Finding Neverland (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Finding Neverland</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) I wish I could be mad about this film, but there’s something to be told about truth in advertising. Everything I’d seen or heard about this film -premise, trailer, poster- screamed “boring”, and it took the official Oscar nominations to make me see the film. While certainly not bad, it’s certain long and boring. The “true story behind the classic” shtick has been done, better, by Shakespeare In Love, and it takes only one errant cough to see where this film is going. I suppose that Peter Pan fans will get a lot more from this film than I did. Even at 106 minutes, Finding Neverland still feels like a slug. I can’t fault the technical side of the film nor the acting of Johnny Depp and the rest of the cast. On the other hand, the script has me wondering: Even though it’s supposed to be a celebration of imagination, the way that Depp’s character simply recycles everything he hears tends to diminish the role of the writer’s creativity. Oh well; if ever I saw the ideal target audience for this film, it was the three nattering ladies in front of me, who seemed to delight in even the tritest plot developments. Let them buy the DVD and torture their grandchildren with it.

Elektra (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Elektra</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, February 2005) Let the opening monologue be a warning regarding the quality of Elektra‘s writing: “obvious” doesn’t do it justice, though “lame” is closer to the mark. The following ninety minutes are rarely better: this is a superhero film that manages to make Daredevil look good in comparison. Oh, sure, the cinematography has one or two moments of interest and Jennifer Garner has a compelling figure. But that won’t be much of a comfort once the clichés start lining up, from the beautiful-but-mentally-disturbed heroine to the Asian Gang to the Reluctant Assassin. Worse is the half-hearted treatment by director Rob Bowman, who is directing far more for the paycheck that the audience’s enjoyment. Elektra makes a lesbian kiss dull, prolongs meaningless fights far past the point of annoyance and screws up even simple special effects. Everything about the universe of this film rings false, and nothing makes it even remotely interesting. It’s somewhat of a defeat for me, easy-to-please fan of bad fantasy and good-looking women, to struggle to find something of value in this film. Let’s just mention Jennifer Garner once more and blandly state that she deserves better.

Constantine (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Constantine</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, February 2005) It took ninety seconds and the non-revelation of a Nazi flag to make me warm up to the film, and nothing that came after that could shake my happy contentment. Sure, the plot is just good enough to make us wish for something better. Sure, this comic-book adaptation is an abomination for fans of the original Hellblazer. Sure, the supernatural eyeball kicks are thrown into the film without regard for coherence or plausibility. Sure, you may not like Keanu Reeves constrained performances. But I do, so ha. Plus, I like Tilda Swinton and Rachel Weisz even more, so I’m not complaining. The upshot is that Constantine is pleasant enough for its entire duration despite a few lengths toward the end. Hey: I’m such a visual effects film geek that I’m likely to enjoy anything that has a whiff of competence. With this first film, director Francis Lawrence delivers a self-assured piece of visually ambitious supernatural suspense. It’s often very funny (and not in an obvious catchphrase kind of way, more in an offbeat Satan-in-a-leisure suit fashion) and just as often weird enough to be fascinating. Not a classic (nor even the best possible way to deal with the elements assembled here), but more than good enough to warrant a look.

Closer (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Closer</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) Two men, two women and a full-contact emotional destruction derby: Closer is one mean piece of work best appreciated as a performance showcase than anything profound on the nature of love. For one thing, keep in mind that this is an adaptation of a stage play: The unusual structure of the film, following short dramatic moments over the course of several years, is a direct off-shot of this, and so it the script’s reliance on dramatic dialogue. (Closer doesn’t spend much time showing us what happens when things go well for months at a time). As an excuse for showy acting, it’s nearly perfect: all four main players do well, but Clive Owen steals the show (as usual) over Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Julia Roberts. Still, don’t read too much in the characters: “What are you, twelve?”, says one at the beginning and so it’s difficult to imagine that we’re seeing the actions of anything but the puppets of a writer. If there are some terrific dialogue scenes throughout the entire film, it’s hard to connect with the impulsive actions and juvenile attitudes displayed by the characters. Closer, ironically, rebuffs any attempt to come closer to the characters: they are best admired, like the script, as a performance piece.

The Well of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

NEL, 2003, 360 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-82592-8

There’s never a dull moment in the life of Thursday Next, and that serves both as a plot description for The Well of Lost Plots as well as a plotting technique for Jasper Fforde. In this third volume of his enormously amusing humour/mystery/fantasy hybrid, Fforde continues to throw everything he can imagine at us grateful readers, and if he stretches things perhaps a tad too far in this entry, it easily remains a must-read for everyone who loved Next’s first two adventures.

If you haven’t read The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, you may want to start there and come back after. Events in The Well of Lost Plots begin right after those of the previous book, and little time is spent catching up: If you remember the conclusion of the second novel, Thursday Next has decided to retreat from the alternate reality in which her husband has been erased from history and wait out the birth of her child in a novel still under construction. (Hey, don’t ask if you haven’t read the first two books.) The story picks up weeks later: Thursday is living the quiet life of a secondary character, but trouble is brewing in Text Grand Central, what with the disappearance of several Jurisfiction agents and the imminent introduction of UltraText[TM] technology.

Seemingly proceeding on the principle that you can’t have enough of a good thing, Fforde sets the vast majority of The Well of Lost Plots inside the fictional universe of books first glimpsed in the first volume and defined in the second one. At the exception of two chapters set in the real world, all of this third tome is spent shuttling back and forth between novels and the Grand Library linking all of them together. As you would now expect from a Fforde novel, subplots multiply in an attempt to show us as many cool things as possible. We go deep in the “Well of Lost Plots” to find out how stories are constructed, how characters are defined and how unsuccessful fictions are slated for destruction. Amusingly enough, Fforde’s mythology reduces authors to mere transcribers, an ironic reversal when you compare it with the hundred of stories portraying authors as the end-all of literary creation, from Misery to Wonder Boys.

But there’s a story of sorts behind it all, a twisty maze of double-crossings involving renegade Jurisfiction agents and an attempted takeover of Text Grand Central. Beloved characters die, Next investigates, everyone is a suspect and it all finds a somewhat satisfying deus-ex-libris ending at the 923rd Annual Fiction Awards. Meanwhile, Next herself has to deal with the aftermath of her husband’s eradication… or simply forget about it.

As with Fforde’s first two books, The Well of Lost Plots is aimed at enthusiastic readers, and works on quantity as much as quality; there’s simply so much stuff to enjoy that it’s almost impossible to pause and reflect. In fact, this third volume starts to show the limits of Fforde’s premise: While all is well and fun, there’s a clear sense that this is almost too much; by setting almost all of his story inside the fuzzy boundaries of explicit fiction, Fforde also fudges with rules and limits. Anything can happen and pretty much everything does. Readers may start to yearn for the relative simplicity of Next’s native Swindon.

There are also a number of troubling inconsistencies. Whereas Lost in a Good Book played around with the idea that Next was as fictional as the rest of the characters, The Well of Lost Plots makes her an Outlander whose reality is undisputed. The death of one character seems to contradict the epigram at the beginning of the second volume’s Chapter 29. But Fforde may have something else down his sleeve for Book Four, so let’s not be too quick to judge…

Still, there are small problems compared to what you’ll get from the novel. Gems abound, such as the Wuthering Heights rage counselling session; the vision of all the other Grand Libraries; the way Generics are transformed in authentic Characters; the fantastic vyrus-fighting action sequence; the cameo appearance by Gully Foyle (Jurisfiction agent for the SF genre, as it turns out); the hilarious way Jurisfiction decide to deal with a shortage of “u”s. Wonderful.

Of course, this book practically sells itself to Fforde’s fans, who probably pre-ordered the book as soon as it was announced. Onward to the fourth volume of the series, Something Rotten.

Bride & Prejudice (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bride & Prejudice</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, February 2005) This, all things considered, isn’t such a great film: As a hybrid adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in an Indian/Western setting, it wastes its potential. The dialogue is ordinary, the Darcy character is bland, the acting has rough edges and the third act seems thrown together. But you know what? Scarcely anything of that matters once the film is over and it makes you feel as if the world is a better place. Hot on the success of Bend It Like Beckham, director Gurinder Chadha delivers a clever blending of Indian, British and American culture, playing both to Eastern and Western crowds through its adaptation of Bollywood and Hollywood movie conventions. The tone is fast, colourful, breezy and definitely playful (Bride & Prejudice tickles the fourth wall at least twice, calling the purpose of the first musical number and, later, double-staging a fight in front of a movie screen.) Aishwarya Rai definitely lives up to her advance billing as “the world’s most beautiful woman”: her universal appeal shines brightly every time she’s on-screen, despite stiff competition from a number of other gorgeous Indian women. While there’s an energy lag in the third act (probably linked to the dearth of musical numbers in the film’s second half), the film ends on a suitably high romantic note, leaving you with the impression that the world is in better shape at the end of the movie than at the beginning.

Be Cool (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Be Cool</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, February 2005) John Travolta can ooze cool effortlessly, and this sequel to Get Shorty seems built around that fact. It’s deceptive, of course: the seamless direction of F. Gary Gray manages to keep dozens of plot balls in the air at once without it seeming difficult, but there’s a number of complications under the surface. The casting is impressive, but standouts include The Rock (playing against type), Christina Milian (in what could be a star-making turn as significant and Jennifer Lopez in Selena) and tons of cameos from all areas of Hollywood. It’s all good fun, from a film that really doesn’t want to be taken seriously. There are sour notes, of course: The insufferable Vince Vaughn, the vapid nature of the pop-culture references and the changes to the original book. In fact, those changes are so numerous and significant (simplification of characters, changes in relationships, hard rock music to vapid hip-hop) that they would almost be worth getting excited about if it wasn’t for the fact that the book keeps harping on how its own adaptation will do exactly that. Somewhere, Elmore Leonard is laughing and cashing his checks.

Assault On Precinct 13 (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Assault On Precinct 13</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, February 2005) I can’t tell you how this remake compares to the original John Carpenter film, but as its own little suspense film it’s not too bad. While it’s a waste to see actors like Ethan Hawke, Gabriel Byrne and Lawrence Fishburne slum in B-movie roles like this, their talents are appreciated –especially in Fishburne’s case, as he lends a certain majesty to his role. The basic premise of the film hearkens back to westerns (what with an isolated fort and attacking savages) but the camera techniques are fully modern, complete with nervous editing and a hopping camera. At least there are some decent twists in the bargain. Unfortunately, little annoyances abound, such as how the “snow” never melts and all characters seem perfectly comfortable in a station that’s missing half its windows on Christmas’ Eve. Still, it doesn’t get really stupid until the end, where characters run out in an industrial area to end… in a forest. Whaaat? Oh well: for the longest time Assault On Precinct 13 at least has the look and feel of a perfectly respectable B-grade thriller. It will depend on your degree of indulgence that day.

Thunder in the Deep, Joe Buff

Bantam, 2001, 465 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58240-2

The problem with most military thrillers isn’t with the “military” part. Often recruited from active or retired ranks, military fiction writers have the technical details down pat. Given them the slightest excuse for a fictional war and they’ll be able to describe in telling detail how men will fight. What’s usually missing is the stuff fiction thrives on: Characters. Engaging writing. Adequate pacing. Dramatic build-up. Your typical military thriller can be mesmerizing if it’s written with competence, but too many such novels are published without much attention to traditional story-telling skills.

Joe Buff’s Deep Sound Channel was a submarine thriller that floated in the deep inversion layer between a good thriller and an unreadable thicket of military details. Saddled with a trite plot, unconvincing characters, overwhelming jargon and spots of awful prose, Buff’s debut model nevertheless found an audience thanks to its reasonably engaging depiction of near-future underwater warfare. Bad fiction buoyed by good ideas, in the grand tradition of military techno-thrillers everywhere.

Things haven’t changed much in the sequel Thunder in the Deep, but at least they’ve evolved in the right direction. Once more, we find ourselves aboard the USS Challenger, a new “ceramic-hulled” attack submarine stuck in the midst of a future war opposing the English-speaking bloc versus Germany and South Africa. The reasons behind the war are better explained here than in the first book, but they don’t make it any less ludicrous. But, as ever, let’s grant the author one big assumption and hop along for the ride.

This time around, protagonist Jeffrey Fuller (ex-SEAL, current submarine captain and all-around good guy) is charged with a desperate mission in two parts: First, rescue the crew of a damaged American submarine. Then (surprise), continue on to the shores of Germany to launch a surprise attack against a research facility building unstoppable cruise missiles. Aboard for the ride is Ilse Reebeck, the renegade South-American oceanographer who doubles as the series’ tangential love interest.

Plot-wise, Thunder of the Deep is almost identical to Deep Sound Channel: A mission, a submarine fight getting there, a land-based raid and another submarine battle coming back to base. The end. But don’t despair yet: Buff hasn’t messed with his formula, but he has learned a few other tricks. Simply put, Thunder of the Deep shows some improvement in the basic art of storytelling: Characters are slightly more complete, the jargon is turned down, the suspense is better-defined, the battles don’t seem as interminable as in the first book and novel’s overall impact is generally stronger. Small wonder, then, that when French editor Fleuve Noir decided to translate Buff’s fiction, they began with this volume rather than the first one.

It also helps that Buff’s strengths are carried undiminished in this volume. Once again, Buff (a civilian expert in military submarines; check his web site) portrays underwater warfare as a complex set of interaction between physics, geology, weaponry and plain old human psychology. The impressive climax of the book takes place around an underwater volcano, with both submarine captains making the most out of a desperate stalemate.

This being said, there are still significant problems with Thunder in the Deep, enough to keep this novel strictly for readers with an established interest in submarine warfare. As savvy as Buff may be in military matters, his political sense simply doesn’t measure up. The psychology of the book’s antagonists is still ridiculously simplistic: All native Germans, we’re shown, seem to be partisans of the war despite the tactical nukes flying left and right, cheering whenever their reichkommandant shows them war news footage. Ahem: Countries are not monoliths and enemies are not stupid.

But generally speaking, Thunder in the Deep is an adequate military thriller, one that should slightly expand Buff’s readership. Best of all is the sense of improvement in the series, one which bodes well for Crush Depth, the follow-up Jeffery Fuller adventure. I’m not a big fan of military series in general, but since I’ve got a copy of the next book on my shelves, well…