly faithful within the constraints of the production. On to Season 3!
(On-demand video, June 2012) We don’t see that many men-against-nature survival thrillers nowadays, but something like The Grey can be powerful enough to last us a while, especially when it takes a standard action-movie premise and turns it into an excuse to discuss existentialist themes. From the first few moments, it’s obvious that the trailers promising a B-grade survival thriller have been telling us only part of the story, because The Grey soon turns contemplative about humankind’s willingness to live and die. Liam Neeson is superb in a lead role that echoes the Liamsploitation of Taken and Unknown but also makes use of his gravitas to lend further dramatic weight to the result. As half a dozen blue-collar oil workers find themselves stranded in Alaska following a plane crash, they have to figure out how to survive their harsh environment, and the pack of wolves that start hunting them. As you can expect, a lot of people die in this film, not necessarily in the order we’d expect them to fall (the script is fond of giving characters some depth right before they exit) and certainly not gloriously. The tone is grim, but to its credit it’s grim throughout: the ending, which may have felt bleak in other circumstances, here feels fully justified. This isn’t a film we may have expected from writer/director Joe Carnahan after the enjoyably simple-minded combo of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team: You have to go back to 2002’s Narc in order to find something similarly hefty in his filmography. The Grey actually manages to combine both thrills and thoughts, putting some solid thematic content within a thriller framework. It works pretty well, and you do (eventually) get to see Neeson punch a wolf in the face.