Il Mostro [The Monster] (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Il Mostro</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Monster</strong>] (1994)

(On VHS, May 2002) Make no mistake; you have to be in a very specific mood in order to like Roberto Begnini. This being said, it’s always a lot of fun to see him at work if you like his specific shtick. Il Mostro is a touch overlong and a little too repetitive, but when it works, it sort of works well. I wasn’t overly pleased, though, by the introduction of a serial murderer in what is otherwise a rather innocuous comedy; maybe it’s an Italian thing.

Storming Heaven, Kyle Mills

Harper, 1998, 499 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101251-3

Looking at genres, from time to time, I despair: Is it possible to do something new or innovative any more? A standard thriller features a lone protagonist who loses everything by fighting a vast conspiracy. Betrayals, unlikely allies and multiple murders usually complete the picture. In this familiar context, is it possible to create something interesting?

Well, yes. Any sufficiently-capable author can still work wonders with even the most overused plot. It all depends on good characters, interesting twists and good writing. Kyle Mills’ Storming Heaven doesn’t deviate a lot from the usual thriller plot, but the execution of the premise makes it all seem fresh, somehow.

It starts with a murder, obviously. This time, a suburban millionaire couple is found dead in their home. Their teenage daughter is missing. FBI agent Mark Beamon (suitably renegade enough to serve as our protagonist) suspects something is up. His investigation eventually uncovers disturbing links between the young girl and a vast new religion with links to a telecommunication empire and a few paramilitary operatives.

Scientology, anyone? Not quite. Clearly, some parallels exist: The Kneissians do pillory their opponent through lawsuits, have an ongoing feud with the German government and operate according to a series of “levels” similar to the real-world sect, but Mills take the concept much farther. The Church of Kneiss is actually closer to Scientology++, if you want: Mills imagines a new religion that consciously uses the latest techniques in marketing and social manipulation to set up a brand-new system of belief. Without the “limiting factor” [P.236] of outdated dogma that holds back established religions.

Every jaded reader should be paying attention at this moment; while real-world governments are too ponderous to engage in conspiracies and businesses are too subject to market fluctuation to be menacing, religion is something else. When its influence comes crashing down on our protagonist, there isn’t much he can do to stop them. It’s a formidable opponent, and our hero has to use his wits to extricate himself from an impossible situation.

Fortunately, this is yet another area where Kyle Mills distinguishes himself. We’ve seen countless smart renegade cops before, but few of them are as believable as Mark Beamon. He repeatedly demonstrates his intelligence without inexplicable leaps of logic or hand-waving. Storming Heaven‘s good characterization doesn’t stop there; the novel is filled with memorable supporting characters that resonate even weeks after finishing the novel. The young heroine herself is one of the most sympathetic kid-in-distress in recent memory, as she even gets a chance to shine her wits later in the novel.

Somehow, everything else seems sweeter when good characters are at the core. Even though the plot mechanics may seem familiar, they work much better when we care about the humans they affect. Beamon’s descent in obscurity is stronger, and so is his inevitable triumph.

A strong, unconventional, too neat conclusion ties everything together with an effective resolution that doesn’t dredge up the mano-a-mano cliché, and takes the time to deliver a few scenes of pure payback pleasure.

Well-written and well-executed, Storming Heaven is a shining thriller that can restore your faith in the tired old conspiracy genre. Strong characters remain at the core of the narrative, making this novel more than your run-of-the-mill escapist entertainment. The religious sub-themes are deftly handled and may make you think hard for a moment or two. Mills vaults in the ranks of promising thriller writers. More, please!

Friday The 13th (1980)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Friday The 13th</strong> (1980)

(On VHS, May 2002) Dull, repetitive piece of trash. Hard to see why this has spawned nine sequels (and counting) except for the low production values and the simplistic storyline that can be understood even by gibbering morons. Simple stuff: Teenager separates itself from the group, gets killed. Repeat until only one’s left. I wish I could say that the handheld shots and the amateurishness of the script are a refreshing change after the slick twenty years of insipid rip-offs, but I’d be lying, really. The insipid drawn-out finale is just annoying. It can be watched while reading a book. Heck, there isn’t even much nudity. Blah.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Friday the 13th Part III</strong> (1982)

(On VHS, May 2002) The shocking -shocking!- thing about this series is not how every damn film in the series is a carbon-copy of itself as much as how it wouldn’t take all that much wit or talent to make something special or interesting out of it. (Hey, that explains Kevin Williamson’s Scream after all…) How many time do we have to suffer through the same stupid screaming, running, tripping? Gaak. Not much new to report in installment #3: The composition of some shots is peculiar… until you realize that the film was meant to be shown in 3-D. The disco-biker gang is rather amusing, perhaps signaling the series’ descent in auto-derision. (The hockey mask also makes its first appearance) The frickin’ three-hour-long climax is once again ridiculously drawn-out. Does this series ever improve? It’s not looking like it.

Friday The 13th Part 2 (1981)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Friday The 13th Part 2</strong> (1981)

(On VHS, May 2002) Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the first film; it’s recapped (at length) in the first few minutes. To be entirely truthful, this is a better film than the original, if only for the enhanced production values and the better-looking girls. (Still not much nudity, alas) Nevertheless, there isn’t much there in term of cinematic enjoyment. The directing is flat, the actors rather less than convincing and the repetitive structure of the plot starts to grate early on. Naturally, I could also argue that the perfect F13 film would be all porn and no violence. But then again I’m just bored watching that stuff, so what do I know?

Enough (2002)

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

(In theaters, May 2002) Pure exploitative trash! Take a beautiful female protagonist, give her the worst psycho husband ever imagined and then give her a rationale for killing him. It doesn’t take much more to make such an obviously manipulative film. The surprise here isn’t how unsubtle is the film as much as it’s how it all works so well: The husband is enough of a crazy maniac that killing him doesn’t seem an act of female aggression as much as a righteous purge for all humankind. (You just have to see how he behaves with other men to figure out how much of an eeevil antagonist he is.) Jennifer Lopez is wonderful (as usual) as the protagonist, going from innocent to victim to fighter in one satisfying arc. (I don’t like her short hair nearly as much as her usual hairstyle, but that’s pretty shallow, isn’t it?) Let’s not fool ourselves: Enough is pure thriller trash without social signification, but executed well enough that is becomes somewhat of a guilty pleasure. Your mileage may vary.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Edward Scissorhands</strong> (1990)

(On DVD, May 2002) Goodness bless Tim Burton, he of the wacky visual sense and teenage sensibilities. It’s easy to see a little too much symbolism in Edward Scissorhands, considering the characters as a metaphor for troubled teenagers (whose actions often seem to destroy everything they touch), a retelling of Frankenstein and a general fable on ostracism, but the ending of the film doesn’t drive any particular point home (except, maybe that some people just can’t fit in, which seems a curiously reactionary counterpoint to classic movie values.) Still, whatever unease the film may eventually cause, there’s no denying that the film is a visual treat and a joy to watch. On one level, Edward Scissorhands succeeds on pure originality, because it’s only all too rare to see such imagination on display. At the very least, it’s a change from the usual fare. The DVD features a bunch of interesting extras, including a dry but informative commentary track by Burton.

The Ultimate Rush, Joe Quirk

St. Martin’s, 1998, 374 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96902-3

If I’m forced to mention only one element that can transform an average thriller into a good one, it would be speed. Pacing, rhythm; call it how you want, but a novel that moves can be forgiven many things that would otherwise sour a book that just doesn’t go anywhere.

The Ultimate Rush begins with a solid, exhilarating demonstration of speed, as our protagonist battles the treacherous streets of San Francisco to make a delivery… on rollerblades. Heroic maneuvers, near-death experiences, fast hip lingo and limpid writing make this intro one of the best since, ironically enough, the similar opening of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

The rest of the novel eventually slows down, but in a few subsequent pages, we’re introduced to a protagonist who seems to embody coolness. Pierced narrator Chet Griffin isn’t only a blader, but he’s also an ex-hacker and a punk rock groupie with an unwholesome fascination for a lesbian friend of his. His new job as an elite courier, however, soon -very soon!- sends him rolling straight to various underworld elements, who quickly become highly unpleasant when they suspect him of peeking in the packages…

As a novel, The Ultimate Rush initially lives up to its title. The novel alternates between terrific chase sequences and hilarious slice-of-life scenes; it’s very difficult not to like Chet and his merry band of friends. When, in mid-book, love strikes and we’re treated to a gratuitous sex scene (“Do me like a straight girl!”, etc. [P.206]), well, it’s like seeing two old deserving friends finally getting together. Quirk has a knack for describing memorable characters, and our attachment to them goes a long way to make us like the book.

Quirk can’t resist being cooler than thou, though, and sometimes bites off more than he can chew. Yes, his taste in music is cool and impeccable (bands and album names are casually dropped to show off) but while I’m no authority on rollerblading, his hacking sequences are a bit off. They reprise, albeit with some skill, the usual cliché that gifted people can break in anywhere with only a few hours’ worth of work. Fortunately, there’s some hand-waving and not a little help from various virtual friends, but still… At least this gives form to one of the coolest deep-hacking scenes since Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. (On the other hand, well, everyone will easily guess the real identity of the cyber-antagonist chapters before it’s finally breathlessly revealed to us.) Realistic, accurate and carefully researched? Er, no.

Technical quibbles aside, though, what really harms the book is a steady lessening of tension in the last hundred pages. The ending, which packages a shootout between various groups, should be thrilling but comes across as perfunctory and routine. The book also gets grimmer as it concludes, which somewhat contradicts the novel’s earlier carefree attitude.

Fortunately, it ends up on a high note. Or nearly does; I’d recommend stopping at the penultimate chapter rather than the last unless, as the chapter title indicates, “you want a sequel”. It’s a huge downer, pointless and depressing, the kind of thing that’s best left as the first chapter of the sequel.

But again, if you can ignore that pesky problem, The Ultimate Rush is a wild ride, a breakneck thriller with great sympathetic characters, crackling narration and a devastating sense of cool. If every other suspense novel you read seems flat and plodding, try this one. Zzzoom!

The Bogus Witch Project (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Bogus Witch Project</strong> (2000)

(On VHS, May 2002) Imagine a flyer inviting amateur Los Angeles-area filmmakers to send in their short Blair Witch Project parodies. Imagine screening all of these g’damn shorts. Scary? Repulsive? Dreadful? Well, you can get a taste for it, because they’ve selected the “best” five of them for your viewing pleasure. I normally have a very high tolerance for silly parodies, but that threshold’s was reached early on with The Bogus Witch Project. There are a few clever jokes here and there, but if there was a case for plagiarism, it would have been to steal all the best ideas and do one single parody. After all, there’s a limit to the number of times a lens-cap joke can be effective. Heck; the Pauly Shore segment is the best thing about the film. What else can I say?

Big Trouble (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Big Trouble</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, May 2002) Anyone in the mood for a silly crime comedy could do much worse than to take a look at this film. Roughly a dozen familiar actors pop up in a narrative that deftly manipulates a large character cast without too much confusion. The story might be uncomfortable for some, as it features a nuclear warhead being smuggled past airport security, but don’t let that distract you from a darn good film that is roughly in the same vein than Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Dave Barry’s novel is decently adapted, preserving some of his dry wit (mostly though Tim Allen’s narration) and most of the insanity that seems so prevalent in South Floridian crime thrillers. It’s simply a lot of fun.

40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">40 Days and 40 Nights</strong> (2002)

(On VHS, May 2002) Josh Hartnett has never been a truly dynamic performer, and his turn in this sex Comedy comes close to sinking the picture. His puppy-dog charm manages to save it from utter collapse, but what we’re left with is a completely average film that will quickly fade from memory. The premise (abstinence for Lent) itself isn’t completely compelling. Without providing too much information on your reviewer’s sex life, going 40 days without sex doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice. (The nature of a protagonist for whom this would be a Big Deal is enough to make one go—ew!) To the screenwriter’s credit, he manages to sustain the premise until the end—though frankly, only a few scenes stand out as being particularly funny. The last 30 minutes of the film get mired into standard romantic plot shticks. (Your reviewer is a bit of a thicke in these matters, but not jumping right into bed with a potential paramour wouldn’t seem to be that much of a problem. Maybe it’s a San Francisco thing.) Then again, everyone in this film seems to be working in offices where sexual harassment laws seem to be unknown. For the rest of us, though, 40 Days & 40 Nights is a tepid fantasy that will quickly evaporate without a trace. Well, maybe aside from being an early film in the Shannyn Sossamon oeuvre; her Goth-girl personae is thin, but compelling.

8.4, Peter Hernon

Jove, 1999, 460 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-12713-2

Devastating earthquakes in North America. Only in California, you say? Not necessarily: The New Madrid Seismic Zone has fascinated geologists for years, especially given the documented evidence of a massive series of quakes in that area in 1811 and 1812. According to some, the new Madrid fault will shake again soon. If it does, it’s going to move along most of the American Midwest from Ohio to Mississippi, with catastrophic results…

The New Madrid fault is starting to interest disaster novelists too, as demonstrate thrillers like Walter Jon Williams’s The Rift, Michael Reisig’s The New Madrid Run and Peter Hernon’s 8.4. I’ll cover Williams’ mammoth novel eventually, but if you have to pick and choose between one of the three, Hernon’s thriller is a perfectly serviceable illustration of the devastating potential of an earthquake in America’s heartland.

As you might expect from countless disaster stories, 8.4 follows a familiar template of ever-increasing danger, up to the worst disaster —narrowly averted by an audacious last-minute operation. The protagonists are, of course, maverick earthquake specialists whose alarm cries are not taken seriously until the very last moment. It also helps that one of the heroes has been seriously traumatized by an earthquake before: This time… it’s personal!

I barely jest. 8.4 has many fine qualities, but plotting originality isn’t one of them. In many ways, it doesn’t really matter. Despite its newfound attraction for novelists, the New Madrid Fault is new enough that simply showing the effects of a massive series of quakes in the American Midwest can be satisfying enough without resorting to sophisticated narrative techniques. In short, when the special effects are sufficiently spectacular, the characters and story can take a back seat.

It’s a good thing, then, that 8.4 features some awe-inspiring scenes. Early quakes send the content of a graveyard bubbling to the surface. Major cities are trashed. Civil unrest requires the intervention of the army. A dam bursts open. A nuclear device is used. It’s all deliriously thrilling in the best tradition of disaster stories. (No relation with actual plausibility is implied or required.)

Even so, 8.4‘s level of suggested realism is impressively convincing. Not only do the characters talk the talk (often ridiculously so!), but Hernon thoughtfully integrates a few technical diagrams to help the lectures along and provide some graphical conceptualization. Exposition? Heck, we’re talking about a World Fair’s worth of exposition. Geology buffs will lap it up, as will techno-thriller fans used to multiple paragraphs of technical details. (That is, unless they find major mistakes I couldn’t guess at)

Given the above, it’s no surprise if so few characters actually come to life during the course of the novel. Some subplots are superfluous, especially when they don’t involve spectacular sights. We’re supposed to care about a major betrayal late in the book, but at most, the only effect is a nod of acknowledgement from the reader at the expected kink in the plot.

It takes a special kind of reader to appreciate 8.4, mostly the same type of reader which worships hard science-fiction and authentic military thrillers. The indifferent characters definitely hurt the novel, but not as much as you might expect given the awe-inspiring disasters and the interesting details. Peter Hernon delivers a credible description of an upcoming New Madrid earthquake, but if you want a fully satisfying piece of fiction, well, that remains to be read.