Monthly Archives: June 2003

Psychohistorical Crisis, Donald Kingsbury

Tor, 2001, 727 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34195-6

Even more than fifty years after their original publication, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy stands as one of Science-fiction’s enduring classics. While the book’s narrative qualities now seem charmingly quaint at best, the strength of the trilogy’s main conceit has survived the ages: What if we could develop a hard science (say, psychohistory) that could accurately predict the behaviour of large human groups? What if this knowledge was used to prevent (or attenuate) major social catastrophes?

The implications of this concept have been mulled over at lengths by fans since then, but even Asimov’s subsequent exploration of the Foundation Universe (with some half-dozen sequels, plus an “authorized” posthumous trilogy by Bear, Brin and Benford) hasn’t slowed the speculation. Now, with an entire 750-pages “unauthorized” sequel thousands of years after the events of Asimov’s trilogy, Donald Kingsbury acquires some serious street creds as the most obsessed Foundation fan ever.

That, in case you’re still wondering, is a good thing. Kinsbury adjusts some of Asimov’s most unlikely missteps (the Mule’s psi powers are ingeniously retro-explained as a direct mind-link, with stupendous implications for the plotting of the novel), forgets all about that Robots and Empire nonsense added in the last few books and presents a galaxy-spanning sequel. He also questions the very foundations (har-har) of Asimov’s premise, and what it means for the average human living in that universe.

I have noted, in my previous review of the Foundation trilogy, how psychohistory (and most of Asimov’s later retrofits) could lead to an absolute power fantasy in which total control was exerted to control humanity’s fate. I certainly wasn’t the only one to make the remark (it even figures as a major plot point of Asimov’s last Foundation novels), and it’s only one of the kernels from which Kingsbury spins his tale.

It starts with a bang, as our protagonist -”Eron Osa”- is found guilty of unspoken (presumably unspeakable) crimes. Before his eyes, his “fam” (an artificial brain almost essential to advanced thinking) is destroyed as punishment. Eron is then released in the city, left to contemplate his new dumber existence. He doesn’t remember his crime —nor most of his life. The fam’s destruction took along his skills, his memories and all knowledge of his actions. Who is he? What has he done?

It’s an intriguing mystery and the first fifty pages of Psychohistorical Crisis are dynamite science-fiction. The thrill of discovering Kingsbury’s take on Asimov’s universe is deftly mixed with the initial mystery and the dense idea-rich prose. For readers weaned on the Foundation series, nostalgic about classical SF and anxious for the Next Big SF Novel, Psychohistorical Crisis is almost too good to be true; a high-powered update on one of SF’s most celebrated creation.

Almost inevitably, the feeling passes; the novel is very long, after all. The mystery of what Eron did isn’t forgotten as much as it’s explained in excruciating detail -though a book-length flashback describing his life! While the story is stuffed with wonders and supplemented with plenty of interesting intellectual digressions, the initial rush of the novel is lost, and so is the snappiness of the pacing. There’s not a lot of conventional action (our characters think a lot), but then again the whole Foundation series has always been a celebration in intellectual contemplation.

It recovers somewhat by the end of the book as plot lines converge toward the titular crisis and the mystery of Eron’s crime is made clear. Yes, the rambling pacing could have been improved and most of Kingsbury’s digressions could have been edited out. (The novel itself is longer than the original trilogy) But with Psychohistorical Crisis, Kingsbury finally delivers on the follow-up novel we’ve been waiting for ever since 1982’s Courtship Rite (No, The Moon Goddess and the Son doesn’t count): a thick, rich, almost embarrassingly good Science-fiction novel versed both in the traditions of the genre and the latest scientific thinking. It’s at once comfortable and daring, with the potential to snag fans of everyone in between Isaac Asimov and Cory Doctorow. While the self-conscious plotting of the book cannot live up to its initial expectations, it does deliver something as good. Delicious… and filling!

The Spheres of Heaven, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 2001, 440 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-31969-8

Recently, as I was discussing the current state of Science-fiction with a far more more learned acquaintance, I found myself admitting that I’ve run out of patience with “ordinary” SF. The genre has limitless possibilities and the universe as a canvas: Why is it that writers are content in recycling stock premises, tired conventions and material we’ve already read countless times? Let’s forget the past fifty years and move forward, people! Our future has changed since 1980!

Alas, Charles Sheffield’s The Spheres of Heaven isn’t new SF. At all. Not only is it a sequel (it can be read independently from The Mind Pool, but it’s still a sequel), but its imagined universe smells suspiciously familiar. Interstellar travel is handled by “Link” gates, but they are not accessible to us: Humanity is locked out of the galaxy by alien races fearful of our potential for violence. The Solar System is colonized from Mercury to the Oort Cloud, but after twenty years of isolation, there’s a strong sense of stagnation. But here come the aliens, and they need good-old human audacity to solve a prickly problem involving a new Link and disappearing ships.

That’s the setup. Alas, it takes nearly two hundred pages to do anything with it. And what’s explored isn’t the tension between violence and stagnation, but yet another dull story of first contact with conquest-thirsty aliens from another dimension.

Excuse me as I yawn.

It could have been interesting had the writing been up to the task. But Sheffield’s never been a character-driven author nor a master stylist. If you strip away his ideas, you usually end up with a dull novel indeed, and this is the fate that awaits The Spheres of Heaven. It’s lifeless and just takes forever to rev up. From the exploration of the alien environment to the formation of protagonist Chan Dalton’s team, The Spheres of Heaven seems padded and then dull: To put it simply, too many words are used for the density of action described.

It doesn’t help that the novel constantly focuses on the wrong things. At the beginning of the novel, the accretion of Dalton’s team is fascinating, yet Sheffield insists on cutting away at every other chapter. Then Sheffield does the unforgivable: why assemble such a crack team of fascinating specialists if you’re not going to do anything with them? Later, Friday Indigo’s trip becomes another central focus, leading to another loss of tension in the narrative.

Another problem with The Spheres of Heaven is how it often reads like a novel for teenagers, retrofitted to appeal to adults. (Sheffield has written teen novels for Tor, so that may not be a completely ridiculous theory). Sure, the characters have sex lives and are often ex-addicts, but the overall plotting and execution seems to appeal to unsophisticated SF readers. Details such as the composition of the strange watery environment in which environment our characters are stuck takes forever to explain when even the most casual reader thinks “Heavy water!”

Idea-wise, there’s not much to digest in The Spheres of Heaven. We’ve seen most of it elsewhere, and usually better-used. Dimension-hopping’s been done before. So have expansionist aliens, human quarantine, first contact and/or exploration of strange environments. (And I say this without having read the previous book!)

It’s a shame, really, because Sheffield has been capable of far better things. But The Spheres of Heaven has all the hallmarks of a slap-dash hack job, the type of book written for quick bucks and paid by the word. Even Sheffield enthusiasts may have a hard time finishing this one. It’s not appallingly bad (certainly, we’ve seen worse, even from this author), but it has no compelling features either. Sense my lack of patience, will you?

Southern Cross, Patricia Cornwell

Pocket, 1998, 382 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17254-6

This is the first Patricia Cornwell book that I read, and as such, there are things that I do not know. I have been told, for instance, that Cornwell’s best work is the “Kay Scarpetta” series, but I have no way of affirming this for myself without reading her other books. I have seen references to a previous novel featuring the protagonists of Southern Cross, but can’t verify the assertion. I suppose that the Scarpetta novels are more serious fare, and that Southern Cross is a departure of sorts for the normally staid Cornwell.

But there is one thing I can say without need for comparisons with other Cornwell works and it’s that Southern Cross is just not a very good book. On this, I have no need to consult with Cornwell enthusiasts: Failure is obvious whatever the context. It’s not a complete disaster, mind you. It’s just that this novel is simply too dull to be liked.

A large part of this failure can be blamed on Southern Cross‘s chosen tone: The light, borderline-comic crime novel genre is well established (Hiassen, etc.) but isn’t a natural fit for every author. It takes more than characters with funny names, sprawling incompetence and amusing vignettes to sustain the interest of chuckle-deprived readers. A touch too much drama may sour the bouquet; a too-heavy hand on the tiller can make the whole thing crumble in trivialities. Sadly, Cornwell does both in this botched attempt to amuse readers.

Southern Cross takes place in Richmond, Virginia, a typical Southern city whose best years are unfortunately long gone. The tobacco industry is fast dying, poverty is rampant, racial problems can resurface at any time and natives aren’t keen on seeing g’darn Yankees try to impose their way. Unfortunately, that’s the perception when super-cop Judy Hammer comes in with her team to try to solve Richmond’s crime problem through computer analysis and better policing methods.

As a Canadian, I’m basically ignorant when it comes to the reality of the southern United States. Plenty of prejudice has made its way up north and Southern Cross doesn’t do much to correct them. Rednecks named “Bubba” may or may not exemplify the South, but one certainly star in Cornwell’s novel and while his portrait is eventually sympathetic, it’s not exactly flattering. The same goes for the incompetence, stupidity and stereotypes confronting Hammer’s team as they try to do their jobs. Hilarious interludes include a fight between a police officer and a dispatcher (the fun of which is carried over in the resolution and the aftermath), a governor who seems vastly more competent than anyone else and a black policeman slightly too sensitive to perceived racial slurs.

But those comic highlights are far and few. The rest of the novel seems mired in pointless sequences and interminable dialogues about trivialities. Worse; there is a highly dramatic subplot running through the novel involving the murder of a secondary character, a narrative thread that seems to belong in another book entirely. Technological details are, er, unconvincing. The resolution of the book means nothing, concentrates on subplots and may even suggests that the villains may go free for lack of proof. Overall, the tone is both scattered and forced, as Cornwell can’t focus her narrative to a cohesive plot and simply tries too hard to include “light” elements while forgetting to make them mean something.

There are fine character portraits and a few amusing moments in here, but they seem to belong in another novel. As it currently stands, Southern Cross is a mess that can’t support its own weight, a tedious read occasionally enlivened by flashes of interest. It certainly doesn’t make me curious about the rest of Cornwell’s oeuvre, even though I’ve been told that the rest is much, much better…

The Terminator (1984)

(Second viewing, On DVD, June 2003) Once you see beyond a few dated special-effects shots, this movie holds up amazingly well almost two decades later. This first instalment in the series looks good for its low budget and presents, almost in a nutshell, all the ideas that would later pop up in the sequel. Arnold Schwarzenegger looks too young (and has too much hair), but ably demonstrates his star qualities in a role that seems almost custom-built for his (limited) talents. Linda Hamilton is adorable as the fluffy Sarah Connor and the eighties setting now seems almost emblematic rather than dated. The Special Edition DVD presents plenty of extras, including fascinating deleted scenes (further showing the way to the second film) and a revealing look behind the scenes of Cameron’s “true” first film. We may be tempted to see this film merely as the first volume of a series but it’s actually quite good as a standalone film of the era.

Taxi 3 (2003)

(In theaters, June 2003) If you’ve seen the first two Taxi films, this third entry is almost an obvious choice. Don’t bother if you’re not a fan of the series, though; while there are a few good action sequences, the only thing bigger than the self-indulgence of the production is the indulgence they ask of the audience. Dumb comedy, underwhelming villains and lukewarm action scenes; I’m just about ready to say that writer Luc Besson has run out of ideas. Oh, the actors are cool enough (the opening credit sequence hilariously parodies the Bond series, complete with writhing Santa Clauses) but on most other levels, the film relies on stock situations (pregnancies; oh, ah) and overly dramatic scenes that seem out of place in this context. Some gags (the “torture” and drug jokes) are just lame, and this sentiment escapes from the vignettes to contaminate the entire film. Do we need a Taxi 4? I’m not sure we do.

Smilla’s Sense Of Snow (1997)

(On DVD, June 2003) Surprisingly faithful adaptation of Peter Hoeg’s best-selling thriller, though not without flaws: Julia Osmond is too cute to play Smilla, but the overall plotting is rather similar. Fortunately, the film improves the often languid pacing of the book, through often highlighting important clues in doing so. (Sometimes even using musical cues!) The film is as cold as the setting, but it usually works well given the context. The story may start as a thriller, but elements eventually amplify to make the film evolve towards a more strictly science-fictional climax. (The nature of the resolution works better in the book, but the film can’t take the luxury to smooth the transition. Furthermore, the altered ending of the film is rather more conventionally satisfying than the book’s abrupt end.) Fans of the novel will be pleased, and so will everyone exasperated by the extra verbiage of the original. The Greenland scenery is often spectacular and acting credits are high, with many familiar faces rounding the cast. The DVD whets our appetites with an intriguing featurette on the challenges of filming in Greenland, but stops shy of giving us anything more on the making of the film.

Honor Among Enemies (Honor Harrington 6), David Weber

Baen, 1996, 538 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87783-6

While recurring series are a boon for authors and publishers trying to make a honest buck by luring readers back for “one more adventure”, they also present particular challenges. How you you keep your protagonist fresh and interesting? How do you develop him or her in a realistic fashion even as they encounter murder, mayhem and mystery in every new volume? How do you explain or exploit their progress through the years?

At the speed by which Honor Harrington progressed through the ranks in the first three volumes of the series, readers could justifiably wonder if she’d end up Queen of the Known Universe by the end of the tenth book. While this may still be in the cards, the fourth volume’s conclusion made it amply clear that her career had been derailed for, oh, at least the following two novels. While she made good in an allied navy in Flag in Exile, she’s back in Her Majesty’s service for the in Honor Among Enemies. She’s wearing the proper Royal Manticoran Navy uniform once more, but don’t think that she’s back on the admiralty career track; summoned by her enemies for an impossible mission far away from the front-lines of the Havenite war, Harrington is being set up for an scenario where the odds are stacked against her.

But both Harrington and Weber’s readers are alike in that this is the kind of situation they like best. Once more thrown in the middle of lethal space battles (there’s even a hilarious moment where her new crew bemoan the body count that seems to follow her wherever she goes), Honor once again upholds the honour of the Queen, triumphs against impossible odds, trashes Havenite forces and acts like an officer and a gentlewoman should.

After the more complex political plots and subplots of Field of Dishonor and Flag in Exile, Honor Among Enemies is a return of sort to more straight-up military SF. Asked to destroy a ring of pirates decimating commercial traffic, Honor is ideally placed to use her tactics against a variety of enemy forces, most often than not at a numeric disadvantage. It works well, and it sure seems as if Weber is improving the pacing of his battle sequences with every successive book.

By isolating Harrington and putting her in a smaller cadre, Weber is also setting up a return to the more intimate settings that characterized the first book of the series, before Harrington started commanding small fleets. Honor can once more get the privilege of captaining a ship, with all the assorted challenges associated with the role over and above the inevitable space fights. In fact, Honor Among Enemies marks a first in the series by featuring an interesting subplot (Aubrey Weatherman’s adventures) that does not feature Harrington. (Heck, there’s even a treecat romance thrown in) That too works well, as it’s sort of a teaser -we guess- for what will follow as she starts playing a more active role in the Havenite war.

In short, this is yet another satisfying entry in the Honor Harrington series. Provided you’re still a fan by this point (and why shouldn’t you be if you’re reading the sixth volume?), there’s plenty of things to like in this book. The standard plot template is faithfully followed, but Honor Among Enemies delivers what it’s supposed to; a pretty decent reading experience for the fans. Now, could we get cracking on the Havenite war in time for the seventh volume?

(I should finally note, as an interesting factoid, that even though I own the paperback version of this book, I ended reading it as an ebook provided on the War of Honor CD-ROM. In this particular case, it was initially a question of convenience (I had my PDA with me at the opportune moment) and then of physical preference (my paperback had a horrible “crinkly” binding, with practically no inner margins) Hmm… Could I be catching the ebook bug?)

The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)

(On DVD, June 2003) Eek. Some movies age decidedly less well than others, and the deficiencies of The Philadelphia Experiment go well beyond the outdated special effects: While this time-travelling tale isn’t particularly affected by its early-eighties setting (the era’s flavour actually seems even more amusing and appropriate today), the cinematic techniques suffer from the low-budget approach of the film: The camera seldom moves, and it’s no accident if the only sequence in which the cinematography suddenly comes alive (a car chase through an orange grove, featuring a few gorgeous helicopter shots) is one of the film’s best. The muddy cinematography isn’t particularly helped by the DVD presentation and the special effects are best regarded as an endearing reminder of what was possible back then. (Said DVD edition is sadly bereft of supplements.) It may come at no surprise, given the film’s origins, that the acting isn’t particularly impressive and that the dialogue is often atrocious. Oh well: I suppose that the central premise is ingenious (if you’ve never read another time-travel tale), but the film’s highlights are few and far in-between. One of the film’s last shot features no-name characters embedded in the steel flanks of a battleship; it’s regrettable that the rest of the film can’t live up to this striking image.

Monster’s Ball (2001)

(On DVD, June 2003) Slow-moving, often unpleasant family drama that seems far too contrived for its own good. Set in the southern United States and seemingly dedicated to re-establish all prejudices about the old confederate states, Monster’s Ball stars a bunch of unpleasant characters whose sole purpose seems to be highly obnoxious before being removed from the film. We Sauvé siblings were not impressed: the ferocity of our wisecracks approached that of far worse movies. It’s not as if the film doesn’t attain a certain level of affection (the ending is touching, and the last characters left standing do deserve the best they can manage) but it takes a long long while to get there. The danger is in considering Monster’s Ball as somehow emblematic of any social issue like racism, poverty or the death penalty; the level of manipulation required to plot the story makes it patently ridiculous as an instrument of social commentary. Fans of Halle Berry will be both pleased at the intense nudity and embarrassed at a few showy scenes. (She looks good naked, but she’s not convincing when hysterical or drunk, which seems to be her character’s two dominant modes. Otherwise, her character seems solely conceived as a personality-free victim) Was the Oscar deserved? Hey, don’t get me started on that! The DVD contains a few behind-the-scenes sequences that could be best characterized as a humour reel. There was also a director’s commentary, but we could muster enough interest to go through the movie again.

American Rhapsody, Joe Eszterhas

Knopf, 2000, 432 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-375-41144-5

Let’s see: The screenwriter of BASIC INSTINCT and SHOWGIRLS writes a book-length op-ed about the Clinton/Lewinski affair. If there’s an award for literary irony, American Rhapsody is a automatic winner. Who else would be best equipped to deal with the national trauma of presidential adultery than the man who wrote Sharon Stone’s flash to fame? The man who wrote the trashiest big-budget sexploitation films? Who but, indeed, a Hollywood screenwriter to write about an event that makes even SHOWGIRLS look like high art? If Larry Beinhart can playfully suggest (in American Hero, later filmed as WAG THE DOG) that the first Gulf War was a conspiracy designed for Washington by Hollywood, why not the whole Monicagate?

American Rhapsody stands at the intersection of entertainment and politics, in an American Republic where the two are less and less distinguishable. It stands in an America divided (torn or polarized might be better words) between “left” and “right” in a culture war where vocal minorities of extremists on both sides have the unfortunate tendency to silence the ambivalent majority. American Rhapsody is a series of musings on the aftermath of the sixties, the legacy of Richard Nixon (here brilliantly referred to as “Night Creature”), the status of Bill Clinton as the first rock’n’roll president (or the first baby-boomer president, or the first black president, or the first female president; take your pick) and the inner nature of the dominant political players in 1996-2000. It also stands as a biography of sort for Eszterhas, who tells plenty of salacious anecdotes in a history spanning nearly two decades as one of Hollywood’s army of bitter screenwriters.

By far the most satisfying aspect of American Rhapsody is its willingness to name names, cite facts and use colourful language. This book holds back preciously little, whether in form or in content. Eszterhas obviously paid attention during the whole Lewinski affair, absorbing details long after most of us had overdosed on the entire business. Even though the book makes no attempt at straightforward reporting (no bibliography, no footnotes, no sources, no index), it’s nevertheless stocked with factual detail. One chapter lists five excruciating pages of American scandals since WW2. Another gives the inside story on Clinton’s Vietnam-era behaviour. Yet a third describes Sharon Stone in far more detail than you’ll ever need. It’s a whirlwind trip through American obsessions and it’s very convincing.

But beyond the sleazy facts and the even spicier rumours, it’s Eszterhas’ verve which makes the book worth reading. He is variously amazed, amused and betrayed by Bill Clinton, who embodied most of the liberal virtues, yet was made a national mockery by his actions. Eszterhas knows how to write: the pages of American Rhapsody are filled with nasty little turns of phrases, cool linkages, laugh-out-loud moments and passages of dripping anger. While the second half of the book isn’t as interesting as the first (digressions about characters like James Carville can be fascinating, but they remain digressions nonetheless), this is a unique book. I don’t recall reading something so politically charged, so nakedly expressed, so compulsively readable in a long while.

And this, naturally leads to other issues. Published in 2000, American Rhapsody already belongs to another era, one that seems quaintly appealing in retrospect. The Culture War described by Eszterhas has only grown more vicious, and the neo-conservatives’ reign over the White House has exposed national flaws that Eszterhas could only whisper about. His portrait of Bush Junior (“stupid… and mean”) takes on a frightening quality circa 2003. Heck, after American Rhapsody, it’s not such a stretch to think that if Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush only had affairs with interns once in a while, they wouldn’t go around killing innocent people by proxy so often.

American Rhapsody ought to anger plenty of conservatives, and rightfully so: this is, after all, a piece of ultra-liberal agitprop par excellence. But it’s not all cheers and roses for the Clintons and their ilk either, and this free-flowing, sometimes stream-of-consciousness anger is, almost above everything else, honest. In an age where Washington campaigns are meticulously calculated and Hollywood films are shaped to please commercial requirements, this makes American Rhapsody an even more subversive book. Heck, the fact that it comes from Joe Eszterhas even makes it beautiful as far as I’m concerned. Gonzo Eszterhas as the new Hunter S. Thompson? Another level of irony? If pornographer Larry Flynt can shape the destiny of a nation by stopping an impeachment procedure, why not?

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003)

(In theaters, June 2003) Given my tepid reaction to the original Legally Blonde, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of a sequel, especially one that has the supreme hypocrisy to say something about animal testing on cosmetics. Being branded, herded and searched for recording devices at the advance screening did nothing to make me any more favourable to the film. Alas, the movie itself is its own worst enemy: It would have been worth it to be branded, herded and searched not to this this lame attempt at a political comedy. Seldom have I loathed a character as much as Elle Woods, the obnoxious brain-dead pinkish scourge of the Eastern Seaboard. Legally Blonde 2 sidesteps any political debate between right and left to end up squarely between dumb and stupid. Everything fails in this lifeless so-called comedy: The jokes seldom earn more than a pained smile (with an exception for the perfect delivery of “your dogs are gay”), and one comes out of the film with a renewed appreciation for soft-money campaign contributions. Elle Woods goes to Washington vowing to triumph on the strength of her naive convictions and to avoid the pitfalls of blackmail, networking and insider information… and end up doing exactly that. It would be depressingly hypocritical if we actually had a sense that anyone cared. But aside from the thirty seconds of dumbed-down political content, Legally Blonde 2 is made for those people who coo at dog outfits… you know who you are. Thank you very much for inflicting this piece of trash on us.

Hulk (2003)

(In theaters, June 2003) It seems unusual to praise a movie for its editing, but Hulk‘s most memorable feature is the way some scenes are cut, with fancy wipes, angles-as-boxes, overlapping moving pictures and other fancy stuff like that. It’s the closest thing yet to re-interpreting the comic book grammar on-screen. It sure makes some dull scenes interesting, which is fortunate given the number of boring moments in Hulk, a comic book adaptation by way of Oedipal tragedy. Director Ang Lee ends up directing a very Ang Lee movie indeed: Male rage symbolism is mixed with deep family trauma to end up with something that’s not far from the dismissive “The Ice Storm starring Shrek” rumour heard just before the film’s release. There are a few nice moments in the second hour (it’s pretty cool to see F-22s and Comanche helicopters properly presented on-screen) but the film is still marred by a structure that takes to much time to deliver, and a superfluous ending that feels more like an afterthought than a climax. Too bad that the film chose to resolve a family drama through an overuse of special effects… Otherwise, well, Jennifer Connelly is too thin, Eric Bana will be a star soon enough, Nick Nolte is his usual gruff self and some of the special effects are iffy. Have I forgotten something? Probably the same thing that the filmmakers forgot: Even though this is a comic superhero movie, it’s just not a lot of fun. Maybe we’ll have to wait for the sequel for that, now that the pesky family/origin story is out of the way.

Hollywood Homicide (2003)

(In theaters, June 2003) If you wanted a mixed bag of this and that, here’s the film for you. Let us run it down: The good stuff include more animated performances than usual by Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett (admittedly, that’s not saying much!), a fascinating premise mixing police work with side interests, a whirlwind tour of Hollywood’s entertainment businesses, plenty of sun and fun, some inspired comic sequences and a cool chase that uses just about every terrestrial transportation device. The bad points, alas, include an inconsistent tone, an overly complicated plot, unbelievable situations, many scenes that just don’t work and an overall feeling of production laziness. It all adds up to a curiously detached viewing experience, as if every time we wanted to like the movie, it did something stupid to avoid too much attachment. The gratuitous demise of the villain leaves a sour impression that remains.

Fright Night (1985)

(On DVD, June 2003) Surprisingly engaging teen horror film with a deep affection for classic B-grade horror that makes its comedic take even more effective. Sure, there’s been other vampire comedies before. Yes, there are other “hero discovers that neighbours are evil” films out there. (The Burbs, The Burbs!) But Fright Night is directed with flair and paced with skill. It holds up quite well fifteen years later through savvy use of sympathetic characters (with a particular nod to Roddy MacDowall’s “Peter Vincent” -Hello Mr. Lorre and Mr. Price) and amusing sight gags. In this current post-Scream slasher revival, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, supernatural creatures of the night were the rightful owners of trash horror. Fortunately, Fright Night is a fitting tribute to the time, not out of place with films such as Matinee and the afore-mentioned Scream. Worth a look!

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Peter Hoag (Translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Bantam Seal, 1992 (1994 reprint), 499 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2618-2

As an avid reader who happens to watch a lot of movies, some things never fail to amaze me. Whenever I need some measure of the true intellectual worth of the average American, I simply start making comparisons between the two medium. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for instance. Worldwide Science-fiction bestseller, all eras confounded. One of SF’s best novels, with enough depth and complexity to make any reader scream in admiration. The movie presented shiny images, reduced characters to ciphers and compressed seven hundred pages in less than three hours. A lot of people hated it, including fans of the novel. It tanked at the box-office. And yet, a random sampling of people on the street will quickly reveal that far more have seen the movie, even as unsuccessful at it was, than have read the best-selling book.

Consider Smilla’s Sense of Snow, too: it was originally written by a Danish writer, translated in dozens of language, loved by critics and became an international bestseller. A middling movie came out, didn’t do too well at the box-office and yet still managed to be seen by more people than the novel. Funny universe, isn’t it? Not that I should be any shining beacon of virtue; I managed to avoid the novel for years until I happened to grab a cheap paperback copy at a charity sale.

It is undoubtedly an original book, if only for the setting: Taking place in Denmark, this thriller describes (through a first-person narration) a woman’s investigation of the death of an acquaintance, a small boy she had previously befriended. Her investigation takes us through early-nineties Copenhagen, which in itself alone is a welcome change of scenery for most jaded American thriller readers. But as far as pure escapism is concerned, just wait: Denmark, among other things, owns Greenland, and all the clues that Smilla uncovers seem to point to Greenland as the solution of the mystery… Polar temperatures, here we come!

As the sensuously sibilant title suggests, this is a novel built around a character. Smilla Jasperson is an almost-perfect outsider. Born of an union between a Danish doctor and a Greenlander huntress, Smilla finds herself ill at ease wherever she goes. A woman of exceptional talents (her “sense of snow” makes her an incomparable scientist and an invaluable member for any Arctic expedition), she is nevertheless a recluse. Shunning human contact for the reassurance of science, numbers and study, Smilla is unapproachable, unsympathetic and unwilling to pursue human contact. The small boy was the only one to manage that trick, out of shared loneliness. Now he’s dead and Smilla wants to know why.

Her investigation has all the hallmarks of a carefully contrived thriller. Chases, uncooperative witnesses, corporate machinations, pressure from police officials, family issues and even a romantic entanglement are blended in the narrative. Meanwhile, Smilla accumulates clues suggesting that this may not exactly be a completely straightforward thriller: something very unusual may be hidden up north… The climax switches genres and presents an explanation that may be jarring to readers who haven’t paid attention to the ream of scientific explanation and rationalization peppered throughout the book. Smilla is, after all, a scientist and her skills will seem natural given the resolution of the book.

It’s a shame that, for such a thriller, the prose seems so glacial. It’s not as if it’s badly-written: Even in this transparent translation, the thick prose is stuffed with scientific metaphors, and the glimpse in Smilla’s head is simply fascinating. But this literary/thriller hybrid takes far too long in moving from one high point to another. Then there’s the last few pages, which elucidate the mystery but snatch away any reasonably pleasant conclusion. “There will be no resolution” is not something you want to read after nearly 500 pages, and yet it’s the book’s last line.

If you want to savour the flavour of the Danish setting, cheer at the reclusive nature of an unspeakably cuter Smilla, experience the best thrills of the story and nod your head at a satisfying conclusion, you would be better off renting the cinematographic adaptation. In two hours, it tells the story, showcases Julia Osmond, presents spectacular polar landscapes and wraps up everything decently. It may not be as complete as the book, but it’s certainly easier to digest. But then again, you would become one of those people on the street with a better knowledge of the movie than the book. Why not get both?