Monthly Archives: June 2001

The Alienist, Caleb Carr

Bantam, 1994, 599 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57299-7

These days, it seems that everyone loves a good serial killer thriller. A criminal type ideally suited to the needs of fiction (ie; “he has killed before… and will kill again until our heroes stop him!”), the rise in dramatic popularity of the serial killer can also find its roots in the rise of real-world cases of such criminals. While it would be foolish to maintain that the serial killer is a wholly modern creation, it does seems as if the late twentieth-century has been a breeding ground for them. You can most probably name half a dozen off the top of your head without breaking a sweat.

You could blame many factors for this recrudescence (I’m arguing for easier transportation, media coverage, broken families and MTV myself) but the problem has become so relatively commonplace that modern police science now features a special area of expertise called “profiling”. You can read John Douglas’s Journey into Darkness for details, but profiling codifies all that’s been learned from past experience with criminal behavior and tries to fit this knowledge with known details from repeat offenders in the hope to learn about the criminal and predict his actions.

Profiling as an accurate tool only took off in the 1970s, but criminals have been with us far longer. It only takes a little imagination to wonder when was the earliest time we could have conceived of profiling and applied it to a serial murderer. That’s essentially what Caleb Carr does in The Alienist, taking us to 1896 New York City.

Our narrator is John Moore, a journalist dragged more or less willingly in the hunt for a child murderer. The main character, however, is someone else; Laszlo Kreizler, a gifted alienist (psychologist) who, well in advance of his time, is making headway on the science of profiling.

The book is quick to hook us by an efficient introduction to the crimes and the team of investigators that will track down the perpetrator. (Including the requisite proto-feminist tough-girl character just so to acknowledge political correctness) New York City is a fascinating place, today or a hundred years ago, and Carr’s skill at representing the pre-skyscraper city without pedantry is one of his most laudable accomplishments.

This is not a novel that will put you to sleep. Despite the historical setting, Carr is deliciously modern in his pacing, and compelling scenes flash by at a fast clip. One annoyance, though; Carr loves cliffhanger chapter endings, so don’t plan on reading “just another chapter”, because the changes are that you’ll just keep going. Which, depending on whether you have to wake up early the following morning, might not be a bad thing.

I had the chance to curse my lack of knowledge of historical America once more while reading The Alienist, because even though the book is perfectly understandable without a history degree, there are a fair number of celebrity cameos (J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, etc…) that hint at a superior level of enjoyment for gaslight period buffs.

But don’t worry; the only requirement to relish The Alienist is a love of good thrillers. Avid readers of crime fiction will get an extra kick of reading about the protagonists’ effort at developing proto-profiling decades before the actual event. There is an undeniable intellectual appeal to witness the investigators pieces together clues and obscure reference to eventually come at a correct answer, even if the “poor abused killer” shtick isn’t new, even a hundred years ago. It’s also a bit of a letdown when the resolution is enacted in a violent Hollywoodish manner, but that, of course, is hardly the point of the book.

It’s hard to oversell Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Not only does it succeed on a conceptual level, giving us an original premise and an ambitious scope, but it also gets the more mundane elements correctly; the scenes, characters and the writing keeps our interest. Perhaps more successful as the sum of its parts than a die-hard crime thriller or social history, but still: Grrreat book; don’t miss it.

Plum Island, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1997, 574 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60540-9

Hey, guess what, constant reader? It’s summer. Uncovered sun, oppressive humidity, TV reruns… Like most winter-hardened Canadians, I suddenly feel the need to stop all activities, sit in the shade and work really hard at doing absolutely nothing. As there is a definite limit to the number of hours you can cat-nap -believe it or not- it’s always a good idea to keep a good seat-of-your-pants thriller to fill in the rest of the day.

Chances are that you won’t be able to find much better than Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island in the summer-reading category. A big fat thriller mixing tension with smart-ass narration, this is one book that will keep you interested through it all without necessarily requiring excessive amounts of concentration. Just perfect for your summer-addled mind.

Plum Island isn’t as much about a story as it’s about a character, our wisecracking narrator John Corey. Appropriately enough for a summer read, our novel begins with its hero in semi-vacation, actually on disability leave after a serious three-bullet incident in New York City. Temporarily relocated on the eastern edge of Long Island, Corey is, in theory, free to read as many fat thrillers as he’d want to.

That is, if two people he knew didn’t have the misfortune to get killed in what initially seems to be a messy robbery. It’s not, of course, and as Corey digs deeper in the case, he discovers small-town scandals and suddenly has a lot to learn about pirate treasures and biological warfare. Limping and annoying his way to a solution, Corey even gets to sleep with two women and shoot a few people. All very satisfying. Or sign that you went from drowsy from dreaming in your lawn chair.

At 550+ pages, Plum Island might have felt considerably longer if it wasn’t for Demille’s narration. John Corey is true-blue NYPD cop, with an extra dash of wittiness. His eye for detail and odd observation really help at giving life to the novel, and that’s not even mentioning the dialogue. Expect to laugh out loud a few times: Fortunately for us, Corey doesn’t like everyone he meets, and it’s invariably more fun to see the fireworks between our fearless protagonist and his least favorite characters.

The thriller mechanics are as efficient as they can be from a writer with nearly a dozen other thrillers to his name. The slow accumulation of clues is steady, and even the red herring scenes are efficient, such as the memorable visit to a biological research center. A professional product from beginning to end.

Still, there are lengths. They get worse as the sneering humor evaporates, more characters die and suddenly, we’re in straight no-joke thriller with man-against-man, man-against-nature and man-against-himself life-and-death conflicts. The last hundred pages stretch beyond reasonable length and even the most indulgent summer readers might feel a few faint touches of exasperation.

But hey, guess what? Doesn’t matter. As you lie down, sweltering in thirty-degree heat, you’ll feel grateful for yet more time spent with John Corey in the cold, humid, windy shores of Long Island. There’s plenty in Plum Island to keep even the most demanding summer reader interested. Forget your bookmark and pick up your sun-tan lotion, because you’re going to be reading for a while.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

(In theaters, June 2001) Well, we action fans pay and shut up. And what we get in Tomb Raider is enough to satisfy our appetites, but not quite enough to send anyone in giddy action-nirvana. Oh, Angelina Jolie makes one of the best action heroines in recent memory, mixing sexiness with hard determination, but the film around her is too small for her greatness. Most of the blame goes to the scriptwriter (as usual), for a limp narrative which stores its best sequences for the middle of the film, and never ever allows us to be interested in anyone except Lara—which becomes a problem when she’s supposed to make sacrifices to save one of the cardboard characters. Unfortunately, the scriptwriter isn’t the only bad guy, here; director Simon West (who, surprise, also co-wrote the film) is on his worst behavior here, seldom allowing us to be impressed by a long shot truly showing off Croft’s skills. Oh, it’s always somewhat interesting, if only on the oh-shiny-objects level, but when considering the possibilities and the richness of the premise, well, it’s a shame to end up with a film as indifferent as this one.

(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2003) Some aspects of this film still hold up under scrutiny (many action sequences, some of the sets, a few wonderful shots of Angelina Jolie), but it’s hard to avoid a certain ennui regarding the unimaginative ways some core concepts have been developed. Director Simon West shows he can get some great action images, but fails to make them stick together in any kind of coherent flow. The special effects are pretty nice, but they service a story that couldn’t have been more ordinary if it had tried to. Character interactions are limited to sketches, making (among other problems) a late sacrifice seem pointless. Oh, Angelina Jolie makes a superb Lara Croft (I could replay her shower scene and her little “tilting head” moment for hours), but even her best butt-kicking abilities can’t save this film from a certain boredom. A film whose parts are superior to its whole, Tomb Raider shows, maybe better than most movies, the perils in hiring a director who can’t hold everything together. The DVD offers a lot of interesting documentary material, but repeats everything at least twice, lessening the impact. U2’s “Elevation” music video is surprisingly entertaining.

Swordfish (2001)

(In theaters, June 2001) This hits the spot for anyone just looking for a mildly ambitious action film. Starts with a literal bang -a slow-motion explosion shot that will make you cheer in sadistic delight- that’s never fully equaled afterward. The rest of the film is far more ordinary, though there is a fun set-piece by the end featuring an airborne bus. Hugh Jackman and John Travolta do their best with the material they’re given, but it’s Halle Berry’s wonderful topless scene which makes us forget how underwritten her character is. Mix the deficient pacing of Gone In Sixty Seconds and the technological inaccuracy of Hackers and you end up with a pretty good idea of Swordfish‘s tone, down to the criminal underuse of Vinnie Jones by director Dominic Sena. The script is slightly better than most similar thrillers, with a few dangerous hints of intriguing potential. (There are significant flaws, though, including an expected but unexplainable “resurrection” and some annoying mysogynism.) The directing has its moments, but the gratuitously pretentious first scene is typical of Sena’s lack of confidence in his material. Note the R-rating, which gives to the film a slightly harder edge that’s not unpleasant at all. I liked it, but then again I’m a sucker for techno-thrillers, big explosions and topless scenes. Your mileage may vary.

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) I’m a sucker for techno-thrillers, naked women and action set-pieces, so frankly it’s no surprise if Swordfish holds up well a second time given that it contains all of these three elements. The script will never get confused with a masterpiece, the pacing lags a lot in the middle portion and there are enough nagging logical annoyances to prevent unconditional admiration, but Swordfish delivers the goods and features at least three memorable action scenes. Its premise isn’t completely silly, tired or boring. Hugh Jackman and John Travolta successfully compete in the charisma department. Not enough good things can be said about Halley Berry’s assets. But when you try to cut away all the rationalization, Swordfish is simply a fun film. The DVD isn’t particularly spectacular, but it manages to show that the producers knew what they were doing. Interesting making-of material, an extended discussion of how the ending was re-shaped and an adequately interesting director’s commentary complete the package. Not bad!

Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA, Peter Robinson

Warner, 1994, 286 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-51786-0

I must confess that I have often thought about writing a book about my first (and so far only) university degree. Mostly while undergoing said degree, usually whenever I was stuck in my room studying for yet another mind-crushing exam. By the end of the program, I even had a dramatic arc of sort with an happy ending; the story of a young man bouncing back from a humiliating first year, going from academic probation to a cum laude B.Sc. The idea shelved itself a few months after graduation, as I was struggling with the wonderful work of steady employment; I suspected that my story wasn’t at all very compelling. Tales of love triangles, demonic teachers, transient friendships, Jolt-fuelled all-nighters, razor-thin academic close calls, cryogenic winter mornings and the discovery of the Internet must be nearly universal amongst Computer Science students; what else could I bring to the common mind pool? By showing me what a truly gifted writer could do with such things, Peter Robinson’s Snapshots from Hell took me back -screaming and shouting- to my university days of not-so-long ago and made me think again about my own experience there.

Few other academic acronyms mean more than MBA. In theory, these three letters are associated with analytical skills, business acumen and financial success. Get an MBA, says common wisdom, and you can start your business, become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and conquer the world. But the actually process of getting an MBA isn’t quite as well known. Granted, we assume it must include some studying and some class time, but what else, exactly?

Peter Robinson was the right person at the right time to take us inside an MBA program. Having quit his job as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Robinson moved across the country to Stanford and began his business training. Unlike many of his classmates, Robinson was more familiar with words than numbers; as a “poet”, he’d have to mold his mind to the mathematical exactitude required of him after years of Washington double-answers.

But that also put him in an ideal position to report on what he saw. Given his gift for clear writing, this is invaluable to us readers; Robinson can be wickedly funny, observant or analytical, and we can not only follow, but also understand his experience.

Snapshots from Hell mostly covers Robinson’s first year at Stanford. Given my personal experience, I can agree with this choice; first year is tough on anyone and anyone not destroyed by the experience can only come out of it stronger. Robinson suffered -and his narrative describes his pain-, but he eventually won out. By the second year, he was used to it. Still, it’s a small stroke of genius to name the three sections of the book “Inferno,” “Pugatorio” and “Paradiso (sort of)”

The writing style is simply wonderful, compulsively readable like a novel and yet filled with details that clearly bring out the lessons to learn from Robinson’s odyssey. Tales of friends dealing with the program are as illuminating as Robinson’s own efforts, allowing a glimpse of the program’s effect on various type of students.

It’s hard to tell when Robinson’s skill ended and my own personal empathy kicked in, but in any case, I loved Snapshots from Hell. It accomplishes what it sets out to do -tell the world about the perils on an MBA degree- in such a wonderful way that it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about it. It definitely ranks as a must-read for anyone -like me, yes- who’s toying with the idea of getting an MBA some time in the future. Better warned than surprised, right?

State And Main (2000)

(In theaters, June 2001) Hollywood loves to make movies about itself, writers love to write about themselves and actors like to act about themselves. So it’s no surprise to see State And Main come together as a none-too-biting comedy about “Hollywood people” descending upon a small town and wreaking havoc on the community. Of course, the writer gets the best role, and politicians get the big wooden paddle. Good performances by everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to the incomparable William H. Macy. Hey, even Rebecca Pidgeon isn’t nearly so annoying. A comedic lull in the fourth fifth, as the inevitable dramatic conflict is raised and solved. A few chuckles, and a big laugh at the end. Didn’t bowl me over, but passed the time in a pleasant fashion.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

(In theaters, June 2001) When all will be said and done, the best two things about this Bruckheimer/Bay production will be A> The stunning centerpiece of the film, a 45-minutes-long re-creation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and B> a renewed appreciation for the masterpiece that was Titanic. The main problem of Pearl Harbor is its structure; while we could have lived with the trite dialogue, it’s hard to remember fondly a film that makes you wait an hour for the big action scene, and afterward goes on for another hour. You begin at Pearl Harbor and you end at Midway; or you resolve all the stories during the attack, but you! do! not! do it like that. It doesn’t help that the leads are blander than bland (though Kate Beckinsale is cute, and her fellow nurses even cuter), the dialogue is atrocious (they could hear me roll my eyes across the theater) and that Michael Bay’s usually dynamic style here comes across as unbearably pretentious. (I laughed aloud at a revolving door shot that went on… and on… and on…) The result is a mish-mash of a film, a 45-minutes Home Theater showpiece mixed with an emotion-free romance that drags on for a full two hours. It’s just that once you’ve seen the explosions, you just won’t care about anything else. At least Titanic, for all its faults, felt like a genuine story that didn’t waste your time. Here, at least half the film is filler, including most of the celebrity cameos that could have been cut without a moment’s notice. (C’mon; did we really need the Voigt, Gooding or Aykroyd characters? No!) It’s hard to say if the film fails because it’s too ambitious or because morons wrote it. In any case, it’s a half-success at best.

The Out-Of-Towners (1999)

(On VHS, June 2001) Midwest yokels come to New York City and are quickly out of their depth! How funnier can it be? A lot funnier, easily. Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin reprise their usual screen personae, adding nothing and screaming a lot with scarcely any indication of how good they can be in other types of roles. John Cleese is a hoot as usual. The various plot points are pretty much predictable in advance, and aren’t all that skilfully executed either. For a film about New York, there isn’t a whole lot of scenery. There have been worse films, there have been better films, so there isn’t any cause for concern if ever you pass by The Out-Of-Towners and don’t pick it up.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

(In theaters, June 2001) The problem with pictures made by the Coen Brothers is that you can’t comment them fairly after seeing them only once. Their latest, a series of adventures set in depression-era Deep South, is both exceptional and average, interesting and boring, witty and muddled. George Clooney exhibits considerable charm as always, playing a fast-talking shady character sympathetic enough to hold the film together. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film unlike anything you’ve seen before, with music you haven’t heard before and sight you’re unlikely to see again. The mixture of folk music, southern accents and gold-tinted visuals is far, far away from the current Hollywood aesthetics. As far as the story goes, however, some are bound to be disappointed; the film wanders a lot, like the three protagonists, and viewers are likely to remember individual sequences, not a common plot. As a comedy, it’s decidedly low-octane; a steady smile, a few giggles but few outright laughs. Parallels with Homer’s The Odyssey might be overstated, unless you want to impress your date.

Nuit De Noces [Wedding Night] (2001)

(In French, In theaters, June 2001) Interesting but not overwhelming French-Canadian film dealing with pre-marriage jitters in a young couple due to wed in Niagara Falls. Not exceptional, but reasonably good as a romantic comedy—though its typical French-Canadianisms might not travel very well. The lead actors are wonderful, and there are a few interesting script/directing meta-fictional tricks that add to the fun.

Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, Mark Leyner

Harmony, 1995, 216 pages, C$26.50 tpb, ISBN 0-517-59384-X

When reading anything by Mark Leyner, the tagline from the HIGHLANDER film series come to mind: There can only be one. You might try to find similar authors, but even a carefully-blended mix of Thompson, Adams and Stephenson won’t even come close to the pure undiluted Leyner. His mixture of wide-ranging knowledge, go-for-broke recklessness and carefully-honed absurdity easily places him in a special position in modern humor writing.

Though as of this writing I haven’t yet been able to manage acquiring a copy of Leyner’s breakthrough book My Cousin, my Gastroenterologist, I was first hooked on his follow-up novel, Et Tu, Babe? a hilarious portrait of the writer-as-megalomaniac. Reading this book after so many intensely boring genre novels was like discovering MTV after a decade of Masterpiece Theater. Mainlining with pure caffeine. Adding nitrous oxyde to your morning commute.

Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog is Leyner’s third book (well, fourth if you include I Smell Esther Williams, about which later.) and while it is in a few ways a let-down after Et Tu, Babe, there’s nothing wrong with an extra dose of pure Leyner.

Part of the letdown is inevitable, going from the unified (if disjoint) narrative of Et Tu, Babe? to the straight-ahead collection of plays, short stories and gonzo journalism in this follow-up. It’s not that Leyner is best at novels (his longer pieces are really excuses to go from one hilarious vignette to another), but shorter pieces can’t depend on sustained jokes and long build-ups. Blah, whatever; there are still more jokes per square page here than anywhere else.

The second issue here is that Leyner seemed to have grown up a little. Either that or I’ve become used to his style. Nah. If you take a look at Leyner’s first book, a 1983 collection of pieces entitled I Smell Esther Williams, you’ll find an unrecognizable -and nearly unreadable- Leyner. While each sentence has a kernel of comic effect, they don’t seem to relate to each other in any fashion, and the result is a hyperspeed mish-mash of quasi-epigrams that’s just impossible to read in any fashion. Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog serves to show how much Leyner’s been working on his craft. There are very few incoherent passages (and those who are pass quickly) and Leyner shows that he’s more than able to sustain our interest for longer pieces (the play “Young Bergdorf Goodman Brown” is 80 pages long, and fun from start to finish)

One amusing note; there appears to be some nonfiction content in Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, if I believe a few interview made by Leyner after the publication of the book. The problem is that they’re not identified, and probably unidentifiable. What I took to be one of the zaniest pieces in the book (“The Good Seed”, about -no kidding- a sperm bank located in the Empire State Building) is in fact a nonfiction piece with some high-octane extrapolation thrown in. Good luck trying to find the rest of the nonfiction, if there’s any more.

If I’ve succeeded in scaring some of you away from Leyner’s stuff, good; Not everyone can handle his books. It’s not enough to acknowledge that Leyner has no compunction about writing with his fantasy date with Princess Di, insert hard-core pornography in his pieces, recommend bringing your kids to practice extreme sports such as drag racing or committing crimes in order to become more attractive to the opposite sex. You’ve got to embrace his weirdness and make it your own. If the idea of loving, exemplary parents driving their kids to murder somehow strikes you as interesting in any way… well, welcome to the club. You’ll love the required reading material.

New York Stories (1989)

(On VHS, June 2001) For commercial reasons, the short-film category never makes it in theaters, but when you can depend on Scorsese, Allen and Copolla to deliver a short film each, well, suddenly a theater short-film anthology doesn’t feel so weird after all. It’s a fair assessment to say that there’s probably a story for you in the three, whatever your tastes are. The first film, Scorsese “Love’s Lessons”, is undoubtedly the most artistic, the most ambitious and also the longest. It’s the type of film that suggests a deeper meaning, whether there’s one or not. After that, we’re off to Copolla’s “Life without Sophie”, a charming tale that somehow seemed to constantly refer to another story. Not a whole lot of substance, but certainly the most romantic tale of the three. We end with what will either be your favorite or your worst short film, Woody Allen’s “Oedipal Wreck”, which takes the concept of the all-seeing mom to its logical extreme. You’ll howl or you’ll grit your teeth.

Mean Streets (1973)

(On VHS, June 2001) Can’t remember a lot of things about this film even scant days after seeing it. I recall a gallery of younger well-known actors, including Robert de Niro. I certainly do recall a nude scene. I have jumbled memories of various violent acts. There are a few murders. There’s also a conclusion that takes the easiest way out, killing all characters after a preposterous coincidence that smacks more of screenwriter laziness than organic resolution (how else to explain a car finding another among all other car leaving New York at that moment?) Oh well. Scorsese-watchers will probably recognize elements from about half of all his later films in this one. Enjoy the references, people, because there isn’t much else. Practice makes perfect, and fortunately, this whiz-kid would go on to a few other better things…

Josie And The Pussycats (2001)

(In theaters, June 2001) At its worst, this film features a bland romance, trite situations and a cliché music-group-film structure that will leave you indifferent. At its best, however, we get roughly the equivalent of a live-action Simpsons episode, with clever sight gags, off-the-wall plot developments, meta-fictional jokes and a subversive anti-commercialistic message that will make you blink twice in audacity. Unfortunately, not everything gels together: While the film preaches a rejection of labels and trends, it pushes so many brand names -in an unabashed in-your-face fashion- that the joke sours to the point where we’re never too sure if they mean it or not. There is a place for fake (even parodic) brands, and this film was it. Fortunately, I’m such an easily-swayed guy that the three lead actresses’ babe quotient was enough to make me rush out buy the soundtrack.

Joe Dirt (2001)

(In theaters, June 2001) Ay. Hard to know where to begin with this one. Was it the fact that David Spade’s brand of sarcasm was nowhere to be found? Or maybe the lack of funny material? The inane plot development that wouldn’t impress a twelve-year-old? The preachy sugary ending tagged on as an afterthought? The moronic romance? The anecdotal structure that’s a sorry excuse for plot development? The flat performance by Dennis Miller? The awful bad-guy character played by Kid Rock? The fact that I didn’t really laugh once? No! No! I know! It’s the total waste of Christopher Walken, and the false promise of his scenes, which momentarily lift this film in not-so-bad territory, only to kill us later as the rest of the film sinks to ever-lower levels of rot! There we go!