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Negative Market Forces July 14, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Media.
1 comment so far

If you aren’t familiar with Richard K. Morgan’s work, it’s good stuff. I’ve read the first two Takeshi Kovacs novels, Altered Carbon and Broken Dreams, and they’re both outstanding. Each one is an entirely different genre (noir and technothriller), but Morgan’s very strong main character moves from setting to setting effortlessly. With Market Forces, the first non-Takeshi Kovacs book, he changes tacts. It’s good to see a clearly talented writer pushing his comfort zone, but not surprising that the experiment isn’t always successful.

The premise seems somewhat convoluted, and that’s part of the problem. It’s sometime late in the next century, after a series of globally-crippling recessions that the world is starting to crawl out of. Interferring in the politics of the developing world is big business, and the book’s focal point is a rising star in the field of Conflict Investment. Oh, and did I mention that all contract negotiations and promotions are handled by means of autodueling?

It is, well, a lot to swallow. Morgan clearly has a lot of issues with globalization and international economics that he wants to work through, but his critiques are about as well thought-out and developed as the average WTO protest placard. The setting of Market Forces is, by necessity, much more developed than that of the Kovacs novels, but comprehensive worldbuilding doesn’t really seem to be Morgan’s strong suit. It comes off as some silly crossblend of Wall Street and Mad Max, but lacking that 120% gonzo committment that makes something like Snow Crash work.

Once you push past the high-level stuff, some of the individual characters are well put together. The main character, Chris Faulkner, does his job well, which is to say he serves to highlight all the ways in which the world is harsh and cruel and powerful. He’s well developed enough to make his progression over the course of the story worth following, even with a far-too-predictable final showdown. Most of the supporting cast is somewhat 2-dimensional, with the annoying habit of having pages-long intervals of exposition as to How The World Got Screwed Up and What It All Means.

Unfortunately, the book can’t carry the weight of the unpleasant distopia it’s saddled with. Morgan wants to blame international corporations and globalization for the sins of his broken future, but can’t find a way to make his anger coherent. How did this world go off the track, and what human failing made it possible? If he doesn’t want to offer any sort of response to his distopia, then all that’s left is a kind of nihilistic reveling-in-the-ruins with fast cars and Armani suits. Which is kind of fun for a while, but gets old quickly and squanders the potential of the main character and Morgan’s own writing skills.

I can’t really recommend Market Forces unless you’re a really big Richard Morgan fan, a tag which even this book can’t push me out of. Thought it plays more to his weaknesses than strengths, there is still the same kind of intense writing and did-that-really-happen moments that mark the better Takeshi Kovacs stuff. Morgan isn’t the first person to feel anger and despair at the future of the global economy, only to be unable to find a solid grasp of what’s wrong other than, “It’s not fair!”. But most failures aren’t entertaining, and there is something to be said for that.

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The Man of Steel plays it safe July 12, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Media.
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Reimagining stuff is very popular these days.  While some may disagree strongly on how many (if any) of these ventures are successful, it seems to be a bug that’s going around Hollywood.  I’ve always been a fan of retelling old stories in new ways, be it “remakes” or “reimaginings” or just called “West Side Story”.  I like seeing what a director or a writer considers the “essence” of a particular story, be in characters or plotline or just mood.

For Superman Returns, though, Brian Singer wants no truck with such a thing.  For all the ways in which Batman Begins (to pick another recent revitalization of a DC hero) changed how you look at Bruce Wayne and his deranged attempts to clean up Gotham, Brian Singer wants you to remember how great it felt when Christopher Reeve spun the Earth backwards.  Superman Returns is faithful to what came before, almost too much so for my tastes.

Almost, I said.  Because regardless of postmodern redereconstructionist cyncism about the classic comic heroes of yore, Superman can still hit you in just the right spot and evoke an innocent, wide-eyed sense of wonder.  Amazing, visually impressive feats of strength and speed are the locus of Superman’s exploits, and Singer knows that’s where the strength of his movie lives.  Catching a plane, stopping a bullet, lifting a…..well, it’s big.  Really big.  And it’s all great.

When we’re not focusing on Superman’s heroics, though, things feel kind of flat.  The thing that’s always put me off Superman is that he’s always seemed a little too perfect.  He’s a paragon – he always saves the day, and never compromises his principles to do so.  The Clark-Lois-Cyclops (I’m sure has a name in this movie, but I never cared) love triangle is clearly supposed to add much-needed depth to the story.  Everyone else loves Superman just as much as before, it’s almost as if he never left – except for Lois, who has moved on with a child and fiancee and a Pulitzer-winning editorial called “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman”.

Except it never seems to click.  Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh don’t seem to have any real chemistry.  Their big scene together, an aerial tour of Metropolis where Superman explains why he left and came back, works as a theorical meditation on the internal conflicts of Superman – but not as a conflict, an argument, between two people who deep down want to be together.  A twist late in the movie finally locks this conflict into place – but it’s almost too late to matter, although it gives hope that the next movie will offer some better human conflict.

By no means is it a bad movie.  It’s a good movie, almost the very definition of a feel-good movie.  It’s just….unambitious.  Much like his hero, Brian Singer seems to want the franchise to return without missing a beat, just as it was before.  Nothing says you have to bring something new to the table, and after the death-march that WB went through to get a Superman project to theates, I can understand the impulse to play it safe.  But it still feels like something of a letdown.