Month: February 2005

Why We Buy, Paco Underhill

Simon & Schuster, 1999, 256 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84913-5

The next time you’re out shopping, pay attention: someone may be looking at you. No, I’m not talking about security cameras or other shoppers checking you out (though, hey, enjoy the attention if you can get it). I’m talking about people like Paco Underhill, shopping scientists studying the habits and behaviour of ordinary consumers in a retail environment. Perhaps more accurately called “retail naturalists” than “shopping scientists”, Underhill and members of his consulting firm Envirosell spend hundreds of hours per year following shoppers, analyzing store layouts, looking at store signs and trying to improve the shopping experience.

Why We Buy is Underhill’s first book, and it brings together several of Underhill’s painstakingly-developed theories about the modern state of shopping. At a time where North-American shopping has nowhere to go (ie; no fast population growth, no rapidly increasing income levels), the only alternative is to sell more efficiently. That’s where consultants like Underhill come in: by studying the way we shop, they can identify problems and fix what’s clearly not working.

One easy example: The “landing strip”. You can’t just walk inside a store and start shopping: You need time and space to adjust, remove your sunglasses or your toque (depending on the season), take stock of the store’s layout or pick up a shopping cart. Clever managers won’t try to put merchandising inside the “landing strip”, but will exploit the area in more subtle ways.

Another easy example: The “butt-brush” aversion. North American simply don’t like being touched (even accidentally) when they’re bending down. Trying to make them bend in confined spaces, where closely-arranged shelves only allow for a limited amount of space, is an exercise in futility. Solution: more space, and re-arrange merchandise so that people who can’t bend (older people, for instance) won’t have to.

Both of these things may sound like common sense, but at a time when increasingly chain-driven shopping is being managed from corporate headquarters, retail operations can need a reality-check. The drive to rationalize operations by using fewer clerks, minimal wages, more crowded shelving can actually decrease sales rather than improve operations. In a competitive industry where even tiny adjustments can make the differences between black and red ink, Envirosell’s advice clearly finds a market.

This type of information is a boon to retailers (one can imagine a conscientious store manager reading this book and making significant changes to his store), but it’s just as interesting to the consumer cattle being studied. It’s impossible to read even two pages of Why we Buy without a sigh of acknowledgement as Underhill explains how the retail industry works, or at least ought to work. But be forewarned; Underhill comes to the store to improve it, not to destroy it: His lucrative perspective isn’t one of a consumer muckraker, but a merchant optimizer. While the two often coincide (a happier shopper is a bigger spender), you will not find in Why We Buy a critique of consumerism or a scathing exposé of modern marketing techniques. Lavish consumerism is seen as a desirable objective to attain, and Underhill spears nearly all of his time suggesting ways to improve the spending experience.

The other problem with Why We Buy is that Underhill has so much experience in stalking the habits of the wild shoppers in retail environments that his perspective is limited is areas other than his own. His “suggestions” for bookstores will be greeted with aghast stares by book-lovers, while his own open contempt for the “cyberjockeys” driving on-line shopping betrays both ignorance and shortsightedness.

Still, for shoppers both enthusiastic and reluctant, Why We Buy is a compulsively readable, highly informative book. Deliciously written and stuffed with telling examples, it’s a way to deconstruct the shopping experience and understand our behaviour. (I thought Underhill was indulging in gratuitous stereotypes as he was describing female shoppers… until he started describing the habits of male shoppers, which are pretty much spot-on identical to mine.) It may be a book solely about how more dollars can be squeezed out of our wallets, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

Fugitives and Refugees, Chuck Palahniuk

Crown, 2003, 176 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-4000-4783-8

If you’re not a fan of Chuck Palahniuk and you’re not in any hurry to learn more about Portland, this is going to be a very short review: Don’t bother with this book. It’s written by Palahniuk for Palahniuk fans, with an appropriate look at the city of Portland and the weirdness contained within. No, it’s not an accident if you haven’t seen Fugitives and Refugees in bookstores and may never even have heard about it. Please skip the rest of this review. We’ll see each other at the next one

As for the rest of you, I can only assume that you want to learn more about Portland and/or are already die-hard fans of Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction from Fight Club to Diary. If you have already read his non-fiction collection Stranger Than Fiction, you’re already halfway ready to have a look at Fugitives and Refugees.

Part of the “Crown Journeys” collection, this is, obviously, a look at the city of Portland. But unlike a typical travel guide (and much like a typical Palahniuk book), it focuses on the weird, the cool, the unusual and the perverted. Portland high quotient of quirkiness, explains Palahniuk though an interview with Geek Love‘s author Katherine Dunn, can be attributed to the theory that “everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the cheapest city where they can live is Portland. This gives [the city] the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among misfits.” [P.14] The fugitives and refugees of the entire country, one could say.

And so Palahniuk takes stock of his chosen city and reports back from the field. Half of Fugitives and Refugees is built like a typical travel guide; here’s a chapter on restaurants (complete with recipes, to the grand pleasure of all Palahniuk-naggers who maintain that his fans would buy even The Man’s grocery lists); here’s a chapter on shopping; another on museums. But then the book gets weirder: There’s an explicit chapter on the city’s sex trade; another on the haunted buildings of Portland; a third one on the underground tunnels under the city…

Palahniuk has done his legwork in tracking down the fugitives and refugees of his city. His guide to the city’s landmarks is augmented by mini-interviews with zoo keepers, milling experts, fancy carmakers, drag queens, museum owners and the inventor of a self-cleaning house. Fascinating stuff, regardless of whether you intend to visit Portland or not. It’s in this section of the book that you can perhaps most clearly see similarities with Palahniuk’s other non-fiction collection Stranger than Fiction.

But much as Stranger than Fiction also found some of its best moments in self-reflective pieces about Palahniuk’s life, every chapter of Fugitives and Refugees is interspersed with “Postcards” from the author’s personal history, from his starring role in a MTV video to his participation in Portland’s SantaCon’96. Palahniuk’s fans will be delighted and fascinated by another peek at the author’s life, but even regular readers are likley to consider these pieces as the book’s highlights. I’m still laughing myself silly about his description of an LSD trip inside a planetarium, and I’m fascinated by his description of the “Portland’s semiannual Apocalypse Café”, a potluck held in a condemned industrial building, as if it was in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society. Very Fight Clubish indeed.

Palahniuk’s fiction is less distinguishable by its overall plot than its shocking vignettes and affectionately described oddball characters. This holds true with Fugitive and Refugees: while this won’t leap on top of anyone’s reading list based on the sole distinction of having been written by Palahniuk, it makes for an interesting (and fast) read for his fans. They will find everything they like about the author’s fiction on full display here, along with a number of tasty anecdotes from his life. What remains to be established for non-Portlanders is the ratio of impression-to-reality: From Fugitives and Refugees, we get the impression that Portland is a city teething with repressed craziness, but is it truly as special, as weird and as off-the-wall as Palahniuk says? Heck, it almost sounds as if a visit is in order to find out…

Schild’s Ladder, Greg Egan

Gollancz, 2001, 250 pages, £16.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07068-4

Sometimes, there is no shame in saying that you’ve been beaten by a book.

I certainly feel like that after reading Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder. I may think of myself as a savvy hard-SF fan with a good understanding of science and a facility for technical jargon, but Egan has clearly bested me with this extrapolation of thirty-first century physics.

The central plot isn’t terribly complicated. First, the prologue describes how a far-future scientific experiment goes wrong and starts eating the very fabric of the cosmos. Schild’s Ladder then jump hundreds of years later, on a station perched at the frontier of this novo-vacuum’s continuing expansion. Aboard the station, two post-human factions: The Preservationists, trying to fight back against the expanding blight, and the Yielders, who are looking for an accommodation and a way to exploit this new set of circumstances. Stuff happens, discoveries are made, a trip is taken and soon enough, well… oh, there’s not much to spoil, but let’s still not spoil it.

If the plot is simple enough (and, to be truthful, not that different from a number of classic SF stories in which heroic scientists have to face an alien enigma) it’s the details that will make cry in confusion and beg for simpler novels. Open up a page at random, and you’re likely to read a line like “Once that was achieved, Tchicaya scribed a series of probes that would spread out laterally as well moving straight in, improving their changes of gaining a comprehensive picture of the Planck worms.” [P.187]

Uh-huh. Okay. Not bad, but imagine 250 pages of that and you’ll quickly reach for a romance novel in order to speed-read once more. Not content to play around with advanced physics, Schild’s Ladder boldly invents post-“Theory of Everything” physics that are to our understanding of the universe what super-string theory is to Newtonian physics. Ambitious, undoubtedly fascinating for the Nobel Prize crowd, but utterly baffling for even smart-ass readers such as myself.

But difficulty of comprehension doesn’t necessarily betray lack of enjoyment. Midway though the book, it struck me that even though I couldn’t understand half the jargon, I was swimming once more in the comfortable thought-space of hard-SF. Egan’s protagonists are scientists for whom the hunger of knowledge is all-powerful, and there’s a pleasant vibe to this kind of attitude that I was missing after so many hum-drum thrillers and pedestrian SF novels. What’s more, you eventually learn to tune out the most advanced sections of Egan’s prose, and simply extract whatever meaning you can from the plot-line surrounding the physics.

Interestingly enough for a writer whose short stories are usually better-rated than his longer fiction, several of Schild’s Ladder‘s best moments come in smaller portions. The opening novella isn’t bad, Protagonist Tchicaya’s shared childhood experience with Mariama is worth excerpting by itself and the final voyage is -though at the limit of intelligibility- almost worth another story. Even in the nuts-and-bolts linking scenes, Egan goes farther than anyone else, fiddling with acorporeal characters and their psychology as if it was just another thing. Never mind that other novelists (paging Richard K. Morgan) can devote entire novels to the very same throwaway ideas.

Ultimately, it’s the sense that Schild’s Ladder does things impossible to achieve in any other genre of expression but science-fiction that gives full meaning to the book. For someone to sit down and extrapolate far-future physics in sufficient details for readers to recoil in stunned incomprehension is nothing short of admirable. I have long maintained that science-fiction should first be defined by what it can do better than anything else, and this is the kind of novel, utterly cryptic to anyone not already well-versed in the genre, that best exemplifies that kind of thinking. Is it one of 2001’s best SF novels? I don’t think so. Is it one of 2001’s purest SF novels, though? Ah-ha.

It took me a while to get to this novel, and now that I have, I suddenly find myself at the end of Egan’s oeuvre so far: The already-mysterious author has almost completely stopped writing since 2001, devoting himself to the cause of Australian asylum-seekers. For hard-SF, this pause has been deeply felt; Egan continues to show signs of life (His web site is still regularly updated), but it’s an open bet as to when he’ll be back in bookstores. In the meantime, enjoy this novel as maybe the most advanced piece of diamond-hard SF he’s ever penned, and wonder if anything will ever top this. In this light, beating my head against this novel is nothing short of the ultimate compliment.

Un long dimanche de fiançailles [A Very Long Engagement] (2004)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles [A Very Long Engagement] (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) Fans of Jean-Pierre Jeunet will be pleased: The conscious aesthetic displayed in Amelie are once more present here in this romance/suspense hybrid that either uses a love story as an excuse for a war drama, or vice-versa. Visually, this is a gorgeous film: The sepia colouration meshes surprisingly well with Jeunet’s dynamic direction, and the switch between harsh WW1 drama and romantic rural France isn’t as jarring as you may think. Deftly mixing military fiction with a long-running investigation in the search for a long-lost love, Un Long Dimanche De Fiancailles is a delight from start to finish at both a visual and a narrative level. While it runs slightly longer than it should and sometimes fails to exploit all the possibilities at its disposition, it’s nonetheless a fantastic film and a good showcase of how modern film-making technique can jazz up some classic stories. Don’t miss a French-language appearance by Jodie Foster, or the clever nods to different genres as the film progresses.

Freefall, Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket Star, 2005, 559 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-0607-9

I seldom buy books as soon as they come out, let alone read and review them in the same month they’re released. I had to make an exception in the case of Freefall, the third techno-thriller by the Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens writing couple. Their previous Icefire (1998) and Quicksilver (1999) were easily two of the most interesting high-tech suspense novels of the late nineties, and a third one would be cause for celebration no matter what it was about.

Luckily, the premise of their newest effort is a barn-burner: In 2008, the story goes, an automated lunar probe comes back to Earth, bringing back the first lunar samples in more than three decades. But just as the samples are transferred aboard the International Space Station, powerful explosions wreck half the station, kill most of the crew, destroy two space shuttles and strand the few survivors in orbit without hope of rescue. Stuck in a dying space station, geologist Corazon Rey opens up a sample canister and discovers, mixed with lunar rocks, the mummified remnants of two human fingers…

That’s how Freefall starts. As for how it ends, well, I’d rather leave you in suspense. For the biggest thrills of Freefall are in reading about conspiracies and secrets, the hidden history of the space race and the surprises of today’s military forces. It’s a novel that features an entirely different picture of the race to the moon, a frighteningly plausible explanation for the Roswell/Area 51 conspiracies [P.295] and an exciting second race to the moon. Freefall starts with a sequence in which American operatives investigate the Chinese space program underneath a flooded hydro-electrical reservoir, and it never lets up after that. Even more so than in Icefire, the Reeves-Stevens take a malicious pleasure in cramming throwaway mysteries and cool ideas in every available crevice of their novel. The net winners are the readers with a taste for that sort of “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” speculation. In this type of fiction, there’s a fine balance between far-fetched but still plausible supposition and straight-out wonk-wonk UFO-nuts territory, and Freefall skirts that line as close as possible without falling in X-Files territory. (Though I’ve got my doubts about P.270)

When thriller mechanics are concerned, the Reeves-Stevens know how to hook their readers like true professionals. Freefall doesn’t suffer too much from its twin-mountains structure: The middle lull between two complicated pieces of techno-adventure is exploited for some much-appreciated exposition and to tighten up the tension some more. The climax reaches a beautiful convergence of plot threads and emotional power, especially for those still carrying a torch for the cause of space exploration. This is the best space-based near-future techno-thriller since Homer J. Hickam’s Back to the Moon and that’s high praise indeed.

Extensively researched and effortlessly convincing, Freefall aims straight at the techno-geek reader and scores a definite hit. Fans of the Reeves-Steven’s previous two techno-thrillers won’t be disappointed. Readers of Icefire will be specially pleased by the return of the earlier novel’s terrific characters, with a much-expanded role for NORAD wizard Wilhemina Bailey. I’m not normally a fan of thriller series, and this one is just a bit too contrived in how it places known characters in exactly the right jobs and places, but it’s a pleasure to see Cory Rey and Mitch Webber arguing once again.

This pleasure carries further, of course: In terms of readability, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more compelling techno-thriller this year. There always the temptation to read “just another chapter” to find out what else the Reeves-Stevens will take out of their magic bag of techno-tricks. Suffice to say that after a steady diet of bland books and admirable literary novels, I had a blast delving in Freefall‘s too-few pages and all-too-wonderful secrets. For techno-nerds, reading this novel is like sipping on Jolt Cola syrup: all the caffeine, with the added advantage of a sugar rush.

If you’re up for historical secrets, high-tech conspiracies, going back to the moon, exploding space shuttles and all that fun stuff, you can call Freefall “book of the year” and stop looking for anything better. As for myself, I have seldom been so well served by a “buy-on-sight” decision: Freefall is likely to remain one of my favourite techno-thrillers of the decade.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004)

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) My total knowledge of Spongebob Squarepants being strictly limited to second-hand sources, I didn’t know what to expect from this film. This may explain why I enjoyed it so much: obviously aimed at kids, but with enough wackiness to appeal to older viewers, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie is a fine example of absurd comedy. I merely have to mention that the climax involves a fight set on the nearly-naked body of David Hasselhoff and a “I Wanna Rock” psychedelic music video freeing oppressed masses to give you an idea of the tone of the piece. Other things such as the insanely catchy “I’m a Goofy Goober” theme song, live-action sequences and saucy double-entendres aimed at everyone looking for them are just icing on the cake. Good, fun stuff. Fast-forward to the end of the credits for a last cute pirates gag.

Spanglish (2004)

Spanglish (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) It’s no accident if Spanglish shares its first few letters with Spank Me: It would take some serious masochism to sit through this sad excuse for a movie a second time. Within five minutes, I already knew I hated this film. Exploitation of illegal immigrants, rich white guilt, indulgence toward fat kids (let’s not hurt her feeelings)? Funny stuff, that. But even past my general loathing for the film’s unthinking acceptance of class exploitation, Spanglish fails on its own terms: the story goes everywhere and nowhere without any strong conductive tread, and ends with the laziest “…and she quit” plot cheat. What’s between awful beginning and bad ending is the stuff lame movies are made of. Inconsistent characters, grossly simplistic situations and dumb motivations: It’s hard to watch Tea Leoni struggle with her cardboard character and remember that this is from the same writer capable of writing Broadcast News. Adam Sandler also struggles with the saccharine puppet he’s asked to play, occasionally blowing off steam in two or three lines stolen from his usual angry personae. Spanglish never coheres, never does anything with the elements it has, never even tries to deliver something satisfying to its audience. Stay away from it.

Sideways (2004)

Sideways (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) The premise doesn’t promise much: A depressive wine connoisseur with delusions of literary competency goes on a wine-tasting road trip with a womanizing friend on the eve of his wedding. Wackiness ensue. But to dismiss the plot of the film is to ignore the way Sideways progressively becomes more and more sympathetic, despite its flawed characters and maybe even thanks to them. Not only is Paul Giamatti pitch-perfect as the miserable protagonist, but the rest of the cast also does fantastic work. Best of all is the screenplay, which not only teaches more about wine than you’d ever expected to know, but also finds just the right spots between comedy and tragedy. (It just may be writer/director Alexander Payne’s best effort yet). The Californian wine-country cinematography is gorgeous and the direction is unobtrusive. I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did, but then again it features an exchange I can identify with: “So you’ve written a novel?” “You you like to read it? I’ve got a copy of it in the trunk of my car.” Ah, so true.

The Polar Express (2004)

The Polar Express (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) I initially avoided this film due to the incessant “this is the film that makes Christmas feels good” marketing blitz. But it’s hard for a Special Effects geek to ignore an all-CGI film like this one, especially if it represents yet another curious foray in the world of motion capture. Tom Hanks plays three characters? Heck, why not? But once you get past the entire “The spirit of Christmas is in you” crap, there’s a lot to admire about this film. For one thing, there’s a ton of action; I can see why people raved about it being on IMAX-3D. Some scenes approach pure roller-coaster goodness, including a terrific sequence set atop a frozen lake. Then there’s the very good quality of the animation which, creepy human characters aside, works relatively well. Director Robert Zemekis has always been a fan of the virtual camera (see Forrest Gump, or What Lies Beneath) and the purely virtual nature of The Polar Express allows him unprecedented flights of fancy: I’ll simply single out the “ticket ride” uninterrupted shot as a virtuoso sequence that would be impossible in live action. The rest of the film I don’t care too much about (the less said about the last interminable fifteen minutes the best, I suppose), but there’s simply too much intriguing material in The Polar Express to miss it.

Hong Kong, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 1999, 350 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-25339-7

The imperatives of commercial fiction can be tough, but as much as I feel for the poor authors trying to make a living out of their writing, my natural sympathies lie with the readers who have to slog through the barely adequate stuff produced by a publishing industry fixated on profits.

Stephen Coonts’ Hong Kong is a perfect example of what happens when a hard-working writer gets stuck in the machine, churning out one commercial novel per year while trying to stretch a formula way past its expiration date. Taken apart, there are at least three or four good ideas in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, they never should have been put together, nor hammered in an existing series.

Yes, Hong Kong marks yet another adventure for Coonts’ favourite protagonist Jake Grafton. After his tour of duty in Cuba, Grafton is back in the game in Hong Kong as a rear admiral sent to investigate a mysterious situation in the ex-British colony. He hasn’t been picked by accident: For one thing, man-of-action Grafton is twiddling his thumbs behind a desk at the Pentagon. For another, the man he’s set to investigate is consul-general Virgil “Tiger” Cole, making a return appearance after starring alongside Grafton in Coonts’ very first novel Flight of the Intruder. (If you’ve seen the movie, Cole is the character played by Willem Dafoe, which is actually perfect casting for this novel too.) Cole isn’t the only returning character: While “Toad” Tarkington is relegated to a cameo role via telephone, a large place is given to thief/agent Tommy Carmellini, introduced in Cuba.

Most of the Hong Kong is spend dawdling around, waiting for the book’s set-piece: a revolution against the communist government now ruling Hong Kong. Cole, we learn, has spent his post-Vietnam years fruitfully, become a multi-millionaire with enough technological clout to ferment a popular uprising against the entire Chinese government. It helps, of course, that he can depend on impossible technology like the “sergeant York” killer robots… about which in a moment.

There are, to be sure, interesting ideas here. The idea of having Grafton meet with old acquaintances of troubled loyalties is certainly interesting, and it’s exactly the type of story sequels are made of. Similarly, the idea of Hong Kong hosting a revolution with the potential to unseat the entire Chinese government is the type of big, big idea that deserves a novel of its own. There there is the technological showcase of the book, a half-dozen semi-autonomous robots able to outrun linebackers, shoot any hand-held weapon with computerized accuracy and operate without constant supervision from remote tele-operators. This is worth building a novel around.

Unfortunately, this type of killer robots isn’t anywhere near reality right now for good reasons: They combine technological capabilities that are far beyond anything possible today. Spend some time reading about the state of automated targeting, computerized image recognition, mechanical locomotion, hand-like articulations and power sources required to do these things and you’ll start laughing at the way Coonts introduces a package combining all of these things in Hong Kong. This is a piece of mid-twenty first century technology dropped in a contemporary setting. While I’d pay good money to read a novel about the introduction of such technology on an appropriate future battlefield, this impossible technology just doesn’t mesh with the rest of Coonts’ novel.

Well, it does meshes in a way, giving life to a few creepy/cool scenes, but that’s it. The final man/robot showdown (you know there’s got to be one, and you can even guess who’s featured in it) seems stolen from a Terminator fan-script. Add to that Callie Grafton’s role as the designated kidnapped woman, the annoying suspicion that this is the last we’ll ever hear of the Chinese civil war in the Grafton series, and, well, Hong Kong is problematic. Despite the good material here and there (including just about all of the showpiece Chapter Nineteen), the book suffers from a number of annoying contradictions that diminish its impact.

This is a Grafton novel because that’s what the publishers demanded, in the false belief that this is what readers want to read. But the selective amnesia required to make long-running thriller series mesh with the ongoing real world gets progressively more exasperating as the series run to compound the difficulties with unbelievable gadgets and indifferent dramatic tension. It’s not an unpleasant book, but it could have been much, much better.

The Phantom Of The Opera (2004)

The Phantom Of The Opera (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) Sweeping musical drama that leaves a leaden impression despite lavish sights, The Phantom Of The Opera both impresses and disappoints. Some of the staging is fabulous: the cinematography, set design and costumes are all Oscar-worthy and director Joel Schumaker has enough experience with big-budget cinematography to do justice to the romantic sweep of the piece. Add to that the enormously likable Emily Rossum as the romantic heroine and it’s hard to see where it can go wrong. But it does; after the first few songs and the showpiece tunes everyone has heard at least once (“Music of the Night”, “Masquerade” and, obviously “Phantom of the Opera”), the rest of the film blurs into an undistinguished series of maudlin ballads. From my limited musical perspective and my tin ear, some of the dubbing work is off: Emily Rossum is convincing; Gerald Butler is not. The film remains spectacular throughout, but it also gets boring really quickly. Far too long and inconsistently slavish to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s stage musical, The Phantom Of The Opera cries out for some snipping.

Ong-Bak [The Thai Warrior] (2003)

Ong-Bak [The Thai Warrior] (2003)

(In theaters, February 2005) Built around the acrobatic skills of Tony Jaa (billed, with good reason, as “the next Jackie Chan”), this movie is best appreciated as a dance exhibition involving plenty of kick-boxing. In the grand tradition of martial arts action films, Ong Bak features a plot just simple enough to lead from one eye-popping action scene to another. The camera work is substandard, the acting is primitive, the dialogue is ordinary and the image quality suffers from the Thailand-France-USA lineage of the film (Luc Besson’s efforts are the only reason why this import film made it to American cineplexes; a few French subtitles subsist on the print copy), but that’s not the point. The point is in showing Tony Jaa jumping, leaping, kicking, punching and neck-snapping his share of obstacles. Jaa’s on-screen personality is still a blank (he doesn’t have the goofy charm of Jackie Chan or the good-boy cool of Jet Li), but the physical talent is definitely there. Warning; this is a brutal skull-cracking film, far removed from the gentle ballet of what has recently come to be known as “kung-fu films” in the West. Probably best appreciated at home on a smaller screen, as the Xth-generation copy looks grainy and cheap on a big screen.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) Making a reasonably watchable film about genocide is a dicey proposition: You can be heartfelt and veer into melodrama, bashing the audience with massive quantities of guilt and disgust for the human race (hello Schindler’s List), or conversely treat the subject as nothing more than a great excuse for explosions, guns and righteous vengeance (I’m talking about you, Tears Of The Sun). This in an exception, though: by taking the path of a suspense film, canny writer/director Terry George manages to create a film that is both revelatory and, yes, fun to watch. Protagonist Paul Rusesabagina is your proverbial everyday man, stuck in an impossible situation without anything but his wits to keep the Rwandan genocide away from his hotel. Powerful stuff, but the way the film is constructed, as a series of mini-crises to be solved or else, makes its message accessible to a much wider audience. The suspense runs high, the horrors are shown crisply and the final message is one of quiet optimism: Bad things happen and most will try to pretend otherwise, but it’s possible to do good if you work at it. Competent technical credits and excellent acting from all players involved only make a good film great. Canadians will feel a strange sense of helpless pride at the sight of Nick Nolte as a Canadian UN peacekeeper (loosely modelled on real-life hero Roméo Dallaire) seething in impotent rage at the world’s inaction. The best thing about Hotel Rwanda is that it communicates this rage to us without feeling like a message film.

Hitch (2005)

Hitch (2005)

(In theaters, February 2005) My dating life needs all the help it can get, so Hitch had a pedagogic quality slightly beyond its simple entertainment value. Fortunately, it turns out to be one of the best romantic comedies of the past few years, a compliment that says more about romantic comedies in general than Hitch‘s actual worth. The originality of the premise alone is worth a look: Nominally paying attention to romance from a male perspective (at a time where romantic comedies are aimed straight at women), Hitch depends on the considerable charisma of leading-man Will Smith as a “Date Doctor” teaching hapless guys like me the proper way to woo women. It’s an excuse for good gags, of course, but also an interesting way to jump-start twin romantic plot-lines that don’t depend on silly love triangles to work. (Indeed, the disappointing third act reaches it nadir when it tries to use the “other man” plot device for a few moments.) Will Smith is as appealing as ever; perhaps one of the few actors working today able to pull off the required empathy/self-confidence shtick required to make this character work. Eva Mendez makes for a capable foil as another super-powered character who has to be convinced of the value of romance in order to fall for him. If the film has a principal flaw, it’s that it fails to exploit this “stronger characters require stronger romance” thread. Well, that and the fact that it become more and more conventional as it goes along. But one could use Hitch as a gateway for a discussion of romantic comedies without scratching the surface of why this is an enjoyable film for both males and females. Funny performances (with particular props to the irresistible comedic timing of Kevin James) enhance a good but wasteful script, and the result is more than tolerable.

Russian Spring, Norman Spinrad

Bantam Spectra, 1991, 567 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 0-553-07586-1

Read this:

“The United States… had let the dollar drop like a stone against the ECU in order to try to devaluate its enormous external debt, was reinvesting its capital and excess military capacity in Latin America… and loud voices in the American Congress and elsewhere had started clamoring for debt renunciation and even expropriation of Common European holdings in the States, none of which exactly assured Americans a warm welcome in the metropoles of Common Europe. Besides which, with the dollar so far down against the ECU and all the currency restrictions on American tourists…” [p.86]

Replace ECU with Euro and Latin America with Middle East, and the above sure reads like a news headline, doesn’t it? Then how about the fact that it was written sometime in 1990-1991?

Norman Spinrad may have had guessed a number of details wrong, but the future described in his 1991 family epic Russian Spring is a great deal more familiar today than anyone would have guessed at the time. In this novel, America turns its back on the world and on civilian high technology, invades most of Latin America, blocks its borders and indulges in xenophobia. Meanwhile, Europe -led by a post-communistic Russia- takes the lead in space technology and personal freedom.

As I said; creepy foreshadowing, isn’t it? Spinrad may not have been aiming for much more than a contrarian reversal of roles, but our reality has a way of being even stranger than we can imagine. It’s not a perfect one-to-one correspondence but it’s close enough to be unnerving. (In Russian Spring, the ex-Soviet republics haven’t yet seceded in independent countries, a fact that plays heavily in its conclusion –even though it also features Ukrainian election heavily influenced by Americans!)

The real protagonist of Russian Spring is Jerry Reed, an engineer courted by Europe to lead an ambitious aerospace project. There’s one catch, though; America won’t stand for his defection and demands Reed’s passport, stranding him outside the US. Things are resolved, somewhat, by the arrival of a Russian girl, Sonya Gargarin, who is in a position to make a complex deal to allow them both to stay in Paris.

But that’s not the end of the story. Russian Spring evolves over thirty years, as tensions rise and fall between Europe, America, Russia and the rest of the world. Four main characters over three decades barely qualify for the title of “family epic”, but Spinrad’s novel has an ambitious sweep that has the feel of a big big story. Jerry Reed’s dream is to get into space, but at what cost?

There are many thing to love and admire about Russian Spring, but perhaps the best is the combination of political complexity with good old-fashioned SF spirit. The post-cold-war balance of powers and forces between old allies and enemies is skillfully developed through characters with a lot to lose from even the slightest power shifts. Readers of political fiction ought to find something worthwhile in this novel, especially today.

But at the same time, you have thank Spinrad for using SF’s traditional fixation on space exploration as a way to bring all of humanity together and rise above petty squabbles. This is high-grade techno-optimism and Russian Spring, fourteen years later, offers a suitable prism through which we can see a way out of this crazy “war of terrorism”.

I have my own reservations about the book (the rise of a character named Wolwowitz -of all names!- is dicey, and so is the way two gratuitous accidents precipitate the entire conclusion), but there’s a lot more good than bad in this unexpected, largely forgotten gem. Read it today, because it’s never been more relevant. Still not convinced? Read this:

“President Carson… is a schmuck. If it talks like a schmuck, runs the country like a schmuck, and surrounds itself with other schmucks, it probably is a schmuck, even if it wasn’t cruising this poor screwed-up country for another international bruising like the biggest schmuck of all.” [P.397].