(On DVD, January 2004) It’s a movie about a horse. Yes, it’s well directed, and it’s got a few interesting moments here and there. But in almost any aspect, it’s old fashioned. A film that your grandparents would love, had your grandparents been Americans. The dialogue, directing, cinematography, values… good, but unremarkable. Even “the future” so triumphantly promised in the film is comfortably in our own past. Yes, the horse is a metaphor for depression-era America. Get over it. Tobey Maguire is indifferent as Seabiscuit’s jockey. Far more interesting are Jeff Bridges as his rich employer and Chris Cooper as a tough horse trainer. Otherwise, well, there isn’t much to say about the film: the making-of featurettes included on the DVD are nearly more interesting than the film itself, as they describe how some of the horse-racing scenes were shots and how the writer/director adapted the original book into a script, and then into a series of shots. The true history of Seabiscuit is also quite interesting, though it ends along with the film and not at the true end of the road for this horse and its humans. (The end of their story was, shall we say, rather darker than a Hollywood movie ending.) This is a completely safe family film experience. No edge… but apparently it was good enough for Oscar nominations.
(On DVD, January 2004) Most Michael Moore fans discovered him with this film and then followed his career through Canadian Bacon and the rest. I had to start with 2002’s Bowling For Columbine and work my way back, but the big surprise is that even fifteen years later, Roger & Me is still as relevant than it was back in 1989. This feature-length opinion piece (not exactly a documentary, mind you) detailing the downfall of Flint, Michigan along with General Motors’ plant closure still resonates in this Bush II era of offshoring and jobless recovery. A colourful cast of real characters makes good fodder for Moore’s omnipresent camera, along with some staggering revelations coming forth unsolicited. Yes, this is a film that practises misdirection: The chronological order of some events is jumbled up and there’s the obvious feeling that Moore is cherry-picking his material. But that, in itself, does nothing to invalidate Moore’s thesis and even less to diminish the emotional impact of the film. Through its numerous tangents (“Pet or Meat: Rabbits for sale”) and sometimes gratuitous grandstanding, Moore manages to produce a mesmerizing piece of cinema that’s as compelling as great fiction. The editing of the film alone is a model in indictment: I especially liked how careful juxtaposition of scenes managed to make four frail old ladies seem the most evil quartet on planet Earth. Also up for props: The self-serving words of a corporate executive, intercut with heart-breaking scenes of a family being evicted on Christmas Eve. Great stuff. Alas, few things have changed since then. The DVD includes a commentary by Moore which, while interesting and informative, also seems half-lacking in substance.
Knopf, 2003, 103 pages, C$27.00 hc, ISBN 1-4000-4093-0
In the June/July 2002 edition of Policy Review, Robert Kagan wrote an article titled “Power and Weakness”, in which he tried to explain the growing policy differences between the US and European leaders. It begins with “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.” and goes on from there. Lucky readers who consulted the article early on had the rare privilege of prescience over the next few months, as the whole unilateral rush toward the American invasion of Iraq gave proof to Kagan’s theory.
While the article is available on line (and yes, you should read it), its lucid description of Pax Americana geopolitics was deemed worth of expansion and book publication. The resulting work, Of Paradise and Power: American and Europe in the New World Order, may be an exceedingly thin book, but don’t be fooled by its succinctness: It’s a brilliant piece of work.
Kagan argues that since the winner of the Cold War has been decided, the western world is gradually losing its convenient cohesion. National interests are once again taking precedence over global ideological goals. Now that the burden of the “War on Terrorism” has been taken over by America, allies of convenience are looking at each other warily.
But America and Europe (as Kagan explains, the success of the European Union is proof enough that “Europe” can now be considered as a cohesive entity) are dealing with this era in vastly different fashions. America’s thinking is being influenced by its military strength and its economic power, much like Europe’s thinking is being affected by its lack of military strength and its own version of economic success. The tools dictate the ways to perform the work and this has substantial implications in the way those two entities approach conflicts and dangers. If Europe can’t field an effective army, it will depend on economic and diplomatic negotiation to develop a mutually acceptable settlement. If America has unstoppable destructive power, it will try to fix a problem through overwhelming force before bothering with other options.
But it doesn’t stop there: While America is increasingly willing to use power, Europe seems equally complacent in assuming that the United States will come in and solve everyone’s problems. Hence the lack of progress on the notion of unified European armed forces. Europe, in some ways, thinks of itself as beyond history, as living in a sort of postmodern paradise.
Kagan takes great care to point out that this kind of thinking is not recent, nor has it been precipitated uniquely by the inauguration of the Bush Administration or the attacks of September 11, 2001. While the Clinton administration may have soft-pedalled America’s growing hegemony after the fall of the USSR, it established the bases of its successor’s unilateralism. Similarly, Europe’s insistence on multilateralism is an entirely consistent response with past decisions, including the formation of NATO. Then there’s the trifling detail that America is now acting like European powers did when they had power; the players may have changed, but the tactics certainly haven’t. It just depends on who has the most weapons at any given moment.
This book doesn’t think small. Barring catastrophe or singularity, it’s a roadmap to the likely geopolitics of the early twenty-first century. Reading it is like placing the last pieces in an especially difficult puzzle. With clear prose and lucid examples, Kagan manages to link together past events, policy decisions, social trends and news items. Time will tell if it’s a truly important book, but at this moment it reads like one of the most compelling explanations of the way things are at the moment. It’s a perfect tool for anyone looking at international affairs, and can be applied to a surprising number of current events.
There are a few objections, mind you; America’s trend toward self-centred isolationism is not particularly well-debunked (though Kagan does attempt to do so rather than ignore it) and there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement at the economic dimension of power and paradise. It’s unclear whether US military superiority can be maintained without massive amounts of foreign investment, and whether this money flow can be sustained even as foreign investors are figuring out the extent of American hegemony –not to mention the fact that they are the ones paying for it. (More speculative commentators are welcome to ponder whether America has finally put conventional warfare out of financial reach for everyone else. Wouldn’t that be a kickin’ application of lassez-faire market forces? An American monopoly on war!) Finally, the book may offer a cogent thesis of what is happening, but it’s not as successful in explaining what can happen next.
But those are small quibbles. Letting aside the fact that the book is a pure delight to read and understand, its worth is obvious, because it just makes sense. It’s consistent with the evening news: Doesn’t Europe’s relationship toward American power also reflect the attitude of smaller states such as, say, Canada? Granted, Of Paradise and Power doesn’t have the eerily predictive aura of the original article… but chances are that over the next few years, we’ll see plenty of empirical proof for Kagan’s assertions. For better or for worse. Expect this book to be a fixture of political science courses for a while, and the precursor to other work expanding its central thesis.
(In theaters, January 2004) This is a film that, yes, revolves around a murder investigation. Cops discover the body, accumulate clues, interrogate suspects and eventually catch the killer. But where Mystic River leaves more conventional crime thrillers behind is in how it doesn’t limit itself to just a genre story: By focusing on the victim and the impact of her death on friends and family, writer Brian Helgeland gives all the necessary material to director Clint Eastwood to craft a film with more ambitious goals. The result may not be perfect (the pacing is a bit too slow, and the ending is intentionally frustrating) but it’s still a good film. The cast is impressive (it’s hard to pick a favourite performance when you’ve got Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins and Lawrence Fishburne to choose from) and the investigation moves at a delicious pace. What’s not so compelling is the drama side of the equation, which beats up viewers over the head over and over again with the same points, symbolism and torpid pacing. Ironically enough, much of the same story could have been told without the childhood abuse tale that frames the film. The ending takes a quick turn toward tragedy as not all the guilty are punished and not all the innocents are given justice. But it’s a film with a lot of content, and some of it is bound to hit even as some manages to miss the target. Not bad.
(In theaters, January 2004) You don’t have to be a screenwriter to appreciate the achievement that is Love Actually, but it helps: It’s hard enough to juggle one or two plotlines that anyone with the guts to try to keep seven or eight such stories going at the same time must be congratulated for the effort. Not all subplots are as equally effective, but it doesn’t matter very much when they’re all wrapped in layers of such sugary holiday sweetness. Writer/Directory Richard Curtis succeeds more than he fails in producing a superior romantic comedy, one that is as funny as it is uplifting. He’s helped with a cast of stars (Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson and Colin Firth are as good as always), judicious pacing and a hip sensibility: I’m surely not the only one to find it very interesting that standing up to an “American bully” president would come across as a plot point worth cheering for. Rarely has there been such an effective holiday romantic comedy. One one level, Love Actually is pure manipulation; on the other, it’s truly effective. Bring the whole family or snuggle with your loved one, enjoy the minimalist elegance of the script or indulge in the unabashed sentimentality of it all.
(In theaters, January 2004) It happens once in a whileit once in a while: a low-budget film, helmed by someone somehow known to critics, featuring a veteran actor doing something different. Add to that some “naturalistic” cinematography, almost accidental directing, a paucity of dialogue and an unconventional bittersweet conclusion and you get an instant favourite amongst real critics. Meanwhile, general audiences and wannabe critics like myself are likely to remain unimpressed. There is, to be fair, a lot to like about Lost In Translation: Bill Murray’s hangdog melancholy is well-exploited, Scarlett Johansson is huggable and the various difficulties they having in coming to term with Japanese culture are a lot of fun to witness. (Heck, the culture shock alone is almost worth a viewing by itself, despite my own reservations about the rest of the film) But as the movie drags on to its conclusion, it’s hard to avoid thinking that two hours are a long time in which to tell something that doesn’t happen. Many scenes just drag on and on, not exactly helped by the overindulgent editing and Sofia Coppola’s approximate directing. The cinematography lacks crispness and the dialogues are in need of some further deliberation, but the languid pacing is by far the film’s worst characteristic. Halfway though the film, I had a mini-epiphany about realism versus polish in filmmaking, and the reasons why my vote was firmly on the unnatural side, but it didn’t seem as convincing once the credits rolled. Maybe I’ll revisit it one day, but one thing is for sure: There’s not much of a reason to watch this film again. It’s OK, and it’s likely to appeal far more to older viewers. Oh, and Academy voters. Go figure.
Jove, 2002, 405 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13486-4
Civil aviation has changed a lot since the jet-set era of the fifties. Lower ticket prices coupled with the airlines’ insatiable lust for higher profits have made modern air travel less comfortable and more stressful. “Air rage” has entered the vocabulary, reflecting the distasteful truth that planes will still take you to destination, but in unpleasant ways that may be unacceptable to an increasing proportion of passengers. As if that wasn’t enough, the demonstrated propensity of terrorists to use airliners as guided missiles has tightened the screws even further on the pressure boiler of civil aviation.
While aviation thrillers have existed for decades (reaching their height in popularity during the seventies, following the 1970 film adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s Airport), one of the best things about Turbulence is how uniquely modern it feels. Here, there is no glamour left in the cattle-like industry of air transport: Passengers are herded in uncomfortable planes, abused by airlines staff, ill-served by incompetent personnel, plunged in the middle of an overburdened airspace control system and at the constant mercy of a paranoid US government only too happy to eliminate security risks. Take a good long look at the 2002 publication date, because this book couldn’t have been published any earlier.
In this particular case, Turbulence‘s Meridian Flight Six is -thanks to the author- custom-loaded with a powder keg of resentment: a heart surgeon with a deep hatred for the airline that killed his wife, a sadistic senior flight attendant, an insecure captain, rowdy passengers, unsafe equipment and plenty of aggravations. The first leg of the flight, from Chicago to London, is bad enough. But when things go really wrong over Africa on the way to Cape Town, it all spins out of control: The passengers mutiny, the planes is forced to land on a jungle airstrip and the US government becomes convinced that terrorists armed with chemical weapons have taken control of the aircraft. When the plane doubles back toward Europe, fighter jets are mobilized to shoot it down before it can do any harm.
Nance is an old hand when it comes to thrillers (most who recognize his name will do so in his capacity of the author of the novel from which was adapted the TV series Pandora’s Clock, but he’s written ten other thrillers) and it shows: Turbulence is an ever-increasing exercise in heightening tension, as bad attitudes aboard the plane translate in small spats, leading up to more forceful arguments, physical confrontation and -ultimately- a good deal of violence. Meanwhile, the US government is confronted with mounting evidence of terrorist activities and is forced to take action against what it’s perceiving as a clear and immediate danger. While the various elements of Turbulence‘s suspense are a bit outlandish in how they all converge, there’s no denying that the result is a satisfying crescendo.
It helps, of course, that Nance has got the traditional thriller style down pat. The characters are developed just enough to make them sympathetic. It takes a while, but eventually all the pieces of the plot have a place in the action, and the result is quite a readable novel. As the clock ticks down to a conclusion, Turbulence delivers satisfying suspense and entertainment. Unfortunate readers struck down by a sudden cold half-way through the novel may end up having plane-related nightmares.
It’s not great art (the prose can be clunky at times) nor is it likely to be memorable, but it’s likely to be optioned by a studio any time soon. It it would be too presumptuous to flag the book as a call for reform in the airline industry (Meridian’s behaviour is a touch extreme, shall we say), but there’s no doubt that the picture described in this novel -however hyperbolic- reflects what many are thinking about modern civilian flight. It’s a fine line between affordable air travel and dangerous air travel; here’s hoping that Turbulence‘s suspense becomes increasingly unbelievable as things evolve.
(On DVD, January 2004) If nothing else, martial arts fans should watch this film for the incredible pre-opening credit action sequence, a deeply impressive duel involving spears and burning logs waved around like sticks. Great stuff, especially given that it combines the film’s two biggest strengths: a crew that knows what it’s doing when it comes to kung-fu and fantastic images that makes this such a beautiful film to watch. Many of the subsequent scenes are quite good, but few of them attain the impact of the crazy opening sequence. It’s not such a beautiful film when it comes to the dialogue, though: As with many Asian films, the emotional registers of the film keep switching abruptly, the acting is a lot less subtle than Western movies and the dialogue is often of the on-the-nose variety with scarce place for nuances. Jet Li’s performance is dubbed in a fashion that brings to mind the worst William Shatner imper!son!nations!, though it’s unclear as to whether the flaw lies in the performance or the dub. Alas, the bare-bones DVD only features an English dub, not the original audio track. Very disappointing, even though the rest of the transfer is flawless. Of interest to martial arts fans, mostly.
(On DVD, January 2004) While I rather enjoyed this film, I’m not as enthusiastic about it than some of my esteemed fellow critics specializing in SF/Fantasy films. The main reason being that for all of its science-fictional trappings, Donnie Darko remains a work of fantasy, not speculative science fiction. The deliberately weird ending makes sort of a superficial sense, but doesn’t actually end up completing the causal loop suggested by the film’s fascination with time-travel. Still, even with that sour taste in mouth, there’s a lot to recommend here, from the tortured performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as the eponymous protagonist to the delightfully twisted visuals (have you ever seen an uglier rabbit?), darkly funny passages and acerbic dialogues. (Heck, even Drew Barrymore looks positively attractive in her goth intellectual role) It’s almost constantly interesting, even though the interest stems from the mystery and the mystery is simply sidelined at the end to make place for a weepy finale that is supposed to make everything seems all that much more significant. Eh. At least the rest of the film works well. The DVD contains a bunch of extras that were simply too numerous to review before it was time to return it. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
(In theaters, January 2004) Mix in a tragic love story, scenes of war and destruction, plenty of cameos from recognizable actors, lush landscapes, a quirky performance from an established star (Renée Zellweger, playing a character that squints less than usual) and plenty of historical period detail. What do you have? Why, a sign that it’s Oscar-bait season again. Granted, Cold Mountain is more entertaining than what you may imagine for a Civil War love story: There’s a lot more gunplay and nudity than I expected. There are some remarkable visuals (including a nightmarish, but historically accurate “crater of doom”), one big explosion, good performances and an interesting look at civilian life in the Deep South during that period. Jude Law is credible in a role in which every woman he meets wants him in their bed and Nicole Kidman has a good turn as a blonde Southern belle left to her own devices. Story-wise, though, this is a film with significant problems: huge coincidences are shamelessly used as plot drivers and the overall thrust of the story is quite predictable. As if that wasn’t enough, the episodic nature of the screenplay is a disappointment: whole sections could be cut out without any impact on the rest of the film. (Why yes, I’m thinking about the Natalie Portman “Sara” segment) It’s certainly not bad at all, but neither is it a masterpiece. Oscar-bait, like other type of films, can also be overrated.
(In theaters, January 2004) Tim Burton is known for the exuberant quality of his visual imagination, and if Big Fish is more sedate than usual in terms of eye-candy, it’s still certainly not a run-of-the-mill film. Alternating between realistic segments in which a young man faces his dying father and more lurid moments in which fantasies are presented on-screen, Big Fish inevitably comes to fuse both threads together in a moving finale. It’s the complete movie experience: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to throw up (but only if you already have a splitting headache coming into the film). Albert Finney is effective as the narrator of his own life and Ewan MacGregor is a renewed delight as the hero of the tall tales being told. (And yet Helena Bonham Carter steals the show as a reclusive woman who may or may not be a witch) It’s not Burton’s best film: Often plodding along, sometimes not visually effective enough, it can disappoint as much as it pleases. But by being a celebration of the necessity of fantastic stories, Big Fish ends up forming a central part of Burton’s cinematic oeuvre. It will certainly play better to older and less jaded audiences, but it’s certainly hard to dismiss casually. Bits and pieces of it are likely to resonate a long time in viewers’ heads, much like for Burton’s other films.
(On DVD, January 2004) Much like Equilibrium, this rather good film received a confidential distribution in the United States, was never shown in Canada and quickly went to video as if it was unworthy of a wide release. Don’t believe the lack of marketing: Below is the kind of little B-movie gem that deserved a much, much bigger audience. A canny blend of WW2 submarine thriller and supernatural horror, Below is another one of director David Twohy’s unassuming but excellent films (see Timescape, The Arrival, Pitch Black, etc.). While you’re unlikely to recognize any of the names in the cast, don’t worry: The film is a slick piece of entertainment, a great crowd-pleaser with a few twists and plenty of extra chills. (Yay for the Lovecraft-reading sailor!) It slowly builds to a pretty intense situation, with just about every single submarine mishap in the way. Some darkly humorous situations (bong-bong-bong went the depth charge) are a highlight. Despite the relatively low budget, the film looks fantastic, with beautiful cinematography and nearly-perfect set design. A treat for anyone looking for those overlooked B-grade gems. Don’t miss it. The DVD contains an ordinary making-of featurette which doesn’t do to much to compensate for the sparse and jokey audio commentary: Director Twohy and the cast members present at the track’s recording don’t take the film very seriously and seem more intent on being sarcastic than informative.
(On DVD, January 2004) Surprisingly enjoyable “black comedy” that will actually end up speaking volumes to just about everyone. The quasi-theatrical nature of the film is undermined by some silly sequences outside the barbershop itself, but the real strength of the film is in its delicious dialogue and the snappy interplay between the characters in the shop. Outrageous discussions spring freely between barbers and clients, resulting in a warm and likable film that works much better than anyone could expect. Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer both do excellent jobs in their roles, with particular props to the latter for a performance in which his natural persona is nearly unrecognizable. Eve also does quite well in a first acting role. The special edition DVD contains a wealth of material, including a bunch of truly interesting featurettes on not just the usual film-making process (including the difficulties in matching location shooting in freezing Chicago with interior footage in a Los Angeles studio), but also a few thoughts on costume design (Yay for Devon Patterson!) and a fun documentary on the recent evolution of male hairstyles. Truly a film worth seeing if you haven’t already done so.
(In theaters, January 2004) Tired of the cloying psychological manipulation so pervasive during the holidays? Counter-program it with the meanest Christmas film since Le Pere Noel Est Une Ordure. Here, Billy Bob Thornton plays a foul-mouthed, unkempt thief whose annual modus operandi involves playing along as a mall Santa while he and his diminutive accomplice scout the location for security weaknesses. So far so good, but it’s the utter disregard for any holiday sweetness that makes this film so enjoyable. “Rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence”, indeed. Thornton’s performance is admirably foul, with Tony Cox and Bernie Mac all ably supporting (Meanwhile, Lauren Graham is adorable as a bartender with a Santa fetish). Heck, even the kid (Brett Kelly) is more creepy than he’s sympathetic, and that takes some guts nowadays. Suffice to say that for the longest time, the film refuses to bow to any kind of sentimental softening, faltering only at the end, at a point where even the most misanthropic viewer may be tempted to say that it’s about time. It is, in other words, a Christmas movie for those who are sick and tired of Christmas. Good fun, good jokes, a few uncomfortable moments redeemed by a few great lines and an overall sense of delightful nastiness. Strongly recommended for everyone likely to end up on Santa’s naughty list.
Harper Prism, 1997, 676 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105713-4
In the first few chapters of Stephen Baxter’s 1997 novel Titan, space shuttle Columbia crashes upon re-entry and China sends its first astronaut into space. The timing is slightly off (both happen simultaneously in 2004, rather than over 2003 as it happened in our reality) but here’s hoping that Baxter’s extrapolative powers stop there, because the rest of the novel is of a bleakness quite unlike anything you’ve read outside of, well, other Stephen Baxter novels.
Once Columbia reduced to bits and pieces over the desert, America goes in a tailspin. NASA is told to mothball itself, an ultra-conservative president is elected to the White House (eek), tensions between China and the USA grow ever more dangerous and apathetic American teens seems content to wear tattoos while shaping their own feces in artistic shapes. All is lost? Not quite: Space convert Paula Benacerraf comes forth with a bold new plan to take over all that’s left of the American space program and send a Shuttle to Titan. It’s a desperate mission, maybe even a suicidal mission, but if it can show the way to bigger and better things…
Well, don’t bet on it. A decade-long Shuttle mission to Titan is insane in even the best of circumstances, and Baxter doesn’t miss a nasty trick as he whittles down his cast of characters. Titan is positively ghoulish in how it starts badly and keeps getting worse. And worse. And even worse. This novel rivals most horror films in how it keeps upping the body count through the stupidest and most gruesome ways possible. Baxter has often been a gloomy writer (see the Manifold series for more unremitting bleakness) but there’s a sadistic streak to Titan that makes it his most depressing book yet even as the ending is meant to be uplifting.
Heck, it’s depressing even it’s obvious that he’s unfairly stacking the deck against his characters, if not humanity itself: Professional astronauts get stuck in solar flares, biochemists poison themselves, humankind dooms itself to destruction and no-one says a peep as America takes itself apart. The Internet is shut down, ethnic viruses are planned by the US government (huh?) and everyone whistles as the extreme right-wing shuts down institutions of higher learning and humans are left to die in space. You would have thought, somehow, that there was more to space exploration than the USA, that the left-wing would have emigrated to Canada or that no one would be stupid enough to re-align an asteroid on Earth, even for some (hand-wave, here) obscure reason. Baxter may have forgotten to include a chapter in which all of humanity undergoes forced lobotomies. Titan often doesn’t make sense, and even acknowledges its silliness at times, such as one character wonders how they’ve been able to take control of everything in the American space inventory from Shuttles to Saturn-Vs. Character development? Don’t look for it here; they remain sketches even as their hardware is lavished with details. Social/political development doesn’t fare any better. Titan, in many ways, is a profoundly stupid book.
Plus there’s the length factor. Titan, as a proud hard-SF novel, is positively crammed with technical details. While it enhances the feel of the book as a credible piece of Science Fiction, it can quickly overloads the narrative with far too much detail. Exhibit number one: The first section, a snappy little action sequence that ends up splattered over not less than seventy pages. Yikes. It doesn’t really get any better. Exhibit number two: An entire X-15 subplot which has absolutely no impact on the rest of the book. Exhibit number three: The entire last section, which could have been cut with no detrimental effect on the novel’s impact.
So; Depressing, silly and overwritten. Is there anything left to save from Titan? Why yes. Even despite all of these flaws, it remains compulsively readable throughout. There’s a fascinating sense of inevitable doom floating over the whole story, as the window of survival shuts down over humanity. Part of it is shared sadistic delight at how bad things can become. Another is just, well, narrative inertia: We might as well see what will befall our characters next. Certainly, Titan is an unusual piece of hard-SF. A more conventional work would have used the Titan expedition as a rallying cry for the forces of light and rationalism. Here… well…
A word of caution, though: There are few words to describe the choking sense of dread that ends up contaminating the novel, and by extent the mind of anyone reading it. If you want a pleasant New Year’s Eve, for goodness’ sake don’t spend it reading Titan!