Monday, January 29, 2007

The Bookshelf #1: The Delikon

[Image taken from Fantastic Fiction]

So, I read books. The prose kinds without pictures. Heck, I've got a novel sitting on my hard drive. And yet it's taken me this long to start reviewing them for you. I guess it's because, in some ways, books are more private than most media- everything happens inside your head as you turn arrangements of letters into a story. Plus, it takes longer to read a novel than to see a movie or read a comic (for most people, anyway), so everyone moves at their own pace and it's hard to find common ground. Unless you're in a book club. But the point is, I'm changing that. Starting now.

I can't quite recall where I picked up H. M. Hoover's THE DELIKON; my bookshelves are full of adoptees from book fairs, second-hand stores, and Half-Price Books. It's a reasonably cheap sci-fi paperback with a groovy seventies cover, and seems to have drifted out of print. It's an interesting story, and a quick read, somewhat underdeveloped but a good book nonetheless. I'm new at this. Don't hurt me.

The Delikon are an advanced alien race who, many many years before this book begins, descended upon the Earth and, finding us too violent and too immature to roam the stars and contact other races, conquered us for our own good, sending most of humanity back into a weird pseudo-medievalism. Taking psuedo-humanoid forms that make them look wan, tall, and big-eyed (sort of like elves without the pointy ears), the Delikon seek to educate the primitive Earth people, and often select the best and brightest of us to be trained at remote facilities. And the book proper begins here, when Varina, a young (only 307 years old) Delikon, prepares to bring her students and friends Alta and Jason to the Sanctuary. It's a bittersweet event, as it reminds her of their inevitable transition into adulthood, and thus their mortality, whereas the Delikon are, by human standards, ageless. She spends some time with them outside the city, but on an innocent walk, the three fall afoul of a group of human rebels who are planning a revolution. They escape from the rebel camp, and must make a trek back to civilization and safety as a war breaks out around them.

THE DELIKON runs for 143 pages and moves at a very brisk pace, and could almost be considered a young adult novel (arbitrary as such classifications are.) And yet, the story is more complex than it appears. A big moral question mark hangs over the Delikon and their role as overlords of humanity (which has some parallel to Arthur C. Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END); they're benevolent imperialists, and though such a concept has historically been shown to be a bit of an oxymoron, their rule of Earth is not portrayed as a fundamentally wrong or evil thing. At the same time, neither is the attempt by humanity to throw off their shackles. Instead, there's a certain inevitability to it; the ancient Delikon have taken the role of parents, and now the children wish to strike out on their own. The main characters don't have much time to ponder the ramifications of this, as they are caught in a struggle for survival, but we cut away to elder Delikon dealing with societal change with a certain resignation.

The setting is nicely established in broad strokes, much of the technology alien and strange and concealed by nature. It's a green world, reflecting the ecological focus of much seventies science fiction, but of course this pastoral serenity comes at the expense of mankind's freedom and progress. As the revolution flares, the Delikon retaliate with armies of horrid, insectoid drones. The characters' long journey back is suspenseful and vividly described, and though the human characters aren't given much depth, the inner conflict of Varina as she confronts the worst of both races is rather poignant. The ending is somewhat abrupt and inconclusive, though I suppose a measure of ambiguity as to just what the future holds was deliberate. (One weird thing about the writing; somehow, I inferred that a woman wrote this book, despite "H. M." being fairly gender neutral as names go. According to the little bio, the author is in fact female. This might mean something but for the fact that I had a 52% chance of being right.)

THE DELIKON is out of print, but fairly easy to find on Amazon and elsewhere, and for reasonable prices (my copy apparently cost me seventy-five cents). Hoover appears to have remained active in the field as late as ANOTHER HEAVEN, ANOTHER EARTH in 2002, and other books of hers have been reprinted in softcover as late as 2003. THE DELIKON shows a lot of talent and imagination, and is worth grabbing if you see it.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 22, 2007

Random Movie Report #17: Space is the Place

I feel vaguely unqualified to write this review. SPACE IS THE PLACE is a film about Sun Ra, cultural cynicism and the black experience in the early to mid 70s, and, obliquely and possibly unintentionally, the black separatist movement. My sum experience with all of these elements can actually be expressed as a negative number. But, hey, a good critic can analyze anything. And this isn't really the hardest film to follow. It's a sort of science fiction/fantasy/art film hybrid with a basic plot wrapped around songs by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and extensive philosophical ramblings by the artist/character/cosmic god himself. Come to think of it, maybe this is the kind of movie I'm suited for.

We open on a strange planet full of bizarre, multicolored, plasticine flora, through which Sun Ra- who spends more or less the entire film clad in Egyptian regalia- wanders, accompanied by servants with mirror faces. He observes that this strange and tranquil paradise would make a good second home for the black people of planet Earth, and decides to set out on a mission to take them there, using music as a power source. After a brief visit to Earth in 1943, where his strange atonal jazz causes a major disturbance in an integrated nightclub, he returns in the present (well, the 70s anyway), landing in a giant spaceship that looks like a pair of eyeballs and attracting mass attention with his message of a black exodus from the soon-to-be-destroyed planet Earth. As Sun Ra's music and his "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" Employment Agency attract attention, reporter Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a witness at the landing, falls under the corrupting influence of the Overseer (Ray Johnson), a debonair Satanic figure out to stop Sun Ra's holy mission. Throughout, we cut to Sun Ra and the Overseer playing the cosmic game of mankind's future, watching for the fates of various souls.

The storytelling in this movie is pretty fragmented, leaving the audience to infer a lot, but the basic premise isn't hard to grasp if you're willing to accept the surreal imagery. Originally conceived of as a concert film, SPACE IS THE PLACE is more a platform for the music and musings of Sun Ra than anything else; it's not quite an all-out musical, but it is, from all accounts, the essence of what his ideas were all about. In concerts and albums, Sun Ra portrayed himself as pretty much what he is in this movie, a cosmic god-figure sent to show people, specifically black people (sort of- I'll get to this later) the way towards peace and enlightenment. To him it was a kind of allegorical vessel for a general message of freedom, love, and transcendence through art. As much as this may have seemed outdated after the fall of the counterculture and the general cynicism of the early 70s, the imagery keeps it fresh, and the story takes this cynicism into account. There's something vaguely defeatist about the fact that "space is the place", that the only hope for humanity is to give up on a corrupted Earth. And of course, the idea of black people leaving Earth to find a new home has parallels with the then-current concept of black separatism, in which many African Americans flirted with the idea of returning to Africa as a way to finally free themselves of oppression (the movement seems to have peaked in the seventies, and though there was no mass exodus of blacks to Africa, it did revive an interest in African culture.) And here's where it gets really interesting.

In the film, Sun Ra is explicitly interested in getting black people off the Earth. Since said planet is about to be destroyed, this presumably does not portend good things for white folks like your humble reviewer. At some point, Ra (who wrote all his own dialogue) suggests that the way things are is an inversion of the natural order, and that the blacks should be on top. And yet, at the risk of spoiling things, among the people specifically shown getting into Sun Ra's spaceship at the end is a hispanic prostitute. There are white audience members at the climactic concert, and whites and blacks alike apply for jobs at Outer Spaceways Incorporated (the two white applicants we see coming in both leave, but they're not so much actively rejected as they just can't grasp Sun Ra's idea of cosmic employment.) The Overseer is black as well (though amongst his minions are two white NASA scientists-I think- who want to discover the secret of Sun Ra's power), and getting things really complicated now, Jimmy Fey tries to back out of going with Sun Ra, only for Ra to demand that the black part of Fey remain with him. (The non-black part is just as dark-skinned, though this may have been a budget issue.) Not to mention, the director and producer of this film are both white guys.

Digging around the net for some info on Sun Ra, I happened across a quote by him where he said that he used "blackness" and "darkness" as metaphors for something good existing in all people, and that seems to explain the racial element of this film, or at least clarify it slightly. To be appropriately "dark" is more a state of mind, of soul, of being oppressed or downtrodden and wanting salvation. In an odd way, this eschatological fable has parallels to the modern Christian concept of the Rapture; God collects the good people and takes them off of Earth, leaving the bad people and Satan himself to witness its destruction. It's less judgmental, though, and less hostile- we don't revel in the punishment of the doomed in a kind of 70s Afrocentric LEFT BEHIND. In general, it's not an aggressive movie. It's more serene, even lighthearted at times, resigned to things going bad in the world but hopeful of salvation.

I don't want to weigh the movie down too much. Made on the cheap and emulating in some ways the science fiction films of the 50s, SPACE IS THE PLACE is really sort of fun, also incorporating blaxploitation and just-plain-comic elements. And there's the music. It's arty jazz of an almost minimalist quality at times, with repetitive lyrics recited as much for the sound as their meaning. In short, it will drive some people up the walls. I'm told this isn't quite Sun Ra at his peak, but though I wasn't completely won over, I was made very curious. And I keep humming that damn "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" tune to myself. It's catchy. (Props are due to June Tyson, who provides many of the vocals.)

Overall, I was left wanting to know more about Sun Ra (who passed from this world in 1993), both his music and the persona he created. The film articulates a basic theme of art freeing the mind and soul in a way that I'd never quite seen before. Though not really compelling or dramatic as a narrative, and without much real emotional "oomph", the movie is intriguing and stimulating, and gets you thinking just a bit. If this seems like the kind of movie you'd enjoy, you're probably right.

Written by Sun Ra and Joshua Smith
Directed by John Coney

Grade: B

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Comics Page #9: Jack Kirby's The Eternals

Marvel's glossy, high-priced compilation of Kirby's ETERNALS was the big Grade-A gift item for me this past Christmas, and I asked for it having read only one issue of the series. It was Kirby, it was cosmic, and honestly, the slickness of this $75 package was alluring. Here we have, in hardcover naturally, all 19 issues of the series, plus the annual, reproduced in full color complete with covers and a few letters pages featuring characteristically wild essays by the King himself; technically a bargain considering it's twice as much as you'd get in one of the Marvel Masterworks or DC Archives volumes (which go for around $50). So far it's the only format in which Marvel has actually reprinted the series, and though the pricetag is daunting- well, some of you should have birthdays coming up. The series itself is a bright, dazzling spectacle, noticeably different from Kirby's "Fourth World" work for DC but still in the recognizable "cosmic insanity" mold. It's nicely offbeat, and kind of giddy.

As one might glean from the cover, THE ETERNALS was a riff on concepts popularized by works like "Chariots of the Gods", namely, the idea that ancient astronauts influenced early man and formed the basis of our myths and religions. It begins in the Andes, with the uncovering of a mysterious Incan ruin by Doctor Damian, his daughter Margo, and their uncannily perceptive guide Ike Harris. The giant chamber contains images of powerful technologically advanced beings, and Harris rushes ahead to activate some of the buried alien gadgetry. Obviously more than he seems, Harris reveals himself as the Eternal named Ikaris, and explains the true history of man. In prehistoric times, Earth was visited by the "Space Gods", cosmic beings who tinkered with the early primates to produce three distinct races: the powerful and immortal Eternals, the monstrous and warlike Deviants, who currently hide from mankind at the bottom of the sea, and good old boring us. The Gods visited during the reign of the Incas to check up on things, and swiftly arrive again, wordlessly ordering one of their number, Arishem, to stand and survey the Earth for fifty years. If its inhabitants are judged worthy, they will live; if not, they will die. Needless to say, the re-arrival of the Gods triggers the reemergence of both the Eternals and the Deviants, and while Doctor Damian stays in the Chamber to study, Margo joins Ikaris and a host of other Eternals in various attempts to keep the Deviants- and also Homo Sapiens- from wrecking the average.

A number of interesting supporting characters quickly emerge. The vivacious wizard Circe, the swift Makkari, and the wise Thena join the action on the side of good; mixed in with them is Kro, a Deviant leader of devilish appearance who, while somewhat scummy, isn't completely bad, and carries a torch for Thena. (Circe also takes an amusing interest in a meek human scientist.) Later on, the action is joined by two rehabilitated Deviants- the giant Karkas and the completely normal looking Reject, both warriors in the Deviant gladiatorial pits, the former sweeter than he looks, the latter fierce and aggressive. Through this, the Space Gods, massive and faceless, masked by elaborate spacesuits, wander enigmatically and sometimes cause problems.

While Kirby's Fourth World was highly dualistic, featuring a mostly clear-cut battle between the forces of good and evil, THE ETERNALS delves into more ambiguous territory. The Eternals are generally good, if aloof from the normal world, but there are bad apples to go around. The Deviants are not as bad as one expects. A visit by Kro and Thena to the Deviants' underwater city shows a society that is rough and brutal, but also struggling with the fact every Deviant child is born uniquely hideous, repellent even to others of his kind, and dealing with the fact that they basically got a bad draw in the Space Gods' genetic poker game. That they seek to destroy the Gods who would judge them is almost understandable. The Space Gods themselves are inscrutable; it's not clear by what code they're judging us. They may decide to help us ascend to the next level of existence, or they may decide to kill us all. There are still good guys and bad guys, but they don't divide along clean lines. There is in Kirby's work a certain idealistic love of humanity that makes us see the potential for good in many characters, and in the end realizing potential may be the key theme here.

Not that the series over-intellectualizes on much of anything, though. This is first and foremost a sci-fi/fantasy comic (I'm not sure it even qualifies as superhero fare; the characters have powers and wear odd costumes, but operate in a mindset more suited to classic mythology), with action and spectacle on nearly every page. It springs from neat idea to neat idea, never getting bogged down too much in any one thing. The best word is "busy". Though by the end of the series we haven't jumped fifty years forward and the Space Gods are still mum, so much ground has been covered that it's actually surprising this series didn't have as big an impact on the Marvel universe as the Fourth World did on the DCU. (The new, oddly low-key ETERNALS miniseries by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. looks to change that.) Not that it needed to. Kirby only mentioned other Marvel characters twice, grudgingly and by half-measures; at a public demonstration of her powers, Circe makes a man look like the rock-skinned Thing of the Fantastic Four, and in two issues later on a robot made in the image of the Incredible Hulk is accidentally imbued with cosmic power and goes on a rampage.

The art is, naturally, amazing. It drives the action forward while occasionally taking a breather to show off the astounding sights of the hidden world that explodes into view, and there's a sense of dynamic movement throughout. Kirby's blocky style meshes well with the early Incan imagery and the general "ancient astronaut" aesthetic, epitomized by the truly majestic and immense Space Gods. It's gorgeous stuff, especially in color.

Judging whether a compilation like this is worth its cost is hard for me. After all, I don't know you people. But the series itself, in whatever form you run across it (I won't be surprised if Marvel puts out a black-and-white Essentials compilation later), is great. It's an exploration of myth and legend and morality and humanity by a skilled and passionate artist, one of the best in the medium. It's also breezy and fun, and if it doesn't feel quite as powerful as some of Kirby's other works, it's still a grand entertainment. I expected no less.

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 14, 2007

In Theaters: Children of Men

[Image from CanMag again.]

I avoided CHILDREN OF MEN at first, as I suspect many people did, because it just looked too grim to endure. I have said it before and I will say it again- pop culture has been pretty dark for a while, and the holiday awards season has just intensified the problem, because all serious Oscar contenders are inevitably about very sad things. But I finally made an exception, as should all of you if you haven't already. CHILDREN OF MEN is indeed a film about a grim subject, but it is not a grim film. It is warm, humanistic, thrilling, passionate, and even, on occasion, funny. It may well be the best film of the past year, and would be a triumph of cinematic craft and of the science fiction genre in any year.

The film, set in 2026, opens in a coffee shop in London, where a reporter announces the stabbing death of the world's youngest person- an 18-year-old boy named Diego. A crowd, mostly middle-aged or older, stands stunned and choking back sobs as Theo (Clive Owen) weaves blithely through to get a coffee, and walks back out into the smoky, crowded, polluted streets. He has not walked far when the shop explodes behind him. For some reason, no new babies have been born in nearly two decades, and civilization is giving up. The UK, one of the few countries (possibly the only country) not completely ravaged by war and chaos, has closed its borders, and a terrorist group called the Fishes, representing the illegal refugees who are captured and deported by the busload, battles with the government. Theo is contacted by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who is working with the Fishes to try and escort a girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) safely to the coast. As a mid-level government clerk, Theo is able to secure travel papers, but only if he travels with the girl. On the road, the car is attacked by bandits, Julian is killed, and the survivors take refuge at a Fishes safehouse, where Kee reveals to Theo why she is so important; she is pregnant. Since the girl is an illegal immigrant, the Fishes plan to use her baby as a political tool, so Theo and former hospital midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) help her to escape from them and continue to the coast, hoping to deliver woman and child safely to the Human Project, a group of scientists working to solve the fertility problem.

Adapted from a P.D. James novel, the film establishes its dystopic future in broad strokes and short vignettes. Posters and TV advertisements urging citizens to report illegal immigrants appear everywhere; a drug called "Quietus" , effectively a suicide pill, is promoted by the government with a promise of cash benefits to next of kin; two eccentric aesthetes live in an abandoned factory with works of art salvaged from all over the world, dealing with the despair by utterly ignoring it. The hows and whys of the fertility problem (indeed, whether it's men or women or both who have the problem) are never explained, nor is its apparent solution; like the zombies in George Romero's "Living Dead" films, the infertility is there to trigger the downfall of civilization, though it could be argued it started before then anyway.

That the film is not as depressing as it could have been is quite a feat. Of course, by its nature the plotline implies hope for humanity's survival, but Alfonso Cuarón and a battery of screenwriters quite specifically make sure that we are reminded why humanity is worth saving to start with. Many people in this film do awful things to each other, but just as many show compassion and kindness, acting in an almost parental way to the oft-in-dire-need-of-aid protagonists. Just as importantly, there are moments of warmth and wit and humor sprinkled throughout, never so heavily as to break the mood altogether but enough that we aren't completely crushed by the dire importance of everything that happens. The visuals reflect the subtle shifts in tone well; much of what we see is under slate-grey skies and in oppressively drab and grimy interiors, but there are rays of sunlight and green plants as well. And quite a lot of animals, unsubtly reminding us that mankind is just another species and our survival can't be taken for granted.

In some ways this is actually an action movie, but a very old-fashioned one. Cuarón does not go for quick cuts or impossibly shaky camera moves; instead, the action unfolds naturally and brutally in long takes (there is a single sequence composed as a very long shot, noted in publicity, that I never noticed because what cuts there are in the film are invisible) and with a straightforwardness that undercuts their basic horror. The director shows an almost Hitchcockian flair for designing setpieces that are both intense in and of themselves and integral to the plot; you notice the level of craft, but only in passing as the narrative sweeps you ever forward. Though the film is rife with violence, it's often futile or sinister, at best regrettable; Theo never carries or uses a gun, even when afforded opportunities, and those who do take up arms inevitably drift out of our sympathies. War and politics are both shown as inevitable pursuits of man, but ultimately secondary in importance to the basic business of survival.

Clive Owen has a strong screen presence, as he demonstrated ably early last year in INSIDE MAN, and he is excellently cast here as, in a way, the representative of a society without hope. Ashitey, a virtual newcomer, gives Kee a wit and sparkle that helps cement the character as a person and not a plot device. Chiwetel Ejiofor, also from INSIDE MAN as well as the thoroughly excellent SERENITY and generally having very good taste in scripts, has an interesting part as Fishes leader Luke, never wholly good or evil. Michael Caine has a crucial role as Jasper, a classic hippie activist and former political cartoonist who lives in the woods growing cannabis and attending to his wife, a photojournalist tortured by the government and now catatonic. Caine, so often underutilized, reminds us once more of how good he can be given the right part; Jasper provides much of the film's warmth and spirit in the relatively short time he appears.

There were times in this film I came close to weeping. Others where I thought I couldn't bear the drama anymore. This is definitely a film for our frightening and fucked-up times, but it points a way forward like few others do. It is a reminder that life, in all its agonies and joys, must always be valued above all things, a concept which few disagree with on paper but which always seems to get lost, despite thousands of years of religion and philosophy essentially making the same point over and over. Of course, a film isn't good or bad because of its point, but rather how it makes it. And CHILDREN OF MEN hits its mark as solidly as one could hope for. It is passionate, it is sophisticated, and it is a thing of beauty.

See it now.

From the novel by P.D. James
Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Grade: A

Friday, January 12, 2007

Comics Rambling: Penance, Deadbeat, & Head

The novel's finished (albeit in need of revision) and I've got more than a few items to cover. The comics world moves on a weekly basis, which isn't easy to keep up with. So, here are three recent-ish developments which I found of interest.

First, there's CIVIL WAR: FRONT LINE #10. As a result of being kicked around for allegedly causing the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly children (and probably several puppies) at Stamford, the hero once known as Speedball has finally snapped. Donning a suit of armor with spikes on the inside and outside (partly as self-punishment, partly because he now has to be in pain to use his powers, partly because he seems to kind of like it), he is now calling himself Penance, and, well, just look.

Needless to say, this is a spectacularly bad idea. Fortunately, it is also a hilariously bad one. That a previously lighthearted hero has been gritted up is nothing unusual for modern comics, but that he's been turned into a throwback from 1993 comes as a surprise. And what's more, in this issue at least, it's played completely straight, with some of the most hilariously grim narration I have ever read. Even the expression of the "tailor" in the last panel has a certain "oh, jeez" quality. Now, Penance is scheduled to appear in THUNDERBOLTS, written by Warren Ellis, who fortunately for us has a solid sense of irony; if anyone can make this emo antihero work, it'll be him. In the meantime, I'm finding this strangely satisfying- it renews my faith that in the midst of all-too-carefully calculated market-driven "events" and the respectable-but-joyless introspective arcs that epitomize superhero funny books, writers and editors can still give us spectacularly bad and ludicrous ideas. Penance is the modern Hypno Hustler, and it's good to know that things haven't changed that much. There's also the fun of wondering how he'll arrive at a crime scene without dying from blood loss or tetanus (unforunately, Marvel already has a character called Lockjaw.) To say nothing of how he goes to the bathroom.

From fictional absurdity we move to the real kind. There's a guy called Rick Olney who, in the midst of running conventions and trying to publish comics, has developed a habit of not paying anyone. In fact, nobody can confirm that anyone who did work for this man in any respect has been compensated. This has attracted the attention of several comics pros, from Gail Simone, who has started a thread on her discussion forum over at Comic Book Resources (the related threads are worth looking at, too), to Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Scott Shaw!, and others as this scandal develops. What makes this funny instead of just horrible is that Olney himself showed up on the main thread to try and defend himself- I've summarized his attempts over at Fandom Wank, suffice it to say, it's plainly obvious we're not dealing with a pro here. It's hard to say how this will turn out, since it seems like the man is in a position where he couldn't pay if forced, but at the very least his reputation is ruined.

And back to fun stuff. Comics from the "Big Two" don't often feature brand new super-characters- they're hard to sell, the companies prefer to focus on developing existing IP, and creators nowadays know that what they create won't be theirs, so the impetus is to save their good ideas for indie comics where they can more often claim ownership. But occasionally a good new concept shows up from a daring writer, and Gail Simone and THE ALL-NEW ATOM #7 is no exception. I give you the sensational new character find of '07- Head.

Head is the genius oracle of a microscopic alien race called "The Waiting", who have a lateral relationship to time and manifest this mostly by talking strangely. In his most recent escapade, Ryan Choi, the titular Atom, captured their oversized-to-them intellectual guru, who now lives with him and roommate Panda. Between his affection for television and his cries of "ORANGE SODA OR DEATH!" and "QQQQQQ!", Head is a fun and vaguely endearing figure who, while seemingly limited in his uses, may yet surprise us. Simone has a knack for exploring neat, weird ideas. Not enough people are reading the new ATOM, which needs to change swiftly- it's a solid dose of goofy fun and neat ideas, evoking a bit of the sense of wonder that comics used to go for more often. If that ever comes back into style, I'll definitely have more reason to keep up with the industry.

Friday, January 05, 2007

In Theaters: The Good Shepherd

[I'm in Canmag's Website, stealing their pics.]

It's been a few days since I actually saw THE GOOD SHEPHERD, and though I've wanted to review it (I've recently discarded my policy of reviewing every film I see theatrically), it's hard to get started. An incredibly low-key film detailing the rise of the CIA through the eyes of a fictional founding member, Robert DeNiro's third film as director (including an uncredited contribution to THE SCORE) has a very novelistic quality to it, being more character driven than anything else, and leaping from time to time with the unreliability of your average bit of postmodern litfic (I need to start reviewing books here, BTW. Bug me about that later.) This most cynical of spy dramas is not the easiest film to watch, but it is affecting in its subtle way.

The protagonist of the film is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a bright young man who goes to Yale, becomes a member of the legendary Skull & Bones society, and is approached by a man named Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin), apparently a government agent, who assigns him to investigate the members of a German cultural society which appears to be a Nazi front (this being a short time prior to American entry into WWII). After succeeding in this, he is recruited into the OSS, and after impregnating and subsequently marrying socialite Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie) (and thus being forced to desert his true love, a deaf girl named Laura played by Tammy Blanchard), is sent to London to work with British Intelligence in the midst of the Blitz. After the war, he stays in Europe to round up Nazi scientists, and runs up against his Soviet counterpart, a man called Ulysses (Oleg Stefan). He returns home to find his son a stranger and his wife growing slowly distant, but his duties aren't over, as General Bill Sullivan (DeNiro) recruits him into a new Cold War intelligence organization known as the CIA. Things, inevitably, go wrong; the actual beginning of the film is the Agency's disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and as the story unfolds we continually flash forward to the aftermath, as Wilson and others attempt to find out just who leaked their operation to the enemy, and the answer inextricably becomes bound up in the mistakes he has made through his life.

The personal and the political are never very far from each other in this film; as a central figure in the nascent CIA, Wilson could be said to embody the spirit of the organization, representing not the utilitarian gathering of intelligence but the keeping and finding of secrets for their own sake. (An early scene from Yale shows Wilson in drag as Buttercup in the college production of the HMS PINAFORE- deceptive even as a lark.) He falls into his marriage at a Skull & Bones-exclusive retreat, and perhaps had he made his prior relationship with Laura more well-known, Margaret would not have made a pass at him (resulting, ironically, in a child he doesn't even see being born.) At heart, Skull & Bones itself is built on secrets (as portrayed here- the real society's basic credo, if it even has one, is still a mystery), and when asked to confide a deep secret to the group, Edward talks about the time his father committed suicide, and he, a child, hid the note and told everyone that it was an accident. Not that he's alone in keeping secrets and not trusting people; he's drawn so quickly into the world of espionage that he is all but surrounded by people he can't trust. That this irreparably damages the one "normal" relationship he has is inevitable, but he does little to prevent the calamity that follows.

Matt Damon does an excellent job making such an ultimately ineffectual protagonist strangely compelling. He's not passive, so much as caught up in larger things. The decisions he makes are simple, timid, and understandable. There are a number of good performances here, as expected from a film directed by an actor; Michael Gambon has some excellent scenes as Wilson's British supervisor, John Tuturro is much larger and more threatening than I remember him as Wilson's assistant and enforcer, William Hurt is as much William Hurt as he has ever been, and Angelina Jolie reminds us that she can project things other than sheer hotness when necessary.

There's a bit of current events commentary mixed in all this, as there seems to be in any modern film with more narrative complexity than SNAKES ON A PLANE. The CIA is basically shown as an organization that outgrew its necessity, and actively worked to sustain its power solely for the sake of keeping it. It overestimated the Soviet threat, shut out civilian oversight, and allowed itself to become more important than it was originally. Though the CIA has more recently been most known for its failures of intelligence as regards 9/11 and the situation in pre-war Iraq, leading to calls for more power to American intelligence services, the film suggests that this is an organization that abuses the powers it is given. Whether or not one agrees, it's a case well-made.

The film, though it does an admirable job of staying easy to follow even as it jumps back and forth, seems to leave a few plot bits hanging in the end. They're mostly minor, but it gave me the feeling that the film had been adapted from a book, and it surprised me to learn that Eric Roth apparently had written an original screenplay. In the end it all just sort of gradually winds down, though the final scene is appropriate. It's almost appropriate to the tone that the story finishes anticlimactically, but I was left wanting just a little more.

This is a difficult film to love, but there is much to admire in it. It intends to disturb, to unsettle, to leave the viewer with troubling questions, and I have to say it succeeds. It's a chilling experience, worth going through once.

And no, I'm not entirely sure what the title means either.

Grade: A-