(In theaters, April 2004) I have a bad, bad allergy to naturalistic film-making. But even that couldn’t keep me from appreciating this film, a cheerfully original piece of work that feels both fresh and gritty. The concept of memory erasure as a “solution” to heartbreak isn’t revolutionary (there are many Science Fiction stories dealing with that exact same theme), nor is the notion of Jim Carrey as a dramatic actor. But this film does wonders with both. A simple story (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girls has boy erased, boy does same) told in an eclectic style, Charlie Kaufman’s script seamlessly delves into matters of memory and identity. As a Science Fiction story, it’s interestingly realistic, featuring ordinary people who often do stupid things and jury-rigged technology that can go really wrong. It’s also admirable how it avoids the circular pessimism that is inherent in its premise, suggesting that it’s only by learning from mistakes and painful moments that we can grow. Obvious stuff, sure, but somehow the way it’s all done makes it seem new. (Much in the same way that the muddy cinematography of the film often obscures top-notch special effects) I’m still not completely blown away by the film (among other annoyances, it sports far too many gratuitously-weird moments that don’t end up meaning much at the end) but it’s a rare piece of solid SF cinema-as-art, something that can be discussed and taken apart.
(On DVD, April 2004) Fans of the usual wacky Hong Kong action cinema antics will find plenty to like here as three of the loveliest Hong Kong actresses are unleashed on a film that could best be described as… strange. Kidnapped babies are the MacGuffin here, but the real attraction is seeing Maggie Cheug, Anita Mui and (woo) Michelle Yeoh star in a series of action sequences. Strange stuff, well-directed with a tremendous amount of style. This isn’t for everyone, though: Even Hong Kong cinema connoisseurs are likely to wince at some of the casual violence inflicted on babies in this film, especially when it’s glossed over in favour of more heroic images (To quote: “…most of the babies were returned unharmed…” Eeek!) On the other hand, the film has an undeniable sexiness, especially when the lead trio is allowed to, er, stretch their legs. Don’t miss the “exoskeleton” finale. The bare-bones American DVD is another fine hatchet job by Miramax, which can’t even be bothered to include an original-language track.
Harper Perennial, 1994, 272 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-097662-4
After discovering the silliness of Christopher Buckley in Little Green Men, it didn’t take me a long time to bring back home other examples of his work. Alas, as if often the case when picking up authors in mid-career, going back to earlier works can be disappointing, as we regress to a more unpolished style and less-controlled plotting. No, I didn’t go nuts for Thank You For Smoking nearly as much as Little Green Men. But don’t let that stop you from reading the book.
Christopher Buckley, novelist, is really a social satirist. Before tackling the world of UFO conspiracies in Little Green Men, his Thank You For Smoking took careful aim at the special-interest community. Our protagonist and narrator, Nick Taylor, is a spokesman for the tobacco industry. The job has its small annoyances (like being likened to Nazis and various creatures of the underworld) but it pays the bills, represents a constant challenge and allows Nick to travel around the country and attend public events where participants hiss at him. It’s, all things considered, a good life. That is, until Nick starts making too many waves and someone, somewhere wants him dead through an ironic execution.
Suddenly, Nick doesn’t know who to trust. Even as he’s enjoying his highest media profile in years, even as the leaders of Big Tobacco start noticing his efforts, even as he sleeps with just about every available female character, his enemies start to accumulate. Are they anti-smokers or pro-smokers with twisted motives? What about Nick’s colleagues in the special-interest community? Are those NRA spokespersons jealous of Nick’s sudden celebrity? Unless… what if the Tumbleweed Man, ex-industry icon now living off oxygen bottles, has decided to take his final revenge?
General points of comparison with Little Green Men abound. Both novels revolve around Washington, as Buckley demonstrates his inside knowledge of how the machinery of influence really works. Both novels feature a protagonist who comes to reconsider everything he believes in, even if it results in him losing everything he holds dear. Both novels do believable jobs of creating their own brand of reality slight off-kilter from our own, while remaining credible. Both can be read in a flash.
The main difference is that Thank You For Smoking is somewhat less funny than Little Green Men. The latter novel had the good sense to go for the jugular and be hysterically silly when it needed to be. No so here, as things are carefully kept from going over the edge of reality. It’s off-beat but not zany. Whereas Little Green Men was funny, Thank You For Smoking is merely amusing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being merely amusing. In fact, some readers are more likely to prefer a novel that stays within the bounds of a certain recognizable reality. It’s not as if I disliked Thank You For Smoking (well, aside from the impression that the narrator was a slut for sleeping with every female he could lay his hands on) as much as I thought it was a let-down from Buckley’s later novel.
Certainly, Thank You For Smoking is well-worth reading for light entertainment. (The progressive transformation of the protagonist in someone we can cheer for is remarkable in itself.) There’s plenty of satiric content for anyone even remotely familiar with special-interest groups, and even if the ending isn’t completely successful (what is with chapter 29, anyway?), it’s not as if the rest of the novel isn’t pure fun. As for me, well, I’m not done with Buckley’s other novels yet.
(In French, In theaters, April 2004) French-Canadian cinema is still at a stage where it’s amazed whenever it manages to deliver competent American-style entertainment. Every so often, though, it slips back into the kind of depressing introspective drama that used to pass for cinematic entertainment around here. And so Le Dernier Tunnel is a mix of both tendencies: After a long set-up describing how a master thief goes back in the crime business after a stint in the hole, the film holds its own when comes the time to build tension and suspense. While the first two acts are both sketchy (in plotting) and self indulgent (in repetitive “character-building”), the last twenty minutes are pure action cinema, complete with a CGI shot of an exploding mailboxes and a bullet-time effect. Whew! But just when you think that this is going to end American-style, the film grinds to a halt, jettisoning whatever good will it had managed to accumulate and going back to old-style defeatism. While there is a place for an ending in which not everyone gets what they want, the choice here is grating: The absence of a twist, the drawn-out finale that amounts to nothing, the lack of satisfaction after a conventional build-up all conspire to negate the film’s momentum. The credits roll, the lights go up, and the audience is cheated by a film that just lost its nerve.
(In theaters, April 2004) As a French-Canadian, I don’t really remember the Alamo given that I was never told about it in the first place. Things are unlikely to change with this film. Oh, the American jingoism is part of the film’s problems, but by no means the biggest one: Far more damaging is the chaotic storytelling, coupled with a lazy pacing that just makes one wish for a speedier massacre. Recent historical films such as The Last Samurai have proved that it’s feasible to create a historical tale that’s both clear and fast-paced. But The Alamo wastes so much time on trivialities that it struggles to keep our attention. Fortunately, a few things are worth staying awake for: Billy Bob Thornton’s excellent performance as Davy Crockett, the impressive historical re-creation of the fort and some of the final combat scenes. (Connoisseurs of camp may also appreciate Santa Anna’s over-the-top cruelty) Otherwise, well, it’s a long slog that actually gets worse near the end of the film: While a movie like The Alamo cries out for credits right after the death of the last American at the fort, this one (like Pearl Harbor) feels compelled to stretch the story even further to show ultimate American triumph. Er, no: It’s not okay to show Mexicans massacring Americans as bad and then Americans massacring Mexicans as good. Add to that the shameless hero-building (viz Crockett’s last scene), the bloodless combats, the overdone dialogues and the result is an Alamo likely to be forgotten.
Dell, 2000, 445 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23509-X
I remember reading James Powlik’s first novel, Sea Change, with some interest but not much enthusiasm. It was a solid, competent thriller with good sequences featuring familiar elements. Some silliness here and there, but nothing bad enough to make anyone stop reading. In other words, a thoroughly adequate thriller.
Meltdown doesn’t step too far off the mark set by Powlik’s first novel.
At least it has (for this Canuck reviewer) the added interest of taking place in Canada. In Canada’s extreme North, mind you (somewhere at large of Baffin Island), but in Canada nonetheless. The prologue bashes Canada’s treatment of its Inuit population, there’s one amusing reference to Ottawa’s Sparks street and the Canadian Coast Guard gets to be mentioned a few times, but otherwise it doesn’t matter much: Meltdown is simply set in a cold and desolate location where something very bizarre is about to happen.
In the first few pages of the novel, two divers are severely affected by a short dive in glacial waters. Suffering from an extreme form of radiation poisoning, they die within hours, prompting their colleagues to call for help. If you’ve read Sea Change, you may already expect a certain someone, and you won’t be disappointed: Brock Garner, renegade oceanographer extraordinaire, is more than willing to answer distress calls from a beautiful woman, especially if she just happens to be his very own ex-wife Dr. Carlon Harmon. (Yes, there’s still something between them.) Before long, he’s on a plane headed north, having packed both his long johns and his advanced oceanographic gadgets.
What he discovers up there is alarming enough: massive radiation contamination, with drastic effects on everything it touches. Left unchecked, this terrible environmental disaster could heat up the Gulf Stream (or something like that) and usher in a new Ice Age. What is the source of the contamination? What can be done to stop it? And how is Brock going to escaped unharmed from everything that’s sure to happen to him in a thriller?
To be fair, Meltdown starts with an intriguing mystery and milks a lot of interest out of the source of the radioactive spill. Is it natural or man-made? Accidental or intentional? Civilian or military? Water is the great unifier, and so Powlik’s novel is a grand excuse to learn a little bit about tons of subjects, from radioactivity to metal-eating bacteria to secret military catastrophes. Techno-thriller fans; welcome, please enjoy the book.
Unfortunately, there’s a palpable lessening of tension once the source of the radiation is identified. Silly little side-plots mixing Chinese (or is it Indian?) spies and super-absorbing molecules start appearing suddenly with various degrees of effectiveness. I quite liked one unfortunate accident three-quarter of the way in, but the latter half of the novel was uneven, sometimes grabbing my interest and sometimes not. The ending is a bit too tidy: I happen to believe that eco-catastrophes can’t be solved with a magical silver bullet; unfortunately, that seems to be the case here. (Amusingly enough, while Sea Change had an ominous epilogue, it doesn’t appear to be the case with Meltdown. Another case of an author settling for easy answer in order to stretch a series of thrillers? We’ll see.)
Still, the book is easy enough to read, and there’s plenty of fascinating asides to satisfy any beach reader. Some vivid action scenes stand out despite the uneven nature of the narrative. The characters may be unpolished, but they’re efficient at moving the action along and don’t torture themselves endlessly with moral dilemmas. It would be helpful if Powlik could sustain interest in both his plot and his characters, but Meltdown isn’t particularly worse than Sea Change. (Indeed, reviewing my notes on the previous novel, it looks as if Meltdown isn’t quite as silly as the first book, which is already something.) I may not be overly enthusiastic about Powlik’s oeuvre so far, but I’m not repelled either; if nothing else, I’m more than willing to try his next effort. After all, if nothing else, I’m a sucker for tons of techno-jargon.