The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sunken Ships and Treasures, Stephen Johnson

Alpha, 2000, 452 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863231-1

I really do like the “for Dummies” and the “Complete Idiot’s” series of non-fiction books. Despite their title, they usually offer a clever introduction to a variety of subjects. A glance at their catalog is usually good for a giggle or two (Elvis for Dummies?!), but the truth is that there are few other better ways to get a quick primer on a given subject than to settle down with one of their books. The Guide to Sunken Ships and Treasures is a primer on the exotic -but compelling!- field of, well, sunken treasures. This Guide offers a general primer on shipwrecks, underwater exploration, treasure-hunting and a few related subjects like pirates, nautical lore and salvage law. Most of the book is dedicated to a series of short primers on famous shipwrecks, from the antiquity to the cold war.

There are certainly a lot of good stories in this Guide. The most fascinating section of the book are undoubtedly parts 3 to 5, which describe the event leading up to fifteen famous shipwrecks, from the 1622 Spanish treasure fleet to the USS Scorpion, without forgetting such famous names as the Bounty, Lusitania, Andréa Doria and the unavoidable Titanic. Even if you think you know a lot about some of these stories (like many of us are likely to do after seeing TITANIC), there’s a lot of interesting information presented in an accessible fashion. Furthermore, each of those fifteen chapters also highlights when and how the shipwrecks were later found and salvaged by modern treasure-hunters. It usually makes for fascinating reading, especially if you absorb it in small doses, one shipwreck per evening.

Alas, the rest of the book isn’t as tightly focused. The first section of the guide, for instance, hops left and right, constantly repeating information on various subjects without a clear outline and a steady progression from one point to another. It really starts to grate after a few chapters, as the author sometimes refers to past pages, and just as often breathlessly re-introduces the same concept yet another time. The book’s overall organization is a murky mess: Part 6, which follows the “famous shipwreck” section, is about pirates and modern treasure-hunters; it’s unclear why it had to be segregated to the back of the book when it fits more naturally with a general introduction to the subject.

This lack of organization is most visible at the page-per-page level of the book. The sidebars, which fit so naturally well in other Complete Idiot’s Guide books, here seem excerpted almost verbatim from the main body of the text. The Complete Idiot’s Guide series also ends its chapters with a brief recap of the chapter’s most essential points. Not so here, where “The Least you Need to Know” endbar goes fishing for the most trivial points of the chapters and passes them along like essential facts. I stopped reading them half-way through.

All of the above leads me to wonder if Stephen Johnson’s manuscript was maybe written on spec as a stand-alone book, only to be retro-fitted later as part of the Complete Idiot’s Guide series. It would explain many of the highly annoying flaws of the book, especially when compared to the overall pleasant flow of the text. (The other reasonable explanation is that Johnson, a newspaper journalist, isn’t completely at-ease when structuring a longer work).

It’s a shame, really, when considering the intrinsic interest of such an unusual and fascinating subject. The movie TITANIC did a lot to revive interest in shipwrecks (let’s not fool ourselves; it probably sparked the writing of this book too), but it’s not the only wreck out there and there is a lot more to learn about the field than simply deep-water submarines expeditions. Pick up this Guide to Sunken Ships and Treasures to learn more… but prepare for some frustration along the way.

Van Wilder (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Van Wilder</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, May 2002) Ryan Reynolds has a good turn as protagonist van Wilder and Tara Reid can be luminous when she wants to, but Van Wilder generally sputters from lame gags to vile gross-outs. No wonder the film tanked at the box-office, yet another sign that teen comedy has once again moved beyond the simple eeew! phase. Otherwise, there isn’t much more to say. It’s a dumb campus film that can’t be saved by the grins of its lead actors, however sympathetic they may be. Quote of the film: “Are you stalking me? Because that would be super!”

Triangle of Death, Michael Levine & Laura Kavanau

Dell, 1996, 490 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22367-9

Much as most of the angry black hip-hop music is bought by white suburban kids, I’d be willing to bet that most of the military fiction out there is bought by comfortable suburban professionals like yours truly. As a law-abiding white-collar citizen, there’s an undeniable vicarious thrill in reading about fictional exploits of manly heroes who have sworn to defend our contemporary way of life by all means necessary.

Triangle of Death is a military adventure in the same vein than the Rogue Warrior books supposedly co-written by ex-supersoldier Richard Marcinko. Flavorful first-person narration “by the author”, believable authenticity, disregard for non-operative authority and movie-like heroics are the norm here. Like the Rogue Warrior series, Triangle of Death seems almost custom-made to show us civilians how we really have no clue about the sacrifices needed to protect our freedom.

Certainly, Michael Levine has traveled the same rough professional road than Marcinko: Both have served their country for a quarter-century (Marcinko as a SEAL, Levin as an undercover operative for the DEA), got shafted by their superiors, left the service in disgust, wrote best-selling non-fiction (Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior and Levine’s Deep Cover) and then turned not only to the conspiracy fringe, but also to fiction-writing. As of this writing, though, Marcinko seems to be the only one of the two who still regularly publishes fiction.

As a novel, Triangle of Death is good tasty fun. The novel grabs you by the throat early on and rarely lets up as we follow the protagonist/narrator “Michael Levine” through a deep unauthorized undercover mission to rid the world of a potent new sex drug that could do no less than shake up civilization as we know it. The no-nonsense prose is filled with macho posturing, fascinating “authentic” details, a roller-coaster series of events and an overall sense of, yes, fun.

It’s a hugely enjoyable read, especially as Levine battles impossible odds, hops around the world, gambles big, contacts friends in high places, spouts some Asian philosophy, undergoes specialized training and eventually pieces together a conspiracy involving the US government. Breathlessly exciting stuff, told in a spot-on style.

You can read Triangle of Death as a straight-ahead novel and like it a lot. If you liked the first few volumes of Marcinko’s series (before noticing that it repeated itself), this novel is the closest thing to it. As a thriller, it’s more engaging than most of its brethrens and its aura of authenticity is only too rare.

But there’s also a second level of entertainment that kicks in late in the novel, as the “Levine” protagonist announces his intention to publish a novel about the events of the story, hence blurring the line in between fiction and reality. That’s when readers with some time to lose might want to boot up their computers and do some serious research on Levine and his career.

It’s fascinating stuff, especially given that it takes us to the fringes of the conspiracy-nut memesphere. We can find traces of Levine’s radio show, dedicated at exposing the government’s incompetence and corruption. From there, we find links to documents alleging massive conflicts of interest in between the government’s official “war on drugs” and the realpolitiks of international trade and policing work. Governmental interference in police works? Say it isn’t so!

That particular brand of paranoia doesn’t serve too far-fetched or unbelievable, which makes the truth-or-fiction game even more fascinating. Triangle of Death thus becomes a veiled introduction at some serious thinking about the war on drugs, even from the point of view of someone who abhors criminals and addictive substances like Levine. What’s true and what isn’t? Maybe truth is once again stranger than fiction…

Undercover Brother (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Undercover Brother</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, May 2002) It had been a long time since the last successful film genre parody, but here’s a perfectly satisfying take-off on blacksploitation movies. Undercover Brother may be a laugh-a-minute silly comedy, but it’s also a gentle satire of race relations that does more through laughter than others films will though pure anger. Eddie Griffin is da man (though not “The Man”), Denise Richards turns in one of her best (or rather, most appropriate) performances, Aunjanue Ellis is a revelation and Chris Kattan isn’t nearly as annoying as usual. Stay for the credits, as they contain what may be the film’s biggest laugh. Undercover Brother is thankfully devoid of gross-out gags and will probably stand the test of time adequately well. It’s solidly in the same vein than the first Austin Powers. Super soundtrack. Clean laughs. Pure fun!

(Second viewing, In theaters, July 2002) Holds up admirably well a second time around, though the pacing is not as sustained than during the first viewing. Eddie Griffin’s performance is excellent and the rest of the actors do quite well too. After Austin Powers‘s continued descent in self-referential tripe, it’s great to find a new approach to parody, especially given the racial social message hidden at the core of the film. Good stuff. Funny stuff.

The Sum Of All Fears (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Sum Of All Fears</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, May 2002) As a big fan of the source Tom Clancy novel, I can’t help but grimace at some of the changes and simplifications made to the original novel. But even I have to recognize that the film adaptation is much better-paced than the original. Even the idea of casting a younger Jack Ryan works splendidly. In fact, the only problem I have with the film adaptation is that one of the novel’s most thrilling threads (which eventually forces Ryan to start a constitutional crisis) is abandoned. But there’s so much good stuff in the end film that it’s almost ungrateful to complain (heck, even Pat Foley is in there!): For maybe the first time in recent memory, we have a film version of a true techno-thriller. (I could have done without the warehouse fight, though). Anyone looking at the film as an action movie is bound to be disappointed; this is a thriller, with intelligence and cleverness as the main weapons. There are weak moments (who couldn’t predict that the French ex-conspirator would be killed almost immediately?) and dull stretches, but overall, the film is true in spirit to the book, and the book was a fantastic story. Cheers, relief and hurrahs: This one’s worth a look.

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) Filmed Thrillers are not rare, but filmed techno-thrillers certainly are. So are filmed thrillers that take The Big View, dealing knowledgeably with affairs of states from the perspective of the states: Cinema simply doesn’t have the depth required to make such stories believable. And yet, The Sum Of All Fears, despite the radical simplifications of the original novel’s plot, works splendidly. It’s a thoughtful, professional film that makes interesting artistic choices and then sticks to them. (No countdown? Audacious!) It holds up really well to a second viewing, though the similarities to Jack Ryan’s previous adventure The Hunt For Red October are harder to ignore given his once-again role as the rookie analyst plunged in action. (This is not a sequel, but a new first chapter in another series, we’re told). The DVD contains a few informative supplements, plus a wonderful commentary track with director Phil Robinson and author Tom Clancy: “Hi, my name is Tom Clancy. I’m the author of the book they ignored while making this film.” Clancy is a grouchy good sport, calling out “this is bullsh*t” several times on scenes he judges implausible. Director Robinson repeatedly catches him off-guard with some new information, though. Good fun, good movie.

Bright Star, Robert Louis Stevenson III

Berkley, 1998, 287 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17301-1

Before proceeding any further, let’s clear something up right away: Yes, this Robert Louis Stevenson is a descendant of Treasure Island‘s Robert Louis Stevenson. Reading Bright Star, it’s hard to avoid thinking that if Stevenson I was alive today, he’d write techno-thrillers. But then again, maybe Herman Melville would be writing military fiction set on an aircraft carrier, so who knows?

Bright Star is an unabashed sea adventure, mixing high-tech gadgets, military operations, political intrigue and a dash of romance. It’s not really successful, but at least it’s short and to the point, which is somewhat of a rarity in today’s bloated thriller market.

It starts promisingly enough, as a revolutionary high-energy orbital weapon system is demonstrated to the American military. They want it in orbit as soon as possible, but they better be patient, given that the shuttle transporting the satellite is quickly hijacked and sent to the bottom of the ocean. A rescue mission is unsuccessful in retrieving the weapon, so soon enough the hunt is on to retrieve the missing weapon.

Technically sophisticated readers may arch their eyebrows at the above plot summary, with good reason: landing a shuttle in the ocean, from orbit, would seem to be an entirely inefficient strategy if the goal is to retrieve even parts of the shuttle intact. (There’s a reason why landing gear exist, and another that passenger aircrafts pretty much never survive an attempted sea landing; at even waterskiing speeds, water becomes roughly equivalent to a brick wall!) Furthermore, the hijacking of a sophisticated weapon is useless unless the weapon is backed by a sufficient architecture, which either implies terrorists (ridiculous) or a foreign power, which logically leads to a de facto declaration of war.

The least we can say is that Bright Star isn’t really big on plausibility. It gets worse and worse throughout the novel, as our deep-diving protagonist is thrown from one contrived situation to another in which he’ll have to use his best diving skills to save the fate of the world! Bright Star is a lot like those cheap TV series where the protagonists are in a position to use their special capabilities over and over again (to quote the Simpsons, “We now return to Nightboat: the Crime-Solving Boat. Every week there’s a canal. Or an inlet. Or a fjord.” [“Maggie Makes Three”]) Here, everything eventually revolves around diving. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail…

I can normally forgive a lot of implausibility if I can believe in the rest of the novel, but that’s not the case here: The protagonists are macho, unbelievable, needlessly tortured and constantly horny. I’m not sure which worldview Stevenson is espousing, but the attitude of his male characters towards women was more creepy than endearing. The rest of their psychology doesn’t fare much better. Many of them die with scarcely a twinge of sympathy from us.

Overall, that’s pretty much how I also feel about the whole novel. While there are intriguing elements here and there, the one-solution-fits-all plotting, the sinister characters and the indifferent prose all combine to produce a curiously flat techno-thriller. Bright Star isn’t particularly well-written; there are several interesting scenes that fail to take fire even as they should, because everything is described without panache or precision.

Too bad, really.

(I should probably note that Bright Star is a sequel of sort to Stevenson’s previous Torchlight, which I haven’t read. The wealth of back-story referred to in this second volume is voluminous enough to suggest that Bright Star might be improved by reading the first tome.)

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones</strong> (2002)

(Downloaded, May 2002) Take five die-hard Star Wars geeks, give them a big-screen TV, sugared drinks and a VCD copy of Episode II downloaded a full week before it hits theaters, and you have an instant nerd-MST3K party! Then watch with amazement as said five geeks start shouting back at the screen with reckless abandon, jeering Jar-Jar, cheering Samuel L. Jackson, pointing out the parade of stupid logical holes and screaming like little girls at the Yoda light-saber duel! Awful sound and even lousier picture quality ensures at least one subsequent trip to the theater, but the ghastly dialogue, appalling romance subplot and lackluster pacing can’t be corrected by a big screen and big sound. But oh, the laughs they had…

(Second viewing, In theaters, May 2002) Big Screen! Big Sound! Even after seeing Episode II on VCD-rip, a trip to the theater screen is mandatory to extract all the audiovisual goodness from this ILM demo reel. Story, you say? Blah; Lucas can’t be bothered to write a good script from even the most exciting elements, as he amply shows here. There’s a romance. A godawful romance. A romance starring aliens, because no humans act like that. A romance by George Lucas. Be afraid. Or close your eyes and hum loudly until the last forty minutes, which are impressive from an action standpoint. The visual polish of the film is astonishing, and it better be, because most of the actors don’t seem to know what they’re doing. The lead couple is especially bad, which is a surprise given that both Hayden Christianssen and Natalie Portman have proven to be good thespians elsewhere. Oh no; is that more proof that George Lucas can’t direct actors? Well, he can’t think logically either, because the film is filled with logical stupidities that even the dullest viewer can spot. That it, if they’re not wowed by the Yoda-Dooku fight (Yay!) and the spectacular combat scenes… am I starting to repeat myself? Hm. Think so, I do.

(Third viewing, In theaters, May 2002) I’m not a card-carrying Star Wars geek, but that’s going to be hard to prove after seeing the film for a third time the month of its initial release. Hey, I plead the usual extenuating circumstances (workplace outing, pretty girl at my side, etc.) but it still doesn’t change the fact that I’m seeing the damn film for a third time in as many weeks. The bad points still stick out; the atrocious romance subplot, weak dialogues, simplistic politics and bad plotting are worse than ever. On the other hand, the really good sequences of the film still hold up; the asteroid battle is a joy, as is the final land war, the Yoda fight sequences and the arena Jedi/droid battle. There is enough eye-candy to maintain interest, which is something of an achievement for such a poorly-written film. I think I now have my fill of the film, at least until the DVD hits the bargain bins.

(Fourth viewing, On DVD, February 2003) Some movies just aren’t meant to be seen four times in a single year. While the action sequences of this “Episode II” still hold up under scrutiny, the rest of the movie simply grates. At least the DVD contains an informative commentary track, though it predictably focuses more on the technical aspect of the film than the story. In fact, any attempts by Lucas and al to give some legitimacy to the plot are a bit amusing. (Though, to George’s credit, at least he’s aware of Kevin Smith’s work.) The rest of this double-DVD edition is packed with extras, so at least the fans of the film can it knowing that it’ll do until the super-duper-mega enhanced one Lucasfilm is liable to release in a few years. Not that I’ll need to see the film again until then.

Spider-Man (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Spider-Man</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, May 2002) So everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero swings in theaters, and even if I bemoan the quasi-absence of the classic TV show’s theme, I’m rather impressed with the rest of the film. Focusing as much on character than on action scenes, this is very nearly the ultimate comic-book film insofar as the “secret identity” passages aren’t deathly dull. Tobey Maguire transforms a potentially miscasting in one of the film’s greatest assets; Peter Parker, the geek-turned-superhero! Willem Dafoe is also excellent as the antagonist. (oh, that mirror scene… genius!) Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is blander than beige, giving us no reason why we should fall for her like our hero does. The few action scenes in the film really rock, thanks to the dynamite direction of Sam Raimi, who seemingly helms the film he’s been born to. Spider-Man appeals on several levels; if ever you’re bored, you can always watch for how it’s a curiously Catholic superhero film, as Spider-man is defined by guilt, celibacy and self-sacrifice. Good summer entertainment; I would have liked a few more action scenes, but now that the background’s been taken care of, maybe the inevitable sequel will be even faster-paced?

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) This is pretty much the definition of a superhero movie for general audiences. Some adventure, some romance, some character development, some soap opera plotting, some special effects and some flashy colors. Sure, it made millions, but is it a film one can absolutely love? Eh. Shrug. The DVD is the incarnation of this eagerness to please everyone; two making-of are strictly pre-release promotional material (which isn’t appropriate material for the DVD, since we already paid for the damn thing; we don’t need to know how wonderful everyone was!) and the technical material is reduced to a strict minimum, safely tucked away in a “special feature” where only the die-hard geeks will look for it. The commentary track is okay, and so are the repetitive pop-ups. (Alas, the infamous first “World Trade Center trailer” is missing) Slick entertainment for the whole family, but a second look reveals the mechanical underpinnings of this lucrative enterprise.

Showtime (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Showtime</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, May 2002) I have a soft spot for sunny Californian cop comedies, but Showtime really messes it up by trying to pass off as something it clearly can’t be. The story sets up Robert de Niro as a crusty pro cop forced to team up with a younger showboat (Eddie Murphy, getting old for these roles) in order to become the reluctant star of a reality-TV show. Interesting potential for a humorous take-off on buddies cop comedies, reality shows and the differences between TV cops and real cops. There even a particularly amusing sequence in which William Shatner, as himself, teaches the protagonist how to act like cops à la T.J. Hooker! But Showtime really messes up by, on one hand, decrying all the clichés and on another, ending with a half-hour in which all of the clichés are used. Combined to the weak script, the grating antics of Murphy and the tired nature of some gags, the film proves to be lacking substance and ends up being a waste of talent and opportunity. Too bad!

The Rock (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Rock</strong> (1996)

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) There is something awe-inspiring in the grandiose panache with which this movie flaunts itself. Continuity mistakes, logical flaws and nonsensical developments are swatted aside like irrelevant trivialities, allowing director Michael Bay full power to show incredible images on-screen. The camera moves, sweeps, pans, captures perfect moments and doesn’t give a damn about the words or the continuity. The Rock is as close as anyone has ever come to the ultimate action movie. I still find parts of it silly beyond words—but soon after I’m silenced by the boffo action sequences and the slick polish of the whole production. I love the characters (Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris are perfect), I love the direction, I love most of the one-liners and I love the explosions. Why should I complain about the rest? To see if you’re a real action-movie junkie, try watching only five minutes of the film. The first-generation DVD includes the film, and nothing else. But the movie is so good…

Panic (2000)

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

(On VHS, May 2002) Lukewarm straight-to-video drama about a hit man and his domineering father. What could have been a fun Simpsons episode is transformed in a full-blown bore-fest. Hey, at least it’s good to see Neve Campbell get work again, but that’s a small comfort. William H. Macy is fine as the tortured protagonist and Donald Sutherland is suitably conniving as the father, but unless you’ve got a fetish for hit men family dramas, I wouldn’t bother. Life’s too short. What if a hit man is gunning for you right now? Would you want to waste your last remaining hours watching featureless movies like this one?

Manifold: Origin, Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2002, 441 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-43079-4

As an avid reader with a limited book-buying budget, I have come to hate inconsistent authors. Greg Bear, for instance; capable of turning out fantastic novels (Moving Mars) and then waste our time with boring crap (Dinosaur Summer). Up until now, Stephen Baxter had proven to be a dependable author, writing book after book of solid hard-SF, often with deficient characters but never without a good lot of interesting ideas.

What makes Manifold: Origin so frustrating isn’t so much the conviction that Baxter is now an unreliable author as how it’s such a let-down from the first two volumes of the Manifold trilogy. Even as “thematic trilogies” go, this third volume is a bust.

A quick reminder: With his Manifold trilogy, Baxter set out to examine the question of sentience in the universe, re-using a cast of similar characters in alternate universes. The first volume, Manifold: Time, posited that humans were alone and showed how they set out to solve the problem. In Manifold: Space, the universe was filled with intelligent life and most of it was hostile to each other. In Manifold Origin, the scope is limited to humans. All kinds of humans.

As the novel begins, our common protagonist Reid Malenfant and his long-suffering wife Emma are flying over Africa. Stuff happens, a mysterious red moon appears, they eject from their plane and a giant vacuum cleaner scoops up Emma as Reid parachutes back to Earth. As with the previous Manifold novels, this is the beginning of Malenfant’s quest to set up an impossible space mission, in this case send a rescue shuttle to the red moon in order to rescue his wife.

At least a hundred pages of filler pass until Malenfant manages to lift off. Once the rescue shuttle lands (with predictably catastrophic consequences), both Malenfants are stuck on the red moon, where they’ll discover that it’s a device traveling in between universes to cross-pollinate the various branches of humanity. It’s an interesting concept. Unfortunately, you have no idea how dull and unpleasant is the execution.

The surface of the Red Moon isn’t a fun or peaceful place: Various sub-species of humanity cohabit there, most of them barely above pre-historical social levels. There is a considerable amount of cannibalism, inter-species warfare, senseless deaths and unpleasant mating rituals. Oh, and slavery too. I have accused Baxter of being grim before, but I really had no real grasp of how depressing he really could be. It gets worse, naturally. The end of the novel is as pointless as British SF authors can make’em, which is to say very.

My main objection to Manifold: Origin is that it’s nowhere near as densely imagined as Baxter’s previous books. Good ideas are far and few in-between, and the whole novel constantly feels padded. Most of the non-homo-sapiens viewpoints can safely be skipped without any loss of comprehension. The whole mission-preparation segment is overindulgent, stopping the action just as we needed to speed up the plot. Even worse, the ending kills off most of the cast, doesn’t solve any problem, barely presents a lame explanation and leaves whatever remaining characters in an unbearable hell.

The only good news are that given the loose relationship between the three volumes of the Manifold trilogy, you can read the first two and skip out entirely on the third without any harm. At the very least, don’t rush off and buy the hardcover like I did; you’ll be sorry.

As far as I’m concerned, though, Baxter gets taken off not only my hardcover list, but off my buy list altogether. I’m sure he’ll get over it some day.

A Knight’s Tale (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Knight’s Tale</strong> (2001)

(On DVD, May 2002) Sometimes, good old-fashioned entertainment is all you need. There isn’t anything particularly new or innovative in this medieval jousting sports drama/romance, but it does what it has to do quite well. Heath Ledger aptly carries the whole film on his shoulders, but he’s helped considerably by the presence of capable character actors, most notably Paul Bettany as “the” Geoffrey Chaucer and Shannyn Sossamon in her debut role. (Her resemblance to Angelina Jolie is astonishing, but she doesn’t get the chance to show much range in this typical romantic role.) The script is adequately written, with moments that actually improve on subsequent viewings. The jousting scenes are deservedly spectacular, giving us an idea of what it must have looked like to medieval audiences. Much has been said about the anachronistic use of pop music in the film’s soundtrack, but when all is sung, it seems almost a shame that more such fun touches haven’t been used. Then again, A Knight’s Tale successfully walks a fine line between unabashed contemporary entertainment and reasonably convincing historical re-creation. In any case, few will be left disappointed by this joyfully entertaining film. The DVD offers everything you could be looking for; information on the stunts, some historical background, a few worthwhile deleted scenes and a hilarious self-depreciating commentary by director/writer Brian Helgeland and co-star Bettany.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Kissing Jessica Stein</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, May 2002) A plot summary of this film reads like a full bingo-card of things I generally don’t really care to see: It’s an independent romantic comedy in which a Jewish New-Yorker career woman -tired of meaningless dating- falls in love with another girl, an artist who will make our heroine realize who she truly is. Awww. What I didn’t expect is how adorable Jessica Stein would be (she’s played by co-writer Jennifer Westfeldt, and you’d better remember that name!), how witty the script is and how I got so genuinely interested in the overall story. There isn’t too much in terms of sexual politics here, and people on both sides are likely to find fault with the film if they really want to. (In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age story more than a romantic comedy about Jews, lesbians or whatevers) New York really shines here; there aren’t any landmarks shots, but the street-level cinematography gives a better feel for the real city than any of the other blockbuster New-York films I recall seeing recently. (Well, okay, maybe at the exception of Keeping The Faith). The wonderful script is literate and unusually adept at defining its characters. Finding Kissing Jessica Stein might be a challenge at your local video store, but it’s well worth the effort. Even if you don’t think you’ll enjoy it, hey, you just might.

Insomnia (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Insomnia</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, May 2002) A Southern-California detective (Al Pacino) is sent to Alaska to investigate the murder of a young girl. Stuff happens, someone dies, some blackmail takes place and suddenly our protagonist is caught up in complex moral dilemmas, which aren’t helped by his progressive debilitation from lack of sleep. There isn’t much to say about Insomnia besides that it’s a good thriller, with enough grimness and storytelling savvy to keep everyone interested until the end. The Alaskan cinematography is spectacular, and so are most of the actors involved. Director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the boffo Memento isn’t nearly as brilliant nor as convoluted, but he proves adept to the task of telling a more classical story. Now let’s wait for his next feature…