Archive for June, 2016

By Lawrence Block

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Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookstore owner and part time gentleman burglar (or perhaps gentleman burglar and part time bookstore owner) has been engaged by a client to pilfer a rare F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscript from a New York museum. The job goes so well that the mysterious client wants Bernie to help in the acquisition of further items. Meanwhile Ray Kirschmann, Bernie’s nemesis in the NYPD actually wants Bernie’s help. An old lady has been found dead in an upscale apartment. Her cause of death is a mystery but she appears to have expired after interrupting a burglar. Ray knows Bernie wasn’t involved (this time) but hopes his experience in the realms of housebreaking might help solve the crime.

Bernie looks into matters and quickly comes to the conclusion that something smells fishy. But he also has the small matter of trying to break into a highly secure penthouse to distract him, not to mention one or two romantic entanglements. He does at least have the help of his trusty sidekick, lesbian dog groomer Carolyn Kaiser, but just what do silver spoons, buttons and dead presidents have to do with things?

 

I’ve never been as much of a fan of the Bernie Rhodenbarr books as I am of the Matt Scudder ones, but a Block novel I haven’t read is always a pleasure, and it always pleases me that Block can write cosy crime capers as surely as he can gritty violent pulp, and certainly this is a world away from the last book of his I read just a few months ago.

Part of what has always rankled a little with Bernie is that his tales tend to be more formulaic than the Scudder novels. He’d invariably be hired to purloin some goods, and just as invariably he’d discover a dead body inside wherever he was burglarising and he’d become the prime suspect and have to clear his name, so the first thing to note about this novel is that (not much of a spoiler) it breaks the mould in that this time the cops know full well Bernie didn’t do the deed—although Block does have some amusingly meta comments to make later on about how characters who radically change tend to cease being fun to read about so I’m guessing if there is ever another Rhodenbarr novel it might be back to business as usual, still for this occasion at least it’s a pleasant change, especially since Ray acknowledges that Bernie just isn’t that kind of criminal.

Even though it’s more than a decade since the last Bernie novel, Block slips back into the character with the ease of a comfortable pair of shoes, although I did find myself questioning just how old Bernie is now, yet all his romances still seem to revolve around young women, perhaps Bernie’s just one of those literary characters who is ageless? Carolyn’s sexuality still seems to be too much a part of her personality, but at least it’s never viewed as any kind of negative and she’s an amusing foil for Bernie, and I like that Ray is still more of a necessary evil than an outright friend. And of course there’s Bernie’s cat, the amusing named Raffles.

The cast of new characters is well put together, even if some of them turn up too late in the book for you to readily identify them as possible suspects, Bernie’s new patron has an intriguing yet surreal fascination, which leads to a lot of detailed exposition about subjects you never really wanted to know about, yet it’s to Block’s credit that even these sections hold your interest. Block even manages to slip some commentary on the current publishing market in there, with Bernie annoyed when people buy books in his store then put them online, or worse still identify books they like in his shop, then download the digital versions! Really if it wasn’t for his criminal activities you imagine Barnegat Books would have gone out of business long ago.

The plot is bonkers, and yes there are a multitude of contrivances, and I’m still not entirely sure how Bernie links it all together, but it hardly matters when you have a writer whose prose is as polished as Block’s is, so that even discussions around silver spoons becomes a pleasure rather than a chore, let alone the tense burglaries and the obligatory “You’re probably wondering why I brought you all here tonight” ending. At the end of the day much of the fun is to be had simply from the characters’ conversations. Fun, pithy, punchy and nor remotely dark and gritty. Yes it’s formulaic, but let’s be honest here, that’s part of the charm.  Recommended, though you probably should read a few of the earlier books first.

 

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The Nice Guys

Posted: June 10, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Shane Black. Starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

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Its LA in 1977 and sleazy Private Investigator Holland March (Gosling) has been hired to find a young woman named Amelia. Unfortunately Amelia doesn’t want to be found and so she hires enforcer  Jackson Healy (Crowe) to scare March off, which he does by going round to March’s house and beating him up before breaking his arm.

Later however Healy is accosted in his home by two armed men who are also looking for Amelia. Realising the young woman might be in danger Healy goes back to March and hires him to help him find Amelia. In their search, aided by March’s 13 year old daughter Holly (a just the right side of annoying-kid performance from Angourie Rice), they explore the seedy world of porno films until the two quickly realise something bigger is at stake, and eventually their paths cross that of a high-ranking official in the United States Department of Justice; Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger) who also happens to be Amelia’s mother.

As the stakes grow higher and the conspiracy expands can a pair of two bit losers emerge victorious, and more importantly can two men who aren’t nice prove they’re better than they think they are?

 

Perhaps the first thing to say about The Nice Guys is that there’s a certain element of familiarity to the story, and more importantly the characters. Shane Black has been writing in Hollywood since the late 80s, and few writers are better at the mismatched buddy cop (or not cop) duo than him. So this film shares more than a passing similarity with Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black loves nothing better than putting two men with little in common together and having them bond over some witty banter and some mindless violence. Often as not one or both of the men will be broken in some way, either emotionally or physically, or sometimes just ground down by a crappy life, but they’ll have a kernel of nobility that means, however scuzzy they might be, you want to root for them. Now sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, but sometimes familiarity is a warm fuzzy blanket you wrap yourself in whilst you laugh yourself silly.

So perhaps the second thing to say about The Nice Guys is that I spent most of the film laughing myself silly.

The script, co-written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi, is excellent, seamlessly melding pulp dialogue with witty banter, and Black, as he proved with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, knows how to direct, but what makes the film are the leads. Gosling and Crowe are brilliant in roles you wouldn’t necessarily have pegged them for. As Healy Crowe has let himself go to portray an out of shape guy, but still manages to make him both menacing and engaging. He’s not a man you’d want to cross, but he has a code of honour and you can see in his eyes every time he thinks no one is looking that Healy is a man desperate for redemption, desperate to be a nice guy. Just as good is Gosling as March, a seedy ex-cop with a drink problem and a habit of ripping off his clients, yet who still manages to come across like a decent man and a decent father and who has a wonderfully girlish shriek every time he’s in danger. Both Crowe and Gosling’s comic timing is spot on and they bounce well off both each other, and off Rice—and it has to be said, Black has a real knack for finding young actors who can be engaging and not annoying.

The 70s’ look is evocative, aided by great costumes, great set design and a wonderfully wakka-wakka soundtrack. There are some nicely choreographed fights and some great action setpieces.

It’s a bit too long, and it would have been nice to see Basinger’s role be a bit bigger. It is very much a Shane Black film and if you’ve not liked his other work it’s doubtful you’re going to love this, but for me it was an absolute hoot, and I’m still laughing now at the best Hitler joke I’ve heard in years.

Great performances, great script, pretty much great everything. They say nice guys finish last but not in this case, so go and watch it…before I have to send Russell Crowe round to beat you up!

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Ryan Gosling was not happy to discover he was out of toilet paper

 

 

 

 

 

Dust

Posted: June 3, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Hugh Howey

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And so we come to the final part of the Silo trilogy. I’ll try not to include any spoilers for Dust, however by the very nature of talking about book three I’ll talk about Wool and Shift so there likely will be spoilers for those books—you have been warned.

Dust begins shortly after Shift ended, with Donald (the former congressman who’s been cryogenically frozen for centuries in Silo 1) continuing to masquerade as former Senator Thurman, the man in charge of the project. Donald wants the help the other silos, but it’s difficult given they’re mostly run by people who believe in The Pact, the mission orders designed to keep them in line. He’s woken his sister Charlotte—a former air force drone pilot—to help him.

He’s also still in contact with Silo 18, where Juliette, the heroine of all three books, is now serving as mayor, which is a major promotion for a woman who went from being an engineer to being sheriff before being exiled to ‘clean’ and finding her way to another Silo, and who then became the first person to ever come back from a cleaning.

Juliette doesn’t trust Donald, though her lover Lukas—now Silo 18’s head of IT—does. Lukas wants to get as much information as possible out of Donald, but Juliette is more interested in the huge underground drilling machine she has found deep in the bowels of the silo which she believes can be used to tunnel to the near abandoned Silo 17, where her friend Solo and a bunch of semi-feral children are the only inhabitants.

All too soon the fates of these characters, and the three silos they inhabit—as well as perhaps the other remaining silos—will become inextricably entwined, but buried beneath the poisoned Earth is there any real hope?

 

I’ve enjoyed the Silo trilogy, and I can see why it’s proven such a huge hit around the globe. That said I’ve had issues with it from the start and they continue into the final book. Howey is a good writer, and he’s especially good at world building and creating engaging plots that make you want to keep reading to find out what happens. He’s less good with characters and although she’s been the focus of the story I have to say that I’ve never really engaged much with Juliette. Oddly the characters I most liked were the original Mayor and Sheriff from the beginning of Wool, as well as Donald and Solo. Unfortunately the original Mayor and Sheriff of Silo 18 didn’t last too long, and whilst Solo’s story that took up much of the second book served to flesh out his character, here he doesn’t get to do much, and with his solitude taken away from him he becomes almost as interchangeable as many other characters like Ralph, Shirley, Courtnee et al, so really for me Donald is the glue that holds the story together, perhaps because he is so flawed, perhaps because it is easier to identify with a character who, though from our near future, clearly came from a world not so different to our own rather than having grown up within the confines of a silo.

It doesn’t help that people tend to sound the same, and you do feel like you could take dialogue from Juliette and give it to Charlotte and you wouldn’t notice much difference, and it’s a shame because the world is so unusual and fleshed out, but the characters not so much.

This feels like a story that Howey wasn’t sure how to end, and the book goes off at tangents at times, some of which don’t really go anywhere. There’s a major tragedy that had the ring of truth about it but still felt unnecessary, and Howey spends far too long detailing the intricacies of the drilling machine, or following a child as she chases a puppy through the Silo. There’s a religious fanaticism subplot which tapers off somewhat, and similarly vague revelations about the nanobots in the atmosphere that are similarly not followed up on. Major characters die, or even seemingly return from the grave, almost at random, whilst new characters appear in our heroes’ hour of need seeming more than a little contrived.

The ending is pretty bog standard, featuring a noble sacrifice and a potential happy ending, although all things considered you may feel a little cheated, and for far too many people there is no real end at all.

As I’ve said, Howey is an engaging writer, and he created a wonderful world within which to set a great story, but too often it feels like the characters are just actors whose only purpose is to drive the plot. Wool had twists and turns, and a mystery to reveal, and Shift filled in the blanks whilst also introducing us to two characters who stood out from Howey’s generic crowd. In contrast Dust really doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it just ties up a few loose ends and leaves yet more hanging.

Don’t get me wrong, it provides an acceptable ending to a fine series, but for me it’s probably the weakest book of the three.

X-Men: Apocalypse.

Posted: June 2, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence.

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In ancient Egypt a mutant named En Sabah Nur, perhaps the very first mutant, rules Egypt until a group of his followers rebel whilst he is transferring his consciousness to another body, one that can live forever. His great pyramid is destroyed, his four lieutenants are killed, and he is buried under tonnes of rubble.

Flash forward to 1983 and it is ten years since the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Mutants are an accepted part of life, although there are limits to how much they are accepted. In East Berlin Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) infiltrates an underground club where mutants are forced to fight to the death. She shuts down the power whilst a mutant with wings, Angel, is fighting a devilish looking Kurt Wagner/Night Crawler. Angel escapes under his own power, but Wagner uses his teleportation ability to get him and Raven to safety.

Meanwhile in Egypt En Sabah Nur has been finally freed, an event partially witnessed by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). In the aftermath of his escape from millennia of captivity En Sabah Nur, or Apocalypse, recruits Ororo Munroe, a young mutant with the power to affect the weather, as his first disciple. The two soon become three as he recruits another mutant named Psylocke as well as Angel. His fourth acolyte is Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender) who, after tragedy befalls the life he has made for himself in Poland, decides to join Apocalypse in order to pull down the old world to create a new one.

Meanwhile in America Processor Charles Xavier/ Professor X (McAvoy) investigates the appearance of Apocalypse helped by Hank McCoy / Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Moira, who doesn’t realise that she and Xavier were in love because he wiped the memory of it from her back in X-Men: First Class. Meanwhile more pupils join his school, including young Scott Summers, a man able to fire devastating beams of energy from his eyes. Though initially wary of one another Scott becomes friends with Jean Grey, a powerful psychic.

As Apocalypse threatens to destroy the world, the disparate band of mutants and their allies must set aside their differences in order to battle him and his four horsemen, but when he and his allies are so powerful can they hope to stand against him?

 

And so I watched my fourth superhero film of the year after Deadpool, Batman Vs Superman and Captain America: Civil War and going in I did wonder whether I was reaching a point of super-weariness, was this a comic book film too far? So the fact that I walked out two and a half hours later quite happy is probably quite telling. Which isn’t to suggest X-Men Apocalypse is a triumph, but it’s perfectly enjoyable if a little flawed and a little forgettable

Like both BvS and CW it’s too long, clocking in at almost two and a half hours (and a word of warning, there is an end credits scene but I didn’t think it was worth the wait.) There is a lot of setting things up for later in the film, a lot of new characters introduced and old favourites reintroduced and I’m not ashamed to say I was a little confused on occasion. Who’s he? Was she in the last one? None of this really dented my enjoyment, but at times you do feel a little like you’re going through a checklist.

The film’s major flaw is Apocalypse himself. Unfortunately like a lot of comic book villains his motivations are paper thin. He wants to destroy the world and create a new one because…well he just does. He’s just inherently bad. Not that his acolytes have greater reasons for hooking up with him, unless giving them groovy new wings/white hair/bigger boobs (I’m joking—I think) or a purple helmet suffice. Of all of them only Magneto’s motivations hold any water. As such Apocalypse just becomes a dull villain for everyone to fight. He has no real personality, which is a shame and a waste of a good actor in Oscar Isaac who I know from The Force Awakens and Ex Machina can dominate the screen.

Another flaw goes beyond X-Men. I’ve just reached that point where I don’t care about cities and/or iconic landmarks being destroyed anymore (which doesn’t bode well for the Independence Day sequel). It’s just become old hat now, and Civil War was good to shy away from this, for the lost part. So skyscrapers fall, and oh look there goes the Sydney Opera House…shrug…

The dialogue is iffy at times too, lots of “Thank God Mr President” and similarly earnest recitations no normal person would say, and though in hindsight I know Famke Janssen did it as well, I found Sophie Turner putting her fingers to her temple every time she used her psychic powers really jarring. This isn’t a film that lets you figure out anything for yourself.

Where it succeeds in the main is down to the cast, who are great. This applied equally to old stagers like McAvoy, Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult and Lawrence (though it’s odd to think of Jennifer Lawrence as ‘old) and to the new young mutants. Game of Thrones’ Turner is good as Jean Grey, although it is odd to hear Sansa Stark with an American accent. Tye Sheridan makes for an engaging Cyclops and Kodi Smit-McPhee is superb as the devout yet devilish Nightcrawler.

Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver threatens to steal the film (as he did the last one) and his rescue of a whole bunch of people in the middle of the film is almost worth the price of admission alone (as is a certain, ahem, cameo!). Just ignore the bit where he plays Pac Girl while Knight Rider plays on the telly. It’s the most 80s moment in a film that’s curiously subtle about its era much of the time (aside from Turner’s big shoulder pads and McAvoy’s Miami Vice Jacket.)

Singer is a solid director, and the film is rarely boring. So all in all an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, even if, in the grand scheme of things, it seems a trifle inconsequential when put up against something like Civil War, in fact even though it’s more fun, and more coherent, than Batman Vs Superman it lacks the heft that even that film had. And of course it’s nowhere near as irreverently brilliant as Deadpool. Not the worst superhero film of the year so far, afraid that is BvS, but not the best either.

I x-pect there’s be another one though and I x-pect I’ll be happy to go and see it.