The Straight Story (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Straight Story</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, January 2002) There are hundreds of jokes to make about an old guy driving a lawnmower across the country, but don’t worry; you will have time to tell them all during the interminable length of The Straight Story, the most conventional -and most lifeless- film ever directed by weirdmaster David Lynch. Here, however, the tepid pace of the film is announced in the very first scene and rarely lets up. You’ll be screaming “No! It can’t be this dull!” in pure futility, given that it is this dull. There’s a pretty good 80-minute film in these 130 minutes, but you’ll have to be severely narcoleptic to find any enjoyment in The Straight Story as it is. To be fair, Richard Farnsworth makes a sympathetic protagonist and the sheer odd nature of his endeavour is admirable. But you can only see so many unrelated scenes before screaming “enough!” and this film reaches that limit only thirty minutes in. I can’t wait to see a non-director’s cut in which the fat is trimmed away. In the meantime, I’ll stay home.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mulholland Dr.</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, January 2002) Repeat after me; the emperor has no clothes. It’s not because it’s hard to understand that it’s smart. Heck, it’s not because it’s smart that it’s necessarily hard to understand; in this case, it’s because it’s incoherent that it’s difficult to understand. Art is partly about presenting complex emotions to a wide audience, and that’s a test that Mulholland Dr. fails miserably. The first half of the film promises an oddly eerie thriller with at least three different threads. But the second half essentially gives up on trying to piece any of this together and instead giggles madly as it throws nonsense on the screen. Too bad; for all his substantial faults, director David Lynch is adept at presenting strong individual scenes and coaxing good performances out of his actors. It’s too bad that all of it resolves to nonsense or at the very least a disjointed semblance of an oniric “explanation”. It doesn’t help that the film has considerable lengths. By the end, maybe you’ll be like me and my sister, whispering at the screen “We don’t care, David Lynch.” “You can’t make us care, David Lynch.” “Not even your gratuitous naked lesbian sex scene can make us care, David Lynch.”

Her Name, Titanic, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1988 (1990 reprint), 283 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-70892-2

Regular readers of these reviews will certainly remember my overall affection for the work of Charles Pellegrino. Here’s one author who, in my humble opinion, has rarely done wrong. (Notwithstanding his curiously inept Star Trek novel) Over the past few years, I have read one Pellegrino book after another, always managing to avoid his best-known work, Her Name, Titanic.

After reading the “sequel”, Ghosts of the Titanic, this seemed like an increasingly ridiculous situation. Fortunately, I was able to secure a copy of his 1988 bestseller and dug in, knowing that I’d get my time’s worth of pure enjoyment.

Once again, I wasn’t disappointed. Her Name, Titanic is fully the equal of Pellegrino’s other non-fiction books. Ghosts of the Titanic had a scattershot approach to the subject, leading me to speculate a more strictly chronological run-through of the voyage for the first volume. Fortunately, this isn’t so.

In fact, if you want an overview of the events surrounding the Titanic, you’d be better off watching the film. (Though the graphic inset between pages 92-93 will do just fine) Her Name, Titanic is as much about the 1985 re-discovery of the sunken relic as it is about the 1912 catastrophe. We’ll spend as much time with Robert Ballard and the Argo as with the ill-fated passengers of the ocean liner.

Perhaps more interestingly, we’ll spend all of this time with Charles Pellegrino himself. Her Name, Titanic is the centerpiece of his literary output; all of his other books refer to it in one way or another. (This is unfair actually; all of Pellegrino’s books refer to each other in what are often very, very twisted ways.) His books are unlike any others in that they present a glimpse in the scientific strangeness that’s just lurking beneath the surface of our humdrum lives. History isn’t something that happens in the past for Pellegrino; he’ll uncover jaw-dropping links between seemingly disparate events and present them with a passion that will leave you breathless. His writing style is very deliberately dramatic, though never without a deeply respectful quality. You might not be moved to tears by Her Name, Titanic, but don’t be surprised to find a few lumps in your throat.

The tangents explored by Pellegrino as almost as fascinating as the events themselves. Pellegrino is a man of eclectic interests, and he effortlessly links the Titanic to World War One, to the Challenger Shuttle disaster, to the life of Bob Ballard, to Apollo 11, to obsession. He admits in the introduction that he’s become obsessed with the ship, and this is, perhaps most of all, a book about this obsession. (Indeed, one of the most memorable passages of the book is a conversation with members of the Alvin crew who don’t share this obsession; “It was a job and we did it the best we could.” [P.221]

But don’t worry; by the end of the book, you’ll share Pellegrino’s fascination; I certainly did. His effective writing style, love for oddball details, ability to effectively present important information and keenness of mind will have you reading well after the point when you should reasonably stop. Heavens help you if you have the sequel nearby after you’re done with Her Name, Titanic, because you won’t be able to stop. Any Titanic buff pretty much has to read this one, and even casual reader will want to grab this book. It’s powerful writing, and memorable reading.

Gosford Park (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gosford Park</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, January 2002) From the plot description (In 1932 England, a rich industrialist is killed during a weekend-long hunting party), you might come to expect a comfortable murder mystery à la Agatha Christie. Robert Altman films are rarely about plot, however, and this one is quick to redirect our attention toward the real underpinning of these murder mysteries and in doing so illuminates some of the hidden engines of the genre. Gosford Park shows us, in detail, the divisions between servants and masters, and the small-army logistics of maintaining a small manor. Well before any crime is committed, we suddenly realise that the hoariest cliché of the genre, “the butler did it!”, is nothing short of a panicked cry of social despair from the aristocracy; not only are the commoners getting uppity, but they’re also killing the rich! Altman piles detail upon detail, with a Hollywood film producer, a bumbling police inspector, a clever servant girl, an impostor in both worlds, hints of scandals and lots more. It adds up to a long and quiet film, but a curiously entertaining one, with good performances all around. (Watch Clive Owen, and try not to imagine him as James Bond.) It’s much more than a murder mystery, especially given that the mystery isn’t that hard to solve.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Girl, Interrupted</strong> (1999)

(On DVD, January 2002) My initial sustained reaction to this film was to cackle “Calling Nurse Ratchet!” a lot and generally make sarcastic comments at the screen as memories of just about every asylum movie of the past thirty years came flooding back. That’s unfortunate, because Girl, Interrupted actually does end up being slightly interesting two-third of the way through, as the characters end up transcending their archetypes and come on their own. The ending is actually quite effective, as all the dull setup ends up truly paying off. Winona Rider is lifeless in the narrative role, but Brittany Murphy and Angelina Jolie both have flashier roles. It’s not a transcendent film (the caricature of the said medical establishment is a bit too rough, for starters), but chances are that it will eventually win your interest. The DVD includes no special features to speak of.

Gandhi (1982)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gandhi</strong> (1982)

(On DVD, January 2002) Now this is an epic film. There’s a crowd shot early in the movie that reminds us of a time where every dot on the screen was an actual person, and not merely a few bits on a computer. Not only are the pictures spectacular, but the scope of the story is impressive as well; Gandhi follows the life of the Indian revolutionary through several decades, a campaign of independence, the creation of two countries and a near-war. (Not to mention World War 2) And yet, through it all, it never loses track of the very individual man at the middle of it all. It’s an “approved” biography, which means that there is preciously little that’s not saintly about Gandhi. (But then again, maybe he was saintly). It’s a long film, but not overly so; it moves along at a decent clip, and features -after all- a lot of material. The DVD features a mind-boggling three language tracks and subtitles in seven (!) languages, in addition to a fascinating interview with Ben Kingsley and some revealing period footage of the real Gandhi.

Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain [Amélie From Montmartre] (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Amélie From Montmartre</strong>] (2001)

(In theaters, January 2002) Who can believe that the director of Alien Resurrection would follow it up with a whimsical romantic comedy? You pretty much have to see it to believe it, and that’s doubly true for Amelie, a film whose appeal can hardly be stated in mere words. The first fifteen minutes are, sylistically, a blend of Fight Club and Run Lola Run—high praise indeed! It’s a story about nothing and everything, or more specifically about the gradual awakening of a very special girl to the world at large; how she relates to it and how she decides to act on it. Alas, the film then becomes yet another sappy romantic comedy, a good one but a sappy romantic comedy nonetheless, complete with a happy-ever-after shot that seems somewhat of a let-down in the context of the overall piece. The confused theme of the film is also slightly annoying, as if the film flits from one idea to another without central resolution or meaning. But that’s being overly harsh on a completely delightful film whose nature is perfectly represented by the astonishing direction of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. You may see it a modern urban fantasy if you wish, especially with the variety of slightly-fantastical effects used to tell the story. A good date movie, especially if yours happen to love dissecting a film’s thematic core.

(Second viewing, On DVD, June 2002) I think that I like this film even more the second time around. Now that’s I’m not expecting an ending more original than the abrupt (and unusually sappy) and-they-lived-happily-ever-after, now that I see the fable quality of the whole tale, now that I’m not too bothered by the inconsistent character traits, well… Amelie flows better. The two-disks French R1 DVD release is filled with goodies, the best being a wonderful French-language commentary with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Equally concerned by technical details, story points, actors’ performances and filmmaking anecdotes, the commentary is a joy to watch, especially once you realize that Jeunet is as big a DVD geek as the most obsessive of us; he knows what viewers want to hear about, and he delivers. It helps that the DVD is being released long enough after the film theater run that there is some perspective on the critical reaction to the movie. Other DVD highlights include a funny making-of segment and some oddball features.

Dazed And Confused (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dazed And Confused</strong> (1993)

(In theaters, January 2002) The problem I have with most teen movies is that my own (boring, studious, small-town) teenage years were fundamentally lacking in drugs, sex and/or rock-n-roll. So a film like Dazed And Confused does nothing to reach me with its 24-hours-in-the-life of a bunch of wild-n-wacky teenagers. That the story is pretty much about nothing doesn’t help, though it can serve to illustrate why this is a film in the same logical vein as American Graffiti and Go. A bunch of relatively well-known actors make their first (or nearly-first) appearance here, which adds a bit to the film’s lacking interest. Filmed in a naturalistic style, there isn’t much in term of visual impact here. Some will love it; I myself just couldn’t care.

Ventus, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2000, 662 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57635-7

Some human endeavours are harder than others. While no one will ever confuse writing a novel with performing brain surgery, writing a mathematic Ph.D. thesis or even raising a child, no one will ever say that writing a good professional novel is easy. You have to balance narrative exposition with careful character development, dramatic tension and basic writing abilities. Analyse any random 600-pages novel and you’ll quickly find a bunch of interlocking factors in a framework so large that it’s almost a wonder to realize that people actually pull this off.

Science-fiction writers must be even more masochistic than most other novelist. To the already mind-boggling demands of novel-writing, they add the necessity to construct a wholly fictional world and present it to the reader in a seamless fashion. Oh, and explain new complex concepts to the average readers. Why would anyone willingly choose that job?

Karl Schroeder did. Ventus isn’t his first novel (he co-wrote The Claus Effect with David Nickle), but it’s certainly the one which will make the SF world stand up and take notice of his potential. It’s a massive, epic story about a planet with many secrets, spanning dozen of very different characters and a conflict with galactic repercussions.

Yet we begin this hard-SF story in a fashion that is almost identical to most fantasy trilogies. Young Jordan Mason is an apprentice on a vast estate. While the first chapter hints strongly at a SFictional tone -what with an attack by a silver mechal life form-, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything radically different between him and some medieval squire. Gunpowder has been invented, but what’s this about flying creatures attacking any higher technology?

As the story unfolds, both Mason and the reader discover that the ground beneath their feet isn’t nearly as stable -nor natural- as it may first seems. Jordan is almost kidnapped by strangers, thrust in complex political games and eventually made to realize an awesome untapped power. Before the book is through, we’ll visit a fantastically advanced Earth, be privy to scenes of devastating scope and -maybe more importantly- witness the emotional evolution of a cast of characters.

Ventus is a big, satisfying book, the kind that’s made for you, a comfy chair, plenty of hot chocolate and a long Sunday in front of a fireplace. It takes a while, more than a long while, to get going, but once it ignites, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Most notable is the changing nature of the characters; those who seems initially reliable end up as raving psychopaths and those who seems singularly inept ends up controlling everything. Then there’s the impressive feat of managing more than a dozen major characters without fumbling too much. Ventus doesn’t feel like a first novel; you’d be hard-pressed to consider it as being anything less than a great work by a professional author at the height of his powers. You’ll love the SF elements and the characters.

The science-fantasy aspect of the tale is annoying at first, but makes increasing sense as the underpinning of Ventus is explained. After that realisation, one can only be impressed at how well the tale unfolds, how the technological/scientific themes are well-exploited in order to give meaning to the story. The narrative even introduces interesting philosophical elements late in the story without undue effort. It’s also one of the smoothest blend of science and characterization to come along in recent memories.

After the impressive Ventus, it’s hard to wait until Schroeder’s next novel. Canada has produced several impressive SF writers in the past few years, but few seem to be audacious enough to turn out stories with the epic scope of Ventus. Schroeder seems, with his first solo novel, to aim for a spot aside Vernor Vinge and L.E. Modesitt Jr. If everything goes right, get ready for a memorable career.

Cats & Dogs (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cats & Dogs</strong> (2001)

(On DVD, January 2002) It should have been more fun than it was: A secret war between cats and dogs featuring a feline megalomaniac, pet-fu, high-tech gadgets and Jeff Goldblum as (yet again) an absent-minded scientist. Alas, the film is made for kids, and what would have been a jolly good blast ends up sugar-coated and de-fanged by the desire to offend no one. Another director might have done something remarkable with the same premise, but Lawrence Guterman simply delivers a strangely average film reminiscent of Small Soldiers in how such a boffo premise can be battered in submission. Oh, and I’m a cat-person, which probably doesn’t help. The DVD includes the “bare special edition minimum” (commentary, HBO making-of, a few goodies), features a clever dual menu system but is (aaargh!) pan-and-scan.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Black Hawk Down</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, January 2002) Hollywood has the unfortunate tendency to glorify or demonize soldiers, depending on whether they’re needed as heroes or villains. It’s far less common to see a realistic depiction of their work and that makes Black Hawk Down even more worthwhile. There have been few rewarding post-Vietnam military movies, but this one is able to present the chaos of combat, combine it with high-adrenalin action sequences, get fancy with the artistry and go wild with the special effects. The result is a deeply impressive war film and a satisfying action flick. It does resemble a western from time to time, what with the hordes of “little brown people” attacking numerically disadvantaged Aryan heroes, but it does work quite well (and, according to the Pentagon, ranks highly on the realism). Prepare to be overwhelmed by the non-stop action, the constantly-moving camera and the aggressive sound effects. The film is not without flaws, though; the first half-hour is generally trite and conventional, the ending is a touch too pretentious and director Ridley Scott still hasn’t learned how to build perfectly coherent action scenes. (Though he’s learned a lot since the half-mess that was Gladiator) Still, Black Hawk Down is a darn good film, and the best recent representation of modern infantry combat.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Beautiful Mind</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, January 2002) The first few minutes of this biography of mathematician John Nash are simultaneously painful and interesting, as a reasonably exciting portrait of a top-notch scientific mind is hampered by the “asocial scientist” clichés so beloved by Hollywood. Then the movie takes a turn for the bizarre as Nash becomes subject to increasingly complex schizophrenic disillusions. Alas, as the film started focusing on Nash’s mental illness, I realized we were headed toward TV-movie-of-the-week territory. It’s irrelevant that Russell Crowe turns in another award-caliber performance, or that Jennifer Connelly has never looked so good (and that’s saying something!); once again, Hollywood goes for the easy target, the touching story of someone who has to overcome his handicap with love and determination. The last half-hour of the film becomes more and more difficult, as there is a palpable sense of distorted narration, half-truths and easy answers. Indeed, reading about Nash’s “real life” (his bisexuality, his repeated hospitalizations, his attempted escape to Europe) quickly reveals how much the movie sugar-coated the truth. It’s a bit of a shame, again, how the most visible cinematic portrait of a scientist once again drips of anti-intellectualism; it wouldn’t be so bad if the film didn’t try to generalize from it (“two helpings of brain, and half a helping of heart”, etc…) Still, it’s not a bad film; though long, it’s not without interest, and even funny at times. (Though my funniest moment happens as an imaginary character pouts at being called a “disillusion”.) If you’re the type of viewer who goes nuts for nuts…

Amadeus (1984)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Amadeus</strong> (1984)

(On DVD, January 2002) When trying to present historical events on film in a fictional narrative, it’s almost always best to present an explicitly subjective view rather than attempt an objective viewpoint. After all, there isn’t enough place on the frame to put in all the details offered in, say, a book. All of which is why Amadeus proves to be such a richly enjoyable film, told from the viewpoint of the “evil” Salieri, who has to deal with his complex hatred of the prodigy Mozart. The music -obviously- is nothing short of fantastic, and the mixture of comedy, drama and intrigue gives considerable interest to a lengthy film. Some choice quotes and gorgeous visuals will remain with you some time after the end credits roll. The DVD features interesting “real-world” information on Salieri/Mozart, but not much else.

I. Asimov, Isaac Asimov

Doubleday, 1994, 562 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-385-41701-2

Any discussion of Isaac Asimov, the writer, must inevitably dwell on how prolific he was. In roughly fifty years, he wrote more than 470 books (yes, more books than most people will ever read in their lifetime!), and that’s not counting the various articles, speeches and assorted miscellanea he also penned during his career.

Asimov died in 1992, but it took a few more years to publish everything he was working on at the time. One of those projects was an autobiography, I. Asimov, in which he more or less summed up his life. Incredibly enough, this wasn’t even a first autobiography for him: In 1979 and 1980, he wrote In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. While I. Asimov acknowledges these previous autobiographies, it’s also a stand-alone work. (As Asimov explains in the introduction, the first two volumes have long been out of print) Anyone interested in the writer’s life should pick up this work; it’s pretty much “the ultimate Asimov.”

Hefting in at more than 550 pages, this book is divided in 166 short thematic chapters arranged in rough chronological order; while he’ll occasionally break his narrative to describe his relationship with other persons or to give a general opinion about a given subject, most of the book proceeds from childhood to education to early adult life to late adult life to semi-retirement. Each chapter clearly announces the subject, and even though there’s no index (argh), the table of content should be sufficient for most casual reference use. A 1994 bibliography completes I. Asimov.

As far as autobiographies go, this one is quite satisfying. The scope of it is ideal, of course. There isn’t much to Asimov that’s left unexamined by the time we read Janet Asimov’s epilogue. The writing style is compulsively readable, with a good mix of humour and information, of dry self-depreciation and proper acknowledgement of his strengths. You can easily get through this tome in a few days.

Asimov is also surprisingly candid, maybe a bit more than some fans might have expected. He makes no excuses, for instance, of his rather libertine attitude towards affairs during his first marriage. He can be quite cutting regarding whom he considers idiots. The failure of his first marriage is described quickly, as is his disappointment in his son (who he describes as a “gentleman of leisure.” [P.176]) (At least Asimov didn’t live to see him implicated in a child-pr0n scandal in 1998. Oh, the things we learn while fact-checking on Google…)

But don’t assume that these few issues are emblematic of the rest of the book. When Asimov loves, he loves a lot. It’s impossible to close the book and remain un-moved by his pure love of writing. (See his notes on his divorce, P.336) His own pleasure in public speaking is also obvious, and even quite charming; he was good at it and took considerable pleasure in delivering the goods as needed, even without notes or time-pieces. His devotion to his daughter Robin is touching, and his love for his second wife Janet is the source of considerable emotion late in the book.

Isaac Asimov has not in good health for the last decade of his life, and the last fourth of I. Asimov reflects the tragic dignity in which he left. The whole book itself was written with the mindset that it would be Asimov’s final word on himself, and by the end, it’s hard to escape impending death. The last few pages are especially poignant, as we’re left to contemplate what such a first-rate mind could have done had it been allowed five, fifty, five hundred more years. Alas, Asimov is gone, and there won’t be anyone else like him. Ever.

While Asimov may take delight in presenting himself as the humble son of an immigrant shop-keeper and in assuring us that nothing spectacular ever happened in his life, he misses the point: Asimov himself is the highlight of I. Asimov, not his life history. For any fan of the author, casual or obsessive, this is the definitive book so far.