Mystery Men (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mystery Men</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) Holds the distinction of being a satisfying disappointment. Given its premise (a satire of superhero films by looking at the “B-grade” superheroes), its assembled talent and its superb special effect work, one could have expected a truly memorable experience. Alas, such is not the case: The narrative meanders, the quips are wildly uneven, the villain isn’t impressive, the resolution too conventional. Fortunately, the end result is still loads of fun, much like when Men In Black delivered good summer fun even if it couldn’t match its own premise. Most of the actors are delightful (with special kudos to Ben Stiller, William H. Macy and Janeane Garofalo), some one-liners are really good (“By doubting training you only train yourself to doubt”) and the overall atmosphere is just wonderful. Grrreat soundtrack. Yes, Mystery Men could have been much more, but it’s quite delightful as it is.

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2000) This isn’t quite as good the second time around. Sure, the actors/characters are (mostly) as appealing, the lines still as funny and the overall sense of fun still unbeatable. But the bad moments, boring stretches and various incoherencies all pile up to diminish the film’s lasting impression. Director Kinsha Usher’s commentary track is one that will actually diminish your opinion of the film by pointing out last-minutes ad-libs, referencing deleted scenes not included anywhere on the DVD and generally acting like a barely-articulate doofus. (“…and we thought it was really funny” is the commentary track’s most-often repeated line. Problem is that the “funny” stuff most often isn’t.) Worse; a lot of the film’s jokes seems to have been put together by the actors, director, production assistants, even the assistant sound editors… but the writer is barely referenced once. (And even then, it’s as a vaguely derogatory reference to the film’s original script.) Oh well… comedy by committee usually works well, though as proven here, it doesn’t hold up very long.

The Iron Giant (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Iron Giant</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) I like most movies because they entertain. I admire some movies because they’re very well done. I only love a few movies for their emotional impact, and The Iron Giant joins this select club by virtue of being an excellent film. It’s not “merely” a story about the friendship between a boy and a giant extraterrestrial robot, though it is also exactly that. It is, at turns, comedic, dramatic, horrifying, uplifting and every else you’d wish a great film would be. Cleverly constructed and exceedingly well-executed, The Iron Giant is simply wonderful. It can’t escape being a children’s movie (it eschews emotional subtlety and drags as it goes through the early “required scenes”) but also holds as much content for adults. It’s a measure of how good the film is that I was near-tears at the line “I am not a gun”, and horrified at a firepower display that would normally make me cheer. Great stuff, great movie; see it.

False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, Thomas Hoving

Simon & Schuster, 1996, 366 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-81134-0

For someone like me, technically trained in cold, hard matters of equations, algorithms and formal methods, the world of fine arts is as mysterious and incomprehensible as an alien mindset. You look at a picture, you like the picture or not. If you really like it and if it’s for sale, you buy it. Simple!

Not so simple. C.P. Snow would be proud. Art is not merely something that can be simply reduced to “liking/not liking”. Especially when older artwork is concerned, it becomes a question of cultural pride, personal self-aggrandizement, financial investments… And then troubles begin. When you buy a Roman sculpture to show off, it doesn’t matter if you like it: It does matter if it’s an authentic Roman sculpture, though. Who is to say if it wasn’t hacked out three years ago by some guy deep in Arkansas with a talent for reproducing “authentic” Roman sculptures?

False Impressions is a book about fake artwork. Well-respected “former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art” Thomas Hoving brings both erudition and wit to this fascinating subject.

Though the book is not without flaws, it does present the subject adequately. Hoving spends some time discussing the history of fakes, noting that even in Roman times, for instance, artists routinely faked Greek artwork. Medieval times are full of fakery, up to and including the shroud of Turin. The popularization of the art world has given rise to even more audacious fakery at the beginning of the century.

A lot of the narrative is simply Hoving’s autobiography as far as fakes are concerned. It’s a bit of a disappointment to find out that in many cases, a fake is never entirely conclusively proved as being a fake. It often happens that even the latest scientific methods are simply useless to distinguish fakes, especially if they are from roughly the same period.

Neither is the fake necessarily of lesser quality and/or artistic merit. Hoving insists that fakes are often of better quality than the original work of art. Generous souls can even consider them pastiche, especially if they’re not meant to represent a specific oeuvre, but a “lost piece” in the same tradition.

What is a fake, then? It all boils down to the very simple axiom that a fake is not what it’s purported to me. A Roman sculpture produced by our hypothetical Arkansas guy would be a fake if represented as being authentically roman. But it would be a work of art in its own right if represented as “American, 1999”—though probably decried as being an obvious Roman rip-off…

Any book that can have me thinking about this kind of stuff gets points for audacity. On the other hand, False Impressions is not exactly a great book and part of the problem lies in the medium. Text-heavy books are not a good way of discussing art. Art is made to be seen, to be touched, to be felt in person. A study of fakes almost requires us to be able to compare original with fake, or at least see what we’re talking about. No such luck here: False Impressions does contain photographs, but they’re on a black-and-white insert late in the book that feels a lot like if each one was painstakingly inserted after much arguing. This would have been terrific material for a TV documentary, even a four-part miniseries. But as such, False Impressions is a tease in its text format.

Compounding the problem is that Hoving might know his subject like few others, but his writing style often veers into irrelevant minutiae. Everything he writes isn’t exactly essential. Where was the editor?

Still, I have to admire a book that can make me ask questions about artwork and fakery. False Impressions, despite significant flaws, is an eye opener and a mildly diverting trip into a hitherto unsuspected shady underworld. Not exactly recommended to everyone, but worth picking up if you’re really intrigued by the subject.

Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows</strong> (1998)

(On TV, August 1999) A documentary about wrestling? Yes, and a darn good one. Beyond simply exploring the fascinating “sports/entertainment” business of wrestling (and settling once and for all the question Is-Wrestling-Fake?), Wrestling With Shadows details the real-life sordid business surrounding the fall of Bret “Hitman” Hart, the Canadian “good guy” wrestler forced into “bad guy” status by World Wrestling Federation honcho Vince McMahon and then unceremoniously fired—all in the name of ratings. The documentary is very well-done and incredibly managed to obtain actual proof of McMahon’s duplicity. Wrap this up in the carnival spirit of wrestling shows, and you’ve got a documentary that almost has it all. Though overlong in spots (during flashbacks to Hart’s family history, for instance), Wrestling With Shadows is certainly one of the best documentary I’ve seen in a while, and should appeal to a variety of viewers not necessarily fascinated by wrestling.

High School High (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">High School High</strong> (1996)

(On VHS, August 1999) This gets a failing grade for two reasons. One, this parody of high-school dramas isn’t very funny. Yes, there are chuckles; yes, some set-pieces are great; yes, the whole movie is fun. On the other hand, it’s not that funny if you’re not familiar with the source material, the material isn’t clever or unexpected and there is far too much plot for the various gags. The second failing of High School High is that despite everything, it thinks of itself as terribly funny. The biggest sin of the film is to actually allow long reaction shots to let the audience laugh. (There’s a gag, then a second-long shot of a character looking amused/puzzled/nauseous while -in theory- the audience laughs their heads off, then the movie continues) This, given the non-hilarious nature of most jokes, totally kills the pacing of the film and gives an air of unbearable pretentiousness to the whole movie. Oh well, at least Tia Carrere (and not a few young actresses) looks good, which is considerably more than what one can say about Jon Lovitz.

Forces Of Nature (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Forces Of Nature</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) Yet another one of these everything-goes-wrong comedies that could be over in fifteen minutes if anyone in it acted rationally. But no, we get lies-leading-into-more-embarrassing-lies, idiotic decisions, contrived bad luck and a bunch of other annoying things. The result is a comedy with some moments, but a romance that falls very flat. Fortunately, the direction has its moments of interest, the soundtrack is unusually dynamic and a few scenes work well. Despite the happy (?) ending, this is not really a good date movie.

Dick (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dick</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) Back in 1973, right after Richard Nixon’s resignation as President of the United States as a result of his implication in the Watergate, not many people would have been favourably predisposed toward a comedy about these events. Times have changed, tragedy plus time equals comedy and Dick arrives as a cross between bubbly teen comedy and nostalgic social comment. Despite a few misfires and an unwillingness to really go over-the-top (or to tone down the most outrageous scenes), this movie does its job reasonably well, and leaves the audience satisfied. Great soundtrack, good acting and a decent script (which unfortunately lags in the second half), plus amusing funhouse-mirror portraits of such figures as Nixon, Kissinger, Woodward and Bernstein. Though not required, it helps enormously to prep up on your Watergate history before seeing the film.

Chill Factor (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Chill Factor</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) A sad paradigm of the stereotypical Hollywood formula action film. Use an easily-graspable premise (two strangers stuck with chemical weapon that detonates if heated up at more than 50F), an unbeatable pitch to studio executives (“Speed on ice!”), two young and popular lead actors (Skeet Ulrich and Cuba Gooding Jr.), terrorist villains and the expected plot twists. Those still hoping for a moderately entertaining film are in for a disappointment. It’s not that these is no chemistry between the actors (though it takes a while to get going) or not interesting stunts (a few action scenes are mildly exciting), but the movie’s flaws overcome its few assets. For one thing, it suffers from serious tone problems, throwing in dramatic tension and dead bodies with wisecracking buddies and over-the-top histrionics. The numerous plot holes (why not bring back Elvis where it started, why let the terrorists go, why “forget” about the ventilation shaft at first?, etc…) don’t help. The choppy action scenes don’t allow us to get involved in the tension. But these are nothing compared to the frustration caused by the ultra-predictable “surprises” of the film, (He stole it! It’s a fake! They’re not dead!) which can be guessed ten, fifteen minutes in advance. Maybe worth a late-night viewing, but not much else.

Fool’s War, Sarah Zettel

Warner Aspect, 1998, 455 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60293-0

A few contemporary Science Fiction critics of late have bemoaned the tendency of contemporary SF to become entrenched upon itself. Rather than being stories about the effect of rational change on humanity, SF is now most about SF itself. Instead of fresh ideas, we get stories that are explicitly about SF gadgets, space adventures with robots, laser guns and aliens that refer only to other SF stories and not plausible development from today’s world.

This description of SF-as-SF certainly applies very well to the “media” segment of written SF, those bastardized written STAR TREK episodes, or infamous STAR WARS trilogies. These are not SF-as-literature-of-ideas, but SF-as-moneymaking-machine-for-media-corporation. The work aims at nothing more ambitious than giving existing fans a story in a predefined universe where sweeping changes are forbidden by license holders.

But one doesn’t need to go in media-SF territory to encounter SF-as-SF. The whole segment of space opera is arguably based on premises that will not be realized “in the real world”. Who can argue in favour of Faster-That-Light engines? Who believes that Galactic Empires are a viable form of government? For all we know, FTL drives will never exist and all of space-opera is fantasy.

So say the critics. And they’re mostly right: SF has acquired a specialized audience in its long existence, and many of these readers are perfectly content with good old-fashioned stories about AIs, robots, aliens and galactic empires. Where critics err, however, is when they assume that SF-as-SF is somehow less worthy than its more realistic counterpart. Which finally brings us to Sarah Zettel’s second novel, Fool’s War.

Judge for yourself from the plot description: “Katmer Al Shei, owner of the starship Pasadena, does not know she is carrying a living entity in her ship’s computer systems. Or that the electronic network her family helped weave holds a new race fighting for survival. Or that her ship’s professional Fool is trying to avert a battle that could destroy entire worlds.” The only missing thing is a few exclamation points.

But however conventionally specialized her setting may be, Zettel knows how to please her public. Fool’s War is clearly written (up to a point where it’s easy to skim and gloss over crucial details), her characters are pretty well-defined and the plotting maintains an adequate level of interest.

Her take on Artificial Intelligence is one of the elements that Zettel brings to the SF idea cauldron by writing a genre novel. In Fool’s War, AI self-consciousness is a product of sudden paranoia. Succinctly put, sentience happens as soon as a program realizes that it is susceptible to being turned off at any moment. The inevitable systemic crashes caused by newly-conscious paranoid AIs are cause of significant concern for many characters in the novel, and some barely-repressed anger from one particular character.

Distinctive touches like these, plus genuine dialogue skill, cause renewed interest in Fool’s War. Zettel’s attention to the people side make her space opera read far more like Lois McMaster Bujold than E.E Doc Smith. While some elements are unconvincing (Her inclusion of Islamic characters is understandable, but neither touching or impressive), the novel as a while holds up pretty well.

Though “merely” a genre novel, Fool’s War play the rules of the game very well. Experienced SF readers will find what they expect in here: A good plot, professional characterization and touches of humour mixed with a sprinkling of ideas. With just some more work, Zettel shows a lot of promise as an author worthy of attention.

Bullitt (1968)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bullitt</strong> (1968)

(On TV, August 1999) Some types of movies don’t age very well, and older action films often pace in comparison to the frantic pacing of their more recent cousins. While the car chase centerpiece of Bullitt -nowadays the movie’s main claim to fame- may have thrilled audiences in 1968, it pales in comparison to what’s been done since. The non-action remainder of the film has its moments, but ultimately ends up in an overlong, quasi-senseless foot chase. Though not a bad film per se, Bullitt has few new or fresh things to offer thirty years after its release.

Bowfinger (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bowfinger</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) Somehow, I expected better from this Hollywood satire, almost as if it was deliberately pulling its punches in order not to offend anyone. Yes, Eddie Murphy does a creditable job in two roles that ask a lot of courage from a superstar actor, but is this the hilarious comedy we could have expected from Steve Martin? Though steadily amusing, there aren’t very many big laughs in Bowfinger and one has to wonder why given the great premise (an actor is manipulated to star in a film without him knowing it). As it is, though, even if the film is a slight disappointment, it is not a waste of time.

Blast From The Past (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Blast From The Past</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) There’s a limit to what you can do with the “fish-out-of-water” concept and this films pretty much reaches it. Fortunately, Brandon Fraser and Alicia Silverstone sufficiently brighten up the screen so that we can gloss over the other less satisfying parts of the film. Some plots “twists” are seen miles in advance. The conclusion annoyingly relies on a coincidence. There’s a very good swing dance number. Otherwise, it’s a good, but unmemorable film.

Black Sheep (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Black Sheep</strong> (1996)

(On TV, August 1999) Oh my… I sat down to watch this, thinking that if anything else, David Spade’s sarcastic brand of comedy would liven things up. Mistake. Even though Spade comes through with some dignity, I’ve never been a fan of Chris Farley (dead now; not a cinematic loss) and Black Sheep only reminder why. A big, unfunny mess that somehow thinks it’s worth considering seriously, Black Sheep contains a scattering of chuckles, but is otherwise cloyed in false sentimentality and immature embarrassment humour. Not many movie can pull off unfunny characters-on-drugs moments, but Black Sheep does. Thrice. Give this one a miss; it’s a definite potential choice for “worst movie” awards, and not the “so-bad-it’s-good” ones.

Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, Dale Pollock

Harmony, 1983, 304 pages, C$14.95 hc, ISBN 0-517-54677-9

Summer of 1999 was flagged, in movie circles, as being “the summer of STAR WARS” given the release of the newest chapter in the saga, STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE. The movie certainly captured media attention for a while, mostly under the form of humorous human-interest stories about the hordes of rabid fans lining up days, even weeks in advance to be the first to get tickets for the movie’s premiere.

Your reviewer has more than a soft spot for the STAR WARS films, even though this fondness never reached unreasonable levels. Growing up with the STAR WARS films, however, makes them almost critic-proof, impervious to critical judgment. (Seeing the new STAR WARS on opening day was a must, though a flexible work schedule and matinee showings simplified matters considerably.)

In this context, it might seem a bit belated to do a review of a 1983 biography about STAR WARS creator George Lucas. But after reading the book, the new STAR WARS summer of 1999 makes it the best year yet to review Skywalking.

Stop. Rewind. Play.

Skywalking is a biography of George Lucas. From his childhood in California to teenage years marked by a passion for sport cars—a passion that would culminate in a spectacular car crash, and would be immortalized later in AMERICAN GRAFFITI. The narrative follow Lucas from his first few days at USCinema school, through his student films to, finally, his first full-length feature, THX-1138.

Then Skywalking details the steps leading up to the release of the first STAR WARS film, from the agonizing screenwriting to the chaotic filming (sets destroyed by sandstorms, malfunctioning special effects, etc…) and the almost-unexpected success of the film. By that time, two-third of the books are done, and the remainder of the book seems like routine; the success of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the production of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the making of THE RETURN OF THE JEDI…

Unexpected details pepper this biography. A visit on the RETURN OF THE JEDI set. Descriptions of George Lucas’ student films. A summary of the first, first STAR WARS screenplay. A chapter on the friendship between George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

This portrait of George Lucas is fairly complete. Dale Pollock takes great care in establishing, even at first, the traits that would push Lucas to build a cinematographic empire: His thriftiness, his sense of authenticity, his distrust of authority, his desire to entertain and his refusal to compromise.

Skywalking remains relevant even seventeen years later because this is a relatively unbiased portrait of Lucas. Relatively, because Lucas granted unprecedented access to Pollock, numerous private documents and several interviews. It’s a fair bet to assume that Lucas cannot be studied in this fashion any more: Would his status as a legend of filmed SF (gack!) allow him to collaborate so willingly to a book of this type nowadays? Hmm… LucasFilm is already known for extensive history rewriting… (“EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE”)

But the true value of Skywalking in 1999 is to be found in the last chapter, where George Lucas allows himself to talk about his future projects: Enhanced special effect, independent production facilities, forays in video games… THE PHANTOM MENACE is the culmination of these elements, and 1999 is the first year where we can see the extent of Lucas’ success. Yes, George Lucas has accomplished everything he’s set out to do. The irony, after seeing THE PHANTOM MENACE, is that he’s put himself in a position of supreme accountability for the considerable flaws of the end product.

Skywalking won’t convince those who criticize Lucas. It’s not a chainsaw biography, it’s not a slavish portrait of a demigod. It has managed to remain relevant seventeen years. It even shines on current event, proving that nothing ever exists in a vacuum, that nothing new is without antecedents. Not bad.