Goon (2011)

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

(On Cable TV, August 2013) What could be more Canadian than a comedy about hockey? Here, Seann William Scott turns in one of his best performances as Doug, a somewhat dim-witted bouncer who unexpectedly proves to be a more-than-competent hockey enforcer.  The role of goons in hockey isn’t glamorous –essentially, they’re there to protect more talented players or to target opposing players–, making Goon’s frequently sweet-natured off-ice atmosphere seem all the more remarkable.  While the film doesn’t shy away from bloody violence, Scott’s performance as Doug (a really nice guy who just happens to be good at fighting) is enough to balance the excessively profane comedy most frequently mouthed by co-writer Jay Baruchel.  Goon is relatively well-shot, decently scripted (especially in the details) and benefits greatly from Liev Shreiber’s late-film appearance as a veteran goon.  While the ending is abrupt, the romance less than convincing and some of the profanity/gore is excessive, Goon remains a bit of a pleasant surprise, and something that Canadians won’t be too embarrassed about.

Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Silent Hill: Revelation</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, August 2013) I’m not sure anyone was asking for a Silent Hill sequel, but there it is.  And there’s just about no reason to watch it.  The plot is instantly forgettable, the mythology is borderline-incomprehensible, the scares are decidedly ordinary and the actors are merely serviceable (although it’s fun to see Sean Bean alongside Kit Harington playing a teenager outside Game of Thrones, and Adelaide Clemens really does look a lot like Michelle Williams).  What Silent Hill: Revelation does have going for it are occasionally moments of oppressive atmosphere in the tradition of the first film.  They are farther apart that could be expected, though, as about half the horror set-pieces end up feeling contrived, badly adapted from other superior films or simply more grotesque than chilling.  Otherwise, that’s pretty much it.  Sharp-eyed viewers will easily spot that the film was shot in Canada (the bilingual notices on the school-bus being a dead giveaway) but that’s really not enough to warrant a look for such a dull film.

End of the World (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">End of the World</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2013) I have come to loathe the “Original Syfy catastrophe movie” sub-genre after overdosing on four nearly-identical examples of the execrable form in summer 2012.  This being said, I’ll be the first one to point out that End of the World is quite a bit better than most of its counterparts by dint of sheer self-awareness.  The lead characters of the film are SF geeks who have memorized countless catastrophe movies in order to develop their own survival plan.  When the Earth gets hit by a sudden catastrophe, they use their knowledge to understand, survive and eventually defeat the problem.  Much of this SF/comedy hybrid’s best chuckles come as the protagonists react a bit more plausibly than is the norm in such films, and exchange dialogue that acknowledges the existence of catastrophe films in that universe.  Never mind the script’s convenient silliness (how would a video store specializing in catastrophe film even stay in business?) or the limits of End of the World’s budget: Director Steven R. Monroe does the best with what he’s got and if the result is in no way a particularly good film, it shines in comparison with the atrocious Ziller-directed specials that SyFy usually churns out.  Do not spend any money watching this film, but you can always glance at it if it’s available on a TV channel near you.

Garden State (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Garden State</strong> (2004)

(On Cable TV, August 2013) For years, I’d heard about Garden State as being either a terrific voice-of-a-generation film, or horrifyingly self-indulgent emo-pop.  After seeing the film, well, I have to ask: why can’t it be both?  The first few minutes are unexpectedly skillful, as writer/director/lead Zach Braff sketches an efficient portrait of an emotionless young man forced back home after the death of his mother.  As he reconnects with old friends, the film gives him one epiphany after another and reveals his secrets until he’s supposed to be half-way normal.  It’s easy to make fun of such oh-woe-is-me-my-character self-flagellating filmmaking, but there are some really good directorial moments in Garden State, even though they get less distinctive as the film advances.  Natalie Portman gets to play an eccentric girl that would be insufferable in real life, but is here supposed to be charming beyond belief.  The soundtrack is a collection of meowing, moaning, self-pitying slow ballads (your mileage may vary) that show better than anything else how I’m not supposed to be the target audience for the film.  While I’d be interested in seeing other directorial efforts by Braff, he can probably leave the episodic journey of self-discovery by a damaged protagonist thing behind.

The Master (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Master</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, August 2013) There are times where I feel guilty of apparently not being able to appreciate the acclaimed genius of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and then there are times where I’m comfortable not being enthusiastic about his films.  The Master clearly falls into the second category, as it meanders all over the place and almost forgets to actually tell a story.  Much has been made of the film’s connections to Scientology, but don’t read too much into it: While Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a decent L. Ron Hubbard stand-in, and while much of his cult’s teachings find resonance in Dianetics, Anderson doesn’t try to tell anything close to a true story.  The Master instead focuses on a man left adrift after his military service in World War II, and finding some purpose in associating with the burgeoning cult.  Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable in the lead role, radiating danger, pain and coiled aggression in nearly every frame.  Amy Adams is almost as surprising in a shrewish role far away from her usual good-girl screen personae.  And much of The Master’s cinematography is truly remarkable, evoking a deep sense of craft in the way the film is presented.  The problem is that none of those interesting things amount to an interesting story.  The pacing is deathly slow, the loose ends are numerous and the conclusion can’t be bothered to actually conclude.  There’s little here to satisfy fans of sustained narratives, nor clear meaning.  I’ll still give a chance to Anderson’s next film.

Above, Leah Bobet

<em class="BookTitle">Above</em>, Leah Bobet

Arthur A. Levine, 2012, 368 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-545-29670-0

I really should preface this review by saying that I’ve had a decade-long nerd-crush (in the most geeky platonic sense) on Leah Bobet, and so anything I write about her debut novel Above is likely to be highly subjective.  But time has come to pay tribute to Leah, and this review might as well be the best way to do it.

It started, appropriately enough, at a Science Fiction convention. (If you don’t come out of a major SF convention with at least half-a-dozen nerd-crushes, you’re not attending them correctly.)  August 2003, Toronto: The much-maligned Torcon 3 worldcon.  I was attending a panel about Artificial Intelligence, featuring several genre big-time writers when the discussion veered severely off-topic.  After a few minutes of this nonsense unchecked by the moderator, a voice from the audience prompted panelists to get back on topic, please?  As someone who gets exasperated at bad panel moderation, I silently tipped my non-existing hat at the young woman who had brought back the panel on-track.  Reading a post-convention report by Cory Doctorow gave me the name to go along with the person.

And that, with a bit of hindsight, was how I became aware of Leah Bobet.

Not that I could have avoided her, given that over the following years I kept seeing her name attached to a growing number of fascinating short stories.  As if being a remarkable new author wasn’t enough, she also worked as a bookseller at the legendary Bakka-Phoenix genre bookstore and became a regular panelist at a number of Toronto SF conventions I also attended.  When you go to a lot of SF conventions, you learn how to pick panels by participants rather than subject matters.  Leah quickly became one of my reliable makers for good panels.  At some point we started greeting each other in that “Oh, you, from that other convention!” fashion.  Most seasoned SF fans have this weird proprietary sense of “I knew that author way before the rest of you”, and I suppose that Leah is one of “my” discoveries in that way.  When Above was announced, I was thrilled to re-enact the classic fan-paying-for-author’s-drink convention ritual on her behalf.

So, if you only get one thing out of this review, it’s that Leah is awesome, you should read what she writes and if you find yourself at a convention where she is on the participant list, make a point of attending her panels. (Also, don’t be shy and say hi: she’s friendly.)

I should have reviewed Above when it came out in January 2012.  Instead, I was… otherwise preoccupied in taking care of a newborn daughter and taking an extended sabbatical away from just about everything, including reading and SF conventions.  Now that I’ve managed to read the novel and am now paying my dues with a review, it’s 18 months later (24 months later considering that I’m posting all 2013 reviews in a yearly January 2014 lump) and the chances of this review helping the novel’s sales numbers are approximately close to nil. 

And I feel guilty, because you really should read it.

Gloriously set in and under Toronto (have you seen that gorgeous cover art?), Above is an acknowledged re-thinking of the old city-underneath-a-city premise, where marginalized outsiders come together and build a community of their own by living off the scraps of the city overhead.  While treatments of such an idea run the risk of growing overly sentimental (or worse, romanticized), Above takes a harder-minded stance and adds just enough urban fantasy to make things interesting.  In Above, Safe is a place underneath Toronto where people who can’t fit in normal society can gather.  This being a fantasy novel, their differences run deeper than usual, with body deformities and supernatural powers that clearly can’t be reconciled with consensus reality.  Our protagonist is a young man who has lived all of his life in Safe, but that soon ends when the refuge is attacked by someone it once exiled, and survivors have to seek refuge… above.

Mix well with a tough romance between two dysfunctional characters, and the result is a tough, gritty, fascinating and uncommonly mature debut novel.  It’s at its best in quieter character-driven moments: As I edit this review months after reading, my strongest memory of the book is an awful epiphany during which the protagonist recognizes that he has badly hurt someone he loves.  It’s a novel filled with terrible moments, sharply-defined characters, a bittersweet conclusion and a strong sense of place.  It growls ominously when other debut novels shout, and it’s that kind of admirable restraint that makes it work.  The ending has the maturity to acknowledge that self-isolation is not the answer to co-existence problems, and it’s too smart to glorify the outsiders at the complete expense of the white-coated mainstream.  It’s unfortunate that the style of writing may be a bit too difficult for casual readers (I had to slow down, and ignore my growing resistance to Capitalized Meaning), but once you get used to the prose, it delivers on the way it chooses to tell the story.

On a somewhat grander genre consideration, Above feels like a novel from a new generation of fantasy writers: street-savvy authors who have grown with a strong sense of connection to others thanks to the various social networks that weren’t available to older writers.  There’s an innate sense of social justice and inclusiveness to Above that simply feels different from the fantasy norm, and it’s a set of values and ethics that have far more to do with ongoing online discussions than genre conventions.  Leah Bobet is far from being the first (or only) author to take this attitude and mesh it with the conventions of genre fiction, and I can’t wait to see where this trend takes us.

Similarly, I may be 18 months late in reviewing Leah’s first book, but I’m also 18 months closer to the appearance of her second.  That means that you too can catch up!  Read it now!

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cast a Deadly Spell</strong> (1991)

(On Cable TV, August 2013) I like to think that I’ve got a pretty good mental encyclopedia of fantasy movies, but this one had completely eluded me until now: A made-for-HBO film taking place in late-1940s Los Angeles in which magic is real and a gumshoe works at preventing a monstrous apocalypse.  Fred Ward stars as the tough-guy private detective (named Philip Lovecraft, ha), and he gets a few crunchy lines in-between his narration and his one-liners.  Cast a Deadly Spell gamely tries to portray a suddenly-magical Los Angeles and blend it with noir aesthetics, but it’s hampered by a low budget and by a lack of internal consistency: it’s never too clear how magic is supposed to work, as the various fantastical elements blend together in a blur of self-contradictory events.  Still, the film works relatively well as an unassuming hidden gem, and if the final gag can be seen well in advance, it’s still good for a laugh or two.  Director Martin Campbell and femme-fatale Julianne Moore would go on to bigger and better films a few years later.  Cast a Deadly Spell was followed by the barely-related Witch Hunt in 1994.

Witch Hunt (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Witch Hunt</strong> (1994)

(On Cable TV, August 2013) This quasi-sequel to 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell brings us back to an alternate 1950s Los Angeles suddenly awash in magic, but nearly everything else has changed: The noir aesthetics have given their place to bright Hollywood glam, the lead Private Investigator role is now played by Dennis Hopper and the tone of the film shifts from criminal horror to social commentary.  Recasting McCarthyism as literal persecution of witches, Witch Hunt does get to be a bit too obvious at times.  Still, there are a few things to like here and there despite the limited budget, including the background details and emphasis on a glamorous era for Hollywood.  Hopper isn’t too bad as the lead, while Julian Sands is arresting as an evil magician and Penelope Ann Miller has an eye-catching role as a threatened starlet.  The ending is a bit weak and obvious in its hurry to denounce witch-hunting for political gains, but the real fun of the film comes before then.

D-War [Dragon Wars] (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">D-War</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Dragon Wars</strong>] (2007)

(On TV, August 2013) The film’s poster/cover promises dragons attacking downtown Los Angeles in full daylight.  What’s not to like?  As it turns out, almost everything else.  For some unexplainable reason, D-War takes forever to establish its cumbersome mythology before getting to the “dragon wars” part, and viewers can’t be blamed if they start mentally checking out at the blend of age-old mythology, predictable prophecy and meaningless word salad.  Bad dialogue, dull cinematography and laborious directing all add up.  It’s not just uninteresting: it’s executed in the bland plodding way most SyFy original films are made… something made worse by the fact that with a budget about ten times what SyFy movies usually cost, it’s not a SyFy original film.  D-War’s lone redeeming quality of the film is the 15 minutes or so in which the dragons do attack downtown Los Angeles: suddenly, the special effects get better, the human characters disappear, the spectacle ratchets up and the film finally gets a pulse.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long and it leads to a downer of an ending.  While Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks don’t completely embarrass themselves in the lead roles, there’s not much here to boast about (and seeing both Robert Forster and Craig Robinson in fairly silly roles is more surprising than anything else.)  If you do want to get the most out of D-War, fast-forward to the dragon attack, and stop whenever they disappear from the screen.

Tank Girl (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tank Girl</strong> (1995)

(On TV, August 2013) I’m not sure how I went so long without seeing this oddball take on post-apocalyptic science-fiction, but I can say that while the film is uneven, it’s striking enough.  Lori Petty stars as the titular Tank Girl, an irrepressible punk-inspired heroine battling against an evil monopoly with designs on all remaining water in the world.  It’s not meant to be realistic: adapted from a comic book series, Tank Girl keeps, even today, a manic energy exemplified by energetic editing, unusual scene transition, caricatures in lieu of characters and a one-liner-spouting heroine that never has a moment of self-doubt.  That last never-say-die attitude eventually grates, as it’s hard to tell braggadocio from brain damage.  Still, Tank Girl (a rare SF film directed by a woman, in this case Rachel Talalay) has its share of odd and unique moments, whether it’s a sudden musical number, a heavy-metal-riffed tank-customization sequence or terrible kangaroo-human makeup.  Petti can be curiously sexy at times (when she’s not being annoying –no mean feat), but from a contemporary perspective the most interesting performances belong to Malcolm McDowell as an over-the-top villain, Naomi Watts as unglamorous “Jet Girl” and what appears to be a self-loathing Ice-T in a role best left undiscussed.  The films gets more strident and less interesting the longer it goes on, so this is one of those where if you feel the need to stop, it’s probably best that you do so immediately.  Still, Tank Girl remains worthy of a look for fans of cult cinema.