Quicksilver, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket, 1999, 728 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02854-5

Location, location, location. It’s not just a good idea for real-estate investment or the localization of a new business; it’s almost a prerequisite for a really good thriller. Look at that most meanly efficient thriller machine, the action film: DIE HARD wouldn’t be so great if it wasn’t for being set strictly in an office tower. EXECUTIVE DECISION did wonders inside an airliner. And what would SPEED be without a bus?

The list of interesting locations in which to set a thriller has to include the Pentagon, the iconic and practical location of American military power. One of the biggest buildings in the world, the Pentagon’s myth invokes endless military secrets, fantastic security, international relevance and a primo terrorist target.

This is where Quicksilver comes in. Ignore the great teaser about a novel super-weapon having far more destructive effects than predicted: it is, as you may expect, merely a pretext to the real meat of the book, which is a terrorist takeover of the Pentagon.

As you may also expect, the solution to this problem will rest squarely on the shoulders of plucky underdogs; a marine-in-training, an electronic nerd and his aggressive ex-wife. Together they’ll… well, they’ll obviously triumph, but the fun is all in the pudding.

The Reeves-Stevens husband-and-wife writing duo had, after years of undistinguished Star Trek novels, knocked out one solid book with Icefire, one of the best technothrillers of the late nineties. They’re back with Quicksilver, bringing the same creative imagination, limpid narration and uncomplicated characterization to their second technothriller. The result, as you may expect, is another steady fun read in the Clancy genre, with more invention and less useless fat than Clancy’s current work.

The Pentagon is a fantastic setting for a thriller, if only through the discovery of the building. Relatively old (built in the 1950s) by office building standards, the Pentagon is currently being completely renovated (a “Slab-to-Ceiling” work) and the Reeve-Stevens have a lot of fun throwing random construction obstacles in the way of their protagonists. But more than that, it’s the labyrinthine layout, the security measures, the forgotten basement areas, the arcana of the building that engrosses the reader as much as the overall plot of the book. The authors make full use of their setting, as competent thriller writers very well should.

Naturally, the various gadgets used by protagonists and antagonists alike are fun and interesting. The “Looking Glass” gadget in particular promised much, even though it’s taken out of action early on. The central MacGuffin of the book is credible, original and suitably powerful. And as for the identity of the terrorists… well, I haven’t seen anything like it in a long while. Good stuff, supported by plausible research. Hey, shouldn’t the opening diagrams be classified Top-Secret?

Going beyond location and gadgets to the actual plot of the book, well, we can’t ask for much more, from a presidential escape to an impressive apocalyptic finale. Tension is gradually increased, and if you’re not careful you’ll end up reading much more of the book in a single sitting than you’d want to.

In short, technothrillers fans have a lot to look forward to with Quicksilver. While a bit less original than Icefire with the standard building-taken-over-by-terrorist template, it’s a bit more mature (viz the dismissal of the UFO-nut character in Quicksilver versus the jarring references in Icefire) and focused. The edges are polished and the result is a solid, thick read that will amply satisfy countless beach readers.

[September 2001: As with so many other novels, the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon suddenly takes out a lot of fun out of this thriller. “Well”, I blackly reflected in the heat of the events, “there goes the schedule for the slab-to-ceiling renovations.”]

Tomcats (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tomcats</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, July 2001) In a few years, whenever the gross-out comedy sub-genre is finally dead and buried, film historians will look upon Tomcats as the film that got fatally contaminated by the trend. In concept, it’s similar to The Bachelor‘s theme of marriage-as-trauma for single guys. (Except that Tomcats protagonist Jerry O’Connell exhibits more charisma lying unconscious than Chris O’Donnell ever did in his entire career.) In execution, most of the film is actually quite enjoyable. While contrived, the gags work well in a pleasantly charming way. Unfortunately, this is marred by a few sequences that borrow a bit too much from the latest excesses in tasteless comedy. One such hospital sequence lasts five minutes, is only tangentially related to the plot, will make every guy in the audience visibly squirm. By itself, said sequence takes off a full star from the film’s final rating. Cut it, along with a few other weak jokes, and the film suddenly becomes a marginal recommendation. Tomcats has a dynamic rhythm, appealing actors (with particular props to Shannon Elizabeth, who never struck me as gorgeous before, but really kicked in my strong-women-in-uniform fetish in this film. Oh, and I liked Bill Maher too, except in a wholly different way.), unexpected parodies (loved the Mission: Impossible 2 doves) and a few very strong individual sequences. (The standout remains the one that begins as my basic redheaded-librarian fantasy and ends up straight from my worst nightmares) It’s a shame that the stench of tastelessness overpowers the rest of the film.

Shadow Builder (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Shadow Builder</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, July 2001) Straight-to-video release that once again proves that there are no accidents in the theater/video release rift. Granted, it’s not always bad, but then again it’s nothing worth writing about. The first few minutes hold considerable promise, as a gun-toting priest (Michael “Grrr!” Rooker) mows down a satanic sect with the help of laser sights. But right after that, we slip in an X-Files episode that flops around without Mulder or Scully and feels much longer than the 90-odd minutes running time. The creature feels less and less impressive as time goes by. It’s the kind of movie during which you can fall asleep and miss preciously little. Catherine Bruhier plays a cute female police officer, though.

The Shift, George Foy

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 515 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37544-X

The reviewer wakes up. For a single moment, his life is bliss, mostly because he doesn’t realize what a pathetic life he leads. Still smiling from his oniric tryst with Sarah Michelle Gellar, the reviewer managers to slide out of bed before waking up.

Looking outside the grimy windows of his apartment, he sees that things are worse than ever. Microsoft has plastered another hideous billboard on the building across the street, extolling the new consumer-protection features of Windows TJ designed to disallow any potential illegal activity. The reviewer knows that will transform the computer in little more than a Microsoft-approved silicon brick; he’s spent the last week re-installing his own machine.

He looks at the book on his reviewing slate and groans. George Foy’s The Shift, as undistinguished a piece of cyberpunk SF it’s possible to publish. The reviewer doesn’t have a clue what to say about the book that will sustain a full-length review. He decides to sidestep the issue and go take a shower.

Things haven’t improved after the shower, nor the breakfast. On the streets outside, wild bands of illiterate barbarians are fighting pretentious pseudo-intellectuals. It’s a battle the reviewer wants everyone to lose. As the spicy smell of tear gas wafts through the broken air-conditioning unit, the reviewer sits down at the computer to make another stab at writing the review.

His first approach is pure grade-school classic: Reword the back cover blurb, adding a few meaningless details that show he’s read the book. It’s not a satisfying experience: Not only does it offend his sense of creativity, but The Shift doesn’t offer anything compelling to write about. By this time, everyone has read a few dozen books in which a well-off character is brought down in the “real” world. Everyone’s had their fill of obsessive virtual reality creators who come to like their creation more than the real world. Everyone’s sickened of those oh-so-clever “virtual monster crossing in the real world” plots. Oh, and evil corporations aren’t anything new.

He deletes most of the plot résumé and graduates to a higher level of hack work; maybe it’s possible to waste a few words on the place of The Shift is the overall literary pattern of the SF genre? As quickly as he seizes upon this notion like a drowning man, he realizes it’s not going to work. The Shift‘s historical legacy and significance is null and void. It simply regurgitates the clichés of the cyberpunk genre in a nearer future. It does attempts to do something more realistic and closer to mainstream fiction, but the net effect is soporific for any genre reader. Maybe someone coming in fresh from outside Science-fiction will like it. But that’s not the reviewer’s audience.

The reviewer remembers his mother’s advice to find at least something nice to say about the book. But he can’t just write that the prison segment is quite good. Or that the conclusion ties up everything nicely. A good conclusion doesn’t expiate the busload of clichés that preceded it. Nor does a rather good prison novella redeems a 500+ page borefest.

The reviewer knows he’s screwed up. By spending most of the month reading the massively enjoyable Night’s Dawn trilogy, he’s run out of time to fill up the usual wordage. So now he’s stuck dredging up what he would normally read and forget away. There is no way out.

So he puts his fingers on the keyboard.

But then, a team of corporate anti-terrorists operatives bursts in his room and kills him in a hailstorm of gunfire.

It is, ironically, a happy ending.

Save The Last Dance (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Save The Last Dance</strong> (2001)

(On VHS, July 2001) Mostly unremarkable music/romance teen film of the sorts you’ve seen countless times already. The interracial romance does adds a certain interest (and a small surprising hospital scene in which a few highly meritorious points are made), but that’s far from being enough to be interesting. The first hour of the film is by far the worst, as the screenwriter piles up every single cliché from romance, newly-moved, musical and gangsta teen films. Julia Stiles turns in an average performance, looking adorable in one scene and just plain boring in the next. Nothing to see here; even a free rental left me somewhat cheated. Oh, okay, you can add a few extra points if you like slow boring hip-hop.

Les Rivières Pourpres [The Crimson Rivers] (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Les Rivières Pourpres</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Crimson Rivers</strong>] (2000)

(In theaters, July 2001) The first few moments of the film give the tone to this dark, stylish thriller, as we’re shown long close-ups of a putrefying human corpse. It eases up after that, but it’s a fairly good start to a rather interesting film, an investigation of a murder that eventually comes to uncover something else entirely. That “something else” isn’t really all that impressive (I, for one, could have enjoyed a secret cloning conspiracy by extraterrestrials, but alas, no such thing here) but don’t worry; aside from the gratuitously surprising finale, the film will hold up your interest for its full duration. Jean Reno is still as cool as ever, though here he looks particularly hideous. Young Vincent Cassel is almost as good as a hot-headed policeman with a talent for kung-fu. (Leading up to a jarringly atonal fight scene that is quite good in itself, but doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film) The ending is highly problematic, with a big surprise that really isn’t necessary, and does little to actually explain the events of the film. (Re-run the story in your head after seeing it, and you’ll understand your lack of understanding. Begin with the mother’s speech and motivations.) In any case, the visual style, the varied action sequences and the overall tone of the film should be enough to recommend. Just don’t expect a tightly-plotted film.

Reindeer Games (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Reindeer Games</strong> (2000)

(On VHS, July 2001) Ben Affleck doesn’t work as an action hero. Nope. Not a bit. Alas, he doesn’t even come close to being Reindeer Games‘s weakest link. Oh, the film starts well enough, with ominous shots of dead Santas strewn around a casino. But then we’re in full “three days earlier” mode, bidding our time to see how we’ll end up with a truckful of said dead Santas. That’s when we meet our oh-so-bland Ben, trying to act his best in the requisite not-too-bad criminal role. (He’s just a car thief, not a murderer. Just wait, though.) In a few minutes, his partner is killed, he’s doing the nasty with Charlize Theron and a bearded Gary Sinise appears, putting a shotgun to his neck. Or is everything as it seems? Yes, Reindeer Games is another one of those preposterous thrillers whose twists and turns are thrown at the viewers just for the sake of keeping them awake, not out of any great story consistency. Watch the film again and you won’t find any foreshadowing whatsoever. (Unlike “good” twists films, like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, when the clues are obvious once placed in context.) John Frankenheimer, who’s wasting his time with ordinary straight-to-video stories such as this one, directs all of it featurelessly. Charlize Theron is cute, but her nude scenes will quickly remind you that her best asset is her face.

Oi Yue Shing [A War Named Desire] (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Oi Yue Shing</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">A War Named Desire</strong>] (2000)

(On TV, July 2001) Bless Hong Kong cinema. I was initially dismayed to see that our local multicultural station (CFMT) had decided to run this Chinese-language film without any English subtitles. The language of bullets is universal, though, and there isn’t much to understand once characters are killed and revenge must be taken. The last fifteen minutes are both touching then brutal to a degree seldom seen in American cinema. It helps that the film’s director uses a strong visual style, with evocative shots and some impressive camera moves. Can this be said to be a review when I didn’t understand more than the three lines of English dialogue? Probably not, but I might be tempted to see this one again if ever an English-subtitled DVD comes my way.

Malcolm X (1992)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Malcolm X</strong> (1992)

(On VHS, July 2001) The best bio-fiction entertain as much as it explains, and if Spike Lee’s Malcolm X does a credible job of showing us who, when and why was Malcolm X, it’s not nearly as successful at being entertaining. The problems start right at the beginning, as the first few extravagantly choreographed minutes are visually interesting, but set the self-indulgent tone of much of the film. The story of X advances in spurts, often spending too much time on the wrong things and telling us nothing new. At least two things keep our interest; Denzel Washington’s excellent performance, and Spike Lee’s ability with the camera. Once the story gets going, though, it’s quite engrossing. X was a charismatic and controversial figure, and the film manages to represent him as a good person while not shirking away from the more extreme facets of his personality. There is a touch too much pathos and paranoia in his ultimate downfall, but then again this is a Spike Lee film. Worth a look, even if you don’t think you’ll be interested in the subject.

Kiss Of The Dragon (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Kiss Of The Dragon</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, July 2001) It was midway through the film, when it became clear that it wasn’t going to get any better, that I started musing about meta-text and contextual expectations. Granted, working with an English major colleague has warped my fragile little mind in ways I won’t soon be able to analyze, but Kiss Of The Dragon is such a switch from the usual martial arts fare that it got my critical mind in gear. Most American martial arts fans are weaned on Jackie Chan films, which present martial arts as an acrobatic, amusing choreography. To that, add what I call the American-action-movie-aesthetics, all glossy bloodless movement filmed in glorious hues and carefully sweaty heroes. Heroes are virtuous, heroines are admirable and villains possess a certain evil dignity. Then compare and contrast European aesthetics, with their claustrophobic settings, accidental grime and dripping locations. Sure, our hero Jet Li is as noble as ever, but his awful haircut is an indicator of how unpleasant the rest of the film is: gory fights, a drug-addicted prostitute heroine (Bridget Fonda, blah), uncomfortable settings… at least Tcheky Karyo brings a certain poise to his antagonist. If you want to generous, you can point at a few fun action sequences and argue that this is the best European martial-arts film yet. Unfortunately, the rest of the film plays like too many of those late-night action B-movies with the added disadvantage of being actively unpleasant. Say whatever you want about PG-rated Jackie Chan films or Bruckheimer glossy blockbusters, but at least they don’t actively work at being repulsive. Now, is that a failure of the film or the viewer? Hmmm.

Jurassic Park III (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Jurassic Park III</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, July 2001) The first Jurassic Park was an action-adventure classic. The second was the epitome of the well-directed stupid blockbuster, with insanely enjoyable highs (the plate-window sequence) and jaw-droppingly bad lows (the gymnastic sequence). The third one, thankfully, is far more consistent, even though in the end it feels simply like a competent adventure film. Once again, idiot capitalist characters make a mistake and are stuck on a dino-infested island. This time, it’s Sam Neil who’s back as the crusty paleontologist Allen Grant. (There’s a funny scene in which his lecture is packed… but everyone wants to ask him about the events of the first two films.) Though deception, flattery and other usual tools of adventure scripts, he’s soon back on the island and he doesn’t like it one bit. As well he shouldn’t, given that he’s soon once again running for his life. Hey, you’ve seen this film before and the only things of interest are the action set-pieces, right? Well, they’re good. Not great, mind you, but good enough to make you enjoy the film in a monster B-movie kind of way. Pop-corn, air-conditioning, human-eating monsters…. this kind of fun. Could have been better if more characters could have died (especially the annoying ones), but then again we have to “think about the children!” Worth a rental as long as you expect more of the same.

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) Given the straight-up action/adventure focus of this third Jurassic Park epic, it’s not a surprise if the DVD of the film spends almost all of its allotted bonus space talking about the special effects. The commentary track is especially bad, what with a half-dozen effects geeks discussing ad nauseam how this or this particular shot did or didn’t contain puppets or computer-generated dinosaurs. It gets tiresome very quickly, even for die-hard effects fans like me. It doesn’t help, naturally, that a lot of the information is repeated from segment to segment. The rest of the DVD is a lot like more of the same over and over again; wouldn’t it have been easier to just schlep everything in one single making-of? (Don’t miss browsing the “posters mock-up” gallery, though, as it suggests a series of far more interesting Jurassic Park III projects.) As for the film itself, well, it remains an average adventure B-movie. People. Dinos. What else do you want? Well, okay; a higher body-count.

The Game (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Game</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, July 2001) Anyone who’s wondering who’s the next Hitchcock might want to check the work of David Fincher and this film in particular, one of the purest thrillers in recent memory. A simple but effective hook; what if there was a game with the explicit aim to take over your life? Where’s the difference between reality, fiction and outright paranoia? Michael Douglas turns in a great performance as the persecuted hero. The look of the film is typically polished-Fincher. Unfortunately, the script that makes things so good in the first four-fifth of the film veers off toward a conclusion that is both disappointing and inevitable. Unfortunately, the heavy hand of movie magic (“That can only happen in a movie!”) is a bit too overbearing in these final moments. (And I still can’t figure out when the photos were taken) Hey, don’t take this as an excuse not to see the film; I still think it’s one of the most enjoyable thrillers of the nineties, a solid film and a great rental… but keep in mind that it’s ultimately a bit of a letdown.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Freddy Got Fingered</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, July 2001) Let us be perfectly candid from the onset and declare this the worst film of 2001. No argument, no competition: Any professional reviewer (and the vast majority of casual viewers) will agree that Freddy Got Fingered has managed to attain a new abyss of bad taste, incoherent plotting, gratuitous gross-out gags and stupid humor. (Only the unintentional atrocity of Battlefield Earth makes it a worse film than Freddy Got Fingered.) This movie works hard at pissing you off. Don’t be surprised if you stop watching midway through. And yet… and yet… This very intentional drive to produce the vilest film of the year in some sick way make it a recommended rental for everyone with the willingness and the stomach to face such an experience. Writer/Director/Star Tom Green has slipped the ultimate bad film out of the gates of the studio, probably earning him an exile from Hollywood but also producing a real curio in the process. Call it awful or atrocious, Freddy Got Fingered rates as an “interesting film” on the orthogonal scale. It’s impossible to like, but not inconceivable to admire.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, July 2001) There is no doubt that this is a must-see film, though you’d be advised to remember that this in no way implies a particularly enjoyable movie. To re-state the obvious; yes, this is the first feature-length computer-animated film to attempt full photo-realism, especially when depicting human characters. Again, to re-state the obvious: no, it’s not undistinguishable from your living, breathing actors. But it comes close, and that’s why Final Fantasy is such a landmark. Had the animation been slightly more stylized, there would be no end to the technical praise; as it stands now, however, it’s so close, and yet so far, from full photo-realism that your pattern-recognition mechanism might temporarily balk at what you’re seeing. At least visually, the film makes full usage of its capabilities, depicting ruined cities, deserted wastelands and other areas hugely expensive to re-create practically. It’s a shame, though, that the overall palette of the film is so… bland and ugly. Believe me, you’ll thirst for non-LED green after a while. There is some amount of visual clutter too, almost as if the animators spent too much time cramming each frame with cool effects. Still, the film’s technical aspects will hold your interest for its whole duration, which is fortunate given the paucity of the story running the engine. You might have Titan A.E. flashbacks. Viewers approaching Final Fantasy as an SF film that happens to be animated will have a harder time at digesting the story than those who watch it knowing fully that Final Fantasy is a Japanese anime film that happens to be computer-generated. (The final minutes, for instance, are pure-anime mumbo-jumbo-mystical-sacrifice, entirely logical within the conventions of anime, but harder to grasp outside the genre.) See it, if only as a harbinger of things to come in a very few years.

The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Mark Leyner

Vintage, 1997, 240 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-679-76349-X

I initially thought about writing this review Mark Leyner-style, filled with madcap concepts, sophisticated language, memorable epigrams and a variety of formats. But, hey, I’m no Mark Leyner and that’s why he’s the one selling books by the thousands and I’m the one writing these review for an obscure web site that no one reads.

I’m not saying that his style is inimitable; I’m just saying that you’ll end up crazy trying to do so. I’m trying to say that my brain will melt down before producing something every as remotely amusing as his stuff. Heck, I’m saying that if ever Leyner tracked me down as a pathetic imitator, he’d be quite capable of booting my pathetic butt single-footedly. And that would be humiliating.

So allow me to be blandly conventional and try a traditional review. But not too much of a traditional review, otherwise it still won’t make sense and I’ll have wasted thirty minutes of my time.

Look, even a plot resume won’t make sense: Our thirteen-year-old protagonist (Mark Leyner, in what’s presumably a non-autobiographical role but we can’t be sure) is bothered by the fact that he’s got to miss school in order to attend his father’s execution. He tries to pass time by writing a screenplay (which must be delivered the next day, given that it’s already won a prize) and hitting on the prison warden. Alas, the execution goes wrong, his father is put on New Jersey State Discretionary Execution (NJSDE) protocol, the warden responds to his advances and he still hasn’t come up with a title for his screenplay. I mean, who’d consider this an actual plot?

Plus, what about the form? The Tetherballs of Bougainville is made up of narration, a brochure, newspaper articles, biographical sketches, a complete screenplay and a really long movie review. This scattershot approach to writing shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who’s read other material by Leyner, from the gloriously fluid form of Et Tu, Babe? to the loggorheatic wordblender of I Smell Esther Williams. But Leyner has learned a lot since his early days, and one of the most surprising things about The Tetherballs of Bougainville is how well it flows.

Indeed, it flows at such a compelling pace that you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself whooping and barking through the whole book in a single sitting. It’s not a recommended way to read the book (you may find your landing back in the real world to be jarring), but it can be done with a disconcerting ease.

Reviewers beware; it’s nearly impossible to review the book without re-reading lengthy portions of it when looking for specific details. It’s inevitable, so just accept it.

And it’s a book worth re-reading; the weirdness and density of the humor is such that you’re bound to miss some on the first pass (or blow a mental fuse and have to stop). Highlights include a droll NJSDE brochure, the origin of most modern literature, the description of a three-hour oral sex scene, the artwork used by the young Leyner for auto-gratification and a small SkriptMentor software review. I’m not making any of those up; Leyner is.

The result, as you may guess, is not only a memorably weird book, but also Leyner’s second-best book. (Hey, I loved Et tu, Babe?) Approachable but uncompromisingly weird, The Tetherballs of Bougainville is exactly the type of book you want to share with everyone around, not only to make them read something great, but most amusingly to see the reactions of those who just won’t get it.