Monica La Mitraille [Machine-Gun Molly] (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Monica La Mitraille</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Machine-Gun Molly</strong>] (2004)

(In French, In theaters, May 2004) While it’s not true to speak of Monique “Machine Gun Molly” Sparvieri as a folk heroine, she does have a place in the small pantheon of French-Canadian criminals. Coming from the slums on post-war Montreal, her life in crime proved more acceptable than most other options, and if the film does one thing relatively well, it’s to depict the hard life she led. It helps that Céline Bonnier does such a good job portraying the title character, with all of her flaws and complicated relationships. (As usual with French-Canadian cinema, almost all supporting roles are filled with familiar faces) Unfortunately, the film isn’t as rigorous when comes the time to present a coherent story on top of its anecdotal scenes: The passage of time feels muddled, some events make sense only in retrospect and -to make things worse- a number of frustrating shortcuts are taken (such as having everyone meet repeatedly over the same stretch of The Main). The final impression is fragmented, leaving the impression of having seen a two-hour promo for Georges-Hébert Germain’s biography. While one gets that Machine-Gun Molly was a formidable woman, the film doesn’t care to spell out which kind of formidable.

High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, Rusel DeMaria & Johnny L. Wilson

McGraw Hill Osborne, 2002, 328 pages, C$24.99 tpb, ISBN 0-07-222428-2

Faithful readers of these reviews may recall my teenage fascination for video games, but they may not suspect the depth of it. Simply put, from 1983 to 1993, I knew just about everything about the subject. Blessed with ample free time and a network of like-minded friends, armed with a trusty Commodore 64 (followed by the latter succession of PCs), I devoured the magazines of the time, played games obsessively, wrote about them in the high school newspaper and basically lived a decade under the influence.

Then I discovered the Internet, went to university and, well, something had to give.

But thanks to Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson, I now own a time capsule of the era: High Score! packs nothing less than three decades of video games in 328 gorgeously illustrated pages. Everything from Pong to the X-Box, complete with quotes from the industry’s historical figures, descriptions of games and companies and enough screenshots to make you feel as if you’re back in front of vintage games.

Roughly divided in three chronological sections (the 70s, 80s and 90s), High Score! is crammed with material, both textual and visual. The scope of the book is, admittedly, bigger than my own experience with the subject matter: It delves deep into the prehistory of electronic games (namely; arcades and pre-Atari 2600 consoles), and then goes on to do a very good job balancing computer games with the series of consoles that developed concurrently. (Not being a console fan, I could only nod in recognition at memories of my friend’s video games from Nintendos to Playstations)

The first part, “the 70s”, is the most linear of the three: Given the historical perspective and relatively uncluttered gaming landscape of the time, it’s easy for the authors to present a flowing narrative. One event clearly leads to another, copycats turn into innovators and there are so few games that they can be highlighted on a yearly basis. It’s a heroic age where personalities and individual talents are crucial.

Some of that individual heroism carries through in “The 80s”, even as the field starts to mature and define itself as an industry. Small organizations start taking on the personalities formerly held by individuals. Mentions of Epyx, Electronic Arts, Activision, SSI and others all evoke warm happy memories of seeing those logos on my plucky Commodore 64. (“Accolade Presents”… Ooh, mommy!)

Alas, the “narrative” of High Score! also starts to break down as the industry explodes in random directions. Whereas the book’s first third is linear and absorbing, it then switches to a more free-flowing approach as it tries to cover all facets of the field. Unfortunately, this leads to uncomfortable breaks; when covering a company like Sierra, for instance, there are clear differences between the King’s Quest Sierra and the Half-Life Sierra. Shovelling the entire history of the company between pages 134-143, in “The 80s”, is a jarring choice. Among many others.

Given my declining interest in computer games during the nineties, it’s somewhat ironic to read how, in the introduction to the third part of the book, the authors had a harder time pulling together the final threads. Electronic gaming has since gone mainstream, taking over pop culture as yet another entertainment option. Oh well. Unfortunately (and this will only grow worse as we move away from 2002), High Score! ends at a curious junction, barely mentioning the Playstation 2 / X-Box / Nintendo 64 platforms, as well as Grand Theft Auto and other newer landmarks of electronic gaming which, after all, always marches on.

But don’t think it’s enough to diminish my admiration for the book. High Score! and myself deserved each other. Especially noteworthy is the fantastic graphic design used to lay out the book. Every page is a thing of beauty, laid out clearly to highlight the interesting material. Screen-shots are crisp, quotes are appropriate and the material is well-written. I especially loved the profiles of specific games… especially when they matched my own favourites!

No doubt about it: For an old-school computer game geek such as myself, reading the book was like surfing from one pleasant memory to another. You can keep your high-school photo album: This is the true record of how I spend my teenage years!

Les Invasions Barbares [The Barbarian Invasions] (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Les Invasions Barbares</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Barbarian Invasions</strong>] (2003)

(In French, In theaters, May 2004) To be truthful, I wasn’t expecting much of this film: I’m not one for tearjerkers, gabfests, “populist” films (this film made a bundle at the Quebec box-office) nor melodramatic sequels. But there is something for everyone in the film, and if I could easily gloss over the melodrama of the dying protagonist, it was harder not to enjoy the witty intellectual dialogue between the band of literate, hedonistic friends at the centre of the film. Les Invasions Barbares is seldom as enjoyable as when they trade back salacious puns and philosophical references. (Sadly, the otherwise-decent subtitles completely give up during one such exchange… though at least we were spared the indignities of a dubbed film!) Otherwise, well, there is plenty of philosophical content to keep anyone busy, from a flash-analysis of 9/11 to a devastating scene literally showing the relics of Quebec’s Catholic church. (What this film isn’t is “focused”: the sprawling script touches upon anything and seeming everything.) In the end, I found myself cheering for the film, regardless of origin; it’s so rare to see liberal intellectualism so warmly portrayed than it is here, it’s just a shock to realize that it actually came from, in some sense, my own culture. Go figure.

Feardotcom (2002)

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

(On DVD, May 2004) There’s a good reason why critics savaged this film when it first came out: It’s just not very good. Whatever visual polish the film may possess is bludgeoned into impotence through endless dark and damp cinematography. No point for variety here; the whole film quickly becomes annoying. While Feardotcom wants to explore the dark side of the Internet, it ends up feeling silly and forced; as the bizarre deaths pile up, one gets the impression that nothing will be explained. As it turns out, this is the correct impression: the conclusion devolves into silly serial murderer stuff, complete with a throwaway line about how the ghostly energy of mumbo-jumbo can leak (or leap, or squeak) from the Internet into the real world. Don’t gag me; I’m already doing that. Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone do their best with the material, but it’s a hopeless situation: McElhone is miscast (she’s better in more aloof roles) and Dorff is ineffective at giving life to the lame dialogue. The film descends so firmly into dull disinterest that I switched midway through my first viewing to the director’s audio commentary. Director William Malone seems well-intentioned, but Feardotcom can’t be salvaged with good intentions.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Day After Tomorrow</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, May 2004) It’s either growing mellowness or creeping senility, but I seem to be liking Roland’s Emmerich’s catastrophe films more and more. Hated Independence Day, was okay with Godzilla and now The Day After Tomorrow actually manages to be even a little bit good. Sure, it’s crammed with silly dialogue, familiar plotting and dumb Action Movie Moments (including characters out-running a tidal wave). But on the other hand, the destruction sequences are among the finest ever filmed. Hollywood’s destruction by mega-twisters is worth the price of the ticket by itself: Add to that the spectacle of New York getting flooded, then freezing in place and you have enough eye-candy to satisfy anyone. (For more, er, conventional eye-candy, check out the luscious Tamlyn Tomita. Wrrrw!) I wasn’t so amused by the lack of cold-sense exhibited by the characters (In sub-zero temperatures, you close doors behind you) nor the silly way the action scenes got amped-up through magically appearing axes or CGI wolves. Still, there is an undeniable power to The Day After Tomorrow, even if it’s in contemplating a chillingly plausible disaster. It’s a catastrophe film that aspires to a conscience and a brain: Considerable death and destruction isn’t fought and stopped at the last moment; science is seen as a provider of answers and safety and people find safety at a public library, be still my nerdish heart! (Plus, who survives? The gifted teens and the librarians! Wooo!) Sure, the science is intentionally unrealistic. But once you see New York under dozens of meters of snow, hardly any of that matter: The Day After Tomorrow delivers the goods. Consider the DVD pre-ordered.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Random House, 2000, 639 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-28299-0

Now that is one amazing book.

Deftly mixing such disparate elements as World War II, New York City, Antarctica, homosexuality, the Empire State Building, the Holocaust, movies, Picasso and -above all- comic books, it’s a novel unlike any other, straddling history, alternate reality and a little bit of traditional fantasy. More than simply a snapshot of America between 1939 and 1954, more than a rags-to-riches story of successful artists, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay also stands as one of the few works compelling to both genre and mainstream audiences.

It was inevitable, I suppose; after years of increasing literary sophistication in the comic book field, it was about time that someone on the other side of the fence took an interest in the world comic books. Michael Chabon isn’t merely just any mainstream author, though; without even looking at his biography, his love of comics shines through the book like a lighthouse. But as he sets out to tell the astounding story of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, it’s also obvious that he’s doing a lot more than pay homage to the wonderful Golden Age of Comics.

1939: After many misadventures (soon described in the book’s first section), Josef Kavalier arrives in New York, seeking sanctuary as the situation in his hometown of Prague gets worse and worse for all Jews. Scarcely a few days after arrival, Joe and his cousin Samuel Klayman are able, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, to create a brand-new comic book for an ambitious publisher looking for another Superman. Soon enough, “The Escapist” is born and a new age in comic books is underway. Meanwhile, all the way over there in Europe, a war begins.

As Chabon describes the war through the viewpoint of two comic book artists working in New York, sublimating their anger through art and doing their best to get ahead in the comics industry, it quickly becomes obvious that this is a big, big, big novel. Romantic entanglements, family tragedies, period detail and comic book scenarios all intermingle to form a single narrative. It attains a climax of sort on December 7th, 1941, but the story is far from being over; indeed, the next section titled “Radioman” may just be the best part of the book. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an epic story about two guys and the whole world. The depth of detail that Chabon gives to the story is just astonishing; even for casual fans of the era, he manages to seamlessly insert Kavalier, Clay and their Escapist in 1940s New York, all the way to the (hiss!) Wertram era.

But scope and verisimilitude aren’t the only virtues of this novel; more than anything, this is a book that succeeds on great characterizations and superb writing. Chabon is a playful stylist, and so the narrative is told from a modern perspective that recalls the work of an enthusiastic biographer, albeit one with the omniscience required to peek at unread letters and buried feelings. Comic book scripts are dramatized and inserted in the narrative. Some historical cameos will make comic book fans coo with glee. A touch of matter-of-fact fantasy is inserted in the best magical realism tradition. Flashbacks, flash-forwards and dastardly twists are strewn through the whole book. Packed with delicious prose from the first to the last page, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is hard to stop reading after even the first chapter.

But as the title of the novel suggests, it’s Kavalier and Clay themselves, along with the rest of the supporting characters, who make the book such a unique reading experience. The partnership and contrast between tall, quiet, tortured Kavalier and stocky, hustling, equally-tortured Clay is credible even as outlandish events unfold in their lives. Great stuff, enhanced by sympathetic portraits of them both.

All in all, a heck of a book. It has deservedly won a Pulizer prize, but more important, it’s a hugely enjoyable novel with wide appeal in and out the mainstream literary crowd. It’s the sort of thing to make genre fans fall in love with the straight-up fiction category and general audiences pay attention to comic books. Everyone gets ahead!

[May 2004: As I finish my review, I see that a derivative comic book called “The Escapist” is out there, giving tangible form to the comics described in the novel. Neat!]