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by PopMatters Staff

26 Jun 2007

Love Kills: A Britt Montero Novel by Edna Buchanan
Simon & Schuster ($25)

BUCHANAN FINDS THE RIGHT BLEND THIS TIME

Taken separately, Edna Buchanan’s two series about Miami reporter Britt Montero and the city’s Cold Case Squad haven’t lived up to their potential. The last five Britt novels lacked the vitality of her earlier outings; the Cold Case Squad has been the epitome of missed opportunities, stalled by ineffectual tension and character development.

But in Love Kills, the Miami author melds her two series into a novel full of vitality with sophisticated plotting, expert tensions and characters who leap off the page. A former police reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize, Buchanan delivers a vivid tale in her 13th novel. She weaves several plot threads in Love Kills for a story that is ultimately about violence against women and the high cost of love. Despite a few stumbles and rare bits of clunky description, including a chaotic ending, Buchanan delivers one of her best novels, full of twists and surprises and a view of Miami that is fresh and energetic.

Grieving over her fiance’s death, Britt is on a leave of absence from the newspaper, escaping to a Caribbean island to remember him and ponder her future. She and her best friend, a newspaper photographer, find a disposable camera on the beach that turns out to contain the honeymoon photos of a couple missing at sea.

Back in Miami, Britt is on the minds of the Cold Case Squad members: She was the last to interview Spencer York, a kidnapper for divorced fathers whose body has just been found after several years.

It was assumed that Spencer, who had no compunctions about harming mothers while abducting their children, had just skipped bond shortly after Britt’s interview—her first big story. Now the detectives know he was killed shortly after talking to her and the detectives hope Britt will remember every detail of their interview.

When Marsh Holt, the bridegroom in the photographs, shows up, Britt is pulled into his sad tale of grief and loss. But Marsh has another side to him, as well as a long list of wives who never lived past their honeymoons.

Buchanan keeps the two stories parallel, alternating between Britt’s reporting and the new developments in her private life, and the detectives’ investigation. Both stories are equally compelling and Buchanan doesn’t resort to cheap gimmicks in showcasing the two investigations. The resolutions to both are well-conceived surprises.

Love Kills falters when Buchanan violates a time-honored rule of writers and journalists—by telling, not showing. A character’s monotonous litany about what’s wrong with Miami pales next to Buchanan’s skillful way of illustrating the changing face of the Magic City and its residents: small apartment buildings being sold to developers, traffic jams, exploding garbage trucks and bizarre thefts. “You can leave Miami, but Miami never leaves you,” sums up Britt’s—and Buchanan’s—affection for the city, and that’s the heart of Love Kills.

—Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
Spiegel & Grau/Random House ($24.95)

DIGGING INTO MYSTERY AROUND ISAAC NEWTON

As strictly a knee-jerk reaction, Isaac Newton wouldn’t seem the likely choice around which to wrap a mystery. But real people and icons are now all the rage. While Ghostwalk lacks the nonstop action of The Da Vinci Code or Steve Berry’s novels, it more than makes up in its intelligent, literary approach to the modern gothic.

Alternating between 17th century and contemporary Cambridge, Rebecca Stout masterfully delivers an intricate plot that is supported by a book within the novel. At the heart of Ghostwalk are the suspicious deaths that happened around Cambridge’s Trinity College during the 17th century and were connected somehow to Isaac Newton. But Stott, a science historian in England, gives equal weight to the murder of a contemporary academian that may be related to a group of radical animal rights activists.

Ghostwalk drips with the atmosphere of Cambridge—from the plague-ridden 17th century where the city must have “seemed like a vision from Revelations” to its current incarnation as “a city of keys and locked doors and private secret inner courtyards.” The pace is deliberate, but never dull.

The intrigue begins when Cambridge historian Elizabeth Vogelsang is found, drowned in the river near her farmhouse. She had been working on a controversial biography of Newton that dealt with his infatuation with alchemy and the supernatural.

Elizabeth’s son, Cameron, asks his former lover Lydia Brooke to finish the book. Lydia respected Elizabeth and they maintained a close friendship long after she and Cameron broke up. Living in Elizabeth’s home, Lydia soon finds this “ghostwalk” to the 17th century comes with flickering lights that dance across the walls, missing papers and an odd assortment of people, one of whom may even be a ghost.

Stott keeps the gothic tones high, while not neglecting the mystery elements or the contemporary story that pulls Ghostwalk together. Only the inevitable romance seems clunky and out of place.

The author, whose last work was a biography of Charles Darwin, has supported Ghostwalk with meticulous research, footnotes, timelines, an extract from Newton’s works and a suggested reading list. That’s all well and good and adds to the feeling of authenticity. But most important, Stott knows how to tell a good story.

—Oline H. Cogdill (South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT))

As June comes crawling to a close, the final retail Tuesday sees some interesting choices, all available at your favorite local home entertainment emporium. Granted, they tend to represent the less than successful members of the mainstream set, movies that failed to make their mark at the box office four to six months ago, and are just now seeing a seismic turnaround onto the fiscally friendly format. But there is a great deal to enjoy here, including a solid second film from a critically acclaimed director,  a stereotypical uplifting sports film, a by-the-numbers actioner and one of the most intelligent looks at the horror film ever created. Toss in some off title entities and the usual under-performing suspects, and its standard Summertime fare. While it would probably do better come October, SE&L suggests you forget the sunshine and pick up its selection for 26 June. It will have you thinking of Fall’s autumnal terrors lickety-split:

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Vernon Leslie

Attention all horror fans – it’s time to rejoice. After six months of fading fortunes at the box office, there’s a new scare sheriff in town, and his name is Scott Glosserman. An obvious genre maven, this first time filmmaker has crafted one of the cleverest, most inventive movie macabre spoofs since Wes Craven made us Scream. Using the novel idea that all slasher serial killers (Jason, Freddy, Michael) are real, and that they all conform to a kind of slice and dice code of ethics (can’t enter closets, must locate virgin to act as ‘survivor girl’), Glosserman deconstructs the ‘80s splatter favorites and turns them into psychological studies worthy of Freud. Then we meet the title character, a mass murderer wannabe who has hired a documentary film crew to follow him around. It’s their interaction, and the last act switch into a standard scary movie, that really sells this sensational experiment. If you’ve been burned by the recent redundant dread, give this indie effort a shot. You’ll be glad you did.

Other Titles of Interest

Black Snake Moan

For a follow up to his wildly successful Hustle and Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer decided to go down the old fashioned exploitation route. He came up with a story about a black blues musician taking a slutty white girl under his wing, attempting to cure her ‘provocative’ ways by chaining her up. While it wants to be a Baby Doll for the new millennium, there’s more tenderness than taboo here.

Dead Silence

It took James Wan almost three years to return with an answer to the massive sophomore success of Saw. The result was this movie macabre oddity, the story of a killer ventriloquist and her possessed dummies from Hell! Trying to fuse old school terror with nods to both the Italian and Japanese styles of horror, many fans failed to see the fright. DVD will be the perfect place to rediscover this potential cult classic.

Peaceful Warrior

Victor Salva is at it again. No, not THAT. Instead, he is making yet another film about a loner like teenage boy looking for guidance, and in this case, finding it from a kindly older man. Salva’s scandalous past, including a conviction for child molestation, doesn’t seem to deter his directorial fortunes. While other artists struggle to get movies made, he consistently finds films to forward. Such is the weird workings of the industry.

Pride

At this point in the genre, it must be harder and harder to find motivational stories of unlikely sports teams beating the odds and showing the status quo that they too matter. But this tale of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim club started by urban do-gooder Jim Ellis (a decent Terence Howard) has a nice period feel, as well as an inspirational hook that most movies of its type can’t match.

Shooter

Mark Walhberg is a marksman lured out of hiding to protect the President from assassination. Naturally, he is double crossed and accused of the eventual crime. What follows is another standard big budget action extravaganza with too much bombast and not enough believability. It’s a shame that director Antoine Fuqua has had such a troubled time of late. All Tru Blu scuffle aside, he remains a promising feature filmmaker.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Frankenstein Conquers the World/ Frankenstein vs. Baragon

It has to have one of the greatest premises of any Toho production. The heart of Frankenstein’s monster is recovered from a European stronghold during WWII, and is kept in a Japanese lab. When the Hiroshima bomb is dropped, the organ takes on a life of its own. Soon, it’s guiding a feral boy with a freakish facial deformity. Baragon shows up, and the two square off in standard man in suit style. Originally scheduled as another Godzilla sequel, this unusual take on the giant monster movie has to be seen to be believed. And what makes matters even more unbelievable, DVD distributor Tokyo Shock is giving this far out film the two disc special edition treatment. Offering both the original and English language versions, as well as commentary and other contextual tidbits, we gain insight into series creator Ishirô Honda, and how seriously said film were taken. Fortunately, for us, it’s all fun and foolishness.

 

Schapelle Corby in jail.Courtesy: News.com.au

Schapelle Corby in jail.
Courtesy: News.com.au

Convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby has missed the deadline to appeal a Queensland court’s decision that proceeds from her bestselling memoir be frozen. In basic terms, this means Corby and her family won’t get to share in roughly $300,000 in book profits just yet, and if the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions has his way, the Corby’s won’t ever see that fat cheque.

In 2005, Corby, a pretty surfer-chick from the Gold Coast, was sentenced to 20 years in an Indonesian prison for smuggling four kilos of marijuana into Bali. For a while, Corby was the poster-babe for Indonesian injustice. Email petitions did the rounds asking for signatures to send to the Indonesian government to (somehow) right some tragic wrong. Everybody was talking about it—if Schapelle wasn’t on the front page of the Herald-Sun, she was the main topic of water-cooler conversation. And everybody had an opinion. To hear some people tell it, the Corbys were nothing but a family of druggies, known Coast-wide as the go-to guys for all kinds of highs. Others, though, took Schapelle beneath their wings, and raged about how horrifying it was to see an Aussie girl suffering such torture at the hands of barbaric Indonesians. And some people tried to convince you they knew the real story—a friend of a friend bought weed from Corby’s this, that, or whatever. Still, whatever their opinion, few thought Schapelle deserved the hellish conditions of her Indonesian jail cell for four measly kilos.

It’s up in the air whether or not Corby did indeed smuggle drugs knowingly into Bali, but, regardless, she’s doing the time. The proceeds from the book, she says, were to be used to fund her appeals process. Now, here’s where things get tricky. The DPP doesn’t want the convicted criminal making loads of money based on her status. But why, really? Who does it hurt? Corby believes she has a chance through her appeals to get out of jail early, so why can’t she take advantage of a gossip-thirsty book-buying public who snapped up her memoir (co-written with journalist Kathryn Bonella) in droves?

I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, I can understand the DPP’s ruling. If we let this convicted criminal make money from her notoriety, we’ll have to let the rapists and child killers do it, too. And where will it end? But it’s not like Schapelle’s out buying luxury cars. Should criminals with open appeals use their status to financial advantage purely to handle legal costs? I’m trying to see the difference between Schapelle selling her story and profiting, and a SchapelleStock-type music festival that might be held for her to do the exact same thing. And that happens all the time. How great is the difference, if it’s all in the name of justice?

 

 

 

I’m about a month behind on this, but conservative blogger Reihan Salam recently attached a peculiar political thesis to the recently-reissued Chevy Chase film Fletch in an essay for Slate. Though many of the points Salam makes are accurate - Chase’s character is a jerk whose smugness makes us wonder why we should be laughing along with him—the argument seems a bit like a pat culture-war brief. The essay reads like a calculated provocation, a bias (that liberals are always hipster creeps, “reverse snobs”) looking for an occasion. Salam basically attempts to make a juvenile film serve as proof that liberal attitudes (they don’t quite reach the level of political philosophy in his mind, it seems—they are only postures, poses one makes to try to impress others) are also inherently juvenile, petty attempts of the privileged to poke fun at earnest hard workers while sympathizing with “countercultural” deadbeats. Salam suggests that the liberals who enjoy Fletch get off vicariously on how the character can go through his world exuding contempt for salt-of-the-earth types who can’t manage or don’t bother to be ironic.

Fletch is handsome, self-confident, and he certainly sounds affable. Listen closely, though, and you’ll find that his pleasant demeanor masks the condescending jackass within.
Fletch has no time for squares. He’s happy to charge many a Bloody Mary and steak sandwich to some rich asshole while he’s infiltrating a posh country club.

To Salam, Fletch is mainly a glib supercilious phony that only other glib phonies could enjoy. “What better way to highlight Fletch’s abandonment of the hypocrisy of middle-class convention than to have him treat everybody like crap?” Salam explains.

But I’m not convinced that we’re not supposed to laugh at Fletch and his boorishness, not empathize with it as though it constituted some welcome rebellious statement. It should be remembered that Fletch follows almost point for point the formula established by Eddie Murphy’s breakout film, Beverly Hills Cop, right down to the doodly incidental music by Harold Faltermeyer, the synthesizer maestro behind “Axel F.” The main difference in the films is that Murphy, a black cop from the tough-as-nails streets of Detroit running amok in the luxe world of Beverly Hills, is a slightly different sort of outsider than Fletch, a newspaper reporter undercover in the drug milieu. To make it conform more to the BHC formula, Fletch was made to seem also like an irreverent outsider who won’t abide by the establishment’s rules. The audience of BHC may sympathize with Murphy’s laughter at upper-class mores and kid-gloves police procedure, but he remains fundamentally other to most of the audience because of his race if nothing else. And audiences would rather imagine themselves as the Beverly Hills resident than the outsider black cop—in fact audiences get to do both because they can luxuriate in the Beverly Hills settings while conveying with laughter that they get the outsider perspective. They experience the luxury without the pretension.

Chevy Chase makes for an imperfect analogue for Murphy, but the Fletch character I think is conceived in the same way—we are supposed to appreciate his antics but ultimately feel superior to him; to feel like by laughing at him we get the best of both worlds—mainstream comforts and a hipster sensibility. This potentially noxious combination may be what Salam objects to. According to the essay he prefers comedy animated by right-wing populism—the snobs defeated by the slobs, as in Animal House. Salam then universalizes this motif as the linchpin of all successful screwball comedy, and deems Fletch a failure.

Fletch is so abominably bad because it’s trying to be a slobs vs. snobs comedy, but all the while, Fletch is the biggest snob of them all. He claims to stick up for the downtrodden. But like the über-educated hipster kids clamoring to secede from “Jesusland,” his disdain is directed against the God-fearing, hard-working rubes of the Heartland.

But this seems wrong on several accounts. Salam obviously wants to deride today’s hipsters, some of whom in their kneejerk nostalgia may embrace Fletch as an iconic film—just as they tend to consider anything they can remember from when they were eight years old as iconic. This may be pathetic, but it’s not really an act of snobbery so much as it’s a generation’s attempt to differentiate itself from previous ones.  Regardless, Fletch (who is not depicted as hypereducated or in the grips of any special anger toward religious voters or religious mores—he seeks instead to root out institutionalized corruption and I guess that’s why Salam confuses Fletch’s villains with the Republican party) has nothing to do with the urban secularism of the hipster class, and this transparent attempt to elide them should not be allowed to stand.

Also, I object to the characterization of Fletch as a slobs vs. snobs film. It’s not Revenge of the Nerds—like BHC it is comedy-action hybrid that wants to celebrate wisecracking vigilantism, with the humor taking the edge off of the antisocial nature of it. But Chase plays up the antisocial nature of Fletch’s endeavor—the selfishness and self-righteousness—which perhaps makes those who want to revel in the “one just man against rotten institutions” theme uncomfortable. And when he takes advantage of the made-to-order scripted morons in order to propel the plot, what’s expressed is not Fletch’s hipsterish hauteur but the lazy screenwriter’s contempt for perceptive and demanding audiences. What we see is the inclination to write for the lowest common denominator unfolding as action. We feel the awkwardness of being expected to laugh along with the complacent folks who don’t want their comedy to be complicated or layered, people who think sitcoms that trade in stereotypes are funny.  In other words, the film is tailored not for cognoscenti but for the sort of people in flyover country that Salam imagines the film offends and attacks.

When Mayor Mike Bloomberg returned from California last Wednesday to make a minor speech about his city’s 311 service, he was bombarded with questions from media concerning his perceived intention to run for President in 2008. Bloomberg has recently made headlines for switching his party affiliation and for blasting the two major parties for lack of bipartisanship. Despite consistent denials that he intends to run, the media can’t seem to let go of the fantasy three-way New York battle royal. The City’s tabloids had a field day with the non-announcement and The New York Times ran, not one, but two front-page above-the-fold articles on Bloomberg.

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