Tag Archives: mystery

Knives Out (2019)

As you cannot in any way ascertain from my shoddily maintained review site, it’s been a little while since I saw any movies, and so when Thanksgiving and its multiple days off and/or light work load came along, it thusly became movie time. Of course, that’s been nearly a week, so I can not remember what other movies were in contention anymore, only that what we actually saw was Knives Out, a (per the previews) rollicking mid-century Agatha Christie style whodunnit country house murder mystery.

And, okay, except for the part where it’s a modern setting instead (which means, alas, no butler), the previews run to the accurate. Which is nice, in that a) they looked pretty great, which of course explains how I got here, but also b) there was not the slightest sliver of a clue about the eventual outcome. The premise is basic enough: rich old mystery novelist turns up dead after the night of his 85th birthday party, and either everyone or no one is a suspect, with no one taking an early lead because of how he appears to have cut his own throat.

Obviously, I can say no more about the plot, but I can say a fair bit more about the movie, which is mostly this: you can tell that everyone involved had an incredibly good time. Most especially Daniel Craig playing against type as a consulting detective whose biggest action scene is a jog through the woods, and Chris Evans playing against type as an entitled asshole whose negative qualities are thoroughly masked by being hilariously above the rest of his equally entitled family. If I find a way to phrase that better I will, but I’m not holding my breath. “We’re all entitled assholes here, but the fact that you think none of you are and it’s really only me makes you, in some ways, worse, and in all ways worthy of my scorn-filled sarcasm.”

Yeah, that’s only barely better, and it needed the first part to make even as much sense as it does. Long story short: he is A++ at being the polar opposite of Steve Rogers, and I can dig it.

And anyway, those are just the two I chose to mention. I could go on, but there’s no point. Just go see it, unless you hate the genre, because it does not surpass genre at all. It might just have brought the comedic side of the genre to its peak, though.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

During the credits for Detective Pikachu, I learned that the movie was based on a video game of the same name, which I had not been aware existed. So I guess this is technically a video game movie? Well, I guess Pokémon in general are from a video game, so that’s not really a revelation after all. Nevermind.

This is a kidmovie, mainly inasmuch as Pokémon is a kidgame. The good thing about this is that it doesn’t really reveal its colors until the too-neat denouement, and if I’m being realistic, lots of movies are wrapped up with a bow that are not strictly speaking aimed at kids. Still, this was, and its too-neat bow-wrapping was definitely kid-oriented.

Except for that, it turns out to be really good? Well, important caveat: if you like the tiny pokemen upon which its hat is hung. I am just barely the target audience for this movie, mostly because of all the Pokémon Go I’ve played. But they did an incredible job both of making the creatures that I guess replaced animals in the evolution of this particular world seem completely alive and real and part of the scenery, and also of giving those creatures personalities that were, at least on a per species scale, unique and identifiable. Okay, the last thing sounds less cool than it is, because there’s not much involved in making a monkey pokeman act like a monkey. But trust me: they did an amazing job of bringing the world to life, in every particular.

The plot? Well, our hero, Tim Goodman[1], who has given up on his dreams of being a Pokémon trainer to start a career in insurance, goes to a place not literally named Pokémon City to investigate his policeman father’s mysterious death. Well, no, to settle his estate, there’s no way the guy I just described would be investigating anything, except that his father’s Pokémon partner (everyone in the city has one, it’s not a cop thing) is Ryan Reynolds wearing a pikachu suit and a detective hat. Together, they… well, you know. Like I said, it’s a kidmovie at heart. It’s just a really excellently executed one, if you are down with the P.

[1] No, really.

Elevation

Elevation is an unusual Stephen King book, by multiple measures. First, it’s tiny. Barely over a hundred pages, and it’s a small factor book on top of that. I’m not saying he only writes doorstops, but this is just barely north of novella-sized, almost certainly shorter than, say, The Mist.

Second, it’s… I started to say it’s overtly political, but that’s not true. To be overtly political in this climate, you have to go a lot farther, and I’m not sure you can do it in written fiction, period. His politics have been pretty clear to me for a number of years anyway (and thank goodness I don’t hate them, because man, that would be a blow), but as far as I can remember this is the first time I’ve seen them bleed into his work, and in such an obvious manner.

Third, it’s definitely not horror (which okay is not super unusual for King, and especially lately, but it’s still what he’s known for). There is a central mystery which is well outside normal experience, but it is the least interesting part of the story. The meaty parts are about what it means to be a good neighbor[1], and about the rot at the heart of Smalltown, USA (both conscious and unconscious) and whether it can change, and about the things we leave behind.

Anyway, I liked it. Not a bad way to spend a lunch break.

[1] I’ve never tried to be a good neighbor. Don’t misunderstand me, I want to not be a bad neighbor, and have definitely tried to do that. But I never really cared about who lived near me, much past junior high. Maybe if I were less suburban and more rural, I would feel differently.

The Outsider

As you know, a new Stephen King book is out, which, cool and yay. To start with, yep, I liked The Outsider. I was engrossed from basically page two or three, even though it’s more dabbling in the crime and mystery genre, a la those three books that form the trilogy that he wrote over the past few summers.

Which is fine as far as it goes, it’s not like those books failed to delve in the paranormal and existential horror that is his stock in trade. And even if it didn’t, I love him for his grasp of human psychology in the face of adversity probably more than the majority of the bare plots anyhow.

The problem with the book is that I know exactly what it was, but to explain it would be just a massive spoiler of the central mystery, which I am willing to say went nowhere near the direction I expected when I was on that second or third page, all engrossed as I said to begin with.

So, I guess comment spoiler?

Blood Follows

There is one problem with publication order, and that problem is when small run publications are later gathered into collections. Well, to be fair, it’s not a problem with reading; you just read the part of the book that contains the story you were reading in publication order, and then put it down until later. But it is a problem for me specifically, since I include links to the book I read from, and yet the book I read Blood Follows in is not strictly the original book itself, since it’s a collection. Like, it’s fine now, but what about when I have the same cover and the same link for the next story I read from this collection? (It turns out I used the cover of the original small batch publication, so that may help a little.)

(It’s possible[1] I’m thinking about this too much.)

So, in Memories of Ice, one of the subplots I did not mention was that of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. This is because despite touching on the main drive of the story at several points, they really have nothing to do with anything that’s going on. Despite that, they are fascinating characters. Well, the one who murders people and uses their parts to build constructs in pursuit of some nebulous goal that may not rightly exist[2] is not especially fascinating. But the one who accompanies and protects the crazy one because it gives him a chance to further his own necromantic research, and who presents as a polished and urbane yet evil supergenius in the vein of Dr. Doom, he is fascinating. And their manservant, Emancipor Reese, is usually played for comic relief, but in a way that makes you care about him. He’s stuck in a situation, and making the best of it. (Well, trying and mostly failing to, whence comes the comedy.)

Anyway, though, Blood Follows. This is a short book that gives an answer for why these characters were in the main sequence book: because Erikson is as fascinated by them as I am. We join our characters several years earlier and half a world away. Emancipor Reese has just lost another in a long string of employers to unfortunate death (this time at the hands of a murderer stalking the streets of his city for the past fortnight), and he needs to find a new job fast, lest his wife and probably non-biological children think even less of him than they already do. Also, there’s a reasonably cool police detective type trying to solve the murders.

By and large, this is a story that you will care about if you care about the characters you already knew, and otherwise, you will not. In part this is because Erikson is a far worse mystery novelist than he is a fantasy and war novelist. In part, it’s because even to the extent that the mystery worked, too many characters emerge as major players in the final act, and it is seen through the eyes of someone who has just as little idea of what’s going on as the reader does. This can work in the first book of an epic series, if your reader trusts you and in the meantime the story is written masterfully. It works a lot less well when the story is barely a hundred pages long and the things the reader didn’t really understand revolved around characters he (by which I mean I) doesn’t really expect to encounter ever again.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like it. It is to say that if I wasn’t already invested in the world and the main characters, I probably would not have, though.

[1] probable
[2] That is, I don’t really think he has an endgame in mind (nor that, even if he does, I’ll ever learn it). It’s more like he’s playing with legos to see what he can make.

Mother!

I wonder if I’ve reviewed a Darren Aronofsky movie before? I know I’ve seen one, so… oh, hey, I could check![1] And, there it is. Black Swan. Which a) I liked quite a bit, and b) I successfully predicted Natalie Portman’s best actress Oscar for that one. Go me!

To get it out of the way: Jennifer Lawrence is not going to win an Oscar for Mother! This is not a slam on her acting ability in general (which in fact is long since demonstrably solid), nor her performance here; it’s just not the kind of movie that I expect to be an Academy darling. It’s also not the kind of movie I can say virtually anything about. Here’s the blurb from imdb: “A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.”

That is an incredibly accurate description of the movie, that leaves aside the… I was going to say rising tension, but it’s more like ratcheting dread. A thing I thought during the first half of the movie that I still agree with now: Lawrence is basically portraying an introvert’s hell.

The surreality grows on a logarithmic scale (which to be fair is certainly a similarity to Black Swan), and I think I have no way to predict who might or might not like this movie. Me: it was nothing like what I expected, and I think its writer/director is entirely too impressed with it, but all the same, I thought it had its charms. (For one thing, both Lawrence and Javier Bardem were solid leads, despite what I said earlier about acting awards, and Michelle Pfeiffer was nearly perfect.) Mary, on the other hand, loathed it. So, y’know. Watch at your own risk?

Super annoying-to-me coda to this review: I saw the movie on Wednesday night, in a moderately exclusive Alamo Drafthouse preview showing. And then I’ve been so busy working that I couldn’t review it until post-release. Which is at least only today, instead of a week ago like usual. But: argh!

[1] Okay, inside baseball: yes, I realized I could check before I typed that faux realization, BUT, I realized it after I asked the question. So that counts, right?

Firewatch

The biggest problem with Firewatch is that I don’t really know what the genre is. Walking simulator is a really bland descriptor, indie is not a type of game, it’s a type of studio, and it felt a lot less interactive fictiony than other games I’ve used that tag on before. So, what kind of game was this?

One kind of game it was is “pretty great”. After a series of unfortunate life events, this guy Henry takes a job with the 1980s Wyoming forestry service on firewatch. Which, if not self-explanatory, is when you sit in a tower all summer looking for fires before they become uncontrollable. And over the course of the summer, a story unfolds!

The story is fine, too, but mostly what I loved was the haunting atmosphere. You’re wandering around the woods, no company, virtually no human contact, just the voice on the other end of the radio that is your supervisor between you and utter isolation. Which is I think what Henry was going for, but it gets really hard to take after a while. I am an introvert, in that I want to spend only a small amount of time interacting with people; but I guess I’m a soft introvert in that it comforts me to know that if I needed a person, it would be really easy to find one. I’m pretty sure a summer spent not seeing another person’s face and only hearing another person’s voice at their whim would leave me pretty dang bonkers.

Or maybe it was only haunting to me, because, see above? Either way, there was nothing I didn’t enjoy, even down to the  emotional discomfort. The one bummer was trying to figure out the controls. There was Steam controller support, but not in the sense that the game’s instructions matched them; purely keyboard driven, alas. Having a gated ecosystem is the better way to console in terms of support, but significantly limiting in terms of what games are available. So, definitely worth the trade-off! But still.

Dexter Is Delicious

Apparently, the last Dexter book I read was over five years ago, when Dexter Is Delicious had only been out for a year. I could have caught up, belike! In the nonce, the series has concluded entirely, which is kind of weird for a popular mystery novel character. Usually those get milked for decades.

I have a lot of jumbled, unrelated things to talk about. Like: the show. I have seen all of the show, and I have not read all of the books. But I think that the show is better than any of the books at its very best, while being not nearly as good as the books are on average. So, if you liked the show for a while, an only seven book series is probably a good investment.

And: Dexter’s narration. I can’t tell if I was so dazzled by the show that I missed it in earlier books, or if it subtly changed over time. But I’ve read lots of versions of unreliable narrator, and usually they’re lying to the reader to protect something, maybe a secret, maybe some part of themselves they don’t think belongs to you? But this is the only one I can think of that is just self-deluded, and certainly the only one where that fact is played primarily for comedic effect. It’s not that Dexter is dumb; he’s very successful, both professionally and in his personal life, and he has to be both smart and careful to achieve either. But he’s also not a god walking amongst men, and the only thing funnier than seeing the mistaken belief in action is seeing when he, very occasionally, has the belief shaken by outside events.

Lastly: the series’ end. I haven’t said much about the book itself. It’s about what you’d think from the title plus cover: Dexter vs. cannibal. And there are twists along the way, like the infant daughter that he wants to be a better man for, and other expansions of his extended family besides. One of those twists has longer term implications, though. The thing that’s weird is, as a standalone book, it felt like a combination of an unwanted and unnecessary plot development and a cheap gimmick; but as the fifth book of only seven total, it instead feels like an indication of the end’s beginning.

I of course have no idea if this was true when the book was written, nor if it will turn out to be true when I finish the series. This is why I hate meta-spoilers, though; it’s basically impossible to avoid them.

End of Watch

81rLDztUK7LThere was a time when I claimed that Finders Keepers was not a sequel to Mr. Mercedes. Likewise, I can now claim that End of Watch is not a sequel to Finders Keepers. Sure, they’re in the same continuity and with mostly the same characters, but except for acknowledging that those things happened in the past: not a sequel.

But: End of Watch is a sequel to Mr. Mercedes. So, y’know, there’s that? Now that I’ve clarified the interactions between the books, though, how am I supposed to review the third book of a trilogy, absent massive spoilers? I’ll say these things:

  1. It was good, and I liked it.
  2. I liked it less than either of the other two books, but not enough to dim my enjoyment of them; all of the characters remained meaningful and important to me throughout. (Holly Gibney, especially, is pretty much the best.)
  3. I think the main reason I liked it less is because after two books of solid mystery detectivey stuff, throwing in a supernatural element just did not seem to belong anymore. If you read this as a standalone book, which it would be maybe barely possible to do, you would not have this problem. All the same, I had it.

So, yeah. That was definitely a book I liked reading, and I hope King keeps writing new books like usual. The fact that they cannot all be the best in no way detracts, y’know?

Finders Keepers

81EJz58T3CLStephen King books seem to be coming out faster than ever these days! It’s been two a year for… well, a while anyway. But the thing is, mysteries are shorter, so maybe that’s why? Like, these are his “chill out and procrastinate” novels. Of course, now I’m making Finders Keepers sound lazy, which it wasn’t.

I think I remember reading that Mr. Mercedes was the first book of a trilogy. I could be wrong, but if so, it’s because it’s the first book of a series instead. Honestly, if Finders Keepers has a failing, it’s that it can’t make up its mind whether it’s a sequel or not. Two-thirds of the story is a game of cat and mouse between a murderer and a high school kid, but what it’s really about is literature and obsession and maybe a Salinger/Updike hybrid? And it’s pretty good! The other third is a sequel to Mr. Mercedes, and except for where the two stories mash up against each other, that third is a “Where are they now?” slice of life, which was fine but ultimately unnecessary.

Except for the part where there’s a guaranteed additional sequel that is the actual sequel to the first book, and which I very much want to read. But this book was good too. I just kind of wish it had gotten the chance to be completely its own thing.