Month: May 2001

The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Del Rey, 1973, 283 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-34803-6

Ask around for opinions about THE PRINCESS BRIDE (the film), and you’ll get almost-unanimous agreement; everyone loved it to pieces. Many people will repeat snatches to the dialogue verbatim, from “Inconceivable!” to “My Name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!” While no one is too sure about who played who in the film (except for André the Giant, who everyone remembers), everyone who’s seen THE PRINCESS BRIDE loves it.

I’m no exception, though I remember liking the first half of the film a lot more than the second half, where the protagonist became as useful as a bag of potatoes and the tale slogged on despite, rather than because, of him. Still; you can’t beat lines like “You made one of the great mistakes; not ‘you shall not wage a land war in Asia’, but the other one!”

In any case, I was quite happy to be able to snap a mint copy of The Princess Bride at an used-book sale. Funny as the movie was, it was probably nothing compared to the mordant prose of William Goldman.

It turns out that while the book does indeed have more punchlines than the film, it shares with it a noticeable slowdown in the end.

One aspect of The Princess Bride that wasn’t possible to explore in the film is the whole metafictional conceit of the book. Goldman starts with a long (29 pages) introduction in which he details how his father read him S.G. Morgenstein’s “The Princess Bride” when he was young (that part is in the film), but when he tried giving it to his son, the result was unreadable (this part isn’t) so Goldman set out to re-edit the original so that it contained only the good parts. The following book is peppered with breaks from “Morgenstein”’s narrative in which Goldman explains his editing choices.

This makes The Princess Bride‘s parody of fairy tales a bit more obvious, not to mention an extra opportunity to insert modern punchlines to a historical tale. It adds another level of content as Goldman wiggles out of some difficult scenes or casually mentions some ludicrous “original” content. (“Morgenstein opens this chapter with sixty-six pages of Florinese history” [P.59])

In any case, the first half of The Princess Bride is pure fun to read and (on potential alone) would rank as one of the funniest books of any year. But unfortunately, Goldman takes the deconstruction a step too far and saps vital energy out of the tale.

I had always felt, while watching the film, that to make the protagonist physically useless halfway through the tale was a mistake. It removed the story’s most interesting character out of the action and placed too much emphasis on the secondary players. Yes, it so provided more obstacles for our heroes to overcome… but the way it was handled, it always seemed like a boring cheat to me. This is alleviated, somewhat, in the book (it’s not as visually ridiculous), but is emblematic of the flagging interest of the second half.

But then, alas, the ending… One of the most common errors in parodying a genre is to remove the qualities that make it so entertaining, by accident or design. One of the strengths of fairy tales, for instance, is the unwavering happy ending. (Pedantic note: We’re talking about modern Disneyesque fairy tales, not the grim Brother Grimm versions, in which social behaviour lessons were an integral part of the plot and body-counts rivalled today’s horror films.) While The Princess Bride isn’t exactly a downer by any means, it doesn’t end on a rightfully triumphant note, drowned as it is in Goldman’s heavy-handed “life isn’t fair” refrain.

Still, I’d be a chump to keep you from rushing out and getting The Princess Bride. A wonderful book despite its flaws. And if you haven’t seen the film yet, well, what’s your excuse?

Riptide, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 1998, 465 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60717-7

Most Canadian schoolboys are familiar with the story of Oak Island, a small piece of land located in the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles away from Nova Scotia. It would be a completely unremarkable island if it wasn’t for one fabulous story; the rumor of a fantastically well-protected treasure hidden under the surface.

It began with the discovery of a tree with a rope-burnt stump by two boys. It continued with various digs, constantly frustrated by the influx of water rushing into the pit through, possibly, cleverly engineered flooding tunnels. The Money Pit has killed a dozen men so far, and bankrupted at least twice as many. Is there a treasure down there? D’Arcy O’Connor’s excellent non-fiction book The Big Dig seems to indicate so. But unless we develop engineering techniques considerably more advanced than those of today, we’ll probably never know.

So ends the “real” story of Oak Island, with all the wonderfully dramatic loose ends implied (I’ve left out rumors of gold bullion, mega-rich pirates, Bacon-being-Shakespeare and various hard evidence of something strange under the island). To get a reasonably satisfying story about Oak Island’s treasure, we must turn to fiction: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Riptide.

Given the well-known story of Oak Island and the author’s usually careful research, it’s somewhat frustrating to note that nowhere in Riptide is any acknowledgement of the source story. American chauvinism? Maybe.

In any case, the initial setup is identical: An island on the eastern seaboard, a fantastic treasure, deadly engineering. For added dramatic effect, Preston & Child move the island to Maine and adds a tortured character who’s already lost a brother to the island.

At the novel’s beginning, an all-out engineering effort is assembled to finally conquer the island and get the treasure out. This being a modern techno-thriller, however, you can be sure that they won’t. (The days of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, when protagonists could become millionaires on discovered treasures, are long past. The new techno-thrillers dictate that ambition and determination is to be squished flat for the sin of arrogance. They call that progress.) It becomes apparent as soon as a preacher warns everyone against the corruption of money that this won’t have a cheery ending. But don’t worry: Even though the treasure is indeed lost, there’s a pretty good reason for that. Chances are that readers, at least, won’t feel cheated at all.

And while Preston & Child’s novels have elevated the scientist-punishment ending to new levels of clichés, it’s indeed quite rare to feel cheated by their books. They know what they’re doing. The pacing is snappy, the details are fascinating and there’s always something interesting going on. Sure, their characters are only adequate and their hypocritical anti-science shtick is wearisome (like Crichton, they revel in the possibilities while decrying them.), but overall, it’s decent entertainment.

There are annoyances, for sure; Readers will guess part of the big secret well before the protagonist (who’s supposed to be a doctor but never makes the link between missing teeth, burns and failing immunological systems.) and guess another plot twist pages before the “team of experts” does (“What if there’s more than one flooding tunnel?”). The ending is overlong and needlessly drawn-out. The human villain is unnecessarily evil, illustrating once more the authors’ obsession with painting ambition as unmitigatingly bad.

But never mind. Riptide, with all its flaws, stands as the duo’s best novel yet, a blockbuster thriller with flaws but also a lot of fun. It’ll be a special treat for everyone who has ever heard about Oak Island and wondered what might lie down there. Preston and Child have done their homework and delivered an imaginative thriller with a lot of bang for the buck. Don’t miss it if you like the treasure-hunting genre.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (2001)

What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (2001)

(In theaters, May 2001) For an actor, the worst that can happen is to be upstaged by animals, kids or character actors. For Martin Lawrence, this happens with a unnerving frequency, which isn’t surprising given his almost total lack of screen presence. In What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, Lawrence once again takes on a role that he’s ill-prepared to fill. In this case, that of an expect cat burglar whose skill is only matched by smarminess. With Lawrence, we get all the smarminess, but no real idea of the skill. The script isn’t much help, starting with a gag-inducing romance that’s reason enough to walk out. But stick with the film long enough and gems will appear. No, said gem isn’t Danny DeVito, who turns in a completely routine neurotic billionaire performance. No, said gems are the various supporting characters, all of whom are more interesting than protagonist and antagonist. Headlined by the always-excellent William Fichner as a flamboyant police inspector, you’ll reach for the smaller characters like a drowning man to a lifesaver jacket, because the rest of the film remains tedious and obvious, not to mention not-that-funny. (The deaf-language translation of the swearing is a typical example, sucking off considerable energy from two otherwise good scenes.) The conclusion is highly problematic, trying to patch a happy-happy ending on the film at the expense of everything else. The worst that could happen would be for you to waste your money on this film when so many other better ones exist.

The Grid, Philip Kerr

Seal, 1995, 446 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2740-5

Michael Crichton has made quite a name for himself with a series of science-fiction novels masquerading as thrillers. Despite simplistic characters, a cookie-cutter approach to plotting, clunky expository passages and a constant lack of subtlety in cheap techno-alarmism, he regularly sits atop bestseller lists. The reasons for this success boil down to his professionalism. While straightforward, his books are cleverly written for maximum readability and a veneer of sophistication. Even jaded readers who see through his intellectual hypocrisy (decrying technology while embracing it to a pornographic degree, for instance) have to admire his technical skill at building a solid structure and his flair for telling details and sympathetic characters.

Well, Philip Kerr is no Michael Crichton.

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: In Los Angeles, a new high-tech skyscraper is days away from inauguration. But suddenly, a man dies-

—what? Yes, this is indeed a killer building story. Gee, we have seen this story before. Many times. No points for originality. Indeed, we even seem to recall a Crichton story or two… is it Jurassic Park or Westworld…? Or maybe RUNAWAY…? Hmm…

In any case, it’s obvious from the start that Kerr has a lot to learn in order to challenge Crichton. Believe it or not, his characters are actually less interesting and less sympathetic. In thriller terms, this means that you’ll even struggle to remember their names from one page to another. You may bitch and moan about the B-movie approach to characterisation that limits itself to clearly defined demographic groups, but in The Grid, everyone is pretty much a middle-aged white man. Who all speak alike. Worse; you’re given no reason to care for them. Aside from a policeman (I think) the three other protagonists include a tyrannical architect who callously fires people on a whim and an executive who cheats around with a Feng-Shui consultant.

Oh yeah; Feng-Shui. As with the Crichton novels, there’s heaps of semi-fascinating trivia more or less dumped in this novel’s 446 pages. A lot of it sticks out, such as Kerr’s typically melodramatic notions about Artificial Intelligence. In The Grid, our typically all-powerful computer is corrupted by… wait for it… a teenager’s video game. Naturally, the computer comes to see itself as a player whose goal is to kill all human enemies. Or something like that, because for dramatic purposes, all the victims have to be picked off one by one, which doesn’t appear to be a particularly efficient strategy.

The only semi-compelling reason to read The Grid is in this parade of gruesome death, handled about as imaginatively as in the fourth or fifth instalment of your typical slasher film series. We get elevator squishy, flickering lights causing a brain to burn itself out through epileptic seizures (that one was new to me, though no less ridiculous), drowning in water-filled bathrooms (!), boring electrocutions, pool-cleaning chemical warfare and a monotonous series of falls from great heights. Most of the time, you’ll end up cheering for the building given that it’s getting rid of one useless character after another. Still, it’s disturbing to see Kerr languorously describe naked dead women.

In short, there aren’t very many reasons to read The Grid. Except if you’re stuck in a building who wants to kill you for bonus points; it may make your final demise seem sweeter. I mean, look at what it’s made me do: write nice things about Michael Crichton!

Sphere (1998)

Sphere (1998)

(On TV, May 2001) I hated Michael Crichton’s novel Sphere so much that I threw my copy against the wall after finishing it. Unfortunately, my television is too expensive to repeat the experience after seeing the adaptation. Not only does this mess of a film repeat the worst features of the novel, but it adds several brand-new terrible things that will grate on your nerves as the film evolves. Granted, the setup is intriguing; an underwater relic is discovered, which proves to be an American space ship from the future. Ooh, aah. A terrific cast of characters is assembled, here played by actors who should have read the script before they signed on. Then the trouble begins; they find sort of an alien which might or might not try to kill them all (but you know it’ll do just that) Then the script moves in Star Trek: The Motion Picture territory, with amazing leaps of logic that not only come from nowhere, but also make no sense at all in retrospect. Samuel L. Jackson’s “explanation” on how they’ll all die is a perfect example of this, made even worse by an utter lack of self-doubt. In Michael Crichton’s universe, gifted people just get it right the first time around, with no critical auto-examination. The film gets worse and worse after that, once the true plot dynamics get going. As with anything involving omnipotence and dream logic, the plot starts to unravel rapidly, eventually devolving in an ending that essentially means “it was all a dream”. Oy. The only worthwhile thing here is Dustin Hoffman, oddly solid all throughout despite some seriously brain-damaged lines. Avoid, people, avoid.

Shrek (2001)

Shrek (2001)

(In theaters, May 2001) An early contender for the Toy Story award for kid-flick-that-ends-up-being-one-of- year’s-best-films, Shrek is a full parody of classic fairy tales, handled with such wit and aplomb that kids and adults alike will love it. Most films are lucky to count one or two good scenes; Shrek has at least four, from action scenes parodies (not only The Matrix, but a screamingly-funny slow-motion escape-the-fireball shot.) to musical gags (from the exploding bird to a Jerry Lewis wink in the end “I Believe” singalong.) Good fun, and surprisingly smart too. Think of it as the film for those who grew up on the Disney animated films of the nineties, and are now ready to laugh about it. (And I haven’t talked about the great CGI yet.) And, as a bonus, there are enough unpleasant sub-themes to provide any undergraduate philosophy student with an ideal paper subject.

My Life So Far (1999)

My Life So Far (1999)

(On VHS, May 2001) A portrait of an English family between the wars isn’t a terribly compelling subject, and the film more or less delivers what we expect. Oh, it’s watchable; the script is well-written, the pacing moves with efficiency and the performances are fine. (Colin Firth is as good as usual.) But it slowly never moves beyond that, and neither will this review.

The Mummy Returns (2001)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

(In theaters, May 2001) Wheee! I’ve always been a fan of roller-coaster movies, and that certainly accounts for my irrational praise of the 1999 “original” The Mummy film, a great unpretentious blend of comedy, action and adventure. The sequel is, believe it or not, nearly as good. While not as comic as the first film, The Mummy Returns is a wonderful action/adventure thrill-ride, a good-natured spectacle that might not be in any way smart, but is certainly so well-done that you’ll ask for more. Sure, the film rips-off almost every previous films of the genre (including stealing the most memorable “domino comedy” and the “face in particle storm” images from the prequel), but as long as we’re having fun -and we are!-, it’s hard to be left unmoved. Oodles of action -so much that it might numb you, but not as repetitive as, say, the last hour of Armageddon-, a sympathetic kid, a gorgeous (and butt-kicking) Rachel Weisz, square-jawed action hero Brendan Fraser… c’mon, grab your pop-corn, already! The story is surprisingly well-tied with the first film. The special effects are nearly omnipresent, but the level of quality differs wildly, going from amateurish to flawless. A great self-knowing grand-scale B-film. A perfect summer blockbuster.

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2002) There is both good and bad in this sequel, but it maintains most of the charm of the original film. Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser are once again wonderful as the lead couple, and their matrimonial relationship is one of the film’s highlight. I was once again impressed by the film’s integration with the events of the first segment, even despite the clunky appearance of past-lives mumbo-jumbo. Some special effects are good; some other effects are surprisingly bad. The DVD features quite a few extra bonus goodies, the best of which is a fun commentary track that spends a long time pointing out flaws—though maybe not as much as the film’s detractors might like. But don’t worry; it’s still good entertainment for the whole family.

Memento (2000)

Memento (2000)

(In theaters, May 2001) The epitome of a gimmick film: Not only does the character suffers from short-term amnesia, but the entire film is told in segments that run backward, from chronological end to chronological beginning, interspaced with black-and-white exposition segments that might or might not be true. It doesn’t take much more than that to create interest, but fortunately, Memento is able to deliver a solid film wrapped around that gorgeous premise. It’s the type of film that keeps on throwing unexpected delights at you, so much that it would be ill-advised to step out for popcorn or bathroom relief lest you miss something important (and you would). Wonderful black humor, snappy screenwriting, provocative conclusion… Chances are that you’ll still be talking about the film a good ten, fifteen minutes after it’s all over. Films like this remind you, even if only momentarily, that cinema -even accessible genre cinema!- can be something more than just formulaic entertainment. The film features an exceptional performance by Guy Pearce, and good turns by The Matrix alumni Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss. Definitely worth a rental.

Los Alamos, Joseph Kanon

Island, 1997, 517 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22407-1

You might think that after a few hundred year’s worth of experimentation with the novelistic form, everything worth doing has been done at least once. And, in large part, this is true. There’s a saying somewhere about it being only four (or eight, or fifty-three) basic plots, and indeed it’s hard to find truly original works any more. Human emotions are finite, but fortunately, variations and combinations are infinite.

Often, the joys of a novel can be found in the unison of known elements from different fields. In Los Alamos, Joseph Kanon sets a murder mystery against the fascinating WW2 backdrop of the Manhattan Project, and mixes in a romance for good measure. It doesn’t mesh all that well, but at least it’s interesting to read.

As with so many novels set in an exotic environment, our passport to Los Alamos, with its collection of scientists, engineers, soldiers and associated family members, is a journalist named Michael Connolly. Hazily drafted from journalism and assigned to criminal investigation, Connolly is a sleuth outside the law, indeed almost outside the normal security apparatus. What he discovers in Los Alamos is our way of understanding that particular micro-society.

A tech writer such as Bruce Sterling would have tremendous fun showing us how Los Alamos’ unlikely mix of physics geniuses, security personnel and top-notch technicians might represent the archetype of late twentieth-century geek culture, but Kanon is no geek, and his view on Los Alamos is closer to noir than to techno. Connolly is quick to become entangled in the mess of extra-marital affairs, hush-hush homosexuality, invasive security and lovelorn wives that surround the pure-science Manhattan project.

There is, in the middle of all, a crime. A project member killed for what may be a myriad of reasons—from an illicit affair to money matters. Connolly will have to learn his job as he goes along, digging deep in Los Alamos to uncover secrets that might or might not be relevant, but that no one wants to see brought to light.

At the same time, he falls for one of the wives, who’s gradually revealed to be rather less than pure and, inevitably, entangled in the murder. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also an espionage thriller buried in Los Alamos, as Connolly realizes that foreign spies are smuggling secrets out of the place. Is this linked to the murder? Well, what do you think?

In theory, all the elements are there for a crackerjack book, mixing historical, crime, espionage and romantic fiction. How can it all go wrong?

With unnecessary gravitas, it seems. Kanon isn’t happy to have this rich palette of elements, and mixes a bit too much, too deliberately to ensure a harmonious result. As a result, various elements compete with each other, morassed in a ponderous style that seems to underscore the seriousness of it all. In attempting too much, Kanon forgets the need for genre fiction to entertain above all, and if Los Alamos is still a good read, it seems too heavy to truly rise above its base elements and truly achieve its potential. Compare and contrast this novel with the Bletchley Park sequences of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, for instance, for an edifying illustration of two very different approaches.

It’s also somewhat of a shame that the stereotypical romance cannot be camouflaged by the dour prose to become anything else but a distraction. Of course, he’s going to fall for her. Of course, she’ll prove to be essential to the resolution. It is, by far, the most ordinary part of the narrative, and also the weakest.

But for readers looking for something slightly different, this shouldn’t be enough to drive them away from the subtle pleasures of Los Alamos. It would take much more than these mere quibbles to screw up such a strong premise, and Kanon proves to be good enough. It won’t stop more technically aware readers to wonder aloud at how other writers might have approached the same elements, but don’t let that stop you from reading the book as it is.

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (1987)

(On VHS, May 2001) As with many horror film, Hellraiser‘s potential exceeds its actual execution and leaves us wanting a better film. The characters are drawn in a realistic, rather than iconic fashion, but unfortunately they come across as unsympathetic, not authentic. The featured creatures are uniquely designed and their origin hint at some wild cosmology, but unfortunately, they’re used in the context of a more ordinary story that does the job without actually reaching its full potential. The early-eighties special effects are showing their age. Of more interest to horror fans and scholars, but not worth the while for everyone else.

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger Snaps (2000)

(In theaters, May 2001) It’s hard enough to find “serious” teen horror films nowadays that it’s almost a shame to give a bad report about Ginger Snaps, a Canadian effort that at least tries to do something interesting with the genre. Like most classical horror stories of the past, Ginger Snaps weaves in social issues with the gore, in this case a statement about female teen alienation mixed with werewolf lore. It holds up decently through most of the film, in large part due to the performance of the two lead actresses. It begins falling apart near the end, where characters are quickly forgotten (mom last seen at a rave) or dispatched for no good reason. You may thing that a gratuitously happy ending is frustrating, but it’s not nearly as annoying as a gratuitously tragic ending, again proving that killing off the whole cast does not necessarily lead to artistic merit. Worth a look if only for the good old-fashioned social commentary, but not a fun ride. At least it’s better than most movies of its genre.

Exit Wounds (2001)

Exit Wounds (2001)

(In theaters, May 2001) Well, I really didn’t expect that: One of Steven Seagal’s best films. No, we’re still not talking about compelling drama or even moderate originality: this remains an action B-movie, but a really enjoyable one. (There’s even a touch of fun in seeing all of the expected plot developments taking place.) The direction is snappy and moderately dynamic, the plot mechanics are amusing and the man Seagal allows himself some latitude. The result won’t knock the socks off anyone, but constitutes a decent cheap rental.

Resumé with Monsters, William Browning Spencer

White Wolf/Borealis, 1995, 469 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 1-56504-913-6

Dilbert meets Lovecraft.

Dynamite concept. Too bad that’s not quite what Resumé with Monsters is really doing.

Granted, there are satirical scenes of worker alienation in office environments. True, the book is filled with explicit references to Lovecraft and his menagerie of slithery, tentacular, unimaginable creatures.

But don’t think that the result is a laugh riot. Or that the expected goodies are delivered in satisfying portions.

Our protagonist is Philip Kenan, a budding writer struggling with a series of low-end job while trying to fulfil his true goal in life; finishing a massive horror novel in the pure Lovecraftian tradition. Except that the monsters are real. They’re following him around. He perceives them where others don’t see anything. But he’s not fooled. A previous encounter with them has cost him his job and his girlfriend. Now he slaves at a print shop, but the creatures are coming back…

Let’s admit up-front that Resumé with Monsters is a very enjoyable book. Breezily written, original in scope and execution, it’s a delightfully weird romp through a modern re-telling of the Lovecraft mythos. The link between modern corporations and soul-sucking monsters that drive you insane is so obvious after the fact that it’s a wonder that no one has thought about writing something of the sort before.

This being said, readers should be cautioned that William Browning Spencer has no aspirations at being the next Scott Adams, and while Resumé with Monsters is a comedy/horror hybrid, the emphasis here should be placed on hybrid. The funniest moments are often simultaneously the most horrific and it’s not as much a guilt-free laugh riot as you may initially think. Chills and chuckles are on the menu. Funny strange rather than funny ha-ha most of the time.

There are a few lulls here and there, especially when our hero gets unstuck in time and bounces around for a few chapters. A few unexpected twists and turns are good for momentary disorientation. Spencer regrettably sustains the “if he crazy or is he not?” ambiguity for far too long after the reader’s indulgence is established. It still ends up gelling quite well by the end, with a curiously sentimental note that does a lot to establish the warm fuzzy impression left by the book.

Don’t be fooled by the novel’s thickness; due to an unusually airy typography, the novel takes maybe a third more space than stories of this length. It makes the reading even easier. Not that you’ll have trouble reading “only a few more pages” of the novel; it would rank as a one-sitting book if it wasn’t for the fact that you’ll want to read it as slowly as possible in order to savour the full effect of the writing. The passages about the protagonists’ past relationship alone are worth careful reading, regardless of Lovecraftian monsters or corporate satire.

In the end, while Resumé with Monsters reasonably exceeds most of the basic requirements for a solid, memorable read, it’s also a victim of its own cleverness. Readers with some imagination will ceize upon the office/horror connection and see possibilities that Spencer might have missed. Certainly worth a look (obviously ranking as a must-read for Lovecraft enthusiasts); but beware the inevitable let-down. After all, even the best books can’t contain everything.

Deliverance (1972)

Deliverance (1972)

(On VHS, May 2001) This hasn’t aged well. Maybe its reputation has exceeded its actual worth, or maybe the line “gonna make you squeal like a pig, boy!” has been milked by too many comedians to still be effective, but my siblings and I giggled a lot during Deliverance. I mean; weren’t those yokels hilarious? Fortunately, some of the film is still worthwhile: The cinematography remains decent, and some set-pieces are effectively directed. The pacing, on the other hand, is lethargic. The film is maybe half-an-hour too long, especially given the paucity of events happening on-screen. Of historical interest.