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Showing posts by: Court Haslett click to see Court Haslett's profile
Apr 6 2017 12:00pm

Review: Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts

Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts is the 4th book in the Long Beach Homicide series, nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

In the same way that Led Zeppelin birthed a legion of '80s hair bands belting out bad power ballads, Raymond Chandler shoulders responsibility for countless wisecracking detectives spouting dubious, cringe-inducing similes. So it’s always with more than a little trepidation that I begin any new procedural—such as Come Twilight, the 4th in Tyler Dilts’s Long Beach Homicide series—that features, well, a wisecracking detective.

It doesn’t take long (the second paragraph, in fact) to realize that Danny Beckett is not your typical hardboiled protagonist—unless, that is, you think Philip Marlowe was the type to binge-watch Downton Abbey, create Spotify playlists, or listen to podcasts. Beckett even has facility with social media. And if that’s not enough to distinguish him from your boilerplate gumshoe, get this: Beckett also has a sense of humor that isn’t just of the gallows variety. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not all puppies and rainbows—he’s still a cop after all. Beckett is grumpy, emotionally detached, and needs his alone time, but he’s not—refreshingly—a walking anachronism from the '50s.

[Read Court Haslett's review of Come Twilight...]

Apr 5 2016 11:30am

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr is the 10th Bernie Gunther novel, nominated for the Edgar Award for “Best Novel.”

Philip Kerr’s historical crime series, featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther, spans over twenty years, three continents, countless double crosses, and more than a few gun-toting fräuleins. Though the bulk of the series revolves around events occurring around the time of WWII, Kerr does not write the series chronologically, choosing instead to jump around from the 1930s to the 1950s. It’s notable, though, that Kerr waited until the 9th and 10th books in the series, A Man Without Breath and his latest, The Lady from Zagreb, to tackle the later years of World War II, when the atrocities carried out by the Nazi government were becoming widely known, even to native Germans who were being purposefully kept in the dark.

One can understand why Kerr would hesitate to write about this time in German history. It’s one thing for Gunther, the sardonic, wise-cracking protagonist of the series, to hold down his job in Berlin as a private detective in the years leading up to the war, while also maintaining a strong dislike for the Nazi Party; it’s quite another challenge for Gunther, who travels in the highest circles of power, to maintain his disdain for the Nazis during the war without either being complicit in the crimes of the regime or being killed for insubordination.

[Read Court Haslett's review of The Lady from Zagreb here...]

Apr 23 2015 12:00pm

The Americans 3.13: Season Finale “March 8, 1983”

The Season 3 finale of The Americans was a surprisingly low-key affair. Of the myriad confrontations we’d been bracing ourselves for, none really materialized in any significant way. I think I understand what the creators, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields (also the episode’s co-writers), were trying to accomplish by concluding the season with such a quiet, reflective episode. In one respect, they were declaring what their show is not. It is not one of those other Washington D.C. based shows, constantly throwing outrageous plot twists and cliffhangers at you (cough cough, Scandal, ahem Homeland, looking at you, House of Cards). Instead, we are a character driven show about family, honesty, identity, and loyalty. If there were any doubts about this before, Season 3 definitively answered those questions. Weisberg and Fields have crafted a tense, melancholy show utterly unique to itself, all while providing a slew of memorable, often cringe-inducing scenes.

By that measure, last night’s episode, “March 9, 1983,” was a success. It was another well-acted, emotional, soul searching hour of television. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just another episode. This was the finale, the supposed culmination of carefully and intensely plotted storylines that appeared destined for head-on collisions. Yet Weisberg and Field chose to either neglect these heavily foreshadowed conflicts, or, in one glaring instance, conclude it in a tepid, unsatisfying way. The result was a finale that left me wondering whether I’d made a mistake about this being the last episode of the season or if there was actually one more airing next week. I’m pretty sure that’s not the best reaction one should have to a season finale, even one that was as well made as this one.

[If they'd like to provide another episode, I won't stop them...]

Apr 16 2015 11:00am

The Americans 3.12: “I Am Abassin Zadran”

Going into last night’s episode of The Americans, I had mentally prepared myself for all things grisly. The borderline sadistic tenor of Season 3, combined with the fact that many of television’s “luxury brands” use the penultimate episode of a season to stage their climaxes, meant anything short of a Texas cage match between Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) and the Mail Robot was on the table. So after viewing “I Am Abassin Zadran,” I was more than a little surprised to find myself contemplating, of all things, a cup of tea.

But this is The Americans we’re talking about, where even a simple cup of tea is not quite what it seems. Just ask Abassin Zadran’s countrymen who, after accepting an invitation to his late night tea party, found their throats being slit. While Zadran (George Georgiou) is the instrument of death for his fellow Mujahideen, he is also meant to represent Death in the broader sense that he is out there, waiting for everyone. But there are a couple of characters who might be getting the proverbial knock on their hotel room door from Zadran sooner rather than later.

Who exactly might they be?

[Not the Mail Robot! Anyone but the Mail Robot!]

Apr 9 2015 9:45am

The Americans 3.11: “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov”

Phew! For the first time in weeks, nobody on The Americans was lit on fire, no one was stuffed into a suitcase, no little old ladies were killed, and no teenage girls lost their innocence. And you know what? I’m fine with that. The audience needed a break after the emotional wringer it’s been put through this season. With only two episodes left, and the eye of the storm on its way, it was a good time to breathe deeply and mentally prepare for the question Gabriel (Frank Langella) asked Philip (Matthew Rhys) last night, “Can you handle whatever might be coming at you next?”

Not that I would call “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov” a light-hearted romp through the park (the title is a play on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Characters spend much of the hour struggling to digest the tumultuous events of the last few weeks, events that have placed many of them, like Ivan Denisovich, in their own private “gulags.” Paige (Holly Taylor) has emerged from her daze to go on the attack, demanding answers from her parents about their deception; Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov), seduced by Nina’s charms (Annet Mahendru), opens up about the pain he feels for his son in America; Philip continues to stew over Gabriel’s treatment of him and his family; and Martha (Alison Wright) must contend with Walter Taffet (Jefferson Mays), the man with a “mind like a computer.”

[Which is a big step above a “mind like a mail robot”...]

Apr 2 2015 10:45am

The Americans 3.10: “Stingers”

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings; Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings; & Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings.

In last night’s “Stingers,” The Americans continued its pattern of structuring its episodes around one extended, intimate, difficult-to-watch scene. Though sometimes harrowing due to the infliction of physical pain, more often than not it is some form of emotional trauma that causes the viewer to look away. Last night’s featured scene promised to be the most trying yet, as it’s the one we’ve been dreading all season, the moment when Paige (Holly Taylor) finally learns the truth about the family business.

And yet, of all the distressing confrontations we’ve had to endure, this one was surprisingly painless. Part of the reason is because we’ve had to witness some pretty awful stuff lately, so anything short of euthanizing an old lady would come as a relief. But there were a couple of other factors at play that also lessened the impact of the Big Reveal. First, the writers have been loudly signaling this eventuality (even again in last night’s episode, when Paige asks her parents, “Are you trying to turn me into a travel agent?") that we were more than prepared for it, even if it was Paige and not Elizabeth (Keri Russell) that broached the topic. The audience has been bracing for this conversation since the swimming lesson flashback in Episode 1. With that long of a wind-up, it’s only natural that we would feel a bit of a let down.

[It took a bit too long t get here...]

Mar 26 2015 9:15am

The Americans 3.09: “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Lois Smith as Betty, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

Almost every episode in the third season of The Americans has featured at least one scene that is excruciatingly painful for the viewer to watch. These cringe-inducing scenes, from the disposing of Analise’s body, to Philip’s dental work, to Nina’s betrayal of Evi, to last week’s necklacing, have become hallmarks of the series. But even given the high bar they’ve set for themselves in this regard, last night’s meeting between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Betty (Lois Smith), an elderly bookkeeper who “picked a bad time” to pay the bills, was stunning. When a series can cause a grizzled curmudgeon like myself to yell, “That’s it, I hate you, Americans!” during an episode, you know they’ve hit close to the bone.

A lot of other important developments went down in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” a playful title with deeper resonance, but I’ll save those comments for later. There’s just too much to get into regarding the conversation between Elizabeth and Betty. Elizabeth encounters the aging widower when the Jennings attempt to bug the mail robot (the clear breakout star of Season 3) after it is sent for repairs following Agent Gaad’s (Richard Thomas) senseless act violence. Betty is working late at the factory because that’s when she feels “most in tune” with her deceased husband, Gil, the company’s founder.

[Awww. An oh no!]

Mar 24 2015 10:30am

Fresh Meat: Knuckleball by Tom Pitts

Knuckleball is a noir novella by Tom Pitts set in San Francisco during a busy baseball weekend when a well-liked police officer is gunned down (available March 24, 2015).

With its ever-sprouting skyscrapers, Google buses, and $12 juices, contemporary San Francisco is an unlikely setting for Noir. Not that San Francisco can’t work as the backdrop for other types of crime stories. After all, felonies are committed by all socioeconomic classes (I’m looking at you, Robert Durst). But as a location for the doomed, dark stories spun in traditional Noir, modern-day San Francisco, where the sky (and rent) is literally the limit, is an incongruous choice, to say the least.

Yet somehow, Tom Pitts continues to successfully mine San Francisco for exactly these types of sordid tragedies. In his first full-length novel, Hustle, Pitts wrote about the neglected corners of the skid row Tenderloin neighborhood like only an insider could. In place of hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and software engineers were male street hustlers, drug addicts, and blackmailers. For Knuckleball, a shotgun blast of a novella from short fiction specialist One Eye Press, Pitts takes us into San Francisco’s Mission district. Not surprisingly, this is not the Mission of trendy restaurants and expensive boutiques, but the original, working class Mission, the barrio, populated with families, corner tiendas, and of course, hustlers of all stripes.

[You're in for a memorable trip...]

Mar 19 2015 2:45pm

The Americans 3.08: “Divestment”

In an early scene in last night’s The Americans, Oleg’s father calls Arkady (Lev Gorn) to ask why his son has not been sent home as he requested. When Arkady answers that Oleg (Costa Ronin) would like to finish his work in America before returning, the Minister of Railways is not happy. But instead of directly pulling rank on Arkady, he appeals to him on an emotional level, explaining to Arkady that he has two sons far away from home, Oleg in the U.S., and another fighting in Afghanistan. Asking for one his sons to be close to him is merely “a very human request.”

This intimate, more personal sentiment prevails throughout the entire episode, giving it an even more contemplative mood than usual. The title, “Divestment,” sardonically refers to the fate of Eugene Venter (Neil Sandilands), the South African intelligence officer kidnapped at the end of last episode. However, it applies more obliquely to the way in which other characters back off (divest) from their professional and emotional rigidity, allowing empathy to help guide their actions. Elizabeth (Keri Russell)in particular seems to soften the most, as she bookends the episode by making another “very human request” of Gabriel.

[We're not used to a soft Elizabeth...]

Mar 12 2015 3:00pm

The Americans 3.07: “Walter Taffet”

It took three seasons, but the full range of Alison Wright's acting abilities were on display in

For most of Season 3, The Americans has attempted to tie the various plotlines of each episode together with a unifying theme. Whether it’s been adolescence, or religion, or suitcases, the creators have clearly put thought into not only the surface story, but also what each week is about. While I suppose last night’s episode, “Walter Taffet,” could loosely be described as being about helplessness, it mostly took a break from this formula and let the characters interact without the need to make any larger statement. Directed thoughtfully by Noah Emmerich (Stan) “Walter Taffet” was an episode of quiet moments, punctuated by one big revelation and one big action sequence.

The revelation is one we’ve been waiting on for almost two seasons. The pen that never barked was finally discovered in Agent Gaad’s (Richard Thomas) office by Aderholt (whose constant question-asking and apple-polishing have begun to annoy Stan). The immediate fallout from this reveal was to finally give Alison Wright her first opportunity to show her acting range (unless you consider incessantly nagging Clark and kind of nagging Clark to be a wide range). Her performance as Martha throughout is riveting. After recovering from her initial shock, she desperately tries to destroy the recording mechanism in a suspenseful, claustrophobic bathroom scene. She then must endure an electronic sweep of the bullpen before returning home, suspicious of Clark. Clearly shaken, she obfuscates to Clark about what really happened at the office, then demands he take her to his apartment. Philip (Matthew Rhys) can sense something is off with Martha, but attributes it to her frustration at wanting a foster child.

[What will Martha do next?]

Mar 5 2015 10:45am

The Americans 3.06: “Born Again”

Julia Garner as Kimberly Breland, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings

If last night’s opening scene of The Americans was the first time a bathtub had been prominently featured this season, it would be easy to take the events of the scene at face value. After all, Paige (Holly Taylor) had lobbied hard and received permission from her parents to become baptized by Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). But in a season that has had more bathtubs than an ‘80s Prince video, it’s reasonable to assume that the creators had something more in mind. Sure enough, right after Paige takes the plunge for Jesus, she emerges in a manner that cinematically recalls a shot from earlier in the season when Elizabeth (Keri Russell), also taking a bath, comes up for air. This similarity gives a more ominous element to last week’s scene of Elizabeth furiously scrubbing the Jennings’ tub. Is she cleaning it, not for herself, but for Paige, in preparation for another type of conversion? By the end of the “Born Again,” it appears that this is indeed the case. Paige is on the path to be transformed, only it’s not in Jesus’s image as she originally expected, but in her mother’s.

Before Elizabeth makes her move on Paige, Philip (Matthew Rhys) tries his best to warn Paige of what’s coming (as Paige distractedly replaces her Rick Springfield poster for one of Paris. One can’t help but wonder if this is foreshadowing of the eventual spinoff, The Americans in Paris. Get it? Okay, moving on.) by telling her to stay true to herself, even if the people pressuring her have her best interest at heart. Philip’s counsel is not only appropriate for Paige (though she is understandably confused by his crypticness) but for other characters in “Born Again,” as well, many who find themselves being subtly manipulated by those close to them.

[Be careful who you trust...]

Feb 26 2015 11:30am

The Americans 3.05: “Salang Pass”

Early in last night’s episode of The Americans, “Salang Pass,” Philip (Matthew Rhys) listens to a BBC radio report of a deadly incident in Afghanistan’s Salang Tunnel. The initial estimate of fatalities released by the Soviet government was under 200, but it is now believed that the real number was closer to 2,000. The cause of the fire is also in dispute. The Soviets maintain it was a traffic incident, while the Afghani’s claim it as a successful military operation.

Neither the source of the Salang Tunnel Fire nor the number of casualties, however, is relevant to the rest of the episode. In fact, other than the radio broadcast, it is never mentioned again by anyone. Why, then, title the episode after it? The answer lies in the central conflict of Season 3, whether or not Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) should tell Paige (Holly Taylor) the truth about their family in order to indoctrinate her into the second-generation illegals program. For Elizabeth, telling Paige is the normal progression. Why shouldn’t Paige know who she really is? As Elizabeth points out, Kimberly (Julia Garner), the troubled teen of a CIA officer, doesn’t know the truth about her parents, and look at how she’s turned out, a complete mess.

[It's not as black and white for Philip...]

Feb 19 2015 10:30am

The Americans 3.04: “Dimebag”

The one essential quality for survival in The Americans is the ability to tell a convincing lie. Given the show’s subject matter, this isn’t a particularly insightful revelation; good spycraft demands effective duplicity. Without it, you put not only your life in danger, but your colleagues and fellow countrymen, as well. “Dimebag,” the fourth in a string of remarkable episodes, flips the standard script of The Americans, asking: What are the consequences when characters start telling the truth to one another in their personal lives? The answer is not that different than what it would be in their professional lives — a bloodbath. Not a literal one, with guns and bullets, but an emotional one with disappointment and heartbreak. Yep, welcome to another uplifting episode of The Americans!

“Dimebag” begins with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) running surveillance on Kimberly (Julia Garner), the teenage daughter of an important CIA operative. After listening to Kimberly make a pass at an older man last episode, Elizabeth and Philip (Matthew Rhys) realize she might be a vulnerable target. Their hunch about her reckless personality is confirmed when Elizabeth witnesses her buying drugs at the park. Philip is reluctant to engage with Kimberly, noting that they’d never used someone this young before. Elizabeth, further establishing “who wears the pants” in the family (a phrase she uses to mock Philip about his status with Martha), is having none of it, stating that the “The CIA’s a hard target.”

[Kimberly's not that much older than Paige...]

Feb 12 2015 11:30am

The Americans 3.03: “Open House”

“Open House” had all the elements we’ve come to expect from The Americans: car chases, marital maneuverings, Rezidentura intrigue, and another intimate, cringe-worthy scene of violence (something that is quickly becoming a trademark of the show). Yet at the end of the episode, we are pretty much at the same point we were the previous week: Nina’s (Annet Mahendru) fate is still in limbo, the FBI is no closer to capturing Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), there is no plan on how the KGB will infiltrate the CIA Afghan group, and, despite what seemed like a definitive shift the week before, Paige’s (Holly Taylor) future with regard to the second generation illegals program is no closer to being determined.

Not that I’m complaining. It’s structurally impossible to make every episode of a television series an earth shattering surprise. Well, unless you're Shonda Rhimes, then anything goes. But otherwise, there have to be a few episodes in every season that are plate spinners. And when the plate spinners are as entertaining as “Open House,” who really cares? Better to just sit back with a bottle of Stan’s single malt Irish whiskey and enjoy the ride.

[You'll need to take the edge off for some of these scenes...]

Feb 5 2015 10:30am

The Americans 3.02: “Baggage”

In The Americans 3.02 "Baggage", her back might be straight, but Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is carrying plenty of baggage.

The Americans followed up its action-packed premiere with one of its most contemplative episodes to date. Apart from a quick chase scene and a heart-stopping encounter between Oleg (Costa Ronin) and Stan (Noah Emmerich), most of the hour is spent cleaning up last week’s messes, leaving plenty of time for the principal characters to ponder their pasts and plan for their futures. The title of the episode, “Baggage,” specifically references a piece of luggage Elizabeth (Keri Russell) brings to a memorable, cringe-inducing scene, but it also applies more generally to the emotional and psychological baggage everyone on the show, but particularly Elizabeth, seems to be lugging around these days.

Elizabeth, somehow decoding Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) request for help moving files at the office as a request for help disposing of a dead body at a hotel, arrives at Annelise’s (Gillian Alexy) murder scene with the titular suitcase. She also brings along a handy plastic tarp, and with the help of Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), the three literally get cracking, breaking Annelise’s bones with unnerving precision in order to cram her into the suitcase.

[They really have a plan for everything...]

Jan 29 2015 10:30am

The Americans 3.01: Season Premiere “EST Men”

I can’t remember a show sticking the landing of its finale better than The Americans did in Season 2. Not only did they tie up all the intricate story arcs with a legitimately surprising twist, they did so in a way that organically created an even more disturbing cliffhanger going into Season 3 (and not in a “Wait, we still don’t know who killed Rosie Larson kind of way.”) Revealing that it was Jared, recruited by Kate to become a “second generation illegal,” who killed his family immediately brought the fate of Paige (Holly Taylor) into question. Would she also be forced into the service of Mother Russia, shattering everything she thought she knew about her life and her parents in the process, or would she be allowed to continue with her relatively normal teenage existence, which at the moment mostly involves singing folk songs at her church youth group with a mildly creepy hippy pastor?

The opening scene of the Season 3 premiere, “EST Men,” does not bode well for those hoping that Paige will avoid turning into Elizabeth 2.0. The episode opens with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) recalling the swimming lessons she gave to Paige. While the other mothers at the pool coddled their children with floaties and encouraging words, Elizabeth shoved a nervous and unsuspecting Paige into the deep end. Sink or swim, sweetie. It’s a bit of a heavy handed metaphor, but it also fits with what we know of Elizabeth’s early maternal instincts.

[I mean, it worked. Paige learned how to swim...]

Oct 27 2014 2:30pm

Boardwalk Empire 5.08: Series Finale “Eldorado”

The final season of Boardwalk Empire had been on two distinct tracks: one focused on Nucky’s professional struggles and the other on his personal demons. Until last week, it appeared that these two trains were on a collision course and that Nucky would pay for his personal transgressions, but at the professional hand of Luciano or some other mobster. Then Nucky surprised everyone, even himself, and surrendered. Just like that, the mortal peril he’d been in disappeared. Nucky had defied the odds and gotten out alive.

[Tread carefully, spoilers lie inside...]

Oct 20 2014 12:45pm

Boardwalk Empire 5.07: “Friendless Child”

At the start of “Friendless Child,” the penultimate episode of Boardwalk Empire, the war between Nucky (Steve Buschemi) and Luciano (Vincent Piazza) has escalated. Nineteen men are dead, trucks are being fire bombed, and Nucky is ready to hit back harder. Despite Maranzano’s counsel of patience, Nucky, feeling “impetuous,” moves on his own, kidnapping Bugsy Seigel (Michael Zegan). When Luciano responds by grabbing Will Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) off the street, the stage is set for the showdown we’ve been expecting all season.

Given the strong fatalistic streak running through Nucky this season, I was prepared for the worst once the two gangs squared off on a deserted highway in the middle of the night in order to exchange hostages. So was Luciano. After a botched handoff gives Luciano the upper hand, not even Nucky’s full concession of Atlantic City and Bacardi can persuade Luciano not to kill him. It’s only after Nucky throws in the sweetener of killing Maranzano that Lansky, realizing the value of Nucky’s offering, steps in to spare his life.

[Just another deal with another devil...]

Oct 13 2014 2:00pm

Boardwalk Empire 5.06 “Devil You Know”

It’s taken nearly five seasons, but we’re finally close to answering the crucial question of Boardwalk Empire: Why is Nucky Thompson such a wet blanket? I mean, for a guy at the epicenter of the Roaring Twenties with wealth and power, he’s always a bit glum, isn’t he? Take last night’s episode, “Devil You Know.” Nucky’s having a good ole drunken time at a local dive with a couple of bawdy prostitutes, reciting poetry and talking dirty, until his existential side eventually wins out and he begins lecturing them. “Start at the bottom with nothing, you have nothing. There’s an opportunity, you take it. I mean what choice do you have. You don’t have a choice. Get yourself ahead. For what, though? For what? No one ever talks about that. No one ever asks, what’s the point?”

Come on, Nuck. Why do you have to be such a buzzkill? Besides, Joe Kennedy had asked that exact question a couple of episodes ago. Don’t you remember? Apparently, you do, because it’s still nagging at you. And after the events in last night’s episode, I’d say that not only has it been nagging at you for years, but it also explains your perpetual melancholy.

[He wasn't always this way...]

Oct 6 2014 1:30pm

Boardwalk Empire 5.05: “King of Norway”

In an episode heavy on talk about beginnings and endings, the most telling conversation in “King of Norway” comes between Nucky and Chalky, who are reunited at last. After Nucky advises Chalky to forget about the past and focus on starting over, Chalky reminds Nucky that “we aren’t schoolboys no more.” Nucky replies that “we aren’t dead either. That leaves a lot of road in the middle.” Skeptical of Nucky’s newfound optimism Chalky comments, “Maybe you just don’t see the end of it.”

While this exchange might foreshadow Nucky’s fate (as well as being a nice hat tip to the “You never see it coming” line from The Sopranos), it could also apply to almost everyone still standing in Boardwalk Empire. As the series sprints toward its conclusion, it seems every character is hoping for some sort of a new beginning. That some will have their hopes dashed is obvious. The only question remaining is who has some road left and who doesn’t.

[Where will the road take us?]