(In theaters, August 2002) Would you willingly see a subtitled period Chinese film describing how a man and a woman decide not to have an affair? Seriously; how much money would it take to make you see this? How about I throw in a fifteen-minutes-long epilogue that doesn’t lead anywhere? What if you have to see two great actors (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) do nothing during all that time? Would you mind a bunch of moody shots without whom this would become a short film? Can you feel my pain, now? Good.
(On DVD, August 2002) Innocuous, rather inoffensive gardening comedy starring convicts. Clive Owen is good as the lead protagonist (he’ll be James Bond one day, I swear!) and the rest of the actors hold their own. It’s a low-budget film, but an enjoyable one in The Full Monty tradition of British underdog comedies. There isn’t much here that is memorable or profound, but it’s a good time at the movies. The DVD is a bare-bones edition.
(In theaters, August 2002) There are times when I worry about seeing too many movies. The usual casual moviegoer sees maybe five to ten movies a year and likes most of them because, hey, he doesn’t know better. Big-time cinephiles such as myself easily see five times as many movies and feel their critical judgment consequently affected. Years ago, I would have hated Full Frontal, with its deliberately-muddy cinematography, non-linear structure, very loose narrative coherency and frustrating improvised dialogue. But I was surprised by how willingly I went with Full Frontal. In many ways, it’s another entry in what others have called the “Hollywood Home Movie” genre. But unlike The Anniversary Party, Full Frontal is funny. And unlike Time Code, it’s not quite as much in love with its own cleverness. We can almost feel writer/director Stephen Soderbergh nudging us in the ribs throughout; “Get it? Get it? It’s all a joke!” (Indeed, Soderbergh himself appears in a quirky movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie moment, his face hidden behind a “censored” black box.) Full Frontal is a bunch of very loosely-connected vignettes. Some work; some don’t. I still ended up laughing more here than at Austin Powers 3: Goldmember. But don’t try to link everything together too much; many scenes simply don’t fit together anyway. See Full Frontal for the industry jokes, the tons of cameos or the edgy feel of a film made without studio supervision. Just don’t expect ordinary, safe material.
(On TV, August 2002) Interesting film that transcends its geeky origins to become a triumphant document on a pathetic filmmaker. Though the historical accuracy of the film can be taken apart with some elementary research (the screenplay mostly telescopes longer periods in shorter amounts of time and conveniently forgets a few intervening events.), it’s hard to dislike the sympathetic portrait of an anti-genius like Wood. What separates the film from a simple funny biography is the haunting (Oscar-winning) performance of Martin Landau as the dying Bela Lugosi. Acting credits are excellent throughout the picture, with a bunch of known names here and there. (Particular props to Johnny Depp as Wood, though I was oddly reminded of Steve Buscemi at times) Don’t miss the delightful opening credit sequence. This is an essential film for cheap-SF geeks, and a worthwhile one for everyone else.
(On DVD, August 2002) It doesn’t take much to deliver a fun buddy crime comedy, and that’s exactly what Robert Gallo does, after a laborious start, with Double Take. Granted, the film sank at the box-office, but once you get past the irritating opening, the film settles down as one of the twistiest fun thrillers since Wild Things. (It never attains the earlier film’s trash-thriller brilliance, of course. The lack of sex scenes alone is enough to take it down one notch.) While Eddie Griffin can often grate, you get used to him. Orlando Jones is a star throughout, though, as he switches comfortably from a chic Wall Street businessman to a loudmouth from the projects who just wants some Malt-Liquor. This whole theme of appearance versus reality is Double Take‘s motif, given all the twists and counter-twists in the film. The film’s internal logic eventually comes to make sense after many exasperated gasps from the audience, but the external plausibility (ie; why go through all the trouble?) remains highly doubtful. In any case, the filmmakers on the DVD commentary track take as much time self-congratulating themselves than discussing the film itself. But that’s fine, because the film is a little surprise, a solid buddy comedy that holds up rather well to a commentary-enhanced second viewing. It grows on you. Naturally, it helps that the film stars three luscious black women, with particular nods to Garcelle Beauvais, who appears in full lingerie in one of the film’s most regrettably cut scene, now included on the DVD for your viewing pleasure. Also worth viewing on the DVD: A surprisingly interesting “filmmaker’s diary” making-of feature that gives a real feeling of being on a movie set.
New Riders, 2002, 211 pages, C$52.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1074-0
I’m not sure why or how, but I have long been fascinated by design. Whether graphical design, web design or pure design (ie; the thousand ways to make a chair), I can be endlessly entertained by the intricacies of putting a detail here rather than there and the effect this can have on an overall piece. (Actually, I lied about not have any idea about the source of my design fascination: I suspect that it stems from my problem-solving fetish, which is a large part of what design is all about.)
Alas, as a quick look at my web site will reveal, I’m not a very good designer myself. I don’t have much imagination, and what I do best is either do a lot with nothing or slavishly copy whatever’s been done before. “Efficient” is one way of characterizing my work. “Boring” is another.
Still, I approached Curt Cloninger’s Fresh Styles for Web Designers with something approximating glee. I looked forward to reading it with the same feeling I have whenever I’m about to read a crunchy good SF novel from a reliable author. Simply paging through the book was difficult, as I wanted to just dive in and read everything at once.
Fresh Styles is a book-length expansion on an article available at http://www.lab404.com/dan/, a list of twelve new “cutting edge” styles to help designers break out of the curiously similar web sites you can find just about everywhere on the web. Cloninger doesn’t pay much heed to usability concerns here, usually justifying his position by the idea that personal sites can afford to be slightly user-unfriendly, and some commercial sites do, in fact, demand a slightly edgier look. In any case, anyone looking for usability design tips should read another book.
So Fresh Styles details ten new and unusual styles one could conceivably adopt and modify for one’s own purposes. The styles range from soft and cuddly to harsh and industrial, with everything from simple and minimal to complex and dirty in between. Though there is some technical advice here and there, this is more of an inspirational book than an instructional one. Indeed, it helped me come to grip with my own style, which I’ve come to recognize as an inept take on HTMinimaLism (“Say it! Say it loud! I’m an HTMinimaList and I’m proud!”)
Overall, this is a fun and inspiring tour: The design styles covered by Cloninger are indeed fresh (on or off the web) and he does explain a few of the techniques used in creating these styles, in addition to the philosophy (or desired effect) behind them. The book offers proof that everything old can be new again, and a simple exploration of past design trends can be applied in a fresh way to a new medium. The book is abundantly illustrated, so there are quite a few examples for the reader to enjoy.
Maybe not enough of them, though. In fact, my single biggest criticism of the book is flattering; I would have appreciated more stuff. For wannabee designers such as myself who excel in replicating styles, it’s also a bit of a bother that Cloninger doesn’t spend more time qualifying and explaining why and how to realize a design. One (or two) site does not a movement make! But that’s unlikely to bother more seasoned designers who will use the book as a springboard toward something wholly different.
Considering the book from a wider perspective, it can also stand in as a quick tour of the web circa late 2001, at a point where the medium began to acquire an artistic maturity of its own. It’s easy to be respectable when there’s VC money around, but once the big bucks and the glamour’s been stockbrokered away, that’s when the medium’s resilience shows through. The design philosophies in Fresh Styles are demonstrations that, yes, the web is a bold and new medium that just won’t go away, and might actually thrive best once the dot-com hype has died down.
But more prosaically, Fresh Styles is an all-too-rare glimpse in the mind of working design professionals, beyond the dirt-common “design” manuals that are really HTML coding primers. I’m glad this book exists, and I’m even happier that I’ve read it. Now I want a sequel with more styles, more details and more design considerations. As soon as possible!
(On DVD, August 2002) Unlike many dour Hong Kong action films, this one doesn’t waste any time pointing out its amusing nature, as it begins with a playful fight scene in which star Tony Leung dispatches a series of opponent in a way which would make James Bond feel ashamed. In fact, the martial art scenes in Tokyo Raiders often feel like riffs on Jackie Chan’s antics, including a male/female fight accompanied with a tango-inspired musical piece. Acting highlights go to Leung for his portrait of a dapper action man, but it’s no secret that the action scenes are the film’s main selling points. The highlight is the middle fight/chase sequence, which involves a golf-club battle, a chase using a motorized skateboard and a deliriously fun sequence aboard a car-freighter truck. The closing boat chase underneath one of Tokyo’s highways is also impressive. It’s a shame, though, that foreigners such s myself won’t properly appreciate the cultural shock of Chinese characters in Japan. (There are a few scenes where characters have to translate for each other, which of course doesn’t come across very well in English!) The DVD includes a fluffy making-of documentary which proves to be eerily similar to its Western counterparts. (Interestingly enough, the subtitles of the documentary don’t exactly match the subtitles of the feature…) Despite some lengths and a touch too much pathos in a film that is otherwise quite lighthearted, Tokyo Raiders is one of the most polished, accessible Hong Kong action films of the year. Don’t miss it!
(In theaters, August 2002) I’m getting too good at this thriller shtick. Barely a few minutes in the film, I pegged the “secret killer” at the character’s oh-so-innocuous first scene. The rest of the film didn’t hold many other surprises; the procedural details are fascinating, but any sagacious viewer will be ahead of the lead protagonist by minutes. Clint Eastwood is always interesting enough to watch, but here he overdoes the “labored breathing” act. (It doesn’t help that his casting destroys most of the story’s initial dynamics. Here, we’re more concerned about him breaking his hip falling down than popping a blood vessel in his transplanted heart.) Some of the supporting actors are fine (Wanda de Jesùs! Fiiine!), but others seem to be there only to overact. Clichés abound, culminating -of course- in the climactic shootout. Plus you have to stomach both a series of awful “deep and meaningful” double-entendres about blood, hearts and such, but also a romantic scene between Eastwood and someone still thirty years away from retirement age. There are enough good things in Blood Work to keep you interested, but too many bad things about it to keep you from seeing it in the first place. You might as well wait until it plays on TV.
Ace, 2000, 218 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 0-441-00769-4
(Read in French as Le Message, translated by Michel Pagel)
Is it just me, or have Joe Haldeman’s latest few books been uniformly disappointing? Forever Peace unexplainably won the Hugo award despite reading like a first novel from a none-too-gifted neophyte. Forever Free was one of the worst SF novels of the past few years. If you want to be generous, you can say that lately, Haldeman has been churning books whose first half may seem promising, but whose ultimate effect is disappointing.
He doesn’t break out of this rut with The Coming, a short novel that nominally deals with that most familiar SF situation; first contact.
Oh, it’s not your usual average SF novel; from the first few pages, it’s easy to be fascinated by the narration, which flows almost seamlessly from one character to another in a manner reminiscent of the first few minutes of Brian de Palma’s film SNAKE EYES. As characters intersect on the First of October 2054, our viewpoint shifts, efficiently establishing a series of back-stories in a small academic Florida town.
Haldeman’s usual brand of cynicism soon takes over, and we’re once more thrown in a mildly dystopian future: Corruption is everywhere, politicians are stupid (and dangerous), the environment is screwed, homosexuality has been outlawed (even though the market for VR pornography seems to be almost mainstream; hmmm?), Europe is on its way to another major war and, generally speaking, you wouldn’t want to live there.
In the middle of all that comes a message from a source obviously not of this Earth. The message? “WE’RE COMING”. Earth has until January first to get ready. So, what is it? Aliens, a hoax or something else?
The “something else” proves to be easily guessable and rather underwhelming. But that’s not the single biggest failing of The Coming, which is too often undistinguishable from the most ordinary crime thriller. Haldeman pads a novella with subplots that are scarcely relevant to the main theme or the Science-Fiction genre and the overall effect feels dull and disconnected.
As the first day ends and a short summary of the rest of October 2054 is fed to us, the cycle repeats itself for the second third of the book (November first) and then the third (December first, with some space left over for January first). Haldeman’s viewpoint-changing conceit, however, is less rigorous in the latter parts of the book, with a jarring effect on the unity of the book. The sense of rolling urgency created by the switching viewpoint is also lessened by the discontinuities. It’s so much fun to see an author try an original stylistic device that’s it’s a let-down to see him stop whenever he feels like it.
The other fascinating thing about the style of the book is how we eventually witness catastrophic events through media screens and the viewpoint of people scarcely connected to the action. Overall, I’m rather satisfied by Haldeman’s stylistic experiment in The Coming, if rather less impressed by what he does with it and how much potential he squanders on useless trivia, or completely gratuitous (and unpleasant) scenes. It doesn’t help that some plotlines are simply abandoned in the latter third of the book without much of an explanation. Coupled with the stupid rushed ending of Forever Free, it suggests that Haldeman’s writing is becoming seriously affected by his need to pay the mortgage.
On the other hand, well, it’s a quick read and a short book, most probably available from your local library. If ever you’re in need of something quick to read, it might just be what you’re looking for. Like many of Haldeman’s latest few books, it might not be good or satisfying or pleasant, but it’s certainly interesting and fascinating to dissect afterward.