(On DVD, December 2001) A failed fusion between two very different films. The first one is a relatively clever animated comedy take-off on the buddy-cop concept… in the human body. A young impulsive white cell cop is teamed up with a straight by-the-book cough medicine colleague and, well, we’ve seen the rest, except not as antibodies hunting for a dangerous virus. The fast pacing features plenty of sight-gags to keep up our interest even though it’s all familiar stuff. The second film of Osmosis Jones, however, is an awful gross-out live-action comedy that is not only audience-hostile, but also astonishingly dull. Bill Murray turns in what may very well be his worst performance ever and to put it simply, it doesn’t work. Whenever the live-action segments pop up, we just wish to go back inside Frank’s body. Unfortunately, Osmosis Jones sinks under the weight of its problems, drowning its good animated segments. Too bad. The DVD spends way too much time, money and attention on a poor movie, though it’s nice of them to show us as much Brandy Norwood as they can.
(In theaters, December 2001) It should have been the coolest film of the year. Stephen Soderbergh, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Las Vegas… All the elements were there for extra-pure fun. Alas, the end movie ends up “just” being fun, and not much more. Oh, it’s entertaining enough: Soderbergh can’t make a bad film, and Ocean’s Eleven is one of the most slickly entertaining adult films of the year. George Clooney is ferociously in command, outshining everyone else. Technically, this is obviously a Soderbergh film: The colors are vivid, there is a touch too much grain and the editing is very, very competent. (Almost everyone who’s seen the original also agrees that the remake is better.) But somehow, it never reaches an extra level, almost as if despite everyone’s intentions, something failed to gel. I could point out various mistakes (such as the EMP effect only “temporarily” disabling the power grid.), lengths (such as the poker game) or weaknesses (the bland bit players, for instance), but that would send an overly harsh message. Suffice to say that Ocean’s Eleven will play well, once, but it’s doubtful that people will want to watch this one over and over again.
Anchor, 1997, 288 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48560-3
In 1997, then brand-new studio Dreamworks released its first film, a techno-thriller called THE PEACEMAKER. It starred Nicole Kidman and George Clooney and dealt with their efforts to retrieve a few nuclear bombs stolen by a terrorist. Unfortunately, the film received a mixed critical reception and quickly sank at the box-office, pulling in only $41 million US and quickly fading in memories.
Too bad; I enjoyed the film a lot, finding it to be one of the only good techno-thriller of the late nineties. It seemed reasonably authentic and adequately detailed; the film is still the only one I recall in which the protagonists realistically disarmed a nuclear weapon. Small surprise to learn -later- that it was based on Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s One Point Safe, a non-fiction book about the nuclear dangers to come out of the ex-USSR. Both writers were even credited as the co-producers of the movie and penned the original story.
What you can’t know until you read the source book is how the reality is presented as being far more chilling that the fiction.
One Point Safe begins with a bang, as it describes how a team of German terrorists tried to steal a tactical nuclear weapon from an American base in 1977. Their assault was thwarted by the failure of their diversion, but as the authors write, “No longer was it a question ‘if’ terrorists wanted to steal a nuclear weapon.” [P.6]
It gets worse. Much worse, as the Cockburns delve deeper in the wreckage of the ex-Soviet Union. In a few chapters, they describe the awful conditions to which the once-proud Soviet military has been reduced to. Officers in charge of nuclear weapons now starving, multi-megaton storage facilities rusting out of neglect. Plutonium depots left un-garded. The problem with the collapse of an empire is that after the collapse, all the nasty stuff is still there even if the people aren’t.
The crux of One Point Safe is to show the various nuclear dangers in this post-cold-war era. The guards are gone, corrupt or criminal, but their deadly possessions remain. So the Cockburns describe actual cases of radioactive material theft, the lax security measures in Russian weapons depots, the new ultra-capitalistic Russians trying to make money off the Soviet arsenal and how nuclear non-proliferation agreements aren’t worth much when transgressions mean eating again.
Things aren’t necessarily better in the United States. The Cockburns take an almost sadistic delight in describing a botched anti-terrorism exercise gone hilariously wrong. “Mirage Gold” becomes a parade of mistakes, and latter exercises designed to intercept nuclear smuggling aren’t any more successful. Those mistakes are compensated, somewhat, by a few intelligence coups, such as the American purchase of important quantities of plutonium from Russia. Once such operation, codenamed Sapphire, is a marvel of logistics meticulously described by the Cockburns.
Still, as the book advances, you can’t help but feel increasingly spooked by the missing “backpack nukes”, the widespread corruption, the “accidentally discovered” smuggling rings, the open borders, the broken Russian chain-of-command and, oh, the narrowly-avoided nuclear war of 1995.
All of which raises the question, of course, of the veracity of One Point Safe. Certainly, the tone is cheerfully sentionalistic. Online ( www.bullatomsci.org/issues/1998/jf98/jf98arkin.html ), you can find a letter from an atomic scientist protesting the alarmist tone of the Cockburns. Indeed, they probably overstate their case. But even if half of what they say is true… In any case, it makes for exciting reading.
Beyond the compulsive narrative drive of this book, you can also look at One Point Safe for one of the clearest description of how executive policy is formed, as a team of analysts tries to convince the Clinton administration to do something about the Russian situation.
In short, One Point Safe is a meanly effective read. Sensationalist but always effective, this non-fiction account will make you cringe and hope that the intelligence community is doing its work. Because otherwise…
(In theaters, December 2001) Make me laugh and I will forgive you anything. While the teen-movie spoof Not Another Teen Movie didn’t inspire gales of hysterical laughter from me, it kept me giggling continuously from start to finish, and for that I’m reluctant to actually condemn it. Its good-natured fun won me over despite raunchy material that would otherwise make me roll my eyes and some seriously lame gags (everything related to Bring It On, for instance, fails miserably, as are the gags about teen movies or the eighties). There is some welcome nudity (with the appropriate subtitles) and a lot of suggestive material, though nowhere near as offensive as with, say, Scary Movie. Favourite moments include the American Beauty gags and almost anything with Mia Kirshner (the “too much information!” exchange would have had me roaring if I didn’t have to worry about scaring the rest of the theater). No, Not Another Teen Movie is not a respectable film or even a good one. But it made me laugh, and for that I can forgive it almost everything.
(In theaters, December 2001) After such films as The Truman Show and Man On The Moon, Jim Carrey doesn’t have to prove himself as a dramatic actor. Still, he’s fine in The Majestic, competently portraying the young professional protagonist. The film itself isn’t bad at all, mixing a strong love of cinema with classic themes of love, community and redemption. But the filmmakers are a bit too deliberate, and the sugar-pumped result looks a bit too fake to be entirely pleasant. It doesn’t help that the film is overly long, almost as if it really wanted to make sure that we got the message and correctly filled out the Academy Awards ballot. Cinephiles will like the film a touch more than casual viewers, given The Majestic‘s obvious love of the medium. (On the other hand, how can it be a true cinephile’s film if Bruce Campbell doesn’t get nearly enough screen time?) In many ways, The Majestic looks like a derivative of director Darabont’s previous The Green Mile, another good, but long-and-preachy film engineered to move audiences. Maybe I’m too sophisticated/jaded to bite at that stuff anymore, but if I liked The Majestic, I’m not totally ready to back it up enthusiastically. It’ll deservedly do great business on video.
(In theaters, December 2001) As someone whose opinion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel is closer to “dull, dull, dull” than “masterpiece!”, I didn’t expect much of the film. So it pleases me immensely to see the film improve sharply on the faults of the written work, up to a level where I saw The Lords of the Rings that I really wanted to see, and not the interminable brick I had read. Peter Jackson’s work on the film version is nothing short of remarkable, adeptly condensing hundreds of pages in less than three exciting hours. Unquestionably, the film is still very long, but it’s almost all good. Good acting, fantastic direction and spectacular visuals easily make this one of the best films of the year. It’s amazing (and reassuring) to see how faithful the film is to the novel and yet how much more entertaining it is. After the awful series of cheap fantasy movies of the past decades, it’s heartening to see someone do it right. That such an eagerly-awaited film would end up being equal to the anticipation is simply miraculous.
(In theaters, December 2001) Kid’s movie, kid’s shmoovie: Jimmy Neutron packs more cool ideas in barely 90 minutes than all other SF films of 2001 together. Not only that, but it’s half the length of A.I. and considerably more fun. Granted, it’s a silly comedy, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s not clever: Watch for the hilarious Blair Witch Project reference, and the seamless Star Trek joke. Jimmy is an enormously sympathetic character, and so are the supporting characters. (Even “the bad kid” gets a few endearing moments or two; watch the end reunion with the parents.) Best of all, Jimmy Neutron is good clean fun, with only one or two innocuous toilet-humor jokes through it all. Even though the garish colors and the simplistic models aren’t as detailed as the Pixar films, they create a lovely style that greatly benefit the film. Kudos to the artists -animators and screenwriters alike-, because the result is a wonderful little film that kept me grinning throughout. Splendid!
(In French, On DVD, December 2001) The biker-gang problem has made quite a few headlines in Quebec during the past few years, and so it’s not a surprise to see an original home-grown thriller that deals with the issue. Here, a young man is gradually brought in a gang, where he’ll eventually discover a deadly secret… It’s really a portrait of how someone from a disadvantaged environment can see crime as an alternative option, and as such is far more honest than dozens of similar films. The raw, naturalistic technique of the film thus works to its advantage. It’s a bit dull at first, but it sharply improves in the second half. Ironically enough, when I tried to find parallels in foreign cinema with Hochelaga, I could only think of Hong Kong Triad films in which similar protagonists are gradually seduced in the power of criminal gangs. In any case, the result is a powerful film, maybe the best French-Canadian film I can recall recently. Definitely worth a look if you can find it. The DVD contains a few serviceable extras such as interviews and an English-language track.
Three Rivers Press, 1999, 164 pages, C$24.00 tpb, ISBN 0-609-80461-8
It always amazes me whenever someone opines that history is boring. To hear them talk, history’s just a dull recitation of dates, names and events. Don’t they realize that history can explain everything that happens today? Don’t they know that the best stories ever published don’t even equal some of the amazing stuff that has truly happened in the past? Don’t they even remember Santayana’s admonition?
Maybe all that’s missing is a gifted vulgarizer, someone to make the study of history amusing, accessible and worthwhile. I don’t think that this is what the staff of The Onion had in mind when they set out to put together Our Dumb Century, but the result certainly makes history a lot of fun again.
You might or might not already be familiar with the web humor magazine The Onion ( http://www.theonion.com/ ), but it doesn’t really matter; all you need to know is that Our Dumb Century‘s shtick is to “reprint” a hundred year’s worth of front pages from the Onion as a retrospective of the century. None of it is available on the web site.
Of course it’s all made up. Headlines like 1917’s “Pretentious, Goateed Coffeehouse Types Seize Power in Russia” or 1953’s “A-Bomb May Have Awakened Gigantic Radioactive Monsters, Experts Say” should be a giveaway. But the most amazing thing about Our Dumb Century (past the funny stuff, of course) is how real it looks. The front pages from the beginning of the century look exactly like the old newspapers did, with shaky typography, badly-reproduced graphics and overstuffed layout. The graphical team responsible for the design of the book truly did their homework, and visually, there isn’t a single detail that looks out of place. It’s one of the small pleasures of the book to flip from page to page and see the evolution of “The Onion” through the century.
All of which is considerably reinforced by the pitch-perfect style of the writing. The Onion’s writers have convincingly re-created the characteristic tone of reporting through the century, through the biased, wordy style of the 1900s to the carefully antiseptic prose of the 1990s. It may or may not be exact, but it adds a lot to the impact of the jokes.
And what jokes they are: From 1900’s “Death-by-Corset Stabilizes at One in Six” to 2000’s “Christian Right Ascends To Heaven”, Our Dumb Century offers a century’s (and 164 pages’) worth of satire. Every page is shock-full of stuff in 8-point type, with enough nastily funny headlines to make you groan in pure sadistic delight. (How about 1963’s “Kennedy Slain By CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemason: President Shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles” or 1937’s “German Jews Concerned about Hitler’s ‘Kill All Jews’ Proposal”?)
Naturally, this isn’t for everyone. The level of sadistic irony can be shocking (1976: “Cambodia to Switch to Skull-Based Economy”), as can be the intentional profanity (July 21, 1969. ’nuff said.)
Historical figures are in for a thorough irreverent thrashing, of course. There’s an alternate-universe arrest/getaway/manhunt/shootout involving Nixon (1974), a few good slams at FDR (1933: “President confronts depression with ‘Big Deal’ Plan: ‘Big Deal, I’m Rich’ Roosevelt Says”) and welcome nastiness about various great villains of our century (1977: “Idi Amin Praises Former Ugandan Defense Minister as ‘Delicious’”)
A sense of history is, of course, as useful as a sense of humor, but while Our Dumb Century can motivate anyone to learn a bit more, it’s unclear whether a sense of humor can be developed. For those with some knowledge of the past hundred years, though, the payoff is enormous. The staff of The Onion laughs at an astonishing variety of subjects, from arts to politics, military affairs to fashion fads and you never know when your favorite areas of interest might pop up.
The only flaw of the book that I could find was a loss of historical perspective over the last 30 pages of the book in favor of lighter pop-culture references. Maybe inevitable given the lack of perspective… or accurate given the real nineties.
Not only is Our Dumb Century an instant classic and one of the funniest books of the twentieth century, but it’s also one of the best gift ideas I’ve ever seen for smart people. Buy a crate, encourage The Onion, distribute at will and get compliments on your impeccable taste. Easy!
(On VHS, December 2001) This Is Spinal Tap has proved to be a model for a series of pseudo-documentaries about musical bands, which isn’t necessarily bad. You have to wonder, though, if anyone paid attention to the fact that the original was a comedy. Hard Core Logo tries to do a lot of things, but it fails at a consistent tone, what with long dull stretches, a hallucinogenic segment and a last few seconds that take you straight in all-out tragedy. I presume that the musical references are reasonably exact, but I don’t know enough about the Canadian punk scene to say so. Two of the lead actors are initially difficult to distinguish. There are a few good lines, but you’ll have to work hard to distinguish them. A disappointment.
(In theaters, December 2001) Every month or so, studios churn out yet another unremarkable thriller. It stays a few weeks in theaters, then has an undistinguished life in video stores. Don’t Say A Word is another one of those “midlist” thrillers, adequate entertainment without being in any way memorable. Oh, the performances are fine: Michael Douglas is back in a clean-cut professional’s role, Famke Janssen is great eye-candy as the bed-bound wife and Brittany Murphy has a flashy role as a troubled teen. The first hour is intriguing, culminating in a good three-way escape sequence maybe thirty minutes before the end. After that, the film spins on itself and becomes increasingly sillier. Hey, it’s good fun without being too bad.
(On TV, December 2001) The best thing you can say about this film is it’s not nearly as bad as what you can expect. It’s an ideal comedic premise, really; a business where people pay to exact revenge on hated ones? Works for me, and it sure works for the gags. There are plenty of worse comedies starring Saturday Night Live alumni, and Dirty Work manages to sneak in a few good scenes and a few more good lines. (“Bet you didn’t count on my loyal army of prostitutes!”) Add many extra points if, like me, you like Norm MacDonald’s style of deadpan sarcastic comedy. The fish/shootout scene is quite good. Dirty Work‘s not a classic, but it might pleasantly surprise you on a late evening.
(In theaters, December 2001) Sometimes, it looks as if some Americans are happiest when they’re shooting at a clearly-defined enemy. At least that’s the lesson I got from Behind Enemy Lines, a military thriller that, in retrospect, clearly shows what kind of dangerous enemy Osama Bin-Laden woke up in September 2001: An aggressive giant with a trigger-happy finger and a thirst for a really bad guy. But then again, I’m reading way too much in what is, after all, an excuse for action sequences. As such, the film succeeds well: The aerial dogfight is one of the best such sequences I recall seeing, and there are a pair of action scenes later in the film that rival anything else seen this year on cinema screens. Owen Wilson manages to go from comedy to action quite effectively with this role, embodying an everyman quality that makes him more endearing than a actor like, say, Vin Diesel would have been. The film is directed with appropriate nervousness, though the various techniques used by first-time director John Moore eventually smack more of desperation than of inspiration. The techno-fetishist detail (like the hyper-detailed ejection sequence) is consistent with the written technothrillers. There are a few stupid moments, though, such as when an entire army shoots at the good guy… who escapes unscathered. I had a good time, but your mileage might vary given your political stance and/or your tolerance for action movies in which American military force is ultimately the best answer.
Harper, 1999, 526 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-109801-9
There are times where I seriously wonder if reading more than 170 books a year is somehow rotting my mind. Why else to explain peculiar attachment to authors I don’t care about? H.M.S. Unseen is Patrick Robinson’s third novel and freakishly obsessive readers of my reviews will remember that I haven’t liked either Nimitz Class or Kilo Class very much. Robinson writes badly, has no gift for effective characterization, doesn’t know how to structure his stories and has a rather curious sense of global geopolitics. I might have picked up H.M.S. Unseen with the hope that he has improved, but he really hasn’t.
The story is a loose follow-up to Nimitz Class in that the terribly anticlimactic death of the first novel’s antagonist is revealed to be the sham we suspected all along. Ben Adnam is back in action, but maybe not as smoothly as he wants to: The first few dozen pages of H.M.S. Unseen describe how the Iraqi government decides to get rid of their most troublesome agent, and how Adman escapes through marshes and deserts to join Iran’s government. His proposition? To exact revenge, he will frame Iraq for a series of devastating terrorist attacks.
I’d say “so far so good” if it was the case, but it isn’t. Early on, all of Robinson’s usual faults come back to haunt us. He can’t write. Still. Clumsy exposition drowns out dialogue to such an extent that there isn’t any dialogue left. His sense of dramatic structure is shaky at best; events happen out of nowhere without preparation and then he’ll spend dozens of pages on the most insignificant details before kicking the plot in an entirely different direction again. The downing of the experimental plane is a perfect case in point; what could have been milked for drama simply becomes another plot point without too much importance. But, oh, Adnam’s Scottish escape becomes a marathon of tiny details we couldn’t possibly care about, given that we know he will do it.
After three connected novels, I still can’t care about one single character in Robinson’s oeuvre. He tries to make an antihero of his terrorist villain, but it comes across as just… insipid. Late in the book, he tried to make me pity the antagonist (aw, looove… and it just so happens that the girl is now married to the protagonist of the first two novels!), but my only wish remained for the bad guy to irrevocably die so that I could move on to other things.
More and more, it looks like Robinson simply has no clue about what makes a good technothriller, whether it’s the tiny (oh; the writing, maybe?) or the grand. On an overarching level, I just can’t believe in what Robinson does. Late in HMS Unseen, for instance, Adman encourages the United States to destroy -with cruise missiles!- a large dam in Iraq, killing thousands of civilians, setting back Iraq a few decades in hydro-electrical capacity and, oh, provoking a major international incident in the process. (The characters pooh-pooh such objections as “we’ll be caught!”) Utterly unbelievable, especially in a context where the States are already being unjustly blamed for “hundred of children dying every day because of sanctions”. Now imagine actually destroying a dam. I was practically screaming at the novel “No, you moron! Leave the civilian targets alone!” No such luck.
The structure of the novel is even more insipid, bouncing from situation to situation without a sense of heightened stakes. The final few pages are emblematic of the problem, as the villain is dispatched almost with a yawn and a wave of the hand. Almost as if by then, Robinson hated his novel as much as I did.
Still, you got to hand it to the guy. To be able to publish three awful novels in a row (and to get me to read’em) takes a special skill. You know what? I’m almost certain I’ll read his fourth. I might spend my time cursing at it and muttering dark promises of retribution, but at least it’ll be more entertaining than reading, say, yet another dull and tired Dale Brown B-52 fantasy.
Egad. Maybe I am brain-damaged after all.