Month: January 2003

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington 1), David Weber

Baen, 1993, 422 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-72163-1

I’ve been eyeing David Weber’s Honor Harrington series for a while now, feeling as if I should give it a try while simultaneously being intimidated by the series’ growing number of volumes. I kept buying the books at second-hand stores, hoping to complete the dozen-book set before diving in. But that could have taken a while. Happily, Baen neatly solved the problem with the tenth novel in the Honor Harrington series, War of Honor: The C$41 hardcover included a CD-ROM containing, yep, the whole series (and more) in electronic format. No more worries about missing volumes; I could just start reading what I had and “fill in the blanks” with the electronic version on my trusty PDA.

First stop, then: On Basilisk Station, Honor Harrington’s first adventure.

Who’s Honor? She’s a starship captain who, at the start of this first novel, assumes her first command, a decrepit cruiser optimistically christened Fearless. But Honor is the embodiment of her ship’s name and at the first training exercise opportunity she gets, she severely embarrasses a cocky superior by beating him at his own game.

Mistake. Before long, she’s exiled to a trivial faraway post, where she meets an old nemesis who -in cowardly fashion- flees and leaves her to perform a wide variety of tasks with almost no assets. What others would consider impossible, Honor sees as opportunity: before long, she shapes up everything in fine fighting form. But don’t be bored yet; an enemy attack looms…

A lot of things are obvious from On Basilisk Station: First, that it’s a classical underdog-against-all-odds story featuring a plucky heroine who deserves our unqualified admiration. Second, that it’s a direct descendant of the Horatio Hornblower naval adventure stories. Third, that’s it’s completely successful as an introductory volume to the Honor Harrington series.

I’m hooked, no doubt about it: Weber writes honest military SF, sure, but unlike too many of his immediate colleagues, he never forgets that he’s primarily telling a story, not recreating a tactical engagement for the enjoyment of the armchair strategists in the audience. His secondary characters take a while to come in focus, but they do and Honor Harrington herself is the type of archetypical heroine worth absolute devotion. Similarities with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan go beyond the fact that they’re both published by Baen books.

At least Weber’s political prejudices are obvious. The evil Havenites have a policy of expansion made inevitable by “almost two T-centuries of deficit spending to shore up an increasingly insolvent welfare state.” [P.52] Tee-hee! Then there’s the not-so-good Liberals, whose dedication to maintaining a military presence on Basilisk Station is traitorously suspect. The political system in which Honor lives is adapted directly from the English’s parliamentary monarchy: a nod to Hornblower and C.S. Forrester, sure, but also a rather convenient setting for true-blood Anglo-Saxon space opera… but I’ll hold off on any potentially embarrassing comments on the ethnicity of the series until I’ve read more of it. At least the complete gender integration of Honor’s universe is a laudable assumption.

In short, On Basilisk Station is addictive reading. I’m definitely in for the duration of the Harrington series. At one book per month (and, presumably, one review per month), I should reach War of Honor by October 2003. Stay tuned!

Terminal Event, James Thayer

Simon & Schuster, 1999, 347 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84210-6

Don’t trust Terminal Event‘s cover blurb. It says something about an air-crash investigator fighting against colleagues who think a crash was human error. It suggests something about a battle of wit between the investigator and a mad serial bomber. It’s even more deceitful than the usual cover blurb. (Though it gets the protagonist’s name right) It’s a disservice to the book, really, because Terminal Event is a much, much better book than what the blurb may lead you to think.

This novel opens with a harrowing scene: Narrator Joe Durant, formerly of the National Transportation Security Board, walks through a forest peppered with the aftermath of an airplane crash. Metal fragments are scattered along with human body parts as Durant quickly assesses the situation and realizes what has to be done. He barely has time to cede control to authorities before upchucking his lunch. His wife was on the flight.

Before long, he’s back in with the NTSB. Grieving (but not too much), he helps in piecing together a theory about what happened. His is not the only theory: others ideas are floating around, and one of Terminal Event‘s rare pleasures is in tracking down some very different red herrings. In some ways, it’s an interesting dilemma: Joe’s theory isn’t sexy, but it’s his. As readers, do we want the drama of, say, a surfaced-launched missile or do we want to see our hero being proven right with a decidedly less exciting theory?

Joe is not alone, of course. In addition to his colleagues, he’s also assigned a hard-as-nail female FBI liaison. She gets to see what he does at the NTSB; he gets to see what she does at the FBI. In one of those easy dramatic shortcuts jaded readers learn to ignore, Joe ends up being present at almost every twist and turn of three different investigations. He’s threatened, bribed, confused, decried and -surprise!- ultimately triumphant… though not in the way anyone could expect.

There is no doubt that Terminal Event is a techno-thriller that veers very close to engineering fiction. The details about the work the NTSB performs are endlessly fascinating, but for a specific crowd. Tom Clancy fans will go nuts for the nuts-and-bolts minutia of air-crash investigations. But more casual thriller writers shouldn’t despair; Thayer is remarkably efficient in turning out accessible prose. Terminal Event passed the acid test of thrillers by making your reviewer read far too late in the night for “just one more chapter.”

There’s a lot to like about this book, from the narrative energy to the sympathetic narrator. Even better is the book’s multiple competing plot threads, one (or none) of which may just be the solution to the whole sorry mess. Unlike other novels, Terminal Event seldom tips its hand, keeping those storylines equally compelling all the way through. Also refreshing is a light romance that never overwhelms the book, and the resolution of said romance.

What isn’t as successful is the storyline following the narrator’s grief, which is seldom brought up and almost ends up as an incidental subplot. A long time passes during which the issue of the dead wife isn’t even brought up. The discovery of her body, for instance, is mentioned almost casually as something having happened days before. In fact, the subjective duration of the events in Terminal Event is puzzling; all the action is supposed to “fit” in ten days, but it seems considerably longer, especially during the first half of the book.

But no matter; Terminal Event is a deeply original, constantly interesting thriller. It’s readable like few others and contains enough details about the NTSB to double as a light non-fiction article on the mindset of its investigators. Just buy it without reading the cover blurb.

The Bridge, John Skipp & Craig Spector

Bantam, 1991, 419 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29027-4

A drum filled with toxic chemicals falls from a truck into a body of water. It breaks open, releasing nasty industrial waste into the wilderness. Then a horrible mutation takes place and people start to die!

The above is the initial story trigger for EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS, a delightful 2002 comedy that apes the hackneyed conventions of 1950s giant-insect B-movies. As it happens, it’s also the premise behind The Bridge, a gore-filled horror novel by John Skipp and Craig Spector. Whereas EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS is a comedy, well, there’s not much to laugh about in The Bridge —even as ludicrous as it is.

The problems start early on in this quasi-earnest tale of environmental catastrophe. It’s hard not to giggle as a random accumulation of toxic waste somehow creates a brand-new monster. You thought that type of easy plotting went out with comic books and B-movie from the fifties, but no, Skipp and Spector seem determined to play this silly concept in a relatively straightforward manner. (Or rather as straightforward as they want, which may not be very much given the whole novel’s overblown quality.)

Suffice to say that in a few dozen pages, our eeevil toxic dumpers are severely punished and that a toxic overmind is attacking a small town in Northeastern America. Even at this point, the level of nastiness exhibited by the authors is impressive: Characters are killed before we can even get to know them. (I’ve heard “splatterpunk” used to describe this book, but even if I can recognize a heck of a lot of splatter in The Bridge, I’m not familiar enough with the sub-genre to be comfortable in designating the novel as such.)

But no problem; there are always more characters to feed in the good old gore-chipper. Too many of them, in fact; while Skipp & Spector need ever-expanding battalions of monster-fodder in order to tell their story, it quickly becomes apparent that none of them is going to be important enough to remember. In fact, it’s worth noting that The Bridge doesn’t have a plot as much as it has a list of victims. There is scarcely any further narrative arc than the characters discovering that the toxic blob is out to get them. No serious efforts are conducting at fighting back; there is only escape, and not a very effective escape at that.

The cumulative effect of this realisation is a steady loss of interest in a novel that is already too scattered to be gripping. While The Bridge constantly teases us with interesting elements and the promise of hard-core horror, it never achieves critical mass.

Another part of the problem is that Skipp and Spector try to have it both ways: First, as a serious commentary on the environment (including, I kid you not, an eighteen-pages appendix on how to be an environmentalist), but also as a novel of supernatural horror. One defuses the other in much the same way that Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon trivialized its man-made threat by putting it alongside a supernatural monster. Who even cares about pollution when zombies want to eat your brain?

On the other hand, there’s a steadily mounting glee at seeing Skipp and Spector overturn almost every tradition in their quest to kill as many characters in the messiest ways possible. The last few pages will have even the most jaded readers go “eew” as the novel moves far, far away from the watered down simulacrum that passes as “horror” nowadays.

But even though a good ending can redeem a lot of things, The Bridge‘s conclusion seems to stop for lack of people to kill, not out of story to tell. Heck, the real story of The Bridge begins after the last page, and the authors quit before it truly gets interesting.

In the end, The Bridge is a half-interesting, half-frustrating novel of hard-core horror. Readers with strong stomachs might enjoy aspects of it even as the sum of all parts fails short of satisfaction. While it’s considerably nastier than “mainstream horror”, it’s equally less successful in narrative qualities. On the other hand, it’s an effective cautionary tale against the evils of toxic waste dumping… Oh, who am I kidding!? Let’s go watch EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS again.

Long Bomb: How the XFL became TV’s biggest fiasco, Brett Forrest

Crown, 2002, 254 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-609-60992-0

The more cynical among us (your reviewer included) would like to make you believe that we live in a age where everything is controlled, calculated, test-marketed and over-designed. All of our entertainment options are manufactured to order in a society dominated by consumerism and obedience. Britney Spears is less of an artist than a marketing vision given curvaceous form. MBA-holding executives are assembling movies from pieces defined by statisticians, psychologists and market analysts. We simple-minded consumers have no chance: we can only bleat and accept what we’re given.

In this context, the complete failure of the XFL in early 2001 is something worth celebrating. World Wresting Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) CEO Vince McMahon buddied up with NBC executive Dick Ebersol to given us a brand new football league, the XFL. Combining NBC’s sportscasting expertise with the WWF’s flair for showmanship, the XFL was supposed to be a more exciting, less expensive alternative to the tired old NFL.

In retrospect, it’s hard to say whether this was a great or terrible idea. Certainly, NBC thought it was getting good broadcasting material for almost nothing: Founding the XFL was considerably cheaper than forking out billions for NFL licensing. Vince McMahon wanted a respectability that wrestling could never provide. Hundreds of players wanted another chance to strut their stuff in front of an audience. And maybe, just maybe, the American public could find a spot in their schedule for another sport league.

It didn’t turn out that way.

The first game of the XFL drew respectable numbers. Rating for subsequent games, though, melted down until the last few games, which pulled in the lowest numbers ever recorded for prime-time shows in network broadcast history —scarcely a few hundred thousand viewers across North America. Pundits, journalists and comedians skewered the new league mercilessly. The experiment was not repeated; no second season of the XFL was ever seriously considered once the ratings crashed through the floor.

Long Bomb recounts all of the above is sarcastic glee. Brett Forrest presumably hung around the league as everything happened, and if the book doesn’t feature his own adventures (indeed, there are scenes where a gaping obscurity occupies the place where a first-person narrator should be), the narration clearly indicates someone who paid attention. Far too much of the book reads like a sardonic description of the TV newscasts, but from time to time we go behind the scenes and get a glimpse in the life of the real players in the XFL.

The writing style has its moments, but all too often loses itself in flight of fancies that are not entirely appropriate to the subject being discussed. Still, Long Bomb is a compulsively readable account of a recently fascinating subject. It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no DVD companion featuring telecasts of what he discusses, but given the difficulties Forrest had in dealing with XFL, WWE and NBC executives, well, maybe we should just be happy that the book exists at all.

But maybe above everything, Long Bomb is an account of a gigantic failure, one of the most spectacular miscalculation in recent memory. The XFL existed at the crossroads of sports and entertainment, and an account of its history must consider implications in both fields. In some ways, it’s a refreshing reminder that despite all the expert advice and pre-manufactured elements you can throw at a money-making venture, it can still fail as soon as no one is watching. And even gibbering football fans familiar with wrestling can choose not to watch.

Somehow, that’s a reassuring thought.

The Recruit (2003)

The Recruit (2003)

(In theaters, January 2003) Espionage and Al Pacino are similar in that they’re both endlessly fascinating, even in strictly routine situations. Here, Pacino plays another one of his brash mentor roles (this time to rising star Colin Farrell) in a film about the CIA training regimen. Sort of an espionage Harry Potter, if you prefer. The story is a bit too insistent on the idea that “nothing is what it seems”, because ultimately, that’s the idea behind the (easily guessable) Big Twist. Even then, though, The Recruit remains steadily entertaining. The training sequences are serviceable, and the plotline can hold anyone’s interest for a while even if the element of surprise isn’t there. This isn’t a terribly spectacular film, and it will probably be in the middle of the pack come year’s end, but it works well. Keep your eyes open for a few Kurt Vonnegut references, from Cat’s Cradle to (heh-heh!) Breakfast of Champions. Oh, and the “George Bush Center for Intelligence” quick gag. By the end, though, one ethical question still remains unresolved, maybe an indication of the film’s headlong rush to a serviceable conclusion.

Patriot Games (1992)

Patriot Games (1992)

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) While other adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novels have managed to keep a lot of the original flavour intact, this one steadily evolves into yet another gratuitous rainy-night thriller. The ending alone is enough to make fans of the original novel howl in betrayal, but at least the rest of the film is decent enough. (Though you’ll have to mentally deduct twenty years off Harrison Ford’s character as he play-acts a young father who’s supposed to be in his late thirties.) There is one too many coincidence, though. (Ooh, a flash of red hair…) Some of the political issues surrounding terrorism are explored, and despite the conventional mano-a-mano finale, the adaptation still manages to suggest a veneer of sophistication. Not bad, really. It’s enough to make you wish most thrillers were at least as well-crafted as this one. The first-generation DVD contains the film, the trailer and nothing else.

National Security (2003)

National Security (2003)

(In theaters, January 2003) It’s no secret that I consider Martin Lawrence to be one of the most useless actors working today. While he certainly doesn’t help National Security (an early candidate for “worst-of-year” status), he’s far from being the only thing wrong with this project. Almost always feeling like the result of high-speed crash between two very different projects, National Security doesn’t take a long time to suck. From the first scene onward, the uneasy mix of police drama (complete with a gunned-down partner) and urban comedy (complete with an unending stream of oh-so-witty police brutality jokes) grates more than it amuses. Lawrence’s limitations are more painful than ever: His character is repulsive (Yet irresistible to women? Give me a break: he’s a toad!), never sympathetic, unbearable when attempting to be sensitive and simply loathsome. Not a good foundation for a buddy comedy, especially when buddy Steve Zahn is wasted in a role that seems to belong in another film. The script is variously clichéd, unconvincing, senseless and drawn-out. Yes, the girls are hot and the action has its moments, but the climax is generally unimpressive, and there is a limit to the number of times we can see a car crash through a plate window without becoming jaded. There’s no really gentle way to say it: National Security is a big dumb failure, a trash movie even by the standards of Martin Lawrence films.

Lullaby, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2002, 260 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50447-0

The newest Chuck Palahniuk novel is here, and as you may expect, it’s a blend of weirdness, hypnotic prose, self-loathing characters and strong images. What’s new is a fascinating premise and a willingness to delve into supernatural horror.

It starts out with a washed-up journalist investigating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There is one catch, though: He knows what causes it. And it’s not anything rational: Merely reading a specific poem, a culling song (page 27 of a library book that happens to be at each victim’s bedside), will kill anyone.

The journalist ends up memorizing the poem. Tries it on his editor. Finds that he now has the power to kill anyone by the power of his voice. It gets worse; he realizes that his bottled-up anger is so fierce that he is actually able to kill people remotely, merely by thinking the poem.

In typical Palahniukian fashion, a blackly comedic sequence follows, as our protagonist commits a mini murder spree against everyone who annoys him. Serial killing has seldom been more amusing. It gets funnier when he gets annoyed by radio announcers.

What’s not so amusing are the consequences of his discovery. In an hypnotically terrifying passage, (Chapter 7) Palahniuk imagines the effects of “a plague you catch through your ears.” [P.41] It’s not an entirely new idea (see, oh, David Langford’s “comp.basilisk FAQ” for a similar premise) but it’s still a good one, and Palahniuk is willing to play it for all it’s worth, not even once mentioning “memetic epidemiology”.

Eventually realizing that he’s completely out of control, our protagonist decides to destroy all copies of the book which contains the fatal lullaby. In order to do so, he enlists the help of a realtor who specializes in haunted houses (because you can sell those again… and again… and again…), an eco-terrorist and a Wiccan girl. A motley crew, or an ultramodern nuclear family? Turns out there isn’t much of a difference.

Killing library clerks, burning down used bookstores, scamming restaurants and sight-seeing a bit, the protagonist’s quest eventually uncovers something even more sinister, a spell-book that promises to unleash even more devastation if it falls in the wrong hands.

Which it does.

There’s always been a sub-theme of apocalyptic renewal in Palahniuk’s fiction (from Tyler Durden’s ultimate goal in Fight Club to the fist-fight climax of Survivor) and this fascination is magnified here. Indeed, elements of previous novels pop up here and there, like Choke‘s scamming or Invisible Monsters‘s road trip and -naturally- the hip and rhythmic prose of his entire oeuvre.

This time, Palahniuk leaves weird-but-realistic fiction behind and imagines a warped tale of urban fantasy. Charles de Lint on acid, in one way. While Choke already showed signs of dipping in the fantastic pool, Lullaby jumps right in with magic spells and haunted houses. Add to that the strangely altered universe in which the tale takes place, and it gets a bit messy.

But messy fun: This is probably Palahniuk’s most enjoyable novel since Survivor. Whereas Invisible Monsters was trashy fun, Lullaby has more unity and content than Choke while offering a more interesting reading experience. All the usual Palahniuk elements are there, so fans know what to expect. Newer readers, on the other hand… should expect something weird. But good.

Narc (2002)

Narc (2002)

(In theaters, January 2003) It’s not a complicated cop story, but it’s told with plenty of style. Sometimes that’s all you need. Jason Patric is suitably understated as the flawed protagonist with plenty to prove, but it’s Ray Liotta who steals the show as a brutal policeman with even more to hide. The opening sequence is a visceral piece of extreme shakycam; the rest of the film is slower, but it builds to a crescendo of emotional exchanges that ought to rivet everyone’s attention. Writer/Director Joe Carnahan is a bit too scattered to be completely effective (his segues in dark humour stand out in a film that otherwise struggles for attention), but he knows how to use a camera. The look is raw, Detroit-winter cold (shot in Toronto), unpleasant and very realistic. Ultimately, this is a simple but compelling cop story, a gritty crime drama of the likes we hadn’t seen in a long while. It’s not for everyone, but fans of the sub-genre will bless the stars for sending a good film their way once in a while.

The Hunt For Red October (1990)

The Hunt For Red October (1990)

(On DVD, January 2003) Strong adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel that actually assumes that the viewers will be able to follow along without too much hand-holding. It works rather well. There are a few mistakes and (only) a few liberties taken from the source material, but the on-screen result manages to be one of the only decent decent techno-thrillers even more than a decade later. Credibility seems to be the name of the game, from the military hardware sequences to the acting of the actors. (Despite a few gratuitously “thrilling” sequences and some unconvincing underwater effects.) Alec Baldwin makes a capable Jack Ryan, and the supporting cast is similarly apt at fulfilling the demands of their characters. Almost immediately absorbing, The Hunt For Red October holds its own for nearly all of its duration, with a slight dip it the conventional last few minutes. Still, good show. The first-generation DVD barely contains the film and the trailer, let alone any extras.

Far From Heaven (2002)

Far From Heaven (2002)

(In theaters, January 2003) The most impressive thing about this film is how it presents a fifties melodrama as a period piece, without once resorting to cheap irony or contemporary arrogance. While the story is simple (a perfect housewife discovers that her husband is gay and then falls in love with a black man), the tone is maintained with a great deal of control. It is possible to be bored and generally unsurprised by the film (which includes all the expected ostracism scenes), but it’s difficult not to respect the care with which it is fashioned. Save from the titling and some editing choices, the film looks and feels as if it could have been made at any time since 1958. Acting is top-notch, but particular attention has to be given to Dennis Haysbert, who finally comes to the forefront after several turns in smaller-scale projects. It’s easy to watch the film and make tongue-in-cheek comments about what’s going on, but writer/director Todd Haynes has something different, and very earnest in mind. One finally realizes that it would just be rude to be ironic in face of such raw sentiment.

The Drudge Manifesto, Matt Drudge & Julia Phillips

New American Library, 2000, 247 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 0-451-20150-7

I’m a news junkie. Always was, always will be.

Can’t resist the flow of info. Plugged in every evening for the news; acute withdrawal symptoms if I can’t get my fix. Hit me, feed me, I need to know.

Give me the latest update. News aren’t just news. They’re the most important story of our lives. Heck, news are the soap of our lives. We’re not reading about it in history books.

This is here. Now. We’re lucky to live history.

I know the Drudge Report. Ugly layout, monospace typeface, right-wing leanings, often sensationalist headlines. Rather doubtful authenticity.

But it brings the news. Links to the news. Breaks the news. Drudge is on top of things as they happen.

Drudge is a junkie like me. But whereas I’m wired, he’s superplugged in the middle of the web. He slurps the news wires and links to the interesting stuff. From time to time, he’ll uncover a presidential scandal.

Naturally, sooner or later he’d write a book about it.

This is it. The Drudge Manifesto. 250 pages of free-form stream-of consciousness musings on himself, conventional media, the internet and associated subjects.

Short paragraphs. Sentence Fragments. POAs (PlentyOfAcronyms). MashedUpWords. Sweeping generalisations. Bing. Bang. Pow. J-school jargon at the speed of thought.

This is today’s style. Bing. Bang. Boom. No time to edit. Or even use the space bar. You can always upload the corrections later.

Drudge says he’s better than the New York Times.

Says print media is dead.

Says TV is dead.

He might not believe it, but it’s his job to make us argue against it.

Drudge says: Anyone can now be his own journalist. Publish any story. Reach the world.


But not everyone deserves my belief. My attention. My eyeballs.

I still love the CBC, state-sponsored journalism institution as it is.

But then again, I’ve never watched FOX News.

His manifesto is a screed against the so-called staid old institutions.

His readers (see endnotes/links/appendices) think they’re getting the whole story. Without interference from “the staid and leftist drivel from the TV.” [P.241], they think they read something “IMPARTIAL, UNBIASED and TRUTHFUL”.

The irony here is so thick you couldn’t cut it with a cigar.

Drudge thinks of himself as a journalist. Does he make mistakes? He says it’s not important, because old media also makes plenty of mistakes.

Some rationale.

I could have fun with it, but I think I’ll just move on.

(Don’t believe your fan-mail, Matt.)

Drudge is not journalist. He’s a well-connected web surfer with the guts to re-print rumours people send him.

He stands above, besides, under, outside the system.

It doesn’t make him a superhero. He’s the spider at the center of the news web, but he would quickly starve without the flies getting caught in his net.

Without traditional media, he’d starve to death. Without the newswires, he’d have only rumours to report. Without the attention given to him, the rumours would go someplace else. His much-lauded revelations about the Lewinski affair are diminished in the telling; the story would have gone out anyway. Just maybe a few hours later.

If your main reputation is that you crack stories by minutes, you may want to re-think your line of business.

We can’t have all Drudges and no journalists; no one would be able (understand; paid, trained, given the time) to present the rough draft of history that is journalism.

But let’s not be too dismissive of Drudge. He may be bombastic and overly confident in the Internet, but he’s useful. As an overseer of media. A check and a balance on another set of checks and balances. When he points out that the convergence of media acquisitions can’t be good, he’s speaking the whole truth.

At his most lucid (see Appendix A, the transcription of an interview at the rather sceptical National Press Club), Drudge is a knowledgeable media pundit.

But even Drudge can’t fight a bigger force than old media; time.

2000 seems so far away, barely twenty-five months after its last few days. As of January 2003, we’ve got global terrorism, a moron in the White House, a right wing left to curtail civil liberties in the name of homeland security and a bunch of civilian hawks anxious to start a war without UN approval.

One president wants to have sex with curvy young women. The other wants to bomb a foreign country for no good reason at all.

Guess which one I identify with.

Yes, 2000 seems so far ago. And among other things, Drudge now has to content with a powerful opponent.

It’s called

It spiders thousands of recognized news sources, sees what’s hot and presents the most popular material in a single page. Without fuss. Without bias. Heck, without human intervention, because everything is run by algorithms.

You may be obsolete, Drudge.

What you do, the computer can do too.

But the computer can’t be a journalist.

Maybe that’s your way out.

Darkness Falls (2003)

Darkness Falls (2003)

(In theaters, January 2003) After The Ring, it’s hard to be generous to run-of-the-mill horror films, but even in normal circumstances, it would be pretty hard to get excited about Darkness Falls. It’s a monster movie like all others, except that it’s too strangely similar to Pitch Black and happens to steal at least one sequence from Requiem For A Dream. Once past the promising prologue, it’s dull, really. A killer tooth fairy? Come on, you can do better than that! A monster that can’t attack in the light? Well don’t give me a film where even pitch darkness is illuminated by what looks like a 40-watts full moon (oh, and with constant lightning). The staging is moronic, the characters are dumb and the dialogues are even dumber. Sure, there are a few oddly affectionate moments of self-aware camp (“Are we going to die?” “Yes.”), but despite the presence of one hot heroine (take note: Emma Caulfield), the rest of the film is completely unremarkable. Maybe it can impress anyone who’s never seen even another horror movie in their life. All the others, however, will yawn rather loudly. A killer tooth fairy. Goodness.

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002)

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002)

(In theaters, January 2003) Hmm. A real-life game show producer (Chuck Barris) writes “an unauthorised autobiography” in which he invents a shadowy secret life for himself: TV executive by day, CIA hired killer by night. The demands and women of both of his life take their toll on him. Sounds fascinating? It ought to have been, but unfortunately the screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman, yes, of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich fame) and director (George Clooney, yes, the actor) adapt the book in a wholly weird and stylised fashion. It could have worked, but the lead character in the tale (Barris, well-played by Sam Rockwell) turns out to be a highly repulsive protagonist. While it’s difficult to fault anyone (least of all Clooney, who exhibits some competency with the camera), the film itself sorts of falls flat. It feels like a series of vignettes rather than a flowing story. Julia Robert’s character, for instance, turns up in four or five scenes, but is supposed to be an important part of Barris’ life. It doesn’t click, and ultimately, neither does the film. The humour quotient is low and the interest level flags intermittently. I wasn’t asking for another True Lies, but at least True Lies managed to hold together all the elements it was given. Make no mistake: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind is an interesting experiment… but not a completely successful one.

Clear And Present Danger (1994)

Clear And Present Danger (1994)

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) Despite the rather extensive (and damnable) liberties taken with the last third of the source material, this film at least managed to remind me why I still think that this particular Tom Clancy novel is my favourite of his. Unlike the other “Jack Ryan” stories, this one is chiefly concerned with corruption from within, with an unlawful series of action taken by Americans. This, in the realistic context of Ryan’s universe, makes the material far more interesting than simply fighting Russians or Terrorists. It helps immensely that Ryan is here faced with an adversary as capable as he is from an intellectual perspective. Harrison Ford is once again too old for the role, but not by much, as his position here is more senior. Alas, the last third of the film is overlong, makes too much use of Ryan as an action hero and loses itself in a multitude of late subplots rather than focus on the resolution. In short, it really screws up the novel for no good reason whatsoever. At least it’s redeemed by a really good last few scenes, where Ryan must decide how much of a boy-scout he truly is. Plus, the rest of the film does an admirable job at presenting a complex issue is a few simple sequences. Worth a look. The first-generation DVD simply presents the movie, plus the trailer.