Monthly Archives: April 2004

Invasion, Robin Cook

Berkley, 1997, 338 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-15540-4

Wow, that book sucked.

I know; I know; I shouldn’t expect much from a paperback original adapted from a TV miniseries. I should expect even less from a thriller author meddling with science-fiction for the first time. And, goodness gracious, it’s not as if I had big expectations for Robin Cook after his execrable Fatal Cure. It’s not as if I hadn’t read bad reviews of the book already. But you never know. Sometimes, there are surprises.

But then again sometimes, there are no surprises. From the opening prologue, if not the very first page, something is wrong: Cook uses scientific words and expressions in a sloppy fashion, as if he only half understood what he was describing. The sequence -the apparition and crash-landing of an extraterrestrial space-ship- wants to be exact but ends up muddled. (As if that wasn’t bad enough, we don’t even know at this point that what’s being described doesn’t even match what happens later in the book.)

Things get worse in the first chapter, as Cook throws the book’s characters at the unsuspecting reader. They’re not introduced as much as they’re dropped on-stage, with cute names (“Beau”, “Pitt”, “Cassy”, “Nancy”, etc.) and threadbare personalities. Half of them are medical specialists or students, which will obviously be handy later on. Fortunately, it’s not required to learn anything about the characters yet: Invasion quickly settles into a quiet rip-off of INVASIONS OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and anyone even remotely familiar with tales of alien invasions can just relax and see where Cook intends to go.

Very quickly, it becomes obvious that Cook intends to go where every other science-fiction writer has gone before. As hunky Beau is taken over by an alien parasite, his personality changes and he becomes prone to saying things like “Hmm, humans are so strange.” His girlfriend isn’t particularly bothered by the changes given how he’s suddenly really really good in bed. (One would question how the alien knows those mad lovin’ skillz, but then again one could forever question just about everything in this novel.) Still, when he goes out and buys a dog without telling the missus, enough is enough and so she decides to leave and confide in her other platonic male best friend. (Why the heck would Beau-alien so spectacularly blow his cover without first infecting his girlfriend is a plot-busting question best left to anyone with an average IQ and up.)

It gets more or less worse from there, as alien crafts magically replicate, take over the population and create black holes whenever it’s convenient for the needs of the plot. Like most struggling SF writers, Cook conjures up all sorts of really creepy events, but never bothers to offer a unified theory of how they all interrelate. Things happen randomly and that’s that. The aliens are invading; screw any other rationale than pure evil. Whatever happens after the invasion is left blurry.

By the time a rag-tag bunch of misfits cook up an antidote of sorts in an abandoned high-tech laboratory hidden under the desert (hey, whatever), the book reads like a parody devoid of humour or even self-awareness. Invasion has a unique moment of SF goodness when it is revealed that the aliens are building an inter-dimensional gate to link Earth with the thousands of other conquered planets. While SF fans will read this and think “Cool! Let us see more of that!”, the characters react like xenophobic rednecks and go “We must destroy the gate! Eew! Icky aliens!”. Naturally enough, it’s all solved in the last ten pages as a counter-infection is going to kill off all traces of alien invasions. (Meanwhile, SF readers are concerned about whether those “infected” humans can, in fact, be uninfected without massive casualties, but that’s something that Cook obviously doesn’t care much about.)

Ultimately, though, a 700-words review isn’t enough to detail all the logical mistakes and deeply stupid moments in Robin Cook’s Invasion. Nor is it enough to give a sense of how tedious this book is, thanks to the lack of surprises and the flat characters. But it is just long enough to tell you to stay away from it, unless you want to see a real compendium of bad Science Fiction by an author who ought to stick to medical thrillers. And maybe not even that, judging how even that portion of Invasion fails to be any more credible. But what else did I expect?

Medusa’s Child, John J. Nance

Doubleday, 1997, 388 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48343-0

Modern publishing is a weird beast, afflicted like it is with demanding profit margins from corporate owners, rising costs, fickle audiences and the incertitudes of marketing artistic products. In face of these dangers, the industry has developed defence mechanisms, the most visible of which has been a tendency to place authors in very narrow niches. How narrow? It depends on genres: Mystery fiction tends to recycle the same characters in dozens of adventures. Fantasy goes for fat trilogies of overlong material ripped off from earlier, better writers. In the thriller field, specialization can attain rarefied levels as some authors specialize in very specific environment. Dale Brown loves B-52s, Michael DiMercurio can’t get enough of submarines and John J. Nance is the field’s foremost commercial aviation thriller writer.

The specialization is not accidental: Writers are admonished to write about what they know best, and these three men have taken this suggestion literally: Brown used to fly on bombers, DiMercurio was a submariner and Nance not only is an “aviation consultant” for ABC, but was also (as of 1997) a professional airline pilot. He’s got eleven novels to his name, and all of them involve aviation to a degree or another.

In Medusa’s Child, the focus is on a tiny cargo airline, Scotair, the dream-come-true achievement of protagonist Scott McKay. But as the novel begins, the dream is about to end: Dogged by debts and bad luck, Scotair is down to it’s last reserves; if anything goes wrong –it’s the end of the line for everyone involved. And things are about to go very, very wrong indeed.

Within a few pages, the nightmare begins: A mysterious pallet is loaded aboard the leased 727 plane that Scotair is using, escorted by an even-more mysterious woman. Before long, mystery is replaced by terror as the crate is revealed to contain a nuclear bomb with enhanced EMP-generating capabilities. It’s all part of a complex revenge plan, but the threat is clear: within a few minutes, the bomb will detonate, destroying Washington and wiping electronic equipment across half of North America. Throw in a hurricane, the FBI and the American Armed Forces and you’ve got all the elements required for a crackling thriller.

One of the best things about Medusa’s Child is how it really compresses the action into a time-frame approaching real-time reading. Save for the prologue and epilogue, everything takes place in less than nine hours, exactingly minuted through section headers. Of course, thanks to some devilishly convoluted complications, there is scarcely a break available once the timer starts ticking.

One thing that Nance does exceedingly well, here or in the other books I’ve read from him, is dangle the possibility of a early tidy ending throughout the book. Medusa’s Child is packed with subplots which contain the very real possibility of resolution. But something always happens to cut it off at the last minute. At least two ways to defuse the threat are discussed –but are revealed too late. I especially liked the way Nance toys with his readers’ expectations: Given that this is an airborne thriller, it can only end once the plane has landed, right? “Unity of setting”, isn’t it? Well, Nance serves one almost-landing, then another false one, showing that he understands the game being played with his audience. It becomes nearly annoying, but also very thrilling as things just can’t seem to go right for the protagonists. Even when you think that it’s over, there’s one final niggling detail to fix –and it’s a good one. That final stunt is a piece of work, even for a reader who has read techno-thrillers for years.

Granted, Nance makes up in breathless pacing what he blurs in credibility. There are a number of logical howlers here and there (to say more would be a spoiler), but they’re difficult to notice given how they’re buried under the rhythm of the story. But that’s the prerogative of thriller writer; if they succeed at making the story fly, no-one is going to complain about occasional details. Suffice to say that Medusa’s Child is excellent entertainment and that beach readers shouldn’t look any further. Good stuff, well-handled by a professional writer and aviator.

A Place So Foreign And 8 More, Cory Doctorow

Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003, 243 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56858-286-2

Cory Doctorow landed on the Science Fiction scene with a splash in 2000, winning the Campbell award for best new writer only a few months before publishing his first book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction. Audacious? Not as much as his acceptance speech, which ended with a URL. Doctorow is one of the new SF writers who has grown up along with the Internet, and his approach to fiction reflects that both in content (where he can sling the jargon like the worst IT consultants) and in presentation (don’t be surprised if just about every story of the volume has been made available on-line for free)

A Place So Foreign And 8 More hardly collects all of Doctorow’s short-fiction output since his beginnings in 1990, but it’s a good start, and a great overview of what he’s capable of producing. On the heel of his excellent first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, it’s also a good indication that Doctorow has what it takes to have a sustained career in the SF field.

The collection starts with a bang (even before Doctorow’s first story) with Bruce Sterling’s laudatory introduction, almost a passing of the torch from a top SF writer to another. “There are times when I suspect I’ve extrapolated Cory Doctorow” writes Sterling, and no more is required to understand where Doctorow is coming from, or where he’s going.

Then there are the stories. Nine tales published in between 1998 and 2002, five years spanning two millenniums, a dot-com boom and bust and Doctorow’s emergence as a hot writer with a Campbell award on his (mobile) mantelpiece. Nine stories oscillating between comedy and drama, soft and hard SF, satire or nostalgia. There’s even a mini-cycle of three stories set in the same universe, with very different atmospheres. But most of all, nine markers telling you to pay attention to this particular author.

There is a publishing tradition that makes anthology editors shuffle the content of short story collections so that the first and last stories of the book are the best ones. A Place So Foreign And 8 More is no exception, with “Craphound” occupying the pole position and “0wnz0red” closing the march. I’ll have more to say about “0wnz0red” in a moment, but “Craphound” has deservedly become Doctorow’s best-known story so far: a hypnotically readable look at the life of a professional nostalgic, the code of conducts between those “craphounds” and what happens when an alien breaks the rules. Great stuff, especially for those who like to spend too much time at rummage sales.

It’s a bit uneven after that: I wasn’t particularly taken by the title story (something about the lack of development and plausibility of the imagined universe) and “All Day Sucker” is succinctly spoiled by its introduction, but they’re followed up by “To Market, to Market: The Re-Branding of Billy Bailey”, an excellent satiric look at the business of personality. I really didn’t go for “Return to Pleasure Island”: I’m not nearly as fascinated by Disney as Doctorow is —but then again few people are.

The following three stories are part of a cycle in which Earth has been invaded by curiously apathetic aliens. All three stories cover very different emotional registers and the result is… curious. “Shadow of the Mothaship” seems too long and unfocused, but I must say that “Home Again, Home Again” gets better every time I read it. “The Super Man and the Bugout”, though, is immediately likable: What if Superman had stayed in Canada?

But the real jewel of the collection is “0wnz0red”, a simple SF tale of personal rapture wrapped in diamond-hard geek-speak. I’m a geek, so it was almost like reading something in my own language. Hilarious, compulsively readable and meanly effective too. (Less technical readers may not find it so amusing or accessible.)

All in all, a collection with the expected lulls and heights. But they certainly do place Doctorow as one of the brightest, most audacious new SF writers. The emphasis on computer technology also speaks volumes, I think about SF’s new direction… but that’s just one elements in an ongoing process for the entire genre. We’ll have to see more to judge, and it just so happens that Doctorow’s going to be writing a number of those new data points.

The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

Signet, 1943 (1993 reprint), 704 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-17512-3

It took me nearly two years to get over Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and muster up the courage to tackle the other novel that made her famous. As it turns out, I could have waited a little bit longer: The Fountainhead is a lot less fun than her latter book, especially if you tend to look at them as fine examples of comedy writing.

The Fountainhead, in a nutshell, is the story of Howard Roark, an architect of singular vision and talent whose modernistic sensibilities are rejected by the masses and scoffed at by the intelligentsia. Thrown out of school, kicked out of dozens of offices, unable to work with most, Roark is painted by Rand as a tragic figure of brilliance dogged by universal mediocrity. In reality, he’s closer to the kid who just doesn’t want to eat his broccoli, but I’ll let that one pass given that I could spend pages parodying The Fountainhead as an endless discussion about broccoli-eating. (“Eat your broccoli!” “I once may have wanted to eat this broccoli, mother, but I will bow to no one! And so the broccoli shall stay in my plate and not in my palate!”)

But even despite my endless reservoirs of sarcasm when it comes to Ayn Rand, I must admit that the first quarter of The Fountainhead is fun to read. I don’t know much about architecture, so the novel could at least fulfil my hunger for an inside look at the field. I’m also a sucker for depictions or thirties-era New York, with its industrial aesthetics and bustling feel as an emerging metropolis. The structure of the novels’ first quarter also helps, as we watch Roark struggle to maintain his integrity while a friend of his moves up thanks to a minimal amount of social skills. Roark may have all the sophistication of a stubborn five-year-old, but there’s a grander-than-life quality to the character that just makes him irresistibly compelling. The Fountainhead suffers whenever he’s off-stage.

Alas, this happens a lot in the middle half of the novel, as Rand sharpens her knives against her antagonists, none of whom are credible and fewer still are of any interest. Roark is exiled, and all we’re left with is moustache-twirling bad guys and love triangles with all the maturity of modern soap operas.

(Generally speaking, Rand’s attempt at human and romantic drama are nothing short of hilarious when they’re not simply boring: Here, sexual aggression seems to be the dominant romantic model of her protagonists as they’re only a step away from S&M practises. While this may have been of substantial shock value in 1943, this is not the case today, and our contemporary reaction to all of this may be a big smirking shrug.)

Things pick up somewhat toward the end of the novel, as Roark once again becomes a major character. Things finally heat up, a city-wide crisis is triggered and fans of Rand’s multi-page screeds have something to look forward to. (Regular readers are advised to skip to the summation.) Things end up more or less as you’d expect, with human spirit triumphing over the bottom-suckers and Roark imposing his will on a subservient city as his opponents are grandly punished. Or something like that.

Compared to Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead reads a lot like a far less interesting prototype of the same ideas. The emphasis on architecture and the character of Howard Roark aside, The Fountainhead is a lot more restrained, a lot less ludicrous and rather less interesting. Atlas Shrugged is firmly set in science-fiction, whereas The Fountainhead stays anchored to reality with predictably less exciting developments. Rand’s objectivism is more clearly explained in all of its ludicrous glory in Atlas Shrugged, whereas The Fountainhead only occasionally becomes ridiculously obnoxious. Both Rand haters and Rand admirers will be best-served by Atlas Shrugged. As for The Fountainhead, well, Rand herself adapted the book into a movie; why not save yourself a few hours and see for yourself?

Taking Lives (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and that’s a large part of why this is such an unsatisfying film. Local issues first: The film supposedly takes place in Montréal, but then switches back and both between Montréal and Québec City. Whaaa? Then there’s the European-French accents of the supposedly French-Canadian actors (even though they end up speaking English to each other most of the time. What’s up with that?) and a pretty damn poor use of local landmarks. Few of this is likely to make an impression on non French-Canadian viewers, but you can bet that the film’s credibility is nil in Quebec. Still, it doesn’t take a francophone to dislike the film: the bad script will do that by itself, from a tepid development to a “twist” that is simultaneously predictable and senseless. You have probably seen enough serial killer thrillers already; this one brings nothing new to the genre (including the dumb “taking lives” premise, so full of holes that it’s a wonder one built a script around it) The last act is especially tedious, as there are few surprises left in store and the last remaining jolt is a shock moment more than a honest twist. Fans of Angelina Jolie will get to see her naked, but even that is no great novelty. This should have been a straight-to-video release.

The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

Warner, 1993, 246 pages, C$21.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-51862-X

Most of my reviews focus on science-fiction, thrillers and truly odd non-fiction. Henceforth, it’s a rarity (outside science-fiction conventions, of course) when I can actually discuss books with other live people. Not so with James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, which has spent some unbelievable time on bestseller lists and seems to have been read by a similarly unbelievable number of people. At the office, about a third of my colleagues seemed to have read the book; a higher proportion still knew enough about it to snicker scornfully.

I’ll be honest enough to admit that I’m often deeply suspicious of anything that becomes too popular. Yes, I’m an elitist. But an elitist who goes to enough used book sales to be willing to give a chance to anything cheap enough. And so that’s how I ended up with a nice hardcover copy of The Celestine Prophecy (thirty-third printing!) in my to-read stack.

From the dust jacket, it’s easy to see why the book would inspire both such sales and such scorn. Some mumbo-jumbo about ancient insights, a spiritual culture, universal truths wrapped in contemporary pseudo-scientific vocabulary and the promise of life-shattering revelations. “A book that comes along once in a lifetime to change lives forever” soberly writes the Warner Books copywriter. Whew!

No being a big fan of new-age yadda-yadda, I was prepared for the worst. What I ended up reading in an hour or so wasn’t all that bad.

First, let’s state the evidence: Yes, this is feel-good new-age “personal enlightement” literature. It may be masquerading as a (poor) thriller, but the nature of the “insights”, the progression of the litany and the promises of a richer, more fulfilling life are familiar enough.

But new-age literature is actually more complicated to write than its detractors will allow, given how it has to blend pop-psychology, motivational training and a fair bit of self-hypnosis. Redfield’s stoke of genius was to transpose his dry list of nine insights in a first-person thriller framework. Besides deliberately blurring the lines between reality and fiction, The Celestine Prophecy is kind enough to allow even sceptical readers like me to be swept along (somewhat) by the narrative flow of a story with just enough guns, sex and explosions to make it interesting.

Now, let’s be truthful and admit that as thriller fiction, The Celestine Prophecy is trash. That’s obvious from the very first few pages, as the author gives himself a “get out of jail free” card in the form of a “nothing happens by accident” First Insight. Whee! Free opportunities to use convenient coincidences over and over and over and over again! The hand of the author in manipulating his characters is obvious though the novel, as the narrator meets one useful character after another and is thrown in a series of suspiciously convenient adventures. Hilarious logical howlers abound, from stupid character names (with no regard to ethnicity) to smack-obvious foreshadowing that allow any alert reader to predict the next chapter’s big insight. The fantasy elements are poorly integrated (Woo! Love-driven auras!), but I’m not about to review The Celestine Prophecy as fantasy, because otherwise we’ll be here until morning without much to account for.

But you know what? It’s hard for me to be too harsh at a book that cost next to nothing to buy and took barely an hour to read. Fantasy auras aside, the “insights” of the book at the type of harmless things sold far more seriously by Psychology PhDs elsewhere in the self-help section. Heck, it wouldn’t take much to link The Celestine Prophecy to the trans-humanist movement, complete with the final rapture/singularity. And that, for some reason, just warms up my geek heart. Good, bad, just throw The Celestine Prophecy in the “interesting; won’t take too much of your time; fun to argue about” pile. At least it’ll give you something to talk about at the next science-fiction convention… or even at the office.

The Punisher (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) If they ever made a movie about the audience watching this film, they’d call it The Punished. While the vengeful premise initially feels like a throwback to 80s action movies, The Punisher has none of the overblown charm of its Reagan-era predecessor. Detailing the film’s inanities would take too much time, but not as much as explaining why the film feels so dull and lifeless. The biggest problem with The Punisher isn’t how divorced it is from reality, but how it doesn’t bother to offer a more compelling fantasy universe. Even by the uneven standards of movies adapted from Marvel superhero comics, this one makes no sense, from deserted streets in the middle of Tampa to an impromptu press conference announcing both resurrection and vengeance plans. Supposedly top-notch assassins stroll in and sing their appearance (in a restaurant solely populated with the hero’s three allies) while high explosives are obtained by the truckload by a supposedly dead man (and hauled in an apartment with a cheap lock). Thomas Jane growls in the right places and Laura Harring is scrumptious, but John Travolta’s can’t do better than a charmless supporting performance with the awful material he’s burdened with. The pacing is completely off; don’t be surprised if you end up demanding a lot more punishment. Worse, however, is the film’s tone: not only doesn’t it succeed in imposing an overly dramatic atmosphere to the protagonist’s action (complete with a lot of alcohol; dumb), it feels compelled to introduce wacky neighbours as comic relief. It’s hard to overstate how ineffective those attempts end up: In fact, it’s more appropriate to talk about “exasperation” than “comic relief”. There are two or three effective moments, but don’t worry: You’ve seen them in other, better movies already.

The Passion Of The Christ (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) There is something tremendously ironic about the mega-success of this film: The first successful melding of religious fervour and Fangoria-grade gore.; the fact that fundamentalist Christians flocked to an R-rated film after decades of decrying too-violent movies; the way some critics forgot all of their usual cinematographic standards in favour of ideological confessions one way or another. It’s almost too easy to forget that there’s an actual film in the middles of the flying fur, and that it’s a flawed film at that. Oh, technically there’s few one can say about it: It’s competently directed, contains a few really nice shots, features very impressive makeup, convincingly recreates a period and is even daring in its stylistic choices. But the pacing of the film is a bit off, the story depends too much on what viewers already know (or can remember) from Sunday School and the gratuitous inclusion of a Satan-of-sorts often makes no sense. This is definitely a throwback to hellfire-and-brimstone old-school Catholicism where Jesus ain’t your buddy given how he suffered for your sins. Considering the film as a B-grade horror film is enlightening, given how the film often (more specifically during it first half-hour) goes for cheap scares in the best tradition of the genre. Alas, the gore isn’t terribly gross (well, there’s a lot of blood, but then again my standard in this area have been forever altered by Dead Alive) and Monica Bellucci doesn’t even show anything under the neck (is that a first?); that’s a waste of a perfectly good R rating right there. All in all, an interesting film but hardly an essential one; see it because everyone else has.

Underworld, Don DeLillo

Scribner, 1997, 827 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-684-84269-6

Reading around the web for critical commentary about Don DeLillo’s Underworld, I find teachers, students, readers, fans and commentators all anxious to fit the novel in their own vision of late-twentieth-century America. I see numerous allusion to Underworld as a Great American Novel. I see everyone extracting meaning from the book as others press orange pulp for juice. So why not do the same? Why not assign great meaning to the book? Why not make it fit in my own theories about life, universe and everything?

Why not, indeed, use Underworld as a prism by which to study the differences between literature and genre fiction, if indeed there is one? Underworld is usually discussed in hushed tones implying that it is the very achievement of literature, the pure concentrate of fine writing. Isn’t it possible, then, to see it as a quintessential manifestation of modern fiction? To oppose it against an entire corpus of so-called “lesser” genre fiction? If we bounce off particles of science-fiction, fantasy, thrillers or mysteries off of Underworld at ludicrously high velocities, what flashes of insight can we get?

Our first order of business is to determine what Underworld is about, if indeed it is about anything. Certainly, even a careful reading of the text can leave anyone unsure: it’s about baseball, crime, waste, the cold war, the atom bomb, modern art, serial killing, religion, miracles, the Cuba Crisis, Lenny Bruce, Edgar J. Hoover, Vietnam, New York, affairs, marriages and so on… It themes are too restrictive, maybe a given period is the answer: Doesn’t Underworld span nearly half a decade, from 1951 to (roughly) 1997? If it’s not about something, is it about the entirely of the American experience from then to now?

What it certainly isn’t about is a plot. While there are recurring threads here and there in those 862 pages, it’s not as if there is a single coherent drive to the narrative thrust. And that’s where we get the first hint of illumination regarding genre fiction: Regardless of style, characters or atmosphere, genre fiction is first and foremost a story being told, from point A to (roughly) point B. Underworld is a sprawling bag of knots: fascinating, difficult (and rewarding) to unravel, but certainly not a thread spooling from one axis to another.

That, in itself may be a clue to the meaning of Underworld. For this novel is unstuck in chronology: Save for its prologue and epilogue, classically set as far apart as the chronology will allow, the novel runs backward, section by section. 1992, 1980s, 1974, 1960s, 1951… As we regress in time, some character’s formative experiences are explained and revealed. Like peeling an onion. Like uncovering a present. Like taking apart a bomb. Some sections jumble up the chronology even within themselves, presenting further challenges. Reading Underworld as quickly as possible is not just a good idea; it may be just about the only way to keep up with the vast amount of discontinuous information thrown at the reader. Most things interconnect, but it’s all too easy to miss those nodes of meaning.

But ultimately, regardless of the complex structure of the novel, the way most things mesh with another, the rewarding feeling of accomplishment whenever one notices thematic resonance between very different areas of the novel, the question arises: Was it worth reading? Was it worth slogging though? Did it ultimately mean anything? Those are questions seldom, yet always asked of genre fiction, because the answers are more obvious: A good story is worth reading without questions, and doesn’t have to mean anything if it’s sufficiently entertaining. But as Underworld overwhelms with Americana and stylistic experiments, as it slows down to nearly a halt in Part 6, as it once again rehashes nuclear oblivion, the thought springs unbidden: Why bother? Why not wait for PBS’s “The Cold War” special series? What is so unique about Underworld?

For the genre readers, it’s even worse, for they know that the same points, the same anxieties, have been covered elsewhere in genre fiction, with more entertainment value and often more depth. Nuclear Holocaust? Been there, saw the mutants. Serial killers? Read that, caught the culprit. American underworld? Bought the T-Shirt, got the Philip K. Dick novel. And once again, genre readers are reminded why they seldom bother with the mainstream stuff: why suffer through 862 pages of meta-referential fine writing when you can get more in a 350-pages novel of compulsively readable entertainment? Aside from being able to title-drop, that is?

Man On Fire (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) Almost-successful revenge drama starring Denzel Washington in another very solid performance. Unlike some other revenge films, there is some real emotional content as the relationship between victim and avenger is established. It takes too much time (nearly an hour!), but at least it’s there, buried under the stylistic embellishments of directory Tony Scott. Anyone who has followed the brother Scotts’ careers knows that they’re prone to unexplainable excess, and Man On Fire attains an exasperating paroxysm of self-indulgent style. For no reason at all, the camera will jerk, speed up, slow down, cut to impressionistic passages or go wild with grain and outrageous colours. It works in some specific instances, but otherwise mauls the intent of some scenes and inserts another layer of interpretation between the viewer and the story. The only truly successful experiment is the unprecedented use of subtitles as emotional counterpoint to the action: Even English phrases are written on-screen as reflections on the action and illustrations of rage. (Overall, though, Scott’s “Deal with the Devil” short film on the bmwfilms.com site serves as a stylistic preview of Man On Fire) There’s no denying that this is a very long film. When it starts to heat up, it does the “revenge fantasy” shtick better than The Punisher (and, ironically, in a style considerably closer to comic books that the comic book adaption itself) But it’s just too long; even the elegiac conclusion could have been chopped away without much loss. Not bad, but annoying. Not good, but involving. Tony Scott is working only a tiny trip away from total madness, through.

The Ladykillers (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) There’s no denying that on the heels of Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen brothers have once again disappointed many with this lesser film. A remake that audaciously re-imagines the basic story of the London-based 1950s original in contemporary Southern Mississippi, The Ladykillers is a slight comedy that unfortunately loses interest as it winds up to its conclusion. The best two things about the film, as may be expected from the Coen Brothers, is the music and the secondary characters. While Tom Hanks gets all the flash and glory in the lead role of a cultured southern gentleman who decides to try his luck at crime, every character in the film speaks with their own cadence and idioms, a musicality of speech that meshes well with the musical background. (What O Brother, Where Art Thou? Did to folk music, this version of The Ladykillers does to gospel choirs, maybe even too much) Sadly, the relatively amusing first half of the film loses stem once the light crime comedy cedes its place to much darker and moralistic material. Suddenly, the film isn’t so much fun to watch. It doesn’t help that the lead character, a formidable black woman with a fearful sense of right and wrong, is such a dull character. While the film is supposed to revolve around her, her presence just isn’t as compelling as the dastardly villains she’s facing. Oh well; Quirky is the word, but then again quirky is what the Coen Brothers are all about, occasional misfires and all.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) I’m surprised: After condemning so many recent movies for being far too long, this bloated self-indulgent monstrosity of a second half drags on for more than two hours… and I didn’t want it to end. Yes, there are tons of useless scenes, loose dialogue, extended scenes and annoying pauses. But it’s handled with such a deft hand that by the time the “Last Chapter” title card is dropped, you can only go “Whaaa? Already?” Beautiful direction, inventive twists and turns, uplifting ending (unlike other recent revenge films, this one suggests a hint of personal redemption if not -for lack of a better word- progress) and excellent acting all contribute to a unique cinema experience. Interestingly enough, Kill Bill Volume 2 is quite different from Kill Bill Volume 1; more talkative, less spectacular, but as good in its own way: It’s going to be hard to wait until the inevitable combined edition of the film. Film geeks of all stripe will once again go nuts for this latest offering from Quentin Tarantino. More mundane viewers may not care as much, but that’s hardly relevant: the film isn’t for them anyway.

U.S.S. Seawolf, Patrick Robinson

Harper Torch, 2000, 482 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-103065-1

Show me a critic without an author they love to hate and I will show you a reviewer without passion, without the killer instinct so necessary in this often-dreary job. While some will save their bile for Piers Anthony, Kevin J. Anderson or William Shatner, I’ve had three remarkably enjoyable occasions so far to slag the work of Patrick Robinson: His Nimitz Class, Kilo Class and H.M.S. Unseen remain some of the most pathetic attempts at the techno-thriller genre ever written.

(Note for sensible readers: No, I don’t hate Patrick Robinson as a person. For all that I know, he’s probably a great human being who’s kind to humanity, fond of little animals and respectful of the biosphere. We could probably enjoy a fascinating conversation over a good meal and I’d feel ashamed of everything I’ve written about his books. Until then, however, his books don’t measure up to the accepted standard and you can read my reviews to understand why.)

Given such past credentials, I was all ready and anxious to start reading U.S.S. Seawolf: Hurrah! Another occasion to make fun of Robinson’s right-wing raaah-America screw-international-relations politics! Another sorry attempt at “plotting”! Another set of unlikable cardboard characters! Another book packed with clunky exposition! Whee!

Imagine my surprise when I started thinking that U.S.S. Seawolf wasn’t actually half-bad.

Don’t make any mistake; it’s still not a very good techno-thriller. But as compared to his other three books, it actually holds up a lot better.

For one thing, there is a plot of sorts that goes beyond the sort of sloppy “let’s destroy foreign submarines” excuse passed off in Kilo Class. This time around, an American submarine (the titular Seawolf) doing stupid things off China’s coastal waters is accidentally damaged by the Chinese navy, captured and dragged to a Chinese port. It’s an eerie scenario, especially given how, in early 2001, an American plane doing stupid things off China’s coastal waters was accidentally damaged by the Chinese Air Force, captured and dragged to a Chinese airport. (Ooooh.) From then on, the Americans implement a rescue mission, which is implemented with the usual thrilling amount of difficulty. It’s not Shakespeare, but it works rather well. For one thing, U.S.S. Seawolf avoids the lengthy useless stretches of, say, H.M.S. Unseen.

One annoyance left intact from Robinson’s earlier novel is his casual disregard for the niceties of diplomatic intervention. As a true Republican believer in the Bush doctrine, Robinson’s novels are packed with preemptive (and excessive) strikes against foreign targets, usually resulting in a staggering number of civilian deaths that are shrugged away with choice racial epithets. Here, it’s not a hydro-electrical dam in Iraq (U.S.S. Nimitz) or a number of Chinese submarines (Kilo Class) but the intentional meltdown of a nuclear reactor, leading to entire blocks of a Chinese city being showered with radioactive slag. Thoughtful. Given the number of offencive racial slurs used by Robinson’s so-called protagonists, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if his next novel features a warship manned by members of the Aryan Nation.

Moving on… Robinson usually has some trouble ending his novel, but here again U.S.S. Seawolf manages to be only slightly better than the rest of his usual crap: After a triumphant rescue in which most members of the submarine are rescued, ugly politics intrude thanks to a no-good son-of-a-politician and a protagonist ends up killing himself. Whee, what fun! But have no fear, because series superhero Arnold Morgan, in between chewing cigars, spitting at presidents, planning genocide, insulting countries and boinking his sexy secretary (whose characterization seems taken from Playmate profiles), decides that he can’t have that and tenders in his resignation. Or something like that. Read the rest in the next thrilling instalment. I might have cared had it been even a mediocre book.

Wait! Wait! Did I say that U.S.S. Seawolf was better than Robinson’s other novels? What was I thinking? Was it the deliciously ambiguous portrait of an incompetent military officer? The rather good SEAL-team operational details? Or momentary delusion brought about by disbelief? Goodness gracious! It is as bad as his other novels! Hurrah! Bring on the fifth one! Patrick Robinson; I love to hate your stuff! More, please!

Jersey Girl (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) Ouch. While it’s not fair to begrudge writer/director Kevin Smith’s desire to grow up after five raucous comedies, it’s not poor efforts like Jersey Girl that will demonstrate anything. What’s nearly unbearable, though, is the dawning realization that the film’s problems stem from one source: The writing. The direction is surprisingly unremarkable for a Smith film (it looks like just about any cookie-cutter romance, which is a step up for Smith’s notoriously static style) and all of the actors do really good work, from Ben Affleck’s uneasy blue-collar worker to Elizabeth Castro’s adorable kid character. (Heck, even Liv Tyler has never looked hotter; it’s the glasses, I swear!) But the stuff that comes out of their mouth… eeew. Smith’s writing has always been the chief attraction of his films, but he completely (and repeatedly) misses the mark here: He brings to romantic drama the same sledge-hammer quality so obvious in his comedy and the result is a disaster. Characters spout off “on-the-nose” monologues to sleeping infants, react in broad and obvious ways that have no equivalent in the real world and engage in conversations that feel more like dramatic check-lists. Yikes. To add insult to injury, whatever comedy writing is in the film falls flat and feels forced. All in all, it’s not Smith’s new intentions that are at fault (despite everything, you can still sense the heart-felt bond between father and daughter) but his inept execution. Too bad.

Hellboy (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) As an unconditional fan of director Guillermo del Toro, I may have been expecting a touch too much from this film, his logical follow-up to the exceptional Blade II. I’m not displeased by the end result, mind you: Anything which mixes Nazis, catholicism, demons, big guns and tentacular Lovecraftian creatures has my vote. But there’s something missing here. Maybe it’s the same-old shtick of making the first film of any superhero franchise an origin story. Maybe it’s the repetitive nature of the fights. Maybe it’s the unconvincing nature of the secret bureau described in the film, which sports a grand total of what seems to be five employees. Whatever it is stops Hellboy from vaulting on the top shelf… but don’t think that I don’t be in line to buy the DVD: From the good CGI to the great direction to Hellboy’s own blue-collar superhero shtick, there’s plenty to like anyway about this film. It’s just too bad that it can’t take the last step separating it from popcorn greatness.