Chopper (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Chopper</strong> (2000)

(On DVD, July 2003) Coming straight from Australia, this docu-fictive account of the life of criminal Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read is stuffed with interesting moments, but you’ll have to work hard at understanding anything. Hey, I think Australia’s a great nation filled with cool people, but when I can’t understand anything at all in a movie that doesn’t even feature subtitles (those insensitive DVD-making clods!), I’m not particularly interested in following the film. Fortunately, the French-language audio track was more intelligible. While the film lost something in translation, it was still better than to try to decipher the thick Australian street-talk. Yes, Chopper is obviously a low-budget film: the lengthy shots, grainy film stock, oversaturated colours, static camera and sparse sets aren’t just a stylistic choice. I suppose that the target audience of the film already knows “Chopper”, because the film presents important clues about his achievements in what is almost a casual fashion; pieces are missing here and there, and there’s no making-of on the disc to help us figure it out. It is, indeed, a fictional representation of a real person. In any case, the real winner of the film is Eric Bana, whose representation of “Chopper” runs a fine line between jovial innocence and hard-edged brutality. Frightening and charismatic at once, it’s easy to see why he was hired for The Hulk after this film. (The irony, though, is that he deliver a better performance as a “Hulk” here than in the latter film.) The film does features quite a few clever moments, but not quite nearly enough to compensate for its uneven quality. As mentioned, the Canadian Alliance-Atlantis DVD contains no special features worth mentioning and no subtitles, but it does sport a more intelligible French-language track.

C.H.U.D. (1984)

<strong class="MovieTitle">C.H.U.D.</strong> (1984)

(On VHS, July 2003) Wretched. No other word for it. Obviously a B-grade film with its low-budget feel, from unconvincing acting to muddy cinematography, dirty sets and laughable monsters. Ostentatiously about toxic wastes creating monsters in New York’s underground tunnels, C.H.U.D. is closer to an endurance contest as a laboriously overworked plot is slooowly set up with a bunch of amateur actors. I suppose that genre enthusiasts might get some value out of it, but everyone else may want to steer clear away. It’s dull, not particularly involving, saddled with a ridiculous “climax” that falls flat and peopled with uninteresting characters that don’t die quickly enough. Celebrity-watchers may notice a younger John Goodman in a cameo role as a hungry policeman. Otherwise, well, you’ve got other things to do.

Black Point (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Black Point</strong> (2002)

(On DVD, July 2003) Hmmm: A straight-to-video thriller starring David Caruso. How less promising can a film possibly be? As it turns out, though, Black Point actually holds some interest. Plot? An ex-soldier falls for the moll of a local northwestern drug lord, three million dollars pop up, betrayals ensue. There are a few fun plot twists, one amusing threat of icy lynching, a spectacular blonde heroine (Susan Haskell) and a decent pace nonetheless. Sure, the film looks cheap; the cinematography is optimized for full-frame presentation and the set designs are definitely sparse. (Plus, the town of Black Point definitely feels underpopulated.) Character-wise, it’s also a dud: The hero is a hero because the film says so, the motivations of the heroine remain muddled and the bad guys aren’t particularly interesting. But as long as your expectations are kept low, you just might get some enjoyment out of the whole thing. The bare-bones full-screen (yuck) DVD’s most interesting feature is a series of trailers for other RemStar straight-to-video features: funny stuff!

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Harper Torch, 2001, 592 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78903-5

This is a protest review.

My formative years in reading Science-Fiction were shaped by a checklist of Hugo-winning novels. Whatever won, I read and in doing so, gained an appreciation for most of SF’s greatest works. Hence my somewhat sentimental belief that Hugos should be given to… wait for it… the best science-fiction novel of the year. Not horror. Not fantasy. Not pseudo-literary pretentious crap. True, honest, unabashed science-fiction.

In the past few years, I have often been disappointed in the collective judgement of Hugo voters. (Forever Peace? What the hell were they thinking?) It got worse in the past two years: Harry Potter? Why? Aren’t there World Fantasy Awards for this kind of stuff? I love the little wizard, but he’s clearly not starring in SF novels.

Then came American Gods. Folks, Neil Gaiman may be a god amongst writers, but this stuff isn’t SF. And yet, grudgingly, I came to accept (after a lengthy period of denial, anger, depression and bargaining) that sooner or later I’d have to read the novel for completion’s sake. So I held my nose, bought the paperback (I may be a spiteful purist, but I’m not a cheap spiteful purist) and read the darn thing.

It’s not a bad book at all.

But it’s not Science Fiction.

Oh, one almost hesitate at times. The story involves a gigantic battle between the gods (who are, incidentally, living among us under various disguises), pitting old deities against newer ones. Upon his release from prison, protagonist “Shadow” is hired as an assistant by one of the most influential gods and gets to see most of the struggle. Where American Gods is meaningful to the Hugos is in its all-too-brief depiction of the modern gods. We get a fleeting glimpse of technology replacing mysticism, but also of belief carrying over. When people stop praying, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less superstitious; who hasn’t felt a little frisson of simple belief when confronted to the incomprehensibility of modern technology? Don’t we worship what we don’t understand? For that matter, what is Science Fiction’s responsibility in creating those new gods/archetypes (aliens, AIs, cyberpunks or time-travellers) taking over the older ones?

Alas, that particular SF novel remains to be written, for Gaiman seems far more interested in dealing with the old gods in all of their bloodthirsty furor. The “opposing side” of technoweenies and Men in Black is teasingly mentioned when strictly necessary, creating unfulfilled expectations. While strictly speaking an urban contemporary fantasy novel, American Gods is too enamoured with old folklore to let go. This causes unnecessary lengths (the various passages describing the arrival of gods in America struck me as being particularly dull) and also locks the novel in an old-fashioned fantastic mentality. A science-fiction novel might have explored the relative merits of those newer gods and conveyed a more contemporary feel. (along with a lesson in memetic evolution, I bet)

We can only assume that this wasn’t Gaiman’s intention. But whenever I could let go of those assumptions and enjoy the story for what it was, American Gods proved to be enjoyable on its own terms. The protagonist is enough of a blank slate to be interesting (curiously enough) and Gaiman is adept at extracting some wonder out of today’s world. The writing is usually crisp and clear —with some intentional exceptions. At times scary and hilarious, profound without being inaccessible, this is an epic novel with a off-beat tone and a lot of affection for modern-day ordinary America.

In short, American Gods is a perfectly respectable piece of contemporary fantasy. I certainly don’t regret reading it and you can now even consider me as being mildly interested in Gaiman’s work. But—and you can certainly see this coming—it’s not science-fiction and I certainly regret its selection as the winner of the 2002 Best Novel Hugo Award. Science Fiction, dammit! I protest!

Bad Boys II (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bad Boys II</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, July 2003) You don’t have to be a sadistic teenage sociopath to enjoy this film, but it definitely helps. Given that the original Bad Boys was the last dying gasp of the 1984-1995 era of R-rated buddy-cop adventures, it’s fitting that this sequel feels, in many ways, like a throwback to the eighties. Equal parts “Miami Vice” and “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”, this is first and foremost an action film, and it is never better than during the first fantastic car chase, featuring disintegrating cars dumped from a vehicle carrier on a claustrophobic Miami bridge. Memorable stuff even in a summer season packed with great car chases. (And memorable even though the basic concept has been used previously in Tokyo Raiders, much like the shantytown smash-down may very well have been suggested by a similar sequence in Police Story.) Other action sequences hold up rather well, and clearly show that even if director Michael Bay proves to be illiterate, he can move the camera and film mayhem like nobody else. Stupid action movies like this one are his forte, not pretentious pseudo-patriotic drivel like Pearl Harbor. His nervy direction is one of Bad Boys 2‘s many pleasures, along with the cool Miami locations, a wonderful Gabrielle Union, a très slick Will Smith, Joe Pantoliano’s caricatural cop chief and a few good comedy bits. Heck, even Martin Lawrence is generally tolerable, anchored as he is by Smith’s solid presence. He’s annoying, but he’s supposed to be. Had the movie concentrated on its strengths, if would have been a dynamite piece of action film. Alas, it doesn’t, and goes floundering in lengthy “hilarious” digressions (Martin’s exstasy trip is unbearable), gratuitous gross-outs and lame setups. It all adds up to a bloated two-and-a-half-hours film that contains a bit too many clunky elements to be totally successful.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2004) I love filmed mayhem, and few recent films have delivered so much of it as Michael Bay’s cheerfully sadistic sequel. It’s far from being a perfect film as a whole (dumb humor, choppy storytelling, uneven interest, etc.) but parts of it attain something very close to action perfection. The MacArthur Freeway chase sequence is an anthology piece; the shantytown destruction is a guilty pleasure; the opening credit sequence is a model of big-budget storytelling and the hearse pursuit is a gift for everyone’s inner sadist. Still, whatever you think of the film, there’s plenty of good things to say about the special-edition DVD, which gives an unparallelled glimpse in the making of a big-budget action film. There is little or no narration; the “video diary” approach, on the other hand, is tremendously effective. There is no audio commentary on the film, but the plethora of extras on the second disk make this absence irrelevant. I was especially impressed by the Freeway chase making-of. Spectacular!

American Psycho II: All American Girl (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">American Psycho II: All American Girl</strong> (2002)

(On DVD, July 2003) I don’t think anyone expected anything great from this straight-to-video sequel to the underrated 2000 black comedy. While this isn’t up to the level of quality of the first film, it’s actually not bad at all. Story: Patrick Bateman’s teen killer dedicates her life to crime-fighting, and if a few other students threaten her inevitable internship at the FBI… well, they’ll have to be taken out of consideration, right? The biting black comedy works more often than it doesn’t and if there are a number of useless plot twists in the third act, the film’s conclusion still packs a cute little punch that goes a long way toward satisfying any viewer with a taste for that foolishness. Interestingly enough, there’s very little gore in this film despite the regular murders: the emphasis is on the sarcastic narration and the black comedy more than the visceral horror thrills. William Shatner (yes, him) turns in an amusing performance as a middle-aged teacher, while Mila Kunis just may do good things if she keeps getting interesting roles like the psychotic “Rachael Newman”. As a teen horror film considered on its own merits (and not as a sequel), it’s surprisingly decent (far better than most of the crap that actually makes it to theatres) because it’s more funny than grisly. The DVD contains a few deleted scenes (some good stuff there), outtakes (ditto) and two commentary tracks, but director Morgan J. Freeman’s whiny, obvious patter is insufferable after ten minutes.

28 Days Later… (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">28 Days Later…</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, July 2003) It’s not particularly original to mix zombie films with post-apocalyptic SF, but I suppose that every generation needs its own “last man on Earth” story. Crudely shot on muddy digital video, 28 Days Later looks and feels exactly like the kind of film to acquire a cult following. Naturally, it’s also the kind of film to deserve cries of “overrated!” Certainly, it’s not all that good: Most of the film’s first half is spent hearing character say “don’t do this!” and then seeing other character do exactly that, with dire consequences. The latter half of the film slides into an unreal Ramboesque fantasy of one lone man decimating a bunch of villains. (Plus, it deals with primal topics our enlightened age would rather avoid) Director Danny Boyle adopts the stylistic philosophy that fast cutting, loud noises and grisly half-images equate terror. Alas, for some, this merely equals boredom: it will work for some and work against others. While not particularly bad nor good, 28 Days Later still holds some interest, especially if you haven’t drunk your fill of post-apocalyptic horror.

Darwin’s Blade, Dan Simmons

Morrow, 2000, 368 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97369-3

If you’ve been browsing the web for longer than six months, chances are that you’ve heard of the Darwin Awards, those dubious honorifics posthumously given “those who improve our gene pool… by removing themselves from it” (see their web site at www.darwinawards.com) or, more prosaically, to people so stupid they deserved to die. Darwin Awards lists get forwarded through the Internet regularly, cramming stories of fatal mishaps in countless email boxes at depressingly predictable intervals. (There is an interesting lack of self-awareness in blindly forwarding stories of stupid behaviour to everyone on your contact list, but I digress.)

Darwin’s Blade begins with a fictionalization of what may be the Darwin Awards’ most famous stupidity-induced death. I won’t spoil it, but this bizarre accident manages to showcase the deductive skills of one Darwin (“Dar”) Minor, an accident investigator with far more skills than one may suspect. Chapters later, as Darwin out-drives a pair of Russian thugs, he finds himself thick in the middle of a sordid insurance-scamming business where families die and billions of dollars are defrauded. Firefights, dogfights, sniping, romance and more wacky insurance cases are quick to follow.

Dan Simmons hops from genre to genre with great skill and success: Hyperion and its sequels rocked the science-fiction world and Summer of Night blew away more than one horror reader. Now, Darwin’s Blade is Simmons’ entry in the (techno)thriller genre. The action moves furiously from one thing to another, there is a pleasant density of technical details for just about every new gadget, military matters are mixed with detective work and the action ratchets up to (no kidding) a mano-a-mano duel in the middle of a grassy plain. Mixing high technology with primitive human stupidity, Darwin’s Blade is one tasty book for readers with a penchant for thrillers about unusual knowledge. As with his previous novels, Simmons has studied a genre and understood what readers want. Also obvious is Simmons’ penchant for recycling: Darwin’s Blade immediately evokes the similar accident-investigator story “Entropy’s Bed at Midnight” (from Lovedeath) and at one point echoes an idea from his short-short horror story “Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” (in Prayers to Broken Stones).

Like most thrillers, the appeal of Darwin’s Blade depends a lot on its protagonist. In Darwin Minor, we’ve certainly met a capable hero, perhaps even a little bit much so. For he’s not simply a top-rated accident investigator (one whose eponymous aphorism states that “the simplest solution is usually stupidity.”) Oh no; Excellent driver, PhD-holder (in nuclear physics, no less), Vietnam veteran Marine, expert sniper, champ sail-glider, world-class chess player, literature-lover, Darwin Minor packs enough interests to fill a full trilogy. But in what may be one of Darwin’s Blade most amusing flaw, his multiple talents are uncovered as the story requires them. By the time a flashback describes how a 19-year-old Darwin, already PhD in Nuclear Physics, defends a Vietnamese nuclear power plant against attack without it having a link to his academic background, well, it’s not hard to feel as if Simmons has crammed one too many talents in his stoic hero. Fortunately, there is a point to all of those skills besides the demands of the plot… but it’s made a bit too late to comfort the least indulgent readers.

The other not-quite-so-amusing flaw of the novel may be glaring to some and transparent to others, depending on their degree of familiarity with, yes, the Darwin Awards. Many well-known stories are simply transplanted in Darwin’s Blade with scarcely any winks to the knowledgeable audience. Besides the first few pages, the worst instance of this takes place at the end of Chapter 14, where the punchline of the whole sequence is obvious as soon as we read the words “chicken cannon”. Nearly everyone who knows what a chicken cannon is and how it’s used is also familiar with the one single famous anecdote about it. Unfortunately, Simmons takes five pages to spell it out.

But no matter: those quirks aside, super-protagonist Darwin Minor is one heck of a hero and the density of ideas, concepts and gadgets in Darwin’s Blade more than outweighs the faults it may have. Thanks to Simmons’ delicious prose and efficient plotting, the book roars along with the speed of an Acura NSX and delivers plenty of fun thrills despite the occasional disbelieving giggle or two. Simmons fans should be comforted; the man has successfully genre-hopped again.