Dead Hand, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2001, 358 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57539-3

In a way, it’s a shame that I only began to write full-length reviews in 1996. By that time, I had already read most of the military thrillers available on the market, and jotting down my impressions could have formed an instructive critical evaluation of that genre, while describing the early evolution of the top authors in the field.

Take Harold Coyle, for instance: He began his career in 1987 with Team Yankee, a story about a NATO/Warsaw pact World War 3 fought in Germany. (In an interesting exercise, Coyle merely borrowed the conflict’s plot from Sir John Hacket’s The Third World War and inserted his characters in the middle of the ground battles.) He would then go on to write exceptional war novels about military engagements in the Gulf (1989’s Sword Point) and Northern Africa (1990’s Bright Star). I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about 1992’s follow-up Trial By Fire, which took place in a Mexico gripped by a second revolution Mexico, or 1994’s Code of Honor, which dealt with a chaotic peacekeeping action in Columbia. On the other hand, I thought that 1993’s The Ten Thousand was one of the best war novels of the nineties.

After that, well, Coyle started writing about the American civil war, and I can’t say that this is an event of much interest to me at this moment. So I waited until he came back to a more modern setting. Dead Hand is actually his second contemporary novel in a while, after God’s Children, which is apparently unavailable these days. But no matter; I was quite happy to read Coyle again after a lengthy hiatus.

Alas, it wouldn’t be a happy reunion.

The problem certainly isn’t with the premise, one of the neatest concepts I’d seen recently: “When an unforeseen asteroid strikes Siberia with the force of a thousand Hiroshimas, it triggers Dead Hand, the ultimate defence mechanism developed by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War… [Russian] ultra-nationalists are willing to use it as blackmail… a NATO special operations unit is dropped into Siberia, racing against time before a global holocaust is unleashed” [back cover]

Wow! Asteroids, nukes and special forces? What can go wrong with these three elements? Well, plenty-especially when the writing’s barely adequate. There are flashes of the old Harold Coyle whenever technical matters are discussed, whenever the action really kicks up and whenever he extols the brotherhood of soldiers.

But if it wasn’t for the name on the cover, I would never had guessed that this is from the same storyteller who knocked my socks off years ago. Dead Hand, as a novel, progresses by spurts and jerks: it never flows as a harmonious whole. In what surely feels like an attempt to dash off a novel too quickly, we get vignettes and snapshots of people doing something, but never a good story that advances naturally. This is fine when Coyle’s still putting all his pieces on the table, but it becomes increasingly frustrating as the narrative progresses.

The writing itself is also a source of frustration. There are essentially no distinct characters worth discussing: All special forces men talk alike, feel alike and don’t generally act like people we’d cheer for. They do stuff; we read, but never out of any interest for the people, but just for the plot which itself becomes less and less urgent as it advances. It gets worse whenever Coyle steps on his soapbox and starts pontificating about soldiers, their place in society and the age-old traditions of warriors. While I normally enjoy such things, they feel awkwardly tacked-on here.

In the end, Dead Hand feels like a wasted occasion. Coyle even mishandles the asteroid impact with a scene that should feel tragic but isn’t (maybe because the people involved are such idiots). I even thought I saw technical mistakes, but then again it’s been a while since I was conversant in military acronyms.

Still, it doesn’t change that I’m very disappointed in Dead Hand. Though I still believe that Coyle is capable of writing great books, this is exactly the type of novel that should act as a warning sign, and surely represents a career low for the author. Tune in sometime in the future for another review confirming or disproving this trend.

Angelmass, Timothy Zahn

Tor, 2001, 430 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87828-1

I suppose it’s an unfortunate coincidence that I ended up reading Angelmass at a time where I was busy thinking about the current state of SF.

What happened is that I was writing a paper on Terror in Hard-SF (yes, I’m that weird) when I noticed SF’s distinct lack of interest in the singularity, the irresistible acceleration of technological change and its impact on society. This ended up meshing well with John Clute’s concept of “First SF” and how he argues that most science-fiction nowadays has become a shared fantasy, based on outdated assumptions and shared clichés. He (and I, up to a certain point where I’m unable to articulate clearly) argues that in an increasingly Science-Fictional world, SF is increasingly looking backward, afraid of true change and what it may mean to us. It’s not a new notion (it’s been embraced by a few people, and even I have previously written about it other contexts), but it hit me again full-force in late September 2002.

Alas, I happened to be reading Angelmass at the time. Let me say outright that Angelmass is a lovely book, with undeniable qualities that I’ll describe in a moment. Don’t go around quoting this review (as if) like a pan of the book, because I actually liked quite a bit.

But sadly, Angelmass is yet another example of the type of current science-fiction that merely treads water in the river of change, not quite swimming backward, but not doing much in a progressive direction either.

Okay, a word about the plot: Angelmass is by and large the story of two people: The first, Jereko Kostas, is a young scientist drafted by his empire’s intelligence service to infiltrate a research facility in another solar system. The second is one “Chandris Lalasha”, a gifted young female con-artist with uncanny skills and a very good reason to run away from her previous residence. Both Jereko and Chandris eventually end up on Seraph, a planet with a unique form of government based on the use of “angels”-harnessed subatomic particles with the power to make everyone within their field of influence entirely truthful and honest. Each working from their end, they will eventually join forces and discover a rather unpleasant truth about the angels…

Angelmass is a perfect example of current commercial pure-SF; a decent read that is unarguably science-fiction and a worthwhile product by a real working professional. Timothy Zahn’s been in the business for a few years, and he knows how to deliver a polished product: Angelmass is progressively compelling and his prose delivers the story simply, with an adequate lack of panache. Special notice must be made of the characters, which are defined with an impressive amount of skill and sympathy. They are our gateway to the story, and they are indeed very good reasons to keep on reading. I particularly liked the portrait of the scientist-spy forced to keep on doing interesting research while simultaneously spying on his colleagues; Zahn’s portrait of scientific investigation is interesting enough, and entirely appropriate in a true science-fiction novel.

There’s not a lot to dislike about Angelmass, in fact. The beginning is a bit slow, and the ending sort of diffuses itself rather than keep building steadily toward the climax. (It’s a good ending, but the lead-up is weaker and longer than it warranted.) The conclusion sort of argues in favour of the bottled genie, which generally annoys me for a whole lot of reasons: How about a synthetic way to re-establish balance?

But in matters of making SF a newly-relevant genre for today’s world, this isn’t it. Angelmass isn’t meant to innovate or present a new vision of the future: It plays heavily on our pre-existing SF constructions: Planetary networks, galactic empires, space ships, etc… All very comfortable, all very classical. Nothing new, nothing big enough to stretch your mind. But maybe I can recommend Zahn’s novel as a solid SF adventure, with true SF content and plenty of good characters, if only for readers not as obsessed about a new mission for Science-Fiction as I was when I was reading Angelmass. Heck, give me a few more months and I might even rave about the book…

Creature Tech, Doug TenNapel

Top Shelf, 2002, 208 pages, C$23.99 tpb, ISBN 1-891830-34-1

Damn, this is a cool book.

If you’re a geek like me, just think of what you think is cool. How about giant space eels? Well, okay, me neither. But how about a shotgun-wielding giant mantis? A young superstar Nobel-prize-winning protagonist? A government warehouse stuffed with dangerous alien technology? Demons? The Shroud of Turin? SDI Lasers? Possessed hellcats? Giant fights, musings on the nature of faith and a non-sappy romance? All of that and more is in Creature Tech, one of the most unique books you’re likely to read this year.

It stars one Dr. Michael Ong, a hip prodigy scientist drafted by the American government to study the contents of some 750-odd crates of alien technology accumulated over the years. Forced to move back to his native small town of Turlock (where he has to deal with his estranged father, an old high-school classmate and the redneck locals), he is soon forced to deal with an immeasurably more dangerous situation: A freak lab accident frees a murderous monster, and by the end of the first fight, Ong is saddled with a parasitic alien life-form with some very curious properties. He’ll need all the help he can get, given that he has also unleashed a ghost with grandiose world-domination plan, demonic help and the Shroud of Turin, an artefact with complete regenerative powers.

Whew! We haven’t even covered the first quarter of the book! All of that and then some is available to you in almost 200 pages. (The book isn’t paginated, which make it a bit difficult to refer to specific passages when commenting the story) Believe me, this is a comic book worth your money-

-what? Oh, yes: Creature Tech is a graphic novel, a standalone comic book. But petty genre-distinctions be damned; this is one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in a while, books, movies or comics put together. In fact, it’s not an accident if Creature Tech reads a lot like a film (for better or worse, depending on your outlook) with a classical monster-movie structure; interviews with the author have revealed that this was a story first written as a script and then adapted to comic-book format when it became obvious that this wasn’t going to be made. (But what is hot is hot, and so the latest rumours have it that Creature Tech‘s been optioned by Hollywood. Go figure.)

No matter, though; as in all media, what counts isn’t as much originality of structure as much as it’s the skill of the execution, and here is where this book truly delivers. Laugh-out-loud-funny dialogues alternate with occasional moments of deep poignancy and even some musings on the nature of faith and rationality. The art isn’t as crisp as I would have liked it to be, but I think it’s got plenty of personality, especially with the moody black-and-white compositions (fabulously enough, scenes that take place at night are inked white-on-black; nice!). Creature Tech fires on all cylinders and delivers pretty much everything you’d want from a story. Thrills! Chills! Romance! Comedy! Run and get it already: This is cool stuff! Don’t fret about the cost: If Creature Tech appeals to you as much as it did to me, you’ll end up re-reading it several times anyway.

As for your reviewer, well, Creature Tech also represents an interesting departure of sorts. After years of reading Internet luminaries like Scott McCloud et al. boldly proclaim that the Internet will broaden the market for comic books by introducing “fringe” readers (like me, I suppose) to worthwhile books by global word-of-mouth, it finally happened to me. An article about Creature Tech by Aint-it-Cool’s trusted “Professor Moriarty” made me aware of Creature Tech‘s existence. I assumed that the book would remain unavailable up here in frosty Ottawa, but was happily proven wrong by a fortuitous visit to the neighbourhood comic book shop.

But regardless of how the book ended in my hands, I just want to thank Doug TenNapel for producing such a cool story. Somehow, I wanted to read such a book for a long time, and there it is!

Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud

Paradox Press, 2000, 231 pages, C$31.00 tpb, ISBN 1-56389-695-8

Panel 1: The reviewer is sitting in front of the computer, but he’s reading Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics rather than type at the keyboard.

Panel 2: Same. The wall clock goes tic-tic-tic-tic…

Panel 3: The Reviewer looks at the reader and quickly snaps the book shut. “Oh, excuse me. I was jotting down references when I just started re-reading everything again.”

Panel 4: Angle on the book’s cover, showing a hex-armed caricature of McCloud handling comic book iconography. “This is such a fascinating book that it’s hard to resist the temptation.”

Panel 5: Close-up on the reviewer’s face, his big angular glasses dominating most of his face. His hair’s much shorter than McCloud, and he does sport kind of an unkempt beard. “It seems a little bit amazing that I’ve managed to review books on a monthly basis for six years without mentioning Scott McCloud’s work at least once.”

Panel 6: A younger Reviewer at the University of Ottawa’s Library, enthralled by McCloud’s Understanding Comics: “I first read McCloud’s first book in 1995, thanks to the good people at the University of Ottawa Library.”

Panel 7: Short collage of Understanding Comics’ iconography, from the “Sequential art” drawing, pictorial vocabulary pyramid, scene transition chart and, of course, McCloud’s simplified alter-ego: “Published in 1993, Understanding Comics became an instant classic. Its influence was deeply felt in areas far removed from simple comics, as it explored the meaning of art, iconography and all sort of neat things.”

Panel 8: The Reviewerat a Coles cash register, circa-1995, plunking down some cash for a copy of Understanding Comics: “I liked it some much, I went out and bought a copy. I end up re-reading portions of it every year or so.”

Panel 9: Back on the Reviewer at his computer: “Unfortunately, though I may be sympathetic to the field, I’m not plugged into the comic book grapevine. I hadn’t even heard about a sequel until recently.”

Panel 10: The Reviewer at the local Silver Snail comic book shop, Creature Tech in hand, pulling a copy of Reinventing Comics off the shelf with a big grin in his face: “Naturally, I took care of that as soon as I could.”

Panel 11: Reinventing Comics partially obscured by the shadow of a well-lit Understanding Comics: “McCloud’s first book was so successful that any follow-up act will suffer from any comparison.”

Panel 12: The reviewer duct-tapes the joint in the middle of an arrow branded with both books’ cover: “But it’s less of a sequel than an expansion on the themes defined in the first volume.”

Panel 13: The Reviewer at a lectern, clenched fist raised (grasping a crumpled X-HUMANS comic book), a huge FIGHT THE STATUS-QUO poster behind him: “While Understanding Comics was an explanation, Reinventing Comics is a call to arms.”

Panel 13: Overweight man-on-the-street muttering “that Superpeople stuff…”: “Now that we know what comics are and what they can be, it’s time to make them what they ought to be.”

Panel 14: A diagram showing McCloud’s “Twelve Revolutions” [P.23]: “To this end, McCloud defines twelve ways to make comics evolves toward increased maturity. While some of them are familiar-”

Panel 15: A university professor showing a comic book to a classroom of students: “-Like comics as literature, art, worthy of public and academic attention,-”

Panel 16: McCloud’s dollar-shaped “Industry Monster” [P.71]: “-others are more technical, like a discussion of creators’ rights and the re-invention of the industry.”

Panel 17: A picture of a randomly-selected crowd in a park: “McCloud also highlights comics’ essential need for diversity of gender, race, status or genre.”

Panel 18: Pixellized low-resolution images of comic books surrounding a fuzzy web of computing devices: “He concludes the book on the three digital revolutions that will soon affect comics, from form to production to delivery.”

Panel 19: Reinventing Comics‘s cover is shown, the right half heavily pixellized: “In fact, this book spends almost half of its length on the digital revolution.”

Panel 20: A shiny Understanding Comics is placed besides a scruffy-looking Reinventing Comics: “Explicitly written in 2000, McCloud’s follow-up dates itself rather quickly whenever discussing technical issues.”

Panel 21: Both books are enclosed in a protective glass. A security guard says “First Editions! Buy your own!”: “But then again, McCloud’s discussion of the issues is mostly theoretical, avoiding specific products and projecting far in the future. It’ll endure, don’t worry.”

Panel 22: McCloud’s “tree of justification” [p.48]: “Especially when parts of it are so good, like his discussion of the roots of art-”

Panel 23: The Reviewer standing in his local Comic Book Shoppe “-or his lucid explanation of the comics business circa 2000, which stands true for other publishing industries as well.”

Panel 24: The Reviewer weights, Blind-Justice-like, both books in his hand: “While Understanding Comics is a work of brilliance, Reinventing Comics is merely very good.”

Panel 25: The Reviewer stands in the middle of four intermingling groups of people: badly-dressed geeks with glasses, lugubrious young people with berets, overweight fan-boys and professorial middle-aged intellectuals. “Like its predecessor, its impact won’t be limited to the comics field, but will spill over in arts, academia and technical circles.”

Panel 26: The Reviewer steps in the local Chapters bookstore: “But there’s one area where it’s far more effective, and it’s in convincing readers that everyone can contribute something to the next comics revolution.”

Panel 27: The Reviewer picks up a book at the Graphic Novels section. Prominently displayed are copies of Ghost World, Watchmen, Sam & Max, Transmetropolitan, Doonesbury and -why not?- Small Favors: “I mean, I know my comic book classics, but is it enough?”

Panel 28: The Reviewer, his find in hand, walks past a Comic Books section overstuffed with X-People, X-Stuff, X-Super, X-Steroids, X-13, X-Crement, X-Asperating and other muscle-bound titles: “I’ve got friends with forty-bucks-a-week habits at the comic book shop, but are they truly comic book fans, or just addicted to super heroic power fantasies?”

Panel 29: The Reviewer is stuck waiting in line at the check-out counter: “Is this one of these cases where if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem?”

Panel 30: The Revi
ewer hands a copy of Maus to the cashier, specifying “Gift-wrapping, please!”: “If so, I’d like to help.”

Deadly Décisions, Kathy Reichs

Pocket, 2000, 368 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02836-7


Another year, another Kathy Reichs novel.

Even before opening the book, I knew what to expect. Cue a premise stolen from Québec’s newspapers. Cue Temperance Brenner, champ forensic pathologist, suckiest character judge ever. Cue one of her relatives conjured out of thin air, visiting Montréal just in time to get killed, brainwashed, kidnapped or otherwise hurt by Brennan’s latest cause du jour. Cue plot “twists” that are blindingly obvious to everyone but Brennan, self-imposed gratuitously dangerous situations, silly coincidences and implausible links between characters and the case.

Sigh. Onward.

After riffing off the sordid “Temple de l’ordre solaire” sect case that so dominated Québec news for a while in Death du Jour, Reichs here takes on the biker gang wars that ripped through the province in the late nineties. It is, granted, a solid premise: In real-life, the gang wars left behind dozens of dead bikers, taking with them a few innocent victims that happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong moment. (Indeed, most Quebec criminal statistics include a little asterisk during the late nineties specifically excluding biker-related violent deaths)

From the first few pages, it’s obvious that Reichs is once again liberally borrowing from headlines: The first few pages describe how a little girl is brought in for autopsy, an unfortunate victim of a misguided shooting. The novel even explicitly refer to the famous real-life 1995 Fontaine murder, in which a young boy had died as he was bicycling near a car that had been wired to explode on ignition. [P.28]

That’s the first of Reich’s many, many tics that pop up in this novel. This time, it’s her nephew who comes up north for a visit, arriving just in time to be befriended by the bad guys and dragged to the finale’s bloody shootout. Oh well. There’s also a “plot twist” involving a biker mole that anyone with half a brain can see coming as soon as the mole is ominously introduced. There are awful coincidences in which parts of a victim are to be found not only in Montréal -the series’ main location- but also in North Carolina, from where -surprise!- Brennan just happens to be.

I wouldn’t mind if that only happened once in a while. But this is Reich’s third novel, and the silly coincidences involving members of her family and/or North Carolina are already becoming a regular occurrence. And I still haven’t mentioned the usual stooopid scene in which Brennan does something completely moronic (and out of character) in order to advance the plot. (In this case, she jogs to a biker bar.)

After my kvetching, you’d be justified in asking why I keep reading her darn novels even as they evidently annoy me so much. The answer is, of course, that Brennan’s stuff all takes place in Montréal against a predominantly French-Canadian background. Whether her usual shtick drives me nuts or not is mitigated by seeing a major mystery series taking place in my backyard, so to speak. In Deadly Décisions, I was occasionally able to picture exactly where Brennan was, based on my visits at these places. This outsider’s view on Québec is one of the main draw of the series for me, despite everything else.

It helps, of course, that for all her faults, Reichs writes books with a definite narrative drive. However easy and cheap some of her plot shortcuts may be, there is a real desire to read forward late in the night. That, by itself, is more important than densely plotted novels about which I couldn’t care less. Plus, the technical details are a lot of fun for Hard-SF/techno-thriller fans like me. Am I waiting for Reich’s next novel? Well, of course I am.


The Wallace and Gromit Trilogy (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Wallace and Gromit Trilogy</strong> (1993)

(In theaters, September 2002) I call classic! I call comedy! I call genius! I even call for you all to rush out and get a copy of the DVD if you haven’t yet seen the “Wallace and Gromit” trilogy. A series of three animated shorts about the adventures of an inventor and his dog, Wallace And Gromit works really well on a wide variety of audiences. While their first feature (“A Grand Day Out”; fun but forgettable) leaves me mostly unaffected, their second one (“A Close Shave”; classic sheep comedy!) and the third (“The Wrong Trousers”: it even throws in a penguin!) are pure genius. The sheep-formation and toy-train-pursuit sequences alone are worth rushing out to your nearest video store. I won’t spoil anything more… just go, already!

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being a Model, Roshumba Williams & Anne Marie O’Connor

Alpha, 1999, 391 pages, C$25.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863190-0

I think that I know what you’re thinking: “Why has he read a book about becoming a model?”

Hey, my mind works in mysterious ways, and it doesn’t take much more than a three-dollar book promising to reveal all secrets of the modeling field to interest me. I know next to nothing about that particular profession, but I can’t resist the attraction of random arcane knowledge. So I grabbed the book. And read it. And will now review it. You can send your complaints to our service department.

At least I’ll admit that that I’m not the target audience for this material. This Guide is very explicitly written for teenage girls. It’s hard to ignore questions like “Are you old enough to A>Cross the street, B>Baby-sit, C>Drive, or D> Get your ears pierced?” [Front Inset] as a potential clue to the desired market for this book. Heck, before reading the book, I didn’t even have any idea who was Roshumba Williams!

It turns out that she’s a relatively well-known black supermodel with an extensive portfolio of work. If we’re to believe the cover blurb, her years of experience in the field have given her the depth of knowledge required to explain the industry to interested young girls. Indeed, that’s what this Guide does: It introduces the business in general terms, then describe how a model can make it to the top, stay there and diversify her interests (financial, artistic and otherwise) in preparation for her modeling post-career.

This is a book meant, like many of the other Guides I’ve read, to be bought by a beginner, re-read by a rising star and re-written by a seasoned pro. In passing, Williams gives a surprisingly complete view of the fashion industry, from the slang to the potential pitfalls, war anecdotes and unexpected rewards.

It’s not as if she pulls any punches. She’s brutally honest in what it takes to be a model (work, work, work and, oh, don’t apply if you’re less than 5’8”), how it’s not easy money and which kind of predators cluster around models. There’s a chapter on substance abuse, excessive shopping, eating disorders and parasitic boyfriends. Fittingly enough for the target audience, there’s even a chapter that provides advice for parents!

For chumps like me with no previous knowledge of the fashion biz, Williams’ discussion of the seven modeling types, the details of a model shoot, the classification of “fashion markets” (Ottawa definitely isn’t!) and the mechanics of runaway modeling are fascinating beyond belief. I would have appreciated many more pictures, but I guess there’s probably a whole bunch of licensing issues involved in illustrating her subject matter. Still, as a guy I can only bitch about the fact that she spends pages discussing supermodels without once showing us what they look like.

With these kind of “celebrity” books, it’s always a risky thing to try to guess how much of the book she really wrote, and which part was put together by “the second writer”, in this case Anne Marie O’Connor. Not matter here, though; Whether Williams wrote most of it on her photo-shoot high chair or O’Connor re-wrote substantial portions of it in her overstuffed office, the whole Guide is infused with Williams’ personality and certainly feels as if she wrote most of it. There are a few exceptions (some material on agencies feels as if it’s adapted from a magazine article), but as someone with closer affective ties to writers than to supermodels, I’d like to congratulate Anne Marie O’Connor on, presumably, a job well done.

Keep in mind, though, that even if I may feel informed and satisfied by the book, I lack the knowledge required to put a stamp of approval on the content of the book; I’ll leave those reviews to pros of the field. But I certainly feel as if I learned a lot from the Guide, and intend to refer to it once in a while, assuming that I’ll eventually need urgent fashion reference information.

I’m just having a hard time picturing my visitors’ reaction to seeing that book on my reference shelves, though…

The Tuxedo (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Tuxedo</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, September 2002) I’m a huge Jackie Chan fan, but even that particular indulgence fades fast when confronted to such dreck as The Tuxedo. A dumb premise handled without flair hasn’t stopped Chan in the past, but this time, the whole massive apparatus of Hollywood seems to have damaged his capacity to wow even the most lenient audiences. Sure, Chan’s not getting younger, but it’s about time he realized that fact on something other than a purely physical level: His character here might be sympathetic if he was a scrawny twenty year old, but as Chan has sped past fifty, his lecherous low-life antics feel all wrong for the role he’s chosen to play. The other thing that make The Tuxedo so hideously miscast is that the gimmick (a high-tech tuxedo that takes control of your body for amazing feats) doesn’t work on someone we’re already expecting to triumph over all. Owen Wilson would have been a fine lead. Ed Norton would have been a great lead. But Jackie Chan? C’mon, we’re already expecting him to beat’em all up. Surprisingly enough, Jennifer Love Hewitt is one of the few things that actually does work well. (But then again, excuse me as I once again revel in the memory of seeing her as a damp wavy brunette with glasses… okay, sorry) The rest of the film is a big dumb American action film: Few laughs, few cool scenes, stupid gags, nonsensical developments… the list goes on. Jason Isaacs (a fine, fine choice as the next James Bond) is taken out of the game way too early, the end fight isn’t as impressive as some of the preceding scenes and frankly, the film’s just written for retarded kids. The Tuxedo is, without a doubt, Chan’s biggest American dud since his Rush Hour breakthrough. Here’s hoping he does better the next time.

Trapped (2002)

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

(In theaters, September 2002) A recrudescence of kidnapping reports in the media during summer 2002 forced this thriller to be released without fanfare, quietly dumped in theatres without much publicity surrounding it. This is quite unfortunate, because Trapped is an effective thriller, a good suspense film featuring good performances and a tight script. Kevin Bacon shines (as usual) in his portrayal of an experienced kidnapper who has perfected the crime until it becomes “a machine based on fear”. What he doesn’t know is that his latest attempt won’t go so well when both mother and father turn against him. There’s plenty of tension here, helped by a mechanically apt script that cranks the suspense like it’s supposed to do. The first half of the film is better than the second, as a “personal” motivation comes to ruin the more terrifying business-as-usual attitude of the antagonist. The film also does change tone radically in its last few minutes, with a thrilling blam-bang final sequence that teaches a few things to most of the “pure” action movies of the year. There is a lot to like in Trapped, especially when you’re not expecting much from it. Watching a nude Courtney Love being tortured by Stuart Townsend might not be anyone’s idea of a good time, but that particular scene is only one of the few interesting surprises about a film that should have done much, much better at the box-office than it has.

Swimfan (2002)

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

(In theaters, September 2002) Say what you want about this being a “Fatal Attraction teen rip-off” and you’d be right, but it doesn’t really mitigate the surprise that this is, in fact, an adequate thriller. Sure, the dialogues are lame, motivations are nebulous, plot contrivances abound and you can see so-called “developments” coming a mile away. But everything is helmed with some confidence, even some professionalism, and the overall result can hold anyone’s attention in the most basic way. Jesse Bradford manages to keep his dignity, but once again it’s baby-faced Erica Christensen (as the motiveless antagonist) who steals the show with a flashy role. Do try to ignore, though, the super-technology, the omnipotence of the antagonist and the ridiculous “artistic” touches. The plot steals liberally from every psycho-bitch film ever made, even though none of the teen characters have much of a psychological background (nor deep enough affective stakes) in order to make it work. (Act like a pretentious cinema critic, and you’ll see this as post-modern irony or kids playing stalker-dress-up. In this case, is it characters pretending to be older, or the audience wishing they were?) No surprises here, except for the fact that it plays much better than you’d expect it to.

Scooby-Doo (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Scooby-Doo</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, September 2002) This constantly skirts the edge between being an earnestly dumb kid’s film and becoming a witty take-off for adults. Pot jokes (“My name’s Mary-Jane / Really? That’s, like, my favorite name!”), self-referential humour (“you’re only good at being captured!”) and some risky cleavage (but then again, Daphne was always the hottest) pepper the script as if someone had hastily re-written it without the producer’s consent. It’s a shame that this vein couldn’t have been pushed even further, because as it stands now, Scooby-Doo is pretty much a dud. The “Scooby-Doo” creature design is one of the ugliest things to disgrace the silver screen this year, and the film features unconvincing sets that just seem thrown together without effort. Sure, the film moves with a certain expediency and doesn’t leave you too bored until the excruciating finale, but still… I suppose it could have been much, much worse, but that’s praising the film with very slight compliments. I suppose that the DVD won’t even restore the long-rumoured Velma/Daphne kiss….

Men With Brooms, Diane Baker Mason

McArthur & Co., 2002, 314 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 1-55278-263-8

Winter 2002 was a good season for Canadian sports. After two major Olympic successes in hockey, curling was consecrated as a hip sport with the release of a major motion picture about the sport. MEN WITH BROOMS was a Canadian attempt at churning out a romantic sports comedy in the Hollywood mould, though with a purely Canadian flavour.

But for such a nationalistic endeavour, the marketing techniques were blatantly stolen from the Americans: Catchy movie trailer, media saturation techniques through interviews, TV spots, triumphant articles on “the new Canadian cinema”, cross-media soundtrack promotion and, heavens, a paperback novelization of the script.

As an object, it’s definitely a curio: It’s amusing to hold in one’s hand such a quirky object, an attempt at combining crass materialism with literary respect. Indeed, the very physical incarnation of the book is strange; printed on whiter paper than usual, in a slightly wider and sturdier format than most paperbacks, Men With Brooms is something new for the Canadian publishing industry.

But enough about the object. The narrative inside is compelling enough. Surprise, it’s about loners trying to regain the affection and respect of others through competitive rock-sliding. Fans of curling who loved the film will go nuts for this novelization, given that it sports such one-liners as “To encourage the rock, which no doubt would have preferred to be left alone enjoying being a rock, men with brooms run in strong of the wildly spinning and possibly nauseous rock, sweeping… like deranged housewives.” [P.1-2] If there’s an area where both book and film excel, it’s in cheerleading for the sport. (As for describing curling matches, well, the film version is far more exciting. But then again, that comment applies to almost any sport, at the possible exception of chess.) The other area where both succeed well is in some shameless flag-waving: It would be a touch too presumptuous to credit Men With Brooms with resurgent nationalism, but most Canadians will, in fact, feel great about their country after reading such a distinctly nationalist novel.

Diane Baker Mason does a great job, not only at faithfully adapting the screenplay, but in adding several details, character traits and even whole scenes to pad out the screenplay and explain the action. Whether some of those scenes were written but later cut from the film or a product of the author’s skill is something we’ll find out on the upcoming DVD, but in the meantime they do a great job at clarifying the action, deepening the characters or simply adding to the story. Stuckmore’s trip back to Long Bay and “Joanne”’s back-story are the most obvious additions, but small details here and there add up to a nice adaptation.

The passage to prose also seems to even out some of the film’s most incongruous tone shifts. Film is a tricky medium, and a director never quite knows what he’s going to end up with. Scenes that should be funny aren’t, and a sad scene sandwiched between two comedy sequences can have an effect on an entire section of the film. Here, though, the consistent voice of the author smoothes some of the rougher edges in a more harmonious whole.

All of the above doesn’t even mention how much fun it is to read this novel. Men With Brooms is the kind of book, movie tie-in or not, that’s just wonderful to enjoy. Best read besides the fireplace on a cold, cold Canadian Winter night, it’s hard to say something disparaging about this novelization, even considering usual prejudices against commercialism and marketing. Time will tell if Men With Brooms finds a place as an enjoyable work of Canadian goodness, but as for this reviewer, it already is.

One Hour Photo (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">One Hour Photo</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, September 2002) This is Robin Williams’ third “evil” role of 2002, and it’s probably the one in which he disappears most completely. (While I did like his turn in Insomnia, it wasn’t all that different from, say, Good Will Hunting. In Death To Smoochy, of course, he simply let loose with his stand-up persona gone pure wacko.) The film itself is so-so, but his role is such that it’s remarkably easy to forget that “Sy the Photo Guy” is played by Robin Williams. He’s one of the few interesting things in this story of a desperately lonely man whose fantasy life threatens to spill over and actually hurt someone. The script can be lauded for not turning into a prototypical “guys goes nuts” structure, but on the other hand, One Hour Photo doesn’t do much with the elements it’s choosing to use. Some musings about the nature of memory as it relates to photography are not sufficient for entertainment, and the blurry motivations of the protagonist, coupled with his inexplicable lack of professionalism (you’d expect such a character to scrupulously cover his tracks by, say, paying for everything rather than risk his job) are a bit mystifying in this context. Then there’s a creepy nightmare scene that’s effective, but seems misplaced in the center of the film. The ending is also a bit of a head-scratcher, leaving no clear resolution to the central conflict. (to put it simply, where do you think the character is going from here?) All in all, One Hour Photo works, but just so. It’s not a fully satisfying experience, and its deficiencies can overshadow its strengths.

The Four Feathers (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Four Feathers</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, September 2002) It’s hard to see where a swashbuckling, romantic Victorian-era adventure could go wrong with Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) at the helm and such fine actors as Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson in the cast. But it does. It crashes miserably, wallows in interminable desert sequences and infuriates by its pretentiousness. The film is, save for one or two good battle sequences, dull-dull-dull. It’s overlong, badly structured so that the highlights are at the middle rather than the end, doesn’t present characters we can cheer for and don’t do much to erase or subvert the insufferable colonialist mentality of the time. The final battle, which should be a simple fistfight between two men, is transformed in an overblown confrontation using plenty of filtered angles, slow-motion sand throwing and a full orchestral score of Arabic influence. It gets tiresome quite quickly. Actors, director, cinematographer; all are wasted in this unnecessary film that feels about twice as long at it should be.

City By The Sea (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">City By The Sea</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, September 2002) Very gritty, dark, pseudo-realist crime drama starring (even in absentia) four generations of fathers and sons on various sides of the law. Set against a moody tattered town on the eve of self-destruction, this film wants to be an exploration of similarly-damaged characters constantly wrestling with questions of right and wrong against difficult circumstances. Am I being too profound, here? Because frankly, there isn’t a whole lot to be amused about in City By The Sea, a dour film that does its best to sap all energy out of its premise. Pretty much everything takes place at night, with haunted, tired characters that look like they could enjoy vacations. (Indeed, one of them can’t wait to get to Key West.) After Road To Perdition, this is yet another 2002 crime film trying to tie in all sort of symbolism through its fixation on paternity. It works maybe too well, bordering on a rather repulsive misogyny: All three of the film’s female protagonists are depicted as quitters who would rather completely abandon the male heroes rather than help them out. (It’s not an accident if the sunny happy coda doesn’t have a single feminine presence: They all disappeared from the story some time before.) Robert de Niro looks haggard and hurt, and except for James Franco’s beaten-up role, that’s pretty much the only standout of the film performance-wise. If you’re looking for a depressing crime drama, go ahead, have what you’re looking for… but otherwise, pass!