Les Dangereux [The Dangerous] (2002)

(In theaters, December 2002) Yikes. I can understand that black comedy isn’t a familiar genre in French-Canada (where the preference goes more to crude popular comedy), but it’s not an excuse to mess up this film so badly. While the film enjoys a relatively flawless second quarter (which compares more or less with such films as Snatch), everything goes to hell as the movie advances toward its conclusion. This simple tale of kidnapping can’t be bothered to maintain an even tone throughout, nor to respect the intelligence of the audience: The staging become more and more ludicrous, the finale is extended beyond anyone’s reasonable patience and the whole thing ultimately ends in a muddled mess. Headliner Stéphane Rousseau grandstands without any adult supervision and Véronique Cloutier is allowed to torture viewers through two musical numbers. (On the other hand, she’s pretty cute… but not enough to make us forgive everything.) The stereotypes are unworthy of existing in a movie released in 2002, and so are some of the plot shortcuts used in lieu of clever plotting. (Can you believe the “lost glasses” shtick? Me neither.) Oh, it’s not as if the entire film is unpleasant, but the tremendous waste of potential here is almost offensive. We’ve got enough stupid American movies up here; we don’t need to make our own.

The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion (2001)

(On DVD, December 2002) Now here’s a good film destroyed by inappropriate casting. Hubris, even, as the miscasting in question is writer/director Woody Allen giving the protagonist role to himself. Awful choice, especially where we’re to believe that he’s lusted after by none other than, oh, Elizabeth Berkley, Kaili Vernoff and the divine Helen Hunt. Yikes. What, Bruce Campbell wasn’t available? In any case, if you close your eyes and manage to convince yourself that this isn’t Woody Allen they’re lusting after, the film isn’t too bad: The atmosphere successfully evokes the war-years period, and so does the witty dialogue between Hunt and Allen. Yes, the whole hypnotism shtick is profoundly silly, but never mind that: it’s all in good fun. In the end, this sense of fun (oh, and the girls; I’m that shallow) is what sort of saves The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion from total failure. But I can’t wait until we’ve got the technology to replace Allen out of this picture…

Murphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell

ROC, 2000, 377 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45809-5

Reviewer’s Note: As I couldn’t muster up the interest to review this mid-list SF novel, I simply stuffed it in my brand new ReviewMatron™ and let it cough up an automated review. Here are the results: (Warning! The ReviewMatron™ has an unfortunate tendency to spoil novels it doesn’t like.)

Genre: Science-Fiction Adventure

Author Profile: searching… none…. first novel.

What the only cover blurb tells you: Mid-list SF author Eric S. Nylund says “Adamantine-hard science fiction with heart… a ripping good read”

What the only cover blurb doesn’t tell you: That Eric S. Nylund is Syne Mitchell’s husband.

Plot: Outsider gets embroiled in conspiracy revolving around piece of high-technology with potential to overthrow existing social order.

Protagonist: “Thiadora Murphy”, a “floater” -zero-gee-optimized human- sent to a military college.

Protagonist’s clichés (list): absent father… outsider amongst her peers… red-hot pilot… something to prove to the universe… meaningful tattoos…

Initial Plot Complications (list): Ostracism by peers… job offer from shadowy organization (refused)… framed… kicked out of academy… best friend killed… forced to take the job against her will…

Contrived or cliché?: Hard to say.

Author’s unsubtle theme: Discrimination.

Assessment of first third of novel: Poor. Cliché. Dull. Déjà-vu.

Plot shift into second act: High-tech vessel stolen from company, then stolen back by company. Meanwhile, protagonist meets first ally.

“Ally” characteristics (list): “Kyle”: Opposite sex… rather sympathetic to heroine… exceptional hard-to-explain skills… shadowy loyalties… secretly connected to powerful organization…

Thrust of Second Act (list): recovery of ship… discovery of capabilities of ship, including time-travel… forces pursue the ship… protagonist isolated from all sources of support…

Return of father: Check. (Sort of)

Explanation of Ally’s willingness to help protagonist: Check.

Assessment of second third: Better. Now that all clichéd pieces are in position, magnanimous readers merely have to follow them around.

Capture of heroine as start of third act: Check.

Torture: Check.

Awful doubt that ally has betrayed her: Check.

Ally still comes through: Check.

Best friend back from the dead: Check.

Best friend pissed: Check.

Hot lesbian love scene between protagonist and best friend: No.

Escalation of third act into galaxy-spanning political reform: Check.

Revolt of the ostracized masses: Check.

All seems lost: Check

Heroine figures ultra-clever scheme to restore rightful social order: Check.

Happy Ending: Check.

Assessment of Last third: Fair.

Assessment of writing skills: Okay. Enough to keep reader’s attention once everything gets going.

Assessment of Novel: Takes a while to get going. Slowly evolves in average mid-list SF novel.

Double-meaning title: Check.

Hard-SF? No.

Recommended action re Author’s next novels: Acquire at used book sales if price is right.

Final state of mind: Blah.

Chicago (2002)

(In theaters, December 2002) By the end of the very first musical number, it’s obvious that this is a triumphant return of the classical musical. Chicago isn’t as audaciously post-modern nor as self-conscious as Moulin Rouge!, but whatever go-for-broke edge it lacks doesn’t really matter when it’s so well-done. This ultra-cynical tale of profitable crime isn’t particularly complicated, but it’s told with plenty of style. Even the outrageous musical numbers are carefully integrated as being part of the characters’ imagination with what’s certainly the best editing of the year. Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere sing and (tap)dance and yes, they’re believable. What’s not so obvious are the other great supporting performances, from Queen Latifah to John C. Reilly to Colm Feore’s non-singing part. The result is pretty amazing. I wanted to clap at the end of some sequences. Who could have guessed that a musical written in the thirties would contain such biting social commentary even today? The ventriloquism/puppetry sequence alone is worth the price of admission, not to mention the “had it coming” tango, the court-circus piece or even the preposterously appropriate tap-dancing around legal arguments. No doubt about it; Chicago is a superior film that makes an effort at showing us far more than what is required to tell a good story. It’s remarkably funny, paced like an action film and surprisingly memorable. See it. Now.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

(In theaters, December 2002) Everyone loves to see a deserving hero get away with something, and that’s exactly what this Spielberg film delivers. This is the loose biography of con man Frank Abagnale, who spent the late sixties impersonating airline pilots, doctors and lawyers and forging checks to great profit. Constantly outwitting authorities, he was eventually captured… but still managed to beat the system. This delightful film announces its colors from the onset, through a deliberately retro credit sequence that plunges us back in the time period. Leonardo DeCaprio is convincing in the variety of roles Abagnale chooses to play, and the direction is comfortably laid-back. This film could have been done at any time over the past twenty years; there is nary a “modern” technique in sight. A cursory glance at interviews with Abagnale is sufficient to uncover significant deviations from reality (there was, for instance no single FBI agent pursuing Abagnale through all these years), but the fiction is a compelling, entertaining piece of entertainment. Spielberg is a consummate professional, and he knows how to create a feel-good piece of cinema. Even the too-long ending is built to show how one could see Abagnale simultaneously becoming a law-abiding citizen while beating the system even more outrageously than as a criminal. Catch Me If You Can isn’t a particularly deep or challenging film, but it’s a lot of fun. A terrific criminal procedural enhanced by a compelling cat-and-mouse story, it’s pretty much designed for maximum entertainment. Enjoy!

Belphégor – Le fantôme du Louvre [Belphegor, Phantom of the Louvre] (2001)

(On DVD, December 2002) It’s not because it’s French that it’s good. In this case, this particular take on the classic monster story is interesting because it stars the adorable Sophie Marceau and takes place in Paris, but as for the rest, well… Apart from the striking visuals, it’s strictly a run-of-the-mill supernatural thriller. Possession clichés are trotted out one after another, and if the Egyptian lore is cause for a good frisson or two, those shivers remains overwhelmingly based on potential alone. Belphégor has too much visual pizzazz to be considered boring, but on the other hand it’s nothing particularly striking.

Where Angels Watch, Randall Wallace

Bantam Crime Line, 1992, 323 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29254-4

If you’re a movie buff, the name “Randall Wallace” should mean something to you. He wrote the screenplays for the Oscar-winning BRAVEHEART and the execrable PEARL HARBOUR. He directed WE WERE SOLDIERS from his own script. He’s buddy with Mel Gibson. In short, he’s what we’d call a Hollywood insider.

It’s not a secret that he didn’t start out that way. His biographies (check out his sort-of-official web site at www.thewheelhouse.net ) mention that he wrote a few novels before breaking into the Hollywood big-time in the mid-nineties. Finding those novels, however, isn’t an easy matter given that they didn’t sell all that well and are almost all out-of-print by now.

I was lucky enough to catch Where Angels Watch at a used book sale. It’s the second novel in a series (technically a sequel starring the characters from Blood of the Lamb, though with a presumably brand-new all-exciting villain!), but I couldn’t very well wait and hope to find the first novel anytime soon, so I dove right in.

In many ways, this is a strictly-business police thriller. In Los Angeles, a killer preys on hookers and strippers, leaving them dismembered and displayed as an unmistakable challenge to police forces. Protagonists Tom Ridge and Scarlet McCullers are now faced with a new mystery—and a killer than may be a policeman…

I’m sure you’ve read something similar before. It’s not exactly original. But there’s always some place for a well-written entry, and that’s exactly what Where Angels Watch manages to be.

It all depends on a pair of sympathetic protagonists: Tom Ridge is a by-the-book policeman with some religious training and a mind like a computer. Everyone is a bit in awe of his cognitive capabilities, and indeed, he often intuits clues and conclusions well before the experts can confirm what he’s already deduced. The only person not afraid to try to one-up Ridge is, of course, “Cully” McCullers. She’s brasher, more willing to throw suspects around and always trying to prove her worth. Together, they make an unstoppable team. Except that… they’ve been together -in a biblical sense- and that only complicates matters.

It still wouldn’t have worked if Wallace hadn’t been able to give the required spark to his characters. But he does, and also manages to deliver a good crunchy police thriller with plenty of tasty passages. This being L.A., we get a look at the city’s biggest industry, the relationships between police and celebrities, a believable look inside a police precinct and all sorts of other good stuff.

Wallace’s writing is clear and easily readable. Even better; he also succeeds in wringing honest emotion out of passages that would be booed off the stage in any other context. (Though even he can’t make the ridiculous strip-tease scene work.) I could explain the meaning of the novel’s title to you in a few words, but then you’d look at the screen with a look of corny disbelief. But Wallace manages, and that’s all that matter when you’re reading the novel. (On the other hand, it may explain why Michael Bay’s ham-fisted triumphant direction made such a mess out of PEARL HARBOR’s sentimental scenes. But I digress.)

Understand that I’m not raving about this novel; for all its qualities, it doesn’t come close to, say, Michael Connelly’s work. But it’s good stuff, it sticks to the point and it delivers what it’s supposed to. Plus it’s got curiosity value; how many novels on your shelves have been written by acclaimed screenwriters/directors?