(In theaters, July 2007) There was a time where I would have moved mountains to see a film in which Linsey Lohan plays a stripper. Alas, that time has passed, because seeing Lohan pole-dancing in I Know Who Killed Me is an endurance contest in the middle of a deeply ludicrous experience. Setting itself up as a thriller but truly belonging to a weak form of supernatural horror (Oops, was that a spoiler? You’ll thank me.) I Know Who Killed Me is bad from the first few frames, but quickly makes things worse for itself by pretending to be a piece of art. A striking colour scheme is the least of the film’s aspirations to art, but it doesn’t take Art Bell’s appearance as a reliable Exposition Device to realize that this film has jumped the rails of even B-movie cinema. Lohan is irritating, the film feels exploitative, the plot drags on and the resolution of the entire mystery is a cheap device. Thriller fans will be furious at how the film doesn’t play fair, and everyone else will just wonder when it will end. There’s always a lot of competition for the title of worst movie of the year, but I Know Who Killed Me makes a strong case for the honour.
(In theaters, July 2007) Clearly, the Potter film team knows that it doesn’t really have to cater to the non-reading public: This fifth entry in the Potter saga holds up well to those who are familiar with the story, but earns a few blank stares from those who haven’t read the source book. By now in the series, the elements are familiar: Potter, friends, dark lord, bla-bla-bla. But as the series gets darker and darker with each volume, so does this film treading into adult matters as Hogwarts is taken over by a power-mad busybody who does her best to dismantle schooling standards. No Wizard Left Behind? Surely I can’t be the only one making that joke. I certainly could feel the collective slash-mind wobbling when Snapes told Harry “I will attempt to penetrate your mind and you will attempt to resit me”: Sheesh, the stuff practically writes itself, doesn’t it? But slash-spotting is something I only do during dull films, and as this Potter 5 moves to the conclusion, there seems to be less and less connecting material left on-screen. Suddenly, our heroes are in a big room of glass balls. Suddenly, our heroes are fighting evil. Suddenly, someone’s gone: Dead or Out for lunch? Suddenly… well, suddenly everyone needs the book to make sense of what’s happening. But since we will all end up reading it anyway, does it really matter?
Warner Aspect, 2003, 294 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61083-6
Well, it had to happen. After two books of generally likable action and adventure featuring young adult protagonist Jak Jinnaka, Barnes finally drops the hammer on his characters in the second half of In the Hall of the Martian King. Happy Barnes characters are generally an anomaly: sooner or later, the real world comes calling.
If you’re familiar with the rebellious, rabble-rousing Jak Jinnaka, the first few pages of this third volume are a bit of a shock: Jak seems to have settled down and is using his skills for a good cause. He’s now a capable bureaucrat stationed in Martian orbit, tasked with the mission of keeping things together just as his boss goes away on an extended holiday. From an undisciplined teen, Jak has now embraced responsibility and supervisory duties. All is well, except for one small archaeological discovery.
One tiny, insignificant unearthing of the all-encompassing “lifelog” of a major religious figure. An object that everyone wants, regardless of political authority. Before the end of the fourth chapter, Jak is already making end-runs around his own bureaucracy, setting plans in motion to capture the log for his true employers. If he could just be left alone, things would unfold smoothly. Alas, before even realizing it, Jak is surrounded by a menagerie of friends, fools, enemies and ex-lovers. His capabilities as a bureaucrat are taxed as he’s got to spend more time protecting an ignorant aristocrat against his worst instincts than successfully leading the diplomatic negotiations required to secure the artifact.
This first half of the novel is very, very enjoyable. It’s easily one of the highlights of the series so far: There’s a pleasant “lone competent man against the universe” feel to this section, one that brings to mind Keith Laumer’s “Retief” series of adventures. Barnes takes on the tone of a farce, and seeing Jak trying to keep all the spinning plates from crashing into the ground is hilarious. Nearly all of the series’ recurring characters are brought together in a tiny space, and the various plots and counter-plots are a delight to follow.
But pretty soon, even the fanciest diplomatic footwork can’t substitute for direct action. And this is where, true to the series’ structure so far, things change. Every book of the Jak Jinnaka series so far has been divided in two distinct sections, and the division in this third volume is more dramatic than most: The action spins out of control, and even a satisfying victory turns to a nightmare when one recurring character is killed.
This also marks he shift in tone from a lighthearted farce to a steely-eyed political thriller. Jak has to deal with his grief, settle a few unresolved issues, face down the web of manipulation in which he’s been snared and look at a world that’s much meaner than he expected. The conclusion of the entire story has resonance with John Le Carré’s implacable tales of realpolitik in which bad things happen to people who are worth more dead than alive. This leads Jak ready to face more adventures (as yet unwritten), but those are likely to be a touch darker in tone.
Fortunately, it’s not all gloom and depression for most of the book’s duration. Barnes’ strong narrative skills keep the book rolling along, and the verve of his prose once again bring to mind the usual comparisons with Heinlein. Barnes, though, has a stronger grasp of socio-political issues, and In The Hall of the Martian King is just as adept as its predecessors at integrating cool ideas with the flow of the story. The “Wager” of Jak’s universe is finally explained, with potentially wide-reaching consequences for upcoming books in the series.
Despite the abrupt turns in tone, and the growing darkness of the universe, the Jak Jinnaka series has been a terrific trilogy so far, and shows ample potential for further volumes. Barnes just has to write them; I’ll be there to buy them.
(In theaters, July 2007) I’m a really easy audience for musical comedy, so it’s almost inevitable that I’d enjoy Hairspray as much as I did. Fifties/Sixties rock, dance numbers and a bunch of laughs: What else could one want? What further distinguish this film from the norm, though, are its slightly-sarcastic lyrics and a deep love for the underdog. For those who haven’t paid attention to the film’s pedigree, this is where John Waters’ original influence comes through. (Waters himself appears in a split-second cameo as a flasher. Still, you can’t miss him.) One aspect of the film’s promotion leaves me frowning, though: For a film where racial equality is the backbone of the plot, Hairspray‘s trailer seemed a bit… light in this matter. Does it matter? Not really… but it’s still curious. In other related areas, it’s fun to see Hairspray take up where Far From Heaven and Dreamgirls lefts off in recasting black music as the good music of its period: There’s some interesting cultural reinvention here, but I’ll wait a bit later down the trend to think about it. In any case, thinking seems almost irrelevant in a film where John Travolta dancing in fat-suit drag can almost seem cool. Bubbly Nikki Blonsky makes a heck of a debut appearance; I wonder what’s next for her.
(On DVD, July 2007) Trying to identify with a rich materialistic bastard as he inherits a magnificent property in Provence isn’t exactly an easy proposition. So the first few minutes of the film are sometimes obnoxious, as we’re asked to contemplate the rich workaholic man’s burden of a multi-million dollars estate. Play tiny violins, especially when we can all guess the dramatic arc that the character is going to take. But the film eventually warms up: It’s hard to stay mad at the beautiful cinematography, or at Russell Crowe’s rough charm. Pretty much everything unfolds as predicted, but it does so at a satisfying pace, slow enough to reflect the quiet French countryside. A Good Year often mis-steps and never quite reaches the level it aims for (a number of silly “fast-forward” comedic scenes detract from the rest of the film, for instance): in retrospect, Crowe and director Ridley Scott seem too rough for the light touch that the material requires. For a romantic comedy, the laughs are few and the romance seems like an afterthought. Oh well; at least there’s the scenery, and a number of performances to enjoy. One could do much, much worse: misguided films are usually preferable to terrible ones.
Little Brown, 2000, 391 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 0-316-15406-7
Every other book, Michael Connelly takes a break from his best-known protagonist Harry Bosch and does something else. Often, those “off books” end up being some of his best work: The Poet, featuring a journalist stuck in a serial murderer investigation, was widely hailed as one of Connelly’s best work. Blood Work, about an FBI profiler recovering from a heart transplant, was adapted to the big screen by Clint Eastwood and ended up becoming one of Connelly’s best-known books. At a time where repetition is the biggest artistic enemy of the best-selling author, Connelly is playing it smart and stretching creative muscles on his own schedule.
Now, with Void Moon, Connelly steps away from procedural investigations and tackles both a very different character, and a slightly different style. For the first time, he features a female protagonist and tackles a story that feels like a thriller. Better yet: This time, the characters are not on the right side of the law.
First up is Cassie Black, an ex-con who’s trying to rebuild a good life in Los Angeles after a few years inside. But living above ground isn’t easy, especially when something she holds dear is about to leave forever. Pushed by desperation, Cassie goes back to her former handler and volunteers for one last job. Just one more score, for the money. It turns out that there is such a job available to her: a simple casino client robbery in Las Vegas. Routine stuff for Cassie, who knows more about robbery than entire police departments. But this being a Connelly novel, things don’t go as planned, and the first part of Void Moon ends with her raising a gun at her victim…
Only to cut to another character: Jack Karch, a Las Vegas native who has made such a routine out of burying people in the desert that they call him the “Jack of Spades”. Jack is a casino executioner: he’ll handle whatever needs to be handled. So when a murdered clients is discovered in his hotel, he’s put on the case. Pretty soon, he realizes that his client was no simple client, and that powerful people really want to recover the briefcase that we was carrying around.
As it happens, Cassie and Jack know each other: Years before, it’s in no small part thanks to Jack that Cassie’s life was destroyed. As Jack tracks down Cassie again, the question arises: Is this time for Cassie’s revenge, or for Jack to finish what he started? Desperate, cut off from the legal world and hunted down step by step, Cassie will have to be resourceful in order to set things right… that is, if she opts for doing the right thing.
The morally tainted protagonist and utterly ruthless antagonist are part of what make Void Moon different from the author’s other books, but it’s more interesting to look at what still makes it a Connelly novel. Nobody will be surprised to learn that his prose is just as compelling here than in his earlier books: Void Moon starts rapidly and keeps roaring along, carrying readers well past their bed-times. Connelly’s gift for procedural descriptions is just as good here than ever before: Not only does he detail how Cassie is able to get and deploy high-tech gadgets to perform her robbery (“All surveillance technology described in the book actually exists and is available to the public” adds Connelly in his acknowledgements), but he follows Jack as he tracks down the clues leading to Cassie. This PI-turned-bad sequence works just as well as Cassie’s segments, and leads to good confrontations between the two lead characters. Cassie may not be the purest of characters, but she’s more than sympathetic enough to make for a terrific protagonist: There is seldom a doubt as to where our sympathies must belong.
And so it all amounts to a well-handled thriller. Though Void Moon doesn’t carry the extra kick of Connelly’s best novels, it’s a good reading experience and it does little to tarnish the Connelly brand name. Fans will be pleased to find a subtle link to the novel Trunk Music, suggesting that Bosch himself is not too far way.
A minor but pleasant interlude in my Michael Connelly Reading Project (“One book per month, every month, until I’m caught up”), Void Moon is another proof that Connelly is one of the top crime writers in America right now. Even on holidays, he’s still as good as other writers at the top of their game. I don’t expect Cassie to disappear from the Connellyverse.