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Thieves Fall Out (Hard Case Crime)
Thieves Fall Out (Hard Case Crime)
by Gore Vidal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.24

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A little dated, but a lot of fun., February 27, 2015
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Peter Wells is an American petty crook who's wound up in Egypt in the early 1950s, after a rather nasty stint in Mexico and some wild-catting in Texas. Coming to alone and robbed in a strange room, he eventually finds his way--as all American expats do--to a bar, where a British man offers him a drink and a job: meet a beautiful French woman for dinner. Turns out, she has another job. It involves a hunchback with a dark secret, a beautiful German lounge singer with a dark secret, a suave Egyptian businessman with a dark secret, and a corrupt Egyptian police officer with a dark secret. And that's not even counting the revolution that's slowly brewing in the streets.

Gore Vidal's THIEVES RUN OUT is pretty much everything you'd want in an international pulp novel: blood, bullets, and beautiful dames. Yes, it hasn't necessarily aged well (a main character named Mohammed Ali; racial stereotypes that are cringe-worthy), but it's a product of its time. I always love when a more "literary" author decides to schlub it up with the rest of us; the results can be surprising. Is THIEVES RUN OUT a lost classic? No, not really. But it's good fun, with a sense of humor and an eye for genre tropes (and breaking them, in spots). Another fine entry in the Hard Case Crime cannon.

Snowpiercer [Blu-ray]
Snowpiercer [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Chris Evans
Price: $14.96
31 used & new from $8.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly beautiful, brutal, and unflinching., February 24, 2015
This review is from: Snowpiercer [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
After the world is thrown into a deep freeze, the last vestiges of humanity are trapped aboard a speeding train, arranged by class: the poorest in the tail, eating protein bars and being culled and ordered around by those from the front, the aristocrats who dine on steak and sushi. But a revolution is brewing, led by the headstrong Curtis. Their goal: to make it to the front of the train. By any means necessary.

SNOWPIERCER is flawed. Let's get that out of the way first: on hindsight, it doesn't really make much sense. The story is delightfully dark and twisted (it's not a feel-good movie), but doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. Not to mention various plot holes that dot the film like swiss cheese.

There. We've got that out of the way. Now dig this: SNOWPIERCER is better than you're probably expecting. It is, and I don't say this lightly, one of the most beautifully directed and orchestrated films I've seen in a long time. Thanks to Joon-ho Bong, it's a Hollywood dystopian action film with heavy Asian sensibilities; at times, you'll forget you're watching a Chris Evans vehicle, and instead think you're watching art. Which, in many respects, it is. Oh yes, you have fine performances: Chris Evans, Khang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Vlad Ivanov, Alison Pill, and Jamie Bell stand out, while Tilda Swinton was downright incredible. (I've heard talk that she narrowly missed out on an Oscar nomination, and this doesn't surprise me in the slightest.) Oh, and a cameo near the end that I won't ruin. Always a welcomed face.

But there's more than that. What the script lacks in coherence, it makes up for in audacity, brutality, and a strange sense of wonder. All carried out artfully, with beautiful cinematography and a fine eye for detail. SNOWPIERCER is, as much as anything, an experience. Maybe not a masterpiece, maybe not a classic, but a film that'll certainly be discussed in certain circles for a long time to come.

Nightcrawler (Blu-ray + DVD + DIGITAL HD with UltraViolet)
Nightcrawler (Blu-ray + DVD + DIGITAL HD with UltraViolet)
DVD ~ Jake Gyllenhaal
Price: $24.99
25 used & new from $14.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The true price of an item is what somebody is willing to pay for it.", February 23, 2015
Louis Bloom is a small time crook without much of a conscience, looking for a way to advance in life. It isn't about money; it's about status, stability, about being proud of your work. Purely on accident, he stumbles across a veteran crew of nightcrawlers--freelance paparazzi-like cameramen who film violent incidents and sell it to news channels. Louis's interest is piqued. He has a knack for getting "the shot," and it isn't long before he's manipulating scenes to make it look better and more dramatic. Manipulation leads to planned execution. Which leads to the dark madness you'll find in the city at night.

If NIGHTCRAWLER has a flaw, it's that it takes itself a tad too seriously. A sense of dread pervades the film; at times this is a good thing (it's incredibly creepy, almost--but not quite--a psychological horror film), but it makes things seem a little too "important," almost didactic in spots. Especially with Rene Russo's character, a newswoman unafraid to sell her soul to get the best story (even if it isn't entirely true); the character is promising (and the performance is great), but at times she's almost a caricature.

Still, NIGHTCRAWLER has a lot to offer. A lot. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a riveting performance; he's great at playing the creep, even when he's portraying a good guy (check out PRISONERS). Louis is definitely not a good guy. Unsuspecting audiences may find themselves in uncomfortable territory very fast; I'd place NIGHTCRAWLER in similar territory as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, in that it's an exploration of the public's adulation of violent and incendiary news. It's solidly written and directed by Dan Gilroy; maybe a little indulgent in spots, and ultimately not as important as it perhaps wishes to be, but it's undeniably creepy and unforgiving.

Birdman [Blu-ray]
Birdman [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Michael Keaton
Price: $19.96
26 used & new from $16.99

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Does anybody give a s*** about the truth other than me?", February 23, 2015
This review is from: Birdman [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a washed up former franchise actor who's desperate to be relevant again. He finds himself in an old theater, directing and starring in a needless adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, talking to his superhero alter ego and moving things with his mind. Thanks to a freak accident on-set, Riggan hires his friend and acclaimed method actor Mike (Edward Norton) to star opposite him, simultaneously finding that their personalities do not clash very well. It doesn't help that Mike has a thing for Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who's struggling with demons of her own.

If the characters above sound familiar to you, that's because they should be: BIRDMAN; OR, THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE is a deliciously tongue-maybe-in-cheek character study of its actors, set against the background of humanity's quest to be relevant in today's social media-driven society. The film's message is stripped from the headlines, but only occasionally feels preachy; this is thanks in large part to the outstanding central performances. Keaton is nuanced and subtle, yet over-the-top when the situation calls for it. Norton chews his way through every scene; it's one of his best performances to date. Emma Stone got lost in the Oscar shuffle, but this is also one of her better performances; the same can be said of costars Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts, both of whom are exceptional.

And yet, what makes this film Best Picture-worthy is the fact that all of the components come together. The cinematography and music are perfectly pitched and astounding; if you've seen some avant garde films before, you've probably seen something like this...and yet, it still feels like you haven't. The script, too, is almost flawless; writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu has crafted a truly amazing film. Yes, the ending is a bit hackneyed, and I saw it coming from the first time I watched the trailer; but this film is truly more about the journey there. It's funny and emotional. You'll have trouble taking your eyes off the screen. BIRDMAN holds your attention, but it also lingers with you afterwards. One of the best films I've seen in a while, definitely one of the best newer films. For once, the Academy got something right, but that shouldn't determine whether you see the movie or not. Just watch it. You'll thank yourself for the experience.

Don't Stay Up Late: A Fear Street Novel
Don't Stay Up Late: A Fear Street Novel
by R. L. Stine
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.21

3.0 out of 5 stars Welcome back to the most appropriately-named street in America, February 21, 2015
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Lisa Brooks suffers terrible nightmares and hallucinations after her father she is in a car accident. To help her cope, her therapist gets her a babysitting job. However, Lisa's visions of a demonic beast begin to plague her even more often. And what's with her boyfriend Nate, coming by with scratches across his face? And Nate's ex-girlfriend desperate to tell Lisa something. And how about little Harry, who's mother admonishes Lisa very clearly: don't let him stay up too late...

This is a young adult novel by R. L. Stine. Either you know what you're getting or you don't. Personally, I never actually read the Fear Street series (although the first entry in the Ghosts of Fear Street series has haunted me for years). However, I was raised and reared on Goosebumps--first the books, then the show. I actually started rereading some of them last year. They still bring a nice tingle to the skin. DON'T STAY UP LATE fits the mold. Exactly. I mean, if you've read Stine before, you know what you're getting. He delivers basically the same formula every book: a lot of red herrings, a supernatural plot, a few harmless jump scares, a big showdown, and (although not always) a deliciously twisted ending. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

DON'T STAY UP LATE isn't essential reading. But I do think for younger readers (or nostalgic twenty-somethings like myself), this book will deliver a few chills. Does it stand up to the quality of YA fiction one can find on the market today? No, of course not. But if you expected it to, then you clearly don't know what you're getting. This is a B-grade horror tale featuring a relatable "every adolescent girl" narrator and some nasty little surprises that would maybe reach PG-13 (maybe). It's a quick read; it's a fun little diddy of a novel. If I may borrow from Stine's other monstrously successful catalogue: "reader beware, you're in for a scare."

The Dead Lands: A Novel
The Dead Lands: A Novel
by Benjamin Percy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.26

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Promising but heavily flawed., February 20, 2015
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In the Sanctuary (the remains of old St. Louis), life runs tightly under the thumb of the new Mayor. He keeps pressing the city's alchemist, Meriwether Lewis, to manufacture firearms. Simultaneously, guardian of the wall Mina Clark suspects that life might be better elsewhere, without the Mayor's police force busting everyone for minor infractions. This is when a strange rider appears at the gates, a rider who isn't welcomed by the Mayor, but bears a letter promising life outside the Sanctuary, on the distant coast...

I was tempted to give Benjamin Percy's THE DEAD LANDS only 1 star. However, I hate giving 1 star reviews; I've only given two in all the years I've been reviewing here. I can't remember one, but the other was for a video game guide that had completely wrong instructions in it--as in, it could've been written about a different game entirely. So you see what it takes to get a 1 star from me. I'll give THE DEAD LANDS this: it's ambitious, and it's full of promise, much like Percy's prior RED MOON. It's chock-full of characters and scenarios that would play out well over a series, that horror/fantasy readers could come to know and love in this twisted world they inhabit.

Unfortunately, Percy tries cramming everything into one book. The premise is actually kind of cool: a post-apocalyptic take on the Lewis & Clark expedition. I'm down for that. But, dear God, at least change their names. And Percy seems so set on world-building, he backs himself into a few corners. While the descriptions of how the world came to be this way are interesting, it's sort of like the narration you find at the beginning of terrible 80s and 90s sci-fi flicks; I'm looking at you, JUDGE DREDD. Remember in your creative writing class when the professor said, "show, don't tell"? Something like that. And Percy loses track of the details; the landscape outside the Sanctuary changes from dry and dusty (full of giant spiders and lots of sand) to wooded. The wall is said to be so towering, the people at the top look like ants from the ground...and yet a character falls from near the top and only breaks a couple bones. Details like this that just spiral away, in his attempt to be so thorough. And that's not even tackling the timeline between the end of the world and the novel's events, initially listed about a 150 years, in which case people would easily remember the way of life before, and sometimes hinted at much longer. (Also: why St. Louis? Look, I live just a couple hours away--go Cards!--so I'm not hating, but if there's gonna be a city that survives the apocalypse, it won't be St. Louis. And I can't see the Gateway City EVER having an "apothecary" at any point since the 1800s, end of the world or no. That word went way of the dinosaurs.)

And that's to say nothing of the characterization. Look, names aside, these are some intriguing characters; however, with so much focus given to world-building, they're thrown by the wayside. This type of novel thrives on characters; readers are only willing to throw away their disbelief if they have someone realistic they can embrace. Here, we have two-dimensional characters doing two-dimensional things, all of which are predictable. You know in a movie when a character's about to make a big revelation, and suddenly the bad guy bursts in telling everyone to leave the room? Yep, it's here.

Ultimately, THE DEAD LANDS falls victim to Percy's inability to control his prose. There's so much promise here that I'm going to keep checking out his books. Maybe not every single one, but at least until something comes together as a whole. All of that being said, there will be an audience for this book, who will shrug off its multitudes of imperfections and focus solely on the story. And yet, with so much narrative and world-building, even that crowd will be smaller than it should be.

Gardener's Son
Gardener's Son
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.14
82 used & new from $7.06

3.0 out of 5 stars McCarthy-lite is still worth every penny., February 16, 2015
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This review is from: Gardener's Son (Paperback)
For an author so renowned for his prose, Cormac McCarthy has put a lot of work into writing for the stage/screen. His scripts tend to be inferior to his novels, primarily because they lack his keen eye for narrative detail. THE GARDENER'S SON is no exception; in fact, it may be the weakest of his published scripts, though at least it has a discernible plot (unlike, say, THE SUNSET LIMITED, although plot is really besides the point in that one).

THE GARDENER'S SON follows a young mill worker after an accident that causes him to lose his leg, and the impact this has on his family, especially in regard to the wealthy mill owners. The injured son leaves and returns two years later for his mother's funeral, still burning inside and desperate to prove himself. I haven't seen the actual film of this, though reading the script I can't help but think that it might be rather...dull? McCarthy's script is far from boring; however, this is mostly because his way with words, even when limited to dialogue and minor exposition, is so impactful. I'd recommend THE GARDENER'S SON for McCarthy's more die-hard fans, who want to read everything he's written because there's so frustratingly little of it. But if you're more of a casual fan, then stick with his novels; if you really want to read a Cormac McCarthy screenplay, check out THE COUNSELOR, which is way better than the film version (which, for the record, I actually do enjoy).

Happy are the Happy
Happy are the Happy
by Yasmina Reza
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.99
74 used & new from $9.57

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars "I'd like to suffer for love.", February 4, 2015
This review is from: Happy are the Happy (Hardcover)
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In this novel disguised as a collection of vignettes, author Yasmina Reza (by way of translator John Cullen) offers us a brutally honest portrait of all the facets of love, from a couple who argue about cheese, to a doctor who fantasizes about encounters with young men in alleyways, to an elderly man distraught over what will become of his ashes. These are short, loosely conjoined chapters each told with a different point of view; sometimes humorous, sometimes melodramatic, but always emotionally true.

HAPPY ARE THE HAPPY, by its very nature, feels fragmented. Some of the chapters stand on their own, and as such you can view this as a collection; but most need the others to prop them up, and this is where things become tricky. Reza's writing is solid and lyrical; however, as each vignette is told as basically one paragraph, the pages get crowded. I know this may just be a stylistic bias on my part, but the lack of white space leaves little room for pause. Now, in some books that may not be such a bad thing; but Reza presents so much emotion in these few pages, the reader actually needs to pause for breath every now and then. HAPPY ARE THE HAPPY is intriguing, and I do recommend the experience. It didn't pay off fully for me, but with a book like this, you put into it what you bring with you.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 25, 2015 7:16 PM PST

John Wick [Blu-ray]
John Wick [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Keanu Reeves
Price: $19.96
32 used & new from $14.96

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "This life follows you.", February 3, 2015
This review is from: John Wick [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
Rule of thumb: don't mess with a man's dog. Just don't.

Once upon a time, John Wick was the most feared assassin of his day. He was, as his former employer described him, the man you sent to kill the Bogeyman. Then John fell in love and retired...only for his wife to die of illness and leave him a dog. Then not long after her death, a group of men break into John's house, steal his car, and kill his dog. Turns out, the leader is the son of John's former employer. And he doesn't know the bloody mess he's just gotten himself into.

Action movies tend to either take themselves too seriously, or be so utterly ridiculous as to be laughable (and not in a good way). Every now and then, however, an action film comes along that hits all of the right notes. It manages to be both bada** and legitimately good. JOHN WICK is such a film. It's anchored by Keanu Reeves's titular performance. Reeves is everything he needs to be and nothing more; he's witty when it's called for, he's passionate and brutal when that's necessary. Michael Nyqvist, as John's nemesis, gives his best English-language performance to date. Supporting roles are fleshed out by character actors you'll know: Dean Winters, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, David Patrick Kelly, and especially Willem Dafoe as John's questionable "friend."

The script, by Derek Kolstad, is solid; there are a few one-liners, but not in the cheesy way action films generally use such jokes. The humor actually stems from events, which means in spots, this is a very serious movie, while at other times it's actually quite funny. The violence and humor are both organic. This is a brutal tale about brutal people; but even brutal people crack a smile every now and then. It helps JOHN WICK stand out in its genre: an action film that people who love quality movies can actually appreciate. That said, this is still just a great, brutal revenge flick, with stylized (thought not overly extravagant) fight sequences, some awesome gunplay, a femme fatale, and an antihero who isn't hard to root for. I mean, he's avenging a puppy. Surely a few dozen Russian gangsters are a small price to pay for closure.

Within These Walls
Within These Walls
by Ania Ahlborn
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Death is the beginning of eternity. Life is merely temporary.", February 3, 2015
This review is from: Within These Walls (Paperback)
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Lucas Graham is a washed up true crime writer facing a divorce and the estrangement of his teenage daughter. When he gets a letter from notorious cult leader Jeffrey Halcomb, Graham sees it as his golden ticket. In 1983, Halcomb was the leader of a group of confused youths (think Charles Manson) who orchestrated a horrific, ritualistic murder. Halcomb was the only survivor, and has been locked up ever since. He's never told a soul about his motives...until now. The only condition: Graham move across the country and take up residence in the very house where the crimes were committed. Graham doesn't think twice: he carts his daughter to Pier Pointe, Washington, only to have Halcomb back out at the last minute. But that's merely the beginning. For there are strange goings-on in this house, and Halcomb's promises of eternity begin to see less fantastical and more terrifyingly plausible. And Graham's daughter may just be his next intended victim.

This is the third novel I've read by Ania Ahlborn, and despite the problems I've had with each of them, I keep coming back. Why? Very simple: she's relentless. What problems she has with prose and dialogue (and there are lots) is almost made up for with her tenacity. When you dig into an Ahlborn horror novel, you know things aren't going to be sunshine and rainbows at the end. She's brutal and fearless, and WITHIN THESE WALLS--her most ambitious book to date--moves along briskly.

Alas, she falls victim to several horror tropes: shady character motivation; a teenager (usually a girl) who basically ruins it for everyone; stilted, loaded dialogue; and victims who won't do the sane thing and just get out of the damn house. She tries to cover up the latter especially, but it really comes down to believability...and, frankly, I do not believe her. However, notice those 3 stars. WITHIN THESE WALLS delivers in areas a lot of horror novels don't. It has a solid sense of atmosphere, and a memorable (and appropriate, which is very important) ending. It could've been cut down a lot (the flashbacks are filler but entertaining; the police reports are just straight filler), and her characters could've been drawn more realistically. But if you want chills, you'll find them here. A nice blend of cult/supernatural horror, that'll make you think twice before staring into that shadowy corner of your bedroom.

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