Pallas, L. Neil Smith

Tor, 1993, 446 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-50904-8

Libertarian fiction can be very amusing if it’s done right. “Done right”, in this instance, can be as simple as arguing vigorously in a way that doesn’t make me feel like a moron or, maybe more importantly, as if the author himself isn’t a moron —or even worse, a righteous son-of-a-Birch.

It’s a delicate balance. Libertarianism is so orthogonal to the classical false left-right axis that like truly good ideas, it takes a light touch to explain. L. Neil Smith has done so previously with The Probability Broach, a compulsively readable novel in which we were shown the wonders of a Libertarian parallel-universe utopia. Not only was it a heck of a read, but it made a few points about Libertarianism that were worth considering.

Pallas isn’t comparable. Oh, it’s serviceable enough as a story of Emerson Ngu, a young man living on a terraformed asteroid (Pallas) who defects from a socialist enclave and escapes to the larger Libertarian society (Curringer) that surrounds it. Free of restrictions on his personal freedom, he will make friends, meet love, become an entrepreneur and radically alter the future of the human race. No, I’m not really kidding.

At least Pallas makes for decent entertainment: the writing style may not match the one in The Probability Broach for ease of reading, but it’s certainly more accessible that in Smith’s Martyn series. Despite some dangerously boring passages in the first few dozen pages that have almost no relation to the rest of the story, Pallas picks itself up whenever it focuses on Emerson and his perils. As a coming-of-age novel, it’s more than halfway readable.

Where, technically, the book stumbles is when it describes the rest of Emerson’s life. Suddenly, events are telescoped, years are jumped, and the narrative accelerates to an ending that feels a touch too forced through too many coincidences. Along the way, the charm of Emerson’s first discoveries gets lost in the rush to an accelerated second half.

If my problems with the book stopped there, it still wouldn’t that hard to recommend the book. Unfortunately, more serious problems abound with Pallas, some of them intrinsic to the plotting, some of them more closely related to either Smith’s ideology or basic Libertarian principles.

Plotting first (beware slight spoilers): So we are to believe that an entirely libertarian environment would accept a socialist enclave. Okay, sure, I’m game. But then we’re to believe that for the entire decades-long history of Curringer, no one of the die-hard libertarian colonists before Emerson ever though of manufacturing guns or personal transporters? C’mon, Neil: You’re taking your readers for morons.

In fact, that “readers are morons” assumption seems to contaminate more than the plotting. Characterization, for instance: It’s not enough for the lead antagonist to be a socialist (egawd, eek, etc.), but of course he had to be a pedophile and a woman-beater. This, taken to a larger extent, is emblematic of one of the most obnoxious aspects of Libertarian/Objectivist fiction (yes, there is a suspiciously Ayn Rand-like character in Pallas): if you’re not a full-bore militant Libertarian, you have to be not just stupid, but evil too.

For a political ideology that prides itself on considering everyone “as adults”, Libertarianism often feels like a cult that loves to paint everything in black and white, with friend or foes, unable to compromise and find middle ground like, well, true adults. In Pallas, another villain conveniently does something so incredibly stupid that he gets killed as our heroes essentially nod and say “What did you expect? He wasn’t one of us.” Reading the novel, you’d be prone to associate vegetarianism with child-abuse and totalitarianism, whereas the good meat-eating hunters of Pallas’ utopian society are all vigorous, valorous and virtuous.

Marxism, Libertarianism: different ideas, same dogmatism? I actually liked Pallas quite a bit, but it’s broad simplifications like the ones above which make me reluctant to recommend a novel despite whatever sympathies I may have for some of its ideals. If your tolerance for some of these ideas is different than mine, please adjust accordingly.

Permanence, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2002, 447 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30371-X

Finding a good book is great, but finding a new author is even better. It’s not as if I’ve never raved about Karl Schroeder before (you can find reviews of his previous work elsewhere on this site), but with his second solo novel, Permanence, he proves that his first novel, Ventus, wasn’t a fluke and that he’s worthy of being on my list of authors to buy in hardcover.

And that, constant reader, takes some serious talent. For hard-SF geeks like me, to-buy authors must demonstrate that they play the game as well as the best: They have to include a lot of new ideas, cool concepts and a vigorous story to back it all up. (Well, okay: I admit that I can do without a story if the ideas are cool enough.)

Fortunately, Schroeder is already a dependable professional in his second outing. He co-wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing SF, after all. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to delivering a polished commercial SF product.

The opening of Permanence itself is a model in how to introduce a brand-new universe: Modeled on teen adventure SF novels (as a teenage girl escapes an abusive family situation by taking over a spaceship and fleeing to another solar system), it allows us to peek at this new world through the viewpoint of a character that knows just enough to guide us while still having a lot of room to marvel at the cool stuff.

And there’s a heck of a lot of new stuff to behold. Schroeder has taken a look at the latest astronomic discoveries, which suggest a large number of brown dwarves star scattered across the cosmos, and built a brand-new future that takes advantage of this new knowledge. Here, humanity is divided between the “lit” worlds around stars, linked together through FLT travel, and “halo” world around the brown dwarves, struggling along through regular Slower-than-light cargo trips. The differences run deeper, mind you; the “lit” worlds are pretty much all members of the “Rights Economy”, a form of capitalism gone mad where every object and service has been nano-tagged and requires micro-payment. The implications of this economic structure are vertiginous and it’s one of the book’s flaws that we never get a better look at it.

To this concept, Schroeder deftly adds evolutionary biology speculations, bigger-than-life engineering, ice worlds and tons of other cool stuff. The plot revolves around an intellectual debate raging in Permanence‘s future; is it possible for an intelligent civilisation to survive indefinitely? Are there built-in limits to sentience?

A cast of characters struggle for control of an alien space-ship that may settle the question. Smirking villains just want ultra-capitalism to triumph while our heroes try to pierce the secrets presented to them. It takes place over years, several planets and plenty of action.

There are flaws to Permanence and they’re the ones most common to large-scale adventure novels. Some characters are unceremoniously removed (or forgotten) from the narrative. Not all adventures are equally interesting. Some parts, mostly towards the end, drag a bit. The motivations of the antagonists aren’t terribly convincing.

But cool ideas go a long way in compensating for other deficiencies. Add Permanence to Ventus and I feel as if I’ve discovered another must-read Hard-SF author. From the density of ideas and the narrative control exhibited both of his novels, it certainly looks as if Schroeder can fit in with the other members of that list.

Thunderhead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 1999, 533 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60837-8

By now, every serious beach reader should be familiar with Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s shtick. As “commercial” writers whose objective is simply to make a living writing bestsellers, their modus operandis is clear after half a dozen such works… and Thunderhead is in no way a departure. Most of their usual elements are somewhere to be found in here.

It starts with a family trauma and a dash of archaeology. Plucky heroine Nora Kelly is a gifted but unfocused archaeologist, following in the footsteps of an absent father who disappeared sixteen years previously on a quest to find Quivira, the lost city of the Anasazi in south-western Utah. Suddenly, a letter from her father lands in her mailbox, a mystery that may reveals the location of the lost city and the fate of her father.

In fairly short order, she uses space-age techniques to track down a promising path and convinces a rich backer to finance her expedition. A few pages later, she’s headed in the wild with a group of explorers whose personalities will form a lot -but not most- of the book’s suspense. Also tagging along is Bill Smithback, the journalist protagonist of Preston and Child’s previous The Relic and Reliquary.

In many ways, Thunderhead is a pleasant throwback/update to the type of lost-civilisation adventure novel that was so popular when our planet wasn’t so civilized. With satellite imaging, all-terrain trucks and computer analysis techniques, lost civilisations have disappeared faster than a new suburb can take over another farm. But in this novel, we’re back on the hunt in narrow canyons, tracking a city that may or may not contain tons of gold.

But who says gold or even “new discoveries” in a Preston and Child novel inevitably implies an excruciatingly painful death for the discoverers (Hey, they’re just borrowing from Crichton: “thou shall not want wealth or forbidden knowledge, especially if thou love high technology.”) Pretty soon -what do you know- the members of the small expedition start dropping dead in a way that may or may not be a supernatural fashion.

Well, okay, it’s not supernatural, but with the usual wildebeests running around and slaughtering the protagonists, you wouldn’t expect anything else. In any case, the innocents are butchered, the evil characters soon exhibit psychotic tendencies and some protagonists may -or may not- find the loot, explain the mysteries and escape with their lives.

Fans of lightly-didactic escapist reading will have a lot of fun reading about the lost-lost Anasazi, the archaeological mystery of their disappearance, the techniques used in modern archaeology and how the space shuttle can help find forgotten trails. Child and Preston, like many if not most of their bestselling colleagues, understand the importance of research and little bundles of fun facts to keep their readers happy.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot to be happy about in Thunderhead. It’s not terribly new, fresh or subtle, but it just works. Despite my sarcastic attitude, I had no problem reading through Thunderhead in fairly short order. The book doesn’t quite have a perfect rhythm (some parts do drag, especially when it comes to Nora’s brother subplot) but it works more often than it doesn’t, and that’s the most important thing when it comes to escapist summer reading.

Fans of the authors’ previous books will find plenty of the same here. There are plenty of thrills—natural, artificial or human. The conclusion seems hopelessly copied from one too many Hollywood thrillers (note to bestselling authors; stop assuming that all your novels will be optioned). Even as far as best-selling writers go, Preston and Child still manage to be reasonably original: Every book changes venue and is reasonably distinct from one another. (It would be time to ditch the “ultimate rainstorm” plot point, though; after four books, it’s getting old.) Still, readers should know the drill by now; their name is a stamp of equal quality, whatever the book you’re picking from them.

A Walk To Remember (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Walk To Remember</strong> (2002)

(On VHS, February 2003) I’m not a big fan of spiritual/Christian-themed films, and even less of dull teen bait. So you can imagine my distinct lack of interest in seeing a blend of the two which doubles as a strong pro-conformity propaganda piece. Here, a bad boy is caught doing a bad thing with his bad friends, and comes to reform his way thanks to a preacher’s daughter. It all develops in a heart-warming love story that doesn’t include pre-marital sex. All in all, it’s a movie made for parents more than teenagers; the perfect teen film for your grandma. (Who probably remembers, chuckling knowingly, that she had teen years much wilder than yours) I found the first half-hour unbearable; the rest got better and the final few minutes were just amusing given that they unfolded exactly as I had predicted. Christian pop-star singer Mandy Moore is unspeakably cute, and doesn’t embarrass herself in her first major role. It could have been worse. But faced between the two unpleasant alternatives, I’ll take a gratuitously offensive comedy over a harmless religious drama any time of the week.

The Honor of the Queen, David Weber

Baen, 1993, 300 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-57864-2

(read as an e-book, from the War of Honor CD-ROM)

Honor Harrington is back in this second instalment of David Weber’s wildly popular military fiction series. After being introduced to readers with On Basilisk Station, the capable officer faces another set of impossible odds in this new mission.

This time, she’s supposed to be on diplomatic duty; the Manticorian Republic is courting another solar system as an ally in an effort to protect itself from the evil socialist Havenites, and so they send in a military/diplomatic delegation to offer support and comfort to a government that has other enemies of its own. Said enemies, naturally enough, are backed by Haven. You can guess what happens from here.

“Bigger” and “better” are usually the operating directives for sequels, and The Honor of the Queen is no exception, with a structure that is essentially reprised from On Basilisk Station while allowing for more fireworks. It ends with the expected space battle in which Honor triumphs over a vastly better-equipped enemy. Repetitive, but it works; fans of the first volume shouldn’t be disappointed by this one.

What’s not as successful, though, is the explicit Women-are-people-too content in this entry. One of the most refreshing aspects of On Basilisk Station was how it handled the matter without comment, simply by putting men and women alongside in a military setting, The Honor of the Queen makes it an integral part of the plot, as Honor must demonstrate her competency to the fundamentalist characters she encounter. That smacks of overt preaching, and it’s something I’d like to avoid as much as possible. Oh well; maybe Weber now got it out of his system. Fortunately, Weber avoids the “all theists are evil nuts” cliché by featuring a few sympathetic characters whose beliefs are opposed to Harrington’s. (But they respect her. In this series so far, “goodness” and “badness” can reliably be inferred from anyone’s respect for Harrington.)

I was rather relieved to see that Honor “gets her patch” in this volume; glancing at the cover art for the latter books, I was sort of worried this would be an important spoiler for a subsequent volume. While I expect some kind of fix in the next few books, at least it explains War of Honor‘s illustration.

I was also pleased to see Nimitz (Honor’s treecat “pet”, though the term must be used lightly) get a good role. In itself, that compensates for a certain repetitiveness of the structure. It does lead me to ask, though, if every single Honor Harrington book will end with a naval engagement in which Honor is severely outmatched. I recognize that military fiction has a few basic demands and that this is, after all, only the second volume, but it does raise a warning flag.

Still, despite the familiar feel, there is a lot to like in this entry, from Weber’s unpretentious prose to his willingness to kill a few characters. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Honor’s parents turn in for a few pages. (And I’m even more pleased to notice ethnic diversity creep in Harrington’s very Anglo-Saxon universe, starting with her own Asian-ethnic mother) It’s a weaker entry than the first volume, but patience; this series is barely getting started. I have reason to believe that better stuff awaits.

Sur mes lèvres [Read My Lips] (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sur mes lèvres</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Read My Lips</strong>] (2001)

(In theaters, February 2003) Darn typical old-school French film, where a decent eighty-minute thriller is stretched over two dull hours for no good reason at all. In a nutshell, it’s a film about the way a shy deaf professional woman meets an ex-con and how they help each other out dealing with superiors and other criminals. It’s not terribly pleasant and passes no chance to show how truly squalid it is, but it tells a decent story. The beginning is weak (too lengthy) and so is the ending (too unconvincing) but with some judicious editing, this could have been more interesting. Otherwise, well, it’s hard to bother. Heck, there’s even an entire gratuitous plot thread left untied at the end. Maybe if you watch it in fast-forward…

Coercion: Why we Listen to What "They" Say, Douglas Rushkoff

Riverhead, 1999, 293 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 1-57322-829-X

Like most of your contemporaries, you probably think of yourself as a smart, savvy, independent person. You like to make up your own mind: Advertisements don’t work on you, and neither does the cheap rhetoric of politicians, media spokesperson or car dealers. You’re too smart to be taken in by those blatant techniques.

Well, good for you. But chances are that you’re fooling yourself. Today’s methods for changing your mind on just about any subject are more subtle than a gross sales pitch. They seek to bypass your intellect and get you through your emotions. Sometimes, they actually want you to be so smart as to see through them. Politicians, corporations, religions, celebrity-makers and con artists alike are fighting for a piece of your mind with a desperation that leads to a memetic arms-race: As the target (you) get smarter about their methods, they’ll switch to a new one against which there is no predefined defence.

In his introduction to Coercion, Douglas Rushkoff describes the strange path that has led him to write the book. From media pundit who took a delight in pointing out how the media was being subverted from within (in Media Virus!), Rushkoff found himself increasingly solicited by ad agencies and media think-tanks, asked to help them harness the power of subversion in order to better market their wares. “Going underground”, so to speak, he collected notes and Coercion is the result of his journey in the underworld. Either that or it’s just another way for him to sell more books; from the start, Rushkoff takes an impish pleasure in pointing how he himself is selling his book to a potential audience. Unless he’s simply being meta-clever, hoping to attract readers who think they’re smarter than him? Hmmm…

Still, most of Coercion is a description of how sophisticated the battle for mindspace has become. Salesman techniques borrow from CIA interrogation manuals (or the other way around); malls and supermarkets use psychology in arranging their displays layouts; sects and scams alike are optimized in a pyramidal model (so is the stock market); religious groupings share traits with political rallies, rock shows and wrestling events; public relations take the unpleasant truth and twist it in a logical feel-good story ready for mass consumption; publicity campaigns resort to cynicism in order to be hip for the media-savvy audiences. Oh, and the Internet isn’t the consensus-busting tool is promised to be, but has become jut another marketing tool. (Surprise!)

All fine and well (and familiar to anyone who’s well-read in psychology, specialized media and counter-literature such as Adbusters magazine) but one of Rushkoff’s main sub-themes is to illustrate how this incessant war for your attention is having an impact on the Rest of Your Life. Friendly Salespersons compliment your figure in order to sell you clothes, but isn’t the same duplicity undistinguishable from comments received by friends? When the government distorts the truth to manufacture consent for another war in the Gulf, doesn’t this undermine what they’re saying about other things? What about spam: deluged by a flow of trash, some people are simply abandoning this mean of communication. Indeed, argues Rushkoff, as marketers are becoming more desperate and devious, they are threatening the fabric of civility. That’s the nagging feeling most of us get when marketing makes a new intrusion in our lives.

Indeed, it’s difficult to read Coercion without tying it with our own lives. I myself was shocked, not as much in seeing what techniques were “used” on me, but how I was using some methods -notably at work- to facilitate my life. Brr!

But it’s easy to become paranoid when reading this book, and that’s something against which Rushkoff warns us. Being aware is good; being paranoid makes us needlessly fearful, dismissing the good along with the bad. Still, a faint doubt remains, and that should also be the case for you: What if this web site, these hundreds of pages, these millions bytes, are nothing but a subtle way to sell you Rushkoff’s book?

Shanghai Knights (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Shanghai Knights</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, February 2003) This ordinary follow-up to 2000’s Shanghai Noon takes the Jackie Chan / Owen Wilson duo away from the wild west and drops them in Victorian London. Various hijinks ensue, this time more focused on straight comedy than all-out action: Chan, after all, is getting older. It’s all fun and entertaining, but the discomfort comes from seeing an original situation being churned in boring limpness. There are winks and nods to Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlie Chaplin, Jack the Ripper and other period icons… but they’re lazy and witless. After dozen of clever steampunk books playing around with the Victorian era, it’s hard to be amused by dumb name-dropping. Laziness is indeed the style of comedy as practiced here; most of the gags can be seen coming miles away and aren’t very funny anyway. Oh well. Shanghai Knights isn’t terrible, mind you; just dull and ordinary. The ending is overlong. Anachronisms abound, but you’d expect that, right? Even the bloopers have a forced air, including a cell-phone bit that surely sounded contrived. At least for Jackie Chan fans, it’s a definite step back in the right direction after the horrible The Tuxedo.

The Pianist (2002)

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

(In theaters, February 2003) Did we need yet another Holocaust film? Well, maybe not, but few will complain after seeing Roman Polanski’s latest effort. It’s the based-on-true-events story of a Polish Jew whose adventures in war-torn Warsaw defy common sense. Adrian Brody turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a protagonist who’s harassed, saved, helped, forced to hide and then to flee in the remnants of a destroyed city. Technical credits are top-notch, and Polanski’s direction is in fact pretty darn good in an understated fashion. The film, maybe inevitably, is stronger in its first half as we witness the casual harassment of the Warsaw Jews; whereas The Pianist never gets close to a concentration camp, this section film shows that plenty of horrible things did happen in the so-called “safe” city. The second half of the film is a touch less urgent and rather more surreal, as the protagonist becomes a rabbit stuck between the armies fighting for Warsaw. You haven’t seen this story before. But you probably should.

The Life Of David Gale (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Life Of David Gale</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, February 2003) For a while, I was nearly taken by this film. It starts with an interesting conceit, okay characters and a first third in which it’s possible to discern some intellectual/philosophical depth. Plus, Kevin Spacey is almost always a pleasure to watch even when (like in here) he shamelessly overacts and gives a smarmy edge to whatever role he’s playing. But what becomes more and more obvious as the film progresses is that it will stop at nothing to wring out suspense out of situations that don’t have any. The discovery of the first tape is an example; the second visit to the crime scene is another. Suddenly, you may start asking questions about the plot, and it’s an exercise that’s almost always fatal to such a thinly-plotted story like this. Whether it’s an ominous cowboy or a cell phone that doesn’t work or a car that breaks down, The Life Of David Gale transforms itself from a decent “issues” drama to a cheap thriller. And if you haven’t been paying attention, the wretched conclusion will drive home the point that this film doesn’t make sense. Not from an internal logic viewpoint (the ending nullifies what the “heroes” have tried to accomplish) and not from an external thematic viewpoint either (whatever message the film had, if it had one, got lost in the plot mechanics). Sure, it has a dramatic inertia that keeps it bearable… but this is the type of film that gives “twist ending” a bad name.

Life As A House (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Life As A House</strong> (2001)

(On DVD, February 2003) From the trailer, I was led to expect a weepy drama where a terminally ill character manages to solve everyone else’s problems and does something cool before croaking. Well, that’s what I got, though it was slightly more fun that I expected. For one thing, the first half of the film has a certain edge as none of the character really like each other and aren’t exactly afraid to show it. The “tough love” approach taken by Kevin Kline’s character is fun to watch, and isn’t as sappy as his latter approach. What doesn’t work so well is the finale, precipitated by a few unexplainable acts taken by various characters and a whopper of a coincidence. Then it truly gets sappy and gag-inducing. But for a while, Life As A House nearly works because it doesn’t shamelessly pander to the audience. The DVD contains an interesting making-of featurette in which they describe how they built a neighbourhood specifically for the film. Alas, the good stuff is nearly driven out by the promotional fluff, in what may be an ironic comment on the film itself.

The End of War, David L. Robbins

Bantam, 2000, 506 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58138-4

Early 1945. The Third Reich is crumbling, attacked from two fronts: The Allies have been in Europe for six months and the Russians are pitting the might of their war machine against a battered German army. Both sides are rushing towards Berlin. Whoever first captures the capital will get to dictate Europe’s geopolitical history for decades. As high-level talks divvy up lines on a map, it’s up to the soldiers to suffer through the consequences of these decisions.

After writing about the battle of Stalingrad in The War of the Rats, David L. Robbins goes back to World War II with The End of War, a novel about the race for Berlin in the last few weeks of the European front. Not only a story about the end of WW2, The End of War is also a portentous narrative that suggests most of subsequent European history.

It is, naturally enough, a big subject, involving millions of men from more than three nations on two continents. The sweep of the events may be epic, but Robbins carefully restricts his characters to only a few. As he point out in the author’s foreword,

The End of War is constructed along the lines of a Greek tragedy: the gods discuss the affairs of man, then their Olympians intents are played at human level. In this novel, the gods are Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lesser deities include General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The book’s corresponding mortals are three fictional characters – one Russian soldier, one German civilian, and one American photojournalist.

As the race toward Berlin heats up, the novel describes the high-level negotiations -Malta, Yalta, etc- that led to the Russian takeover of Berlin. Naturally enough, the most interesting storyline is the American one, as photojournalist Charley Bandy is closer to our own viewpoint. As an observer, he witnesses the battlefield as we would, and reacts to the discovery of Nazi atrocities much like we would too. The next most interesting storyline is Lottie’s story: as a female cellist stuck in Berlin as the two armies converge on their ultimate objective, she’s the viewpoint by which we witness the city being bombed in submission. Finally, the third storyline is a young Soviet Soldier’s perspective as he fights his way to Berlin. Some readers will probably find this to be the book’s strongest storyline, but it just seemed dull compared to the more immediate plights of the two others.

Yet, The End of War does a good job at telling the story leading up to the last few days of the European front. The historical credibility of the novel is high thanks to the depth of research demonstrated by the details of the narrative. But what’s even more effective is Robbin’s ability to convey the lassitude of the characters involved in the events. The endgame is as much a matter of endurance as of might, and the fatigue that permeates everyone’s decisions is palpable.

History buffs will undoubtedly devour The End of War as a compelling war story. There is a lot of material packed in those five hundred pages. While not stories here are as equally compelling, they all add up to an impressive historical portrait. It’s another splendid effort by Robbins; maybe not as memorable as the very personal sniper duel in War of the Rats, but impressive in its own right.

The Hours (2002)

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

(In theaters, February 2003) Shameless Oscar-bait film that would be wholly unremarkable if it wasn’t for the acting talent and the self-conscious focus on time-tested critic-nip. Throw together a cast of self-destructive characters, edit between multiple storylines, throw in a few soliloquies about the nature of life and you’ve got yourself a nice little package “for your consideration.” Fortunately, the film isn’t as dull or preachy as it may sound, and despite the deliberate nature of the material, it’s not completely dull. In fact, there is a lot to like here, from a shared willingness of the actors to suffer for their part (Oscar lust will do that to you) to a dazzling structure that hops between three eras and a dozen characters. While your sympathy for self-destructive suicidal characters may run low, The Hours offers a bit more than that and may actually be worth a look.

Frida (2002)

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

(In theaters, February 2003) I don’t know much about Frida Kahlo, and so I suspect that much of the film’s content was lost on me. On the other hand, I can testify that it does a credible job at telling her story. Salma Hayek hits a career high with this role which takes her from teenhood to old age in a fairly smooth fashion. (Plus, we get to see her naked and nude) The script is all right, but what makes the film come alive is Julie Taymor’s direction, which attempts to give to the film the style of Kahlo’s paintings. Some of the symbolism is a touch too obvious (the butterflies on her full-body cast… awww…) but don’t worry; there’s plenty of story to enjoy too. There are a bunch of familiar faces in small roles, from Antonio Banderas to Edward Norton (both uncredited) and Geoffrey Rush.

Final Destination 2 (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Final Destination 2</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, February 2003) Splatter fans should rejoice, because the most distinguish characteristic of this sequel to 2000’s creepy supernatural thriller isn’t the plot as much as the appalling disregard shown for the human body. In this version of reality, receiving a plate glass window pane on the head isn’t going to give you a fatal cerebral commotion; it’s going to liquefy your body in a mass of reddish organic material. Such gore is commonplace in this movie, which pushes the envelope of its hard-R rating to levels seldom seen nowadays. On one hand, I’m sort of glad to see that the film doesn’t wuss out. On another, even the jaded moviegoer that I am isn’t terribly compelled to encourage this gratuitous school of schlock cinematography. It doesn’t help that the story is a thin re-tread of the original. But whereas the previous film had a nasty little unnerving focus, this one feels looser and filled with nonsensical plot holes. (Why should a suicide attempt fail while another one succeeds?) The tone of the sequel may be more consistent compared to the first film’s shifting atmosphere, but there’s something distasteful in the Grand Guignol level of so-called humorous gore shown here. It’s even out-of place with the showcase sequence of the film, a horrific traffic accident that will make everyone’s teeth grit together for several continuous minutes: There are plenty of spectacular explosions and crashes, but scarcely any enjoyment in seeing dozen of people being graphically dismembered. Oh well; at least the movie kills off some unexpected victims. This is one for the gore fans; you know who you are. I don’t think we need a third film, though.