Monthly Archives

July 2011

Movie Review: COWBOYS & ALIENS

I went to a screening of Cowboys & Aliens last night and my trusty contributing writer, Eric Edwards, was there, too. The following is our discussion afterward.

But first, a quick synopsis: A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in a desert town with no memory of his name or where he came from. He has a strange metal cuff on his left arm that can’t be removed. He encounters the sheriff (Keith Carradine) and the cattle rancher (Harrison Ford) who seems to control the town, and gets caught up in an alien attack the very night he arrives. A beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) says she needs the stranger’s help and next thing he knows, he’s out to get the town’s abductees back.

Pop Culture Nerd: This is one of those instances when the actors make the script look way better than it probably reads.

Eric Edwards: Yeah, with no-name actors, this would not have been as good, but the title is what drew me in. C’mon, it’s Cowboys & Aliens! Who wouldn’t want to see that?

PCN: Uh, I need more than a title. Sometimes you have a great title and a movie that’s garbage. Other times, the reverse is true. I went because of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. I like Olivia Wilde, too, but she’s not the main attraction. It’s not their fame, though, that elevated this movie. It’s their talent. Craig made the movie. Ford was chomping hard on that Western scenery at times but I forgave him because, you know, he’s Harrison Ford. I love Han and Indy too much to hate on him. For now.

EE: This was like a big bucket of popcorn. While you’re eating it, you’re enjoying the salt, the butter, the crunchy. But as soon as you’re done, you realize you didn’t eat anything nourishing.

PCN: I agree but I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a steak dinner. It’s OK to simply aim to make an entertaining movie, which this is for the most part. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t stop me from noticing its flaws. With such a fantastic premise, it could have been so much better.

EE: What did you think of Daniel Craig’s character?

PCN: I like him but he’s a cipher in the beginning of the movie, to himself and to us because he has amnesia. It’s hard for me as a viewer to have deep emotional stakes in a character who doesn’t know exactly what he stands for.

EE: We saw what he stood for! He didn’t try to cause harm. He only defended himself when he had to.

PCN: That’s not really standing for something. Most people, even criminals, have an innate defense mechanism when they’re threatened. It doesn’t make them heroic.

*Mild spoiler*

EE: Yeah, but it’s how they approach their situations. I never felt that The Stranger/Jake reacted in any way that was purely selfish. That’s why it’s kind of surprising to find out he’s a wanted man.

*End spoiler*

PCN: Don’t get me wrong. I was definitely rooting for him because Craig gave him gravitas. He has such incredible presence, even when he’s not speaking, that you know The Stranger is the guy everyone will pin their hopes on without even knowing if he’s good or bad because he’s the only one who can get the job done. I give Craig credit for bringing that. I don’t think it was on the page.

EE: Yeah, he radiates cool with an underpinning of danger.

PCN: And his pants were tight. I wasn’t looking but they kept showing the view. But I digress. It’s interesting how, compared to Craig’s stillness, Ford seemed over the top. He looked like he was posturing and he’s usually the king of deadpan.

EE: He and Craig were kinetic together, but when Ford had scenes with other characters, they didn’t play as well. It’s like Craig grounded him.

PCN: I was choking a little on the cornball manly dialogue between Ford’s character and the young boy, Emmett (Noah Ringer). The whole business about the knife was too foreshadowy and heavy-handed, and what he said to Adam Beach’s character near the end made me groan.

EE: There were a lot of clichés. It’s like the writers didn’t trust the intelligence of their audience.

PCN: Well, there were five writers credited for the screenplay. That’s never a good sign.

EE: Olivia Wilde’s role could have been played by anyone.

PCN: It’s not her fault they didn’t give her enough to do! I know Ella’s supposed to be mysterious but I got tired of all her lurking and stalking of Jake in the beginning. I was saying in my head, “Just state your business, woman!” Wilde did what she could. She sure had great eyebrows and white teeth for the West in 1873. What did you think of the aliens?

EE: I think we saw too much of them and they lost their fear factor after a while.

PCN: I didn’t find them intimidating at all, and I’m a scaredy cat when it comes to aliens.

EE: They were scarier when we couldn’t really see them and could only hear them. And at first, I thought their spaceships looked liked X-wing fighters!

PCN: I thought that, too! I was expecting Wedge to radio in. But I’m not sure the Force was with this movie.

EE: It’s entertaining. It’s cowboys and aliens. Don’t look for much more than that.

Nerd verdicts: PCN—Cowboys not wild enough in the West, EE—Craig gives Cowboys a kick in the pants

 

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THE HELP Movie Review + Cast Q & A

Since I have not read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (don’t hate; it’s in the pile), I went into the screening of the movie (opening August 10) with no expectations or prejudices. I came out with my cheeks all wet.

Spencer as Minny (L.) and Davis as Aibileen

In case you’re a Help neophyte like me, the story takes place in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, and follows the travails of black women working as maids for rich white families. The central figures are stalwart Aibileen (Viola Davis) and sassy Minny (Octavia Spencer). Their lives change when Skeeter (Emma Stone), raised by a maid and newly graduated from college with dreams of being a writer, asks to interview them and tell their stories in a book. Since it was illegal at the time to read or write anything that supported racial equality, the maids resist the idea. That is, until events push them into a corner and they can hold their tongue no more.

While the whole cast is superb, there are a few standouts. Davis anchors the movie with her portrayal of a woman much more dignified than her position in life, carrying a world of wisdom and pain in her eyes. Aibileen’s body may be tired but Davis makes it clear her spirit is still strong. Spencer has a breakout role in Minny, almost stealing every scene she’s in with her spunk and comic timing. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since she says the character is “very, very, very loosely based” on her. (See notes from the Q & A below.)

Chastain as Celia

Bryce Dallas Howard plays über mean girl Hilly convincingly because she commits to the character’s ignorance and sense of entitlement. It’s a tricky part she pulls off well. Cicely Tyson has only a couple scenes as Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter, but she has enough time to make your throat clench up. And Jessica Chastain’s performance as Minny’s employer, Celia, is such a mesmerizing combination of vulnerability, compassion and sex appeal, it explains the actress’s hot streak of prestige films this year (she’s already been seen in The Tree of Life and has about five more projects in the can, including the next Terrence Malick.)

Screenwriter/director Tate Taylor, a friend of Stockett’s from before she wrote the novel, guides the movie with a sure hand. He allows the actors to shine and doesn’t exploit the maids’ suffering. We never see Leroy, Minny’s abusive husband, but we briefly hear the sounds of his violence and can fill in the rest. There are a couple scenes, both involving Allison Janney’s Charlotte, that felt a little synthetic emotionally, but overall Taylor has crafted a truly moving film.

Nerd verdict: Get yourself some Help

After the screening, Davis, Stone, Howard, Janney, Spencer and Chastain (plus a surprise guest) participated in a lively and, at times, poignant Q & A moderated by film critic Pete Hammond. Davis and Spencer were introduced to standing ovations from the audience.

Some highlights of the discussion:

  • Davis, who’s from South Carolina, said, “I had a lot of trepidation as a black actress playing a maid.” But she wanted to get involved because “you don’t get many good roles as an actress of color” and it was either “go on a journey” with Aibileen or “have four scenes as a facilitator” in another project. She also didn’t want to be in the audience watching The Help and thinking, “Damn, I want to be in that!”
  • About Aibileen, Davis said, “She had no choice. I don’t think she wanted to change the world…she’s not that brave. But she found a purpose as they went along.” When Hammond asked the actress where she thought her character went beyond the story in the novel, Davis said she imagined that Aibileen became a freedom fighter like Fannie Lou Hamer. Spencer interjected, “She opened a restaurant with Minny.”
  • In talking about her experience on this movie, Stone said, “It’s incomparable to anything I’d ever been part of before…My mom was a huge fan of the book. Oh boy, she loved the book.” Hammond asked, “So you had no choice—you had to do it?” “I had no choice at all,” Stone replied. “I don’t know if it was the public school [system] in Arizona but my knowledge of the civil rights era was Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s it. The greatest gift was learning about everything and the bonding and friendships between [us]. Except Bryce. She was alienated,” she joked.
  • As Howard started talking about her audition for Taylor, Hammond pointed out that the director was in the audience and had him stand up. Then, startlingly, Hammond said that Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was also in the theater. She stood and waved to a crowd already on its feet to give her a standing ovation. It was an incredibly powerful moment that gave me goosebumps. Her thought on the movie, which touched upon the assassination of her first husband? “I loved it,” she said.
  • Howard as Hilly

    Back to Howard, who said she hadn’t read the book when she tried out for the movie. “I was wildly enthusiastic [after I got the part] but then I had a panic attack. I had a Cruella De Vil version in my head but didn’t understand [Hilly’s] psychology at all. I totally judged her.” Eventually, she built a backstory for Hilly, about how people fed her false information that she believed. “She really thought she was doing the right thing. She was ignorant.”

  • Janney said she related to Charlotte “because she was afraid of change and sometimes I’m afraid of change…I loved the journey I got to go on, giving Skeeter back her mother.” She said the production had “the best dialect coach. The people down in Greenwood [Mississippi, where part of the movie was shot,] let us come into their homes and just listen to them.”
  • Spencer said that Minny is “very, very, very loosely based on certain aspects of my personality. I met Tate sixteen years ago when we were doing A Time to Kill. I was 100 pounds heavier, we were in New Orleans, and Tate, for whatever reason, wanted to take a walking tour.” It was hot, the two were bickering, and “that is when I met Kathryn. Aibileen was regal so Minny had to be short, fat and on fire.” Hammond asked if she went after the role. “The studio was like, ‘[Should we go with] Jennifer Hudson, or this person you don’t know?'” At this point, Spencer put on a fierce stare, as if she was giving a studio exec the evil eye. “It’s the person you don’t know.”
  • Spencer added, “We forgot to say thank you to the Myrlies and Martin Luther Kings. This was a way to say thank you.”
  • Chastain said, “I really, really fought for [Celia]. I auditioned and read with Octavia. I knew our combination wouldn’t be the same as any other combination…I became obsessed. I had to play this role.” She went on to praise Taylor’s vision and how he became a cheerleader for her. “Somehow he could see me gaining weight, the boobs, the voice,” said the actress, who, with her petite frame and strawberry blond hair, looked drastically different from the busty platinum bombshell she played.
  • Chastain also told a story about meeting a woman at a party shortly before production began, when she hadn’t quite found her character’s voice yet. The woman sat down next to Chastain and “started talking to me in this voice that sounded like Celia. Then she said, ‘I’m Kitty’s [Stockett’s] mom.’ Octavia and I took her to lunch and I recorded her. She was an extra in the movie” and at one point stood next to Chastain and announced, “I inspired this figure.”
  • The cast said they had two weeks of rehearsal, more than they’re usually afforded on movie productions. “Tate really fought for it,” Howard said. “We rehearsed in the houses we were shooting in. They became our houses.”
  • Tyson with Lila Rogers as young Skeeter

    Davis said Cicely Tyson’s legendary performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was what made her pursue acting. She “grew up in abject poverty” and was incredibly inspired when she saw “an expert craftsman…who looked like me.” In watching The Help, “To look up on the screen…” Her voice broke off, choked with emotion. “It’s like my life had come full circle,” Davis finally said.

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Movie Review: CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE

You might find the title Crazy, Stupid, Love an apt description of how summer flicks usually make you feel, but the movie itself can be described as Funny, Sexy, Sweet. All three adjectives also apply to the revelation that is Ryan Gosling, and I’m not just talking about his “Photoshopped” abs.

Steve Carell is Cal, married to his high-school sweetheart, Emily (Julianne Moore), who suddenly asks for a divorce. Devastated, he hangs out in bars, drinking alone, until he meets Jacob (Gosling), a sharp-dressed lothario who decides to Miyagi-ize Cal into a stud. Jacob also uses his own methods to pursue Hannah (Emma Stone), the only girl in the joint who doesn’t instantly disrobe upon hearing his pickup lines. Cal starts dressing better and dating Kate (a robust Marisa Tomei), not realizing his teenage babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), has a crush on him while his young son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), has his eyes on Jessica. Yes, it’s a lot of characters in multiple plotlines but they all come together in entertaining—and surprising—ways.

In easily the best cast of the summer, Gosling is the highlight, perhaps because we’ve never seen him quite like this. Gone completely are the angst and turmoil of his troubled characters like Dean in Blue Valentine. Even his posture is different. Gosling’s Jacob is Mr. Smooth, eyes gleaming with mirth, hair lightened with gold and abs…well, they must have put the actor in Captain America’s buff-him-up machine, too. He makes the comedy look effortless, as if he’s been doing it his entire career. Jacob could have easily been a cheesy playboy in a lesser actor’s hand, but Gosling makes him an endearing combination of suave and sweet.

Carell is no straight man to Gosling; he gets his own share of laughs by committing to how sad and lost Cal is. Sometimes the most potent comedy arises from actors being completely serious (see: Eugene Levy in everything). Stone adds more evidence to the argument she’s the most engaging actress of her age group, creating a sparkly chemistry with Gosling that brings out the goofy best in both. Bobo is thankfully non-precocious, even as he delivers speeches about love that shows how Robbie might know more about the subject than the adults give him credit for. Moore, unfortunately, doesn’t have much to do. This is more about the men—it’s a bro-com.

Dan Fogelman (Cars, Tangled) proves he can also write good movies for adults, and co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You, Phillip Morris) know how to make viewers laugh while giving us real sentiment. They even throw in plot twists and Josh Groban. There’s a lot to like and relate to in this movie, because haven’t we all been crazy, stupid or in love—perhaps often and all at the same time—at some point in our lives?

Nerd verdict: It’s Crazy good

Photos: Warner Bros.

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MYSTERY TIMES TEN 2011

I must start with a disclaimer: My parents taught me and my siblings to be humble. They told us to dream big, do our best, then shut up about it. No one likes people who are too impressed with themselves.

So, Mom and Dad might be horrified to see this post, but I had to share that COPIES OF THE BOOK WITH MY FIRST SHORT STORY IN IT HAVE ARRIVED! Some of you may remember that I entered a writing contest back in January and my story was selected as one of ten for publication. The books are finally here from the publisher, Buddhapuss Ink, and I’ve been fondling them inappropriately. I checked to make sure my name was listed as an author in both copies so it wasn’t just a misprint in one.

The anthology is available at B&N and Amazon if you want to read it. (No, I don’t get royalties.) Now excuse me while I resume running with it in slo-mo through a field of flowers.

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Movie Review: FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

Justin Timberlake’s character, Dylan, has an impediment that prevents him from doing simple math, i.e. he thinks 6×3=92. But it doesn’t take someone with a math problem to see that Friends with Benefits, despite a few mildly amusing scenes, adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The premise, a rehash of No Strings Attached with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, has Dylan and Jamie (Mila Kunis) deciding to have sex without emotional attachment (“like playing tennis”) after getting out of bad relationships. They also agree to be friends since head hunter Jamie just got Dylan a job at GQ that makes him a Los Angeles transplant in New York City.

I saw this movie with my friend Eric Edwards, a PCN contributor, and we thought we’d review this movie Siskel & Ebert-style so you get both the male and female points of view. Turns out, a bland movie is a bland movie, no matter how you look at it.

Pop Culture Nerd: Wow. I thought this would be much funnier. JT is always hilarious on Saturday Night Live, Kunis can do no wrong, and director Will Gluck did Easy A, which we both liked. So, what do you think happened?

Eric Edwards: We already saw this movie earlier this year and it was done better.

PCN: You can tell this one was written by men and No Strings was by a woman. First of all, in this one, Jamie was dumped by Andy Samberg. Excuse me?? Then she developed real feelings first in the relationship, while Natalie Portman’s character was the one who hung tough in the other one, which I liked. It wasn’t as much a cliché.

EE: There’s a movie within this movie that makes fun of all those clichéd rom-coms, so we think we’re watching an anti-rom-com, but then it ends up doing everything it was making fun of, right down to the soundtrack! It was very confusing.

PCN: Yeah, it started out wanting to be edgy, then lost its nerve and decided to be like all the rom-coms that came before it, including bad Katherine Heigl ones that Jamie was cursing at!

EE: The other problem was, I don’t think Timberlake is ready for leading man status.

PCN: He was playing it safe and wasn’t very funny. I wanted him to break loose and get all wacky the way he does on SNL.

EE: Which probably would have made him more charming, but he came across stiff and out of his league, especially since he was surrounded by such a great supporting cast.

PCN: He wasn’t up to Mila’s level when it came to comic timing and making it look effortless. Oddly enough, I thought he was more effective in his few dramatic scenes. And he had decent chemistry with Mila but they often seemed like just friends, exactly what their characters kept claiming they were.

EE: I loved everything about her.

PCN: Oh, she’s so gorgeous and funny, I just wanted to shove her down the stairs of that tall building where she likes to go up on the roof. And I love Patricia Clarkson. She’s welcome in any movie. Richard Jenkins did nice work as Dylan’s dad, but his storyline is unnecessarily dramatic and seemed like it belonged in another movie.

EE: Woody Harrelson’s comic timing was perfect but you almost wish he was younger so he could play Timberlake’s role.

PCN: Not that it’s Harrelson’s fault at all, but I didn’t understand why his character Tommy was even there. He didn’t serve any real purpose.

EE: He’s the male sidekick who provides comic relief, and JT probably would have been better doing that.

PCN: That would have been interesting but either way, Tommy needed better dialogue. It seems the writers just made him say “dick” a lot and felt that was enough.

EE: They let him make that speech to Dylan about what it’s like to find the love of your life, but it happened too early in the movie so they had to have Dylan’s dad say it again towards the end to hammer the point home. The writers didn’t trust us to get it the first time.

PCN: When Dylan’s dad was going on about how Dylan shouldn’t waste time once he’s found the one, I couldn’t help picturing JT morphing into Billy Crystal running down the street in NYC trying to get to Meg Ryan before midnight in When Harry Met Sally

EE: Yeah, I agree. And I could have done without the ongoing joke about how you’re gay if you like Harry Potter, and the flash mob sequences, which went on too long.

PCN: I think the movie went on too long. I should have stayed home and mated my socks.

Nerd verdicts: PCN—No Benefits here. EE—Follow Mila, Un-Friends JT.

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Harry Potter and the Unsung Hero

With the release of the final Harry Potter movie last Friday, millions have been saying goodbye to our beloved wizard friends and, for some, to their entire childhood. I was a lot older than school age when I first encountered J.K. Rowling’s books, but my memories are no less magical than those of the children who grew up reading them.

In 1998, I was walking past a Crown Books store when I saw a giant display featuring Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in the window. I had never heard of them and wondered why the store felt the books were deserving of such a splashy display. I stepped inside and a bookseller said they were children’s books that were all the rage in England. I didn’t buy them because, well, I wasn’t interested in kid-lit at the time.

But I was intrigued so I went home and researched this supposed Potter craze on the Internet. I found over 400 reviews on Amazon and was surprised to see they were all five stars. There’s always at least one person who complains about something—price, plot, ending, cover—and throws off the whole average with a nasty one-star review. But no, not for Harry. It seemed everyone loved him, and how could everyone be wrong?

I went back to Crown the next day and bought the two books. Read the first that night and cried at the end. Woke up in the morning, shoved it at my husband, said, “Don’t ask questions, just read this,” then started the second book. Mr. PCN tore through Sorcerer’s Stone before I could finish Chamber (hey, it’s longer) and bugged me repeatedly with “Are you done yet? Are you done yet?” until I could hand it over. And so began our obsession.

For the release of every book in the series after that, we had to be at the midnight party. One time, we drove straight to a Borders after getting off a 14-hour plane ride from Europe because we needed to get in line. Luckily, it had a coffee bar there. Another time, we had to wear numbered plastic bracelets for a week, in the shower and all, because the store gave them out early so we could claim our positions in the queue (they were sealed onto our wrists and could only be cut off by a store employee when we came to get our books). The standing in line, meeting fellow fans, anticipation of midnight—it all made us feel like children waiting for Santa. And then of course, Mr. PCN and I would stay up all night reading the books, often out loud to each other in British accents and different voices (I was pretty good as Dobby).

*SPOILERS ahead if you haven’t read the final book or seen the final movie*

It’s funny that I’ve never had the same experiences with the movies, which can’t touch the magic of the books for me. The final installment was underwhelming. It was serviceable and touched on major plot points but lacked emotional heft. I was gutted when Fred dies in the book while the movie just kind of glosses over it. Mrs. Weasley’s showdown with Bellatrix is rushed—how does she vanquish Bellatrix, a terrifyingly powerful Death Eater, so easily? Why didn’t the Elder Wand recognize Harry as its true owner right away, before allowing Voldemort to throw those kill curses at him?

But there’s one thing that holds true for me in both books and movies: Neville Longbottom being the unsung hero. You know how I cried at the end of the first book? It was because of him. Gryffindor thought it had lost the house cup until Dumbledore said, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends” and awarded ten points to Neville for doing just that. The fact that Dumbledore could see the beauty and courage in that shy chubby boy moved me immensely.

And Neville showed he could stand up to his enemies, too. Towards the end of Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, when everyone thought Harry was dead and Voldemort was gloating, Neville was the only one who stepped forward, limping and bleeding, to exhort his friends not to give up. His speech was the only thing in the movie that nudged me close to tears.

He was never the best wizard, always the awkward one who was more likely to blow himself up in class than correctly cast a spell. He had to work harder than many of his peers just to stay in the fight. But stay he always did, with a heart true and pure. When he sliced Nagini’s head off, I cheered more loudly than anyone. Once again, it came down to Neville to save the day. The series had come full circle.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising because Neville could have been the Boy Who Lived had Voldemort visited his house instead of Harry’s that fateful night. It’s admirable to live up to great expectations, as Harry did, but it’s heroic to step up when no one thinks you can win. Rowling has told Harry’s story splendidly and I hope she’ll forever leave him where we last saw him. Professor Longbottom, however, may still have a few adventures left in him.

Matthew Lewis, who played Neville

Photos: Warner Bros.

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Book Review: Rebecca Cantrell’s A GAME OF LIES

I wanted to write about Harry Potter but got completely slammed this weekend with deadlines for various projects so I’ll just reprint, with permission, my Shelf Awareness review in case you missed it in Friday’s issue. (What do you mean you haven’t seen it? Why haven’t you subscribed to SA?). Hopefully, I’ll get around to my HP retrospective later this week. Have a groovy Monday!

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Intrepid German reporter/spy Hannah Vogel is back in Rebecca Cantrell‘s A Game of Lies, her third mystery set in 1930s Berlin. Posing as a Swiss journalist, Hannah sneaks back into Berlin to cover the 1936 Summer Olympics, and to meet with her mentor about a package he needs couriered out. The meeting goes awry, people die, and Hannah, hunted by the Gestapo, risks her life to find the mysterious package.

Cantrell, who studied in Berlin, easily drops the reader into Nazi Germany. She weaves period details and real people into the story, making it both fascinating and educational. Readers may not know that the only Jewish athlete allowed to compete for Germany in that year’s Olympics was Helene Mayer, a fencer, and though Jesse Owens’s gold-medal wins are old news, reading about the “Negro’s” triumphs on Aryan soil is still satisfying.

Cantrell maintains a sense of danger throughout, not just for Hannah but for anyone who dares defy the Nazi doctrine. This makes it impossible for the reporter to trust even long-time friends fully. Further complicating her mission is her growing attraction to the SS officer Lars Lang, who poses as her lover and helps her spy for the British. Not only are his motives questionable, but he struggles with alcohol and his temper. Hannah’s feelings toward Lang are fraught with red flags, but the tension between them is surprisingly sexy. Hannah’s actions risk making her young son an orphan, but her fight for a better world is noble, and her perseverance is something to admire.

Nerd verdict: Intriguing Lies

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Summer Survey: Favorite Reading Spot

As we head into the weekend with our Friday reads (have you shared yours on Twitter yet?), I’m already daydreaming about how many books I’ll get to complete and where I’ll be reading them. In my home, it’s just on the couch next to a big window or propped up in bed, but one of my favorite reading spots ever was in this beach bed in Mexico near Playa del Carmen. I was at an all-inclusive resort and the package included sports, canoe and bike rentals, blah blah, and yes, I took advantage of some of those things, but mostly I just hunkered down in one of these beds and sipped virgin margaritas or ice cold lemonade. Servers came out to the beds to take food and drink orders—it was as if they wanted us to never leave.

The beds were popular so I had to rise at rude hours to claim one. And I never get up early on vacation (or ever). One time, I almost had to engage in hand-to-hand combat with another guest who wanted the last one available. Luckily, I was reading Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble at the time so I just intimidated the other guy with some Reacher ‘tude and he skedaddled like a sand crab. He might have even checked out of the resort and hurriedly left the country but I can’t verify that.

Anyway, where are some of your favorite reading places? I hope it’s heavenly there. Happy weekend!

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Book Review: YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD CRIMINAL by Michael Van Rooy

This is by Eric Edwards, my friendly neighborhood contributing reviewer.—PCN

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Ever try to quit something you know is bad for you, but it feels so instinctive it’d almost be wrong not to do it? That’s the dilemma loveable ex-criminal Montgomery “Monty” Haaviko faces on a daily basis. What keeps our hero on the path to upstanding citizenship is the love he’s found with tough-as-nails Claire and their adorable and feisty baby, Fred. There’s also a dog named Renfield and a mouse named Thor. This family, combined with Monty’s current occupation (no, I will not spoil it in case you haven’t read the previous book in this series, An Ordinary Decent Criminal), infuses the story with more than a few chuckles, but the meat of both novels is how Monty uses his skills as a master criminal and all-around badass to blur the lines between right and wrong, without actually stealing or killing while keeping one step ahead of the cops.

In Your Friendly Neighborhood Criminal, Monty and Claire are struggling financially with his odd jobs and her budding real estate venture, but it’s all legal so there’s a stability to their newfound life on the straight and narrow. That is, until a tempting offer comes along and Monty has to decide whether to use his abilities for a good cause and a great payout, or walk away and continue wrestling with his cash flow issues. Of course, his past comes back to haunt him anyway in the form of Smiley, a fellow lethal guy who shows up on Monty’s doorstep in the middle of the night, claiming he wants to try living the straight life as well. Add into the mix a crack den taking up residence down the street and Monty has his hands full keeping his family, the neighborhood and his current life safe from his past one.

Intrigued? You want more? Here’s Monty’s response to Marie, someone who approaches him with a $5000/week job offer because of his past, and inadvertently makes him feel like she’s blackmailing him.

When Claire and I were standing Marie spoke in a bantering tone: “Out of curiosity. Just what is your response to blackmail?”

I didn’t smile. “I hurt you. I hurt you badly enough so you remember it forever. I burn down your house. I take an electric drill to your kneecaps. I blow up your workplace. Memorable shit like that.”

And memorable he is.

Though this second installment in Van Rooy’s wickedly fun and edgy series can stand on its own, I recommend starting with the first novel because you don’t want to miss Monty’s extremely intense backstory. Unfortunately, the author passed away suddenly in January of this year, and though his third Monty adventure is available in Canada, it’s not clear when it’ll hit the States. It’s really too bad because Van Rooy was one of the good ones and I, for one, will miss this very promising series of books.

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Quick Movie Notes

Here’s the first poster for The Dark Knight Rises. It’s clever in that Magic Eye way, which, come to think of it, I was never good at. But I figured out the trick in this one right quick so I was pretty proud of myself.

Below is the full trailer for The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (man, that is a pain to type). I’m still iffy on whether I’ll love it but I remain hopeful. The movie opens December 23.

UPDATE: Finally, here’s the trailer for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (what is WITH these long-ass titles??), which opens December 16. Once again, Downey is nekkid. OK, maybe only half-nekkid but it works for me.

Which are you most looking forward to?

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Royal Memories

I’m not a huge royals watcher but it’s funny how British princes keep following me around whenever they make their first official visits to the U.S. after marrying their lovely young wives. As you and every hermit in the world know, William and Kate, aka the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, stormed L.A. this past weekend, visiting kids in Skid Row and hobnobbing with movie stars at a BAFTA event. I pretty much stayed indoors since I like crowds and gnarly traffic as much as I love getting acupuncture in my eyeballs. But this event had me reminiscing about Will’s parents’ first official U.S. tour back in 1985.

I was living right outside D.C. then so it wasn’t surprising that Charles and Diana would be in my vicinity because, you know, the White House was there. They attended the dinner where the princess famously danced with John Travolta. What startled me was when, a couple days later, they came to the very mall where I worked after school and in the summers while I was in college. Their purpose? To promote a British clothing line at JC Penney. The mall was so close to my house that all my parents had to do was step outside onto their front lawn to see the motorcade pass by.

Twenty-six years later, though I’m now living on the opposite coast, I was amused when I heard that this generation’s royal couple would once again visit my city on their first tour together. Who needs stalking when they just come to you? I considered standing on the street somewhere along Will and Kate’s itinerary so I could wave and bring it full circle. But then my crowd-phobic self said, “Are you nuts?? Do you want to get stomped by the lady who drove all the way from Temecula wearing a hat with a papier maché sculpture of the royal couple on top?”

So I stayed home and critiqued the fashion instead, specifically the outfits that showed up at the BAFTA “42 Brits to Watch” event on Saturday. (Oddly enough, in all the media coverage this weekend, there were no mentions of who those 42 Brits were; you can see a list here that was released earlier this month).

Not surprisingly, the duchess shined. It was brutally hot here but she looked breezy, classy and most importantly, comfortable. That dreamy lavender Alexander McQueen gown designed by Sarah Burton? I would totally wear that to a black-tie occasion because you could actually eat in that thing and not look pregnant. Duchess Catherine looked like she just threw it on in the car over to the Belasco Theatre (she probably did, considering their tight schedule) instead of spending hours to squeeze into it. Not all of the celebs who attended the BAFTA event fared as well. Check out my slideshow below for my fashion roundup.

[cincopa AIOAxrKQYuwt]

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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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