Archive for April, 2022

By Lawrence Block

Ex-cop come unlicensed private eye Matt Scudder is out drinking, he’s always out drinking, but on this particular night he’s at an after hours drinking establishment called Morrisey’s, run by Irishmen with links to the IRA. When two gunmen stick up the join the owners hand over the cash without a fuss, but later they ask Matt to help them track down the culprits. Matt refuses, but soon finds himself working several other cases. One of his drinking buddies, Skip who co-owns one of the many bars Matt frequents, has his clean set of books stolen and is now being blackmailed for their return, meanwhile a drinking acquaintance named Tommy is arrested for the murder of his wife and his lawyer hires Matt to dig into the killers.

Matt takes on both cases, though he isn’t confident he can be much help in either one. What’s for sure is that he’ll walk a lot of miles, talk to a lot of people and drink a whole lot of booze before he comes to realise that certain events are more closely tied together than he might have imagined.

As I’ve intimated before, this is one of the first, maybe even the first, Matt Scudder novel I ever read thirty odd years ago. This book, along with Eight Million Ways to Die, which preceded it, marked a shift in the Scudder novels (in fact Block had intended Eight Million Ways to Die to be the last Scudder novel, instead he talked himself into writing a short story to finish Scudder’s story off and liked it so much that he turned it into this novel and he liked that so much that he wrote a whole heap more novels!).

The big shift is that this novel is clearly being told in flashback by a now sober Scudder, ten years in the future. Hence it’s gritty 70s setting and the fact Matt is still drinking like a fish. Now I’ll be honest, reading the opening chapter and I did struggle a bit, I think it’s because Block introduces so many characters all at once, but soon the story settles down and it’s a doozey. A robbery, a blackmail plot and a murder, and Scudder is embroiled in all three. More than this though, it’s a meditation of drinking. Scudder isn’t the only character who drinks to excess, there’ Skip for starters, and others too, and even as Scudder trudges the mean streets of New York booze is never far from his thoughts or his actions and there’s a horrible inevitability to his life, and the lives of those around him that’s really quite poignant. It’s incredible to think Block almost cut the character loose right before he became so much more interesting.

As always Block’s prose is fantastic, and the cast of characters he creates is incredible. Even people who wander into a single scene seem fully formed. As for the mysteries, as is usually the case Scudder solves the crimes not through some Holmesian deductive reasoning, but via solid detective work, asking questions over and over again until something shifts, and the ending, though kinda depressing in a lot of ways, is also incredibly satisfying.

As a final point, you have to love the title, taken from a song by American folk singer Dave Van Ronk. Not only is it an incredible poetic line on its own, but taken in context with the rest of the song’s lyrics it serves as a philosophical theme for the whole book, especially the scene were Scudder and another character listen to the song (and relisten to it) while drinking another night away.

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses,
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred ginmill closes.

Anyway, an excellent book and highly recommended.

The Batman.

Posted: April 16, 2022 in Film reviews

Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard,  Andy Serkis and Colin Farrell.

Watched in March.

The vigilante known as Batman (Pattinson) has been fighting crime in Gotham City for two years. Though looked on suspiciously by most in the Gotham City Police Department, he has an ally in Lieutenant James Gordon (Wright). When the mayor is murdered by a criminal calling himself The Riddler (Dano) Gordon involves Batman because the Riddler has left a riddle addressed to the caped crusader.

The Riddler also leaves evidence to suggest the mayor was corrupt and in the pocket of Oswald Cobblepot, known as the Penguin (an unrecognisable Farrell) a lieutenant of crime boss Carmine Falcone (Turturro). As Batman investigates further he crosses paths with car burglar Selina Kyle (Kravitz) who works at Penguin’s club and seems to have a relationship with Falcone.

As the Riddler kills more and more of Gotham’s elite, and reveals more and more dirty secrets, Batman finds himself increasingly isolated, with only Gordon, Selina and faithful butler Alfred (Serkis) for support. But worse is to come, because the Riddler has set his sights on another doyen of Gotham, billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne!

Another year, another Batman! If Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ was effectively Year One, Reeves’ ‘The Batman’ is most obviously Year Two, and while it isn’t perfect it’s still a hugely enjoyable entry into the Batman canon featuring a great performance from Pattinson.

It has to be said that this is a dark Batman film (in all sorts of ways) darker even than Nolan’s entries, riffing on things such as Se7en and Saw. Even more grounded than Nolan’s entries as well, this might be as realistic as Batman ever gets, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (much as I love the gothic exuberance of Tim Burton’s two films). The Gotham City here is grim and dirty, a place you wouldn’t want to visit, let alone live in, and the closest comparable Gotham would be from the excellent tv series ‘Gotham’.

It would be unfair to say this was just an exercise in grimdark however, Reeves is saying something, and Batman evolves over the course of the film, starting as a harbinger of vengeance and ending up as more a symbol of hope.

As Bats, Pattinson is simply superb, eschewing the growl that sometimes made Christian Bale’s Batman seem a trifle silly, and with perhaps the best Batsuit to date (sleek, manoeuvrable and yes that Bat symbol on his chest is probably made from the gun that killed his mom and dad) he’s very, very good, and utterly convincing as a winged avenger. He is perhaps slightly (but only slightly) less successful as Bruce Wayne, but in part that’s because we get to see less of Bruce, and unlike Bale’s Wayne, and perhaps more like Keaton’s, this Bruce shuns the limelight, quite literally, and there’s a wonderful recurring motif that sees Pattinson struggle with bright sunlight because he spends so much of his life in the dark. I walked out feeling like I’d possibly seen the best cinematic Batman (well outside of Lego Batman and Adam West obviously, and I mean all that stops Keaton being number one by a country mile is a suit so rigid it looks like he’s some kind of invalid.  And Keaton remains the best Bruce Wayne by far, and I’ll shut up now!)

As The Riddler, Dano is about as far away from Frank Gorshin’s Riddler as you can get, even a more grounded Riddler like Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith has nothing on this guy. Dano’s Riddler is one part incel, one part serial killer and one part internet troll, and that he has his reasons is never enough to make him remotely empathetic, he’s a monster who delights in horrible murders and in generating fear (which does lead to an interesting comparison with Batman.) Dano is one of those quiet yet brilliant actors who immerse himself in a role and does the simple things very well.

Another actor immersing themselves in a role is Colin Farrell as Penguin, again Reeves plays up the mobster angle and plays down, well, the Penguin aspects. Some people have been sniffy about his performance, but I thought he was very good, of course you could ask why they didn’t just hire a larger actor for the role, but Farrell himself is very good, menacing yet also curiously likeable at times.

This film isn’t just about the Bat of course, it’s also about the Cat, and Kravitz is very good as Selina Kyle, again playing up the cat-burglar aspect of the role and playing down the feline aspects. She’s more Anne Hathaway than Michelle Pfeiffer (or Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt or Lee Meriwether) which makes sense in this film. (Of course this is Kravitz’s second Catwoman because she’s also in the Lego Batman movie!) Perhaps the best thing about Kravitz’s Kyle is how much of a chameleon she is, changing personas as often as she changes her wigs and outfits. There’s definite chemistry between her and Pattinson and she makes for a good foil for Batman.

On paper Serkis should make for a great Alfred, but I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe the fact Bruce and Alfred had a somewhat testy relationship in this film didn’t help. Similarly Wright makes for a good Jim Gordon, but it would have been nice to see him get more agency rather than just being someone there to hold Bats’s cape at times.

Three other things I loved about this. One is the soundtrack which is fantastic, the second is the Batmobile, a souped up muscle car that fits this film’s aesthetic perfectly, and the third is that fact that, for all that Batman skulks around in the dark and punches people really hard, he’s also a detective, an important aspect of the character that’s often overlooked but here it’s front and centre.

Yes it’s a trifle grim, and yes it’s waaaay too long, and yes it falls into that Return of the King/The Last Jedi trap of making you thinking it’s over when there’s still a lot to get through, but despite all this I really, REALLY enjoyed it and I sincerely hope we get to see Pattinson in the Batsuit again.

by Mark Salisbury (with contributions by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.)

Since it began in 2014 Inside No. 9 has surprised and thrilled viewers. Each episode if a self-contained 30 minute story, with the only the number nine (and a small brass hare) as linking features. The seventh series is about to start and Pemberton and Shearsmith show no signs of running out of ideas, the breadth of what they do with the format is amazing, from murder mysteries to kitchen sink dramas, gothic horror to corruption in football.

I already own the scripts for the first three series (reviewed here) and was lucky enough to get this book for Christmas and what a wonderful book it is too. Jam packed full of gossip and info on every episode from the first five series, this is a book for fans of Inside No. 9, but also for anyone interested in the process of making a tv series. Full of behind the scenes photos, interviews with cast and crew and analyses of every episode. Dealing with everything from how Shearsmith and Pemberton get from an original idea scrawled in a notebook to an award winning script, to how the production crew built a multitude of sets, from a French couchette to a 17th century barn, a call centre to a gothic mansion.

A fantastic read. There’s really only one problem, it only covers the first five seasons! Hopefully we’ll eventually get a follow up covering the next five (or maybe the next four as I have a feeling the guys might see nine series as an appropriate place to finish.)

The Shining

Posted: April 1, 2022 in Book reviews, horror

By Stephen King

(Finished in March)

<Note the following may contain some mild spoilers for the book and the film>

Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and his five-year-old son Danny move into the remote Overlook Hotel located in the Colorado Rockies. The hotel has closed for the winter and Jack has taken a job as caretaker. Jack is an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic with anger management issues. Previously he accidentally broke Danny’s arm, and more recently he lost his job as a teacher after assaulting a pupil.

Before the last of the Overlook’s staff leave, Danny meets Dick Halloran, the Overlook’s black chef. Halloran recognises a kindred spirit in Danny, Danny has ‘The Shine’, the same as he does, a psychic ability to read minds and experience premonitions.

Before he goes Dick tells Danny to avoid room 217, and tells him he might see the spirits of people who died at the hotel, but makes it clear that they can’t hurt Danny. He also says that if Danny’s ever in trouble he just needs to call out to him with his mind and Dick will come running.

At first the lonely hotel seems the perfect place for the family to reconnect, and the ideal spot for Jack to finish the play he’s been working on, but snowbound isolation, coupled with the spirits that haunt the Overlook begin to insidiously worm their way into Jack’s mind. Dick Halloran was wrong, the Overlook is dangerous, especially when it finds something it wants, and it wants Danny!

I have a curious relationship with the film of the Shining. I’ve seen it precisely twice and on neither occasion have I particularly enjoyed it. I saw it first in my teens and was left unmoved, and then saw it again a few years ago and had a similar reaction, though in part maybe this is down to how many pastiches of the film I’ve seen over the years (UK sitcom Spaced in particular riffs on it a lot). But then I watched Mike Flanagan’s excellent film version of Dr Sleep, which reawakened my interest in the story of the Overlook, and I had a friend who similarly hates the film recommend the book, so I thought, why not?

So fair warning here, I’ve not always been King’s biggest fan, especially in long form—I do love his short stories though—for every novel of his I’ve liked there’s been one that left me cold, so I began reading The Shining with some trepidation.

The first thing to say is that it’s so much better than the film on just about every level. Clearly a damaged individual, the Jack of the book is incredibly complex. Unlike Nicholson’s film Jack who’s basically nuts before he even sets foot inside the Overlook. Similarly Wendy is more than just the Kubrick demanded hysterics of Shelley Duvall, Danny comes across better too. It’s also wonderful to see that Dick Halloran doesn’t risk it all to get to the Overlook only to be murdered the moment he arrives!

All the characters and fully rounded, though at times a little too fully rounded, and the downside to seeing so deeply inside of them is that sometimes we get to see different perceptions of the same event, and sometimes you just want King to get on with it! The characters don’t even reach the Overlook for some time, and it’s some time later before anything spooky happens.

As for the supernatural stuff, some of it is very affecting, Danny’s visit to Room 217 for example. Similarly some of the imagined conversations Jack has with the guests at the perpetual party, and there is something unsettling about the whole Unmask! Unmask! thing!

Other bits aren’t as disturbing; however well he writes I couldn’t take the topiary monsters seriously.

King can write well though, and even if I wanted him to get a move on at times, I was always engaged (I found Jack’s exploration of the history of the Overlook especially fascinating) and even at a relatively early stage in his career you can see how good he is at what he does.

Could have been shorter, and could have been spookier, but I still enjoyed it and it’s a damn sight better than the film!