Monthly Archives

August 2013

In Other Affairs

night filmJust wanted to peek in on this Saturday to share a couple of things. I wrote about Marisha Pessl’s Night Film over at Criminal Element, and included some choice lines from the book, which I also featured as my selection for the August Nerdy Special List.

I also wanted to mention that I got a really nice surprise yesterday, when Booklist featured Pop Culture Nerd as its Web Crush of the Week. I don’t think anyone has ever had a crush on me before, so I’m not sure if I now have to take Booklist to the prom, or ask it to be my Valentine, but I’m tickled.

Many days I’m certain I’m just sitting here mumbling to myself, so if you’re out there reading and listening, I thank you, and think you’re pretty neat, too.

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Movie Review: THE GRANDMASTER

tony leung grandmasterLast week, I attended a screening of Wong Kar-wai’s latest film, The Grandmaster (Aug. 23, limited release), starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai as Ip Man, who’s most well known for popularizing Wing Chun and training Bruce Lee.

Leung showed up after the screening to answer questions, and I’ll include some of the highlights after the review.

The movie opens with a dramatic fight scene at night in the street in the rain, during which Ip takes on many men. I don’t have to tell you the outcome, do I?

Ip then takes on a challenge by Gong Yutian, a grandmaster from northern China, who thinks the South should have its own grandmaster. Ip also ends up fighting the grandmaster’s beautiful daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), and an attraction develops, though Ip is married with children.

The story follows Ip through the late 1930s and Japanese occupation of Foshan, and Ip’s eventual exile in Hong Kong, where he starts teaching Wing Chun. The film also shows how Gong Er won back her family’s legacy, after her father’s protegé, Ma San, betrays Gong Yutian.

I’m still not sure what to think of this movie overall, because its parts are more than its sum. (Leung said this version is about 10 minutes shorter than the one released in China.) The acting is fine, with Leung doing his charismatic thing, and Zhang infusing every frame she’s in with grace and fire under the surface stoicism. The actress doesn’t have to move a facial muscle when she can convey so much with her eyes. And when she fights, her lithe frame belies her strength.

The cinematography is lush, and Wong’s trademark melancholy and atmospheric shots are present, with longing, In the Mood for Love-type looks between Zhang and Leung. But perhaps there are too many shots in which the director lingers on something, as if determined to impress us with its beauty.

The action scenes are fraught with tension and impressively staged, but often we’re not allowed to see the whole spectacle. Wong keeps cutting to close-ups of feet shuffling along the ground, or rainwater sliding off the brim of a hat in slo-mo, or Ip and Gong Er’s faces coming within kissing distance while fighting. I wanted to see the entirety of the fights, but would only get bits and pieces.

zhang-ziyi-the-grandmasterThe movie’s narrative also jumps around a bit. There’s an extended section when Ip disappears so we can see how Gong Er restores her family’s honor. No disrespect to Leung at all, but I didn’t miss Ip during these scenes. When Zhang gets that determined look on her face, I was just waiting for the sneering Ma San to get his butt kicked.

I’d recommend the movie because of the magnetic leads, and a fantastic fight scene on a train platform while a train is moving through it, but it’s not quite a fast-paced action movie, or a relationship drama, or a biopic. So it leaves us with a feeling it’s neither here nor there, like a man in exile.

Nerd verdict: Grand style, medium impact 

Tony LeungDuring the post-screening Q&A, Leung was witty and down to earth. Below are highlights from the conversation:

  • Leung knew no martial arts whatsoever, and started learning it for this movie, at the age of 47. He trained with one of Ip Man’s students.
  • He practiced kung fu for 3-4 years, starting about a year before production and continuing until the end of the job.
  • He read books about Bruce Lee and Lee’s knowledge of kung fu, and realized this form of martial arts was not just a way to train your body, but also to train your mind and a way of life. Leung discovered that Lee was more than an incredible martial artist; he was a great philosopher as well.
  • Leung broke his arm twice, and his first fight scene back after his arm healed was the opening fight sequence, in which he took on 15 guys, the last opponent being a real-life MMA champion (the others were stuntmen).
  • The fight scene in the freezing rain—the most difficult of his acting career—took 40 overnights to film, during which he was often sick. He finished it in 10 days at first, but then Wong decided he wanted Ip to wear a white hat during the sequence instead of a black one, and it took 30 more nights to reshoot. Below, in the video clip I recorded, he talks a little about the physical toll this took on him:

Photos: The Weinstein Company

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Gunpoint Review: THE HANGING by Lotte and Soren Hammer

It’s time for another Gunpoint Review, when I force my friend Lauren into reviewing something for me, using the following template. She may grumble about the free labor, but her posts are hugely popular, and I may have to make her do more around here than just reviews.—PCN 

************

by Lauren O’Brien

the hanging coverBook Title: The Hanging

Author: Lotte and Soren Hammer

Length: 304 pages (of tiny print; probably 388 pages in mere-mortal print)

Genre: Crime Fiction/Thriller

Synopsis:

Two children arrive at school following a holiday, and discover the bodies of five men hanging in the gymnasium. Not just hung, but hung meticulously in a mathematical way, and the corpses are naked and mutilated.

Danish detective Konrad Simonsen and his team attempt to discover the whos and whys of the crime without much help from the public, which isn’t so keen on punishing whoever might be responsible for killing five men who might not have been the best of citizens. Without cooperating witnesses, Simonsen and the gang are forced to come up with some new ways to bring the culprit (or maybe culprits) to justice.

Your thoughts in five sentences or fewer:

I was sucked in immediately by this book, originally published in Denmark and written by a brother-and-sister team. The story is intriguing, well paced, and multifaceted. What starts as a police procedural turns into something more complex, and addresses such social issues as the role of media, vigilantism, and certain laws in Denmark as contrasted with ones in other countries.

Characters are what win the day for me, and they did here, despite the large number of them and the fact the authors barely scratched their surface. I felt as if I knew these characters, but it was apparent I knew only the tips of very complex icebergs.  I like having something left of characters to discover and wonder about, and this book left me with plenty of questions, in a good, I-want-to-read-more way.

Before I was even halfway through, I asked PCN if she knew whether this is the first book in a series, and was glad to find out it is. I’ll definitely be back for the next installment.

The only “negatives” I can come up with are that 1) the book may be a bit gruesome in its details for some, and 2) the small print made me feel really old and decrepit. If you are bothered by somewhat detailed descriptions of violent crimes, I would encourage you to gloss over them rather than avoid the book. If small print is a deterrent, try the eBook instead.

Verdict: One of my favorites thus far this year.

Buy it from Amazon | IndieBound

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The Winners of the 2013 Stalker Awards Are…

awardfinalWith roughly 1,900 hits, this year’s Stalker Awards got twice the votes as last year’s. This was no doubt because so many of you helped spread the word about voting. I thank you profusely for it. You made it extra fun for me, and once again confirmed that the crime fiction community has many passionate fans and authors.

Congratulations to all the winners! (Click here for the list of nominees.)

Novel You Shoved Most Often at Others

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Lead Character You Most Want as Your Friend

Elvis Cole (Taken by Robert Crais)

Most Scene-Stealing Supporting Character

Jon Stone (Taken by Robert Crais)

Most Throat-Grabbing Opening Sentence

“I’d come five years and two thousand miles to stand in the rain while they prepared my brother for his own murder.” (The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli)

Most Memorable Dialogue

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson

Catchiest Title

Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew McBride

dare me coverMost Eye-Popping Cover

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Favorite Author on Social Media

Megan Abbott

Most Criminally Underrated Author

Terrence P. McCauley

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Movie Review: AUSTENLAND

Russell and Feild

Russell and Feild

When I received the invitation to a screening of Austenland (limited release, Aug. 16), I didn’t know much about it, other than it’s a comedy starring Keri Russell as a Jane Austen super fan who goes to an “immersive Austen experience.” I’ve never read Austen, but have enjoyed several of the movie adaptations from her work, and I’m a Russell fan. I’d also read this movie got great reviews after screening at Sundance earlier this year.

A few minutes into the film, based on the novel by Shannon Hale, imagine my joy when Jennifer Coolidge shows up, she of the insane improv (there are no opening credits so I squealed when I saw her). She plays another American who’s traveling to Austenland, and meets Jane (Russell’s character) at the airport when they arrive in England. Minutes later, Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords, appears as a driver to take them to their destination. I knew I was gonna have a good time.

The premise is that Jane is obsessed with all things Austen, especially Mr. Darcy, to the point it prevents her from being in a real relationship. She decides to spend her life savings on Austenland, a retreat with participants in full costume and actors playing different characters, to see if she can find her own Mr. Darcy. Everyone would observe 18th-century manners, with the experience ending in a ball.

It may sound genteel, but with Coolidge on the scene, you know there’s going to be crazy stuff. Sure enough, she throws out one wacky line after another, and one had me and my husband laughing for long after the scene was over.

Russell is luminous, and I don’t buy for one second that only gross or awkward men hit on her. I mean, look at her. Jane buys the economy “copper package” and therefore gets the plain gowns, as opposed to the more opulent ones given to the ladies who pay for more expensive packages. But the unadorned dresses do nothing to hide her natural radiance.

The supporting cast is all in on the fun, from Battlestar Galactica‘s James Callis as the actor hired to woo Coolidge’s character during the retreat, to Ricky Whittle as a soap actor playing a dashing ship captain who finds every excuse to rip off his shirt, and Georgia King, as another Austen fan who takes Regency-era mannerisms a bit too far.

The discovery for me, though, was JJ Feild as Mr. Nobley, the Darcy-ish character. He does that slow burn from haughty to besotted effectively, making me dash home and look him up on IMDb to see what else he’s done. Keep your eye on this one.

******

photo-20After the screening, there was a Q&A with director/screenwriter Jerusha Hess (cowriter of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre) and producer Stephenie Meyer. Yes, the Stephenie Meyer who wrote the Twilight books. This is Hess’s first film as director, and Meyer’s first film produced by her new company, Fickle Fish.

Both women were funny, smart, and self-deprecating, and below are a few interesting things I remember from the discussion. If it seems focused on Meyer and Twilight, that’s because the moderator spent a lot of time on that before getting to Austenland.

  • Asked why Hess chose to adapt this book and direct this movie, she said she wanted to get away from gonads. She just did a movie with gonads in jars, she still has them, and they’re leaking. (No, she did not explain why or where.)
  • Hess said Coolidge improvised a huge percentage of her lines, which made everyone very competitive in trying to one-up each other with their own improv (except Russell, who liked to stick to her scripted lines).
  • Meyer said while Paramount still had the option for the Twilight movies, they had odd ideas, including Bella packing heat, a vampire boat chase, and other elements that turned it into kind of a Vampire CSI. (Summit eventually made the movies.)
  • Meyer said she’s a wimp about rejection, and sent out only 15 queries. If all 15 had resulted in rejections, she would’ve been done. Turned out, 9 were rejections, 4 didn’t reply, and 1 person showed interest.
  • Asked if she’d ever consider writing a script, Meyer said, “I doubt I can write 120 pages and be done. I mean, I can write 120 pages and be like, ‘Chapter 2.'”
  • Asked how she felt about E.L. James achieving great success with Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as Twilight fan fiction, Meyer said she hasn’t read the trilogy, but supports fan fiction, thinks it’s great if someone’s work can inspire others to write, as long as they eventually change it enough to make the work their own.
  • Someone in the audience said it’s a great time to be female in the movie industry, with the success of movies like Bridesmaids. Meyer immediately said it’s also a difficult time, because she read that women movie reviewers are getting rarer. It concerns her that the only critics seeing movies someday might be people who won’t understand the world from the female point of view at all (that disturbs me, too).

Check out the trailer below, and see the movie if you want to laugh and swoon!

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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Stalker Award Nominees 2013

awardfinalThree months ago, I asked for nominations for the third annual Stalker Awards, submitted by crime-fiction fans at large. The awards are given out to novels and authors they’re obsessed with, but you know, in a legal way.

I finally had a chance to tally the results. Below are this year’s nominees. Voting is now open until next Tuesday, August 20, 9 p.m. PST.

Thank you for taking time to submit nominations. Hope you see some of your favorites on the list. Congrats to all the nominees!

**Voting is now closed. Thanks for stopping by!**

[SURVEYS 3]

Nominated Covers

dare me cover prague fatale femme cover

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Right to Refuse Service?

O, The Oprah Magazine, Hosts A Special Advance Screening Of "Lee Daniels' The Butler" At The Hearst Tower - ArrivalsWhen I saw this article yesterday about Oprah being discriminated against in a Swiss shop, at first it was just something I glanced at…until I got to the store owner’s response. It touched a nerve and brought back memories of something that happened to me in Germany years ago.

Oprah’s experience was in Zurich, where a shop assistant apparently refused to show her a handbag and said it was “too expensive.” Too expensive. For Oprah.

Oprah told Entertainment Tonight the clerk was racist. The owner said the incident was simply a misunderstanding, because “who wouldn’t want to sell a purse for 35,000 francs?”

I don’t know what happened in Oprah’s situation, so I’ll share something that happened to me. I was making a movie in Berlin, and on a day off, I went to a stationery shop to see if I could pick up some nice writing paper and cards so I could write home. This was before we all had e-mail, and costs for international calls were prohibitive.

When I entered the store, I noticed the woman behind the counter looked at me intensely, in a less-than-friendly way. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me; that could’ve been her default face.

While I perused some stationery, the woman came up next to me and started straightening things on the shelf. Which was weird, because everything was already perfectly straight. Then when I put down a blank journal I’d been looking at, making sure I put it back exactly where I took it from, she picked it up and made a big show of putting it back “correctly”…right where and how I’d just placed it.

She repeated this a few times, “straightening” items I looked at as soon as I put them down, even though I replaced them as I found them. It was as if she was removing evidence that I’d touched those things.

After a while, she dropped all pretense of having a reason to stand next to me, and proceeded to follow me around the store, invading my space, openly glaring at me. She made me so uncomfortable, I finally left.

As soon as I stepped outside, she snatched the door and shut it quickly, like when you’re trying to keep flies out. She stood on the other side of the glass door and looked at me until I walked away.

It didn’t hit me until I was outside that I’d had a racist encounter. I don’t go around thinking people are racist, and it’s definitely not the first assumption I make when someone is unpleasant to me.

But as I stood there on the sidewalk, stunned, wondering what happened, I didn’t know how else to explain this incident. I was dressed neatly like everyone else in the store (but was the only minority), I did nothing disruptive, and never said one word to the store clerk.

It seemed she decided the moment I entered, just by looking at me, that I was the wrong kind of clientele for her shop, and it wasn’t even an upscale shop. It was an ordinary shop, like a Hallmark or Papyrus. At least Oprah was denied a really expensive bag. I was deemed not good enough for a ten-euro box of writing paper. And I did not misunderstand that.

[I want to be clear that I’m not saying all Germans are racist. I spent five weeks there, the crew was extremely nice, and I had a great time overall.]

Oprah ended up getting an apology from the Swiss tourism board. I don’t want an apology, or pity. I just want people to stop being rude to others for no good reason at all.

Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images

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Book Review: THE NEVER LIST by Koethi Zan

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

the never listThe title of Koethi Zan’s The Never List refers to what Sarah and her best friend Jennifer kept as a reminder of things they should always avoid doing, after they survived a car crash at an early age. The girls became vigilant about making sure they stayed safe, obsessing over statistics and percentages of their getting injured or killed in different ways.

But numbers couldn’t save them from being kidnapped and imprisoned in a sadist’s basement for years with two other women. Sarah eventually helped them escape, but Jennifer never made it out, her body never found. The story opens ten years later, when their tormentor is up for parole. Sarah, now agoraphobic, is determined to keep him locked up and to reclaim her own life by confronting her fears and finding out what happened to Jennifer.

The novel’s eerily prescient echoes of the Ariel Castro case add to the gut-wrenching effect of the victims’ ordeal. Thankfully, Zan doesn’t focus on the torture, but more on the women’s spirit, survival instincts and different methods of coping after reentering society.

The novel’s weakest aspect is its dialogue. Characters address each other by name too much in conversation, talk in long monologues toward the end to reveal all their secrets, and everyone says “after all” too often. But the pacing is tight, the plot both horrific and compassionate toward the women, so it might warrant a place on lists of summer books to read.

Nerd verdict: Flawed, frustrating, but fast read

Amazon | IndieBound

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Nerdy Special List August 2013

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking, It’s August already?? I think I fell into a time machine and accidentally hit the fast-forward button.

Well, summer might be wrapping up for those going back to school, but you can still squeeze in a few more summer reads before you have to crack open those textbooks. Here’s what my blogger pals and I found outstanding among August releases.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz (St. Martin’s, August 20)

tell no liesGregg Hurwitz continues to amaze me as he tops himself year after year with incredible thrillers. His style is tight and his pacing fast, yet he still develops rich characters and wonderful worlds. That has never been as true as with his latest. A psychologist finds himself in a life-threatening race to publicly admit his lie. The only problem is, he doesn’t know what his lie is.

Hurwitz delves into his characters physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Meanwhile, he’s covertly developing San Francisco as a parallel character. The intricacy of this novel is astounding. Hurwitz’s attention to detail and vivid imagery add icing to an already delectable cake, so go ahead and dig in!

This is Hurwitz’s 13th novel and I’d say there’s nothing unlucky about this book! (Small side note: As fabulous as this book is, I wish the publisher could have come up with a cover that’s a little less cliche. Tell No Lies is in a league of its own, don’t be fooled by this overused cover image.)

Amazon | IndieBound

From Danielle at There’s a Book:

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam by Tracey Corderoy, Illustrated by Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow/Candlewick Press, August 6)

Shifty McGifty and Slippery SamThis fun picture book tells the tale of two bad dogs who happen to be quite bad at being bad. Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam want to be the best dog robbers ever, but instead, robbery after robbery goes terribly wrong. When they decide on their final robbery—stealing from the dogs next door—they decide an elaborate tea party is the only way to lure their neighbors out long enough to commit the crime. Of course things go poorly, and in a strange turn of events, these two dogs discover they’re much better bakers than burglars.
Such a fun and silly story, one that both my kiddos loved. Also one with a great message about trying different things in order to find out what you’re really great at. Now to get everyone to stop wanting to eat cupcakes all the time!AmazonIndieBound

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet (Crown, August 6)

save yourself coverKelly Braffet’s third novel is a gritty, atmospheric thriller. Patrick Cusimano’s life is not the way anyone would want their life to be. His father, an alcoholic, finally went too far, hitting and killing a little boy—then fleeing the scene of the crime. He returns to the home he shares with his two sons. Older brother Mike wants to sweep the incident under the rug. Patrick knows that is impossible and calls the police, turning in his dad. He waits 19 hours to do so, earning the scorn of Rachetsburg, PA.

To make matters worse, Caro, Mike’s troubled girlfriend, takes their relationship far beyond platonic, straight to sexual. On the opposite end of the spectrum, but equally scorned, are Layla and Verna Elshere. Complications ensue as their lives intertwine in unexpected ways. Save Yourself is a compelling meditation on grief and growing up in the shadow of your father’s sins. If you enjoy dark fiction with damaged but human characters, do yourself a favor and read this novel, one of my favorite releases this summer.

Amazon | IndieBound

From PCN:

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House, August 20)

night filmAfter reading 8 unsatisfying books in a row, I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever find another good book, one I could fall in love with and take home to meet the family. And then I picked up Night Film.

Ashley Cordova, the daughter of reclusive, cult film director Stanislav Cordova, is found dead at the age of 24, an apparent suicide. Investigative journalist Scott McGrath is determined to discover why Ashley jumped to her death, or if she jumped at all. McGrath once publicly declared that the director spreads evil through his film, comparing Cordova to Charles Manson and Jim Jones. Cordova sued him for slander and McGrath’s career has never recovered. The journalist thinks the truth about Ashley’s death could vindicate him, but he slowly finds himself sucked into Cordova’s cinematic world of dark magic and horror.

This 600-page tome is something to be experienced, not just read. It comes with cross-media elements, so that when McGrath is doing research on a website, for example, we see the actual web pages and its contents. There are pictures of key characters, and images that serve as clues to the Cordovas’ story. The experience is truth- and mind-bending, unsettling and entirely gripping. Pessl’s prose contains equal measures of dread and dry humor, and she proves the success of her debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was no fluke.

Amazon | IndieBound

What are you looking forward to reading this month? (Check out past lists here.)

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