Cheong Wong [Double Tap] (2000)

(On TV, April 2001) Weak action film that doesn’t spark any interest despite a solid helping of gun fetishism. It doesn’t help that protagonist and antagonist pretty much look the same. The shootouts have moments or interest, but the rest simply lies inert. Many blood squibs. At least the film proves that not all Hong Kong bullet ballets are spectacular.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

(In theaters, April 2001) I’m all wrong for this type of film, but that shouldn’t stop me from stating that it’s quite enjoyable. No, I don’t have a lot in common with Bridget Jones, a thirtyish Londoner obsessed by her alcohol consumption, smoking, weight and impending spinsterhood, but some of my colleagues do and the film plays those strings like a virtuoso. In any case, the film is executed with all the grace, good-natured charm and technical polish so typical of British-set romantic comedies produced by Americans. Better-than-average script, sympathetic characters, funny set-pieces and a happy ending ensure that no one should feel cheated. You might not want to see it, but if you catch the first five minutes, you’ll be hooked until the end. There are problems, certainly; Renee Zellweger is incapable of looking anything worse than adorable, making her portrait of a plain girl a bit unbelievable. She does turn in one of her best performances yet, along with a solid Colin Firth and the ever-dependable Hugh Grant (who successfully manages to portray a real bastard without really deviating from his usual aw-shucks shtick.) The script is filled with a mind-boggling array of coincidences, unfortunately cheapening the narrative (At its worst, a trip to the convenience store ends up with something akin to “Oh, so you are the barrister of this incredibly important guy whom I’m trying to interview!”) A few unfortunate shortcuts also undermine the ending, which stretches believability a bit too thinly to provide a fully satisfying ending. Still, as far as romantic comedies so, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a fine one. Cheer up whenever your significant other suggests it.

Infinity Beach, Jack McDevitt

Avon EOS, 2000, 510 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-102005-2

This is not a simple book to review. The easiest commentaries are raves or trashings, because it’s so much fun to be unequivocally of one opinion that you can just keep on writing until you’ve reached your self-imposed word count. On the other hand, books with both good and bad points require a more careful approach, which often results in a more incisive and satisfying review.

There is another category of book, however, that’s nearly impossible to review, and it’s the type of book that arouses no interest whatsoever. Forgotten a week after reading, barely remembered when it’s time to make up best-of lists, or even representative bibliographies, these books basically have no existence outside their own covers.

And Jack McDevitt’s Infinity Beach comes perilously close to being a forgettable book. Much like the author’s body work to date, it contains a few good ideas and a weak execution exacerbated by unneeded padding. Sure, McDevitt’s done some exciting work (The Engines of God), but he’s also responsible for a few stinkers (Eternity’s Road) and many more indifferent novels (A Talent for War, Ancient Shores). His premises are rarely matched by his development, and his characters are, more often that not, strictly perfunctory. But he keeps turning out novels, and given his average level of quality, he’ll stay in the business for a few more years.

But it’s not novels like Infinity Beach that will help him gain new die-hard fans. In theory, it’s supposed to be a story of “second contact”, in which a murder mystery is solved by a victim’s clone-sister who, in doing so, incidentally comes to reveal the truth about a so-called “failed” contact mission.

As mentioned previously, this actually sounds like a decent premise. McDevitt’s usual fascination for future historicals (in which his protagonists uncover historical secrets still quite in our own future) is exhibited once again. The dynamics between victim-sister/clone-investigator were promising.

But the novel starts, after a quasi-meaningless action vignette, with a slow-as-dirt introduction of characters, universe, past events… Our clone protagonist starts investigating, slowly, and -slooowly- discovers various clues that might lead her to uncover the secret. Slowly.

And the pace only seldom improves, losing itself in meaningless side-trips, irritating subplots and a generally frigid pacing. I eventually got the feeling that McDevitt himself wasn’t too interested in what’s happening and that I shouldn’t feel too guilty if I didn’t care either.

Yet I’m not ready to call Infinity Beach a bad book. Looking retrospectively on the content of the novel, there seems to be everything there for me to enjoy. So why didn’t it “take”? Why did I found it boring rather than engrossing? Could it be a random fluke, result of subconscious rumblings somehow affecting a book that, at any other time, wouldn’t be so badly considered?

Alas, I can’t even muster the intention to re-read this book in a year or two. So I’ll compromise and instead state that I will, in any case, try McDevitt’s next. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be one of his good ones!

Note: The UK edition of the book has been re-titled Slow Lightning. No comments.

Boh lei chun [Gorgeous] (1999)

(On VHS, April 2001) I’m not familiar with pre-Police Story Jackie Chan, but in the meantime I’m quite willing to declare Gorgeous to be the worst Jackie Chan ever. (I was on the Internet within minutes registering my displeasure.) Four very average fight scenes smothered by an awful framing story that’s as inane as Chan’s other films without any of the intentional humor. Granted, Chan at least makes an effort at playing a different character, but it’s not enough to be interesting.

Blow (2001)

(In theaters, April 2001) I believe that it’s unfair to compare a film directly to another, but Blow tries so hard to be another Goodfellas that -just this time- I won’t be able to contain myself. Unfortunately, putting Blow against Scorsese’s 1990 film is a perfect illustration of the differences between an average hack job and a true masterpiece. Blow at first suffers from acute averageness, as there’s really no reason to get interested in the story of George Jung, an American kid who somehow ends up being one of the biggest drug dealers in the history of the United States. Sure, it’s fun for a while as he collects money, cars and a trophy wife, but like a sugar rush, this soon passes to let way to Jung’s downward spiral and a film that ends up hypocritically asking us to pity the poor, poor drug dealer. It’s a repulsive notion, especially when that period where Jung imported “85% of the cocaine that came into the United States” is quickly glossed over with a funny thirty second clip about storing boxes of money, without any thought to the consequences of that traffic. It gets worse, as the onscreen action becomes more and more subjective, with poor George Jung being set up by police, wife and associates in the type of narrative that blames pretty much everyone but himself. The lack of depth of Penelope Cruz’s character will remind you of “psycho ex-girlfriends” stories. Still, the film is adequate, with some entertaining scenes and a good performance by Paul Reubens, who looks a lot like he did in Mystery Men. Of course, Johnny Depp does nothing less than great work in a role that requires him to look real bad. Still, a disappointment, a customary film and a curious attempt to redeem a character that, despite everything, remains a loser. Compare and contrast to Goodfellas‘ “Paul Hill”, a winner even at the end.

Beyond The Mat (1999)

(On VHS, April 2001) I’m not a wrestling fan, but it’s not necessary to be one to be amused, disgusted, fascinated and amazed by the wild universe exhibited by Barry W. Blaustein in Beyond The Mat. Blaustein is obviously a die-hard fan, and his film shows it, treating the subject with a brutal honesty but never a mean spirit. Not a WWF/WWE puff-piece nor a naively sophisticated exposé on how wrestling is (newsflash!!) all fake, Beyond The Mat goes past all the false pretence to focus on the people behind the wrestlers. Think it’s fake? You’ll see real stitching and real pain. You’ll see the glitz of the WWF/WWE and the scum of the bottom-feeders. You’ll see a maniac in the ring and a model father out of it. You’ll see three wrestling “archenemies” chatting up a little kid. You’ll see too much of a reunion between maladjusted dad and daughter. You’ll see the various ways a wrestler can go over the hill. Most of all, you’ll see one of the most revealing documentaries of the year, a masterful tour through the grotesque and the pathetic, the awful and the stunning. Blaustein knows how to package his subject, but most of all it’s his love for his subject that gives the film its ultimate edge. Wrestling fans will love it, but average people shouldn’t pass it up. Good stuff.

American Psycho (2000)

(On VHS, April 2001) Both less entertaining and more interesting than expected, American Psycho ultimately wimps out before saying something interesting. As far as performances go, this is entirely Christian Bale’s show as he manages to credibly personify an extreme character. The axe-murder sequence remains the film’s high-point mostly because of his manic portrayal. Even though many might mistake the film as belonging to the slasher genre, it’s considerably more unnerving than your usual teen horror film, both because it’s better-written -with some social commentary- and because it is extremely violent while not seeming too exploitative. The extremely black humor of the film also works to distance it from its more routine brethren. Unfortunately, while the film had some definite potential, it squanders it by an ending that wants to have it both ways without committing. (For instance, it would have been more interesting to make the point that in this environment, even a full-blown confession might not matter.) Alas, threads are left dangling, the film defuses its own bite and the whole point of the film is lost.

Sea Change, James Powlik

Dell, 1999, 481 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23508-1

Hey, an oceanic thriller! No, it’s not JAWS. Tagline: “There’s a new terror under the sea with a mind and a hunger of its own.” No, it’s not JAWS. It opens with a few death, continues with a few more deaths, and features quite a few more deaths before the end comes by. No, it’s not JAWS. Though, like most aquatic monster thrillers, the comparisons are hard to ignore.

It’s a shame, really; Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film so definitely imprinted itself on the collective unconscious that any novel about a roughly similar situation (danger underwater!) will labor under undue expectations. But then again, it allows us critics to make easy comparisons and skimp out on actual critical content.

Which is fortunate, given that Sea Change stands up as a particularly average thriller, JAWS comparisons or not.

You know the drill; at least one person dies in the prologue, in a gruesome manner that can be delightfully interpreted as a supernatural event. Then the protagonist comes in, an oceanographer named Brock Garner. Fortunately, he’s described as being “renegade”, thereby qualifying to be the hero. (When was the last time you read a novel about a professional hero described as “a loyal follower”, “unimaginative” or “strictly average”?) The female sidekick doesn’t come in long after. Ellie Bridges is a doctor, easily embodying the motherly characteristics of any good love interest. (Oh yeah; she’s also a renegade doctor. Good match.)

But that’s not all! The antagonist is a rich (uh-huh) shallow (yah) media-hungry (familiar, yet?) pseudo-environmentalist (aren’t they all?) magnate who, oh heavens, married Brock’s ex-wife. Don’t worry; she’ll come around to our stalwart hero for some much-needed true lovin’. Plus, the clueless antagonist will eventually make an ambition-driven mistake or two that will effectively seal his fate. It all comes together in the end. Natural disaster plus military conspiracy plus human conflict here and there and pretty soon, you’re talkin’ thrillah!

Mix in the requisite evil father, capable military units, more gruesome deaths and a countdown to some major havoc, and you get the thriller that you expect. Granted, Sea Change gets better as it advances, even including a few spectacular scenes toward the ending as all means necessary are taken to stop the evil menace. (Which, predictably enough, isn’t completely stopped in the epilogue.)

There’s a certain journeyman quality to Sea Change in that it does the job, but with no extras. If you’re stuck with the book and want to care about the characters, you will, but they won’t grab you by the throat by themselves. In much the same vein, the various incidents are interesting, but not overly so; for his next novel, Powlik could use some brush-up in convincing dialogues and sustained tension. It’s a novel whose essence is hard to isolate, liquefied as it is in a sea of averageness.

Which would have been fine if it would have been snappy, but Sea Change isn’t, dragging along for far too long while carefully setting up the mechanics of its plot. At least one subplot (the insensitive father-figure with a secret to hide) could easily have been removed, along with many other sections that don’t really advance anything or give us something new. With thrillers of this sort, we know where we’re going; we don’t need to have our hands held along the way.

Fortunately, few of the above should apply if all you’re looking for is decent time-wasting entertainment. Powlik hasn’t wowed anyone with Sea Change, but at least he demonstrates his ability to write a baseline thriller. The plentiful technical details are reasonably convincing (be advised that there’s a glossary hidden at the end), the monster hasn’t been seen before and the ending delivers a reasonable amount of bang for the effort invested into it. As far as nautical thrillers go, it’s no, say, Steve Alten’s Meg, but it’ll do.