The General’s Daughter (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The General’s Daughter</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) Though not very well received by critics, this film nevertheless delivers what any thriller could be expected to: Strong lead characters, a good pace, false leads, interesting dialogue and such. James Woods shines in his role; every scene that includes him is a step above the rest of the film. Though not without excess (the rape sequence should have been toned down; its present form is gratuitously exploitative) and occasionally bland, there’s nothing especially wrong about The General’s Daughter. A fine video rental; just don’t expect it to play fair.

A Signal Shattered, Eric S. Nylund

Avon/EOS, 1999, 378 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97514-9

WARNING: Given that A Signal Shattered is a sequel, this review contains complete spoilers for Eric S. Nylund’s previous novel A Signal To Noise. If you haven’t read the first volume… you don’t want to know.

Don’t you hate sequels? Tired retreads of a once-successful premise, shamelessly exploited for commercial gain? Scarcely original tacked-on adventures to characters who would otherwise enjoy a good, uneventful off-screen life?

Well, A Signal Shattered, despite following the events of Eric S. Nylund’s Signal to Noise, isn’t a sequel in the most vulgar of terms. It’s quite apparent that this is meant to be the logical conclusion of the events of the first book; a fully intended extension. Indeed, this novel begins scant seconds after the end of the previous volume.

Jack Potter is still stranded on the moon after Earth’s destruction. With him; a motley crew of monks, spies and assassins. Even though they survived the catastrophe, they’re still far from safe: their oxygen is running low, they don’t have much food and they’re all desperately tired. Within minutes, they’re also under attack by unknown forces. And there’s plenty of opposing sides, from Jack’s old friends to hostile alien forces…

It’s a cliché to say that a book was “breathlessly paced”, but this is indeed the case with A Signal Shattered. The novel never stops, as crises are piled over new developments and Jack must cope with everything at once. This eventually takes its toll on the reader, who must eventually take a break from this breakneck pacing. Even with Nylund’s best intentions, the book is still 378 pages and even if it’s constantly exciting book, it’s not a short one. Fortunately, Nylund’s writing is sufficiently clear to carry the reader forward during the whole book.

Fans of the first volume have certainly noted the ease with which Nylund played around with hard-edged scientific concepts, from biology to physics with a heavy emphasis on information science. This novel continues the trend, with Nylund even making a strong push toward Greg-Egan territory with the dizzying big-idea finale. While not as easily graspable as the ones in Signal to Noise, the techno-innovations in A Signal Shattered create a convincing aura of pure SFness.

More than just a simply good conclusion to the story begun in Signal to Noise, A Signal Shattered also marks the potential beginning of a major new SF talent. If Nylund can keep up the clear writing, the fresh approach, the easy familiarity with techno-gadgets and the good pacing of his two latest SF books, he could easily become one of the next decade’s SF stars. Though it would help to keep the whole story in one volume…

BRIEFLY: Nylund’s Dry Water is a contemporary fantasy that nevertheless shows his SF roots though an SF-writer protagonist, various classic references and a spirit of systematic extrapolation that underlines the best SF. Dry Water is unfortunately a bit too scattershot to succeed fully, bringing in disparate elements together instead of focusing on the strengths of the Really Interesting stuff. Impatient readers, for instance, could solely concentrate on the Larry Ngitis passages and skim the other viewpoint characters without missing much. Generally speaking, the book is at its strongest when strongly rooted in reality, which makes the various “Dry Water” digression more annoying than satisfactory. It also gets a big too big for its bounds, to the detriment of a nice yarn. Still, if not a recommended book, it remains an interesting one.

Fire Down Below (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fire Down Below</strong> (1997)

(On TV, November 1999) Just when you thought that Steven Seagal couldn’t do a worse movie than On Deadly Ground if he tried, here comes this astonishingly boring “action” film. It’s not that I don’t like the guy (hey; Executive Decision, Under Siege) but anyone who picks a script like Fire Down Below to be his next film really has no other option except quitting show-business. Come to think of it, wasn’t this Seagal’s last film in theatres before straight-to-video? Hmmm…

End Of Days (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">End Of Days</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) Watching this film is a lot like watching a festival of missed opportunities, botched execution and amateur moviemaking with occasional flashes of interest. Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in a more vulnerable role (the scene where he throws away his gun was a nice bit) and Gabriel Byrne rises above the material, but everyone else just got their paycheck and left running. The script is awful, with predictable dialogue and contrived plotting (eg; how they figure out the girl’s name) Peter Hyams’ direction is a step backward from his previous efforts, throwing everything haywire in a flurry of MTV editing that barely makes sense. The action scenes are so incoherent that they actually lessen the film’s impact. Robin Tunney looks like a crack addict escaped from the set of Rosemary’s Baby. Not a major disappointment -after all, there are a few good *intentions*- but nothing near even a marginal success either. Best line: “Eastern time?”

Dogma (1999)

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

(In theaters, November 1999) As a good little (lapsed) catholic boy, I got a kick out of this film, maybe more than it actually deserves from an objective point of view. Kevin Smith’s script oscillates between the sharply clever and the drawn-out obvious, but gets the job done. The casting is spectacular, though unequal: even though I generally worship Salma Hayek, she wasn’t the best choice for Serendipity. Steadily funny, with an irreverent questioning streak, Dogma is actually respectful to both theist and atheist crowds, encouraging everyone to question their beliefs… and that’s respectable enough for any film.

Daylight (1996)

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

(On TV, November 1999) Yet again, Sylvester Stallone plays the role of a supremely competent man with a past trauma suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, this is no Cliffhanger and though Daylight is an adequately competent disaster film, it’s nothing special. The traditional cast of diverse characters populate the script, none being especially interesting. (Well, none beyond the millionaire adventurer, who’s killed too early) The initial tunnel disaster is impressive from a visual effects point of view, but the rest of the film is rather more pedestrian. You won’t believe some of the Stupid Mistakes made by the screenwriter.

Bound (1996)

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

(On TV, November 1999) A triumphant revision of noir thrillers, with the assorted background of mafia, greed, smouldering sexual tension and pervasive gritty atmosphere. This is the Wachowski Brothers’ first feature (their second would be The Matrix) and it already shows the mixture of mesmerizing direction, borrowed influences and comic-book plotting that made their follow-up features so successful. This is a film that isn’t really complex, but looks so damn polished that it’s impossible to avoid being favorably impressed. Cool scenes, cooler visuals, focused script and femmes fatales (Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon! Woo-hoo!)… I don’t need much more to recommend this one.

The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger

Harper, 1997, 301 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101351-X

Humans are not aquatic creatures. Even though our lineage most probably goes back to an H2O-saturated environment at some point, we’re the product of a few million years of straight land-based evolution. We are, in our current form, ridiculously ill-equipped to cope with water in large quantities.

Maybe that why so much good literature has been about the sea. Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, etc… As comfortable landlubbers, we often forget how fundamentally inhospitable the ocean can be. Now here comes Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm to remind us of it once again.

In October 1991, a combination of factors along the northeastern Atlantic coast all contributed to the creation of “a perfect storm” —a storm that could not have been worse. Caught in the middle of it: The Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat with a crew of six men. They never made it back to port. The Perfect Storm is, in part, the story of their demise.

Not a cheery premise for a documentary, nor an easy one. How can we know what happened aboard a boat which disappeared at sea? Junger confronts the question in the introduction by stating up-front that he’s using descriptions of similar events to describe the fate of the Andrea Gail, that he resisted the impulsion to make up quotes, that he interviewed friends and relatives to get an idea of the men’s last days on shore. And, by and large, the book plays fair to this ideal, neither inventing or dramatizing facts. The narrative is filled with “it might have been the case”, “did these men…?”, “in similar cases” and other carefully-modulated modifiers. It doesn’t matter: The book creates a convincing aura of authenticity.

Junger also sidesteps the question by adding other elements than the disappearance of the Andrea Gail to The Perfect Storm. We get to see the end of a yacht cruise, hair-raising rescues by National Guardsman and other dramatic events that happened during the storm of 1991. This broad focus helps maintain the interest in he book long after the Andrea Gail has gone under.

As for the quality of the book itself… well, it’s obvious from the start that The Perfect Storm will be a superior read. Honest human interest bolsters technical details about the fishing industry and the result is both highly informative and compulsively readable. Junger not only did his research, but presents it in a way that’s almost unequalled. Few books attain the level of intense fascination created by Junger. The result is a memorable work of documentary fiction.

A movie script has been adapted from The Perfect Storm, and is -as of this writing- undergoing the final stages of the primary shooting. It remains to be seen if the film will be able to translate Junger’s carefully researched facts and documentary vulgarization to the big screen. Initial gut reaction would seem to indicate otherwise and this, coupled to the anti-dramatic structure and the unhappy finale, might not presage well for the finished product. Still…

The potential appeal for the book itself, in the meantime, is enormous. Non-fiction fans will find a book far better-written than the norm in genre. Docu-fiction fans will be fascinated by the accessible technical details and the meticulous research. Your basic reader, finally, will read the book in a single seating, grip the armrest of his comfy chair and change his mind about how he thinks we humans master the sea.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Being John Malkovich</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) This might be one of the most original film of the year, but that in no way implies that it’s a supremely entertaining one. It’s always a personal wonder that from time to time, film critics will be bowled over by “originality”, as if that excused everything. You’ve got to wonder about frames of reference. I’ve read far too many SF and Fantasy tales that were far weirder that Being John Malkovich, so allow me to be unimpressed at how “startlingly fresh” it seems. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the easy “explanation”, I didn’t like pedestrian direction and I didn’t like the “oh-it’s-a” monkey either. I did like a few sight gags (eg; the 7.5th floor, Malkovich being Malkovich) and Malkovich’s performance, but beyond that… why don’t you grab a modern fantasy anthology and start reading?

The Bachelor (1999)

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

(In theaters, November 1999) An exploration of marriage relatively more successful than Forces Of Nature, but not by much. As a comedy, it has a few scattered chuckles, but nothing much beyond the striking visual gags of a man being chased by a thousand women in bridal outfits. (the production costs, my, the production costs!) As a romance, it’s bland; we never ever doubt that the two leads are going to end together, and the structure of the film does not allow for that down-low moment where everything seems irrevocably lost. Renée Zellweger is cuter than ever and James Cromwell is suitably sympathetic as a pastor.

Anaconda (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Anaconda</strong> (1997)

(On TV, November 1999) As far as pure B-movie adventures go, you really can’t find better than Anaconda. Directed with some skill and scripted according to the most basic standards of the genre, this film knows exactly what it is, and makes no apologies for it. Jennifer Lopez has never looked so good (spending most of her considerable screen time sweaty in a tight shirt) and John Voight redefines over-the-top villainy. Some special effects look fake, making a shocking contrast with the remainder of the CGI-intensive visuel effects. A great unassuming video choice.

Abre Los Ojos [Open Your Eyes] (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Abre Los Ojos</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Open Your Eyes</strong>] (1997)

(In theaters, November 1999) Where did this movie come from? How is it we didn’t hear more of it? A quasi-hallucinatory mixture of genres finally ending in pure science-fiction, Open Your Eyes is the kind of reality-bending film that Hollywood often aims for but never quite achieves. While longish in the beginning, and not always consistent, this is a film to hunt for at you local video store. To say more would be to spoil the film.

Virus Ground Zero, Ed Regis

Pocket, 1996, 244 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-55361-5

In 1995, a book titled The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, caused a stir among the American public. A dramatic non-fiction account of Ebola outbreaks in Africa and in a Washington DC suburb, it was propelled to the top of the bestseller lists by a combination of good writing, great reviews and an uncanny sense of timing: A few weeks after its initial release, another Ebola outbreak in Zaire made headlines and bolstered sales of the book.

Virus Ground Zero is, in many ways, a follow-up to The Hot Zone. It describes in detail the 1995 African outbreak. It draws an unofficial history of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the world’s foremost anti-viral agency. It also aims to puncture the myth of “the coming plague”, fostered in part by books like The Hot Zone. The result is a triumph of anecdotic storytelling, but a dismal structural failure.

The framework of Virus Ground Zero is provided by the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Zaire. Regis meticulously -but entertainingly- describes the evolution of the outbreak from the initial cases to the ceremonial end of the emergency. It’s a naturally gripping tale, with the detective-like work of tracking down the origin of the virus and the culture clash between American experts and third-world Zaire. Additionally, this being the nineties, the epidemic naturally becomes a media event, and the most blackly amusing parts of the book describe how the media presence in Kikwit was more numerous than the CDC virus experts, and far more obnoxious.

Regis adds to this report an unofficial (read; not always laudatory) history of the Center for Disease Control. Born out of the need to control Malaria in the United States in the 1940s, the CDC quickly grew outside its first assigned bounds to take on more and more duties outside malaria control or even disease control. By the nineties, the CDC had become a massive bureaucracy where only a tenth of all resources were directly assigned to infectious diseases. But the CDC can at least boasts of some significant successes: In the seventies, their efforts managed to erase smallpox, one of humankind’s oldest enemies, from the face of the Earth. This story, and many others, are interwoven in the book.

And there lies the most significant weakness of Virus Ground Zero; a lack of organization. From the beginning, Kikwit crisis and CDC history are alternately covered, without clear chapter distinctions or indications. It’s as if Regis flits from subject to subject as he likes it, ignoring chronology and often leaving “cliffhangers” at the end of each snippet, which won’t be answered until much later in the book. Such a structure is fine for novels, but for a serious nonfiction scientific vulgarization, it’s a fatal mistake. Even worse; there is no index. You can’t reasonably use Virus Ground Zero as a reference book because there’s no way of quickly locating an element. How these types of blatant omission still make it in today’s publishing industry are left as a perverse exercise to the reader.

The real shame of Virus Ground Zero is that Regis is, basically, a rather good vulgarizer. His writing style is clear and witty. He selects good anecdotes and presents them in a way that make a point clear. He isn’t afraid to criticize when it’s appropriate. His explanations are clear and to the point. His central thesis -based on his examination of the non-event that was the Kikwit outbreak- that there’s no such thing as “a coming plague” is carefully documented and does seem reasonable.

But presentation is often as important as content, and so Virus Ground Zero fails on factors external to the content. There would be several easy way to “fix” the book, from a simple index to a complete chronological re-organization of the book, but the current product is a nightmare of structure, a bunch of good stories impossible to consult efficiently.