(In theaters, January 2005) As a rabid fan of the first Ghost In The Shell, I had high expectations for the sequel, all of which were dashed. In a bizarro reversal on the strategy of playing up a first film’s strengths, Innocence revels in the first film’s worst traits and forgets nearly everything that made it so good. In a nutshell, Innocence is a simplistic fifteen minute film stretched over more than an hour and a half. The rest of the time is spent spouting nonsense at tediously low bandwidth. While Major Kusanagi is good for a cameo voice appearance, Batou simply isn’t strong enough as a protagonist: He is adrift without a strong anchor, and the hound dog doesn’t cut it. Innocence is not without its good moments; the last fifteen minutes, once the action starts again, is good in ways that remind us of the first film, and some odd scenes here and there (the intro; the barely-coherent convenience store shootout; the repeated sequences) have at least the potential to be interesting. Plot-wise, though, this film is a mess (yeah, just go in and start shooting the Yakuzas… that’ll work), and it doesn’t even try to cover up its worst problems through fast pacing. Worse is the philosophy: Unless something went horribly wrong in translation, you could find more philosophical insights in the third Matrix film (yes, the third) than this one. Yikes; don’t be surprised if the endless droning just drives you to sleep. On the visual front, the CGI is much nicer than in the original film, but the traditional character animation now clashes with the background more than ever, a problem that is only becoming more jarring as animated films keep depending on this half-and-half technique. Go rent the original again and temper your expectations again regarding this sequel.
(On DVD, January 2005) Don’t be surprised if you start wondering, twenty minutes in the film, how much more of the protagonist you can take. William H. Macy stars as Bernie, a fantastically unlucky man who works a low-rent Vegas casino as a cooler, a man whose bad luck is so contagious it evens up the odds in favour of the house. As you may suspect, this uninterrupted streak of bad luck doesn’t stop at gambling: Romance is similarly impossible, and there is a basic pathetic quality to Bernie’s existence that overwhelms everything else. Bernie is a loser mostly because he’s never learnt to be anything else, and his trouble start once he begins to turn things around. Stuck with an unbearably evil boss (Alec Baldwin), his budding romance with a friendly waitress (Maria Bello) may be his salvation or his doom… depending on where Lady Luck decides to take him. As with most movies dealing with the element of chance, the plot can often be an accumulation of improbable coincidence. But the film gradually improves out of its initial humdrum beginning, using its low-life Vegas locale to good effect. It’s not a spectacular film (despite odd moments of good direction) nor is it something you’ll start cheering for, but it’s the kind of movie that leaves a good impression once the first act is over.
(In theaters, January 2005) The first rule of happy romantic comedies are that they end at the right moment. There is no rational reason for them to have sequels, given that the ending is already pre-ordained and all you get is ninety minutes of needless complications. What’s worse in this case, however, is that this sequel raises anew the question “What does he see in her?” and fails to offer any good answer. What’s left is a series of “oh, isn’t she adorably stupid!” moments, of which we had quite our share in the first film. Gaah. (And I liked the first film.) Fans of the book will be both pleased and saddened by the considerable changes wreaked on the plot line: No more incompetent handyman, no more interview with Colin Firth, no more uncomfortable suicide attempt. More of Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver. More of Colin Firth as the unflappable Mark Darcy. Much more of Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones. (She looks a lot more curvaceously attractive here, extra pounds and all, than the featureless stick-like waif she played in Chicago.) I suppose that undemanding viewers will enjoy more of the same. For the rest of us, though, enough is quite enough. No reason, no edge either. Hey, who knew Thai prisons were so entertaining?
NEL, 2002, 372 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 0-340-73357-8
Jasper Fforde made quite a splash with his 2001 debut novel The Eyre Affair, a dazzling mix of humour, alternate fantasy, thriller and romance in a world where barriers between fiction and reality aren’t quite as solid as anyone would think. This assured debut quickly won him the favour of book-lovers around the world, and the least one can say about the sequel Lost in a Good Book is that it won’t disappoint any of his fans.
Fforde leads us once more into his madcap alternate reality via the narration of detective Thursday Next, a woman of uncommon abilities and unparallelled contacts. Her father is a time-traveller, her colleague is a supernatural slayer and her pet is a dodo. Given that her enemies range from criminal masterminds to the Goliath mega-corporation, it doesn’t take half a book before her husband is erased from history. Next step? Recruitment by a very special policing force and the impending end of all life as we know it.
Oh, yes, all the fun of Fforde’s first novel is to be found in Lost in a Good Book, and much much more. This sequel deals heavily with the reality/fiction transgressions that shined so brightly in the first book, playing well to his established crowd of book-loving readers. Picking up scant weeks after the events of The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book fulfils the first requirements of a good sequel by confronting its protagonist with the consequences of her earlier actions.
Once more, Next has to defy the odds against her and navigate through impossible adventures to make it alive at the end of her novel. What’s new in this volume are her added powers and responsibilities as a junior member of Jurisfiction, an organization dedicated to keeping literature free from tampering. You see, all books in history are kept at the Grand Library, most novels have lives of their own and Jurisfiction is the agency that keeps it all in order…
This particular subplot leads to one of the best scenes in the entire novel: As Next greets her compadres in literary enforcement, she recognizes them easily from classic works. But then…
“Welcome to Norland Park, Miss Next. But tell me, as I am not so conversant with contemporary fiction – what book are you from?”
“I’m not from a book.”
Upon which her interlocutor “looked startled for a moment, then smiled even more politely” [P.265]
Heh. And if you don’t think that’s mildly clever, just wait until Next uses decreasing levels of entropy to her advantage.
But one could quote favourite bits for ages without touching upon how Lost in a Good Book lives up to the expectations raised by its title: There isn’t much in this book that isn’t tons of fun, from the daily details of the protagonist’s life to neat ideas (such as communication through footnotes) and an increasingly sophisticated mythology featuring all, er, creation. Readers should rejoice, because Fforde is writing catnip for bibliomaniacs. (From the title of the third book of the series, The Well of Lost Plots, I’m guessing we’re not done exploring meta-fiction. Particularly absent is the role of the authors in this fictive cosmology, which is probably being kept in reserve for a latter instalment)
This being said, Lost in a Good Book comes with its share of dark moments, characters being eliminated and a finale that is more of a temporary respite than a conclusive victory, suggesting that this is only a middle tome of a continuing series. While few would designate this series as anything but a comedy, I suppose that every character will have to take a few hard knocks until the grand happy ending.
But don’t let this discourage you: If you enjoyed The Eyre Affair, it won’t take much to convince you to race through the rest of Thursday Next’s adventures. I myself am rationing all Fforde Ffiction to one per month, and there are regrettably only two more to go. Know simply this, though: During Lost in a Good Book, I never peeked at the page number to gauge my progress through the book. Not once.