First Blood [Rambo 1] (1982)

<strong class="MovieTitle">First Blood</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Rambo 1</strong>] (1982)

(On VHS, November 1998) Not an easy movie to categorize. On one hand, it’s a straight action movie where stuff blows up real good, and a lone superhero takes on hordes of enemies. On the other, the particular motor of this actionner is post-Vietnam stress: The hero isn’t completely sane, the enemies are not-so-guilty policemen, the setting is a quiet American town. It’s refreshing, for once, to see an action movie in a dark, damp and cold-looking forrestrial setting. Though the whole movie is based on an unexplainable decision (why did he turn back at the city limits?) and the final monologue shows all of Stallone’s verbal deficiencies, the whole film has, all things considered, aged pretty well, and stands above its sequels in terms of maturity… though that’s not necessarily saying much.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) A movie about two heavy drug users on a trip (!) to Las Vegas at the beginning of the seventies. I have never touched drugs and after this movie I feel as if I don’t need to, having already experienced all that mind-altering chemicals have to offer. As one friend remarked; “Hey, you who missed the drug revolution! Here it is!” It’s constantly funny in a bizarre sort of way. I liked the contrast between the serious-as-hell narration and the zonked-out actors on-screen. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but don’t miss the first fifteen minutes.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2009) It’s fair to say that I know a lot more about Hunter S. Thompson now than when I saw the film in theaters in 1998. I have also read the book twice in the meantime, giving me a different perspective on the film than at first. It’s now obvious that this is a lot more than the zonked-out adventures of two junkies on a Las Vegas bender: The “High water” passage is one of the keys to the work, and so is the increasingly uncomfortable disillusionment of the last act. As an adaptation of the book, it’s nothing short of wondrous, though director Terry Gilliam’s own pet obsessions sometimes derail the overall impact. Johnny Depp is often unrecognizable as Thompson, something that is also true for Benicio del Toro as the manic Doctor Gonzo/Oscar Acosta. Visually, it’s a trip, and the film does manage to wring a few new laughs out of the material. The pricey Criterion DVD edition is a must-have for Thompson fans, as it features three commentaries by the director, the producer/stars and Thompson himself. Additionally, the two-discs edition contains documentaries putting Thompson front and center, something that wasn’t readily available before Gonzo was released on DVD.

Fargo (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fargo</strong> (1996)

(On TV, November 1998) My problems with this film began just before the last commercial break, when the announcer smugly declared “Stay tuned, for the conclusion of Fargo”. That’s when I knew I was going to be definitely disappointed. To put it simply: Fargo is a shaggy-dog story without a conclusion. Now, wrapping up a movie has never been one of the Coen brother’s strong points, the remainder of their movies usually making up for it (eg: The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski). Not so here, where everything seems poised toward a conclusion that only halfway comes. No payoff for the buried money. No payoff for the ex-boyfriend. No payoff for the kid. A staggering deux-ex-machina precipitates the conclusion. Some say that the charm of Fargo comes from these real-life details. I go to movies to see a story; so I disagree. Fargo is still worthwhile, but doesn’t deserve its reputation. Yah.

The Exorcist (1973)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Exorcist</strong> (1973)

(On TV, November 1998) While overrated (incredibly too long, comatic first hour, not as shocking nor as exciting as it was in ’73), it can still aspire to being a classic. It certainly holds up better than other horror films of the period (Rosemary’s Baby, anyone?) and the gradual heightening of tension is effective. The last twenty minutes are quite good.

Déjà Dead, Kathy Reichs

Pocket, 1998, 532 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-01136-7

Despite all the good qualities a novel can possess, they’re for nothing unless someone actually picks up the book and starts reading it. Given that automated mini-harpoons are outlawed, books have to find better ways to hook you so you actually consider reading the story.

There are, needless to say, many ways of doing so. Some are completely divorced from the content of the book (like the book design, quality of production, lettering… even cover illustration in some case…) while other directly come from the book’s content.

Déjà Dead has an undeniable hook for most French-Canadian readers of crime fiction. It’s a major novel from a renowned American publisher (Scribner/Pocket), by an American author, that takes place… in Montréal.

The differences between Kathy Reichs (author) and Temperance Brennan (protagonist) are slight from a professional point of view. Both work as forensic anthropologists for “the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Québec.” Write what you know, say most writing books.

And Reich obviously knows her stuff. Déjà Dead has, as an additional hook, the merits of allowing the reader to peer over the shoulder of a forensic anthropologist at work. Some of the digressions, like the discussion of dismemberment methods, are oddly fascinating.

The setup is average as far as crime novel go: Bodies are discovered, brought to the attention of the protagonist, who then eventually deduce that they’ve got a serial killer in action. What follows is, obviously, the efforts of the protagonist to catch the villain, even though the protagonist in this case might have zero business trying to catch the bad guy.

Déjà Dead plays the rules of the genre with a qualified awareness of them, suggesting an author who’s spent a lot of time reading what’s available out there. It doesn’t prevent the usage of traditional dramatic devices like the Missing Friend (who, we all know, is going to be involved in the sordid murder business.) As for the pet… well…

The novel is also a bit overwritten, combining the slight impression that we know where it’s going with the feeling that we’re going there slowly. While Reichs creates an interesting atmosphere, Déjà Dead still could have profited from a thorough editing.

French-Canadian readers, of course, will appreciate the setting. It’s worth noting that Reichs doesn’t make too many mistakes, which is a welcome improvement over many of the other US writers who have attempted a Québec novel (see, for one regrettable example, Clive Cussler’s Vixen 03).

The female narrator-protagonist is also a change of pace from the hard-boiled narrator or third-person point-of-view that we see so often in this genre. Given that numerous references are made to Patricia Cornwell in the opening blurbs, chances are that this is intentional.

Still, for a first novel, Déjà Dead possesses the remarkable qualities of readability, painless exposition, good characterization and good writing. I’d be picky to ask for more. I’m already hooked enough as it is.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Exorcist II: The Heretic</strong> (1977)

(On TV, November 1998) Despite a languid pace, the original The Exorcist still holds up reasonably well today. The sequel, however, is pure and unmitigated crap. Destroyed by ridiculous matter-of-fact beliefs in psi powers (made even more sad by the age of the movie; how is The X-Files going to sound in twenty years?) and a worship of primitive cultures, the whole is so sleep-inducing that I ended up fast-forwarding most of the middle hour. The climax is laughable in the most inept-movie sense. The result isn’t even worth your time.

Enemy Of The State (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Enemy Of The State</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) A paranoid’s wet dream come true. The government can watch you everywhere from satellites! It can destroy your life! It can send hired killers after you! It can steal your blender! Poor Will Smith, unwittingly stuck in the middle of a high-stakes conspiracy… Enemy Of The State is an effective thriller, playing on some very real latent fears and the usual conventions of the genre. Fortunately, Smith and Gene Hackman are great, the story is nicely wrapped up, there are a few high-adrenaline moments and the direction is effective despite an overuse of jerky handheld shot and jump-cuts. A worthwhile usage of your entertainment dollars… even for the few non-conspiracy theorists left among us.

Elizabeth (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Elizabeth</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) This film plays loosely with the true (hi)story of England’s foremost queen, but manages to deliver a film that is interesting and well-made. Apt to disappoint historians of the Elizabethan era, Elizabeth contains a surprising amount of sex and violence –teenagers will be titillated. Otherwise, it’s the fabulous performances by Cate Blanchett in the title role that will capture the viewer’s interest. (Sultry French actress Fanny Ardant is also a lot of fun to see in an English movie.) It’s a shame that many moviegoers will miss Elizabeth, since it’s a better film than most of what’s been shown so far in 1998. It did reinforce my already considerably high opinion of the historical character. Worth hunting down in video.

(Second viewing, On TV, April 2001) Ever read a silent review? As an experiment, I watched this film with the sound off while working on something else. My conclusion? While I can’t comment on the dialogue, Elizabeth remains a film with great visuals and gorgeous cinematography, directed with great skill. Oh, and Cate Blanchett makes a gorgeous Queen Elizabeth. (Have I mentioned I once knew a girl who looked exactly like her. Swoon!) It almost made me want to watch the film again with the sound on.

Easy Rider (1969)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Easy Rider</strong> (1969)

(On TV, November 1998) This occasionally shows signs of brilliance, but ultimately fails at even the most basic movie-experience requirement; telling a coherent story. Granted, I am definitely not of the Easy Rider target crowd but still: the drug-inspired meandering of the two loser protagonists are more tedious than interesting and much more boring than insightful. It’s a hard case to decide what’s more funny; the pop-druggie-psychology spouted off by a very youngish Jack Nicholson (mixed with UFO lore), the completely inane New Orleans drug trip or the caricatural rednecks who finally shoot down the two heroes in a moment of motiveless end-of-scriptitude. If Easy Rider is the emblem of an epoch, then this epoch is better off dead.

Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 1998, 740 pages, C$38.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14390-4

Tom Clancy has long been one of my first favourite authors, as far back as I can remember being able to form the concept of “a favourite author”. I recall plunking down a fair amount of change for a (then) complete paperback collection of his novels. (Since then, of course, I’ve discovered other authors even “better” than Clancy, but that’s neither here or now.)

As might be expected, however, It always seems like the best books are from before you discover the author. Having read Clancy’s first five books in rapid succession, they still form kind of a superior unified work in my mind. As such, each new Clancy book is an anxiously anticipated half-disappointment compared to the classics.

To that problem, we can add the very worrying trend of seeing the “Tom Clancy” trademark on a variety of inferior products. Since early 1996, Clancy’s name has been associated with inferior ghostwritten adventure novels, a very bad submarine game “novelisation”, many worthy nonfiction books and an array of computer games. We might ask; where are the novels?

Clancy’s latest “true” book, Rainbow Six, almost straddles the line between novel and marketing product. It certainly didn’t sound good when I heard that a computer game called Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six was being coded at the same time by Clancy’s gaming company, aimed for simultaneous release.

But Clancy fans can now buy in peace: Rainbow Six is Clancy’s first “real” novel since 1996. The difference is apparent: It’s a fat hardcover book, with the wealth of details, action and overwritten subplots that we’ve come to expect from the techno-thriller master.

It’s almost a shame that Rainbow Six‘s biggest weakness is its premise: An international team of highly trained covert operatives is formed to battle terrorists. (Sounds like a G.I.Joe cartoon, yet?) At the same time, a band of fanatic environmentalist scientists is developing a virus designed to kill off the entire human race! Egawd! Will the Rainbow team defuse the threat? Duuuuh!

Well, the good news are that once you’re in the novel, it doesn’t really matter any more. We’re back in the world-famous Clancy prose, which is part clunky, part limpid. As ever, the lack of stylistic touches possesses an undeniable rough elegance. Rainbow Six is also a return to Clancy’s earlier novels in that there are several well-executed action scenes throughout the novel, in opposition to several other recent works (The Sum of All Fears, Executive Orders) where most of the bang was held back until the end. Indeed, Rainbow Six does have something like an anticlimax, or at least a lacklustre finale.

Be warned, however, that since readers demand big fat Clancy novels, Clancy has obliged and the result, as usual, could have been edited down by as much as twenty-five percent.

This is not, by the way, a good novel to enter the Clancyverse. Numerous explicit references are made to the events of earlier novels, and newer readers will be frustrated. It can still be read by itself, but shouldn’t. (Clancy’s flagship character, Jack Ryan, is present, but in the background and then only referenced by title rather than name.)

Rainbow Six does for Special-Forces teams (SWAT, SAS, Delta, SEAL, etc…) what The Hunt for Red October did for submarine crew: It offers a privileged (and, we presume, reasonably exact) glimpse in the lives of some very very special soldiers. After reading Rainbow Six, it’s hard not to trust their real-world expertise at intervening in tense situations.

Given this, it’s a bit of a shame that Clancy had to resort to such dubious video-game premise to fuel his novel. (Not to mention that the virus thing has been done before… in Clancy’s previous novel!) It seems to me like smaller stakes (like the good action set-pieces in the first half of the novel) would have been amply sufficient… especially given the rather disappointing way the whole plot is defused.

Clancy fans will love it. Not many non-fans will be converted. The computer game is said to be adequately good. Clancy delivered the goods: Even with every fault it has, Rainbow Six is a good read.

The Craft (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Craft</strong> (1996)

(On TV, November 1998) Rather more pleasant than I had expected. Granted, the first half-hour of this tale of teen witches is long and tedious as the standard oppressed-teens-take-revenge- on-their-oppressors plot is set up and we go through all the expected scenes of outcast-being-laughed-at, babe-being-courted and nasty-people-doing-nasty-things-to-heroine. It’s after that boring setup, however, when things go past the simple revenge fantasy, that things get interesting. Granted, it never quite goes beyond the “okay entertainment” stage, but despite sloppy screenwriting (threads being abandoned in mid-flight, springloaded character evolution, one-to-one climax that leaves other characters neglected), the result is more than expected. Special Effects are nice and The Craft can boast of some serious babe-factor.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Big Lebowski</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, November 1998) A typical “noir” plot starring a drug-using low-life unemployed -but cool- loser in the detective role: The Dude. Up to the Coen Brother’s usual standards of general weirdness and narrative drive, The Big Lebowski is hilarious. A great cast of great characters (Julianne Moore’s feminist caricature is almost as funny as bowler “Jesus” or the German nihilists) and a series of barely-related vignettes also helps. Not as coherent as it could have been, but still one pretty good comedy.

(Second viewing, On VHS, September 2000) One of those rare comedies which appreciates with further viewings. Subtle details pop up, and since the humor is based more on finely-tuned incongruousness than surprising situations, the film is not harmed by knowing what’s coming up. It’s also far easier to see the obvious parallels between the Coen Brother’s script and the usual noir plot template. (Basically, steal an obvious noir plot, drop a pothead slacker in the middle of it and watch how everything is screwed up by the unwilling participant. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s a great literary experiment.) On the other hand, the conclusion isn’t as strong, as it becomes obvious that the film runs an extra ten minutes after everything is wrapped up. Still worth a good look.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Beverly Hills Cop</strong> (1984)

(On TV, November 1998) Unexplainably, I think that film is weaker than its sequel… but that’s just me. Still, Eddie Murphy is in top form as an unflappable Detroit policeman investigating a murder in sunny California. Watching this movie now is probably even funnier that it was then, given that the sunny-California-cop formula exhibited here has been copied countless times from the serious (Lethal Weapon) to the silly (The Last Action Hero). We get all the clichés. But I still prefer the sequel.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2007) Holding up better than most contemporary releases, this first Eddie Murphy release still has some charm and interest. Though it can’t shake off the legacy of almost twenty five years of increasingly sophisticated Action/Comedy hybrids, this unexpected hit still works reasonably well. Eddie Murphy’s grandstanding can be grating, but the repartee with the other characters can be a hoot. Plus, hey, at least two pieces on the soundtrack have become classic pop music. The DVD edition contains a reasonably informative director’s commentary track, as well as a number of documentaries that rely a bit too much on archived footage.

The Hot Zone, Richard Preston

Anchor, 1995, 422 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-385-47956-5

It’s invisible. Undetectable. Incurable. It can affect over ninety percent of the world’s population. It eats your insides, liquefying your internal organs. In the final stages, you’re essentially a bag of blood held together by flesh. Near the end, it will make you go in convulsions, sending body fluids everywhere. It rides on the blood, ready to prey on other humans.

It’s Ebola.

It’s not every day that you can read a book sporting a blurb in which Stephen King says “One of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read.”

After reading The Hot Zone, you might want to question the value of horror novels. Because The Hot Zone is nonfiction. Ebola is real. It kills and cannot be cured. The human race is singularly helpless before this microscopic predator. Far scarier than a couple of bomb-toting terrorists, vampires or doomsday devices.

Richard Preston wasn’t exactly a novice when he published The Hot Zone (besides being a regular New Yorker contributor, he had published two other scientific / technical non-fiction books) but this is the book that made him famous. A chilling Ebola outbreak happened shortly after the book’s release and for a few weeks, The Hot Zone went up the charts and into public consciousness. At least one heavily derivative movie (OUTBREAK, 1995) was made. The French translation of The Hot Zone is simply called Ebola. My own paperback copy of The Hot Zone is a fourth printing.

But beyond its great reputation, The Hot Zone is more than a book that happened to be at the good spot at the good time. Richard Preston has fashioned a good, solid, even gripping account of the virus threat.

The Hot Zone is divided in four parts.

The first one describes Ebola, and its initial outbreaks in Africa (Zaire, mainly) and Europe. Preston doesn’t miss the chance to describe extensively the effects of the virus and so we get lovely descriptions like:

When a virus multiplies in a host, it can saturate the body with virus particles, from the brain to the skin. The military experts then say that the virus has undergone “extreme amplification.” During this process, the body is partly transformed into virus particles. In other words, the body is possessed by a life form that is attempting to convert the host into itself. The end result is a great deal of liquefying flesh mixed with virus, a kind of biological accident.

After that, The Hot Zone moves to Reston, a suburb of Washington where an Ebola outbreak decimates a monkey house. Parts three and four of the book deal with the growing alarm, and decontamination of the Reston site.

Part four is fairly unique: Preston packs his travel kit and goes to investigate Kitum Cave, the most likely source of the Ebola virus. He obviously survives to tell the tale, but the effect is delightfully unsettling, boosting both the book’s tension and the author’s credibility.

The Hot Zone is that rarest of scientific books; A true-life thriller, a compulsively readable account and a lucidly described exposition of a complex subject. It does push the Big Buttons a lot, but with adequate reason to do so.

The Hot Zone is not only a non-fiction account that will teach you things (with it, you might spot mistakes in OUTBREAK), but a largely-read book that reserves its reputation while at the same time making a substantial point: The world is a lot more dangerous that we complacent, civilized, contemporary humans seem to be ready to believe.