Monthly Archives: August 2000

Ye shou xing jing [Beast Cops] (1998)

(On TV, August 2000) A rarity: a Hong Kong police drama that doesn’t turn into a full-blown action film. (Until the end, that is, but once it happens, it’s more of an intrusion than anything else.) The portrait of corruption presented here is done with great care, reaching an apex in a discussion in a pool that neatly encapsulate most of Hong Kong cinema’s relation with cops and criminals. Not a whole lot of fun as a film (it gets long with time) but a rather good film on its own. Think of it as the Chinese Serpico.

Two’s A Mob (1998)

(On TV, August 2000) The Ottawa-area movie scene is almost a joke in itself, which makes this film doubly surprising. Made around the city (which here doubles for New York!) for a low, low, low budget, Two’s a Mob aims to be a parody to such crime movies like Goodfellas, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather and other assorted films of the genre. While not every joke works and the pacing isn’t always sustained, Two’s a Mob remains a pretty good low-budget film. Writer/Actor Dan Lalande is a master of deadpan humor, and some of the gags are truly inspired (such as the movie-within-a-movie Three’s a Triad, the Corel product placement, and a neat library/rifle gag.) Better than “oh, it’s local so it’s good”; holds up fairly well against similar Hollywood film such as Jane Austen’s Mafia! So allow me to do my part for local cinema: Track down and rent Two’s a Mob! It’s worth it!

Dak ging san yan lui [Gen-X Cops] (1999)

(On VHS, August 2000) This, in many ways, seems like a Hong Kong version of an teenxploitation Hollywood film. You know the genre: Hot new “teen” star is featured in a project that does nothing but make him/her look good. Acting talent optional. Gen-X Cops is a lot like that, as a flimsy excuse is used in order to use three young rebel cops on a dangerous assignment. No reason is ever given to us as to why we should cheer for these three; the simple fact that they are there and that they’re rebellious seems to be enough for us to like them. Things don’t get moving until nearly the end. There’s a cool Jackie Chan cameo.

Bordello Of Blood (1996)

(On VHS, August 2000) With a title like that, you can expect plenty of gore and plenty of nudity. To Bordello Of Blood‘s credit, it does deliver that, though even more nudity would have been appropriate. Not execrable, but not particularly good; you get an adequate B-movie. For fans of the TV series.

Boy Wonder, James Robert Baker

Signet, 1988, 560 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-16506-3

Long-winded reviewer

It has become common to say that Hollywood is insane beyond imagination. But Boy Wonder one-ups every true story you’re heard so far, and that’s no mean feat.

Jacket Blurb

Cross CITIZEN KANE with BLUE VELVET and you’ll get some idea of this wide-screen send-up of the movie business as it follows the career of Shark Trager -rebel filmmaker and mega-successful producer- from his birth in 1950 at a drive-in movie theater and his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of Hollywood power, to his equally spectacular descent, crash, and burn.

Snotty critic, gesticulating

The real post-modern narrative breakthrough of this so-called comedy -for it is rather truly a savage attack on American values- is in its deconstruction of a traditional narrative flow into pseudo-interview excepts of fictional characters said to have known Shark Trager, but really; is the concept of cognizance truly meaningful, ask the author-

Eighth-grade student, struggling with book review

Mister Trager is not a good man at all. He does not like his father, does evil drugs and make bad movies.

Film geek

Both the best and most disappointing elements of Boy Wonder come from James Robert Baker’s handling of Hollywood excess through Shark Trager’s films. One of them, WHITE HEAT, takes the concept of the “killing couple” to its logical extreme, foreshadowing films such as NATURAL BORN KILLERS. The production of another, Red Surf, ends up with one of the most outrageously spectacular scene of a novel that already contains several moments of pure insane delight. It perfectly exemplifies the bigger-explosions-are-better mentality that pervades the atmosphere of certain blockbusters like, oh, ARMAGEDDON. BLUE LIGHT is the culmination of all those nonsense feel-good epics than mix half realism with half new-age pseudo-mysticism and end up attracting crowds for nothing more but simplistic philosophy and great production values. FORREST GUMP, anyone? Is it an accident if all of these movies came after Boy Wonder was written, or another depressing reminder that the real Hollywood often imitates fiction?

Long-winded reviewer

Beyond the simple satire, however, one could go crazy trying to plot the complex character interrelationships gradually interweaved during the narrative. Fittingly enough for a pseudo-biography, Baker has succeeded in creating a full fictional life, as unlikely as this life is.

Teenage guy

Hot damn! Fast cars, hot sex, hard drugs, big explosions, tons of deaths and one screwed-up hero! I didn’t read about any Nazis in there, but that’s pretty much the only thing missing. Wouldn’t it be sweet if there was one?

Ecstatic Bible-thumper

This reprehensible book has been sent from the flaming pits of hell itself! It has to be the raunchiest, most offensive novel in the past ten years! I will not subject you, dear readers, to the ignominy of a description of the perversions contained between these covers, but only take my word for it and avoid! Boy Wonder isn’t only disgraceful in itself, but it is an affront to society, family values and God itself.

Long-winded critic

Obviously, this very outrageousness is the core of one’s enjoyment of Boy Wonder. Part of the pleasure is reading the completely demented scenes of Shark Trager’s life and taking delight in how fantastically over-the-top this all is.

Film geek

Unfortunately, outrageousness takes its toll, and I started wondering why there wasn’t even more good stuff in the book. By the climax -which obviously takes place at the Oscars-, even public nudity, homosexual sex, heavy drug usage, constant bickering and a sudden death seem all a bit under-whelming. But that’s a minor quibble, much as at the end, I would have liked to seen even more films made by Trager. It would have been nice, also, to depart even more from the sort of alternate Hollywood created by Baker to accommodate Shark Trager.

Teen guy

More, more, more!

Long-winded critic

Ultimately, Baker has realized a tour-de-force, given as he can sustain, at the same time, his concept, his protagonist, his gallery of characters, his satire and his sweep of thirty years of history while presenting everything in a crystal-clear prose.

Teen guy

You know, I don’t like reading, but that book, I just couldn’t stop.

Long-winded critic

And so we come to the type of recommendation that every critic loves to make: A revelation. Boy Wonder isn’t a very popular book, nor is James Robert Baker a best-selling author. But Boy Wonder is worth tracking down in libraries, in used bookstores and in flea markets; it’s that good. Few novels approach its satiric edge or its extreme outrageousness. It is a memorable book and a great read. Do not miss it.

[September 2000: Good news, very bad news: While an official site exists at http://jamesrobertbaker.com/ (along with a present-day update on Kathy Pedro), it states that Robert James Baker unfortunately committed suicide in 1997. Grab Boy Wonder while you can.]

Space Cowboys (2000)

(In theaters, August 2000) Two very different films in one. The first 90 minutes are a one-note comedy about old guys going into space. How droll. How implausible. Then, in the last thirty minutes the protagonists finally make it into space and the film switches gears to full-blown humourless technothriller with a pure-SF ending shot. Both movie are good; it’s the transition between the two that may annoy a few viewers. Otherwise, the film is quite enjoyable, with great performances by four veteran actors (Eastwood, Gardner, Sutherland and Lee Jones, though Tommy positively looks like a young man compared to the other three). The romance feels hammered into place, and doesn’t bring all that much to the film. Otherwise, the film is directed with a quiet self-assurance that is a welcome change of pace from the last few space techno-epics. Point for further discussion: The rise of the action films for the elderly?

Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)

(On TV, August 2000) Breezy, fun, unpretentious comedy about two adorable bubbleheads (the lovely Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) blustering through their high-school reunion. Janeanne Garofalo, as usual, steals the show. Many clichés of this type of film are addressed. Great eighties soundtrack. The conclusion is amusing by its adherence to expectations. Maybe not as clever as expected, but still a rather good time.

Road Trip (2000)

(In theaters, August 2000) One wouldn’t expect a teen sex comedy to stimulate much intellectual discourse, but it’s hard to go through Road Trip without noticing that if it is emblematic of today’s culture, then there has been some progress. Notice how many plot mechanics are driven by confident females. See the -unsubtle, but hey- black fraternity sequence as a message of racial harmony. Ignore the oft-gross humor -seems to be the current rage after all- and see how it’s, at the core, a relatively decent comedy with a few good laughs. At least Tom Green isn’t as annoying as predicted. And that’ll be Road Trip‘s epitaph; better than expected. Just don’t overanalyse it.

Repo Man (1984)

(On VHS, August 2000) If I had to pick and choose films ready for a remake, I wouldn’t go for bad films that inexplicably became popular (Planet Of The Apes) nor classic films that really don’t need to be redone (Psycho). I’d select films that had a lot of potential, but for some reason failed to completely exploit this potential. Repo Man is pretty much the prototypical example of this: A good script that already contains classic lines (“The life of a Repo Man is Always intense!”) but could be polished, roles that are good showcases for actors (in this case, a very young Emilio Estevez), special effects used carefully but that don’t really survive today’s practiced eyes and an overall sense of fun that would really be appropriate to try to re-create. Until then, however, you can always go back and rent this version, which is definitely bizarre but always a blast.

The Replacements (2000)

(In theaters, August 2000) A surprise: As an underdog sports comedy, it offers nearly nothing we haven’t seen before, from the oh-so-wacky characters to the last-game photofinish ending. The film grinds to a halt as soon as it tries to build some romance between (cliché alert!) the quarterback and the head cheerleader, but fortunately, the rest is so enjoyable that it doesn’t really matter. The heart of the film is in the gonzo football stunts, which are very enjoyable even to a neophyte of the sport. All is wrapped in a competently-edited (take note, Hollywood sports directors!) package, and if it’s not as good a film as its contemporary Any Given Sunday, it’s certainly far more accessible. Despite everything, it works, and the result is pretty good.

The Martian Race, Gregory Benford

Warner Aspect, 1999, 340 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-52633-9

The nineties have been an excellent decade as far as Mars and Science-Fiction have been concerned. SF writers returned to the Red Planet en masse, virtually re-inventing our SFictional view of the planet in light of NASA’s latest discoveries about it.

The crowning Mars work of the decade, of course, goes to Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterful Mars trilogy, which set the tone for a series of scientifically accurate novels perhaps more concerned with writing future history than overblown SF. A refreshing chance after Burroughs’ fantasy Mars.

Interestingly enough, even though there was a first Mars boom in the early nineties, (Bova’s Mars, Williamson’s Beachhead, Anderson’s Climbing Olympus, etc…) the Pathfinder expedition of 1997 (as well as the flap about Martian “fossils” in 1996) rekindled interest in the fourth rock from the sun. As Hollywood re-discovered Mars on its own (with MISSION TO MARS, RED PLANET, at least one TV movie and persistent rumors of a James Cameron film project), written SF went back to Mars another time: Bova’s Return to Mars, Baxter’s Voyage, Hartman’s Mars Underground, Robinson’s The Martians all went back, sometime literally, to the red planet for one more adventure.

Now Gregory Benford packs up his rockets and also blasts off to Mars, in an adventure that suffers from a few problem but manages to provide a satisfying read.

The setup innovates somewhat: Instead of the government directly financing a martian expedition, a series of mishaps convince the government to do business differently: They offer a prize of thirty billion dollars to whoever can get to Mars, perform some exploration and return safely. The novel opens as one expedition financed by a billionaire comes to a close. Of course, disaster strikes, a second expedition pops up, a pair of significant discoveries is made and money threatens to run out.

The novel begins with a chronologically fractured narrative, which isn’t as successful as a straight timeline would have been. (An approach more similar to Robert J. Sawyer’s usual middle-of-novel-scene-as-prologue might have been more successful than the attempt to pass of the flashback exposition interleaved in the main story.) But as the context is straightened out and the stakes rise, the novel gets steadily more interesting.

Of course, it helps that Benford has learned how to write clearly. His first novels (even the much-lauded Timescape) were embarrassments of pretentious prose masquerading as depth. Though he always had the capacity to do it (His mainstream thriller, Artifact, dates from 1985) it is only in the last few books (Cosm, most notably) that he’s shown a willingness to stick with an uncluttered, transparent, elegant prose.

The Martian Race is ultimately a pretty good -though not exceptional- novel of hard-SF. Though the idea-density is low for experienced readers of the genre, they are well-developed and the novel can survive quite easily on its increasingly engrossing narrative. Before long, the title begins to acquire a double meaning that is eventually proven right. Not much suspense, but it doesn’t really matter.

Though I doubt that Benford’s predictions will be realized -all his wishful anti-government thinking aside-, The Martian Race is another brick in the pro-Mars SF wall. It holds up well to Kim Stanley Robinson’s standard-setting trilogy and represents a good choice for almost any SF enthusiast. Now, if only Mars movies could be as good as Mars books…

Raising Arizona (1987)

(In theaters, August 2000) There are no easy ways to describe this film. Hilarious in an oddball kind of way, this is a film that goes places you really wouldn’t expect and does so in style. Sharing an unexpected kinship with such unlikely counterparts as The Evil Dead, Raising Arizona defies expectations and produces an ultimately endearing result. Nicolas Cage is superb, the Coen Brothers’ direction is maniacal, the script is filled with great moments and the cinematography is occasionally breathtaking. Don’t miss this one.

Phantoms (1998)

(On VHS, August 2000) This films fails on its own merit. But as if to illustrate who bad, and how cheap it is, consider this: I always watch TV with the captioning turned on. In Phantoms, it quickly became obvious that the poor captioner was working from the film itself, not the screenplay; whenever things got confused, the captioning included notes such as [inaudible]. Cheap, much like the rest of the film, which relies at first on big music (faithfully captioned as [music] regardless of importance) and then on increasing mumbo-jumbo backed by the National Enquirer to deliver what is after all the hype a completely standard monster movie. Not much fun, its only saving grace being that Joanna Guest is easy on the eyes.

The Opposite Of Sex (1998)

(On VHS, August 2000) An unconventional tone is set early on as the film begins with a sassy, irreverent first-person narration. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as being too sarcastic, and The Opposite Of Sex, in whole, is a lot like that when it tries to hard to be twisted, mean, hip and darkly funny at the same time. Granted, some of the jokes are quite funny (there’s a great fake-death gag near the end), and Lisa Kudrow is simply adorable as the brainy spinster, but overall the film is simply too gratuitously self-aware to be enjoyable.

Office Killer (1997)

(On VHS, August 2000) This thriller shows some promise at first, with its visually interesting credits sequence and a growing sense of impending doom. Unfortunately, the murders stop making sense by the third one (the first two are respectively accidental and self-preservation, but the girl scouts were no threat. It gets sillier after that. There’s even one “surprise” victim whose body just turns up at the end without even a mention of the murder.) and the concept of the mousy copygirl being a serial killer doesn’t have much charm after a few minutes. With no sense of enjoyment, the low-budget production values and the claustrophobic directing (far too many character shots are framed “inside” other objects) really start to grate. After that, things degenerate quickly (it is a fairly short film) in this type of “evil goes unpunished” film that really gets tiresome once you’ve celebrated your fifteenth birthday and seen dozens of these films. There’s usually an excellent reason why these films go straight to video; they’re just not very good!