Monthly Archives: November 1998

Very Bad Things (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) A vile, vile, unfunny movie that desperately wants to be condemned by the general moviegoing audience, which I won’t grant. It starts off in Las Vegas, where a very pretty stripper is accidentally killed during a wild bachelor’s party. What follows is a series of increasingly grotesque, bloody and malicious series of cover-ups by the five friends to hide what they’ve done. The gross-out factor is high and blood flows freely. I could have enjoyed that movie a lot if it hadn’t been made as an explicit comedy. The charm (for me) of Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction was that these movies, while tongue-in-cheek, took themselves seriously enough to let the natural dark irony of the story flow. Here, it’s overplayed for laughs. While the remainder of the theatre exploded in nervous laughter and numerous “Oh my god!”, I just wished for silence. There’s a difference between humorous and funny; they missed it. Still, Very Bad Things is well-made, with good characterization and acting, adequate directing and rather effective tension. Still, why couldn’t they have played it straight…? I dislike being told when to be grossed-out, and that’s what Very Bad Things does, with a gleeful gleam in its eye. I’m glad I didn’t pay to see the movie (Free tickets to the Ottawa premiere), and do not recommend it. If you do see it, just don’t expect any of the characters to A> Live, B> remain whole or C> remain sane.

Taxi (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) You probably won’t see this until it’s (inevitably) remade as a big-budget Hollywood production, and you’ll be missing a pretty good compilation of car chases. French action films aren’t too common (two of the last few were remade as Point Of No Return and True Lies), but Taxi has the added pedigree of a script by Luc Besson. Granted, that’s not much of a recommendation in the storytelling department. Still, Besson’s flair for imaginative action set-pieces are obvious, and you haven’t seen a car chase until you’ve seen one through the terrifyingly cluttered French streets. (It’s worse than in Ronin.) It was a treat to see an action movie with the characteristic French rhythms and attitude. Taxi loses points for inane episodic incidents, nonsensical setups, juvenile humour and a gratuitous usage of drugs but does sports a few niiice gun battles and high-speed driving. The last stunt is pretty cool, if unlikely. I’m actually looking forward to the Hollywood remake!

(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2003) There’s a lot of dumb stuff in this film and, upon seeing it again on the small screen, not as much action as I remembered. But it’s still a lot of fun, thanks to the dynamic performances of the leads and some inspired action directing. The script may be dumb, but it’s dumb in a charming way. The fact that it comes from France is a plus in itself, as it offers something different than the usual sunny L.A. backdrops we could expect from such a story. The region-one DVD has the film, the trailer, and not much else.

The Siege (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) With only one more rewrite, this could have been one of the best political thrillers in recent memory. Not many films try to deal with the underlying issues surrounding terrorism (What if it’s our fault? What if we admit we can’t solve it? What if we have to overstep our laws to fight it?) and The Siege at least deserve credits for trying to do so. Unfortunately, for every good scene in The Siege, you have to tolerate another painful moment. The first hour is pretty clever; the second one is increasingly silly. The acting is good; Bruce Willis’ character is incoherently written. The bus explosion sequence is good; other explosions aren’t shown. The sidekick Arab character is great; everyone else is either saint or terrorist. Denzel Washington’s character is competent; he’s also everywhere regardless of whether he belongs or not. General Deveraux seems to be pretty responsible in the first hour; he turns in a raving maniac for the last 40 minutes. Annette Benning’s character is suitably complex; her motivations keep changing on us. The asian FBI agent is lovely; Annette Benning doesn’t look a tenth as cute as in Mars Attacks! The result is a muddled movie that tries but fails.

Outbreak (1995)

(On TV, November 1998) This should have been scary enough with just its first subject matter; a fatal, airborne viral infection. Unfortunately, the screenwriters of the movie had just graduated from the Hollywood Action Movie Script School and felt the need to include conspiracies, helicopter chases, explosions, ruthless military officers, an eleventh-hour aerial standoff and pointless dramatic gestures. Bad movie? Not quite. Though certainly over-the-top and not nearly as terrifying as it should have been, Outbreak is still a deftly-produced, enjoyable piece of entertainment. Dustin Hoffman is backed up by a surprising number of good actors (Russo, Freeman, Sutherland, Spacey, Gooding Jr….) and director Wolfgang Petersen obviously knows his stuff. Not a bad choice.

Neanderthal, John Darnton

St. Martin’s, 1996, 395 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96300-9

Once upon a time, in a land much like our own…

…there was a sub-genre of novels called “Lost Worlds”. Written around the turn of this century, these novels usually starred valiant explorers, battling exotic creatures to discover stunning secrets: A mini-ecological environment complete with dinosaurs! A Mysterious Island! A fortress guarded by the last Greek warriors! The Tenth lost tribe of Israel! A wonderful treasure!

Needless to say, as Earth was progressively settled and explained, lost worlds began to disappear. Who can believe, now, an amazonian plateau populated with prehistoric animals?

And yet, these novels keep their charms. Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island is still one of my favourite books, as is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. There is a quaint yet hardy spirit of adventure and exploration in these stories that is terrific for younger readers and loads of fun -in small dosage- for adults.

Neanderthal is a pure Lost World novel. As the story begins, two scientists are contacted with news of an important discovery. Their mentor is calling them back, deep in Asia. There, they find a lost race of Neanderthals. Will they be able to escape?

Now, given that Lost World novels are fun and that Neanderthal is a Lost World novel, we might logically expect Neanderthal to be a fun book.

If only things were that simple…

Neanderthal falters on several fronts, perhaps the most egregious being a completely humourless approach to the material. Lost Worlds novel should be awe-inspiring and thrilling, while remaining faintly silly. Here, Pulitzer-winning New York Times correspondent Darnton plays it with a tedious seriousness, even as he brings up such whoppers as a limited form of telepathy. (For various reasons, we eventually suspect that Darnton doesn’t only play around with the concepts of lost races, telepathy and ESP, but actually believes in them, which raises a whole new lot of problems.)

To this, we can add the usually suspects devices of the noble savages and the bloodthirsty barbarians. But whereas Doyle and Burroughs handled those with a kind of charming earnestness, Darnton’s Lost Races are more cyphers than objects of fascination.

But all of this would have been irrelevant if Darnton had delivered a thrilling novel. And he does not. Neanderthal is a stuffy bore of a “thriller”. No suspense. Very few set-pieces. Minimal implications for worldwide peace. Lesser novels would have brought back an evil Neanderthal in civilized land where it would have gone in a murderous rampage. Well, that’s what missing from this novel; a sense of fun and of pulpish excitement. Instead, we get a three-act play with three humans and a bunch of guys in monkey suits.

Which is rather sad, since Darnton has obviously put a lot of time in doing his research for Neanderthal. Well-integrated (and some no-so-well-integrated) expository passages at least give the impression of taking away something worthwhile from the novel (though with Darnton’s tendency to throw around “remote viewing”, we can legitimately doubt his credibility.)

THE EXPEDITION OF THE CENTURY UNCOVERS THE FIND OF THE MILLENNIUM! promises the back-cover blurb. CREATURES THAT POSSESS POWERS MAN CAN ONLY IMAGINE, AND THAT ARE ABOUT TO CHANGE THE FACE OF CIVILISATION FOREVER! it adds. THE MUST-READ THRILLER OF THE YEAR! is exhorts. With this kind of publicity, we’d be justified in expecting a rather more exciting thriller.

What we have, instead, is a Neanderthal that should remain extinct.

A Night At The Roxbury (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) Very, very silly. It was a comfort to finally meet two guys even more socially inept than I. This movie has zero scrap of even the slightest social value but does sport a rather good mid-nineties-dance soundtrack. (It was a shame that our second-run Vanier theatre has such a poor sound system, though…) It’s not as bad as the frosty critical reception suggested, but it does sport a few very amusing moments, as well as a significant babe factor. On the other hand, the biggest flaws of the movie are the two lead actors, who are outshined by almost everyone else (most notably Canadian actor Lochlyn Munro—last seen as the highlight of Dead Man On Campus). This would have been a hilarious movie with Jim-Carrey-type actors in the lead role. Instead, A Night At The Roxbury has to settle from being barely diverting.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

(Second viewing, On TV, November 1998) Pure and complete nonsense, but intentionally so. Going from set-piece to set-piece, this thriller never pauses long enough to allow viewers to realize that what they’ve just seen is not complex, but senseless. Still, it might be foolishness, but director Brain DePalma has too much experience to let it be anything but good-looking foolishness. Tom Cruise makes a convincing action hero, and the superb action sequences are simply remarkable. (Even knowing where special effects were used didn’t diminish the enjoyment one bit) Disclosure: A previous viewing had prepared me to accept the lousy script and enjoy the good bits.

Max Q (1998)

(On TV, November 1998) Inferior made-for-TV movie about a disaster aboard a space shuttle. Far from being even remotely realistic (even with a relative ignorance of actual NASA procedures, I was able to spot several mistakes), it can also “boast” of belonging to the cookie-cutter school of screenwriting, with painfully mistaken conventions of dramatic structure and characters that we’ve seen countless time before. It wasn’t a waste of time for me, since I consider a bad techno-thriller better than no techno-thriller at all, but less enthusiastic viewers might very well disagree. Max Q makes the fatal mistake of trying to emulate the superlative Apollo 13… and it’s not even close to being in the same league at the already-classic 1995 film.

Lat sau san taam [Hard-Boiled] (1992)

(On TV, November 1998) Unarguably one of the most amazing action movie I’ve seen. Whereas other directors will settle for a shot of a guy jumping quickly cut to an exploding car, Hard-Boiled‘s John Woo uses a slow-motion uninterrupted shot of the actor jumping out of an exploding car, debris falling over him. You can actually see pieces bouncing off the stuntmen, who definitely earned their salary in this movie. The emotional core of the movie is also there, and it’s effective. (I publicly thanks Toronto-area station CITY-TV for having the wonderful integrity to run Hard-Boiled in its full letterboxed, subtitled glory.) Despite some annoying heart-stirring manipulation (babies, anyone?) and the problems in trying to piece together a foreign-language movie, Hard-Boiled is miles ahead of your usual Hollywood summer blockbuster. An unforgettable action masterpiece. Don’t miss it.

Horizontal Hold: The Making and Breaking of a Network Television Pilot, Daniel Paisner

Birch Lane Press, 1992, 206 pages, C$23.95 hc, ISBN 1-55972-148-0

Something quite sad and remarkable happened in November 1998.

The television series “Babylon 5” ended, after a five-year run.

For those of you who have thus far managed to get away with a complete ignorance of “Babylon 5”, know these facts: Conceived in 1987-1988 by J. Michael Straczynski as a five-year “Science-Fiction Novel for Television” and shopped around multiple studios -who all balked at this grandiose premise-, “Babylon-5” made it on the air in 1993 (Pilot) and 1994 (series). Despite constant rumours of impending cancellation and some rather heavy sniping from the concurrent Star Trek fans and producers, “Babylon-5” finally managed to end after its planned run, producing something unique: a truly original multi-layered five-year story on television.

But the 1993-1998 era is also littered with one-year series, half-season wonders and six-episode failures. For each “Babylon-5”, how many “The Visitor”? And for each show yanked after six episodes, how many pilots?

Horizontal Hold tries to answer this question by showing the making of a (failed) television pilot, with all the high and low points of the process. Meanwhile, we learn how vile an institution is TV broadcasting. The story begins in 1989, when a writer at an independent production company gets the idea for a new sitcom: Why not follow, week after week, the misadventures in the life of presidential scriptwriters?

The concept is promising and the book shows how we go from idea to pilot. It’s not a pretty process, especially seen from a writer’s point of view. Characters are modified, tailored, changed, dumbed-down… and that’s when they’re not simply eliminated from the script, which gets re-written daily. Production factors often modify the story.

Obviously, good writing isn’t the main concern of television.

Horizontal Hold shows exceptionally well the committee-driven nature of TV, with its endless compromises and its dependence on stupid dumb luck. Unpredictable events prove to be the ultimate demise of the pilot described in Horizontal Hold: A surprise strike undoes a first try, and the changing whims of a TV executive nail down the second attempt.

But throughout all of this, a potentially depressing story remains quite lively, all thanks to Paisner’s writing skills. He brings a witty style that’s not only humorous in its own way (Discussing a character’s elimination right after an actor’s narrow brush with dismissal: “Bonnie Doone isn’t so lucky. Of course, she’s just a character and therefore unable to manage much of anything on her own behalf.” [P.78]) but also includes many delicious behind-the-scene anecdotes.

Paisner rarely preaches directly about the nature of television, letting the story speaks for itself. It’s an eloquent message. Certainly, I would have been intrigued by the presidential-screenwriter concept: that it wasn’t given a fair chance is as disheartening as it is frustrating. Given the process described in Horizontal Hold, it’s a minor miracle that anything of value ever appears on our television screens.

Horizontal Hold is a very worthwhile non-fiction account of the reality behind the cathode tube. It’s reasonably impartial, lucidly examining the possibility (among others) that the product just wasn’t good enough to make it to the small screen. But most of all, it’s a compulsively readable account of a fascinating event. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shutting off the television to finish the book.

But really; now that “Babylon-5” is off the air, what else are you going to watch?

Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy (1996)

(On TV, November 1998) certainly isn’t for everyone. Comedy, even in the best of time, is a very subjective thing. It’s even worse when it comes to a quirky style maintained and perfected by a group of comedians. I had never watched Kids in the Hall, but still had a good time watching Brain Candy, an uneven take-off on pharmaceutical research. My sister, though, got up and left after ten minutes.

Vampires (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) A B-movie. Purely and simply. Low-budget, imaginatively filmed, violently over-the-top, touching upon ideas that mainstream cinema wouldn’t dare consider (a group of vampire slayers funded by the Vatican) in a way that only B-movie filmmakers would dare try (gratuitous nudity, violence, verbal abuse, etc…) That John Carpenter is the director is incidental. The result is fun provided that you’re willing to accept the poor dialogue, rotten pacing, disturbing sexism and lacklustre middle third. On the other hand, the film has an undeniable atmosphere, the premise is interesting and James Woods is completely delightful as protagonist Jack Crow. I have serious misgivings about the script and wouldn’t recommend the movie, but still enjoyed it.

The Jackal (1997)

(On VHS, November 1998) has a few clever moments (most of them related to Bruce Willis’ character) but had me groaning and swearing each five-ten minutes. Unfortunate, since the acting is pretty good (Richard Gere sleepwalks as usual, but he looks so darn unflappable that nobody minds. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, does a satisfying job at half-a-dozen different disguises) and the production values are reasonably high. The fault all goes back to the script, which is almost uniformly bad. Most movie clichés find their way in this film. The result is something as vapid and unmemorable as 1997’s The Shadow Conspiracy. (Remember that one? Me neither.) Not even the numerous Canada/Québec references can save this movie from rapid memory oblivion.

Get Shorty (1995)

(On TV, November 1998) This film is -wait for it- better than the book. This simple story of an average crook in the Hollywood fast-lane differs only slightly from the original work, but makes it work. Elmore Leonard’s undecipherable dialogue comes to life on-screen, and the result is an average movie that’s reasonably entertaining to watch. John Travolta and Rene Russo are as good as usual. Some in-jokes are precious.

Final Impact, Yvonne Navarro

Bantam, 1997, 469 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56360-2

In fiction, there are several ways to end the world, and several things to do once you’ve done it. Perhaps the most famous apocalyptic book of all is Stephen King’s exceptional The Stand, which combined gritty realism with supernatural elements to produce a book strong enough to forgive its rather significant shortcomings. With Final Impact, Yvonne Navarro sets herself up to be compared to King, and the results are almost as disastrous as the catastrophe itself.

1999. Inspired by the Shumacher-Levy comet, another celestial object finds itself hurtling at Jupiter. Problem is; it misses, fragments in a myriad of smaller rocks and heads straight for Earth. Meanwhile, efforts to destroy some of the fragments are sabotaged, and the rocks hit.

But that’s not the real story.

From the above, we might infer a relatively competent novel firmly grounded in hard sciences and rigorously extrapolating the effects of a massive asteroid strike on Earth.

Not so.

You see, even during the prologue, we’re introduced to (more than) four people possessing extra-sensorial powers. (I will avoid talking about the inconsistent nature of the superpowers, as it seems to be the norm with such pseudo-SF.) Since Navarro describes herself as “a dark fantasy writer”, you can bet your fallout shelter that life isn’t an easy road for them. Indeed, in the first ten pages, a girl is abandoned by her parents and a boy looks on as his father kills his mother. And that’s only the first two protagonists.

Scientific plausibility goes downhill as soon as the rocks hit, since the Earth stop rotating (all together now; riiiight) and some humans transform themselves in the usual gallery of fantastic creatures: vampires, werewolves, etc… This isn’t gratuitous, of course, given that Earth now has a “light side” and a “dark side”. Ooooh, deeeeep, maaaan.

And then the novel ends.

That’s right. Final Impact is the first volume of an unknown series of books. Nowhere is it mentioned. Some threads are still up in the air, nothing interesting has been done with the setup, character dynamics are still unresolved… and you have the gall to ask why I disliked the book?

Even then, though, it must be said that Final Impact isn’t totally worthless. For all her dubious plotting, incompetent scientific sense and lack of marketing acumen, Yvonne Navarro has created some vivid characters in Final Impact. While they’re either too good or too evil to be classified as realistic (not to mention these pesky ESP powers), they’re well-defined. The most interesting character, Lily, is a welcome exception given that she’s morally ambiguous and as “normal” (few superpowers) as Navarro’s characters come.

Final Impact is also surprisingly readable—warts and all. Navarro keeps the flourishes down to a minimum, and prefers to follow her characters as closely as possible. The execution mitigates the weak story.

There’s a certain audience, I suppose, for the tired clichés sprouted off by Final Impact (Yet Another Rock-Smashing Earth, Yet Another Group of Superpowered Mutants, Yet Another Good-Versus-Evil setup, Yet Another Fantasy series…) but serious -read “jaded”- readers will want to read fresher material. Because at the end, what Final Impact offers is only a good setup for a Role-Playing Game scenario.