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Veronica Mars (2014)

March 23, 2014 4 comments

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars (2014) is a most curious example of wish-fulfillment. Those of us with memories like an elephant — sorry that simile doesn’t quite work in this instance because elephants don’t watch television shows. Those of us who can remember back to 2004. “Hey man, that’s like ten years and so passé. Who’d want to remember something from way back when?” Well, this is Rob Thomas and here’s a Kickstarter riposte to those executives in the movie-making business who don’t think there’s mileage in a cult television show for a sequel, but are prepared to spend millions of dollars in remaking The A-Team or, worse, Dukes of Hazzard, Land of the Lost, etc. Personally, I’d like to see a film based on Pushing Daisies but my eccentricity in matters of taste is notorious.

 

So, after a brief moment watching our heroine being interviewed by a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell) here we are back in Neptune, California with Kristen Bell as she slips seamlessly back into the character of the obsessive investigator who got her full PI licence when she was still at school. She’s responding to a call from Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who’s now a member of JAG — obviously a man who knows where he’s going so long as it’s by sea. He’s accused of murdering Carrie Bishop who had made a name for herself as a pop diva calling herself “Bonnie DeVille” (ah, what’s in a name). As with most people accused of murder, he needs some help. Naturally, Veronica opts out of the whirlwind of job interviews to fly out to renew acquaintance with her father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), and the other stalwarts from her youth.

Veronica and Logan back together again

Veronica and Logan back together again

 

Insofar as this is a film made using fans’ money, the question we have to answer is whether the film is better than the average bear, or something that will only appeal to the diehards. Writing this at the end of the first week in the cinemas, the answer would seem to be limited appeal in the general marketplace. The gross take is edging up to $2.5 million. But the wrinkle we can’t get beyond is the number of people who opted for home viewing. The whisper is fairly positive and Rob Thomas says the early signs for a second film sequel are encouraging. It may well be this turns into a franchise despite the apathy of the power-brokers in Hollywood.

 

To achieve this no doubt worthy aim, the appeal must satisfy two completely different demographics. When it was being broadcast, it routinely picked up around 2.5 million viewers across three seasons. Whatever sequel is made must satisfy the natural desire of the fans to catch up with as many characters from the series as possible. To that extent the film succeeds as an exercise in nostalgia. Nine years have passed and people may have aged, but the high school reunion brings all the cast back together and provides a vital photographic clue from the past as to the motive for the most recent death. Indeed, as we wander through Neptune, interesting faces resurface, often saying “significant” things for the fans (and for solving the murder).

Dick, Weevil, Logan, Wallace, and Piz showing how reunions end

Dick, Weevil, Logan, Wallace, and Piz showing how reunions end

 

As to the mystery plot, it’s faintly amusing to see Veronica pull out her old box of PI stuff and have to make do with out-of-date tech. Indeed, her general lack of awareness about the cultural life of the city and its radio stations, is almost the death of her. But the mystery element is a little thin. There’s remarkably little set-up for the murder itself. We don’t get to walk through the scene of the crime or to have someone explain the gatehouse system which suggests Logan was the only one who could have committed the crime. Although this comes out as we get into the second half of the film, it’s always better when we viewers have a clear view of the problem to be solved from the get-go. As one of the attorneys says when Logan is looking for someone to represent him, he needs a viable alternative explanation of who could have done it. This is difficult to formulate without a proper set-up. Even when we have a reconstruction flashback, Veronica’s guess is actually wrong. At the end when we know whodunnit, we’re still left guessing whether her suggested method is correct.

 

Indeed, the ending sequence is a little undercooked. There’s a confrontation, admissions are made, there’s a chase and a fight. Yes, the classic elements are present but, somehow, they lack a true thriller quality. It has a made-for-television feel to it. I know the film was made on a tight budget so not as much time could be taken to get a full cinematic quality to it, but shambling around in the dark is not my idea of getting the job done. Putting all this together, I’m left moderately satisfied. It was good to see flashes of the old Veronica Mars spirit in some of the characters and situations — it’s slightly disappointing there’s not very much character development outside the core players. Summing up, the final evaluation can’t depend on past familiarity. The current mystery element must be strong enough and, somehow, I don’t think this is well enough put together to “hit the spot”. With a little more care, this could have been excellent. As it is, Veronica Mars is only slightly better than average.

 

Reel Stuff by Don Bruns

November 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Reel-Stuff-3D

One of the delights in reading so many books is you get to see all the narrative tricks played out in their different forms. One of my favourites is the use of the unreliable narrator. When an author sets off down the track of a first-person point of view, the reader is limited to what the protagonist sees, hears and understands. So when our “hero” is not paying proper attention or is distracted, we also miss vital clues from the environment. Of course, the omniscient author can play the same game simply by choosing not to tell the reader or to limit the salience of information so the reader will pass quickly by without noticing. Trickery by omission or misdirection is standard fare. But the least unfair way of paying this game is through a first-person narrator. In Reel Stuff by Don Bruns (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) we have a particularly elegant way of presenting a puzzle for solution. To understand this bold assertion, a few words of explanation are required.

This is the seventh in the Stuff series featuring Skip Moore, the narrator, James Lessor, his partner in a not wholly successful PI business, and Emily, Skip’s rather good-looking girlfriend. This time, our dynamic duo have picked up a job providing security on a set being used to shoot an episode for a moderately successful television series. Skip is beside the director while a stunt is being set up. A big star is doing a cameo which ends with him falling off a scaffolding structure. All the safety angles have been worked out. Even though this is a seventy-foot fall, there’s a very impressive inflatable bag to absorb the impact and lower said star safely to earth. It’s therefore a surprise to everyone when, during a rehearsal, he jumps off the scaffolding and falls twenty-feet to one side of the bag. The body is rather spread around by the impact. Of course, this looks like a suicide. Except perhaps it isn’t. The puzzle, of course, is how a scene being filmed (this production company uses old-school technology) could actually be a murder. Indeed, having been there and seen what happened, Skip is firmly of the opinion that it can’t possibly be a murder. As I said, it’s set-ups like this that make reading such a joy. As experienced readers, we know this will be a murder. The only question is how to overcome our hero’s failure to understand what he saw. In defence of poor Skip, it’s not his fault he thinks this is a suicide. In takes days for his certainty to weaken and for the investigative genes to kick into play. Of course, his partner’s willingness to take an advance to prove it a murder does set him on the right track.

Don Bruns and Dick Smothers celebrating stuff

To discover what happened, the team is forced to divide its forces. Skip and Emily go to Los Angeles. The victim’s wife runs a talent agency so our couple “go undercover”. Emily pretends to be an actress. Skip is her manager. They fake a resume and union card for Emily, and she dazzles them with her smile. Much to Skip’s annoyance, the agency is immediately on high alert and arranges an audition. Within twenty-four hours, Emily is on a high. She has a part in a new television series and finds well-established stars hitting on her. This is not the response Skip was looking for. Their relationship comes under pressure and the pace of the investigation slows a little. Fortunately, Skip eventually makes the breakthrough and, with various attempts being made on his life, grows confident he’s on the right track.

Reel Stuff is a superior example of the form of writing I describe as amiable mystery. Don Bruns is one of these laid-back authors who makes the craft look easy, propelling the reader rapidly through the mists of uncertainty until our hero emerges into the light of understanding with the solution. As a whodunnit, this is satisfying. It also works as a gentle thriller. Perhaps of equal importance, the dynamic of Skip’s relationship with Emily is developing rather nicely. Too often the immediate mystery dominates and limits the space available for us to watch the characters live their lives. Reel Stuff gets the balance right and leaves us with a bittersweet ending. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next episode.

For a review of another book by Don Bruns, see Hot Stuff.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 (2009)

Private Eye

Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 (2009) is set in 1910. Korea was already occupied by the Japanese who proceeded formally to annex the country, appointing a Japanese Governor-General and deposing the Emperor. Japanese nominees also took over all the major authority roles and high status positions. This ranged from the military and police to the professions including medicine, the law, and so on. In practical terms, Korea became a protectorate under the de facto rule of the police. We start off the film with a medical student Kwang-Su (Ryu Deok-Hwan) searching the woods around Seoul for the bodies of dead animals. He’s training to be a surgeon but there are few opportunities to work directly on human bodies, whether alive or dead. It’s therefore quite a wonderful surprise when he finds the naked body of a young man. Without thinking too carefully about the implications, he treats this as his chance to get in some serious practice. Having a small hand-pushed cart with him, he has no problem in returning to the city with his find. The following morning sees him completing the first phase of organ removal.

Ryu Deok-Hwan and Hwang Jung-Min look at where the body was found

Ryu Deok-Hwan and Hwang Jung-Min look at where the body was found

 

It’s only at this point he comes to understand the seriousness of his situation. The body he’s been working on is the missing son of the newly appointed Interior Minister. Not unnaturally he fears to report his find to the authorities who might consider him a convenient scapegoat for the killing. Instead he focuses on the reward posted for finding him alive or finding his killer. By chance, he sees a flier advertising the services of Hong Jin-Ho (Hwang Jung-Min). He used to be a guard in the Royal Court but now earns crusts by tracking down unfaithful wives. Thinking they stand a good chance of identifying the murderer because they have the body and know where it was dumped, they team up to investigate. Because our detective is slightly more into thinking than action, he relies on Park Soon-deok (Uhm Ji-Won) as his science advisor. She’s a royal relative more interested in science than is good for her in these difficult social and political times. She dreams of escaping to America where she believes life will be more free.

Yoon Je-Moon emerges from the shadows

Yoon Je-Moon emerges from the shadows

 

As is always required, this is a film of two halves. The first part is relatively light-hearted as our new partnership of detective and sidekick doctor set out to solve the case. There are meetings with a number of key officials who will feature as the case develops and a great chase through Seoul as our heroes find themselves followed and try to catch the man responsible. At the end of the first half, we reach the point where, after tracking down the dealer who was selling morphine to the deceased, they are pointed to the circus which has set up its tents just outside the city. This leads to a meeting with Uk-kwan (Yoon Je-Moon), the circus master who, amongst other things, has a set of knives exactly like the one used to kill our victim. The second half of the film is altogether darker as a second murder and eavesdropping by Park Soon-deok suggests what may be going on. The problem, as always, is not only finding convincing evidence but also deciding how best to act with the Japanese now formally in charge of policing. The first signs are not good as the police move to frame a Korean farmer for the murders. They even go so far as to fake the body of the first victim, hiding the features by using lye. When our dynamic duo produce a photograph of the actual body (yes, our body snatcher has retained the body for part-time study purposes), the Commissioner agrees to give them two days to resolve the case. If they fail, he will execute the farmer (and find a reason to jail the duo for actually having the body).

 

As a story, Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 is dark and powerful but, as happens quite often with Asian films, there’s a less than perfect structuring of the narrative. Consequently, one key element is not clearly developed and we’re left to fill in other gaps to make complete sense of what we see. This is a shame, showing the inexperience of director and screenwriter Park Dae-Min. With just a little more care and some explanations at key points, this could have been a great film.

 

Hot Stuff by Don Bruns

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Hot Stuff by Don Bruns (Oceanview Publishing, 2012) is the sixth in the Stuff series featuring Skip Moore and James Lessor who’ve managed to aspire from being deadbeat losers with a used box truck into officially licensed private investigators with a used box truck. Except, because they find it hard to do anything properly unless you count finding body parts when they haul stuff in their truck, they still work for a travelling carnival show or go treasure hunting when stuck for something to do by way of earning a living. This time, Skip has found his true vocation, scraping the food off plates and feeding the dishwasher in a high-end French restaurant while James actually gets the chance to prove that not every minute of his four years at university was wasted. He’s earning biggish bucks as a sous-chef. They’re working undercover to find out who murdered the sous-chef James is replacing. And, within minutes, they remind themselves how hard it is to ask co-workers questions without exciting suspicion. And by the end of the first day, there’s what may have been a death threat to James — for once not a response to his laid-back charm.

The fun thing about this pair is the balance between competence and incompetence. Neither is really interested in the material side of life although, in his more mellow moments, James does admit it would be good to become rich. It’s just the lack of work ethic that holds him back. Skip finds his mind engaged and, with a bet involving a large quantity of beer riding on the outcome of their investigation, he’s really getting into the dishwashing gig like his life depended on it — well, perhaps his life does depend on it if the murderer realises he’s not a real dishwasher but a PI working undercover. Of course, work of this kind always involves perks. In this case, free swimming lessons have been included together with instruction videos on the uses and abuses of paperclips.

Don Bruns and Dick Smothers celebrating stuff

From this, you’ll understand Hot Stuff does something simple rather well. It entertains. Any author will tell you writing anything intended to be even vaguely humorous is a minefield. Fortunately, Don Bruns is not trying to write a comic novel as such, but the intention is to generate a smile or two on the way. This flows naturally from the set-up. Neither Skip nor James matches the conventional expectations we readers have about PIs. Instead of tough guys who can duke it out with the villains and generate those laconic one-liners we always wish we’d thought off, this pair is rather wimpy and prone to foot-in-mouthisms of rare quality. Indeed, if there’s any explanation for their success, it’s that no-one meeting them would ever take them for investigators and would most likely underestimate them. The only element that, perhaps, does emerge from this book to their credit is that James is not only a lot more conscientious than you might expect as a sous-chef, he’s also quite good at it. While, for reasons you’ll understand when you read the book, he can’t go back to work at the restaurant where the murder is committed, this experience should encourage him to look for a better position in a good kitchen. That’s assuming, of course, that they don’t get some decent paying work as PIs. Well, perhaps that’s not so much an assumption as a strong probability. I mean, who in their right minds would willingly employ this pair as private investigators?

So putting all this together, Hot Stuff is a good puzzle and our battered truck owners do get to the right answer, albeit by a somewhat circuitous route. I’m not wholly convinced by the way the book ends. It’s a bit too melodramatic for my taste. But it does have the virtue of neatness and leaves everything set for the series to continue. Something I’ll look forward to reading.

For a review of the next in the series, see Reel Stuff.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott

The theme of today’s review is authenticity. Many authors write what they know. This is their comfort zone and it enables them to include levels of insight normally impossible to an outsider. Others are more daring and adopt a point of view as an outsider. In the first, you get an essential truthfulness about the mise-en-scène and credibility in the belief systems driving the choices characters make on what to do or not to do. In the latter, you see the scenes and the characters’ motivations through a more objective eye. In some cases, this may offer a form of commentary on the culture being described. The leaves the question whether authenticity matters.

On some things, I am a genuine expert. So, being born a Geordie, I am able to comment with authority on the portrayal of my homeland in films like Get Carter and, more recently, The One and Only. We shall pass rapidly over the general failure of filmmakers to reproduce the accent. Their standard justification is that meaning would be denied to even to English, let alone foreign, audiences without the use of subtitles. In reality, the problem is that the “stars” imported to sell the films are incapable of adopting a credible accent and their efforts would probably add an unintended comic element to the whole — something not necessarily desirable in Get Carter, Purely Belter, et al. Does it matter that films do not accurately portray local accents or, indeed, the real local culture? In some senses, the answer is always “no”.

Art always strives to achieve some level of universality and, if you root your work too strongly in one culture, it may deny others the chance to empathise. Thus, when you go to see Shakespeare, you do not hear the Elizabethan English of his time, but modern accents and, often, find the action in contemporary settings. Indeed, where would we be with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and the many other film and stage versions of Shakespeare that have transplanted the spirit of his work into forms more immediately accessible to modern audiences.

All of which brings me to A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott. This is a not-quite private-eye story in the tradition of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. That means an African-American hero with a military background who makes his living by doing odd jobs, usually investigation based. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is well-educated, but they both have a knack for solving mysteries. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is demotivated and alienated but, as the pressure mounts, they both get things done. When it comes to the politics of race, Mosley captures the social anger of the times and the self-control necessary to survive the inevitable interaction with local law-enforcement officers in particular and white folk in general. I take his voice to be authentic. Nelscott is a pseudonym (as most people interested in mystery novels will know). I read this book because I had enjoyed her science fiction and was interested to explore her other writing. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has no direct experience as a man of colour living through times of racial tension in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet this is the substance of the first of what has proved a successful series of Smokey Dalton novels.

Let us start with the quality of the mystery to be solved. The core of the problem is obvious from the initial pages, but the detail of the resolution only becomes possible towards the end of the book when Smokey makes a road trip. I confess I did not predict the correct solution. I was in the mood to read it through to the end in one sitting and did not stop to give it thought. As a “twist”, it fits into the context, but it’s a bit “ordinary” when measured against comparable novels. The intended focus of interest lies in the novelisation of the final days leading up to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since we all know he was assassinated, the only tension in this narrative lies in mapping out the territory often occupied by conspiracy theorists intent upon involving the FBI and the local police in the shooting. Sadly, I was mildly underwhelmed by this. There is also a subplot involving an interracial relationship between Smokey and his client, Laura Hathaway. In the heat of the moment and given all Smokey’s emotional baggage, I found this element to be the most credible. It’s an emotional tragedy for both characters, but probably what would have happened. I take this element to be authentic.

Put all this together and you have quite an interesting read. It has Rusch’s trademark prose — refreshingly simple and involving. If it had been put in support of a narrative more intrinsically exciting to a Geordie, I would have been really impressed. Perhaps, to Americans interested in their own history, such novels are inherently exciting. I am therefore uncertain whether to continue acquiring and reading the other Smokey Dalton novels. In contrast, I am a Walter Mosley completist, having read all his novels including the science fiction (one of which is dire). His voice does speak to me as a Geordie who lived through the immediate post-war period in a Northern, bomb-devastated British city.

For my other reviews of books by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, see:
Boneyards
City of Ruins
A Dangerous Road (writing as Kris Nelscott)
Diving into the Wreck
Duplicate Effort
Recovering Apollo 8

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