Coyote Ugly (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Coyote Ugly</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, November 2000) Ay-yay-yay, how ordinary can you be? I imagine the pitch for this film being roughly “Hey, I’ve got twenty minutes of wild Cocktail-for-chicks bar stuff! Any one of you can dust off one of your rejected romance plot to fluff it up?” Sure, Piper Perabo look cute and the rest of the waitresses at the “Coyote Ugly” (that wiiild bar) are pretty hot even when fully clothed, but the rest of the film is a complete bore, showing us a trite romance that we must have seen countless times already. Shamelessly manipulative, often ridiculously implausible, laughably “edgy” (being a struggling songwriter is never so glamorous as in a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film) and all-and-all rather forgettable, Coyote Ugly delivers what no one expected from it; utter averageness.

Charlie’s Angels (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Charlie’s Angels</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, November 2000) Halfway through the film, I leaned over to a friend and whispered “I can’t decide whether this is getting better or worse” and that will stand as a nutshell review. On one level, it’s one of the worst blockbusters of 2000: Hyperactive editing, sexist imagery, thin characters and one of the most incoherent script seen so far. On the other hand, it’s directed with such reckless audaciousness and played with such bouncy abandon that it’s hard not to be swept along with the fun. The film starts in high gear and never lets up. Film students will go bonkers trying to decode the cinematic techniques used by director “McG”, as he throws everything at the screen, often at the same time. Surprisingly or not, Charlie’s Angels pushes back the cinematic techniques at a pace comparable to the more “serious” filmmakers. What helps to swallow the disjointed script (obviously written on-the-fly, as demonstrated by out-of-nowhere sequences like the car chase) is an intermittent self-awareness that winks at the audience. Also notable is the great soundtrack, which often doubles as ironic commentary (the use of The Prodigy’s “Smack my bitch up” during a fight scene between the thin man and the three angels is either a product of complete cluelessness or subversive brilliance) Despite a reportedly difficult shooting, all of the four main players look like they’re having as much fun as we do: Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz are adorable as always, Bill Murray is his usual dependable self and Drew Barrymore is surprisingly good. (A mention goes to Crispin Glover in a silent, but effective, role) Charlie’s Angels will probably remain as a film that gets no respect, but tons of fans.

(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2001) I’ll admit that this isn’t a movie for everyone. Animated with a hyperkinetic energy that tramples down any attempt at conventional criticism, Charlie’s Angels nevertheless features a basic self-awareness that helps a lot in respecting the film for what it is, and the DVD version of the movie confirms many suspicions in this regard. Surprisingly, the film is almost as much fun on a second viewing, mostly because there’s never a dull moment. The editing is rapid but not chaotic, the directing is much better than initially apparent (watch for those lengthy single shots, a clear indicator that director “McG” is more than your usual music-video director) and the overall sense of fun simply doesn’t let go. Great action sequences, a fabulous soundtrack and oodles of sex-appeal are the icing on the cake. Dig down through the plentiful extra features on the DVD, and you’ll understand why the film works so well: The lively audio commentary makes it clear that everyone involved in the film knew they were doing a comic-book film, and they’re justifiably proud of what they achieved. No social relevance; just fun. Worth not only a look, but a second look.

Bring It On (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bring It On</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, November 2000) You can evaluate films on artistic merit, or you can just measure how much fun you had while watching it. Well, Bring It On is unquestionably one of 2000’s most enjoyable films, an irresistibly bubbly teen comedy executed with skill and above-average intelligence. A rather complete surprise, considering that you wouldn’t except a teen sport comedy about cheerleading to be anything but fluff. But while Bring It On doesn’t break out of the teen genre as, say, Election did, it remains as one of the best recent entries in the genre. The script very good, filled with good one-liners, properly acknowledging clichés and managing non-boring relationship scenes. The actors all look like they’re having fun, with Kirsten Dunst continuing her good career choices. (In fifty years, I suspect she’ll pop up that film once in a while just to bask in the glory of how good she looked and how well she performed.) Technically, the choreography of the cheerleading scenes is really impressive and the soundtrack is very good (Even somewhat clever, linking 2 Unlimited’s “Are you ready for this” to a trite, unoriginal routine. Ho-ho!) From its incredible first scene (a masterwork of structure, introducing the main characters in a wild-out dream sequence) to its bouncy sing-along credits, Bring It On is one of the year’s surprise delights, a teen film that’s enjoyable well beyond its simple voyeuristic appeal. Though that’s not to be neglected either.

(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2001) Among the dreck that passes off as teen films, you occasionally get a smart film that either goes beyond the teen genre (Election) or simply works so well that everyone can get into it (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Bring It On is another example in that last category, a fun film without any pretensions, but made with considerable cleverness by people with perspective and respect for the audience. The film is a blast even on a second viewing, and the director’s audio commentary is worth another viewing by itself. (Choice quote, which probably explains the appeal of Bring It On to me: “I tried making a cheerleader film with a punk sensibility”.) You might even pick up a few of the subtle messages (No!) vehicled by the film. Impossible not to smile and cheer for a film when everyone involved looks like they’re having that much fun! Be sure to check out the “deleted scenes” section of the DVD, which features great scenes you’ll wish had remained in the finished product. I love the film more than ever, and easily confirm its standing on my 2000 Top-10 list.

Breaking The Waves (1996)

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

(On VHS, November 2000) Not all films are for everyone, but frankly I’d start worrying about anyone with the inner will to sit through Breaking The Waves‘s seemingly interminable duration. If the annoying characters don’t make you run for the exits, the “naturalistic” dialogue and the awful shaky-cam direction will surely make you hurl. If I wanted to be generous, I’d say that the “realistic” style of the film is exceptionally good at representing the unpleasantness of the story, but that’s really faint praise compared to the rest of the film’s flaws. My attention eventually drifted off, only returning occasionally for nude scenes (nothing to see here) or a character’s death. (which was applauded, for it signaled the impending end of the film.) Only hard-core art-film buffs need apply, I guess.

Blood Simple. (1984)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Blood Simple.</strong> (1984)

(In theaters, November 2000) This thriller by the Coen brother takes a long, long, long time to get going, as we’re introduced to an array of increasingly unsympathetic characters who all seem to be doing their best to become even more unlikable. Eventually, though, the plot mechanics so laboriously introduced all come into play, and the film gets progressively more interesting. Already obvious from their first film is the Coens’ eye for good images, which remains interesting even when the rest isn’t.

Bats (1999)

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

(On VHS, November 2000) Horror film, released on Halloween weekend 1999 and in the “classic” section of your video store barely a year later. Sounds bad? It is. Ridiculous script, unconvincing special effects, adequate acting (at least it’s good to see Lou Diamond Philips and Dina Meyer working again) and familiar plotting make this a rather innocuous film, not worth a bother but with the potential to amuse (perhaps not as intended) if there’s nothing else to do.

The Abyss (1989)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Abyss</strong> (1989)

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2000) Unjustly forgotten by audiences and dismissed by critics upon its initial release, James Cameron’s underwater epic was partially redeemed in 1992 is it was re-released on video as a longer “special edition”. But this fantastic two-disc DVD edition really does justice not only to the exceptional film, but also to the stunning technical difficulties encountered during the film’s production. Tons of extras make this edition a must-buy for the film’s fans. (Don’t make the mistake of renting it, or you’ll despair at how little time you’ll have to watch it all.) Technical production values are insanely high, and they hold up amazingly well in this era of computer graphics (which it helped along, really). A great film by any standards. See it again.

The Bear and the Dragon, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 2000, 1028 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14563-X

Well, America’s master techno-thriller writer is back with a new book, and the overall feeling is one of… déjà-vu.

Tom Clancy fans will remember that the last “Jack Ryan” novel, Executive Orders starred Ryan as the President of the United States, confronted with multiple crises, both internal and external. It all got solved neatly by huge military battles and other assorted action scenes. America was safe once again, and everyone went to sleep satisfied until the next Clancy novel.

This time around, we get more of the same. Except much more of the same. Ryan is still president, except he’s been legitimately elected and now has a mandate to preserve American hegemony. The evil bastards threatening said hegemony are still these cackling Chinese baddies, given that the cackling Russian baddies have retired and are now America’s partners. All of these alliances will come into play as huge resources are discovered in Siberia and China is forced to choose between bankruptcy and invasion.

A big China/Russia war has often been mentioned as a potential threat in military techno-thrillers, but rarely represented (only Slater’s WWIII series has done so, if I remember correctly) because it raises so many random factor (such as historical rivalries, alien mindsets and, oh, nuclear weapons on both sides) that any lesser writer can only feel daunted at the prospect.

Not Tom Clancy, obviously. With The Bear and the Dragon, he tests the patience of readers across the world as he clocks it at 1028 pages, his biggest novel ever and a serious contender for heftiest non-fantasy bestseller of the year. Filled with extravagantly presented plotting, multi-page technical details, chapters of back-story and a surprising grasp of political complexity, The Bear and the Dragon exasperates as it fascinates. Half the novel is figuring out when all these interlocking plotlines will intersect, and the other half is spent admiring how neatly everything fits together. Like it or not, the depth of The Bear and the Dragon makes any other political technothriller seem naive and superficial. If anything, the description of the presidency even feels more accurate here than in Executive Orders. There’s even a stronger conclusion, though it’s considerably diluted by the sheer number of pages setting it up.

A large number of Clancy’s surviving characters from previous novels come back in this one. Fine if you remember all these people; less if you don’t. At this point in time, the Clancyverse is so cumbersome that novices are advised not to apply.

It’s a bit irrelevant whether the novel is good or bad: Fans will love it, and non-fans won’t. As a Clancy devotee, I liked it, but as a base reader, I’m pining for the moment where Clancy’s current editor will explode from overwork and his replacement will force the author to write shorter, tighter novels. It’s common wisdom that Clancy’s earlier novels (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games) are his best, and that’s in no small part due to the better action/pages ratio. Heck, with Red Storm Rising, he did World War Three in fewer pages than the skirmish in The Bear and the Dragon!

But such a radical shift is unlikely to happen. If anything, I don’t even think that Clancy has an editor any more. (One particularly annoying tic in The Bear and the Dragon is a tendency to repeat every good line at least twice during the novel. They probably hired multiple copy editors to bring in the book under deadline, and they didn’t consult.)

In the meantime, you can get The Bear and the Dragon in hardcover for not even 4c a page. If nothing else, you’ll gain in volume what you don’t in page-per-page quality.