Monthly Archives: July 2002

Flavor or the Month, Olivia Goldsmith

Pocket, 1993, 880 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-79450-7

One of my favorite new words these days is “bonkbuster”, a term used to describe a novel consciously written to have wide commercial appeal and/through a lot of sex in it. As “blockbusters with a lot of bonking in them” go, I don’t think you can go wrong with Olivia Goldsmith’s Flavor of the Month. It’s pure titillating trash from a clever writer, and it makes no apologies for what it is. And, goodness, sometime it’s just so much fun to read novels like that.

Consciously eschewing literary respectability, Goldsmith focuses her novel on a trio of actresses who will eventually come together in America’s #1 television show. The narrative is told “as if” from one of the nation’s foremost scandal-peddler (think Kitty Kelly, herself referenced on the novel’s first page) in some alternate version of 1993’s America. (Naturally, all characters, executives, studios and movies are fictive and should not be meant to represent real-life equivalents, mostly because their fictional equivalents are so much more interesting.)

In short order, we’re introduced to three very different lead actresses: Sweet dumb Texas blonde Sharleen, bitchy rich L.A. brunette Lila and poor homely red-headed New Yorker Mary Jane. Of the three, it is Mary Jane who emerges as our lead protagonist and the moral center around which the rest of the novel will revolve. She is also the one who -initially, anyway- has to change herself the most in order to attain the pinnacle of fame; thanks to an unexpected influx of money, a bad break-up and some old-fashioned determination, Mary Jane undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery, learns some independence and loses a significant fraction of her body weight. When she emerges from the whole process, she’s beautiful, younger and is known by another name. Loosened in L.A. with more than thirty years’ worth of bitterness in an identity ten officially years younger, she quickly becomes the flavor of the month of the town… but will it last?

I won’t spoil it, but Goldsmith certainly appears to be an extremely moralist novelist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; after countless so-called “sophisticated” novels in which everything is painted in various shades of ethical grays, it’s refreshing to read a novel in which characters get what they so richly deserve, whatever their moral alignment. Several members of this novel’s cast go from pleasant to unpleasant and blow their last chance at redemption; Goldsmith’s justice is terrible and often none too swift.

Flavor of the Month takes on the whole celebrity/beauty industry with acceptable gusto. Don’t expect a profound statement on the superficiality of today’s entertainment culture, but do be prepared for a few insightful observations here and there. Goldmsith is a professional at her craft, and she know which levers to use in order to get a rise from her readers and when enough’s enough.

Speaking of arousing readers’ interest, there are certainly enough titillating sex scenes, scandalous behavior and lurid details to satisfy even the most sun-burnt beach reader. Above all, Flavor of the Month is a fun novel, and the speed at which anyone will be able to read this hefty tome speaks for itself. It’s delicious, hypnotic, compelling, often hilarious and wildly catty. Though the 1993 details are starting to be dated (some of the celebrity references almost require a companion guide to understand nowadays, so transient is celebrity pop culture), there’s no denying that Flavor of the Month is exactly what you want if ever you need a big thick diversion.

I don’t think I’m the target readership of Goldmisth’s oeuvre, but after The Bestseller and this, I’m more than ready to become a regular reader of hers. It’s fluff, but it’s smooth fluff with a pleasant degree of cleverness. Perfect summer reading!

[January 2004: In an absolutely mind-boggling ironic twist that wouldn’t be out of place in her novels, Olivia Goldsmith died of complications following… plastic surgery. Strange but true; the type of anecdotes in which the death of an author acts as a cornerstone for an entire career. Her first novel, after all, was The First Wives’ Club…]

Cold Fear, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2001, 476 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1266-8

(Necessary disclaimer: Please adjust review according to my known bias toward A> Authors I have met and B> Authors who live in the Ottawa area.)

In his first novel, If Angels Fall, Rick Mofina proved he could take a familiar story and tell it well enough to warrant compulsive reading. In Cold Fear, he tries something more original and succeeds despite a plot that takes a while before truly beginning.

It starts, trivially enough, with a family quarrel deep in Glacier National Park. The little girl of the family is frightened enough to run away from the camp site and gets lost. Her disappearance is signaled to authorities, park-wide searching begins and the police is called in to investigate the parent. It seems that in situations like these, it’s not impossible that the parents of the “lost” children are, in fact, responsible for their disappearances.

Already, we can see two recurring themes from Mofina’s first book; children in danger and perfectly comprehensible misunderstandings between parties involved. If Angels Fall depicted the hunt for a child kidnapper and honestly highlighted tensions between the police and the media. This time around, there the third party represented by the parents, and of course the little girl. As the omniscient reader, we’re privy to the truth, but our characters are not, and Mofina milks a lot of tension between the inevitable clashes between these naturally opposed parties.

It gets worse (or better, for us readers) when the true plot of the novel emerges in the latter half, introducing yet another party, a criminal presence whose shadow looms large on the proceedings even more than a quarter-century after an horrific event. Stuff happens in a delightfully chaotic way and very soon everyone converges toward a dramatic climax that feels quite contrived, but satisfying nonetheless.

For fans of If Angels Fall, Cold Fear does stand alone given that the two protagonists of the first book are here reduced to glorified cameos. Even then, alas, there are quite a few spoilers for the previous novel in the brief time both characters are present… so you might avoid this book anyway if you plan on reading Mofina’s first novel anytime soon. One returning protagonist at least has the glamorous role of setting in motion the media circus that comes to dominate the last third of the novel. I was particularly impressed by Chapter Fifty-Seven, which succinctly describes how an exclusive scoop can dominate a nation’s thoughtspace in a few hours. It’s a great piece of writing by an author who knows these things.

While the rest of the novel is not as spectacular, the prose is no slouch as far as interest is concerned; you can easily zip through Mofina’s book, compelled by the steadily engrossing plotting, good characters and the easy prose. This is crime fiction in its most readable state.

In short, there isn’t much to complain about Rick Mofina’s Cold Fear. The child-in-peril is a good hook to interest readers, and the rest of the novel propels itself forward with great ease. It’s a assured piece of fiction by a writer who seems more than capable of holding his own in the crowded crime fiction category. I’m not an entirely unbiased reader when in comes to Rick Mofina, but why don’t you check out one of his books at the local library?

Cascading Style Sheets: Separating Content From Presentation, Owen Briggs, Steven Champeon, Eric Costello & Matt Patterson

Glasshaus, 2002, 289 pages, C$54.99 tpb, ISBN 1-904151-04-3

Friends and family have known for a long time that I’m not a completely normal person, but even they started to worry when I started raving about how much fun it was to read a technical CSS manual. Granted, in the past few weeks I’ve become more and more prone to irrational bursts of excitement for highly technical books in the field of web design, but even I have to admit at being disturbed by realizing that I was actually curling up with a CSS handbook as “fun reading.”

The CSS handbook in question was Glasshaus’s Cascading Style Sheets: Separating Content From Presentation, a sober-looking reference book about the emerging standard of, yes, Cascading Style Sheets.

From the onset, any web reference book must justify its existence, moreso than any other type of technical book; given the web, wouldn’t it be more responsible to publish the stuff in HTML rather than kill trees for it? Don’t we already have far too much paper in our offices?

The first and foremost reason justifying paper web books is that people do expect to buy books, even as they have come to regard HTML content as something that should be free. For authors, that alone makes it worthwhile to write a book or two; the thought that some faithful web readers (such as myself, I suppose) might plunk down a few bucks to read real physical words must be very tempting. I suppose that posterity might have something to do with it too.

But beyond these considerations, one must admit that there is indeed a place for paper documentation even in the most cyber-connected of fields. It’s still not a terribly pleasant thing to read long narratives on screen, it can be a pain to switch between multiple windows on-screen and it’s simply not practical to bring a computer to read, say, on the bus. Or on the couch. Or in the bathroom.

So CSS: SCFP is optimized in function of what would best fit on paper. It provides ample contextual information to instruct us in the not-so-subtle reasons why web content should be separated from its presentation as well as the historical and technological reasons driving this innovation. As narrative, it’s a joy to read in paper format, at our leisure. The author make a reasonable case for re-thinking the way we conceive web pages, and this change of perspective alone -stemming from the proper use of CSS- will enrich and enhance any web developer’s subsequent projects.

This is followed by a series of entertaining and informative tutorials that you can either read along, or practice at your computer. This is an efficient way to train, as there is a clear difference between paper-theory and electronic-practice. The “Boxes, boxes, boxes” chapter itself might actually be worth the price of the book for all CSS-developers that are serious about doing table-less design.

The third section might also prove to be invaluable, as it gives some hard-won advice on how to deal with outdated browsers. This section might be the most immediately useful, but I think that it will also be the one that will be most quickly made obsolete. Web-things changing so quickly, it’s also the least relevant part of the book even as it hits the streets. One can even feel the size restrictions imposed by the editor as the authors refer us to web sites for more updated information.

Still, CSS: SCFP is a great book for web design professionals looking for more in-depth information. I don’t think there’s anything in here that can’t be found on-line somewhere, but the tutorials are unusually clear and grouped together in one handy package. The first contextual part of the book is inspirational enough to warrant frequent re-reads. As a tree-killing object, this book makes its existence worthwhile.

In fact, I’d be so bold as to suggest that so far, CSS: SCFP is the only essential paper CSS reference you need. It’s a book designed with some thought, containing all the information that deserves to be printed on paper. Sure, fine, it doesn’t contain a complete listing of all CSS-2 properties, but frankly you might as well bookmark the W3C specs and use that as a reference tool. This book contains context, invaluable tutorials and enough handy hints to deserve a place on your physical bookmarks shelf.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, writing about this book has made me want to read all over again.

Y tu mamá también [And Your Mother Too] (2001)

(In theaters, July 2002) The real tragedy of American cinema is how emotionally stunted it usually is, refusing to confront any real problem in favor of overblown drama or inconsequential issues. This is usually most visible with movies aimed at teen audiences, most of whom rely on sexual snickering and unrealistic ideals. This is the Mexican film that bitch-slaps American movies where they belong, a raw -almost painful- look at teenage confusion and the choices we make as we grow up. The technique of the film looks amateurish at first, with a series of unpolished long takes in naturalistic settings. But don’t be fooled; the cinematography and -more specifically- the shot composition is too careful for this to be an accident. The proof that the filmmakers know what they’re doing is evident in the first two sequences, long uninterrupted shots of rutting teenagers that immediately serve to show you that no, this isn’t going to be pleasant or easy. In any case, kudos to the actors, who all exhibit impressive confidence during some very difficult takes. The film alternates moments of hilarity with intense drama and the result is certainly not for every audience, but damn if it doesn’t feel honest and adult compared to the immature technical polish of the usual R-rated American teen movie. Do make an effort and seek out this film. You probably won’t find it at the local Blockbuster (it’s unrated, but if it would be it would certainly be an X), but keep digging. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Falling Stars, Michael J. Flynn

Tor, 2001, 492 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56184-8

It took four volumes, more than two thousand pages and five years of waiting, but Flynn’s Firestar saga is finally complete. A long, often boring but ultimately satisfying saga, Flynn’s series now forms the unified whole it’s supposed to be. It was about time he completed it too, given the slide of the first volume’s 1999-2000 segment in alternate history.

I wasn’t personally too fond of Flynn’s series of book. I thought the first volume, Firestar (1996), was a long, depressing and ultimately meaningless near-future piece. I was much kinder on the second book, 1998’s Rogue Star, which finally started using all the pieces set up in the first volume to build something interesting. The fact that the story started diverging from its hard-SF all-cards-on-table origins to something affected by an unpredictable curveball was also quite intriguing (though in retrospect it makes perfect sense.) Things were back to full disappointment with Lodestar (2000), a slimmer volume that nevertheless felt interminable given its irrelevant nature. Much time and reader goodwill was wasted by the useless side-trip of the third volume, which eventually proves to be useless as the fourth volume concludes.

A large part of Falling Stars‘s appeal is that this is sold as the final volume of the series. At last, the complex relationships between the hundred-odd characters of the series come to fruition, with heroic sacrifices, long-awaited reunions and the passing of the torch to a new generation. Several of the unpleasant characters introduced in previous volumes finally turn out to be not so bad after all, earning a redemption of sort. After sitting though endless hundred pages of setups, we finally get the pay-offs.

I may be slightly more sarcastic than I deserve to be; the Firestar series’ tone is firmly realistic, with a careful attention given to the nuts and bolts of complex space endeavors. Describing the intricate details and weaving the character’s evolving relationships takes time, but the overall impression is vastly more believable than the usual SF tale. It’s sad, then, to find out that some shortcuts used by Flynn in the first volume (such as having a good bunch of his important characters attend the same high school) come back to haunt and dog his realism. Why spend pages describing financial back-room dealings if the oh-so-diversely-exceptional protagonists can just kick back and chat about high-school while saving the world?

Even then, I think that the Firestar series represents a significant step forward for Michael Flynn as a writer. He’s no literary superstar, and indeed the stop-and-go-and-stop pacing of his series proves that he has a lot to learn about structure, but it’s a fair assessment that thanks to this saga, his stature as a hard-SF writer has grown enormously. Now that he’s gotten this didactic 2000+ pages story out there, maybe he’ll feel more comfortable in attempting something snappier as his next effort. (Naturally, the dangling ends left at the end of the fourth volume -yes, there are more than a few-, imply that Flynn might discreetly slip in a fifth volume while we’re not looking.)

Alas, we now come to the essential question any reviewer has to answer at the end of a series; is it worth reading? Clearly, I’m happy to be done with the series myself. I’d still hesitate, however, to recommend the four books to a neophyte reader. There’s simply too much dead time in the first and third volume to be fully worth it. The series does work as sort of a multi-decade “family” saga, so if you like that particular genre, you might get more enjoyment out of the series than I did. If you’re pressed for time, you might start reading the second book, the epilogue of the third, the last and still get most of what you need to know. Maybe, one day, a competent editor will cut whatever needs to be cut and produce a satisfying duology. Until then, you’ll have to be a Flynn aficionado, a near-future hard-SF nut or an unusually indulgent reader to plunge head-first in this series.

UHF (1989)

(Third viewing, On DVD, July 2002) Hmm. Though this has held up quite well (considering the critical drubbing it got when it was released and the cult following it then earned in video), it’s not as sustained as I remembered it. The problem with UHF isn’t as much in the set-pieces (Aaah, “Gandhi 2” or “Conan the Librarian”) as in the glue holding them up together. The plot of the film is depressingly familiar, as even star/writer “Weird Al” Yankovic himself acknowledges in the commentary track. There’s zany stuff, but it’s sadly relegated to safely obvious places. Still, the film has its shares of funny moments and anyone who hasn’t seen it ought to do so. The DVD finally delivers UHF to the digital realm, along with a bunch of extra such as an enlightening commentary track (with more than a decade’s hindsight, it doesn’t pull any punches) and a hilarious collection of deleted scenes. It’s worth noting that in this case, it’s Yankovik’s commentary on the lame deleted scenes that provides the added entertainment; apparently, a lot of dull expository material got left on the cutting room floor, proof of the writers’ lack of experience in writing for film.

Stuart Little 2 (2002)

(In theaters, July 2002) Though I had been impressed by the technical wizardry behind the little mouse in its first 1999 incarnation, I hadn’t been taken with the movie itself. This time, despite obviously pandering to the kiddy audience, this sequel feels better-written, more dynamic and generally more enjoyable that the original. The action scenes (yes, there are a few) are certainly more interesting, and the special effects flow better with the story. As with the first one, the harmless picture-perfect family portrait is amusing. (Naturally, as a devotee of Geena Davis I can only say; hoo!) Good use of New York locations, sustained rhythm and a few good lines; you can’t go wrong with this one for the kids.

Road To Perdition (2002)

(In theaters, July 2002) Dour, slick and professional effort that spends a lot of time trying to masquerade a familiar plotline straight out of countless mob dramas. Tom Hanks steps oh-so-far-away from his nice guy persona by playing a hitman… who’s a really nice guy. (All of his murders are, of course, fully justified) This B-movie plot (mob sets up a member… who vows terrible revenge!) is given the full A-list treatment with big stars (Paul Newman!), fantastic cinematography, fatherhood musings, 1930s period details and ponderous direction. It looks great and feels eminently respectable, but its languid pacing can’t hide its pulpish origins. Not bad, but a touch pretentious for what it is.

Reign Of Fire (2002)

(In theaters, July 2002) One shouldn’t judge a film by its poster, and that certainly stands double for Reign Of Fire, given that the Apache-helicopter-versus-dragons fight depicted on the one-sheet is an unfilmed part of the back-story. What we’re stuck with is not an exciting techno-thriller against dragons, but yet another post-apocalyptic hunt-the-top-monster film. Once it dawns on the viewer which kind of film this is going to be, Reign Of Fire becomes an unsurprising exercise in filling in the numbers. Numerous plot holes dog the film’s credibility, even accounting for the fact that this is a story about dragons. Interestingly enough, though, the real star of Reign Of Fire isn’t Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco or any of the dragons, but Matthew McConaughey! His “Zander van Zam” is a cigar-chomping quasi-parody of a gruff military man, and -boy oh boy- does he kick some butt in a role completely different from what he’s done before. Anyone who had dismissed McConaughey based on his innocuous turns in films like Ed TV or The Wedding Planner might be deeply surprised by his screen presence here; he’s one of the few things saving this film from B-movie oblivion. Other standout sequences include a few nice dragon shots and a boffo skydiving sequence. Don’t expect much in terms of cinematography, though: The somber visual tones of the film even manage to turn fire to monochrome (!) and after a while, your eye will thirst for some green. Actually, you mind will thirst for the film you were promised by the poster, but -hey- it did get you in the theater, didn’t it?

Men In Black II (2002)

(In theaters, July 2002) Lazy and lame follow-up to the amusing 1997 film. It’s not bad per se, but it’s awfully self-indulgent, bringing back several fair jokes from the original (blowing up an alien’s head, a talking dog, the insufferable worms, etc.) and stretching them way past the point of self-diminishing return. It doesn’t help that the formidable Men in Black agency of the first film is here reduced to a bunch of incompetent bumblers. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones still manage to look good with what they’re given, which is saying something given the general inability of the script to build something original. Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction is featureless and the editing is sadly tepid, bringing back more memories of Wild Wild West than the original Men In Black. Hey, it does have good moments, but frankly I expected much more. I mean; how incompetent do you have to be in order not to produce comedic gold out of this premise?

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) It’s lame, boring, repetitive and self-indulgent, but for some strange reason, Men In Black II is not completely worthless. Despite showboating like no one else, Will Smith manages to remain likeable, and Tommy Lee Jones still shines whatever the lines he’s fed. The script might be a trite hack-job recycling all the elements of the first film ad nauseam, but whatever imaginative deficiencies it has, at least some of the production aspects of the film are quite nice. The 2-disc DVD package quickly gets tiresome, though, combining an endless amount of repetitive promotional material that actually thinks this is like, the best movie ever. Director Barry Sonnefeld’s commentary is occasionally annoying, but probably worth one listen. Despite numerous references to “the original ending” (which featured the World Trade Center), a curious void exists when it actually comes to showing us what it was about. Could this be yet more cowardly behaviour from a studio which allowed such an unremarkable film to escape from development? You’re not forced to watch the film to answer.

The Hook, Donald E. Westlake

Mysterious Press, 2000, 280 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-89296-588-6

If there’s one field that writers know pretty well, it’s publishing. No surprise there: It’s their job, really. But knowing it well doesn’t mean liking it… From time to time, it’s not uncommon to see a few authors turn their vengeful pens toward New York and have a little fun. Like screenwriters scorned by Hollywood, bitter authors can be quite mean when they allow themselves to be (pure passive-aggressive build-up, methinks) and the results can be spectacular.

Okay, okay, so “spectacular” isn’t the first word to come to mind whenever one thinks about Donald E. Westlake’s quiet and nasty tale The Hook. But in its own way, it’s a savage parody-through-extremes of problems facing authors today and how two sufficiently desperate writers might be pushed to wholly unsuitable acts in order to escape them.

The hook -or initial appeal of this novel- is in telling how a chance encounter between two old friends results in a curious bargain. One is a best-selling writer with an impregnable writer’s block. The other is an inspired writer who doesn’t sell. Their mutual problems naturally suggest an acceptable solution. But there’s only one detail; the soon-to-be-ghostwriter must murder the bestselling author’s soon-to-be-ex-wife.

I know, I know; I didn’t find it any more credible than you do. But I believe that every writer must be given some indulgence when it comes to an initial setup and so I let it go. This being said, it didn’t help that the wife of the would-be murdered essentially says “oh, that’s nice” and agrees with her husband’s intentions.

The actual crime, when it happens, is brutal and swift, as unexpected as it is fatal. Maybe the most shocking thing, though, is how well the murderer recovers afterward, easily rationalizing it and pocketing the check.

Indeed, the whole novel does seem to whistle back from the abyss and settle down in a far more pedestrian narrative about publishing, ghostwriting and life in New York. The most affected character comes to be the best-selling writer, who has more and more difficulty dealing with his false new success even as his writer’s block worsens. The Hook is blackly comic in its insider’s view of late-nineties publishing, where the computers can kill an author’s career through simple pre-order calculations and where pseudonyms are the only way out of a vicious circle.

You might be forgiven for almost forgetting about the crime; but at least one of our characters doesn’t, and that leads us directly to a conclusion that doesn’t reveal its true viciousness until the very last line.

At first, I had serious misgivings about that ending: “Aww, that sucks, that’s mean, that’s just not right, why’d you do that”, etc. But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself accepting, and then grinning at the appropriateness of it. The Hook isn’t, as much as we might be lulled into it, a fun little inside joke on writers. At heart (at its dark, beating, diseased heart…), The Hook remains a dark crime story, and you might even argue that the entire second half is meant to lull you into a false sense of security. It actually works better as, um, a hooking conclusion than if the entire novel had been a parade of ever-gruesome serial murders.

It’s a short book, too short to be worthwhile in hardcover but well worth the (short) reading time on the beach. The Hook‘s take on the realities of modern writing and publishing is depressing, but darkly amusing and pretext to some really good insider’s dirt on the mechanics of the industry. Avid readers (is there a mystery genre fan who isn’t an avid reader?) will gobble it up.

If all else fails, consider the cover illustration of the book, a stack of books by Donald E. Westlake all titled The Hook. It gets funnier, of course, when you know that Donald E. Westlake is no stranger to multiple pseudonyms himself…

Mansfield Park (1999)

(On DVD, July 2002) Charming Jane Austen-inspired romantic comedy set in historical Britain. The film revolves around actress Frances O’Connor, who is more beautiful here than she’s been ever since in dud roles in contemporary movies such as Bedazzled and Windtalkers. If you like period romances, it’s hard not to be taken with this slight tale. (Though it’s surprisingly edgy, with a few glimpses of decidedly un-romantic moments) It’s not particularly deep or meaningful, but it’s a good moment. The DVD is pretty much devoid of special features, except for writer/director Patricia Rozema’s enlightening commentary track in which she explains the various changes she made to the original story and the winks to those familiar with Austen. (The lead character becomes a stand-in for Austen herself, and not merely the boring protagonist of the original book.) Good stuff.

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

(In theaters, July 2002) The fall of the Soviet Union has revealed countless good stories about life on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and a few dramatic ones. This cold-war thriller detailing a particularly dramatic nuclear submarine trip highlights the appalling conditions of the Soviet Navy and the heroism of the men stuck on these boats. It’s compelling, but far more so as a fictionalized documentary rather than a straight-up thriller. Not much is done to differentiate the characters, but director Katheryn Bigelow knows how to crank the tension on scenes that need it, and the big centerpiece of the film works well as a suspense sequence. The rest of the film is quiet, saddled with an unnecessary epilogue and doesn’t deliver nearly as much as it ought to. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in the authentic re-creation of life aboard these submarines, the set design and the unusual glimpse in a wholly different environment. Worth a look for submarine buffs, certainly, but the general public expecting a war thriller may want to wait a while.

Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

(In theaters, July 2002) It’s been a long dry spell for us giant-spider movies enthusiasts, but at last, the wait is over and Eight Legged Freaks is everything you can wish for in a giant-spiders movie. It features a small town under attack, a few endearing characters from Central Casting (Including the scrumptious Kari Wuhrer as a shotgun-blasting sheriff; woo-hoo!), loads of weapons, clever tactics, a high body count and, oh, hundreds of giant spiders. It’s loads of fun for whoever can appreciate the pure artistic meaning of a giant-spiders movie. It’s not completely successful (the pacing lags at the end, and some characters -like the conspiracist DJ- are just insipid), but frankly I’d be hard-pressed to find a better monster B-movie since the original Tremors. Enjoy yourself squishily!

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) Silly, funny and not afraid to be a little stupid when it needs to be, this is a triumphant return of the B-grade monster movie. Camera-equipped PDAs and digitally-created spiders notwithstanding, this is a throwback to the golden era of bad fifties sci-fi, and a pretty enjoyable one at that. At least it’s honest it what it attempts to be (as the commentary quickly establishes) and never aspires to any higher purpose. While the film won’t break through to general audiences with no particular hunger for giant spider movies, it holds up rather well to a second viewing for this fan of the sub-genre. The DVD is otherwise serviceable, with an amusing commentary track, a diverting short film and a few deleted scenes (including one which answers one of my biggest “huh?”s) but, curiously enough, a rather remarkable lack of making of material on visual effects. Oh well. It’s bug-squishing fun enough as it is anyway!

Double Jeopardy (1999)

(On TV, July 2002) Contrived, exasperating crime melodrama filled with contrived situations, leaps of logic and a cackling villain. Ashley Judd is cute, but her character must’ve fell on her head a few times during her childhood to act so stupidly all the time. The film is filled with shoddy scare shots and bewildering “action” scenes thrown in for cheap thrills (a nursery with security guard in jeeps? Whaa?). It’s a shame to see respectable actors such as Tommy Lee Jones waste their time with trash like this. And yet, despite my overall loathing of the film, it’s hard to deny a certain guilty pleasure in staring at the screen, wondering what else they’ll come up with, if only to see how stupid this can become. What can I say? Catch in TV if you must.