Wednesday, August 31, 2011

COMICS: Secret Avengers #16

Leave it to Warren Ellis to kick off a run on a superhero comic with a massive underground city that no one knew about.

Ellis began his run on Secret Avengers with artist Jamie McKelvie this week, and his first issue is full of promise. The Secret Avengers team of Captain Steve Rogers (Super-Soldier), The Beast (Mutant Genius), Black Widow (Super Spy) and Moon Knight (Crazy Person) are descending a mile beneath Cincinnati (because that's really where anyone would go in Cincinnati, I guess) to investigate a hidden, seemingly deserted city where the Shadow Council has evidently been planning something big and very explosive. They run into trouble and have to make a few tough choices about how to deal with said trouble. That's the story, but the way it's told is where it gets fun.

Ellis has an infatuation with breaking the skin of the world and peeling it back to reveal something new. You see it in Planetary most obviously, but it's everywhere in his work, and it makes its way into Secret Avengers as well, in a dynamic and compelling way. It's all, of course, helped along by the often nightmarishly intricate pencils McKelvie has to pull off as the Secret Avengers zip and fly through a city that's all angular buildings and looping highways. It's a story about secrets, and the secret heroes that have to dig them up, and it's the start of something big (or bigger, anyway) on this title.

But it's more than just a conceptual victory. Ellis is full of those. It's also some of the best dialogue I've seen in a comic all year, filled with humor and technological gobbledegook (mostly from Beast, of course). And yes, we get to play up Moon Knight's inherent madness, because Ellis loves slightly mad characters (and, perhaps, is a slightly mad character).

It's bad luck that this title dropped the same week that DC launched its "New 52," because this is the kind of quality comic that rises above the inherent publicity stunt quality of companywide events. Great storytelling, great art, superheroes doing what they do best.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Cut' by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos has established himself as one of America’s most distinguished crime writers, rising above the crowded halls of thriller bestsellerdom to create works that balance primal authenticity with unpretentious literary prowess. The Cut is a no frills detective story about a tough man in a tough situation. It’s the kind of tale that few can do as well as Pelecanos, and it’s more proof that he’s among the very best American writers working today.

Spero Lucas is a Greek kid from Washington D.C. who served in Iraq and then came home to a life as a private investigator. It’s not a bad gig. He sets his own hours, spends time with his brother and his mother and gets lucrative work from a D.C. defense attorney. When Lucas’ keen eye for detail helps the son of an imprisoned crime boss avoid jail time, the boss offers him a job: find out who’s been stealing big shipments of drugs from their drop-off points. Lucas agrees and asks for his usual cut of 40 percent of the recovered property. In this case, that amounts to just over $50,000.

What begins as a simple mystery of stolen goods quickly begins to unravel into a chaotic mass of murder, secrets, crooked cops and threats. Spero finds himself in deeper than any of his investigations have ever taken him. It’s almost like he’s back in Iraq. Suddenly, he’s at war.

The Cut as a title begins as a reference to the percentage Spero charges for his services, but as the novel becomes more dangerous, and Spero wades deeper into a treacherous game, it also becomes a reference to the psychological wounds he already bears, and the new ones beginning to make their mark as a simple job becomes a fight for his life.

There’s nothing complicated about The Cut. It’s a detective story, and it works well as a detective story, but it’s not ornamented with any of the tired gimmicks that dominate modern crime thrillers. What makes The Cut special is the way the tale is told.

Few crime writers working today can muster the simple narrative power Pelecanos brings to a work. It’s a perfect balance of hard-boiled punch and literary sophistication, without any sense of lingering too long on either. The result is a story that’s taut, gripping and addictive.

The Cut cements George Pelecanos as a titan among American crime writers. This book will keep you up late reading and then stick in your head like a bullet.

The Cut is in bookstores August 29

Advance Reading Copy courtesy of Little Brown

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: 'Spycatcher' by Matthew Dunn

Spy thrillers are legion in the world of popular fiction, like serial killer stories or military adventures. This one is receiving much of its buzz based on the fact that the author, Matthew Dunn, is an actual ex-agent for British intelligence, who is using his real name and his real experiences to pen fictional accounts of spies.

Spycatcher is Dunn’s debut, and the debut of his hero, Will Cochrane. Cochrane is more than just your average spy. He is Spartan, an elite agent put through a one-man training program to become the most highly skilled and dangerous operative the British have. So basically, he’s James Bond, but the suave, the card playing and the vodka drinking go out the window from page one.

Dunn’s hero is a hardened soldier, a warrior trained to carry out the mission and not stop until the job is done. This particular job begins when a long-time Iranian informant dies, and Cochrane himself is nearly killed in the ensuing scuffle with terrorists. With the help of higher-ups in both MI6 and the CIA, Cochrane uncovers a massive terrorist conspiracy centered around one man: Meggido, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general who is a legendary force in the spy world. And what’s more, he might just be the man responsible for a dark event in Cochrane’s own past. With a ticking clock winding down to a massive terrorist event, Cochrane has to bring Meggido down or risk the death of hundreds.

Spycatcher has all the trappings of a conventional spy thriller – exotic locales, shadowy meetings, even a damsel in distress (of sorts). Where it breaks away from the rest of the genre is in the rawness of Dunn’s writing, something that’s both a blessing and a curse for the novel.

You can tell that Dunn has been in the spy game, and the reason you can tell is that a great many moments, characters and descriptions in Spycatcher are seen through a different lens than that of any other thriller author working today. Dunn’s world is one filled with shadows. People aren’t fully formed, places are seen in terms of what they mean to the mission. In Will Cochrane’s eyes, everything is the objective, everything is getting the job done. This is the result of Dunn’s attempt to bring a truer version of a spy story – where things are much more businesslike and done with much less finesse – to life.

The downside of this, of course, is that it doesn’t always make for the most entertaining reading. The often half-formed, shadowy men that populate Cochrane’s world become wooden characters. The locales become names and not places. The mission becomes a  roadmap and not an experience. Most of the time the story’s simple uniqueness of spirit shines through, but occasionally it gets lost in the attempt to make things seem more real.

Spycatcher is an entertaining and fast read, but one that’s definitely the work of a beginner. If Dunn can learn how to be a writer telling a spy story rather than a spy writing down what it’s like to be a spy, then his next works will be even better. As it is, his debut effort still manages to pump out a good bit of fun.

'30 Minutes or Less,' funny but not exactly fulfilling

Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari working to rob Michael Cera of all his movie deals.

Take an everyday schmuck, put him in way over his head and watch him fight and wise crack his way out. It’s a common comedy device these days, and 30 Minutes or Less is another addition to the heap of new slacker comedies that feature very ordinary characters in very extraordinary situations.

The comedy of this flick lies in both the absurdity of its situation and in the absolute panic of its characters as they try to muddle their way through a series of bizarre hurdles. The comedy works (most of the time), but the rest of 30 Minutes or Less might leave a bad taste.

Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a pizza delivery boy who hates his job, where people are constantly trying to cheat him out of money by ordering pizzas that he can’t possibly deliver in his company’s promised “30 minutes or less” time frame. He kills time hanging out with his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) and Chet’s sexy sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), who he’s had a crush on since high school. It’s never made clear why he’s just a pizza boy, or what he’d rather be doing, but what is clear is that it’s something else.

While Nick is a slacker who at least seems to have some semblance of a brain in his head, there are two other slackers in this flick unburdened by intelligence. Dwayne (Danny McBride) is an unemployed half-wit constantly berated by his lottery winning, ex-military father (Fred Ward). When a stripper gives him the idea that he could help his father into the grave and get his million dollar inheritance a little early, Dwayne enlists the aid of his friend Travis (Nick Swardson) to raise $100,000 to pay a hitman to get rid of Daddy. Their plan: find some guy, strap a bomb to his chest and force him to rob a bank under the threat of blowing up at any moment.

Their unlucky victim happens to be Nick, who’s just trying to deliver a pizza when he gets knocked out cold and strapped to high explosives. He’s given a 10 hour timer and a threat that he can be blown up by a speed dial detonator at any moment, and set on his merry way to get the money. Naturally, the first person he goes to for help is Chet, and the two set off on a chaotic odyssey of desperate crime, laughing all the way.

Well, not exactly, but close enough. The comedy in films like this comes from the crazed reaction that comes when ordinary people get bombs strapped to their chests, and it’s here that 30 Minutes or Less succeeds most. This is largely due to the efforts of Eisenberg and Ansari, who are both endearing enough to make the chaos of the situations work in their favor. The comedy flows through them, and they milk it for all its worth, particularly Ansari, who’s a scene stealer to the last.

The problem comes when you realize the movie has no real heart to back up the darkness of the jokes. We have no real reason to care about anyone other than the easy visual reference that tells us that Eisenberg and Ansari are the good guys and McBride and Swardson are the bad guys. The movie’s flow relies entirely on the careening criminal scenarios and the jokes that spin off them. After a while, you’re still laughing, but you don’t remember who you’re laughing at, and that’s the difference between a good comedy and great one.
Still, director Ruben Fleischer (who made the brilliant Zombieland) and writer Michael Diliberti manage the feat of taking a story about something ugly and making it into something funny. It’s crude and tasteless most of the time, but 30 Minutes or Less keeps you laughing, and even though it sometimes leaves you with a less than wonderful feeling about humanity, the laughs are worth the trip.

Friday, August 5, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: 'Cold Vengeance' by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child write the kind of relentlessly fun books that some people feel guilty for reading. They’re filled with improbable plots, out of this world characters and concepts that push the limits of plausibility. But they’re also firmly grounded in the heart and passion of good storytelling, and that makes all the difference.

Cold Vengeance is just what the title suggests: a revenge story, but a revenge story layered with a search and sewn throughout with the seeds of mysterious shadows that will come to light in future books. It’s the kind of thing Preston and Child have gotten ridiculously good at over the course of the last five or six of their novels featuring preternaturally smart FBI Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast.

Picking up after the events of the last novel, Fever Dream (don’t worry, you can still follow it pretty well even if you didn’t catch that one), Cold Vengeance follows Pendergast as he attempts to prove that his wife Helen was never killed by a lion, as he always believed, but was murdered. After a near miss on a hunting trip in Scotland that sets him on the trail of a killer, Pendergast begins his journey for revenge, a worldwide chase that takes him from Scotland, to New York and to his ancestral home in Louisiana, and begins to reveal a conspiracy deeper than even he could have ever guessed.

The novel flits between the hunter (Pendergast) and the hunted, with occasional glimpses into the lives of Pendergast’s old pals Vincent D’Agosta and Corrie Swanson (a Pendergast collaborator from an earlier Preston and Child effort, Still Life with Crows) as they both attempt to help their determined friend and do a little digging of their own into the situation.

Cold Vengeance is a continuation of Preston and Child’s efforts to dig deeper into their favorite hero’s past, something that was kept hidden for several books, and which the character himself often avoided discussing. It’s a successful effort, in part because it offers a refreshing change from the Pendergast who traveled the world solving random crimes, but also because it gives a glimpse into a different side of the character. So many authors are content with letting their thriller heroes languish in the same existence over two dozen novels, holding themselves with same air of indestructibility or in over their head enthusiasm. Preston and Child are daring enough to roll the dice with a Pendergast consumed by his mission, driven by his desire to not only find vengeance, but to find the truth. His cool exterior begins to crack in this book, and even though it’s always fun to see everyone’s favorite Southern aristocrat crime solver be a snooty cracker of jokes, it’s both refreshing and surprising to see him in a darker mode.

Though the character is changing, the old Preston and Child fun is still there. The authors keep everything hurtling forward at a breathless pace, making this yet another of their books to keep you reading late into the night. And by the end, you’ll only want more.

Preston and Child’s books are seen by too many readers as a kind of guilty pleasure, as something  they read to escape from more sensible books. But they shouldn’t be, because despite over the top concepts and superhuman characters, they’re still among the best thrillers you can find.