Wong Fei Hung [Once Upon a Time in China] (1991)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Wong Fei Hung</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Once Upon a Time in China</strong>] (1991)

(On VHS, December 2001) I guess it had to happen: a martial arts film where I was more interested in the story than the martial arts themselves. For some reason, there isn’t much in terms of spectacular fighting in Once Upon A Time In China (save for the end ladder sequence, which is good fun) and so the interest of the film becomes the theme of guns-versus-fists, and the encroachment of the new Occidental values over the traditional Chinese ways of doing things. Western audiences may feel uncomfortable with the subject matter, but it made me curious to see a non-dubbed subtitled version to see if they have indeed softened some anti-American rhetoric. In any case, Once Upon A Time In China almost serves as a link between the Asian kung-fu films and the more modern Hong Kong bullet-ballets. As far as Jet Li films go, I still prefer Fist Of Legend, but if you’ve seen the rest…

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2004) On second thoughts, the action portions of this film appreciates and the historical content depreciates. Oh, there’s still a lot of interest in seeing a different perspective, with the French, English and Americans as the bad guys, but the lack of subtlety peeks through once the surprise of seeing actual historical content in a kung-fu film fades away. The rain fight is still a delight, and so is the end ladder fight, but the film as a whole is just adequate. The all-in-one trilogy DVD contains the subbed movie, and that’s pretty much it.

Woman On Top (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Woman On Top</strong> (2000)

(On VHS, December 2001) Charming little romantic comedy with a strong touch of magical realism. If you usually like Penélope Cruz, you will love her in this film as she plays an endearingly flawed Brazilian chef trying to succeed in San Francisco. (Her affliction? Nausea whenever she can’t control her motion. It’s a problem in transports and in bed, hence the title. Naughty!) It’s a slight little film, but it works well throughout. It will make you hungry, very hungry. Not sure if it’s an ideal date movie, but you could do much, much worse.

The Watcher (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Watcher</strong> (2000)

(On VHS, December 2001) Dull, unimaginative thriller that will make you angry at it rather than angry at the villain. Keanu Reeves and James Spader do the best they can with the material they’re given, but ultimately there isn’t much to single out in this unremarkable attempt at a psychological drama. It’s always a pleasure to see Marisa Tomei again, but there are limits to the lengths at which I will go in order to gawk at her again. If ever there’s a Watcher 2, for instance, I’m staying home.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Vanilla Sky</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, December 2001) As a fan of the original Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, I must say that I like Vanilla Sky even more: The story hits closer by simple virtue of being American, and director Cameron Crowe has polished many of the most annoying rough edges of the first film. The New York setting is used to spectacular effect (oh, an empty Times Square!), and the personality of the lead character is more defined here than in Abre Los Ojos. The best change, however, is in the role played by Cameron Diaz, whose Natalie is far more human, and sympathetic, than in the original. Of course, the best thing about Crowe’s adaptation is that he doesn’t fiddle with the concept of the film, and allows the twisty, shocking revelations to occur at roughly the same pace. Well, very roughly the same pace: One thing to dislike about this new version is that it’s quite longer, and consequently not as meanly efficient. Still, I felt pretty much the same growing respect for Vanilla Sky than Abre Los Ojos as the film progressed. As usual with Crowe’s films, the soundtrack is well-chosen, though definitely intrusive at times. (The worst being the use of the Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations”… though it’s a safe bet that no one will forget that scene, which manages to milk real emotion out of someone shouting “Tech Support!”) It’s a film that might very well take more than one viewing to fully appreciate. Oh, and another thing: I absolutely love how much all the advertising for the film made it look like yet another Tom Cruise film… when it’s so much more devious than that!

Urban Legend (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Urban Legend</strong> (1998)

(On TV, December 2001) The worst thing about being a cinephile is how, from time to time, you’ll watch a terrible film playing on TV just for the sake of having seen it. The second-worst thing is to rationalize it by thinking that you’re filling in an important blank in the historical context of a given sub-genre. Because that’s the only way to consider Urban Legend important; as a historical representative of the late-nineties post-Scream teen-slasher genre. As such, it’s not half bad: A few of the lead actresses are striking, and the death scenes are ingenious in a Rube-Goldberg fashion. The identity of the killer is complete nonsense, but at least it doesn’t feel pulled-out-of-a-hat like in other movies. There is a strong degree of self-reference (from Robert Englund as a teacher to a reference to “the Noxema girl”), but don’t let that fool you in thinking the film is clever. If, on the other hand, you’ve overdosed on the violent pornographic structure of these movies, well, Urban Legend will only disgust you even more. Destined to cultural oblivion, hurrah!

Timecode (2000)

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

(On VHS, December 2001) New technology leads to new artistic possibilities, and you can’t illustrate this any better than by watching Timecode, an audacious concept-film which works well at challenging our perceptions of movies. The gimmick is conceptually simple: Now that digital video cameras can film nearly 90 minutes’ worth of continuous material, it becomes possible to have a one-take film. But that’s not very practical if you follow multiple characters, hence director Mike Figgis’ use of four continuously-running cameras, dividing the screen in four quadrants. It sounds complex, but pretty soon you’ll be wondering at how well it works. There’s a lot to keep you interested here, from a lesbian couple to an on-screen sex scene to infidelity to murder. The acting is quite good. It boggles the mind to imagine the behind-the-scenes work involved in doing this film. There are flaws, of course; some stuff isn’t so well-paced, and the soundtrack is definitely obtrusive. However, this is a film to watch: Not only as a discussion piece, but also as a reflective piece on the conventions of cinema and the new possibilities of the medium. If you miss the artistic significance of Timecode, don’t worry: a mouthpiece character neatly delivers them to us near the end of the film. Ultimately, though, it’s original, and sometimes, that’s all it takes to watch a film.

The Third Man (1949)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Third Man</strong> (1949)

(On VHS, December 2001) Time hasn’t been kind to this film. Even though it holds up better than most contemporary films, the lack of camera movement eventually manages to annoy severely. Vienna is made flat and dull, much like the film itself. Other annoyances abound: The cursed zither music grates, Orson Welles looks more like a naughty fat kid than a world-class smuggler and the middle half-hour does little to advance the plot. Hey, I liked a lot of the dialogue, and the entire Ferris wheel sequence, but it doesn’t alleviate the faults of the film. The dialogue is reasonably good, with at least a classic line or two. (Harry Lime: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Texas Chain Saw Massacre</strong> (1974)

(On VHS, December 2001) Is this supposed to be a classic? Never since The Blair Witch Project did a bunch of whiny annoying kids deserve a good cruel and brutal dismemberment. The awful seventies are fully visible on film, and what was intended as pure terror now simply feels like simple stupidity or outright hilarity. Whenever you start cheering for the villains, it’s sign that the protagonists aren’t working. Avoid. Gaah.

Spy Game (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Spy Game</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, December 2001) With the end of the Cold War, it had been a while since the last espionage film, and so Spy Game arrives onscreen with perhaps a touch of nostalgia. Taking place over a period of twenty-odd years (from 1973 to 1991, which is when the movie is set), Spy Game tries to focus on the nitty-gritty of “real” spycraft while adding a touch of excitement. The film works best when grounded in realism; by the time the expected spy romance pops up and the resident spymaster can bankroll a special operation deep behind enemy lines, well, the real world is forgotten. It’s directed in a somewhat inconsistent fashion, with color schemes clearly branding each of the story’s four eras. The recruitment section is the most interesting, but it doesn’t last long. At least Brad Pitt and Robert Redford get the chance to exhibit why there’s more to them than just being pretty-boy types. Spy Game manages to be a good spy thriller without being much more than that. There are a few trade tricks and sequences, but the episodic structure of the film conspires a bit against the pacing and the end impression isn’t as dynamic as one could wish. Still, a solid film.

Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth</strong> (2000)

(On VHS, December 2001) I have a soft spot for silly satiric comedies, and Shriek… definitely hits the right notes by lampooning the Scream-derivatives. Sure, it’s not that funny, nor is it very clever. A lot of the jokes are just duds, such as the “rules of a parody”. And yet, it’s just silly enough that I hopped up on the ride and enjoyed myself. It’s also somewhat good-natured, which works very well: Even if it’s not as hysterically funny or inspired as parts of the similar-themed Scary Movie, it’s more solid overall, and would definitely get my recommendation over the theatrically-released Wayans film. Favorite moments include incidental background murders in school, a pop-up video chase and five flashbacks over “what they did last summer”. No nudity, alas, which is sorely needed in these films. (The lead actress isn’t particularly attractive either, but never mind…) It’s naturally not in the same league as the classic Airplane! or Top Secret!, but if you saw -and liked- stuff like The Silence Of The Hams, rest assured that Shriek… is going to make you laugh for a while. Plus, hey, it’s better than most of the awful Leslie Neilsen spoofs.

Rogue Trader (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rogue Trader</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, December 2001) Ewan McGregor is quite good playing the life story of Nick Leeson, an ambitious trader who eventually managed to accumulate a billion’s worth of debt and bankrupt a venerable financial institution. The film does wonders to explain the complexities of financial trading in an entertaining fashion. There is a notable lull in the pacing about midway through, as the first crisis is past and the second one is building. Naturally, this is a biographical portrait based on Leeson’s book, so expect a certain degree of bias for poor honest Nick. Directing, photography and dialogue are strictly serviceable. Not a bad movie at all, especially given the arcane subject matter.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast, 1997 (2001 reprint), 223 pages, C$9.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55192-398-X

“Well, I’m surprised to see that you’ve condescended to read Harry Potter” said my uncle’s girlfriend when she saw me with the first volume in hand.

The only really surprising thing is how long it’s taken me to actually read the darn thing.

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the popular intellectual snobbery that states that “if it’s popular, it can’t be good”. Without citing too many examples, there are times where something is famous because it’s good. It might not be better than your favorite obscure painting/movie/author, but that in itself isn’t a reason to criticize anything wildly fashionable.

I first wanted to read Harry Potter a long time ago. I downloaded the pirated electronic versions of the whole series late in 2000, only to realize that I just don’t read novels on screen; my reader’s reflexes are still hard-wired to paper, ink and glue. My sister bought and read the first two volumes. Ages passed. A movie got made. I borrowed the first volume from my sister, then consciously put it away and enjoyed the movie on its own terms. A few more weeks passed and then I decided to celebrate the end of 2001 with a good fluffy read.

I enjoyed almost every page of it.

Before gushing, though, allow me to say that there are two criticisms I can heap upon J.K. Rowling and the first Harry Potter novel.

First, how deliberate it all seems. Let’s see: to ensnare kids, what better than a misunderstood, under-appreciated hero who really has exceptional magical powers and whose parents are really powerful magicians? You couldn’t design a better hook on purpose, much like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game seemed mathematically designed to hook young teenagers with pretty much the same levers.

Second; how conventional it all is. Tales of magical academies and of young magicians have been written before. Some of them quite good. Almost every gadget used in The Philosopher’s Stone has been invented elsewhere, used elsewhere and seen elsewhere. There isn’t a lot of new, inventive fantasy material in Harry Potter. (So far.)

But guess what? None of these two objections matter very much to the base reader that I am. What is far more important is how clearly Rowling writes, how well she builds her characters and how many little flourishes she manages to pack on every page of her novel.

I attended the World Fantasy Convention in early November 2001, and the slightly dismissive tone in which Harry Potter was discussed struck me as unfair. While elements of the Pottermania leave me nonplussed (the fourth volume shouldn’t have won the Hugo, for instance), a lot of it struck me as simple sour grapes at someone outside the genre reaping all the attention and the money.

The first volume of the series, whatever the objections of the fantasy litterati are, is a wonderful little book that didn’t feel at all like a kid’s novel. I’ve always been a sucker for the “academy” type of novel, from Starship Troopers to, say, Gravity Dreams, and The Philosopher’s Stone ranks among the best of them. It takes conventional elements of magical training and cleverly stuffs them in the British educational system. Simple and obvious, but not so obvious that it’s cliché. And, like it or not, Rowling’s produced a fantasy novel that is immeasurably more enjoyable than at least 90% of what’s published in “adult” fantasy today.

While I’m not completely bowled over, I still feel that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a great little book that will make you -even you!- fall in love with reading all over again. Embrace Pottermania. In this case, what’s popular is what’s good.

(A few words about the movie vs the book: Amazing fidelity, though the book “feels” more adequately paced. The novel also provides more details on Harry’s family life, Hagrid’s past and one or two extra challenges before the end, not to mention a second Quiddich game.)

Riding In Cars With Boys (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Riding In Cars With Boys</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, December 2001) This simply isn’t my type of film. I have no interest whatsoever in an oh-so-courageous biography of a woman who screwed up her life by having a baby during her teenage years. I don’t usually see these movies and normally wouldn’t have seen this one. Should I feel comfortable giving bad marks to this film if it’s not what I’d watch? Well, when it’s as boring as Riding In Cars With Boys (which cars? which boys?), it’s hard to feel guilty doing so. The characters aren’t sympathetic, James Woods is wasted, the structure lacks dramatic intensity and everyone is miserable throughout the film, including me. In fact, the best attribute of Riding In Cars With Boys is to act as a strong warning; Most Americans aren’t smart. Most Americans aren’t interesting. Most Americans don’t deserve our attention. This is how most people live, and it sucks, and I see enough of it in my own life to desperately avoid it in the theater.

Philadelphia Experiment II (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Philadelphia Experiment II</strong> (1993)

(On VHS, December 2001) I borrowed this video by mistake as I thought I was actually renting the original The Philadelphia Experiment. My mistake, in more ways than one; this straight-to-video sequel is just boring. Not much happens, and whatever happens doesn’t make much sense. It’s not an awful concept (Nazis win WW2 when a nuclear-armed Stealth fighter is sent back in time and falls in their hands), and fans of alternate histories will be pleased at some of the details, but the rest is of such illogic (yeah, let’s experiment on a nuclear-armed plane!) that it’s hard to take seriously. Marjean Holden is cute, but she hasn’t done much since. Not bad as much as it’s featureless, The Philadelphia Experiment will do nothing to change your mind about straight-to-video releases.

Permanent Midnight (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Permanent Midnight</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, December 2001) It’s not a very nice to say that someone hasn’t suffered enough to impress us. After watching this fictionalized biography of writer Jerry Stahl’s drug addiction, though, it’s not as if we feel too sorry for the guy. He was a Hollywood writer, he had a beautiful wife, he was good at his job, he had a lot of fun… but, oh, he did drugs. Oooh. The film mostly plays as a dark comedy, not as a heart-wrenching portrait of an addict. (Let’s throw ourselves at the windows! Whee!) Ben Stiller is fine in the lead role, as usual. (Though when Maria Bello announces that she’s leaving for Alaska to manage a bar, I couldn’t resist shouting at the screen “…and I’ll call it Coyote Ugly!”) Not a bad movie -it will hold your interest-, but not a spectacular one either. The epilogue (in which the narrator criticizes those who trivialize his plight) is probably apt for this review.