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Book Review: THE SECRET KEEPER by Kate Morton

Kate Morton is one of the few authors I think can get away with writing fat, 500-page novels because she fills up those pages with a lot of story. I was a bit surprised, then, to find The Secret Keeper overly long, and not as gripping as it could be if it were tighter.

The story moves back and forth between 2011 and 1941 in England, after an initial scene in the ’60s that sets up the mystery. Sixteen-year-old Laurel witnesses her mother, Dorothy, do something horrific to a stranger and then lie to the police about it. This is especially shocking since Dorothy is a kind, decent woman by all accounts.

Fifty years later, Dorothy is dying and Laurel wants to know the truth behind what she saw and why her mother did it. Laurel digs into Dorothy’s past via letters and books and a photo, and arrives at a startling discovery.

Morton is skilled at developing her characters, and several of them here are memorable, Jimmy and Vivien in particular. Dorothy is interesting for her mercurial qualities—she seems to transform from good girl to reprehensible woman to loving mother. She made me consider how much I’d be willing to forgive someone for a destructive mistake if that person is truly remorseful and manages to turn her life around. And what if that person were my mother?

At times, though, the author goes into too much detail about too many characters, some of whom are tangential, such as Laurel’s sisters. They don’t really contribute to the story because they don’t know anything about The Event (Laurel was the sole witness besides her brother, who was only a baby) so I didn’t need to learn about their personality quirks or wonder whether one had gotten plastic surgery.

There’s also a section going way back to 1929 Australia that relays the background of Vivien, someone who knew Dorothy in 1941. Vivien’s story is tragic, but I think it could’ve been somewhat synopsized instead of being shown in detail. Jimmy, another friend of Dorothy’s from the ’40s, also had a sad past, but Morton managed to convey it succinctly without having to devote a whole chapter to his childhood.

Keeper is most effective when focusing on the story between Laurel and her mother, and the plot line involving Jimmy and Vivien and Dorothy. It loses momentum when it digresses, and there’s a revelation that doesn’t quite explain what the stranger says to Dorothy in the opening scene, but it’s still worth checking out for Morton completists.

Nerd verdict: Secret could’ve been kept tighter

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Movie Reviews: PITCH PERFECT and BUTTER

This Friday, Oct. 5, Pitch Perfect will open wide, and Butter will be in limited release and available as VOD. They both feature highly competitive people attempting to win a title, and both made me laugh quite a few times.

Butter

I saw Butter last year at the AFI Fest (which runs Nov. 1-8 this year), where a beautiful, pregnant Jennifer Garner introduced the film. She plays a politically ambitious woman determined to win a butter-carving competition against a black child prodigy. The movie’s release was apparently held until now to take advantage of the election season, because Garner’s Laura Pickler has shades of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin (the actress has said in interviews that’s not intentional).

Garner’s performance is unlike her others that I’ve seen. The actress commits to the character’s uptight, ruthless nature, saying ridiculous things with a straight face, and playing dirty against a little girl—an orphan, no less. It’s clear Garner had lots of fun in the role. Ty Burrell and Olivia Wilde, as a bicycle-riding stripper, also got laughs, as well as Hugh Jackman as a moronic car salesman. Newcomer Yara Shahidi is the heart of the film as the child, Destiny, who at one point carves something surprisingly poignant.

Nerd verdict: Salty and sweet Butter


Pitch Perfect

Based on Mitch Rapkin’s nonfiction book of the same name, this fictional look inside the cutthroat world of collegiate a capella competitions has “sleeper hit” written all over it. The story follows the Barden Bellas, an all-girls group, as they try to redeem themselves at the finals in Lincoln Center a year after a disastrous performance there. The ragtag group contains members of dubious talent, including one who has an inaudible speaking voice, one unwilling to go along with the choreographed routines, and another who calls herself “Fat Amy” and “aca-awesome.”

You may have seen Rebel Wilson in Bridesmaids, but you may not have remembered her name. I have a feeling everyone will soon know it because she takes control of Pitch Perfect as Fat Amy and doesn’t let go. Her confidence cannot be denied. Anna Kendrick impresses as Beca, an alt-girl who just wants to go to L.A. and produce music. Beca’s pseudo-sullenness can’t disguise Kendrick’s natural charm, and she can really sing.

The musical performances are rousing, director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) keeps things moving at a nice rhythm, and as soon as John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who also produced) show up as commentators, you’ll probably start chuckling just anticipating the inappropriate things they’ll say. They don’t disappoint.

Nerd verdict: Perfectly entertaining

Photos: Butter/The Weinstein Co., Pitch Perfect/Universal

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Mini Reviews of LAST RESORT, THE MINDY PROJECT, and BEN & KATE

The new shows are coming, the new shows are coming! This year, networks made several pilots available online (some have been pulled) before their premieres, which is great since I’m usually too impatient to wait for all the new series to debut. Following are a few quick thoughts of three I’ve watched.

Braugher, Speedman, Patrick. Photo: ABC/Mario Perez

Last Resort (ABC, Thursdays, 8 p.m., premieres Sept. 27)

This new series from Shawn Ryan (who also created The Shield) is easily the best of the five pilots I’ve seen. The crew of a submarine called the U.S.S. Colorado receives a suspicious order to fire nuclear missiles at Pakistan, and when Captain Chaplin (Andre Braugher) questions its validity, he’s removed from his position and First Officer Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) assumes control of the sub. There are also some Navy SEALs on board, and an admiral’s daughter (named Shepard; ABC regulations must dictate a Shephard/Shepherd/Shepard on every show), and Robert Patrick, whom I’m always glad to see. I don’t want to reveal too much plot because there are several twists, but the pilot plays like a high-budget, high-tension one-hour feature, and was helmed by Martin Campbell, who directed Casino Royale.

Nerd verdict: Nerve-wracking Resort

See it now: Download it for free from iTunes

 

In back: Jarman, Anna Camp, Messina, Kaling, Ed Weeks, Amanda Setton, Stephen Tobolowsky. In front: Ike Barinholtz.Photo: FOX

The Mindy Project (FOX, Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m., premieres Sept. 25)

I really wanted to like this, but the pilot didn’t provide as many laughs as it could have. Mindy Kaling plays OB-GYN Mindy Lahiri, who believes in romantic-comedy happy endings, which is partly responsible for her making bad decisions in her love life. The character is likable, but it seems as if Kaling has taken some of the edge out of her comedy now that she’s a sitcom lead instead of a kooky supporting character. Lahiri is far from being cookie-cutter, and Kaling does slip in some un-PC jokes, but the character isn’t crazy-funny like Kelly was on the The Office. Chris Messina, as a colleague whose constant hostility toward Mindy might actually be attraction, is interesting to me for the first time; I’ve always found him completely forgettable in movies like Julie & Julia and Vicky Christina Barcelona. Also engaging is Zoe Jarman as Betsy, Mindy’s assistant. She’s just weird enough for me to want to see more of her.

Nerd verdict: This Project needs work

 

Kellum, Faxon, Jones, Johnson, Punch. Photo: FOX

Ben & Kate (FOX, Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., premieres Sept. 25)

There’s nothing really wrong with this sitcom; it just wasn’t special enough to make me want to immediately give it a season pass on my DVR. Nat Faxon plays Ben, a dreamer who moves in with his sister Kate (Dakota Johnson) and her five-year-old kid (Maggie Jones) because he can’t seem to hold down a job. Kate works at a bar and wants to get back into the dating game. In the pilot, Ben enlists Kate and his friends to help him stop the wedding of an ex-girlfriend. As with The Mindy Project, the most interesting characters seem to be the supporting ones. Echo Kellum induces chuckles as Ben’s pal Tommy, who is hopelessly in love with Kate. And anytime Lucy Punch shows up, you know things are going to get nutty, as they do here whenever she’s on screen as Kate’s randy coworker, BJ (yes, really).

Nerd verdict: Might be funnier as Tommy & BJ

Which new series or series return are you most looking forward to?


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Book Review: CLAWBACK by Mike Cooper

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

When Wall Street’s worst-performing financiers start dying in suspicious ways, financial “consultant” Silas Cade—who happens to be a black ops vet—is hired by an investment banker to investigate. Are angry investors who lost their life savings targeting money managers? Clara Dawson, a fledgling financial blogger looking for a big scoop, wangles her way into Cade’s investigation and soon gets caught up in the violence. Cade’s role expands to protect her, as he discovers that greed has no boundaries, not even murder.

“Clawback” is a term used in the financial industry to describe cases in which a firm reclaims payouts that it’s already made—or money managers agree to return dividends they’ve already received—to cover subsequent losses. Cade demonstrates the concept on one of his clients’ investment bankers early in the proceedings. (Mike Cooper is a pseudonym for a former financial executive, who’s also been published as a thriller writer under a different name.) Even with Cooper’s explanations, some of the intricacies involved in investment strategies went right over my head, but the action was tight enough to keep me turning the pages. And there’s humor in the scenario of nervous bankers packing heat to defend themselves, which doesn’t bode well when they all get together for a fancy event.

Cade is a likable character with a wry worldview, though he’s a little slow in figuring out some of Clara’s motives and those of the people doing the—and making a—killing. Perhaps, though, this makes him more accessible than an infallible hero. The ending suggests he might have something in common with Jack Reacher and, like that character, Cade may not be such a loner when readers follow him to his next adventure.

Nerd verdict: An easy sell even for financial laymen

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore

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Movie Discussion: WANDERLUST

My day was a little stressy and funky so by the time I got to the Wanderlust screening, I was ready to laugh. And, boy, did I. The movie, directed by David Wain, is about married couple George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), who find themselves homeless after George loses his job. On their way to Atlanta to stay with George’s brother, Rick (Ken Marino), they stop at a commune named Elysium that’s full of hippies, free love, and vegan dining. George is just looking for a temporary roof over their heads, but Linda may have other plans. The experience takes them out of their comfort zones, but in the end helps them find where they’re supposed to be.

I’m being intentionally vague with the synopsis because I don’t want to spoil any of the outrageous surprises. Instead, I’ll just post the discussion I had after the screening with my regular contributor, Eric Edwards.

Eric Edwards: It’s like the filmmakers drew a line, then decided to go a hundred miles beyond that line.

Pop Culture Nerd: No, it’s more like “What’s a line? We’ve never heard of such a thing.” This movie is definitely not appropriate for young people. It’s barely appropriate for adults.

EE: But I laughed, and that’s rare for me these days. A lot of the humor I’ve been seeing in movies lately is just cringe-inducing. The best comedy is grounded in truth, and I could see how this could happen, especially with George’s sudden unemployment, the couple’s feelings of uncertainty and questioning of everything.

From L: Lauren Ambrose, Rodney Peele, Aniston, Rudd, Justin Theroux, Malin Akerman, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Kathryn Hahn

PCN: You’re right, but that’s where reality stops. The characters at Elysium and some of the situations are pure zaniness and insanity. I haven’t laughed that hard at the movies in a long time. This is a good time to mention that when people go see this, they should be tolerant of their fellow moviegoers being loud. There were lots of gasping and guffaws and “Oh my gosh!”es all around. I might have seen flying nachos from the guy next to me.

EE: I think some of those guffaws came from me, and there was a lady behind me with a laugh that could only be described as “avant-garde.”

PCN: I’m so glad Paul Rudd finally gets another chance to be funny. Some of his recent movies have stuck him in the straight-man role—Dinner for Schmucks, anyone?—which is a waste of his talents. Here, we get to see him react to the hippies and slowly come undone. Many of the biggest laughs came from just the look on his face.

EE: I’m a fan of Rudd’s so of course I liked him in this, but this is the first I’ve liked Aniston in a very long time. Maybe since Friends.

PCN: Was it the material that made you like her? What was she doing that was different for you?

EE: I think Rudd both grounded her and pushed her to new levels.

PCN: She had a good script (by Wain and Marino), and was surrounded by so many strong supporting actors that she seemed relaxed. She didn’t have to try so hard to wring comedy out of crap. She also made a poncho look sexy. And useful.

Marino and Watkins

EE: From the supporting cast, Michaela Watkins stood out for me as George’s sister-in-law. She hilariously downplayed her character’s raging unhappiness. It was as though she wanted to pull out a gun or knife at any second.

PCN: If she could rouse from her drug- and alcohol-induced stupor, that is.

EE: Exactly.

PCN: She was funny because she made a lot of her mumbly lines sound like second thoughts or if she just improvised them. How about Joe Lo Truglio as the wannabe novelist?

EE: I found him annoying after a while. There are lots of other actors who could have done that part.

PCN: Um, I don’t know if many actors would’ve been willing to go as far as what that role demanded. (Readers, this will be clear to you, for better or worse, when you see the movie.)

EE: They kept pushing that one joke about his novel’s plot twist and it just wasn’t funny anymore after a while. It was probably the only weak link for me in an otherwise pretty funny movie.

PCN: I didn’t mind that running gag at all. I was too busy laughing.

Nerd verdicts: PCN—Wanderlust leads to hilarity. EE: You should wander into Wanderlust.

Photos: Universal Studios/Gemma La Mana

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Movie Review: WE BOUGHT A ZOO

There’s much ado about We Bought a Zoo (out Dec. 23) being Cameron’s first movie in six years, and whether or not this skews closer to Almost Famous or Elizabethtown. Being a family movie, it resembles neither, and it doesn’t measure up to his greatest work, either.

Based on the memoir by journalist Benjamin Mee, the concept is as the title says—Mee (Matt Damon) buys and moves his kids to a property with a zoo attached. Still mourning the death of his wife Katherine from an undisclosed illness (she had a brain tumor in real life), he wants to get away from all their familiar places in the city and believes the zoo would be a fresh start and grand adventure. But his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) hates it there, the zoo’s disrepair soon becomes a money drain, and Mee doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of exotic animals.

Luckily, the property comes with a staff, including zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), groundskeeper MacCready (Angus McFadyen), and Kelly’s thirteen-year-old niece, Lily (Elle Fanning), who’s too young to work but helps out anyway and gets paid in cash. They become an extended family to the Mees (extension of Mees?) as they labor to restore and reopen the zoo.

Zoo is brimming with heart and good intentions, but where it falters is in not knowing when to hold back. There are scenes that would have been more moving had they not gone on too long, and others that felt manipulative and/or predictable. Seven-year-old Rosie Mee (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) says a bad word at one point, a clichéd and unnecessary gimmick. Hey, want viewers to laugh? Have an old lady or little kid spout profanity! It’s not clear who the intended audience is. It’s rated PG and promoted as a family film, but it’s just over two hours long and, comedic elements aside, it deals with grief, a more dramatic subject than some young viewers might like.

But the movie is not without its winning moments and redeeming qualities. Damon manages to take the saccharine out of some of the more tear-jerking scenes—like Benjamin crying as he looks at photos of his wife—by not overplaying the emotion. The performance could’ve wandered into the land of earnestness and gotten lost, but Damon’s emotional compass keeps Mee going in the right direction. Johansson’s role is underdeveloped but, wearing minimal makeup and old work clothes, she is refreshingly earthy, reminding audiences she can be just as captivating, if not more so, when not playing a sex object or femme fatale. Little Jones, as Mee’s daughter, is impossibly cute but real, not overly precocious like some kids you see only in movies.

And you can’t have a Crowe movie without a catchy line of dialogue. While it may not blow up like “Show me the money” or “You complete me,” I’d guess that “All you need is twenty seconds of courage” is what you’ll take away from this.

Nerd verdict: Zoo is entertaining in parts, but I couldn’t completely buy into it

Photos: 20th Century Fox

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Book Review: THE DROP by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch might be facing retirement—DROP stands for Deferred Retirement Option Plan—but there’s still a lot of evil for him to bring to justice. The story opens with him being assigned to an Open-Unsolved case that gets a hit when old DNA evidence—a drop of blood—is run through the database. What should be a nice break instead complicates things, since the match is for someone who couldn’t have committed the rape/murder twenty-two years ago, which calls into question the lab’s entire evidence-handling process.

Before Bosch can make much progress, he gets a fresh case involving a jumper at the famed Chateau Marmont. This one is full of “high jingo”—internal politics—since the body belongs to the son of Irvin Irving, the former deputy chief of police and current councilman who hates Bosch and has long tried to derail his career. Did George Irving commit suicide, or did someone with a grudge against Irving père murder him? Bosch juggles both cases, while also working in dates with an attractive psychologist and spending time with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Maddie, who now lives with him full-time after the events in Nine Dragons. The work leads him to horrific places, revealing things that will change him forever.

That’s one of the reasons I keep reading this series—Bosch changes, for better or worse. Some series authors hit the reset button as soon as one novel ends, with the next one showing no consequences from previous incidents. Connelly paints his detective more realistically. Bosch is dealing with advancing age, the cumulative effects of his years on the job, and being a single dad. This doesn’t mean he’s slathering on Ben-Gay or baking cookies with his kid. He’s just questioning whether he’s lost his edge to be a cop, if he should retire to be a full-time father. But how can he when there are still so many monsters to fight, so much more he must do to make the world a safer place for Maddie? It’s a dilemma that’s perfectly understandable, especially after what he encounters in this novel.

I had worried a teenager might cause unwelcome headaches in Bosch’s life, but Maddie is evolving into a young woman who’s sharp in thinking and shooting. Bosch has taught her how to use and respect guns, develop excellent observational skills, and she wants to follow in her father’s career footsteps. It’s a clever turn because if Harry does retire, it looks like there’s another relentless Bosch waiting in the wings.

Nerd verdict: Bosch not ready to Drop

Buy it now from Amazon| From an Indie Bookstore

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Movie Review: THE ARTIST

In the past five days I’ve seen eight movies, most of them considered Oscar contenders. I loathed a couple, liked a few, but there’s one that I’m passionate about, a film I can unequivocally get behind when the awards race heats up: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (out 11/23).

When I told a friend I was going to see a silent, black and white French film set in 1920s Hollywood during the transition between silent movies and talkies, she joked that she’d fallen asleep while I was describing it. Normally, I might have been snoozing right alongside her, but this was the most buoyant, unique, and charming film I’ve seen in a long time. If that’s not enough, it features a really cool Jack Russell terrier who should get an award for best supporting dog.

The film opens in 1927, with silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) at the height of his popularity. At one of his premieres, he literally bumps into one of his fans. They mug for the cameras and she ends up with her picture on the front page of Variety but remains a mystery woman. Turns out she’s an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and the two meet again when she gets a bit part in his next movie. The chemistry between them is potent, but the friendship stays platonic as George remains faithful to his wife despite their unhappy marriage.

As the story moves forward into the next few years, George’s fame starts to wane when he resists the advent of talkies, while Peppy becomes a sensation by embracing the new technology. But she never forgets the man who gave her valuable advice at the beginning of her career, watching over him even when he thinks he’s lost everything, and eventually helping him find his way back to what he loves most.

Now comes the part when I unleash a bunch of glowing adjectives to convince you to see the movie. Writer/director Hazanavicius has created a lovely valentine to the cinema, showing the heart and sometimes heartbreak behind the magic we see on screen. His cast is led by the exuberant Dujardin as Valentin—he deservedly won the best actor award at Cannes this year—and the captivating Bejo as Peppy. They spark together, managing to convey first attraction and then something much deeper, all with minimal physical contact and no dialogue.

The supporting players include John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller, but the standout has to be Uggie, the dog who plays Valentin’s loyal companion on screen and off. He’s a combination of Asta and Lassie, accomplishing feats both clever and heroic.

The period costumes by Mark Bridges are gorgeous (Bejo’s nightgown is glamorous enough to wear to an awards show), composer Ludovic Bource hits all the right notes with the score, which is even more important in conveying the tone in the absence of dialogue, and DP Guillaume Schiffman makes everything look stunning in black and white photography. Every aspect of this movie is a delight, and not only did I not fall asleep, I left the theater feeling revived and, well, peppy.

Nerd verdict: A delightful, creative Artist

Photos: The Weinstein Company

Note: If you’re interested in hearing the stars speak about the movie, check out this video of the Q&A they did after the L.A. Times Envelope screening I attended. Bejo spoke fluent English but Dujardin brought an interpreter. He also claimed he didn’t speak “American dog” well enough to communicate with Uggie during filming but helped things along by carrying sausage in his pockets.

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Movie Review: THE IDES OF MARCH

If you’re not into politics, don’t let it deter you from seeing The Ides of March (out October 7), based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. Despite its setting, it’s not really about politics. It’s more about a young idealistic man whose beliefs are tested in a cutthroat world, in effect asking the viewer, What would you do and how long would you last?

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a hotshot campaign secretary for presidential candidate Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote with Grant Heslov and Willimon). Myers is very good at what he does, making the governor seem like America’s last hope for salvation. But it’s not just spin. He can only sell it if he believes it, and he believes in Morris wholeheartedly. The political game being what it is, however, Myers soon encounters complications with an intern (Even Rachel Wood), the campaign manager of a rival candidate (Paul Giamatti), his own campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an aggressive reporter (Marisa Tomei), and eventually Morris. We see Myers’s struggle to hang on to his morals and the question isn’t whether he has what it takes to rise in the ranks, it’s whether or not we want him to.

Gosling continues his hot streak after Crazy Stupid Love and Drive with another riveting performance. You can see his gradual transformation from the bright-eyed Myers at the beginning of the movie to the one at the end, whose eyes are noticeably harder. Gosling is one of the few young actors who can go toe to toe with Clooney in a pivotal scene and make the audience wonder who would come out on top. And while movie stars can sometimes bring too much baggage to a role, Clooney’s charm adds to the governor’s allure and keeps us guessing about whether he’s as perfect as he seems.

The supporting cast members turn in solid performances  but that’s no surprise from Giamatti, Tomei, Hoffman, and Jeffrey Wright. It helps that they have a sharp script to work with. Wood is too affected to measure up to everyone else, but even that doesn’t detract much from Clooney’s smart, tense drama.

Nerd verdict: Ides should prepare for March to the Oscars

Photos: Saeed Adyani

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Movie Review: THE DEBT

Mirren

The Debt‘s release has been delayed for some time, mostly due to Miramax becoming defunct, but Focus Features is finally getting it out in time for the last holiday weekend before fall. It’s directed by Oscar-nominated John Madden, and stars Oscar-winning Helen Mirren and Oscar-nominated Tom Wilkinson, as well as current “It” actors, Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington. Is it worth a look? Yes, but it has its flaws.

The movie, a remake of the Israeli thriller Ha-Hov, opens in 1965 with a trio of Mossad agents, Rachel (Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Worthington) returning to Israel after a mission to capture a Nazi war criminal called the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen, with creepy menace). Then it cuts to the present, with an older Rachel (Mirren) at a publicity event for her daughter (Romi Aboulafi), a journalist who has written a book about her heroic mother. Rachel is asked to read a passage, during which we see a flashback of the events being described. Afterward, the audience applauds while Rachel looks uneasy. The film moves back to 1965 in East Berlin to show why.

From L: Chastain, Worthington, Csokas

Because the bulk of the action takes place in the past, the movie belongs more to the younger actors than the veterans. This is not a bad thing. Chastain gets to play Rachel in the more complex scenes—Mirren mostly just has to look conflicted—and she’s definitely up to the task. Though Chastain doesn’t look much like Mirren and comes across more delicate, there’s an intelligence and determination in her eyes that make her a believable agent. She also gives Rachel a vulnerability and quiet terror, which makes the agent on her first field assignment braver for doing what she does. Rachel gets out of tense situations more by keeping her wits about her than because she’s impossibly buffed up, though she does pull some effective physical maneuvers.

Csokas, a New Zealander, is charismatic as Stephan, the de facto leader of the trio. He doesn’t look like Wilkinson any more than Chastain resembles Mirren, but it’s good to see that the filmmakers were more concerned with getting good actors than being hung up on physical similarities. Worthington is adequate enough, as he is in Avatar and Clash of the Titans, but his emotional range is limited and his facial expressions look stilted.

The movie overall is a mixed bag, with Madden creating some incredibly suspenseful scenes, aided by composer Thomas Newman’s propulsive score, while letting others drag on too long after the “Cut!” point. Tighter editing would’ve ratcheted up the tension, which is also diluted by the fact we’ve seen these characters in 1997 so we know they survive the mission. But there are a couple of twists I didn’t see coming, and in the end, with its questions about whether the truth can do more harm than lies, at least it left me thinking, which is more than most summer movies manage to do.

Nerd verdict: Debt not a complete payoff but worth getting into

Photos: Laurie Sparham

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Nerdy Recycling

I’m copyediting a couple of manuscripts right now (Brett Battles’s Becoming Quinn is in da house!) and sleeping showering blogging time is a little scarce. So, I’m posting a link to a piece I did at Criminal Elements about how casting can ruin police procedurals, and, with Shelf Awareness’s permission, my review of Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games that ran in its newsletter recently.

Enjoy! It’s almost Friday!

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Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games, the first in a trilogy, is aptly titled because it blows your hair back and leaves you gasping for more. What the title doesn’t tell you is that the games being played are stone-cold deadly.

Charlie Hardie is a professional house-sitter whose latest assignment is a film composer’s lair in the Hollywood Hills. All he wants to do is spend the week on the couch drinking and watching DVDs. Instead he finds drugged-up actress Lane Madden hiding in the house, yammering about how “they” are out to get her. Her claims soon prove to be true, and Charlie unwillingly gets caught up in her life-or-death struggle, trying to vanquish the ruthless people who are determined to trap and kill them inside the house using various methods from the murderers’ manual. Along the way, Charlie discovers why the killers are targeting Lane, a reason almost as terrible as his own secrets.

Charlie is the most entertaining protagonist I’ve met in a long time. He’s a reluctant hero who fights back only because he’s angry, like a sleeping bear who’s been poked too many times with a stick. Once he’s on the warpath, though, there is no stopping him. And Lane is no stereotypical actress. She’s a resilient yet vulnerable character whose life hasn’t been made easier by her fame and beauty.

The pulp noirish story has more turns than the twisty L.A. canyon roads that provide its setting, and the pacing is as fast as a car careening down those same roads without brakes. Though Swierczynski lives in Philadelphia, he describes Los Angeles landmarks like a local. But his biggest gift to readers here is the creation of Charlie, a winning protagonist I’ll follow to Hell—Hell & Gone, that is, the next installment coming this October.

Nerd verdict: Explosively Fun & Deadly Games

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Short Nerdy Bits

Just wanted to point out a couple of quick things before you start your weekend. Danielle over at There’s a Book alerted me to the new website, Pottermore, and the official J.K. Rowling YouTube channel where the author will make an announcement about her new project in 5 days. Bookmark them, watch the countdown with me if you’re a Potter head, and hopefully we’ll have some happy news to celebrate in less than a week!

The other thing is the new Shelf Awareness publication for readers, which launched today. If you subscribe to the daily newsletter for the book trade, you should have automatically received this new edition. It comes out twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays, and contains lots of bookish news and reviews of the best books released each week. It’s free, and if you haven’t signed up, you can do so here, get all the scoop and be more interesting at parties. I’m excited to say I write for it and have a review of Marcus Sakey’s The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes in the first issue!

Happy Friday to all. Hope you have a brilliant weekend filled with all the entertainment you like best.

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