Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls</strong> (1970)

(On TV, September 2001) Wow, wow, wow… Everyone has to see this film sooner or later, if only for historical relevance. Directed by Russ Meyer and co-written by Roger Ebert (!), this film purports to be a parody, but unless you already know that, you’ll have a hard time telling given how seriously it’s played out. This only makes it funnier, of course! The story is about an all-girl band off to Hollywood to make it rich, but the real value of the film is in the pure-sixties vibe, the ridiculously oh-so-dangerous representation of excesses, the flamboyant characters (ah, that Z-man!) and overall sense of… fun? There is a dynamic “travel” sequence that feels as if it had been edited just yesterday. There’s kitschy melodrama. There is a hilarious moralistic coda (“Their love wasn’t evil… but it allowed evil to happen!”) There are more fancy hairdos than an entire issue of Vogue. But, above all, you’ll get the impression that for all the debauchery and vice going on, there’s nothing more serious than teenage hijinks to be tut-tutted by some invisible adult. A scream, a laugh and a bunch of other stuff, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is worth a look. Keep your ears open for the source of one of Austin Powers‘ best lines.

The Anniversary Party (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Anniversary Party</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, September 2001) The difference between low-budget independent films made by nobodies and low-budget films made by famous actors is that the latter type of movies features faces you know. Otherwise, we’re back to the whining cheap drama and meaningless existential crises that seem to pop up with depressing regularity in budding author’s film. In this case, Allan Cummings and Jennifer Jason Leigh star together in a film written and directed by themselves, and they’ve invited every one of the famous friends to star in the film. The setup is simple, an anniversary party where the celebrated couple isn’t too stable and most of the guests are as screwed-up as their hosts. Seductions, jealousy pangs, drug usage, weird hairdos, nude scenes, fights and a death ensue. You might start to care late in the film. The cast is stellar (Gwynneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, John C. Reilley, Parker Posey, etc…) and some of them even get naked… but not those who should. Best considered not as a happy-shiny piece of entertainments, but at a very personal reflection on love, friendship, relationships and the transitory nature of such.

America’s Sweethearts (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">America’s Sweethearts</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, September 2001) On paper, it’s hard to see where this could go wrong: John Cusack and Julia Roberts as leads, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Billy Crystal as foil with small roles to Seth Green and Christopher Walken… it should have worked perfectly. And yet the film is a train wreck, with limp gags, weak plotting, obvious setups and characters that go nowhere. Anyone who knows anything about the movie industry will roll their eyes at the pseudo-insider’s view of the field. Save from infrequent moments, it just doesn’t work at all. The actors may escape with their dignity intact, but that’s about the only thing to remember about America’s Sweethearts.

Counterparts, Gonzalo Lira

Jove, 1998, 384 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-12429-X

Why do you read thrillers? To be thrilled, obviously. But as with fine cuisine, there is a palette of possible thrills any writer may wish to play with. While some may thirst for tightly wound-up suspense, others may prefer gore, psychological intensity or military hardware.

But take a bunch of experienced thriller fans and they’ll tell you that originality is often the biggest thrill of all. There’s a limit to the number of average serial-killer novels you can read. Even such a powerful concept as a government-wide conspiracy can lose its luster after a hundred novels. Thriller fans depend on a degree of innovation, of hard-edged newness to maintain their increasingly demanding fix.

Chances are that parts of Gonzalo Lira’s Counterparts will please them.

Certainly, this novel starts out promisingly on realism and meanness, two other thriller staples. Our first protagonist, FBI agent Margaret Chisholm, is introduced with a crackerjack sequence in which she isn’t afraid to amputate a suspected terrorist in order to avert a disaster. Mean, smart, tough and unpredictable, she’s a type of protagonist we could enjoy. Our second hero is a charming, sophisticated intellectual named Nicholas Denton, who controls the CIA through his directorship of the records department. They’re brought together after a shadowy assassin destroys a convent of nuns, and soon have to cooperate in order to find the truth behind the assassination.

It sounds promising, and is in fact quite intriguing for a while. Lira’s antagonist -“Sepsis”- is an assassin who masters an astonishing variety of skills, and initially seems to be no match even for the united law-enforcement agencies of America. He mulls over concepts such as meta-killing (destruction without assassination), enjoys good books, speaks half a dozen languages and remorselessly kills after sex. Ooooh…

Furthermore, for a while everything seems to adhere fairly well to the real world, with an extra twist of enhanced originality. Denton’s take-over of the CIA is believable, as are the various descriptions of the inner working of federal agencies. Sepsis’ methods are intricately described, and even if the thought of Quebecker terrorists assassinating Canadian federalists is slightly amusing, everything seems to hang together quite nicely.

There are even a few exhilarating action scenes. While most thriller writers seem content with a clinical description of bullets, explosions and fatal trauma, Lira does an excellent job at representing action scenes on a purely visceral level. The demolition derby/fire-fight in Chapter 5, for instance, is one of the book’s highlights.

The problem is that Lira doesn’t do much with any of the tools at his disposition. As soon as the narrative moves to Italy, interest goes downhill. Meta-murder is scarcely brought up again. The motives behind his attacks seem increasingly dubious as more and more revelations are made. The novel even seems to turn in circle past the halfway point, as if certain revelations had been made too soon.

After that, the novel becomes more and more ludicrous, with extra layers of conspiracy, evil plans and secret identities that don’t make retroactive sense. Chisholm’s sexual preferences are gratuitously brought up. Denton’s lack of knowledge of the “true plan” is similarly unlikely. Sepsis’s origins are sort-of-explained, but it’s really hard to suspend our disbelief in this case. You may be excused a giggle or two during the last chapter.

Ultimately, the end result is a novel whose freshness wears off midway through, but a promising debut by a writer who can only improve with time. Hopefully, Lira’s next novels will build on his strengths while correcting his deficiencies. Certainly there’s enough raw potential in Counterparts for three other novels. Now let’s see if it’s a false promise.