Eagle Against the Stars, Steve White

Baen, 2000, 288 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-57846-4

The rabid patriotism of Americans will never cease to amaze, especially when considered in the context of Science-Fiction stories. You would think that a genre so concerned with change and other global -nay, universal- issues would realize that simple patriotism is a self-limiting expression that ultimately belittle all achievements from outside one’s country. But a quick glance at such rah-rah-rah works like INDEPENDENCE DAY… well, point is made.

Among SF publishers, Baen has always been regarded at the stronghold of a certain type of ultra-patriotic, libertarian thinking that simply exists nowhere else in the world. Eagle Against the Stars, from simply the title itself, would appear to be a work that plays strongly in this vein. Even the cover blurb might turn off some people with statements such as

“America was enjoying victory … that’s why the aliens chose it to use as puppet in dominating the planet. We were already set up to do it; now we would do it for them. […] But the Lokaron were going to lesson from their victims, a lesson they weren’t going to like one bit”

By this point, Baen probably lost a few sales from people repelled by this rhetoric. Fortunately (or not, for those who bought the book for this reason), Eagle Against the Stars isn’t as much about Americans-against-aliens as you’d think. True to SF form, the aliens aren’t as eeevil as you might think, and the rebel Americans aren’t as virtuous as the protagonist thinks they are.

If books were evaluated on solely the basis of overturned assumptions, Eagle Against the Stars would rate highly. Unfortunately, details like sustained plotting, good characters and unobtrusive didactism also come into play, and Eagle Against the Stars fares less well in these areas. Too bad, because the novel otherwise demonstrates a good setup, an adequate grasp of SF elements -including overturning some of the most unlikely assumptions of lesser SF- and a writing style that shows promise despite a certain lack of interest. It’s not that it’s bad, but that it’s padded and slow, slow, slow…

Surprisingly, what interest there is in the story comes from the not-so-hidden political agenda of the author and his pointed barb against (all together now:) environmentalists, socialists and communists. Arrr, those damn liberals! Always meddling with the good old libertarians! Never mind that it’s hard to believe that all independent spirit could be sucked out of the United States in a single generation… that was probably caused by the alien mind rays. (Liberals and aliens? Egawd!)

Fans of political SF might enjoy this novel, but other readers will be disappointed, for despite White’s depth of historical sources and writing abilities, he doesn’t deliver much more than a standard adventure-with-twists that we’ve seen so many times before. James Clavell turned out Shogun when he tackled cultural clash between civilizations of different technological levels, but White isn’t Clavell nor -from the book- is he interested in becoming one.

But then again, this is a Baen book, which for all their good fun isn’t exactly known as a reservoir of thoughtful SF. Though they are known as publishers of good action/adventure, and Eagle Against the Stars isn’t too good at that either.

A quick final word on the cover illustration: Not only is it rather tacky to cover a large part of the illustration with blue foil, but the alien’s elongated chin is simply too funny for words. What is it with prominent chins that instills amusement? Will we ever know? Does Jay Leno have an opinion?

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman

Pocket, 1992, 469 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-71591-7

An interesting trend in turn-of-the-millennium genre fiction is the fusion of different literary tools and assumptions to produce a result that isn’t quite one thing or another. Suddenly, dragons are over New York, being battled by alien-technology stealth bombers and causing a vampire to fall in love with a policewoman. Some readers love fusion, some can’t stand it.

One particularly popular type of fusion literature is steampunk, in which -roughly- contemporary SF elements are transplanted in Victorian England. Steam-driven spaceships are equipped with computers driven by pulley and lever, Jack the Ripper meets Sherlock Holmes, Queen Victoria makes a cameo appearance and there are enough in-jokes to satisfy anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the time.

Anno Dracula (perhaps the precursor of the fusion trend, dating back from 1992) goes beyond what eventually became the clichés of steampunk. Here, Kim Newman assumes that everything that happened in Bram Stoker’s Dracula was true, with one important difference; Vlad Tepes escaped the final showdown and using his aristocratic credentials, eventually married Queen Victoria. The England of Anno Dracula is now populated with a new nobility of vampires, with their assorted entourage dominating the country. But then, someone starts killing vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel…

In almost any way you choose to look at it, Anno Dracula is an exceptional book. The alternate history drawn by Newman is somewhat plausible (which is to say, as plausible as a vampire-drived story can be), fascinating and rather frightening. The details are well-positioned to give maximum depth to the story and wink at the knowledgeable reader. Jack the Ripper co-exists with Doctor Jeckyl, Mycroft Holmes, Queen Victoria, Bram Stoker and Van Helsing…

But it takes more than a neat steampunk universe to make a good book (witness Colin Greenland’s Harm’s Way) and fortunately, Newman also scores high on the more usual fictional standards. Anno Dracula is driven by unusually interesting characters, from a shadowy British special agent to a Vampire eldress to a genial newspaper reporter to an ambitious newly-vampirized doctor. Newman, despite setting his tale in Victoria England, wisely resists fluffing up his writing style, and Anno Dracula remains compulsively readable all the way through. The memorable conclusion is lavishly built-up and quite satisfying, finding victory where one wouldn’t expect.

Two sequels have been published to date (The Bloody Red Baron and Judgement of Tears) and if it is doubtful that they will be as enjoyable -most of the fun of Anno Dracula is in discovering the alternate history-, they certainly deserve a read based only on the first volume.

It’s worth noting that the enjoyment one will get from Anno Dracula is proportional to one’s existing knowledge of literary genre, Victorian England and vampire novels. Anno Dracula is akin to a graduate-level read in that it can be enjoyed by anyone, but contains so many references to other sources that readers with extra cultural baggage will get so much more out of it. A cursory knowledge of Stoker’s Dracula alone -if only from the movie version-, helps tremendously.

Fusing horror elements with SF world-building and a mystery structure, Kim Newman has achieved more than the simple addition of elements and produced a novel far above the rest of what one would usually find on the “horror” bookshelf. Anno Dracula simply has too much ambition beyond the simple scare to avoid being labelled a darn good book. Fascinating experiment, great entertainment or best-of-breed genre novel, it’s hard to overstate how Anno Dracula is so successful on so many levels. One of the best vampire books to date. Strongly recommended, for a wide array of readers.

Bios, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 1999, 208 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86857-X

Those poor, poor SF authors.

Earning a living -in any discipline- takes a lot of hard work. In the SF field, it takes more than that: dedication, creativity and a sense of how to please a crowd.

And the SF crowd is one of the worst there is. It’s not enough to give them an interesting concept wrapped in a good story. No, they ask for memorable characters, clear writing, snappy dialogue and good value for their money.

As a result, current SF authors have to uphold the professionalism developed in the fields ever since the pulp era. SF, like it or not, has become a small professional industry, and as with any pop culture product, readers can be expected to demand more for their entertainment dollars.

In most ways, Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios is a fine piece of Science-Fiction. The premise itself is intriguing: In a future where interstellar space travel is hideously expensive, humans have found one planet with a full biological ecology: Isis. The only problem; Isis’s natural ecosystem is “spectacularly toxic” to Earth life. “The entire planet is a permanent Level Four hot zone” promises the cover blurb.

Fun stuff, especially given Wilson’s initial premise. Bios‘s protagonist, Zoe Fisher, is sent on one of those all-too-expensive trips to Isis, where she is to undergo testing as a human built to be resistant to the hostile biosphere. Meanwhile, scientists stationed on and above Isis begin to see increasing levels of viral outbreaks inside “safe” areas. Something is happening, and it doesn’t promise anything good.

All throughout, Wilson builds his imagined future with an admirable economy. In a short time, he establishes the future dystopia that is Bios‘s universe, what with its new aristocracy, its pitiless corporations/political parties and overall aura of nastiness. This is the first time that one of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels explicitly takes place in an appreciably distant future, (he’s previously meddled a lot with alternate universes or futuristic element in contemporary settings) and he’s up to the difficult task of world-building with an assured professionalism.

His writing is also clear and to the point. Bios can be read compulsively, with its short length and dynamic storytelling. There is a memorable outbreak scene halfway through the book, and the final pages also pack a lot of interesting material. Few novel from Wilson are obscurely written up to the point of being uninteresting (Gypsies being the only notable exception) and Bios is even more engaging than its predecessors.

But, as his previous novel Darwinia suffered from a rather spectacular structural failure, Bios‘s considerable strengths must be tempered with significant warnings. The premise outlined above might lead readers to imagine a certain plot. Unfortunately, that is pretty much exactly what you get, especially if you’re familiar with the sense of doomed gloominess present in some of Wilson’s work.

To this predictability, let’s also be crassly commercial and point out that Bios‘s snappiness and readability is matched by its slim physical size: at barely more than 200 pages, Bios is almost half the length of today’s average SF novel. (But, at $32.95 Can, still fully the price of today’s SF novel) This is no breakneck densely-textured novel like Ian MacLeod or Greg Egan’s usual output: Once you start looking at the story with the assumption that this is a padded novella, yes, extrataneous parts seem to rise out of the novel. Unfortunately, there is as of now no market for SF novellas. Was Bios padded from a story too long to be novella and too short to be a satisfying novel? That’s a question to ask Robert Charles Wilson at the next SF convention.

[August 2000:  I did, and he graciously answered that Bios, from the start, was planned as a novel, “though it ended a bit short.” (He also rightly pointed out that it would have been a perfect length twenty, thirty years ago)]

In the meantime, Bios remains a worthwhile read, but not a worthwhile buy. Consider a paperback purchase if you’re a confirmed fan (keeping in mind that Wilson tries new things here, and succeeds), or else head for your local library.

American Hero, Larry Beinhart

Ballantine, 1993, 397 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-36663-8

At the time, it almost seemed too good to be true. A few months after the fall of the Soviet empire, a border skirmish between two middle-eastern countries quickly escalates in an armed war in which new alliances are formed, new technology is used and old dirty tricks surface anew under different guises. The Gulf crisis of late 1990/early 1991 wasn’t the first war to be televised, but it is -so far- the most entertaining, ending with a big happy ending. Footnote: Total war-related deaths for the Allied side were lower than handgun-related deaths on American soil during the same period.

Ask any North American who lived through the events, and they’ll tell you that the war was almost fun; that the picture painted by the media began with extreme danger and ended in total victory. America booted out the old ghosts of Vietnam and assumed its role as unique global superpower.

As expected, guilt came in ringing a few moments later. Gulf War revisionism reviewed the war and declared it bad. It was a ploy to re-establish George Bush’s manhood. It was a media-manipulated skirmish transformed into a global engagement that wasn’t. The poor Iraquis didn’t deserve to lose. Kuwait didn’t deserved to be freed. And so on and so forth.

Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero is an integral part of the rich-boy soul-searching done by American after the Gulf War. It pushes the most somber conclusions of the revisionists (and their associated conspiracy theorist) to their logical extreme: The Gulf War was manufactured by George Bush -along with the Hollywood movie industry- to ensure his re-election.

And the word “manufactured” isn’t used here in a cynical fashion: The most interesting parts of Beinhart’s book are those in which a crazy memo is given to a top-notch Hollywood director, who uses a film archive to literally design “the perfect war”, which will be as victorious as it will be an emotionally satisfying experience.

Unfortunately, to get to these parts, you’ll have to wade through the increasingly uninteresting tale of Joe Broz, a security agent who gets caught up in the whole mess. Not only does this subplot actually is supposed to be the core of the novel, but it is far less dense -not to mention unoriginal- that the actual making of the war. Notice that when American Hero was adapted for the big screen -as the celebrated WAG THE DOG-, they wisely concentrated the whole action around the war-makers. (They also cleverly neutered the “breathtakingly nasty” [says Kirkus] satiric edge of the novel by inventing a fictional war rather than naming names and citing historical facts.) By the time Broz is hunted down by government agents who will kill him to keep the secret, it’s no use; we’ve see all of this before in countless conspiracy thrillers.

The other flaw of the book is to depart from a comic premise and treat it as a rather dry conspiracy theory. Granted, the 120-odd footnotes are fun reading and thought-provoking, but look closer and you’ll be able to poke holes in Beinhart’s argumentation that this is All True. (Not the least of which might have been “If Bush really wanted to win the election, why didn’t he wait until 1992 to start the war and ride the victory in presidential elections??”) The last section, explicitly titled “Conspiracy”, smacks of desperation. Someone phone up Beinhart and tell him that heavy-handed satire is self-defeating. (If you really want a conspiracy, ask yourself why a smart, but unpopular, mystery author would suddenly decide to jump on the conspiracist bandwagon… hmmm…) But that’s just the anti-conspiracy-theorist speaking. Feel free to ignore.

In any case, American Hero is worth a look, if only for the hilarious acid portrait of Bush, the White House and Hollywood.

And who knows? Like most conspiracies, the Gulf War almost makes more sense that way.

Terminal Cafe, Ian McDonald

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 277 pages, US$12.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37416-8

It takes more than great ideas to write great SF; you have to know how to string them together. Countless pro writers have tried to instil this notion in the heads of even more numerous aspiring authors, but it doesn’t always stick. The shocking thing is that some professional authors themselves do actually forget about it. Results vary, ranging from excellent if nearly unreadable hard-SF to mishmashes of amateurish slush pile bricks.

Terminal Cafe‘s problems are slightly different. No one will be able to say that Ian McDonald isn’t a phenomenally talented writer. No one will ever accuse him of writing bad prose. Better yet; he’s got great ideas, stuff that most frequent SF readers will gobble up with glee.

No, McDonald’s problems lie in a different direction. In a certain sense, one could say he writes too well. Or that he writes with ambitions that exceed what should be put in a novel. To put it simply; Terminal Cafe doesn’t cohere and approaches unreadability because McDonald can’t string up his great ideas with an interesting plot that’s written in such a way that’s accessible to most readers.

On the cover blurb, it reads like a classic-in-the-making: “revolutionary technology has given humans the ability to resurrect the dead. But the even-increasing population of the rise dead is segregated. They have created a wild culture untouched by restrictions of the law. Dead cannot stray in the realm of the living, nor the living into the teeming necrovilles after nightfall.” Now, one artist wants to do exactly that—cross in Necroville after nightfall. Great premise. Horror crossed with SF, a few mind-boggling sights, a thriller structure and -boom- instant SF bestseller. Insert great ideas, stir as necessary. And don’t forget to explain exactly how the dead are so different from the living.

First mistake: We never learn what/why/how the dead are -including the differences- until nearly the end of the book. And no, it’s not a shocking surprise that twists things around. As a result, a large part of the book isn’t very compelling, because or first reaction is to ask why everyone can’t get along rather than understand the dynamics at play.

What makes Terminal Cafe so damnably difficult to read is that McDonald aims for the literary crowd and never sustains the interest. the quasi-experimental writing allows for pages of exasperating soul-searching by the characters, but not a lot of plot development. Many of the dynamics between the central characters are never made too clear.

And yet… once in a while, a fragment of clearly-written, utterly fascinating passage is to be found. The description of a new multinational justice system driven by rented computer time. Original speculations on nanotechnology. Space battles. Future arts. Political shenanigans. These gems of clear diamond in the murk both enhance the book’s overall impression, and darken it—because if McDonald could write these passages, then why the heck could he have made the whole book more interesting?

It might have been the British origins of the book. It might have been a busy few days where your reviewer didn’t have the patience to try out a complex piece of writing. It might be drugs, extraterrestrials or phases of the moon. But the result is the same; Terminal Cafe is a very mixed bag of fascinating vignettes drowned in oodles of boring passages.

Proceed at your risks and perils. And if ever you’re writing a SF novel of your own, please please remember that great ideas aren’t all that’s required for a great novel; you have to be able to string them together.

Vertigo (1958)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Vertigo</strong> (1958)

(In theaters, June 2000) Every great director can make mistakes once in a while, and while Vertigo has its adherents, I can’t help but feel that Hitchcock dropped the ball with this one; it’s a story with huge structural problems and a baffling finale. This being said, it develops quite nicely, and could forever coast on the talents of Kim Novak and James Stewart. Still, there are inexcusable faults, like the disjointed nature of the film (some cutting required), the disappearance of the girl-friend character and the abrupt huh-inducing finale. It doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Hitchcock’s better films…

Titan A.E. (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Titan A.E.</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, June 2000) A terribly frustrating film on several levels. First and foremost is the script, of course, which is a mishmash of fun situations and botched execution. Some of the set-pieces are impressive, and compelling on a teen geez-wow level, but the screenplay is marred by ordinary character development, trite dialogue and an episodic nature that doesn’t cohere very well. Each details that shows that someone has been paying attention (“Exhale!”) is followed by an inanity that destroys the illusion. But beyond the words, there are also several problems with the pictures: The state-of-the-art in Computer-Generated Imagery has advanced so much in recent years that the subpar 2D character animation as practiced by Don Bluth Studios now clashes vividly with the background 3D CGI. This jarring lack of continuity remains through the film, dogging any viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Still, it’s worth a look. Even though it doesn’t approach anywhere near the levels set by The Iron Giant, Titan A.E. is entertaining for its whole duration and should provide adequate entertainment for the whole family. Your inner early teen should appreciate even if you don’t.

Shaft (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Shaft</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, June 2000) The danger with iconic movies -such as this remake of a classic seventies film- is that the hype, the mystique of the characters is always invariably bigger than the end product. In this light, Shaft does a creditable job at re-creating the innate coolness of John Shaft. A large part of this (and a suitably large portion of the film’s appeal) comes from Mr. Badass himself, Samuel L. Jackson. He clicks, and so does the film. As for the story, it’s an average cops-versus-baddies script, with enough fun quirks to make it modern and interesting. Pretty good? Ya damn right!

Rear Window (1954)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rear Window</strong> (1954)

(Second viewing, In theaters, June 2000) Seeing this justifiably-lauded masterpiece on the big screen again not only re-affirmed this film’s presence on my top-100 film list, but demonstrated many things I didn’t quite remember. It’s easy to remember how insanely great the premise is (what with the single set, limited perspective and particular protagonist), how masterfully the story is developed (great script, superb dialogues, seamless directing) and how suspenseful the whole thing is, but it’s all too easy to forget how darn funny this film is, and how great you feel after watching it. Rent it now, and enjoy every second.

Me, Myself & Irene (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Me, Myself & Irene</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, June 2000) After Jim Carrey’s newfound acting reputation (after more nuanced turns in The Truman Show and Man On The Moon) and the Farrely Brother’s unexpected mega-hit with There’s Something About Mary, there were considerable expectations about their first reunion since Dumb & Dumber. Unfortunately, Me, Myself & Irene would have been a failure even if it hadn’t been hyped. In their rush to bring to screens a bigger, nastier, grosser comedy, The Farrelys have forgotten that There’s Something About Mary‘s biggest strength wasn’t the gross-out gags, but the solid romantic underpinning and the constant comedy (which was funny throughout, with occasional peaks of good-natured outrageousness). Conversely, Me, Myself & Irene goes for the gross-out without any reason to do so. It mixes kind of a serious plot (what with murders, criminals and amputations) with attempts at being funny and the mixture doesn’t hold. Granted, the premise is fantastic (Carrey as fighting against himself? Wasn’t that just great in Liar Liar?) and the three rude black geniuses simply steal every scene they’re in (gotta love that quantum physics discussion!), but overall, Me, Myself & Irene misfires far too often, and the result is simply… not that funny. (As an aside, your reviewer notes that with the accumulation of gross-out humor, he finds myself not repulsed nor amused, but annoyed and left curiously unaffected by the more extreme gags in this vein -see Scary Movie-. Hopefully the pendulum of moviegoer’s tastes will soon swing back.)

Rogue Star, Michael Flynn

Tor, 1998, 667 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54299-1

With 1997’s Firestar, Michael Flynn officially Arrived in SF. Formerly known as an author of a few rather good short stories and co-author of the fannish homage Fallen Angels (With Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle), Flynn flew under the radar of most SF fans until he published his monstrous 800+ pages tome. Firestar was the opening volume of an ambitious near-future saga in which Flynn looked as if he’d be showing all other authors how near-future Hard-SF is done. With its huge cast of characters, deep character development and often exasperating attention to details, Firestar gathered a lot of interest and got some critical attention.

At the time, your reviewer begged to differ. Firestar‘s very ambitiousness dragged down what might otherwise have been a fine hard-SF tale. The huge cast of characters seemed too diffuse for its own good. Flynn’s character development seemed to specialize in making life hard for everyone. There was no happy ending. Not a lot happened, and whatever happened wasn’t worth 800+ pages. Many Messages were passed. Add to that the decidedly libertarian convictions of Flynn’s future (in which governments were evil and only corporations could save the world, yada-yada-yada) and you had an overpadded, somewhat unpleasant book.

Why read Rogue Star, then? For the sheer masochist pleasure of it, maybe. But a strange thing happened on the way to the ending: While still overly long, Rogue Star started to be engrossing, interesting and even -yep- enjoyable.

Rogue Star is where the investment made in the first volume starts to pay off. All these useless, unpleasant characters of the first volume start interacting in a conflicting fashion, and for some reason, this seems rather more interesting than in the first volume. Marissa’s financial empire is in jeopardy; a mission to an asteroid finds more than it bargained for; a blue-collar construction worker confronts sex and violence on an unfinished space station. Fascinating stuff, and more accessibly-written too. Not a whole lot of plot for 600+ pages, though. Someone at Tor better grab some scissors for the next volume.

Still, the result is worth the long read. The space-rigger subplot itself rivals Allen Steele’s similar Orbital Decay in sheer fascination. (Plus, it takes the rather reasonable position that being stoned in a high-risk environment is not a very smart thing to do…) The political and financial shenanigans do seem less naive than Firestar‘s simplistic libertarian positions. The series moves in a more outlandish science-fiction, after the quasi techno-thriller atmosphere of the first volume.

Plus, Flynn sends a neat little curveball in mid-book to all the readers who by now had been softly settling in a very rational hard-SF environment. Suddenly, things get far more interesting. But that’ll have to wait until the next volume, right?

In fact, Rogue Star is a bit worrisome, because it shows that Flynn isn’t nearly finished with the series, which is looking more and more like a future history than a simple trilogy. How many more volumes to go? And how will both the “surprise” and the “expected” (come on; all that foreshadowing about planet-killing asteroids for nothing?) will play? As we might think they will ,or differently? (This is not a glib remark: If we end up with a 2000+ pages series in which the climax is what one can expect after reading Rogue Star, then all the good will established by the book will disappear in a puff of angry smoke. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the book.)

Without being a must-read, Rogue Star is decent hard-SF. Worth a look, especially for those who wondered why they read the first volume of the series.

Flubber (1997)

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

(On TV, June 2000) I was prepared for the worst -what with Robin Williams in a remake of a Disney kid’s movie with cute special effects- but was finally entertained decently by this film. As long as you focus on the sight gags, the good special effects and never worry too much about the dumb plotting, saccharine moments and out-of-place adult elements in a kid’s film.

Eddie (1996)

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

(On TV, June 2000) What armchair sports fan hasn’t said to himself “Hey, I could coach that team!”? Eddie plays heavily on this wish-fulfilment fantasy by throwing uberfan Whoppie Goldberg as the coach of the New York Knicks. Pretty much everything you could expect from this premise actually happens: The players gradually coming to accept the coach, the increasing tensions between coach and owner, the last climactic game, yada-yada-yada. Goldberg rescues the film from complete worthlessness. Terribly manipulative, not exceptionally funny, but hey, it’ll do one Sunday evening when there’s no real basketball on TV.

Chicken Run (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Chicken Run</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, June 2000) Every self-respecting Wallace And Gromit fan only needed to know that Nick Park was doing Chicken Run in order to rush out and see the film. Great news: Chicken Run more than meet the expectations set by Park’s three most famous shorts films. Chicken Run is a constant delight, a comedy with considerable amounts of wit and intelligence, with the added attraction of some fun action sequences. Keep your eyes open for tons of delightful film references. One could easily dwell on the technical prowesses of the film, but the storytelling is so good that it preempts any attempt at a technical analysis. Run, chicken, run!

(Second viewing, On DVD, December 2000) This survives a second viewing admirably well, which is always an achievement for a comedy. The novelty of claymation fades somewhat, and the various character quirks emerge more strongly. I was annoyed at the gratuitous romantic angle, but the script shows how well written it otherwise is. The DVD is a lot of fun, with two making-of features, commentary tracks, various extra as well as three trailers (including the hilarious Gladiator and Mission: Impossible parodies.) Unquestionably one of the best films of 2000.

Boogie Nights (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Boogie Nights</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, June 2000) Note to director Paul T. Anderson: You frickin’ show-off. Okay, so you can write and direct a pretty good film about the porn industry in the late seventies/early eighties. Sure, you can coax exceptional performances from your actors. Great, so you can move the camera like a god and make us say “Damn, we’ve found a new auteur!” But next time you do a film, why don’t you remember that brevity is… wit? Why don’t you take another pass at that script, and remove those little scenes that leads nowhere and do nothing? Why don’t you tell your actors to stop playing to the camera? Why don’t you hire a good editor, one who could tighten your self-indulgences to something approaching narrative unity? Do that, and we’ll love you. Otherwise, you’ll get worse and worse, and Magnolia isn’t a step in the right direction. Even geniuses directors need some good direction.