Monthly Archives: May 1999

Bare-faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard, Russell Miller

Key Porter, 1987, 390 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 1-550-12027-7

First things first: I will not shy away from admitting that I loathe Scientology.

Most of this anger is a natural byproduct of my general abomination for sects. Organized -read “established”- religions at least have a veneer of respectability and relatively down-to-earth beliefs. (Despite my avowed atheism, I once got an A+ on a college-level essay that argued that the catholic church had a beneficial impact on the colonization of Canada. This has scant relation to Bare-Faced Messiah, but I can’t pass this opportunity to mention it.) Sects, on the other hand, combine financial swindling with seemingly voluntary lobotomy. How else to explain paying obscene amount of money to find the state of mind one can get from a good long walk in the woods with a pretty girl?

Scientology, however, holds a special place in my pantheon of Bad Ideas. As an early Internaut, I still seethe at their callous legal shenanigans which finally forced the shutdown of the anonymous remailer anon.penet.fi. As a Science-Fiction fan, I carry the collective burden of a genre that hosted L. Ron Hubbard before he decided that the way to make money was to organize a religion. The so-called “top-secret” documents of Scientology, recently revealed by a band of courageous ex-scientologists, read like bottom-level sci-fi garbage. Scientology has no clothes; if it appears so blindingly obvious to me and multiple other wise persons, why isn’t it obvious to everyone?

Bare-Faced Messiah is not really about Scientology. It’s a biography of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. By casting the forefather in the true light of his accomplishments, Russell Miller reveals the tissue of lies and forgery that is at the heart of Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard didn’t compromise a life of honest work and accomplishments by starting the scam called Scientology. This biography makes it clear that Hubbard was a self-aggrandizer, a fabulist and an unbalanced boy well before he used his easy talent for fiction to write for SF magazines. Numerous incidents where Hubbard keeps promoting himself as “The Youngest Eagle Scout Ever” -when no records could prove or disprove this affirmation- is particularly instructive.

From this boy without a clear sense of himself would emerge a teen constantly inflating his modest accomplishment in tales worthy of men’s adventure magazines. Which inevitably happens, as Hubbard finds himself drawn in a profession where lies are honorable. But Hubbard is a compulsive buyer and before long, he tries to evade his debts in the military service. His war is not heroic, but his war tales are, as he manages to transform a battle with a known magnetic anomaly into a country-saving duel with a Japanese submarine.

After the war, Hubbard divides his time between magazine pieces and trying to swindle a medical pension from the Navy. He eventually writes a piece called “Dianetics”, from which he’ll establish a religion. Though this first scam ends badly -Hubbard is a compulsive spender-, it lays the foundations for Scientology.

From there, the remainder of the tale is distressingly familiar: a man with too much power, too much money and too little wisdom. As Scientology grew, Hubbard diminished. His death in 1986 puts a merciful end to a life taken over by paranoia.

I will quickly gloss over Hubbard’s bigamy, his criminal records, the ludicrous tale of his private navy and other assorted antics; they’re more valid reasons to look for Bare-Faced Messiah. This wonderfully well-researched book lays bare the moral foundations of a fascinating character. For Hubbard might be the twentieth century’s most successful con artist, his true life is even more fascinating than his imagined life.

Anxious to read the book? Worried that your local library’s copy was destroyed by your friendly neighborhood scientologist? You’re in luck: Check out the online, uncensored version of Bare-Faced Messiah at http://www.jritson.demon.co.uk/bfm/bfmconte.htm

The Internet just might get the last laugh over Scientology…

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

Avon, 1999, 918 pages, C$39.50 hc, ISBN 0-380-97346-4

Wow. Where to begin?

By the physical object itself. Cryptonomicon is a big book. At 918 pages, it’s a pitch-black hardcover that will occupy fully 4.5 centimeters of your shelf. That is, if you decide to plunk down the 40 Canadian Dollars that will grant you the privilege of carrying this pound brick.

Judging from my local bookstore, however, even the monetary argument will deter few. (I grabbed the last of six copies, three days after its arrival in the store) Only the “Neal Stephenson” is required to attract fans. After a much-remarked SF debut titled Snow Crash (which has since become a cult classic), Stephenson won the Hugo with The Diamond Age and co-wrote two superb contemporary thrillers with his uncle under the pen name Stephen Bury (Interface and The Cobweb).

Cryptonomicon is far closer to the meticulously-detailed, intricately plotted Bury novels than either of Stephenson’s own SF novels. For one thing, more than half the book takes place during World War Two (echoing Bury’s description of another conflict, the Gulf War, in The Cobweb) and the other half takes place in the present.

Techo-geeks should be relieved to note, however, that Cryptonomicon is no “mere” WW2 or present-day thriller. Cryptonomicon begs to be fitted in a new genre, “Wired-Fiction”. Stephenson has written for the magazine several (including one of the best article the magazine ever published, “Mother Earth, motherboard”) and his latest novel reads a lot like the ideal novel for Wired-heads. This is a good thing, mind you.

Judge for yourself: The present-day plot concerns Randy Waterhouse, an Internet expert who finds himself in business to construct a data haven in Southeast Asia. The WW2 plot revolves around Randy’s grandfather, a brilliant mathematician who spends the war breaking Axis codes. Cryptology, technology, hacking, computers, business and a myriad of other subjects are frenetically explored and brought together in Cryptonomicon, at the greatest pleasure of all the techno-geeks in the audience.

The charm of Cryptonomicon lies largely in its unrepentant didacticism. This is techno-docu-fiction at its most extreme, including graphs, equations and pages-long digressions on arcane subjects (Few reviewers have resisted the impulsion to note the four-page exposé on how to eat Captain Crunch cereal, and I will not be an exception.)

In the hands of a lesser writer, Cryptonomicon might have been an interminable bore. But fans already know Stephenson’s quirky prose style, and the result provokes emotions oscillating between intense fascination and audible hilarity. This is an amazingly well-written novel.

This book is filled with so many good scenes that it’s hard to know which ones to highlight. At least keep two of them in mind: The most hilarious is certainly the wonderfully-funny business plan. The most impressive is Randy’s character-defining hacking apex. Thinking of it, Randy’s expedition account (“The Weird turn Pro”) is also mesmerizing…

It’s not a perfect novel by any mean; the ending -while stronger than Stephenson’s other solo novels- is still annoyingly incomplete. At least one character is still mysteriously unexplained —what’s this about several other volumes in the series? And, for a 918-pages novel, it’s curiously lacking in plot. My own techno-nerd sensibilities kept wanting to go back to the present-day thread, but I’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the novel worth editing out.

No matter: Much like Interface and Snow Crash were stupendous books, Cryptonomicon easily ranks as a must-read novel of 1999 for technically-oriented readers. It’s big, it’s impressive, it’s exhilarating and, in all seriousness, you get a full forty Canadian dollars’ worth of entertainment.

Life Signs: The Biology of Star Trek, Susan Jenkins M.D. & Robert Jenkins, M.D.

Harper Collins, 1998, 189 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-019154-6

All things considered, it is pretty ironic that the movies and dramatic television series most closely associated with science are, in fact, those which will make the most errors. For each CONTACT which takes care is trying to be as accurate as possible, there’s a LOST IN SPACE to throw all of physics outside the windows in a hurry. STAR TREK, for all its qualities, has never stuck too closely to accepted rules of science. Instances of TREK scientific ludicrousness (“Invert the beam’s polarity!”, “Spock has no more brain!”, “We’re devolving!”) are too well-recorded to argue.

Despite everything, Trek occasionally gets it right, or -more significantly- allows for an imaginative springboard to today’s knowledge. Renowned physicist Lawrence M. Krauss has made a name -not to mention a mint- for himself with The Physics of Star Trek and its sequel (Beyond Star Trek) and we could only expect other similar books.

These books have arrived, en masse, in book-stores: The Science of the X-Files, The Metaphysics of Star Trek, The Science of Star Wars… Not to be left out, The Physics of Star Trek‘s publisher Harper Collins now comes forward with Life Signs: The Biology of Star Trek.

Fortunately, this book is written by competent personnel: Unlike the doubtful The Science of the X-Files, written by even-more doubtful fantasy writer Jeanne Cavelos, Life Signs is the product of a collaboration between husband-and-wife Robert Jenkins, M.D., geneticist and Susan Jenkins, M.D., psychiatrist. Impressive credits; are they any good at vulgarization?

All Science of… books are (should be) exercises in scientific popularization rather than simple collections of random nitpicks. Ideally, they should use the SF series/movies as excuses to present more substantial content. Here, The Jenkinses use Star Trek as a reason to explore current research on exobiology, genetics, longevity, cloning, mating rituals, evolution, life in space and other biological considerations.

A large part of the success of books life Life Signs resides on the way the authors are able to sustain the readers’ attention while still communicating meaningful information. Fortunately, the Jenkinses are able to vulgarize the material in an entertaining and fascinating way… not to mention staying respectful of the show. “How alien can you get?” is a serviceable example of how to structure a broad topic (xenobiology) in an accessible fashion. It helps that the book is often wryly funny.

In many ways, this book was more informative for your reviewer than was The Physics of Star Trek, mostly due to a weaker knowledge of biology to begin with. This being said, the books have a few significant shortcomings which make it a doubtful buy. First and foremost, at 189 pages, the hardcover edition is certainly not worth thirty-two Canadian dollars! While a desire to keep a complex subject at a manageable length is understandable, Life Signs doesn’t offer a very good return on investment. The cruel lack of an index is a potentially fatal flaw in a scientific reference book. Some of the gimmicks are annoying; for a book on biology, Life Signs often errs in “series summary” territory (see pages 87-92) There is a thing as being too cute.

On the other hand, if you can manage to acquire Life Signs at reduced rates or in paperback, it makes both a great gift and a fun introduction/refresher to the complex subject of biology. Though their familiarity with specific characters and episodes suggest that the Jenkinses are fans, they’re not blind fans and their rational perspective on Treknology is harsh but fair. (The last chapter is about “Where no one will ever go”, and brings some much-needed sanity to a few of Trek’s most ludicrous assertions.)

Light-hearted but substantial, Life Signs not only answers long-standing questions, but suggests new unanswered questions… such as why the heck is Picard still bald in an era of advanced medicine?

Is that a set-up for a sequel? Make it so!

Moonfall, Jack McDevitt

Harper Prism, 1998 (1999 reprint), 544 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105112-8

Science-Fiction is often considered, justifiably or not, an escapist literature. One could make a good case that the ultimate escapist stories are end-of-the-world tales, and SF has made a tradition out of such drama. Whether we’re due to be destroyed by aliens, asteroids, black holes, plagues or nuclear war, we can vicariously enjoy other people’s plight while our lives are comfortably uneventful. Jack McDevitt finely upholds this SF distinction with Moonfall.

The novel takes place in April 2024. While Americans are rushing to fill their tax papers and casting their ballots for the presidential primaries, scientists across the globe are preparing for a spectacular solar eclipse. During the eclipse, an amateur astronomer discovers a comet. Slight problem: the comet is going to impact the moon with such force that it’ll shatter it.

Unfortunately, humans now have a presence on the Moon, and only hours after the vice-president inaugurates Moonbase, all six hundred residents must escape. As if losing the Moon isn’t enough, some scientists then announce that the impact will send multiple fragments crashing down on Earth, some as big as the one which destroyed the dinosaurs…

You could do a checklist of expected elements in a disaster novel and Moonfall would have most of them. A large cast of characters. Disaster vignettes. Nick-of-time escapes. Media commentary. Politicians of all stripes. Stupid bystanders. If nothing else, McDevitt has done his homework in order to fulfill readers’ expectations.

So far so good, but McDevitt’s novel has two significant weaknesses that diminishes its overall effect. The first is almost inherent in disaster novels; the second one is more serious.

All disaster novels are based, of course, on the disaster. As such, a disaster happens only once, or -if it is averted- not at all. The rest is either apprehension or consequence. Catastrophe novel continually toe the line between impatient readers and let-down readers. Moonfall mitigates the problem with two crises, but spends far too much of its time in overdone suspense.

The second problem is that McDevitt, by and large, misses the opportunity to create a gallery of compelling characters. Disaster novel characters are usually divided in heroic and anecdotal groups. Moonfall‘s core is fine, with a likeable vice-president and his entourage, but the other recurring characters are not given the chance to shine and distinguish themselves, with the result that they’re often indistinguishable from the one-shot characters seen only in a vignette and then gone forever. Not only would Moonfall have been a substantially shorter novel without these diversions, but the focus of the work would have been strengthened on the vice-president plot, which is really the central axis of the novel.

Still, don’t get the impression that Moonfall isn’t a particularly enjoyable perfect piece of summer reading. “Not exciting enough” is a broad enough criticism that it can apply to some jaded readers and not to others simply in search of a good read. Richly detailed, carefully researched, Moonfall does so many things right than it’s ungrateful to be pickier than what it deserves.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

(In theaters, May 1999) Gee, what can I say? This film is about review-proof as they come. Still, here are a few random impressions: The visual effects are simply awesome in the purest sense of the term “awesome”. The movie doesn’t take thirty seconds to make scientific errors. I’m feeling vaguely ashamed of my lecherous reaction to Natalie Portman. Jake Lloyd isn’t really annoying, though Jar Jar Binks is. The film is a failure at telling a good, original, independent story. The pod race is very exciting. You’re seen most of the movie elsewhere (including in the other Star Wars stories), sometime even twice in the case of Skywalker-blowing-up-enemy-bases-at-the-end. Was that A> ET, B> a chromed SR-71, C> A Trackball racquet, D> All of the above? I don’t find Darth Maul cool even if George Lucas has spent 2.5$ per man, woman and child in America to make me believe so. It wasn’t worth standing in line for. I can just see hordes of geeks without anything better to do creaming their shorts about the new bits of trivia from the movie; the horror, the wasted time of their lives! I’ll maintain that The Matrix was the coolest movie of Spring 1999, not Star Wars. Your handy guide to know who’s Natalie Portman: her two beauty marks on her cheeks. Me wanna see Samuel L. Jackson in big fight next movie. George Lucas should not only hire professional screenwriters, but also a scientific expert, a military advisor (because his tactics suck) and a director who knows what he’s doing. Immaculate conception? Maybe she was just drunk. “Mito-chloridian”… Is that the sound of rationalization I hear from you, George? Despite everything, Star Wars is loads of fun and will probably make my Top-10 list of 1999. Oh, heck, just go see it; it’s worth your money.

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2002) Upon initial release, I was cautiously positive about “Episode I”; good eye candy can compensate for many flaws in my own evaluation scale, and it was hard to argue against another dose of Star Wars goodness. Granted, it doesn’t recapture any of the original trilogy’s magic; George Lucas won’t take that kind of chances any more, and won’t allow better craftsmen than he to improve his silly ideas. On DVD, The Phantom Menace isn’t much more fun, but neither is it much worse. In fact, the added supplemental material is so plentiful that it transforms a marginal SF movie in a recommended purchase. From the audio commentary to the unusually candid making-of (without even discussing the special effects vignettes), this DVD edition is a treasure trove of glimpses in uber-technological filmmaking. It’s fascinating material for fans and techno-geeks like me. (Don’t feel any shame, though, if you start laughing out loud during the segments where they praise Lucas’ writing abilities.) Make no mistake; the film is as dull as it was originally, but unlike in the theater, you can fast-forward through most of Jar-Jar’s scenes.

Seong lung wui [Twin Dragons] (1992)

(In theaters, May 1999) A typical Jackie Chan film. You either like or you don’t. Though not a particularly good Chan movie -too much forced humor, lack of pacing, overlong scenes- Twin Dragons nevertheless serves a hefty portion of kung-fu action and physical comedy. Just ignore the sacrilegious lack of bloopers at the end, and the really bad special effects in two scenes (a shame, considering that the remainder of the “twin” effects are very well handled.)

Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991)

(On TV, May 1999) No masterpiece here, but a rather satisfying action/police martial arts movie. Brandon Lee is likeable and has a good rapport with his fellow policeman co-star Dolph Lundgren. (Tia Carrere also appears, though she does nothing more substantial than being the damsel in distress) A few good action set-pieces, some fun lines, ludicrous plot if measured against real-world aspects—but clearly not meant to be. The fighting sequences could have benefited from lengthier editing. Not worth renting, but worth catching on the late-night show.

All-American Alien Boy, Allen Steele

Ace, 1996, 267 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00460-1

Several reviewers, yours included- have often commented of the different approach used by Allen Steele’s brand of science-fiction. Though he has shown his ability to write hard-SF like the best of them, he approaches his subject from a bottom-up perspective. He writes about the common man in exceptional situations, the worker who implements the grandiose plans for tomorrow. Orbital Decay starred criminals, dull-witted construction workers, insane officers and failed SF writers. The Jericho Iteration‘s protagonist was, like Steele, a St-Louis investigative journalist.

With this background, the unusual focus of the stories collected in All-American Alien Boy all makes sense. His first collection (Rude Astronauts) was heavily concerned about the usual space exploration SF subject matter. (Though not, as Steele writes in his introduction to his second collection, “set mainly in outer space” [P.xiii]) All American Alien Boy is different, concentrating on near-future SF and historical alternate histories. Few stories are set in more than twenty years. The title refers to the adaptability required to cope with today’s pace of change; we are all a bit more alien than ever before.

As a big supporter of author introductions to stories in collection, I was pleased to note that Steele wrote substantial introductions to his stories, detailing sources of inspiration and occasionally getting on soapboxes. Most introductions are interesting, some less so and others (like the last half of his introduction to the collection) simply pedantic. Still, it’s appreciated.

As for the stories themselves, they’re vintage Steele: A clear and elegant style with occasional structural experimentation. Fortunately, there’s more variety than in Rude Astronaut. Like most novelists who started out as journalists, Steele’s prose goes straight to the story without useless detours. It’s no surprise if the two weakest stories of the collection (“See Rock City” and “A letter from St.Louis”, though the latter is from the perspective of a journalist… in 1900) are written with more elaborate style. It’s the more classical stories that shine.

“Jonathan Livingstone Seaslug” owes a lot to Arthur C. Clarke, as Steele mentions in his introduction, and the result is a tale worthy of the master himself… though the conclusion is obvious early on.

I thought that despite a fascinating premise, “Lost in the Shopping Mall” could have been stronger. No matter; it’s good enough as it is.

“Whinin’ Boy Blues” is the sort of SF story that I like to read, with high-tech gadgets, unusual situations, an action-oriented plot and a happy finale. Just ignore the strange title.

“Doblin’s Lecture” is sociological SF, with a touch of psychological horror. Thought-provoking and with an effect that’s ultimately contrary to what we may expect, a characteristic also shared with “The Good Rat”.

Finally, I hope this review is just and equitable, because “Hunting Wabbitt” is a great revenge fantasy, from an author to a bad critic.

No interplanetary spaceships, no aliens. A few giant robots, VR addiction, sea monsters and a crashed SSTO, but that’s as wild as we get. Still, a good author doesn’t have to rely on gadgets and All American Alien Boy is a pretty good collection. You could do worse than take a look at it.

Things to Come aka The Shape Of Things To Come (1936)

(On TV, May 1999) It would be easy to dismiss this film on its artificial dialogue, unrepentant didacticism and sometime-ridiculous scenes, but it’s actually not too bad considering the time in which it was produced. Interesting special effects for the time and a message that just can’t be out of fashion: “The stars or nothing!”

Robocop 3 (1993)

(On TV, May 1999) Now that is a bad movie. I am no fan of the series, but even the excessive original instalment had some wit and twisted charm. The second movie was half-good, half-bad, but the third one is just plain awful. Handled with all the emotional subtlety of a jackhammer in the face, this film feels more like an extended episode of the terrible TV show than something that managed to swindle money from moviegoers’ pockets. Of a certain occasional value as MST3K material, but more often too depressingly pathetic to be laughable.

Hak Hap [Black Mask] (1996)

(In theaters, May 1999) I normally enjoy Hong Kong action movies a lot, but for some reason, Black Mask left me wanting something more polished. Never mind the silly story and lousy dialogue: the action scenes are what counts, and the fact is that they’re not terribly well-shot. In terms of editing, director Daniel Lee is actually worse than the excessive short-cutter Michael Bay, and the result is a fury of sound and action that doesn’t let us time to appreciate Jet Li’s martial prowess, or form a coherent picture of what’s supposed to happen on-screen. The excessive usage of blood also diminishes the enjoyment I was looking for. Still, it’s a dynamic picture, and the babe factor (Françoise Yip) chimes in favorably. The hip-hop music is an interesting dubbing choice. Jet Li otherwise rocks.

Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth, Jeff Greenwald

Viking, 1998, 273 pages, C$33.99 hc, ISBN 0-670-87399-3

I used to be a fanatic Star Trek fan. Raised on “Star Trek” reruns and fascinated by “The Next Generation” as a teen, my interest in the show ended at around the same time than I discovered the Internet and -maybe less strangely- as I discovered the really good (written) SF stuff. Since then, I have followed the series with only the sketchiest attention, as the newer series like DS9 and Voyager have failed to grab my attention.

As a result, I know Star Trek but can’t really attach any deep non-nostalgic emotion to it. You will not catch me learning Klingon, dressing up in a purple skin-tight uniform or even reading *.startrek.* newsgroups. Though I did pay good money for three of the last four Trek movies and a few used Trek novels by good SF authors, (plus one Canadian dollar for a used copy of the English/Klingon dictionary, just for kicks) that’s pretty much the extent of my financial investment in the Trek Franchise. It’s a TV show, not a way of life.

Not everyone sees it that way. All around the globe, fans are watching the show religiously and integrating its philosophy in their lives. Jeff Greenwald is, for lack of a better term, what we could call an intelligent fan of the series. “Not a rabid fan” he warns us “never one to squeeze my guts into a spandex uniform, but a fan nonetheless.” [P.3] Future Perfect is an attempt to find out why people are so fascinated with this long-running series.

Future Perfect has a three-part entwined structure. The first is what you would expect from a standard examination of “Star Trek”: interviews with the actors, description of such oddities as the Klingon Language Institute, portraits of JPL engineers fascinated with the show, etc…

The second is unusual for a book self-described as “not prepared, approved, licensed or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing the Star Trek television series or films.”: Greenwald managed to be granted access to several crucial steps in the creation of Star Trek: First Contact, which opened in theatres in 1996 to both popular and critical acclaim. From last-minute script revisions to opening night, Greenwald is there, like a fly on the wall.

The third part of Future Perfect is the one that earns the book its subtitle. Greenwald goes around the globe to find out why exactly Star Trek is such a world-wide phenomenon. From Klingon marriages in Germany to a delightful interview with the Dalai Lama, we truly get, for what is possibly the first time, an image of Star Trek across the planet.

Greenwald doesn’t always succeed in his self-imposed task, but always remains interesting. His interview with Kurt Vonnegut has few relevance to Star Trek, but remains thought-provoking. If some of his stops on his world-wide Star Trek tour are disappointing in term of Trek, he never misses the chance to make us visit wonderful places. (viz; “The Wired Raj”)

Future Perfect hasn’t managed to make me fall in love with “Star Trek” all over again, but it has certainly restored my respect in the series, and I can only be grateful to Greenwald for that. (I even took the time, midway through the book, to watch a Voyager episode. Though the story -“11:59”- wasn’t exactly good by most standards, it did mesh perfectly with Greenwald’s theories about Star Trek.) One might quibble with the limitations, the methods or the individuals that make up Star Trek (I came away from the book with even less respect for Brannon Braga, which is quite an accomplishment), but it’s essential to realize that for all its fault, the ideals of “Star Trek” are the same that drives more serious science-fiction. If more people can be inspired by those, great.

Jeff Greenwald has written a book that is simultaneously about, and well beyond “Star Trek”. His writing style is almost worth the price of the book in itself. No boring interviews, but wonderfully crunchy encounters (drinking vodka with Kate Mulgrew, being gruffly treated by Patrick Steward, cruising chicks with Brannon Braga…) with the all-too-human beings that took millions among the stars. No ordinary Trek book, but a darn good, non-fiction account of human determination. Not bad for a TV show!

Gods And Monsters (1998)

(In theaters, May 1999) This film manages, despite the rather distasteful subject matter and inevitable conclusion, to be entertaining, funny and even poignant. Everyone shines in their respective roles. The script deservedly won an Oscar, and transforms what could have been a ponderous tale of impending death into something far more interesting than it could have been.

Existenz (1999)

(In theaters, May 1999) That wacky Canadian Cronenberg strikes again with an average “What is Reality?” tale made more memorable by the use of biological “technology” and some scenes rather suggestive of anal sex. No, really. While only two females have speaking roles, the babe-factor is high, given that those are Jennifer Jason Leigh (As a champ game designer with a lovely hairdo! In a tight blue miniskirt!) and Sarah “Raaah!” Polley. While rather slow in its first hour, Existenz picks up and ends with a really enjoyable last five minutes. Some may be disappointed with its The Usual Suspects-type ending, but I came out of the theatre with a big goofy grin on my face, and any movie that manages that can’t be half-bad.

Entrapment (1999)

(In theaters, May 1999) Now here’s a splendid example of a good potential turned into barely adequate material. Where to start…? Catherine Zeta-Jones may be breathtakingly beautiful, but she plays her character like a spoiled child and seldom appears believable in any of her incarnations. Sean Connery is his dapper self, so darn cool that we can only wonder why he keeps playing into these awful films. Ving Rhames is wasted. The script -filled with awful dialogue- smells a lot like a first unedited draft. The editing is weak, avoiding to film a car chase but choosing to spend almost a full minute on Zeta-Jones’ gymnastics. There are plot holes big enough to drive a train car through. The ending is weak. The age differential between the two leads borders on the laughable. (My sister suggested that Baker should have been MacDonald’s long-lost daughter, which would have been interesting. She -my sister- has a future in screenwriting.) Only the heist sequences are rather good, if you exclude the extremely convenient escapes. The overall result is muddled enough to avoid recommendation.