A Failed Exercise Book

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Title: The Trespasser

Rating: 5 Stars

In case you haven’t noticed, you can group the books that I read into a couple of categories. I read ‘serious’ literature, whatever that means. I read classic fiction. I read non-fiction / history. And I read genre action/mystery/thriller.

Which one is not like the others?

There actually is a reason for this. I exercise most days of the week. I usually try to play racquetball twice a week. I do weights twice a week. I try to do some other form of aerobic activity twice a week.

The non-racquetball aerobic activity that I used to do was primarily running on a treadmill. However, over the last year or so, I’ve been fighting off plantar fasciitis in both feet, which makes running for any sustained period of time painful. Therefore, I’m now riding a recumbent bike.

I personally find riding a recumbent bike mind-numbingly boring. To mitigate that, I read while riding. I tried reading other types of books, but since I ride pretty hard and I only ride once, at most twice, a week, I found that I was getting lost and distracted pretty easily and losing the thread of the work.

Genre fiction is actually nice for this. They usually follow a pretty linear plot. The characters are usually well defined and manageable in number. For most action/mystery/thriller, I can read for 35 to 40 minutes once or twice a week without losing track of where I am.

Note that I’m not knocking genre fiction. I think it’s great and a perfectly respectable form of literature. It’s just that its form lends itself to my exercise.

Every now and then, an author fails me. I’ll start reading a novel while riding the bike for a couple of sessions, but ultimately the work just draws me in and I can’t help myself. I can’t wait until my next ride to read. I have to sit down and finish it.

Tana French always does this to me. Usually before I’m even halfway through it, I am staying up late at night or burning a couple of hours on the weekend to finish it.

She failed me yet again with The Trespasser. I don’t think I even got halfway through it before I gave up and sat down to finish it.

Her plots are interesting but I really think it’s the characters that draw me in. All of her novels are set in the Murder Squad in Dublin. Her novels (she’s on number six now) are at best loosely connected but can be read independently. Each novel is a first person narrative told from a different person’s perspective.

This time its Antoinette Conway’s turn. She’s a relatively young but hard and brittle detective. She thinks the squad is against her and she is absolutely determined not to let them get the upper hand. Her partner, Steve Moran, is a people pleaser that wants to get along with everyone, but Antoinette feels that her bad karma will also inevitably bring him down as well.

They’re assigned what appears to be a simple domestic murder, but as they investigate it, it seems to be escalating into something much larger. The big question is, are the detectives themselves making it larger because they are sick of getting assigned the boring, easy murder cases, or is there something else at work? And, if so, what is it? Who can they trust? Can they trust each other?

The whole troubled lead brilliant detective is obviously a trope. French’s characters are so deeply drawn that she rises above it. Yes, Conway clearly has some emotional problems, but these problems are somehow integrated into her larger character so that you’re not just rolling your eyes at the poor tortured-soul detective.

The interplay between the detectives and the suspects are richly drawn. She spends time on each character so that, even though at some times they are used just to advance the plot, you find yourself interested and caring for them.

The ending is spot on. I personally find the ending of most novels to be problematic, regardless of genre. The ending of many mysteries have a tendency to peter out because once the case is solved, usually there is some wrap-up / closure that takes place that kills the excitement of the solve. Here she ends it perfectly. I’ve found myself re-reading the last several pages several times just for the sheer enjoyment of a well executed novel.

In short, I think that all of Tana French’s novels, but especially The Trespasser, are absolutely brilliant examples of mystery fiction. She could very well be the best mystery writer active today.

 

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Movie Images Put To Words

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Title: The Regional Office is Under Attack!

Rating: 3 Stars

This is an odd book to rate. On the surface, it’s basic action genre. There is a top secret organization (The Regional Office) that has a team of female action heroes with extraordinary gifts taking on world threatening organizations and/or extra-dimensional beings that the rest of the world is blithely unaware of. At the beginning of the book, an attack is being launched against The Regional Office. The story is told from the point of view of both an attacker as well as a defender.

What makes this odd is that this is clearly inspired by / blatantly steals from any number of movies.

  • There is an air duct scene straight out of Die Hard.
  • Rose, one of the attackers of The Regional Office, is first introduced as kind of a malcontent young woman that is then recruited and trained to become an assassin (ala La Femme Nikita).
  • The mission of The Regional Office resembles nothing more than the Men In Black.
  • Sarah, defending The Regional Office, is equipped with an all powerful artificial arm. Over time, her arm takes over more of her body, and she ends up growing mechanical arms and legs. Ultimately, she becomes truly a cyborg, in my head resembling something like the Terminator or, more likely, Robocop.
  • The Oracles, who form the predictive arm of The Regional Office, are three women, heads shaved, permanently kept in a plastic pool of water, which is pretty much exactly from Minority Report.
  • The team of female assassin agents seem much like the original team from Kill Bill.

It’s written in the breezy style of David Wong’s book, John Dies at the End. Amazing things happen that are treated with something like nonchalance.

So, basically it’s a movie that is transposed to literature. Why? Is Gonzales trying to make some connection between popular entertainment and literature? Maybe I’m going down this path because I’ve just finished re-reading David Foster Wallace’s essay, E Unibus Pluram.

It’s a very dated essay (1993), but still thought provoking. In it, he examines the fact that television has completely taken over entertainment (like, I said, it’s dated). One of the essay’s interesting conclusions is that previously the purpose of art was to expose hypocrisy via the employment of irony. That is, the value of art was in describing the distance between what one expects to be true and what is actually perceived to be true. The challenge to art is that television has been, since at least the 1980’s or so, hugely self aware and ironic. Since television is so ubiquitous, that means that Americans (if not the world) has been so immersed in irony that we have become inured to it.

If everyone’s first language is irony, what fresh perspective can art truly bring?

Is this what’s going on here? Is Gonzales bombarding us with images that we already know as some kind of short hand for some deeper purpose?

I don’t know, and honestly, I kind of lost a bit of interest. The first third or so of the book was fun, exciting, and innovative. However, at a certain point, it just kind of seemed to lose narrative steam and seemed to chug to its inevitable conclusion.

It had a lot of promise and I think that Gonzales was, to his credit, swinging for the fences in trying to do something truly innovative, but at the end of the day, even with big, smart, new ideas, you still have to tell a story that keeps me engaged all of the way to its end.

A Melange of Terror

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Title: The Terror Years

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a series of independent essays highlighting various aspects of life in the Middle East. If you’ve already read The Looming Tower, then a couple of essays will seem familiar to you, but I still found them valuable because each was focused on a pretty narrow topic.

The two that were most redundant to The Looming Tower where the essays on Ayman Zawahiri and John O’Neill. In history the two might always have some kind of weird symbiotic relationship. Zawahari is the master terrorist that inspired bin Laden to look beyond Saudi Arabia towards the United States, and O’Neill was laser focused on stopping terrorist attacks on American soil. Wright does well here looking beyond their life’s work and focusing on the nuances and contradictions that exist in them. This is true especially of O’Neill, who is clearly a slightly fallen hero who was gently pushed out of the FBI and became head of the twin towers about a month before they fell. There is a complexity to a man who, despite his single minded focus on stopping terrorism, also found time to have multiple affairs, propose to women while he was still married, and live a lifestyle that left him constantly hounded by debtors.

Speaking of 9/11, there is another affecting essay concerning another FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who was recruited by O’Neill and became another passionate defender against terrorism. He led the investigation into the suicide bombing of the USS Cole. Working under difficult circumstances, it was his hard work that started making the connections to a larger conspiracy being directed by al-Qaeda. There is a heartbreaking turn here in this essay as it exposes the paranoia and distrust between the FBI and the CIA pre 9/11. The FBI was predominately concerned with prosecuting cases while the CIA was focused on using assets (criminals that were prosecutable) to gather intelligence. Therefore, the CIA was loathe to share intelligence with the FBI. Almost immediately after 9/11, it was discovered that nearly fifty CIA personnel knew that al-Qaeda agents were in the United States but none of them informed the FBI, despite the fact that there were working groups designed explicitly to share such information. Upon learning this, Soufan immediately runs into a bathroom to throw up. History is a great teacher, but sometimes the tuition is a bitch.

Most of the essays focus on topics beyond 9/11. The essay that struck me the most was the one on Saudi Arabia (The Kingdom of Silence). Wright embedded himself in the kingdom for several months working for a Saudi newspaper. This essay was striking for many reasons and highlighted how little I know about Saudi Arabia. Many Saudis are highly educated but there are actually very few jobs for educated Saudis. The education that many get has little practical purpose. Men want to marry but few of them have the means to do so. There is a tremendous amount of money but it is tightly controlled by the very large royal family, so the average Saudi is actually struggling. Corruption is endemic but must never be spoken of. By the end of the piece, you are thinking that this is a country that, behind its apparent static, stable appearance, could within a generation suffer revolution.

Beyond these essays were ones on the state of culture in Syria under the Assad regime (spoiler alert: not great), a look at how invasive (and how blithe the government leaders seem about it) America’s intelligence agencies are getting domestically, an interesting essay on some Islamic terrorists that are actually renouncing violence (thus disproving that Islamic terrorists are this monolithic force), and an absolutely heartbreaking article on five Americans that were kidnapped by terrorists, the government’s seeming disinterest in them, and the private efforts made to try to save them.

The bottom line is that you are looking for some grand, unifying theory of the state of terrorism today, this is not your thing. If you are interested in some essays on the subject by a skilled writer deeply experienced in it, then you should find this extremely valuable.

Where Does She Put Her Shield And Sword?

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Title: Wonder Woman

Rating: 4 Stars

It was a good movie. As should be apparent by now, I’m not a huge fan of either DC or Marvel movies but kind of feel obligated to go to them since they’re such a part of our cultural fabric. So, I’m not going to spend much time on the plot or characters or much about the film itself and write more about what I was thinking as I was watching it. I do have to say that her little lasso of truth thing was pretty crappy CGI.

Wonder Woman as a character in a comic book was first created in 1941. As is obvious, this was the apex of Nazism, and yes, as can be expected, she took on the Axis powers of WWII.

What’s interesting here is that the movie moves her creation story (which is pretty close to the same as the comic book) to the time of WWI. In WWII, the Germans are clearly the bad guys. Without going back to someone like Vlad the Impaler, it’s really hard to find a more evil guy in history than Hitler.

However, in WWI, this is significantly more ambiguous. Sure, at the Treaty of Versailles, Germany is assigned prime responsibility for starting it, but that was pretty much the victors dictating the terms. In a war in which both sides gunned, gassed, and bombed each other with impunity with no other obvious war aims than to gain some territory, it’s really hard to paint Germany as the purely evil force.

In particular, General Ludendorff was certainly a leading general in Germany. However, there is no evidence that he was some diabolical force of evil. In fact, in 1918, when it became clear that his army was collapsing, he and Hindenberg went to the chancellor to plead for an armistice. Having said that, he’s not totally in the clear; even though he asked for the armistice and said that the army was collapsing, after the war he claimed that it was actually the politicians that sold Germany out and that the soldiers could have continued fighting. It was this ‘stab in the back’ argument that helped doom the Weimar Republic and ultimately helped to lead to the rise of Hitler (he actually participated in the ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch).

Wonder Woman becomes convinced that Ludendorff is actually Ares, the god of war. This seems asinine because clearly, if anyone is Ares, it would be Hitler. And, although WWI was imaginably horrible, it turns out that mankind has a very active imagination, because WWII, with the Holocaust, atomic weapons, and the mass slaughter on the Eastern Front, pretty much eclipses it.

So, why move her origin story to WWI? This calls into question Wonder Woman’s reason for existence. Allegedly she was created by Zeus to be the god killer of Ares so that mankind can live in peace. Well, if Ares is killed and yet war continues on, what does that say about her mission? And mankind?

To the film’s credit, moving her story to WWI actually allows these questions to be asked, which in of itself adds a layer of complexity to the film that was unexpected. It’s not often that a superhero movie leads me to question the origin of evil and the nature of evil in us (usually it’s more like finding evil and then removing it and saving the world). Killing off the evil Hitler would have been the easy route to take, so I have to give credit to the film for not taking it.

By the end, Wonder Woman discovers herself to be a goddess. This brings up the same question that Thor and, for that matter, Superman (who on this planet is effectively a god) have. Why should they give a fuck about the human race?

Sure, all three of the characters discover love and somehow love is a driving motivation for all of them. The point is, they are effectively immortal. The person that they love will die and yet they still have millennia to live on. It’s the equivalent of me falling in love with a house fly. Civilizations will be born and will die and they will still just be. They will see unimaginable changes. As essentially immortal gods with what appear to be human emotions, how will they not go insane? At least Thor has his own universe to go home to. Superman and Wonder Woman are pretty much stuck here.

Interestingly enough, this topic is broached in the overlooked but I personally think pretty amazing movie “He Never Died”. Henry Rollins stars as Cain, as in the brother that murdered Abel, now in the current day, doomed to wander for eternity and to feed on human flesh. Cain, in the present day, is simply overcome with boredom and barely finds the motivation to feel anything.

This has to be the end result for all of these immortal superheroes. I’d really love to see someone tell that story.

Granddaddy Slasher

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Title: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Rating: 4 Stars

For some reason, this film has been making the rounds a bit with various media lately. It is not its fortieth anniversary. Maybe the collective hive that is the mass media just happened to coalesce around this topic or maybe there’s some patient zero article that inspired a pile-on.

Regardless, it was, at least self-consciously, on my mind, so I thought that I’d watch it again. I’ve seen it a couple of times, and of course, there’s a scene or two that is part of the cultural landscape, but it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve sat down and watched it in its entirety.

I have to say, it holds up pretty well. Even now, there’s a scene or two that legitimately made me  jump. There’re also scenes that are just so grotesquely creepy that they kind of make your skin crawl.  All in all, for a forty year old movie made on a shoestring budget, it’s pretty amazing.

I’m old enough to remember (vaguely) when it first came out. The rumor was that it was based on a true story. I was underage, so I could not see it myself (and this was way before even VCRs and there was absolutely no way that it was going to be shown on any of the three channels that controlled the airwaves), so there were all kinds of rumors of how bloody, disgusting, disturbing, distressing, and grotesque it was. In fact, the whole idea of people being massacred by a chainsaw is just horrifying in concept. It just seemed to me, at the time, as one of the ultimate outlaw bad-ass movies that would probably scar me for life if I were to watch it.

Now, watching it in 2017, I can smile at my naive 1974 self. Don’t get me wrong, it’s disturbing and scary, but it’s really not all that graphic. So much of the horror is implied. In fact the first killing (of Kirk, I apologize if that’s a spoiler, but seriously, it’s a forty year old movie, for fuck’s sake) is Leatherface hitting him on the head with a mallet, dragging him into the abbatoir, and slamming the door. It’s maybe a ten second scene, but holy shit, if you’re seeing it for the first time, it’s shocking. Even now, after listening to Franklin graphically talk about what it’s like to kill a cow in a slaughterhouse and then a short time later, watching Kirk’s legs jerk spasmodically as a macabre visual to that description is pretty fucking disturbing.

Later, watching Leatherface rip (again, with virtually no blood involved) the wheelchair bound Franklin apart is both scary and disturbing. Franklin, trapped in his wheelchair, unable to run, while Leatherface looms over him with a screaming chainsaw is just messed up.

The last third of the movie moves from straight horror into some kind of bizarrely surreal family sitcom nightmare, where a mummified grandpa is brought back to life by sucking on Sally’s bleeding finger and Leatherface, now wearing apparently a woman’s facsimile of a face, complete with clown like eye makeup and lipstick, and a matronly dress, serves dinner.

So, yeah, it’s a freaky story. It’s not based upon a real story, but Tobe Hooper was certainly influenced by Ed Gein, a truly bizarre killer / grave robber that actually did make furniture out of human bones and masks out of human skin (among many other disturbing things; check his wiki if you want to be disturbed not by a film but by humanity).

One thing that’s cool about this film is how many scenes / motifs are in it that are now considered standard fare in slasher films. Here is a incomplete list that I just quickly came up with:

  • Young, hip, sophisticated people in a rural area that apparently progress has forgotten about. There is this strange undercurrent theme in movies where they clearly acknowledge that the urban life is ascendant and that rural life is on the decline, but when the two come face to face, it’s rural that gains the edge. I don’t know if this is an urban filmmaker expressing some self conscious fear of the unknown or if by having one victim ultimately prevail (ie survive) that this somehow demonstrates the inevitable triumph of urbanity.
  • Characters thinking it’s a great idea to go out on their own and investigate this highly suspiciously looking house separately.
  • The sexual undertones of Kirk and Pam, as they head out to a watering hole with a blanket all on their own is a precursor to succeeding slasher films where couples hooking up is almost a guarantee that they will next die.
  • Killer as somehow sub-human. The previous gold standard for serial killers was of course that nice guy next door, Norman Bates. Here you have a serial killer that does not appear to be verbal. You never see his face, but you imagine it to be horribly disfigured. He seems to be mentally handicapped. This starts the idea in slasher films of the killer actually being something more of a monster than a human.
  • Woman running through the woods is now pretty much standard fare. Here, since it’s an early attempt, it goes on way too long. Was anyone surprised when she tripped and almost knocked herself unconscious as Leatherface rapidly approaches?
  • Woman as sole survivor. It’s not the strong men that survive. In fact, the two full bodied men are dispatched rather quickly. Sally is the sole survivor. On the one hand, you’d think that’s somehow empowering. However, consider the fact that she does not save herself. She’s basically just running around screaming. It’s the truck driver that actually diverts Leatherface and it’s the pick-up driver that ultimately rescues her. Not a lot of women’s rights progress taking place here.

So, yes, although my eleven year old self would never have predicted it in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is actually a classic and important film that had a large impact upon the industry.

Death Comes For The Poet

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Title: Pale Fire

Rating: 5 Stars

The plot is actually relatively straightforward (kind of). Buckle your seat belts.

There’s a beloved king of the small country of Zembla. Plotters overthrow him and he barely escapes. He ends up in America, posing as a professor (Charles Kinbote).

At the university that he teaches at, he befriends a poet, John Shade, that he not so secretly worships. They form a close friendship and they take long walks together. While walking, hoping to inspire Shade to write an epic heroic poem, Kinbote repeats tales of the great king of Zembla. Seemingly inspired, Shade commences to write a poem, but refuses to share it with Kinbote.

Just as he almost finishes it, an assassin that has tracked down the wayward king tries to shoot Kinbote. However, he misses and shoots Shade dead.

Shade happens to have the manuscript with him. Kinbote grabs it and immediately heads off to a remote location so that he can annotate what he is sure is the great last work of a great poet, featuring the adventures that he’s so gloriously narrated to Shade on their walks.

Pale Fire is the fruit of this work. It contains a foreword, the poem itself, and Kinbote’s commentary.

What’s the problem? Well, for starters, Shade’s poem has nothing to do with the king of Zembla. It is actually a touching, highly personal poem regarding the pain and search for meaning in the suicide of Shade’s daughter.

This is about as far from Zembla as you can get. However, Kinbote is undeterred. In his commentary, he scrapes for every scrap of evidence, every insinuation, every hint of Zembla and her king in this poem about the pain of loss and the search for meaning.

As Kinbote’s commentary continues, many times he just gets frustrated and tells the king’s stories in the commentary itself, at times barely even trying to connect it to the poem that he’s supposedly commenting upon. In fact, as you increasingly read between the lines, it’s pretty clear that Shade not only did not consider Kinbote to be his bosom buddy but at times actively tried to avoid him. It’s pretty clear that Kinbote was an active nuisance, overbearing busybody, pretty close to a stalker of Shade that Shade simply tolerated.

Over time, more and more of what is real becomes questioned. Is Kinbote really an exiled king? Was the assassin (Gradus) actually trying to kill Shade? Kinbote definitely seems somewhat unhinged. How much of the narrative is the madness of Kinbote?

If you do any literary research on Pale Fire, you’ll see even more interesting theories. Perhaps Shade invented Kinbote as a vehicle for his work? Or maybe Kinbote invented Shade and actually wrote the poem himself? Or possibly the ghost of Shade’s suicidal daughter inspired Kinbote’s efforts (and no, I’m not making that up).

As you can tell, we are entering post modern territory. Clearly Kinbote is an unreliable narrator. The structure of the book is itself an ironic statement on poems and the commentary that takes place on them. The fact that you posit the fact that some of these characters themselves might be characters that are products of other characters within the book is also a postmodern landmark to be on the lookout for.

Another interesting aspect to this work is that it is a very early prototype of hyperlinking. Notes point to other notes which point to parts of the poem. You can read it, if you so choose, as a kind of choose your adventure story. Since this was published, in 1962, nearly thirty years before the development of the web browser, this is truly innovative. This could potentially yield slightly different reading experiences every time that you re-read it.

There are interesting connections between Pale Fire and Lolita. In both cases, you have a failing European man (Humbert Humbert in Lolita) emigrating from Europe to America and trying (and failing) to integrate in it. They are both men of maturity with predilections for much younger partners (young girls for Humbert and young men for Kinbote). Written in the decades immediately following WW2, is this the hunger of a faded people for the fresh new world? The sophisticated past being overthrown by the guileless future?

Technically, Pale Fire is brilliant. Nabokov is simply a magician with words. Like Cormac McCarthy, he finds rare or obsolete words and uses them to perfection. I came across a word (ombrioles) and when I googled it, the entire first page of results pointed back to Pale Fire.  He essentially invents a new language so that Kinbote can quote Zemblan sayings in their mother tongue.

As you can see, there is a lot to unpack here and I barely scratched the surface. I’m sure that with a carefully annotated version, I could have easily spent weeks reading / appreciating  it.

It is justifiably considered one of the great works of the twentieth century.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

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Title: Good Time

Rating: 3 Stars

A mentally handicapped man, Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie), is apparently in a treatment center undergoing therapy when his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) busts in and takes him.

We next see the two brothers rob a bank. They’re successful, but a die pack explodes, causing them to panic and to flee. In the ensuing chaos Nick is captured, arrested, and thrown in Rikers. There, he does not fare well, and is severely beaten.

Connie bears the full responsibility for Nick being in jail and desperately tries to free him. He first tries to bail him out, but does not have enough money. He then hears that Nick has been beaten so severely that he has been removed from prison and is placed in a hospital. His mission becomes to free his brother from the hospital.

His attempts take most of the night, and fair to say, they don’t go well.

Connie, although deeply caring of his brother, is a violent man with poor impulse control. He thinks quickly, but never wisely. Connie clearly thinks of himself as some kind of master criminal, but his tactics are anything but.

Pretty much everyone he comes into contact with, his brother, his girlfriend, a young woman he befriends, his accidental comrade in crime (Ray), a security night guard, all end up worse off having met him. Everyone who he consciously manipulates into helping him end up being hurt.

In fact, by the end of the movie, when Benny is back in the treatment center, it becomes apparent that this is a healthy environment for him and possibly be the place that he should have been along. Connie’s poor decision of ‘rescuing’ him set off a cascade of many other bad decisions.

The movie was effective at portraying the actions of a violent, desperate man. Pattinson shed his romantic lead heart throb personae and threw himself into the role. His eyes are constantly desperate and calculating. Casting Pattinson was probably a bit of a stunt, but his efforts offset the calculated nature of the choice.

One big demerit is the soundtrack. At various times, it sounded like some odd cross of Hitchcock and Nine Inch Nails and Velvet Underground at their most pretentious. That’s not a compliment. It was grating and annoying and actively detracted from some of the key scenes.

Other than that, the movie was basically episodic. There’s a long side story concerning Ray that could have been shortened.

At times the plot was obvious. There were a couple of plot twists that you could see coming from a mile away. The bank teller took an awfully long time filling the bag. Perhaps that was the point. Connie, who thinks he’s a genius criminal, is willfully blind to things that would be obvious to the even most amateur of criminals. Perhaps Bennie isn’t the only member of the Nikas family that has a below average intellect.

Regardless, it was a good film with adult themes that was grimly entertaining. In the midst of the lightness of summer, that is often enough to make a good movie night out.

 

Dukes of Hazzard Meets Ocean’s 11

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Title: Logan Lucky

Rating: 4 Stars

Steven Soderbergh takes his caper film trope (Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen) and moves it decidedly South.

No longer set in glitzy Las Vegas with its Rat Pack milieu, most of the planning takes place in a West Virginian dive bar named Duck Tape. The plan is to steal all of the cash that is stored at a vault at the Charlotte motor speedway.

Leading the crew is an unemployed construction worker Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) that needs some cash so that he can continue to be close to his daughter, who is moving with her mother over the state line. He enlists his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who is missing part of his arm from a tour in Iraq and his hair stylist sister Mellie (Riley Keough). He needs help blowing the vault, so he enlists a currently incarcerated explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who insists that his two dimwitted brothers who have recently discovered God be brought along as well.

So, the plot involves getting Joe Bang out of prison and back in before it is noticed, blowing up the vault, getting all of the money, and making good on an escape. As is usual in such films, at several points things appear to be going completely haywire. However, in true Danny Ocean form, Jimmy seems to have a plan for everything and the heist continues on.

As a heist movie, it was just about par for the course. It had the usual complex elements requiring some pretty serious suspension of belief as events move in perfect synchronicity.

The characters were fun, especially Daniel Craig in full Southern accent. He appeared to be having good fun with his role. His use of fake salt and gummy bears as his explosive device was a fun wink at the sophisticated devices used in the Oceans movies.

It pokes hopefully gentle fun at Southern culture. You see characters playing horseshoes with toilet seat covers. A major plot point revolves around whether or not Jimmy will be able to make his daughter’s beauty pageant. His daughter is less than ten and at the pageant is in full JonBenet Ramsey makeup and hair.

It was not a film for deep thought. It was fun, entertaining, and had a couple of solid laughs.

And yes, Steven Soderbergh has pretty much made his fortune showing how much crime pays and how much fun you can have while committing crimes.

Bucharest PD!

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Title: Comrade Detective

Rating: 4 Stars

The premise is almost irresistible. There is a long lost Romanian detective series from the 1980s produced to glorify the Romanian state. An old tape of the series is found and it’s such a masterpiece that great care is taken to restore it and dub it in English so that we can all enjoy it.

It works on many levels. First of all, for those of us who were around in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s a great spoof of detective shows from that time. It was a golden era of hard nosed detective shows, including Starsky and Hutch, Baretta, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, and Mannix. These were all hard men that were somehow irresistible to the ladies.

The lead detective, Gregor Anghel, with his leather jacket, shaggy unkempt hair, and general glower perfectly matches the bill. He actually reminded me of Joe Don Baker playing Mitchell in the great MST3K movie. Women can’t seem to keep themselves from falling for him.

Just like in those old television series, there is rampant violence. Suspects are beaten, guns are fired, and the cops just bust in where ever they want to, hilariously shouting “Bucharest PD!”.

Above and  beyond that is the overt propaganda. Being dedicated communists, they hold capitalism, and specifically, United States, in contempt. They visit the US embassy, where grossly fat men sit around eating mounds of hamburgers. The ambassador is an oversexed Texan woman. The Monopoly game is seen as a capitalist tool to subvert communists. Jordache jeans drive susceptible Romanians mad with desire. The suspect (who murdered Anghel’s partner) goes around wearing a Reagan mask.

This is contrasted with the perfection of Romania. They extol the virtues of Romanian vehicles, the Romanian healthcare system, and Romanian cops. They do this despite the fact that Romanian cars are clearly tiny little boxes, the healthcare system has beat up beds and soiled pillows, and the actual Romanian police force kind of resembles Keystone cops.

On the one hand, you laugh at the absurdity of it all. But then you start to think a little about the affect that the Cold War propaganda had on the Western culture. The obvious example here is Red Dawn. That’s scarcely the only one. Think of the Rambo movies (after First Blood). Think of pretty much any 1970s / 1980s James Bond film. How many positive examples can you come up with where the people of the Soviet Union were presented fairly? The propaganda here is broad and is therefore amusing, but there is a message here about how culture makes a distinction between Us and Them, and then makes sure that the Them is represented as unflattering as possible.

In one episode, there is even a Trump reference that’s pretty awesome.  Clearly, Trump, with his accusations of fake news and his pretty absolute disregard for the truth (with the support of various other media outlets) understands the value of propaganda, and as is done here, he lays it on with the subtlety of a meat cleaver.

The last episode, trying to tie up loose ends, is kind of a slog and the satire becomes a little too obvious as it goes along, but all in all, I’d highly recommend this series. There’s a lot more here than meets the eye.

Killing To See His Daughter

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Title: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Rating: 2 Stars

I’ve read several of Steven Hamilton’s works. The Alex McKnight series is OK. I enjoyed the first in the series, A Cold Day in Paradise. I read one or two more in the series, but they quickly devolved into a predictable formula. The Lock Artist, which is a one off, was actually pretty awesome. The protagonist was a mute dedicated to a life of crime whose skill was to be able to break any lock. Having a quiet person at the heart of an action story was novel and affecting.

It looks like Nick Mason is going to be another series, so I thought that I’d give him another shot. Nick Mason was a career criminal in Boston. He’d been a thief for about ten years. He then got married, had a child, and walked the straight and narrow. In true crime fiction fashion, he’s convinced to do one more job, which of course goes completely haywire, a cop is killed, and he’s sentenced to twenty years in prison.

While there, he meets an organized crime leader (Darius Cole) that’s serving multiple life sentences. Darius takes a liking to Nick and sees potential in him. He makes a deal with Nick. He will get Nick out of prison but in exchange, while Nick is out, he must do whatever Darius orders.

Desperate to see his daughter, Nick agrees. In short order, a detective on Nick’s original case recants his testimony and Nick walks free.

However, the devil always gets his due. Almost immediately, Darius orders him to kill a man. Reluctant to do so, he takes the gun and hesitantly goes to the hotel room where the man is at. His victim attacks him first and in the ensuing fight, Nick kills him.

Darius now assumes that he’s a stone cold killer and continues to order him out for additional hits, all of which Nick, in one form or another, manages to accomplish.

And this brings us to the essential problem here. Are we supposed to believe that a semi-reformed thief with no history of violence decides to go out and become a stone cold assassin just because he wants to see his daughter? And this is the protagonist. Are we supposed to be rooting for him as he does the killing for a crime lord?

It’d be one thing if his character morphed from a general nice guy to a remorseless killer (think Breaking Bad), but here, we’re supposed to be seeing him as this basic nice guy trying to make a relationship work while at the same time has preternatural skills killing people.

I don’t know. Even for crime fiction, the premise seems incredulous if not actually ridiculous, and as the novel progressed, I just couldn’t find myself to feel any empathy for the character and I found his motivation completely unbelievable. I seriously doubt whether there’s any person that’d willingly become a highly efficient hit man just so that he can catch an occasional glance at his daughter as she’s playing soccer.