Monthly Archives: May 2003

The Forge of Mars , Bruce Balfour

Ace, 2002, 404 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00954-9

It seemed promising enough: A novel mixing alien relics, a maverick hero, nanotechnology, robots, artificial intelligence and conspiracies reaching back in our history. It’s not as if there hasn’t been plenty of good SF novels with “Mars” in their titles over the past few years. Plus, Balfour has designed one of my all-time favourite computer adventures, Wasteland. What could go wrong?

Well, The Forge of Mars doesn’t go wrong as much as it doesn’t go anywhere coherent, interesting or pleasant. The novel switches sub-genres every hundred pages, creating the impression of a monster with too many heads and not enough muscle.

Even the opening sequence smacks of trouble, combining a training scenario shuttle crash with some muddy mysticism. Yep, this is the entrance of our hero, Tau Wolfsinger, a genius half-Native American whose rebel ideas prove too controversial for the NASA. Meanwhile, behind the shadows, a group of powerful men and women are dealing with the sudden appearance of alien artifacts on Mars… artifacts that may be not dissimilar to those discovered in Siberia on the site of the Tunguska disaster. One of the elements of the plan consists in manipulating Tau to ship him off to Mars. But whereas a simple “please” might have sufficed, a convoluted plan emerges which involves first shipping off his girlfriend, killing his mentor and assigning him an aggressively seductive colleague.

This first part of The Forge of Mars plays like a high-tech thriller, and it does contain interesting elements. The menace of the conspiracy is disturbing, and the NASA bureaucracy is used in an intriguing fashion. But already, signs of narrative fatigue are obvious; the useless detours can tax anyone’s patience, and the murder scene which tops this section seems gratuitously gory in light of the rest of the story. It’s an effective, unsettling moment, but it belongs in another book.

Then the book, midway through, shifts gears just in time for the lengthy voyage which will take Tau to Mars. This sequence is oddly familiar, given all the similar sequences that pepper the countless Mars-themed Hard-SF novels that have been published since the early nineties. This sentiment of familiarity carries over the initial scenes on Mars, as Tau establishes his research operation.

But don’t get too comfortable: before long, Tau fails to reunite with his girlfriend and is taken hostage by an evil Russian conspiracy member and his dog. He escapes, only to have the thematic ground of the novel shift under him once more as he’s asked to lead a series of war games for an alien race someplace far far away from Mars. Naaah, I’m not making this up. Fortunately, battle-wizard Tau eventually comes back to Mars to lead an attack against the evil Russians (and the dog) to liberate Mars.

Or something like that. Despite the various interesting elements used by The Forge of Mars, Balfour always takes the long way around, thus dissipating whatever tension accumulates. By the time Tau has become some sort of alien Ender Wiggins, readers might be wondering if there was even an editor around when they decided to publish the novel; too many plot threads, not enough narrative energy. The writing is nowhere as good as it should be to make us shrug off the rest of the book’s weaknesses. Bland and disjointed a dull novel it makes.

In the end, it doesn’t amount to much, and I suspect that my fuzzy memory of the book will erode even further in the next few months. It’s probably no accident if this is an Ace paperback original; certainly, it’s a cut below what we may expect for an average SF novel, let alone something worth our attention. Nothing to see here; let’s move along.

McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, John F. Love

Bantam, 1986, 470 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-05127-X

I didn’t pick this book; it picked me. Fell on me, actually. Slipped off the shelf at a used book sale and was caught in mid-air by a reflex action of mine. One can’t ignore those signs; I brought it home.

It’s hard to find a more iconic institution than McDonald’s. Given that the average North-American is almost always within good walking distance of one of their outlets, this restaurant chain has come to represent far more than just fast food. It has been associated with gastronomic imperialism, the culture of speed, the fattening up of America, the perils of globalization and a rigid sense of order. Step into any McDonald’s anywhere in the world and you will find commonalities with all the others.

From the outside, McDonald’s seems to exemplify rigidity, stability and hierarchy. But as John F. Love manages to show in Behind the Arches, this is an incomplete, carefully cultivated portrait. For the strength of McDonald’s has been not unthinking devotion to order, but reigned entrepreneurial spirit. McDonald’s has always encouraged innovations, both inside and outside their immediate purview.

Obviously, this is a “friendly” biography of McDonald’s. While the project wasn’t commissioned by the company, extensive collaboration was given to Love in order for him to complete the project. While the book does discuss the sometime-rocky corporate history of the firm with a critical eye, it seldom delves into the darker side of the company. You’ll have to read Fast-Food Nation for that.

But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. McDonald’s success story can be appreciated regardless of one’s feeling toward the food offered there. At times, it almost seems too good to be true; the story of two brothers with a good idea (speed and price; always speed and price!), a refined system and a convinced salesman who’d transform this kernel into the foundation of an empire. Behind the Arches is also the story of the people who made a success out of McDonald’s, and none of them as grandiose as Ray E. Kroc, the man those no-nonsense approach made an empire out of McDonald’s.

The early struggles of McDonald’s are told in a detailed, almost breathless style that requires very little effort to read. While the early heroics of the corporation latter transform into high-finance deals (including a disastrous flirtation with a more rigid style of management), the book remains interesting from the start to end. Seldom has there been a more compelling corporate biography.

It’s not as if it’s an ordinary story. The bare facts are astonishing: The way McDonald’s restructured whole industries in order to be best-served. The importance of the franchisees. The decentralized fashion by which advertising is used. The emphasis on real estate. The technological innovation that went into developing even the simplest food products. The difficult foreign expansion of the company. The battle for rumour control and favourable opinion. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s all worth reading. The origins of Ronald McDonald are almost charmingly quaint, whereas the process by which some of the most recognizable McDonald staples were created is a monument to food engineering.

The biggest problem of Behind the Arches, naturally, is the 1986 publication date. Fifteen years past, who knows what has changed since then? Is McDonald’s still so loyal with its suppliers? Does it still depend so much on the individualism of their franchisees? An update would be useful.

But in the end, I was so impressed (and, true, so curious), that I willingly stepped in another McDonald’s (meters away from my workplace, a location that was the sole victim of vandalism during the Ottawa anti-globalization protests of 2001) after years of absence. Despite the noon-time crowd, service took less than five minutes. Once back at my office, I offered brief congratulations to Ray E. Kroc, started eating and headed over to www.mcspotlight.com because I’m such a sucker for irony. The meal reminded me of why I hadn’t eaten McDonald’s in a while, but in a way, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the impressive display of ingenuity, determination and sheer cleverness that is the true basis of McDonald’s success. Even critics and pundits can’t help but being impressed, whatever their sentiments may be regarding what McDonald’s stands for.

So here’s to you, Ray A. Kroc, Fred Turner, and united franchisees. Good show.

Flag in Exile (Honor Harrington 5), David Weber

Baen, 1995, 480 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-3575-3

(Read as an eBook, from the War of Honor CD-ROM)

It’s become customary to introduce every new instalment of the Honor Harrington series with some variant on “Honor is Back!” But this time around, the twist is that she is not back. Exiled from the Manticoran Navy after her actions in the previous volume, she’s back “home” as the steadholder of a brand-new territory on Grayson, the planet she managed to save in The Honor of the Queen. She may not be a ranking officer of her majesty’s navy anymore, but she keeps busy: Running a stead takes a lot of time and energy, especially when she’s the first-ever female steadholder in what is still a deeply conservative society. Some people clearly aren’t happy about that particular achievement…

Meanwhile, the Royal Manticoran Navy is still fighting the war initiated by the eeevil socialist Havenites two volumes ago. The engagement seems protracted enough to last for several more novels, and to make things worse, the Havenites are planning on attacking Grayson. As it naturally turn out, Honor Harrington is ready for them given her newly-acquired commission as an admiral of the Grayson Navy…

After the successful non-military focus of Field of Dishonor, Weber takes an hybrid approach in plotting Flag in Exile: While the military aspect comes back along with Honor’s admiralty, the political conflicts are also present in her efforts to defend her stead against the more backward elements of Grayson’s elite. Cynics will merely point out that this is like recycling the best bits of the second and fourth novels (complete with a duel and a big space engagement), but when it works, it works: There’s no need to be a spoilsport.

It’s not as if there isn’t something new to gnaw upon: Honor Harrington’s gradual apprenticeship as a steadholder is a new element, and we get to see her spend quite a lot of time in this uncharacteristic environment. Maybe too much time is spent describing the intricacies of Grayson politics, though the payoff is immense. The sheer boo-hiss perversity of her opponent’s plans are a marvel of audience manipulation, and so is the way she fights back against them. For a second volume in a row, she has to match wits with experts in martial fields not of her choosing. Unsurprisingly, she comes out ahead, though Weber actually manages to make us believe in how it’s done: We go from dreadful certainty of failure to triumphant (and inevitable) victory in only a few pages, an achievement that may have been impossible for another less experienced reader.

Then it’s off to space for the routine big space battle, the issue of which is a foregone conclusion. Worth noting this time around, though, is the good portrayal of performance under duress: seldom have we seen Harrington placed under so much stress, and the constant pain in which she has to operate is well-described. Also amusing is the return of the second book’s antagonist, this time as a colleague of Harrington in this new Grayson Navy. Cute.

All told, it’s another pretty good entry in the series, with Weber’s usual flair for good characters and clear prose carrying the series along as much as the plot and the overall arc. By this point in the series, it’s obvious that this is closer to an episodic TV soap than a feature film in terms of dramatic construction: The series can afford to take forever in setting up a few elements given that they’ll play out over a lengthy period. (The Havenite War, for instance, seems to be good for at least another trilogy) Naturally, this episodic nature strengthens even more the importance of recurring elements: We’re now at a point where we’re expected to recognize characters as they come back in Harrington’s life.

These are certainly not bad things if you’ve got all the novels so far (say, as provided by the CD-ROM bundled with the Hardcover edition of War of Honor), but they may be a dampening factor for everyone contemplating to dive into the series. Hey, it’s well-worth it… but be prepared to spend a lot of time in Harrington’s universe.

X2 [X-Men 2: X-Men United] (2003)

(In theaters, May 2003) Faster, meaner and, yep, better than the often-tepid original, this is one sequel that assumes everyone’s seen the original and so dispenses with the usual load of dull exposition. The motif of bigotry is still present -and so is the unsettling political subtext-, giving weight to the film. Despite sometimes-unconvincing special effects, those action sequences are indeed spectacular, with particular props going to the opening sequence and a very cool sequence involving iron-enriched blood. The most spectacular part of X2, however, is how it can juggle a cast of a dozen (including three Oscar winners) without too many lapses. Hugh Jackman once again steals the show, endowing Wolverine with the most steadily engrossing presence. Others deliver mixed performances: Halle Berry is better than in the original, but she, like Famke Janssen, looks bored with what she’s given to work with. (And the least said about James Marsden’s Cyclops, the most appropriate.) As summer entertainment, X-Men 2 is a strong entry, even with the rather overlong third act which degenerates in a “sacrifice” that feels contrived. But by the time the credits roll, everyone’s had enough entertainment for their money. Until the third instalment, then…

Thir13en Ghosts (2001)

(On DVD, May 2003) Dull horror film whose only saving grace is the set design and a few interesting sequences. Most of the film takes place in a fantastic see-through “house” with walls made out of glass, with eerie-looking Latin engravings. Very cool looking, and even as the plot degenerates in the usual horror movie silliness, the set is still worth looking at. Well, that’s if you can tolerate looking when the editing chops away every half-second: Rather than allow the tension to build, director Steve Beck defuses everything with a barrage of quick cuts that look an awful lot like every other cheap horror movie since the introduction of the AVID editing console. While the script is strictly B-grade and couldn’t be much improved, this ghost story where the supernatural isn’t always visible could have been unsettling had longer shots of not-quite-visible happenings been allowed to run longer. Too bad, because the credit sequence shows what’s possible with longer shots. Sadly enough, there’s a dearth of violent death here (only surpassed with the dearth of nudity from the live characters), with a body count that fails to include the most annoying members of the cast. (Death even seems to improve Matthew Lillard’s coolness. Go figure.) The DVD contains a short making-of documentary that’s more interesting than the usual promotional fluff. Oh well. It’s a cheap Dark Castle rip-off of an old William Castle B-grade horror films. What were you really expecting anyway?

Metoroporisu [Metropolis] (2001)

(On DVD, May 2003) Slow-paced, often-unsubtle, ordinary story of human/robot strife, technological arrogance and Really Big Buildings. Two private detective come to Metropolis to investigate the whereabouts of a mad scientist, but it turns out that their investigation ties into a secret project, generational conflicts and class warfare. The quality of the animation in this version of Metropolis (no ties at all to the Fritz Lang version) is emblematic of the rest of the film. Hard-edged, spectacular computer-generated backgrounds clash with hand-drawn, quasi-juvenile characters. The whole film certainly feels like that, dealing with big complex issues such as the fallacy of human progress, but watering down everything with a helping of plotting that wouldn’t be out of place in simplistic Saturday Morning kid’s shows. Admittedly, some scenes are spectacular: The unveiling of the city is suitably impressive, but not more so than it’s inevitable destruction. (With a Strangelovian “I Can’t Stop Loving You” playing in the background) The DVD help to make sense of it all, as the film is revealed to be an adaptation of a 1950s-era manga, which goes a long way to explain the nifty jazz music and the sometimes-naive feel. Interviews with the filmmakers feel remarkably candid as they admit that the creator of the original comic book probably wouldn’t have agreed to their adaptation.

Fashionably Late, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 1994, 431 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017611-3

If the fashion industry mystifies, amuses, annoys or interests you, Fashionably Late ought to prove a delicious reading experience. Pop-fun author Olivia Goldsmith has trashed the acting and publishing professions elsewhere (in Flavour of the Month and The Bestseller, respectively)… but this time she’s got another field to explore, and she proves remarkably adept at presenting both the glory and the misery of haute couture in this novel.

It all revolves around Karen Kahn, fashion designer and owner of her own prestigious label. At first glance, she’s got everything one would want: Money, fame, love and the admiration of her peers. But even as she’s awarded an important industry prize, a doomed man appears (in classic tragic fashion) to warn her that fame is feeling and it can end very, very quickly. As the novel progresses, there are plenty of opportunities for Karen’s world to crumble: her family is packed with dysfunctional relatives, her husband is prone to bouts of moodiness and her business is being courted by a rich buyer. As if that wasn’t enough, Karen is also contemplating her own lineage; though she knows she’s an adopted child, her own biological clock has rung out: Adoption is the only possibility if she wants to raise a child.

Melodramatic stuff, but that’s half the fun of it. Goldsmith can write big fat pop novels like none other, and her professionalism shines throughout the book. The fashion industry is a big and complex beast, and one of Goldsmith’s most successful talent is to manage to slowly reveal it all, from sewing to modelling, in compelling and unobtrusive scenes. Exposition is well-handled , and doesn’t take much to be fascinated by the convincing background details. In many ways, this feels like one of Arthur Hailey’s docu-fictive novels, except that Goldsmith can juggle both plot and documentary with an ease that leaves good old Arthur coughing in the dust.

A large part of this superiority depends on her strong sense of characterization. While Goldsmith can’t be accused of too much ambiguity, she knows exactly what is needed for the type of novel she’s writing. Here, it’s interesting to see the distribution of quirks. While Fashionably Late features several viewpoint characters, it spends most of its time inside Karen’s head. Fittingly enough, the lead protagonist is emotionally bland while her entourage is stuffed with showy supporting characters. This allows the reader to project emotions on the protagonist and be impressed by the actions of others. Good stuff!

While I’m working from an incomplete database (three novels out of nearly a dozen), Goldsmith’s moral storytelling seems ironclad so far. Heroes win; villains are punished. While Fashionably Late isn’t as decisively punitive as, say, Flavour of the Month, it certainly rewards the good guys and promises pain and punishment for the evil ones. The suspense in Goldsmith’s novels isn’t in seeing who wins, but in seeing them err on either good and evil before settling on one alignment and suffering the consequences. Manipulative and populist, maybe, but also decidedly comfortable; reading an Olivia Goldsmith is guaranteed to be a satisfactory, uncomplicated experience.

Satisfactory and amusing, naturally. The prose style is deliciously clear and compelling; while it may take a while to absorb all the characters and the multiple plot threads the novel acquires quite a narrative momentum that does a lot to propel the book forward. Don’t be surprised to read more and more of the book as it advances. The little twists thrown at the end are a bit over-the-top, but that too had become somewhat of a Goldsmith griffe. It’s not as if half of the so-called “twists” can be seen well in advance. (Oh, gee, I wonder what will happen to the baby…?)

As Fashionably Late concludes, it also moves both the protagonist and the reader toward a more balanced view of the fashion industry, after showing both the glamour and the misery, the admiration and the contempt engendered by it. Few will fail to be impressed to see where Karen end up, though some may step back and tut-tut the warm and fuzzy feeling of the conclusion. To those I say shoo, because they obviously haven’t understood the rules of Goldsmith’s universe. It may not be the real world, but it works for me, in a certain fashion.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

(In theaters, May 2003) Yes, this film has flaws. Deep, serious flaws that show the self-indulgence in which the Wachowski Brothers were allowed to wallow. Falsely profound dialogue, pretentious pontificating, overlong fights, flaccid editing, ordinary writing and lopsided structural beats. Those would be enough to give pause to anyone not already plugged into the Matrix. But that’s my case, and as a fan boy, I’m pleased as punch with this second volume. The Matrix was an accident: A nerd-triumphant story that touched a mainstream nerve thanks to a few conceptual kicks and an impeccable sense of style. Matrix Reloaded is all geek no mainstream: I would be bold as to suggest that if you don’t understand why there’s a Giant Robot scene in this film, you don’t deserve to watch it: The Wachowskis now have all the means in the world to put on-screen every single little geeky obsession they’ve dreamt about for years, and they’re going to do it. While the result can be exasperating (some oh-so-profound dialogues are really meaningless –or worse, trite!) they are as often exhilarating: The “gratuitous” Seraph-Neo fight is straight out of kung-fu clichés, the equally-motivated Neo/Smith fight is an anthology sequence and that fourteen-minute car chase scene, well, it redefines the standard for action goodness. The conceptual punch of The Matrix Reloaded is equally as strong, though unfortunately back-loaded in the last five minutes, leading to a badly-paced film that could have used some tightening. Ditto with the editing, though fortunately the Wachowskis still have an impressive flair for fantastic camera work. (Best example: the gorgeous rave scene, which runs too long, diluting the strong images into something approaching self-parody.) But enough with the unkind comparisons to the original, or to our own long-idealized sequel: The Matrix Reloaded is a heady SF/action blockbuster, a perfect blend of geeky stuff I’m actually content to pay to see. The Matrix Revolutions can’t come soon enough.

(Second viewing, In theaters, June 2003) Yikes; I was afraid that a second viewing might lead me to this unpleasant conclusion: No, The Matrix Reloaded isn’t as good as its prequel. The editing is loose, the dialogues are average, the pacing is slow, especially when you measure it against the ideal set by the Wachowski Brothers in their previous effort. Oh, I don’t regret paying to see it again; even on a second viewing, the film still holds up better than most other first-run viewings. The action sequences are deeply impressive, especially considering the flawless integration of most CGI. (Unlike the first film, there are only two obvious “bullet time” moments, and they flow a lot better than previously) The images are strong, and so is the direction. A lot of the plot doesn’t make much sense (and threatens to make even less less sense the more I think about it), but I’d like to maintain reservations on that topic until I see the sequel. At this point, five months away from the concluding chapter of the trilogy, it’s difficult to get a proper grip on The Matrix Reloaded. Well, except for one thing: It could have been much better. Closer to what we wanted to see, that is.

The Italian Job (2003)

(In theaters, May 2003) Anyone looking for a light summer movie won’t be disappointed in this one. Anyone looking for anything more than that, however, will leave unsatisfied. On most accounts, it’s exactly what it tries to be: a decent heist picture, with some cleverness, a hint of sexiness, a car chase and unambiguous emotional stakes. Why am I being such a sourpuss then? Could be Edward Norton’s worst performance to date, an unremarkable turn as a meek villain with none of Norton’s usual flair. Could be Mark Wahlberg’s charisma-free performance as the bland leader of a bunch of operatives all far more interesting than he is. Could be Jason Statham’s reprise of his role in The Transporter with all of the grins and no further chance to shine. Could be that the only hot chick we’re stuck watching is the bland Charlize Theron. Could be that both the direction and the script simply do the job without any extra qualities. Could be that the action scenes are over almost as quickly as they begin. Could be the lengthy second act. Could be a whole lot of things, but the end result stays the same; a very ordinary picture that does not deviate from mere adequacy. Hey, it’s your time and your money…

Happy, Texas (1999)

(On DVD, May 2003) Easygoing, unpretentious comedy in which two convicts on the run are forced to act as gay pageant specialists in order to remain undetected in a small town in Texas. (!) Steve Zahn is excellent (but then again, he usually is) whereas Jeremy Northam is mile away from his proper English personae and members of the Ileana Douglas Appreciation Society get their money’s worth. It’s not a side-splitting film, but it’s pleasant enough save for a few squirms in the latter half as a criminal element drives the third act around. Not particularly memorable, but likable. Be sure to rent the DVD, as the making-of story of the film’s humble origins might very well be more interesting than the film itself.

The Manly Movie Guide, David Everitt & Harold Schechter

Broadway, 1997, 287 pages, C$16.00 tpb, ISBN 1-57297-308-0

As the proud owner of the fantastic movie-recommendation guide Chicks on Film, the thought of buying The Manly Movie Guide was irresistible, if only for the kick of placing both books one alongside the other on my movie-reference shelf. As a bonus, maybe I’d get a cool book that would properly appreciate the aesthetic qualities of modern classics such as DIE HARD and HARD-BOILED.

(Please understand that I do not jest when I say this; the artistic worth of action movies, to me, has been severely misunderstood. Pulling together a satisfying action sequence, for example, is an art, as a random selection of scenes from direct-to-video “action thrillers” will demonstrate. It involves writing, action editing, scoring and effects. The best of them demand a sense of pacing, a dramatic arc, a perfect integration of sight and sound as well as an emphasis on characters. Show me someone who can explain how the themes and aesthetics of TERMINATOR 2 re-enforce the kick-ass action scenes and I will show you a friend for life.)

Alas, The Manly Movie Guide barely deserves to be put on the same shelf as Chicks on Film.

It’s not as if it’s a worthless book. Any guide which puts GOODFELLAS in “Comedy” and NATURAL BORN KILLERS in “Romance” has something going for it. And any guide with the guts to dismiss THELMA AND LOUISE with a tart capsule review like

Two suburban babes hit the road to become modern-day, gun-toting desperadoes. What’s goes on here? Aren’t Tupperware parties good enough for those chicks? [P.70]

deserves at least a modicum of respect. Maybe not admiration, but respect.

Alas, occasional mordant barbs don’t make a full-featured book worthwhile. It doesn’t help that the main conceit of The Manly Movie Guide is that the two authors are writing as if they were ignorant machos writing for a similar audience. (Get it? Get It? Ooh! Genius!) The whole package is there: Phobia of all things French, casual misogyny, disdain of intellectualism, love of firearms and strong homo-erotic fascination for John Wayne and similar icons. It’s easy to picture the audience tearing through cases of beer, slapping their girlfriends around and voting Republican.

It’s meant to be satire, but there’s a limit to the enjoyment you can get from such shtick, especially when it’s dragged on for so long. A good number of their capsule reviews are interchangeable, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself overdosing on words like “virile”, “two-fisted”, “rugged” and the omnipresent “manly”. The book is best approached in very small doses; maybe a page a week.

The authors aren’t fooling anyone with their dumb-and-dumber masquerade: occasional polysyllabic words slip by, and the old-school focus of the book (with a strong emphasis on westerns and films of the forties) is something what wouldn’t pass muster with a manly crowd deeply suspicious of black-and-white features. I don’t think I’ve heard about half the movies described in here and for the most cases, I now feel as if I don’t need to know any more about them.

But that places The Manly Movie Guide in a strange demimonde (Ooh! Fancy French word!) with its ironic detachment working against both the high and the low-brow crowd. There’s too much sarcasm for real rednecks and too much repetitiveness for the film geeks like me. This is a strangely misguided book, its encyclopedic knowledge of “manly” movies (itself a very limiting restriction) being undone by an exasperating tone.

In short, I’d rather read Chick on Film again for a series of recommendation influenced by a gender, but not limited by an artificial set of limits. The Manly Movie Guide may be without any adequate public, and that’s reason enough to leave it on the shelf. Alone.

The Good Thief (2002)

(In theaters, May 2003) There’s really only one good reason to see this film, and it’s Nick Nolte’s lead performance as he transforms himself from a frumpy tired junkie loser to a high-rolling gambler with the world in his hand. It’s a great role, and one that few other actors than Nolte would have the required presence to achieve. Otherwise, well, the film isn’t nearly as compelling. Tchéky Karyo and the beautiful Cote d’Azure setting are good points, but they do little to compensate for the rest of this pointless film. The beginning is particularly laborious, as its meticulously paints the sordid Euro-trash existence of the lead protagonist. It’s only after he hits rock-bottom and has to plan ahead for One More Score that the film acquires any dramatic inertia. If you can forget about Nutsa Kukhianidze’s horrid performance as the mumbling, somnolent heroine (Hey, I know she’s supposed to be a Russian girl, but she can’t even be bothered to mumble properly!) the middle part of the film very slowly builds to a casino heist caper that promises a good time. But the film loses it in the last third, as three different operations take place at the same time without much relationship to one another, leading to a sentiment of diffuse dissatisfaction. Luck, not plotting, shapes the ending, leading to a supremely ironic finale that doesn’t quite know what to make of itself. See it for Nick Nolte, maybe, but don’t go looking for a good story in there.

El Espinazo Del Diablo [The Devil’s Backbone] (2001)

(On DVD, May 2003) Cool little historical ghost story that may take a second viewing to fully appreciate. While the pacing may be slower than usual for a horror film, the strength and interest of the characters, coupled with some really good direction and cinematography, is more than than enough to make this a quirky little gem. A ghost story where the ghosts are victims and the real monsters aren’t ghosts, The Devil’s Backbone takes us back to an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War: But don’t worry; this isn’t a lesson in politics, and the relationships between the kids and adults abandoned in the middle of the Spanish desert soon grab our interest. The DVD will do wonders to enhance your enjoyment of the film, as it features a wonderful English-language commentary track with director Guillermo del Toro. His passion for the material clearly shows, and his explanations of the material (whose symbolism and setting may be unfamiliar to contemporary American audiences) are well worth listening to. Good little unpretentious horror film, with plenty of neat touches. Maybe a little slow, but well worth an attentive viewing or two.

Down With Love (2003)

(In theaters, May 2003) I’m way too young to recall the carefree naughty comedies of the early sixties, but, heck, I’ve seen Austin Powers and I’m a sucker for crackling dialogue. It only took “from director Peyton Reed” to get me in the theatre (his previous film was the wonderful Bring It On) and he doesn’t disappoint with this charming irony-free (well, mostly) throwback to another era. Ewan MacGregor and David Hyde Pierce are magnificent in their roles (unfortunately, Renée Zellweger is too thin), but it’s the direction which takes centre-stage, with a wonderful blend of inconsistent special effects, outlandish set design and effective camera work. The script is more fun than most other comedies you’ll see this year, with plenty of zingers, fresh dialogues and a mean twist or three at the end. Exceptional date movie. Good stuff; I can’t wait to hear the director’s commentary on the DVD.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2004) I’m overly pleased to report that this, my favourite romantic comedy in a long while, remains as fresh and delicious than my memories of my first viewing indicated. Everything clicks in this film, from the performances to the direction, the script to the costumes. What is more apparent on a small screen is how much of a character is Mark Shaiman’s score, as it seamlessly underscores every single twitch, blink and nod on-screen. There hasn’t been a film so delightful in a long while, and it doesn’t play as much as it delivers a constant jolt of fun. I remain convinced that director Peyton Reed is one of the best new directors out there; certainly, the totality of his romantic vision for Down With Love is deeply impressive. The DVD is packed with good stuff, the best of which is a breathlessly interesting audio commentary by Reed himself. Tons of smaller documentaries (plus one useless HBO infomercial) complete the package. It’s a shame that this film couldn’t find much of an audience anywhere; in the meantime, it’ll stay in my DVD collection as a secret weapon to charm unsuspecting guests.

Bringing Down The House (2003)

(In theaters, May 2003) It would be a misuse of frustration to blame movies for society’s ills, and especially inappropriate to single out a comedy as an offencive depiction of current problems. And yet, despite the slight gags and so-called comedic moments, watching Bringing Down The House remains a slightly unpleasant experience. So Steve Martin exemplifies the uptight white guy? Queen Latifah (who co-produced this thing, so it’s not as if she’s an innocent bystander) is all black womanhood? Yikes. We’re merely trading intolerant bigotry for stereotypical herding. In this light, the film’s unsubtle scorn of old-school bigotry is a particularly dishonest tactic. Now, if I let go of my cynicism for a moment, I can admit that all actors are relatively pleasant and that Eugene Levy once again steals the show as a jungle-fevered enthusiast of fine ebony flesh. But Bringing Down The House usually plays more like a low-level irritant than a particularly charming comedy. White men can’t jump, black folks have all the mojo and acting like a moron is a straight path to hipness. Yeeeah. Meanwhile, ebonics is seen as something noble and mobster’s bars are exclusively peopled with a darker shade of tan. This is what passes for progressive entertainment. White movie’s burden indeed.