Friday, October 6, 2017

When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Sometimes life is just crazy-pants busy—so full of a million and one little things, that tasks I was (almost) certain had been accomplished, instead wound up getting completely overlooked. A "for instance," you ask? Take my failure to review any of the books in the Detective Helen Grace series by M. J. Arlidge—something I was positive I’d managed to do at least a couple of times over the past few years… but which, in fact, seems never to have happened, at all.

With that said, this is actually the perfect time to rectify my rather unfortunate little bout of forgetfulness, because the sixth entry in this consistently-engaging and well-written series, Hide and Seek, is, to my mind, the best one, yet.

Without spoiling things too much for anyone unfamiliar with the series (certainly no more so than reading the back of a book jacket or synopsis on Amazon would do), a brief bit of backstory is necessary…

Detective Inspector Helen Grace works out of Southampton, where she has a stellar track record for solving cases involving sadistic acts of violence (although her methods do have a tendency to go against established protocol, with regard to orders from her superiors and safety limits). Nonetheless, results talk, so her actions (and sometimes-abrasive personality) are mostly tolerated.

On the personal front, she is perhaps even more unconventional (but just as driven); she lives alone—neither having nor seeking a romantic relationship—and she runs, spars, and rides her motorcycle in her spare time, rather than hanging out at the pub with friends (of which she doesn’t really have any), going shopping, or doing any of the other spare-time things we all tend to enjoy. What she does have, in spades, is a messy, sad childhood—something she ran from for most of her adult life (but which finally starts coming to brutal light early in the series).

Moving forward, then, to where the sixth book picks up… A sequence of shocking events has transpired that finds Helen—unbelievably—not only framed for a series of vicious murders, but imprisoned for them… housed in a decrepit penitentiary right alongside many of the very same inmates she’d helped put there over the years. 

With everyone on the inside naturally against her, and no one on the outside (not the former subordinate who gleefully took her job, not the superior who’d been gunning for her forever, and not the thorn-in-her-side reporter who now delights in detailing Helen’s miserable stay behind bars)—save one colleague (and the closest thing to a friend she actually has), who refuses to give up and has her back (going so far as lying to their boss about what she’s investigating)—it’s down to Helen to figure out how to survive inside long enough for a miracle to happen… and she's fresh out of miracles.

As I said earlier, M. J. Arlidge’s Helen Grace series started out with a bang and has just continued picking up steam. Helen is a complicated character, and the fact that she brings so much baggage with her—that truly horrific stuff in her past—which she deals with in ways we typically only ever see men do, is refreshing.

Could you read Hide and Seek on its own, and get the gist of what's going on? Sure, you could… but do yourself a favor and start at the beginning. This is a fascinating journey well worth taking.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Snow-Covered Clunker...

There are a lot of different writing styles out there—and obviously, a multitude of genres in which those styles can be employed—but in the end, one’s enjoyment of anything written is an individual thing; some things just click with us, while others leave us feeling indifferent.

For me, B.D. Smith’s The Ice Maiden falls into the latter category (and with a big thud). 

The thing is, it really seemed, at first glance, like a sure bet: a serial killer operating in a small community somewhere in Maine (which, by dint of having read very few stories set in that distant state, made it immediately interesting), who acts out tortures from the Spanish Inquisition (ooh, cool historical undertones, anyone)? How intriguing! Add a wintry scene for the cover plus the title itself (“ice”)—hey, I’m nothing if not magnetically drawn to things set in cold, snowy climes—and again, I thought it would be a slam dunk. 

The problem, unfortunately, is Smith’s writing style… which, to put it into screenwriting parlance, falls way more to the “tell” side than the “show” side of the spectrum. (The idea, if I lost anyone there, is that it’s far better to show your audience what you want them to see/know/feel/understand than it is to tell them.)

Fine, you may be thinking, that makes perfect sense for a program or movie… but with a book, how does an author manage to “show” the reader anything; isn’t it all “tell”? 

Actually, no, it isn’t. A novelist can “show” us things in different ways. He/she can draw vivid pictures and characterizations with words, allowing us to “see” scenes, people, places, and the like. The writer lets his/her characters speak to each other and interact, as well as conducting inner monologues—all of which serve to show us who they are, and to better understand their reasoning or motivations. In other words, the writer allows the characters and the places to “show" us what’s happening… so that we can draw our own pictures, conclusions, and suppositions in our heads.

In sharp contrast, a writer who “tells” his/her readers everything uses considerably less dialogue, opting instead to describe everything—and not from the characters’ points of view, but from an omnipotent outsider’s POV. It makes for a considerably less active style of storytelling… and for me, a rather dull one.

So, although Smith had a compelling story to impart with The Ice Maiden, I never felt it was being told well… and that was because I was almost always being told, rather than shown.

In the end, did I like the characters, the setting, the story? The bones of the thing were actually good… which makes the style that much more unfortunate. Would I recommend the book? Nope… unless you’re someone who prefers being told things with as little dialogue involved as possible. Finally, is it likely I’ll ever read another tale by this author? No, that won’t be happening.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Searching for Movie Gold: A Tale of "The Bigs"

It definitely wasn’t by any conscious plan, but I found myself—on two consecutive nights—watching “big” movies (both based on real-life events, no less), then on the third night, realized the thoughts swirling around in my brainpan about those films—and about movies, in general, to a lesser degree—probably needed to come out. 

So, about those “bigs”…

When The Big Sick was suggested for Movie-Night-In, I had only the vaguest recollection of the title from a few months earlier. Still, I thought, why not? It almost had to be better than a couple of other movies we’d watched recently. 

My verdict? Great call. The Big Sick—a semi-autobiographical recounting of how a Pakistani-American boy and an American girl fell in love and wound up together—is far from the average romantic comedy. (Not that there haven’t been some fab rom-coms, mind you, it’s just that this goes to a different place.)

Basically, it starts out simply enough, with the meet-cute of a stand-up comedian (Kumail Nanjiani, who plays himself in the movie) and grad student Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). They deal not only with all the usual issues that couples in the early stages face, but also with Kumail’s struggles trying to reconcile the expectations of his uber-traditional family (arranged marriage, anyone?) with what he wants for his life.

And then, in the midst of all of that business, the completely unexpected (and way more serious) happens: Emily gets sick—really, really sick (“big”, remember?)—and winds up in the hospital in an induced coma so the experts can poke, prod, and try to figure it all out. 

There are plenty of laughs (with fantastic support by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, as Emily’s parents). but the majority of those laughs come at you like the best comedy does—out of truths (think, the painful variety) and realizations—rather than being manufactured and forced. 

There’s growth, understanding, and genuine compassion. The Big Sick is real, it’s messy, and in the end, is something pretty special… a feel-good (as well as feel-bad/feel-sad/feel-terrified) flick, great for Date Night or Ladies’ Night, alike, and one I highly recommend.

The following night, while perusing my Netflix watch list (and flying solo), I noticed another “big” movie sitting there, just waiting for me to (finally) pick it… which is how I wound up utterly absorbed in The Big Short

Why it took me so long to see, I have no idea; there’s no shortage of star power (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, plus many more), and the reviews were overwhelmingly good. (Maybe I thought it would be too depressing, the mid-2000s worldwide market bubble collapse? I dunno… but finally, the time was right.)

Slick, smart, shocking, and (almost) impossible to believe, The Big Short details the time leading up to the catastrophic credit and housing bubble bursting ‘round the globe, as lived out by four separate individuals/groups: Michael Burry, the offbeat Wall Street guru who first realized how many home loans were in danger of defaulting (and began massively shorting the bonds everyone else assumed were safer than houses [no pun intended]); Jared Vennett, a banker who noticed Burry’s activities and devised his own plan of shorting stuff; Mark Baum, an opinionated hedge fund manager who—along with his small team of aides (flunkies)—was willing to bet on Vennett’s plan; and a young pair of newbie traders who’d packed their bags and made the journey from Colorado to New York with their own tiny (but successful) fund under their belts, looking to make it big. 

Some of the scenes—especially viewed nearly a decade after the huge collapse occurred—are jaw-dropping: watching a couple of tools bragging about how much money they were making on loans so underemployed (or even unemployed) folks down in Miami could buy their own McMansions; listening to a fund manager who claimed to represent the investors justifying his actions… even though all of the (horrible) bonds he was bundling together and selling them came directly to him from a bank (rather than him doing any research and putting together sound portfolios from multiple sources); and seeing how oblivious everyone attending the huge financial convention in Vegas—mere months before the collapse began—was, to what was really going on. (The fact that there’s a fair amount of humor to be mined from this nearly-unbelievable episode in our collective history comes as a bit of a surprise, but—like The Big Sick—the fact is, some degree of amusement can be found nearly everywhere. Guess that’s one of our finer traits, as humans, to see funny in gloomy times.) 

The Big Short is a brilliant cautionary tale… but of course, the tragedy there is that those who need most to learn the lessons it tells are the very people who either went right back to doing what they’d been doing, pre-collapse, or those who got into the biz afterward. (Humans have nothing, if not short memories… one of our less-desirable traits, in this case.)

So, after a period of feeling utterly worn out by (almost) every super-hero movie finding its way to the big screen (again and again and again…), being worn out by ridiculous (and boringly-long) action sequences in pretty much everything that comes out, and groaning at the thought of yet another puerile (and patently not-funny) “comedy”—in other words, a sizable portion of the new theatrical releases in any given month, these days—it’s with considerable relief and pleasure that I mull over “the bigs” I’ve just watched. 

There will always be gems out there; I think it’s time to stop mindlessly accepting the dross—either by paying inflated ticket prices at the box office, or by streaming them, just for the “privilege” of being disappointed—and start doing a little more work to dig out the bits of gold, whether old or new. 

Happy viewing, everyone…


Thursday, August 31, 2017

What Happens in a Future with Too Many People

A recent entry in the dystopian sci-fi thriller arena--with undertones of “Logan’s Run”, a bit of “Blade Runner”, and, borrowing most heavily from “Orphan Black”--Netflix’s “What Happened to Monday?” turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

The quandary for government and scientists: How to deal with an epic food shortage for a massive population explosion… just bio-engineer more food, right? Yeah, bad plan. Mucking around in Mother Nature’s genetic pool always seems to lead to unexpected hinky-ness in the consumers of all that not-so-natural food, and in this case, causes an epidemic of multiple births… basically the exact opposite of how to solve a burgeoning population. So, part two of the brilliant plan (with Glenn Close playing the role of mastermind at the sci-tech conglomerate responsible for solving the problem)? Cryogenically freeze any additional babies from multiple births, so every family has but one child. Problem solved!

Until, of course, some family decides to buck the system… as one grieving father (Willem Dafoe) does when he conspires with a sympathetic doctor to save the seven grandbabies left in his care when his daughter dies in childbirth.

What follows next is a little time capsule, showing how the ingenious grandpa modifies their home—and designs their very lives—so that the girls won’t be found out. Basically, he decides there’s one little girl for every day of the week… so each girl is named after a day, and is allowed to go outside and be “Karen Settman” on her day, while the rest stay indoors, hidden, until their days pop up each week. (It is a solution both clever and far-fetched, but of course the thought of freezing newborns is untenable, so we have little trouble putting ourselves in his shoes and buying into the scheme.)

Cut to the present, when the sisters (played by Noomi Rapace) are 30ish, and we see what it looks like for seven adult women to still be perpetuating the ruse. (Yeah, the lack of freedom and monotony six out of seven days is grating on them, to varying degrees, as you might expect.) At home, they can be themselves… but they’re trapped at home, unable to develop serious friendships or relationships with anyone outside the confines of their large loft apartment.

Then one day, something happens. The always-reliable Monday doesn’t return home from the bank where “Karen” has a job… throwing the other six sisters into a major tizzy. What to do? Two women can’t be out in the world being “Karen” at the same time—especially not since everyone is kept track of via wristbands that are scanned at various entry points—and yet at least one of them has to venture out, if they’re ever going to find out what, exactly, did happen to Monday.

Although parts of “Monday” are admittedly a bit thin—for instance, we’re only shown Close’s company, as though hers is the only one responsible for all the cryogenics—there is much to enjoy here… particularly Rapace’s skillful performance(s) as the seven adult sisters. There’s nowhere near the time for her to fully develop their personalities in a two-hour film—unlike that afforded the brilliant Tatiana Maslany in the five-season TV show “Orphan Black”—but she makes the most of it, leaving us with a sense of who each woman is, and how each one is (or isn’t) coping with the challenges inherent in being allowed to interact with the outside world only one-seventh of every week (month, year, decade).  

The premise of the movie is also a fascinating one—and timely, given how many of the poorest nations in the world have long faced the dual problems of overpopulation and food shortages/starvation. The solution in “Monday” is, undoubtedly, an extreme one, but discussions can certainly be had about how we as a world might deal with the same issues.

Overall, while I think “Monday” feels like a (very well-done) made-for-TV movie, it nonetheless has plenty of substance—as well as some twists I didn’t see coming—to please most sci-fi aficionados… myself included.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Battling Baddies in Bruges

A fascinating and beautiful medieval city. A young American woman on temporary foreign assignment, coping with the unknowns of working in a strange land and with the hassle of trying to avoid her misogynistic new supervisor. A host of vampires, witches, ghosts, and assorted other fae creatures. What could be more entertaining? 

Well, a lot of things, actually—although there are, fortunately, a few high points—in E.J. Stevens’ urban fantasy, Hunting in Bruges


Jenna Lehane is a young—check that, very young—member of the American order of a worldwide organization known as the Hunters’ Guild, whose mission it is to keep humans safe from all manner of dangers… especially those of the supernatural variety.

It seems nefarious paranormal activity has recently picked up in the ancient city of Bruges, and the Guild there—woefully understaffed—has put out a call for assistance. Fresh off a job that had kinda gone sideways, Jenna’s boss knows an opportunity when he sees it, and packs her off to Belgium to help out (and hopefully, to avoid any censure from the State-side higher-ups).

Turns out it’s a matter of walking from one hairy situation into another, though, when Jenna learns just how many people (several dozen) have died in the city recently… and when she meets the somewhat-sketchy skeleton crew left working in the Bruges branch of the Guild.

Her fellow Hunters consist of the aforementioned sexist (human) ape who turns out to be her supervisor; an addlepated witch (made so by her addiction to a witchy drug); the extremely-grouchy (and quite possibly, incompetent) coroner; a crazy Russian demolitions expert (who just wants to blow everything up, of course); the blind archivist who mans (surprisingly well) the Guild’s massive library; and the quirky ghost of a former Hunter (who, curiously, only manifests in mostly-corporeal form around Jenna). 

Set against the wonders and charms of beautiful Bruges, it’s up to Jenna and her motley crew to save the city’s innocent populace—as well as its most prized relic—by eradicating the violent (but well-organized) group of bloodsuckers, and assorted other supernatural baddies, that are up to no good. But, with both an eclipse and a massive city-wide celebration imminent, the clock is ticking down far too quickly for Jenna’s comfort… 

In truth, Hunting in Bruges isn’t a bad book; the problem is, it’s not really that good of a book, either.

The problems start with Jenna, and how Stevens depicts her. I can forgive the common urban fantasy trope of making her an orphan. I can grit my teeth—but go along with—her being ridiculously skilled at handling all weaponry. And she’s young, fine… although 20?? To have so many kills under her belt (or strung on her necklace, in the case of the vamp teeth she wears), when she’s only just entered her third decade on earth? That’s asking for the reader to swallow an awful lot.  

Jenna’s inner monologues may actually go along with her being so impossibly young—after all, who, just out of her/his teens, tends to have deeply-meaningful thoughts?—but that doesn’t change how monotonous and repetitious they quickly become. (It’s like being in the mind of a teenager. Ugh.)

Like I said, Hunting in Bruges isn’t entirely without redeeming qualities. A couple of the supporting characters—particularly the witch and the ghost—are given some substance, which raises the bar during their scenes. The historical tie-ins aren’t vast, but add a little interest to the proceedings. And the confrontations Jenna has with the vampires, as well as with a couple of water fae, are full of action (and free of any sparkly-pretty gussying-up of the baddies, thankfully).

By far the best part about Hunting in Bruges, though, is, well, Bruges. I may not remember the characters in this book past the end of the year (nor is it likely I’ll ever read more in the series), but I will certainly still very much want to visit this fascinating city… in which case Stevens has done me a small favor, by bringing it to the forefront of my mind once more.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Study in Opposites: Bloodline Failed Abysmally, while Ozark is a Triumphant Joy

In general, I’ve never been a big advocate of making snap judgments; to my way of thinking, it behooves no one to be too hasty when deciding on something—or someone’s—merits.

That vegetable you think—for no good reason—you don’t like (because crazy Aunt Ida managed to massacre it into oblivion each Thanksgiving, and you vowed to never, ever let it pass your lips again)? It may be absolutely delicious prepared by more skillful hands. That book your workmates are raving about, which just isn’t "your genre"? Could prove to be as all-absorbing as the watercooler talk purports it to be. Or that guy/girl who, at first blush, isn’t really your “type”? Might turn out to be the one who values your worth and ends up stealing your heart.

The point is, you just never know… which is why I always try to give things that don’t immediately hook me a fair shake. I’ll read sixty pages into a book I’m not enjoying if I have reason (say, trusty recommendations) to think it might actually be good. I’ll give a food I’ve never tried—or never experienced made really well—a shot, if it sounds or looks appealing. I’ve gone on dates with men who didn’t tick off every box on some mental checklist of “must-haves”, because I saw potential there. And, I’ve given TV shows which were hard to stick with—but showed promise—ample time to hook, wow, and impress me.

Sometimes, though, the magic simply doesn’t happen, no matter how much effort you put into trying to like/understand/”get” something… as in the case for what should’ve been a much better show than it was, Netflix’s Bloodline. (Note that I’m using the past tense to talk about Bloodline, as it has--thankfully--concluded the third of its three seasons.)

The situation isn’t all grim, however, since I found Ozark--another Netflix entry, interestingly enough--to be the show that Bloodline could have been.

First, though, the mess which was Bloodline… With a great cast, including Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini, Enrique Murciano, Chloe Sevigny, John Leguizamo, Beau Bridges, and—in a small role—the late Sam Shephard, the show boasted plenty of talent in front of the camera. The setting—a little family-run hotel in a hamlet in the Florida Keys—was promising, as well, particularly as it hasn’t been done-to-death. And, in the beginning, I held out plenty of hope; although it was an extremely languid show from the get-go, that felt true to the hot, sticky climate in which the action took place (plus, I assumed it had to pick up the pace, eventually).

A ne’er-do-well brother (Danny), returning home to the fold (with anything but familial open arms waiting to greet him). A mess of unspoken undercurrents, which clearly put both the straight-arrow policeman brother (John) and litigator sister (Meg) on edge. A baby brother (Kevin) who seemed to be a perpetual screw-up. The long-suffering parents (Robert and Sally), who were far more concerned with the running of the inn than with their adult children’s respective issues. And then, a sudden death… which highlighted the worst in everyone, and threatened to bring long-buried secrets out into the bright Florida sunlight for the world to see in this crime drama that also functions as family melodrama. 

With so much promise, then, how did it all go so very wrong (for me, at least)? In pretty much every other way possible, frankly. I have both read and sat through some incredibly-slow burns, but Bloodline took the (not-hotly-contested) cake, on that front. Egads, was this show’s pace slow! Some of the side plots were way too contrived, really pushing the envelope of un-believability, which didn't help. The most egregious wrong about Bloodline, though? The sheer unlikeable-ness of Every. Single. Character. (Okay, I actually didn't mind one character who got killed off in the first season… but, like I said, he died.) I have never before found myself watching a show in which I truly disliked everyone, but that was my experience with Bloodline… and that, it seems, is my personal full-stop limit of that which is tolerable/intolerable: I need to like/identify with/root for at least ONE character in a show (book, movie, etc.)--something which I just did not do with this hot mess.

Had it been enjoyable enough to be a so-called “guilty pleasure”, I wouldn’t quibble, but there was so little pleasure to be derived from sitting through Bloodline, it might as well have been non-existent.

(Sidebar: I stuck out two full, tedious seasons of Bloodline, but after forcing myself to watch the first episode of the third/final season… found I simply couldn’t stomach any more. How everything was resolved? Don’t know, and honestly don’t care.)

As alluded to earlier, though, my experience with Ozark (a new-in-the-2017-season show) was the exact opposite, despite there being some surface similarities between the two shows.

Like the previous example, Ozark can claim some impressive talent, including Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, and Esai Morales. There are dual settings for the action, here, with part occuring in Chicago, and the remainder happening in Missouri, in the eponymous Ozarks. (Again, places we don’t see portrayed every day—especially the latter, obviously—which is instantly attention-grabbing.)

And what about that action? Without saying too much, it revolves around one family, the Byrdes (financial advisor dad, Marty; part-time professional mom, Wendy; and their preteen and high-school-age son, Jonah, and daughter, Charlotte) who find themselves forced to vacate the Windy City for parts remote, humid, and lacking in any excitement whatsoever when Dad runs afoul of the drug cartel for which he’s been providing some shadier services over the past decade. (Of course, you know that means going from the frying pan and into the fire, right? Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a show…) 

What makes the two shows so very different, then, separating them by multiple country miles, as it were? Aside from the obvious situational similarities, the short answer to that question is, “pretty much everything else”.

Where Bloodline was a study in just how long the writers and directors could drag out any scene, every plot point, and yet another ridiculous scenario (making the whole a torturous slog), Ozark is all about the pay-off, with things happening right now, and everyone scurrying to keep up and figure out how to deal with it all (kinda like in real life), before the next blow happens (as it invariably will)… keeping things moving along briskly.

Equally notable are the characters in Ozark, which I find myself—if not precisely rooting for everyone (I’m not a monster, so of course I’m not sitting there hoping the bad guys come out on top)—nonetheless completely intrigued. As for the characters I do like—the Family Byrde, en masse, the thieving young woman and her equally-sketchy (but woefully-less adept) family, the bordering-on-sociopathic Feebie, the slow-to-trust bar owner, and the suave cartel hombre, to name a few—they are all deliciously compelling.

In short, while both shows have overlying story arcs involving basically “good” people being put in positions where doing bad things seems the only realistic option (and is, indeed, always the chosen one), it’s the combination of writing—the characters, the situations, and the motivations—the acting, and the directing which makes the earlier show (Bloodline) an abysmally-disappointing failure for me, and the new show, Ozark, an utter win.

Final Verdict:
Bloodline: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; not recommended at all;
Ozark: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; highly recommended