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Joe College: A Novel
Joe College: A Novel
by Tom Perrotta
Edition: Paperback
32 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Danny's Inferno, June 3 2002
This review is from: Joe College: A Novel (Paperback)
Tom Perrotta is chronicler of man's troubles akin to a watered-down and American Nick Hornby, and a dialogist with the potential to be as good as Richard Russo. He isn't nearly as good as either of these two fine writers. But that's almost an unfair comparison. Perrotta is good, and despite the fact that "Joe College" is a problematic and flawed book, it's still a pretty gripping and fun read.
Danny is a junior at Yale University, majoring in English and minoring in keeping his awkward social life straight. Spring break is spent manning the lunch truck while his downtrodden father recovers from surgery, staying out of the way of racketeering group of rival lunch truckers, and avoiding Cindy, an ex-girlfriend who doesn't measure up to his highbrow standards.
This would all be pretty banal stuff, except for the fact that Danny is a narrator several years removed from these events. Perrotta only sporadically gives us clues to this fact, unfortunately, but when he does it gives the story that much more power. It becomes, then, the story of an older man looking back with new perspective on his bygone days of innocence. And it is this new perspective that Danny sorely needs. He's smart enough to know when he's doing/done wrong, but only with the benefit of hindsight. One revelation has him reasoning why he hooked up with Cindy in the first place. He notes early on that their first kiss prompted this internal monologue: "My first thought was, This is amazing! My second was, She's a secretary!... it made me pull away in confusion." But later he explains that their relationship existed only because he was "trying to find a little company so [he] wouldn't have to spend [his] nights listening to Judas Priest and watching [porno] movies." If only he could have had this ignoble conclusion while it was happening, he might have saved himself and Cindy a whole lot of anguish.
As the narrator, Danny seems to understand this. At times he appears to be hiding something, whether it's behind a clever joke (of which there are many) or even using a flashback to dig deeper still into his past, the purpose of which is to explain (or cloud) his motivations. On top of this, we never learn his last name. There are several opportunities where it could come out, but Danny stops himself short. Which leads me to believe that he isn't really telling us the whole story. There's obviously something more embarrassing to hear than what we get. Danny is an unreliable narrator, that most-effective of post-modern rhetorical techniques. The irony then is that he, an English major at the height of the post-modern movement, doesn't even realize this. It's a neat trick that Perrotta tries to pull off, but it ultimately falls short.
Okay, now that I've got all that po-mo lit talk out of the way, let me quickly talk about why this book is so much fun.
Perrotta is a no-muss no-fuss writer. His spare, matter-of-fact prose is very inviting, ably masking bigger themes. Also, he's very credible in the way he portrays the way these twentysomethings communicate with each other. A letter Cindy writes to Danny is just so spot-on and so hilarious in the way it perfectly captures the tone of someone with much passion, much to say, but little talent for actually saying (or writing) it. Her overuse of capitalization, exclamation marks, and tangential thoughts remind me a lot of many a letter I received (and, yes I'll admit it, wrote) in my salad days.
Perrotta populates his story with a multitude of characters (I'd say too many at times), each bouncing off Danny for moments, and then disappearing into the background. My favourite of these is Matt, a co-worker of Danny's whose uninhibited personality is always amusing. Perrotta also populates the story with endless references to the time period. Mentions of the Iran hostages ("I didn't learn that Americans were being held captive... until... my history TA made an offhand comment about Ted Koppel's hairdo"), Steely Dan's "Gaucho" album, the rise of Ronald Reagan, and Jodie Foster's Yale tenure (she even has a cameo in one party scene) firmly entrench the book around the turn of the 1980s.
In the end, nothing really horrendous happens to Danny. "Things could be worse," he reminds himself. "I wasn't in jail, I wasn't in the hospital, and I wasn't married. My life was pretty much on track, unchanged by the obstacle course of potential disasters I'd been running for the past several days." Which nearly makes the book an empty exercies. But Danny does manage to learn from these 'disasters', or at least we're lead to believe that he does. I suspect just the act of writing his 'memoirs' (with Perrotta a more than able 'ghost-writer') proves this is true.

Army of Darkness
Army of Darkness
VHS
3 used & new from CDN$ 10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Good, bad� he's the guy with the gun!, June 1 2002
This review is from: Army of Darkness (VHS Tape)
Using advanced scientific techniques, I've isolated the three basic reasons why Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness" exists. They are:
1. To quench the appetite of those Raimi-files not sated by the gore-and-goofiness of "The Evil Dead" and "The Evil Dead II":
Yes, it's pretty gory: A fire hose caliber spray of blood erupts from a torture pit; an evil deadite appears to have no lips or skin; animated skeletons get run over by a beat up yellow Oldsmobile. But thankfully, it is also very goofy: the arms of buried bodies poke through the ground to perform a neatly choreographed Three Stooges routine; an army of mini-Bruce Campbells appears, and attack their Gulliver-sized doppelganger, Lilliputian-style; an evil witch is blown to pieces by a double-barreled department store shotgun, as the audience gets the bullets'-eye-view. The meshing of gore and goof is a Raimi trademark, and it is in no small supply here. Prepare to hold your stomach, because you'll either have the urge to vomit, or need to hold in your omnipresent laughter.
2. To show off contemporary versions (circa 1990) of Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion techniques:
The special effects, while dated in the face of CGI prodigiousness, are enormous and spectacular. A vast skeletal army emerges from the darkness, each with his/her own unique personality and movement. The battle they undertake is credible and real and awe-inspiring. It is ridiculously hyper-kinetic, full of carnage and mayhem, more than any climactic fight scene I've ever seen. Never put anything past Sam Raimi. Even on a miniscule budget he can create something that'll knock your socks off, and tickle your feet.
3. To give the glorious Bruce Campbell more moments to shine.
Above all else, this is the real reason why this movie exists (Raimi thinks so: by the opening credits alone you'd swear the movie was called "Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness"). Campbell has the unique ability to play Ash, hero of the first two "Evil Dead" movies, as both intensely cool and dumb as a post. It's a nice mix that allows him to display the pomposity of a superhero and the self-awareness of a post-modern ironist. One scene in particular shows this off nicely. It takes place in a graveyard, in front of an altar where the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead) is kept. Only there are three books, a number Ash wasn't expecting. Casually opening the first one, he reveals a powerful vacuum/vortex, sucking into its gaping maw all that come near. Ash is one of the first casualties. But he emerges heroically, unharmed except for a ridiculously elongated chin. The joke is that Campbell's chin is his most notorious selling point (he called his autobiography "If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-movie Actor"). Mocking himself so mercilessly, it becomes an even more delicious moment.
His other skill, besides his self-deprecating sense of humour, is his delivery. Raimi and his brother Ivan deliver an almost purposefully banal script, knowing full well that the verve and intensity of Campbell's delivery will amplify its humour. And they're right. Ash's lines, so eminently quotable, appear rather dull when typed out ("Groovy", "Hold on Mr. Fancy Pants", "Baby you got ugly", and "Baby give me some sugar" being the most notorious examples). The power comes from the way Campbell's reading is combined with the way Raimi sets up these lines perfectly: a dramatic pause, then a quick zoom in on Bruce's loopy mug, then the slick delivery of the line. It's an addictive concoction that had me roaring in delight each time. Furthermore, add the fact that all the actors around him play their scenes stone straight, and you find yourself wondering why Campbell isn't a bigger star.
"Army of Darkness" will not add up to much for those uninitiated with (or underwhelmed by) the "Evil Dead" series. But for those that are, it's more of the good times promised by Raimi and Co. Check your mind at the door, paste a goofy grin on your face (you'll need it later), and get set for 81 minutes of mirth and mayhem.

Darkman
Darkman
VHS
7 used & new from CDN$ 0.79

3.0 out of 5 stars The filmmakers have more fun than the audience, May 31 2002
This review is from: Darkman (VHS Tape)
I first saw "Darkman" in the theatres when I was 15-years old. Forced into comparisons with the first "Batman" movie, I found it to be a rambling, shoddy mess. Having recently seen it again in theatres, with my new 27-year old eyes, I still find it a rambling, shoddy mess.
Helping temper this feeling were a gaggle of Sam Raimi-files, stalking every corner of the theatre, laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity on screen. From every over-the-top acting moment, to the plethora of cheesy special effects, to the inevitable Bruce Campbell cameo (which got the biggest cheer I've heard in a movie theatre in a long time), they were lapping up the pudding that Raimi was serving. You can't help but get caught up in an atmosphere like that. "Darkman", to them, is a perfect, lowbrow, B-movie, kitschy Saturday afternoon matinee. I imagine, however, that non-Raimi fans will despise it much as I did back in 1990.
The problem is that it parodies a genre not ripe for parody: low-budget superhero knock-offs. These kinds of movie are jokes in and of themselves. Calling attention to their obvious flaws is like shooting fish in a barrel. Where's the sport in that? Raimi and gang try hard, injecting spot-me-if-you-can in-jokes and corny humour into every frame, but the whole never comes close to the sum of its parts.
There are, however, a lot of fine elements here.
The film opens as two rival mobs meet to discuss a territorial feud. One mob, seemingly outnumbered by another, employs a rather unique method of surprise to gain the upper hand. It's a thrilling moment, punctuated by car explosions and bullet-ridden bodies, that culminates in a ridiculous torture sequence. Larry Drake, who plays crime boss Robert Durant, is stunning in his role. He's cool, collected, reserved, but ready to pounce when something doesn't go his way (and he sports a before-its-time Caesar 'do that tops off the character perfectly). I remember Drake being the biggest surprise when I first saw the film, having only known him as the mentally retarded office boy on "L.A. Law". He's a fine super-villain here, stealing the movie out from under the two leads.
Liam Neeson (it shocked me when my hindsight informed me that this respectable actor was once "Darkman"; at the time, he was an unknown) is fine as the tormented scientist, burned beyond recognition. He's discovered a revolutionary new fake skin, that magically, after feeding a couple of Polaroids into a photocopier, can create a mask of anyone's face. Unfortunately, the masks only last 99 minutes in the sunlight. Neeson, in his Phantom of the Opera garb, plays Darkman as a manic depressive little boy: fraught with pitiful agony one moment, intense with rage in another. He's paired with Frances McDormand, one of my favourite actresses, who plays his do-gooder lawyer girlfriend. McDormand is all icy cold exterior, but she gets to break down in anguish too. Neeson and McDormand, two actors who later gained reputations for superb control, are a messy mishmash of emotions here, playing broadly to the rafters. Though I prefer them in their subtler moments, I guess it's all called for here, fitting in with the overall tone of the film.
Raimi, a visually kinetic director who I've admired for a long time, has a lot of fun with his camera here. He blatantly cops many of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous shots, only with amped-up hysterical flair. The famous zoom-in/pan-out shot from "Vertigo" is employed what seems like a dozen times throughout the film, always with some fiery blaze in the background, the better to understand Darkman's subconscious(!). And he even tries his hand at "Psycho's" shot of the drain morphing into Janet Leigh's eye. Only he reverses it. It made me think, "This guy's sure having a lot of fun from his director's chair."
But I have to come back to my original point and say that, sadly, this member of the audience didn't have as much fun as the filmmakers. I just couldn't get past the shlockier aspects of "Darkman" to give my heart to it.

American Gods
American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.89
54 used & new from CDN$ 0.67

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing concoction that never truly gels, May 29 2002
Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", an intentionally oxymoronic title, is about the impending battle between the old gods (pick your poison: Odin, Loki, Vishnu, etc.) and the "new" (junk culture: TV, advertising, gambling, etc.). Stuck in the middle waiting to find out his destiny is a mortal man named Shadow. Soon to be released from jail, Shadow looks forward to a reunion with his wife Laura. Sadly, this reunion is not to be (or, it is not to be in the way Shadow envisions it). Shadow, stricken by grief, is thus enlisted in a battle, one that may decide the fate of the world, by a mysterious man named Wednesday.
Similar thematic territory was covered, with much more panache and verve, by Douglas Adams ("The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul") and by Neil's "Good Omens" writing partner, Terry Pratchett ("Small Gods"). Both books took a sidelong glance at the subject of modern deities and found an awful lot of humour there. Gaiman treats his subject with solemnity, and to my mind this is one of the reasons why the book suffers.
Fortunately, the story begins with a dramatic bang. Gaiman sets up his characters well, and then proceeds to create the universe in which they will live. He never betrays the beginning, but at times he lets the narrative (or, to describe it more accurately, the loose assemblage of scenes) get away from him. "I feel like I'm in a world with its own sense of logic. It's own rules," Shadow notes at one point early on. "I'm just going along with it, you know?" This is true, and it begins as a wonderful creation in Gaiman's hands. But later Shadow becomes more frustrated with the direction his life has taken: "Nobody tells me what [the rules] are. You keep talking about the goddamn rules, I don't even know what game you people are playing." This kind of frustration seeps into the reader's thoughts as well. Gaiman takes great care in hiding his motivations from both his character and his audience. You keep expecting a payoff, where the rules are explained, at least implicitly. But that rarely happens, and when it does it is quite unsatisfactory.
He also neglects to assemble a unifying narrative. What we have, instead, is an extended version of 'variations on a theme'. Shadow's adventures, although different and interesting every time, still follow the same basic formula. It becomes tiresome after a while. And what narrative it does have goes on for far too long. "Not only are there no happy endings," someone says near the end, "there aren't even any endings." Too true in this case. Further complicating things is the fact that this book has both an epilogue and a postscript. Gaiman may not have wanted to leave the world he's created, but the reader can't wait for it to finally be over.
All that being said, there are moments here that carry a tremendous amount of stark weight. One scene, at an odd boarding house, has Shadow losing a game of checkers only to face a frightening punishment: a sledgehammer to the head. Thankfully, he's able to put it off. Or is he? Later, we see Shadow in a moment of extreme sacrifice. Gaiman's descriptions of the broken man's thoughts in this chapter are heartbreaking, and believably authentic. The scenes in Lakeside, a small-town safe haven, if taken on their own (with some obvious re-working) might have made a wonderful self-contained short story. I just wish that Gaiman had found a way to string these events together in a unifying manner. Out of nowhere, you find Shadow talking to Lucille Ball, as Lucy Ricardo, on an old black-and-white TV. Or, apropos of nothing, Gaiman's narrator barges in to admit to the fictionality of the story he is telling: "None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor." These are all great bits of writing, but they don't fit together to make a cohesive whole.
"American Gods", for me, is a very frustrating read, for just these reasons. It has boundless potential, but at every turn Gaiman fails to reach the high levels he's aiming for. It makes for a powerful work, one that's often boring, at times quite frustrating, but in moments quite exhilarating. At nearly 600 pages, anything is going to be hit or miss. I was just hoping for a few more hits from Gaiman, a writer I've admired in the past. I admire him here, too. I just didn't enjoy him that much.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Widescreen/Full Screen)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Widescreen/Full Screen)
DVD ~ Jason Flemyng
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 32.80
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars A lot of giraffes in a movie that kicks a lot of khyber, May 22 2002
In baseball they talk about the best all-around players as being "5-tooled": they hit for average, hit for power, run, play defense, and throw. To become a 5-tooled filmmaker, one would have to: present stunning and effective visuals, control a propulsive story, create indelible characters, write smart and important dialogue, and select a fitting and articulate soundtrack. In contemporary cinema only two American auteurs, Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers, come even close to filling out all five criterion. You have to cross the pond and get a Brit, Guy Ritchie, to find my choice as today's only 5-tooled filmmaker. With his debut movie, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels", he proves why.
Visually, "Lock, Stock..." is a stunner. Ritchie's camera is free and expressive and full of energy, while never relying on the tired and the cliched to make a point. Two sequences quickly come to mind. The first, which I call the "I can't believe I lost it all" scene, displays Eddie's dismay after [losing] out in a high-stakes poker game. The woozy, punched-in-the-gut feeling that we all can relate to in moments like this is stunningly captured by an array of subtle camera tricks. No words are spoken, but Eddie's anguish is palpable. The second sequence, which I call the "let's celebrate by getting [blind drunk]" scene, details the cathartic elements of consuming massive amount of alcohol. It begins with wretched excess, and ends with sloppy sleep. Anyone familiar with a night of drunken revelry will have it immediately called to mind in this, another wordless sequence. Throughout the entire film, Ritchie doesn't spare any part of his visual palette, always in a tasteful and significant way.
The story he's come up with is just delightful. It's infinitely more complicated than most contemporary gangster films, weaving a labyrinthine path from start to finish that always has the audience guessing. That is until the key moments when it wants the audience to know exactly where it's heading. It then telegraphs, most amusingly, the next plot point. One such moment sees a gang driving back home after a job. The audience has just seen a bloodbath at their destination, and can't wait to see what the characters' reaction will be when they arrive. Ritchie's command of dramatic irony is astounding in these moments, as is his ability to keep clear several dozen parallel plots. It all leads up to an ambiguous ending that reminded me a lot of John Sayles' "Limbo". You don't necessarily know what happens after the credits have rolled, but it doesn't really hurt your enjoyment of the story (in fact, it helps. A lot).
Patrolling this story is a vast army of characters, none coming close to a third dimension, but all somehow fully drawn anyway. Ritchie gives us clueless would-be cons, ganja growing private school boys, aggressive and unpredictable black gangsters, a sadistic card sharp, and a paternal debt collector. All are skillfully portrayed, funny, and believable. Ritchie wastes little time developing character, but manages to anyway. Clever shortcuts, such as the names he gives them speak, volumes without saying much at all. A ruthless gang leader is appropriately named Dog. The moneylender's muscle is named Barry the Baptist, for his predilection towards drowning his victims. And in one of the film's most curious running jokes, a skinny member of Eddie's gang is nicknamed "Fat" Tom, a sobriquet even he doesn't understand. All of these characters are skillfully acted, more often than not by credible non-actors. Notorious footballer Vinnie Jones is the best of the bunch, as Big Chris (who squires around his son, Little Chris, to jobs). Jones shows true menace under Chris' relaxed exterior. Jason Statham and Lenny McLean are the other amateurs who bring real life grit to their roles.
North American audiences may have a tough time chopping their way through the jungle of Cockney accents, but if they can they'll find that Ritchie's dialogue is stylish and sublime. One of my favourite irritated monologues, in a film full of them, is this gem spoken by Rory Breaker, the aforementioned unpredictable black gangster:
"If you hold back anything, I'll kill ya. If you bend the truth or I think your bending the truth, I'll kill ya. If you forget anything I'll kill ya. In fact, you're gonna have to work very hard to stay alive, Nick. Now do you understand everything I've said? Because if you don't, I'll kill ya."
It's stylized, true. And funny as heck. But as written, and especially as delivered, it's a menacing little bit of theatre. Furthermore, Ritchie's reliance on Cockney rhyming slang gives the film an authentic and puzzling tone. Thankfully, the DVD comes complete with a rhyming slang dictionary, so it's ham and cheesy to get a translation in no bird.
The soundtrack holds a mix of songs from many disparate styles. But they always manage to provide relevant commentary on the action, and they always make the action, and sometimes the audience, move. We've got a couple of James Brown tunes, a track by the Stone Roses, the Stooges doing "I Wanna Be Your Dog" in one hilarious moment, and Robbie Williams (!) punching up the action in another. The punkier elements mix perfectly with the funkier ones, creating a unified message where I'd thought one couldn't ever exist.
After the first time I saw "Lock, Stock..." in theatres, I made it my mission to create a good word-of-mouth buzz about this film. I wouldn't shut up about this fantastic little movie. It's the kind of edgy, addictive cinema that should be more common and more popular. I'm doing my best to spread the word. Won't you follow me?

The Intuitionist: A Novel
The Intuitionist: A Novel
by Colson Whitehead
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.68
66 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars "They looked at the skin of things", May 13 2002
The central analogy of Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist" is quite simple: the elevator, an important device in the skyward expansion of metropolitan areas, can also serve to lift blacks into an equal position with whites. It's simple, but it's also, at first thought, quite clumsy. I know that was my reaction upon beginning this book. Just like the advancement of modern engineering principles and the development of newer, stronger materials helped further develop the concrete jungle, so to must other factors assist the racial problem. But Whitehead, an eminently skilled writer, has thought of this too. And he knows something you don't know: it won't end the way you think it will end. Armed with this knowledge, he is able to freely create his world.
And what a world it is. Set in an unnamed metropolis, characterized by "magnificent elevated trains, five daily newspapers, [and] two baseball stadiums" that leaves some of its residents "too afraid to leave the house", Whitehead has created a hermetically sealed society. He never flinches in his portrayal, offering up detail after detail of his little world that are at once believable and credible. The centrepiece of this society, the raison d'etre, is that it takes elevator culture very seriously. A weekly magazine, dedicated to said culture, is called "Lift". Visionaries, such as Elisha Graves Otis and the recently deceased James Fulton, are revered much in the same that Plato or Aristotle are in our world. And the Department of Elevator Inspectors serves as a neat little microcosm of the whole, not to mention a terribly desirable place of employment. This is where the title character, Lila Mae Watson, works. That is until the Number 11 cab at the Fanny Briggs building went into a free fall a day after her inspection ("Verticality is such a risky enterprise"). This is the cataclysmic event off of which the story unfolds.
Lila Mae is a strange creation. She is cynical, headstrong, and fiercely intelligent (Case in point: she "does not expect human beings to conduct themselves in any other way but how they truly are. Which is weak"). She's had a perfect record as an Intuitionist inspector in a world dominated by Empiricists. But she's also learned to live in a racist world where she is the only female elevator inspector. Watch her bite her tongue when a pushy salesman espouses the virtues of skin-lighteners and hair-straighteners. Or see her reaction when, at a yearly banquet thrown by the Department, she's confronted by the antics of Hambone and Mr. Grizzard, a minstrel show eaten up by her white colleagues. Lila Mae must keep her head, for in her search for the truth about the accident she is confronted by a series of shady characters, none of whom she can really trust. Or can she?
It is this part of the book, within the detective story narrative, where Whitehead really shines. He mixes into his dystopia nightmare a healthy amount of neo-film noir elements. People are always sizing each other up, doing things to gauge reactions. A security guard asks to see Lila Mae's badge, but he never really looks at it. "He just asked for effect," comments Whitehead's spare narrator. Later, a scene is set inside a hotel room, where "the red neon of the liquor store sign across the street flashes... off and on." You almost expect Humphrey Bogart to emerge from such scenes. Which makes for a fine contrast when you once again realize that you're reading Lila Mae's story. There is nothing Bogart about her.
Up until the final act, I wasn't sure if I bought into all of Whitehead's ideas. However, in that final act, he brings things together so smoothly and so efficiently, I couldn't help but see the light that he was shining right into my face. His elevator analogy congeals nicely. It ably pulls back society's veil to reveal that, as the fictional Mr. Fulton once wrote, "There is another world beyond this one." Pay attention throughout, be patient at the beginning, and trust that what Whitehead has for you at the end will make the whole enterprise worthwhile. Follow this recipe, and you'll be impressed by "The Intuitionist" as much as I was.

Notting Hill
Notting Hill
VHS
9 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Classic, May 7 2002
This review is from: Notting Hill (VHS Tape)
In an act of good faith, "Notting Hill" begins with the awesome Elvis Costello singing the song "She". This would imply that the movie is all about how Hugh (and you) is going to fall in love with Julia Roberts. Not so fast. Julia is hardly the perfect object of desire here that she is in her earlier films. She's shallow, and flighty, and has a shotgun temper (okay, okay, she's still got that great smile, but bear with me here for a moment). So this movie breaks one of my first rules of romantic comedies: I *must* fall in love with the girl. But like another of my all-time favourites, "Say Anything...", it expertly portrays how the boy in question falls for said girl (even if I can't), and makes me believe that it is not only possible for him to do so, but unstoppable despite the odds against him.
So what's wrong with Julia here? Well, let's face it: she just doesn't turn in a very good performance. She seems to be trying to prove her character right when she says, "I told you I couldn't act!" She has not the low-key wit or stuffy self-deprecating sense of humour to pull of the decidedly British script. But the irony is that no one else on the planet could have played this role, or at least played it as convincingly. Her character, Anna Scott, is the Julia Roberts of the "Notting Hill" parallel universe: a commercially hyper-successful actress who longs not only for respectability, but also trucks full of attention. Anna only comes out of her shell when William pronounces her "heavenly", a trick I've seen Ms. Roberts fall for in dozens of interviews.
Now, I admit that Julia does deserve all the credit in the world for at least being willing to poke fun at her persona. A telling scene around a dinner table involves a sorriest sap contest for the last brownie. Anna tells of her ten years of dieting and her plastic surgeries, all in an attempt to postpone the "day, not long from now when [her] looks will go, they'll find out [she] can't act and [she'll] become a sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while." To the script's credit, her dinner companions don't fall for this sad tale (one tempered, minutes before, by her own admission that her last film paid her $15 million), but for at least one moment, Julia's own off-screen fears (or at least as I imagine them to be) are laid flat on the table.
The film works for me, mainly, because Hugh Grant plays the 'boy' role. Grant and screenwriter Richard Curtis have worked together three times by now ("Four Wedding and a Funeral" and "Bridget Jones's Diary" being their other collaborations), and every time the outcome has been pure gold. Grant is an expert at portraying this kind of character: witty and plain, genuine and straightforward, stumbling but elegant. In the early scenes with Julia, where his William Thacker appears to want to jump over the counter and maul the famous celebrity who's just stepped into his little travel book shop but can't because of his British reserve, he is charming and vulnerable all at once. And I think Hugh is the only actor working today who could respond to a question like, "Can I stay a bit longer?" with "Stay forever," and not make it sound false or melodramatic. Coming from his mouth, it sounds heartbreaking and real.
As for Curtis, he's managed a deft and funny script that puts a new spin on the boy-meet-girl/boy-loses-girl/(spoiler omitted) genre, while throwing in some slick Hollywood satire to help it all go down easier (he's fashioned a hilarious junket sequence ('Horse & Hound') that trumps anything a later Roberts film, the bland "America's Sweethearts", came up with). He captures true sentiment, even through such an unbelievable and fantastic situation as this one. And just like I wouldn't mind seeing Hugh Grant in this kind of role over and over again (with slight variations), if Richard Curtis would spend the rest of his days writing witty screenplays wherein Yanks fall in love with Brits who are egged on by a group of eccentric friends, I'd be terribly happy. Curtis himself has noted the obvious resemblance between "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral"; let's hope he forgets the repetition next time he sits down at the keyboard.
Similarities aside, the background of "Notting Hill" is populated with a number of interesting and noteworthy performances. Tim McInnerny and Gina McKee play William's best friends; he's the world's worst cook, she's consigned to a wheelchair. Their love is palpable and endearing. Hugh Bonneville plays a sad-sack stockbroker friend. Emma Chambers is William's nervous sister. And of course, the wonderful Rhys Ifans nearly steals the show as Spike. Sure he gets to spend a lot of time wandering around in his underpants (not to mention a memorable little moment in a scuba suit), but Ifans never goes over the top to mine laughs from the character. Far from it. He's low-key, almost droll in his portrayal of the man who Will casually describes as little more than a "masturbating Welshman".
Where it was an act of good faith in the beginning, meant to endear itself to the audience when they didn't know what was coming, the use of Elvis Costello again singing "She" near the end perfectly sums up the movie: "Me, I'll take her laughter and her tears / And make them all my souvenirs / For where she goes I've got to be / The meaning of my life is she". It's a sappy sentiment, but following a movie that revels in its own status as such high-grade sap, it's also a perfect sentiment.

Skinny Legs and All
Skinny Legs and All
by Tom Robbins
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.68
93 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars The skinny on when the last veil will fall, May 5 2002
This review is from: Skinny Legs and All (Paperback)
One of my biggest post-literate mistakes was choosing "Skinny Legs and All" as my first attempt at a Tom Robbins book. It was a big mistake because, for that first pass, I didn't make it past page fifty. And spent the next two years avoiding Tom's oeuvre, for fear of reliving that first awkward experience. Hindsight tells me that those two years could have been spent in an enlightened, blissful state if I'd started my Robbins journey elsewhere. When I tried "Skinny Legs" again, after 'getting' the Robbins of "Another Roadside Attraction" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and "Jitterbug Perfume", I was astounded at the magnitude of its greatness. And more than a bit embarrassed that I passed off its hyper-creativity as just strangeness for strangeness' sake.
The strangeness I speak of, which rears its ugly (nay, sublime) head before page fifty, concerns an Airstream welded to look like a giant roast turkey, and sentient dialogues between a spoon, a dirty sock, and a Can o' Beans (and later, a mystical Conch Shell and a magical Painted Stick; ancient objects with an enormous task ahead of them). Hmm. A first time Tommer can be expected to run screaming from images like that, skeptical that they can be made credible. But the seasoned pro knows that Tom has something exciting up his sleeve. And can't wait to find out what it is.
"Skinny Legs" follows the 'exciting' adventures of Ellen Cherry Charles, erstwhile artist and sometimes waitress, and her newlywed husband Boomer Petway, creator of said turkeymobile. Their plan is to drive from Virginia, which is too conservative to cultivate Ellen's artistic and sexual passions, to New York City. The goal is to find fame and fortune in the art community. Which they do, but not in the expected way.
While in New York, Tom throws in many issues and ideas that are as relevant today as they were in 1990 when the book was published. More so, even. Talk of New York terrorism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Jerusalem as a hot button issue, all inform the story in one way or another (as do Tom's staples: art, love, passionate sex, philosophy, history, etc. etc. etc.). This can best be seen in one of Tom's most poignant creations: a restaurant named Isaac and Ishmael's, owned by a Jew and an Arab in an attempt to call attention to the brotherhood needed to end the conflict in the Middle East. "To a bird in the air, it's beanies versus dishcloths," notes the I&I's Arab owner, Roland Abu Hadee, before he summarize the foolishness of the situation. "To a bug on the street, both groups are the same." Tom's handling of the Israel conflict, and the way he weaves it into his story, is masterful. He takes his position on the conflict (through the I&I, which in an attempt at reconciliation is not-so-incidentally named after Sarah's sons: the bastard child who went on to become the father of the Arabs, and the legitimate child who went on to become the father of the Hebrews), allows his characters their passions, and even offers a number of fanciful solutions.
But he's not always fanciful and flippant about the situation. One character notes that as New York and London and Tokyo, etc. are all about money, "Jerusalem is about... something else." It's a complicated city, with a complicated history, embroiled in a conflict that's "an overload of craziness... a seventy-piece orchestra rehearsing a funeral dirge and a wedding march simultaneously in a broom closet."
While that part of the book is concerned with the unknowable, the rest of the book tries to find a solution to such problems. Enter the stories of Jezebel (idolater, hussy, face-painter, former Queen of northern Israel) and Salome (she of the Dance of the Seven Veils). Both figures make metaphorical and nearly literal returns to our modern world in the book. In doing so, they lift "the veils of ignorance, disinformation, and illusion [that] separate us from that which is imperative to our understanding of our evolutionary journey, shield us from the Mystery that is central to being." This is, in just one sentence, Tom Robbins' goal for this sprawling and magical book.
Along the way to achieving this goal here, Tom's flair for humourous language and analogy is at its peak. This, to me, has always been the sugar that allows Tom's sometimes-harsh medicine to go down easily. Here lie some of my favourites:
...Concerning the name of an ancient leader of Babylon: "Nebuchadnezzar is a poem... a swarm of killer bees let loose in the halls of the alphabet."
...Ellen Cherry practicing the menu of the I&I, at which she is the hostess, with Boomer:
"Now what the heck is 'roz bel khalta'?"
"Yiddish for Mrs. Jimmy Carter?"
..."Eviction was staring [Ellen] in the face like a deviate on the subway". (This last one is important to me because not only is it a powerful simile, but it is a powerful *New York* simile; there's nothing more stereotypically New York than deviates on the Subway. Tom, as you can see, is in full control of his gifts here.)
"Pious dogma, if allowed to flourish," says the Conch Shell. "Will always drive magic away." For Tom Robbins, an author who buys magic wholesale and manages to fashion it into something even more tangible and wonderful, this is the cruelest death that can be inflicted on mankind. Rest assured, he's doing everything within his literary powers to make sure that never happens. "Skinny Legs and All" is a perfect symbol for this fight. Now it's your job as a reader, whether a Tom-newbie or someone who's been down his lush paths before, to have patience, keep an open mind, and know that Tom would never steer you wrong. Least not here, in one of his masterpieces.

Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against The Machine
Price: CDN$ 10.40
41 used & new from CDN$ 1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Anger is a gift, April 27 2002
Someone once confessed their envy of Jimmy Page because he'd written *all* the good guitar riffs, leaving nothing for the rest of us. Well, Rage Against The Machine appears to have stumbled on Jimmy's secret stash of leftovers. But calling these riffs leftovers is doing them an injustice. Each is a behemoth of intensity and groove, while being surprisingly simple and eminently catchy. They form a solid foundation for each song, easily allowing the rest of the band to fall into lock-step formation when needed, but also allowing ample room for variation. And each song is made up of at least four or five of them, all as strong as the first, to create epic five-minute-plus "agit-pop" tunes.
When he's not anchoring the band with those regal riffs, Tom Morello is coaxing previously unheard of sounds from his Frankenstein guitar. "No samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this recording," claims the liner notes, and it's for Morello's offbeat work that this claim becomes necessary. Every fill and solo is unique, almost anti-guitar, in their sound. 'Bullet in the Head's solo begins with some echo-filled, mechanical sounding distortion. The solo on 'Know Your Enemy' could have been produced by a malfunctioning tape machine. 'Wake-Up' features a solo bathed in extreme echo and Frampton-style talk-boxing. Even his more conventional solos are enormous. 'Settle for Nothing' offers up some some languid jazz lines. 'Freedom' is a fine example of how tasty his playing can be when it's not trying to overwhelm you. And if you love Public Enemy-style sirens with your hip-hop, check out the variations Morello puts on that convention scattered throughout the album (most notably in his rhythm work on 'Fistful of Steel').
Bassist Timmy C gets several moments to shine as well. He slaps and pops the addictive intro to "Take the Power Back". Then, a lazy, loping 4-note theme serves as the delicate opening to "Settle for Nothing", before the heavens cave in ("Death is on my side... Suicide!"). On "Bullet in the Head", he provides a 7-note riff that's funky and confrontational (4-notes... 7-notes... See what I mean about simple and intense?).
Drummer Brad Wilk combines the skin-pounding intensity of a Dave Grohl, with the Caucasian funkiness of the Chili Peppers Chad Smith, and the hardcore speed of Faith No More's Mike Bordin. He is much more versatile than you'd think, sprightly riding the high-hat in one verse, crashing the cymbals in the next, and then shimmering through with a snare roll. Wilk's work on this album, to this day, is my favourite to air-drum to.
Frontman Zack de la Rocha may be focused (obsessed?) with social and racial injustice, so much so that those without his same political bent may feel excluded. But he's also aware enough of the power of a catchy rhyme to draw in those not in the choir, that he lays them out end to end through out the album ("Another funky radical bombtrack started as a sketch in my notebook / But now dope hooks make punks take another look" he raps on 'Bombtrack', essentially making this point for me). Zack raps with such passion and verve, and he has such a talent for succinct sloganeering, that he becomes the perfect frontman for this band of agitproppers. Witness his lyrics to 'Killing in the Name' (still my favourite track). The song starts with a distorted, almost Wagnerian, guitar overture. It settles into a quiet bass-guitar and cowbell section duet. And then the riff comes in. Finally, Zack begins to chant. And chant. And chant. He doesn't attempt to tell a story here, but instead just spouts slogan after slogan ("Now you do what they told ya", "F--- you I won't do what you tell me", etc.), repeating each over and over. It's the perfect song for a rowdy group of teenage boys to scream to. Which I suppose explains its enduring popularity.
I've owned this album since 1992, when I was 17 years old. That year, I saw the Rage boys live in concert twice, and could have gone back for more. If a CD could show wear, like an old LP could, then I would have worn this one out by 1993. It rarely left my stereo that first year. Now, usually when one's love affair with an album burns so brightly at the outset, it's liable to fade quickly. That's hasn't happened yet here. I can still play this one all the way through, two or three times a day, for a solid week. And it still makes me want to move, and yell, and scream, and think. Now *that* is staying power.

Leviathan
Leviathan
by Paul Auster
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.36
65 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars An austere and enormous entertainment, April 23 2002
This review is from: Leviathan (Paperback)
Paul Auster is a blatantly theoretical novelist. He dissects and deconstructs literary genres and trends with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. But some accuse him of abandoning the delight of a story for a view from the ivory tower. I tend to disagree, for the most part, but offer up "Leviathan" as an example of an Auster book that's both a page-turner and a think-piece.
For po-mo lit-lovers, Auster is in fine form. His modus operandi of casting himself as the literary quasi-detective is in full effect here. Narrator Peter Aaron (check those initials) is married to lovely Iris (Auster is married to novelist *Siri* Hustvedt). He is a writer by trade. "My books are published... people read them, and I don't have any idea who they are... as long as they have my book in their hands, my words are the only reality that exists for them," he says, defensively.
The book he is currently writing -- and the book "you" are currently holding -- is an examination of his recently deceased friend, Benjamin Sachs ("Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of the road in Northern Wisconsin," reads the novel's enticing opening line). Sachs has enough vaguely roguish qualities to make "Leviathan" a fascinating picaresque. But he's also an idealist, and fiercely intelligent. He's a writer manque, whose first novel blew the critics away but was a failure with readers. Sachs is a character who exists mostly in absentia, periodically jumping back into Aaron's life to offer up enough details to tantalize his friend, and keep the reader off-balance. "Even though Sachs confided a great deal to me over the years of our friendship," Aaron says. "I don't claim to have more than a partial understanding of who he was. I can't dismiss the possibility that... the truth is quite different from what I imagine it to be." This is Auster playing with the concept of the unreliable narrator, only here the narrator is aware that he's unreliable. An interesting concept, that.
But "Leviathan" is not just conceptual. It's loaded with intriguing personalities, and a lot of implicit suspense. And Auster's habit of digressing from the story to discuss an interesting tangent yields at least one fascinating sequence. Sachs' novel, entitled "The New Colossus", is summarized by Aaron. Auster spares no expense, creating an appealing advertisement for a historical page-turner that doesn't exist. But within that summary he also explicates some of his own novel's grander themes.
The main one, and it's all over the place here, is America as a place of infinite possibilities for freedom but a failure in terms of realizing those possibilities. "America has lost its way," Aaron writes, when talking about the message of Sachs' book. "Thoreau was the one man who could read the compass for us, and now that he is gone, we have no hope of finding ourselves again." Further examination reveals that the Statue of Liberty, as an icon or just a concept, is "Leviathan's" dominant motif. It appears in Sachs' book and in a poignant memory from his childhood. The occasion of her hundredth birthday forms the background for the novel's great turning point. And if not for the Lady's presence, the climax of the book would be hokey and overwrought. As it is, she lends it dignity and class, amplifying its intensity and greatness.
Using spare but consequential prose, Auster has written another novel that straddles the line between pulp and intricate fiction. It never panders to the unintellectual audience, but also never dumbs itself down. And it reaches that fine balance with seemingly relative ease, a trademark of Auster's other works. Try this one first before jumping to "The New York Trilogy" or "The Music of Chance". I dare say you won't be disappointed.

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