crime

REVIEW: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Narrated by Michael Page.

Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a small gang of thieves who are masters of the long con. They are not the petty criminals the other gangs of the city of Camorr think they are, instead they steal from the rich putting together heists full of disguises and trickery. The Lies of Locke Lamora follows the Gentleman Bastards as they start the ball rolling on their latest con, but there’s more going on here with challenges to the power structure of the criminal underworld of Camorr and bigger threats than they’ve ever encountered.

I loved this book and I’m annoyed at myself that it’s taken me so long to read it. I started reading it on my kindle way back in 2013, I got about 150 pages in but then stopped even though I did like the atmosphere and Locke as a character. I think the reason I stopped (besides life getting in the way) was because the beginning is a bit slow as it has a lot of things to set up. It’s more character focussed so you learn about who the Gentleman Bastards are and how they work, and how this whole world works with both the upper-class and the lower-class systems of Camorr too. Seven years later I tried again and this time I went with the audiobook which I thought was brilliant. The narrator did such a good job a distinguishing between the many characters in the story and he really brought this world to life, along with its dark humour. The Lies of Locke Lamora surprised me with how funny it is. A lot of that come from Locke’s sarcastic thoughts or his reactions to the situations he ends up in, and I just love characters with deadpan humour and who aren’t afraid to “Well shit, this isn’t going how I thought it would.”

The city of Camorr is kind of Venice-like with its canals and boats and the changing weather. The setting is also a bit historical and feels like the seventeenth century with the clothes they wear, the rules of society, and the style of language they use – though there is a lot of modern and inventive swearing too. However, there’s also some magical elements or alchemy to this world too, but it’s all weaved together in a way that makes it feel so real. Your plopped straight into the story and the setting is built up around the characters and the plot in an organic way and it never feels like there’s an infodump.

The structure of The Lies of Locke Lamora is really interesting. There’s the present where Locke and the Gentleman Bastards are grown up and conning noble people, and there’s interludes or flashbacks to when the Gentleman Bastards are children, where you see how they meet, and how they learn to be great thieves. The flashbacks were so great because they not only added backstory and layers to the characters, but they are just as engaging as the action in the present. I never got bored or annoyed when there was a flashback, even if one happened when the tension and the action was amping up in the present.

The characters are brilliant and are so lifelike. While they are all thieves and conmen, the Gentleman Bastards all have their own distinct quirks and personalities. The relationships between the Gentleman Bastards, in their various combinations, are wonderful too. They are more of a family and brothers in arms than just a gang. They all care deeply about one another and are willing to die for one another, and they all trust one another and it’s the epitome of the found family trope which I love.

Locke is a great leader of this family too. They each have their role and they often fit the archetypes of characters needed for a heist, and Locke is definitely the brains of the operation. That’s not to say he won’t bounce ideas off the others or listen to their advice, but he’s definitely the smartest one – and he’s often the smartest one in the room. His intelligence, and ability to think a couple of steps ahead is his superpower, so when there’s other people or powers who come into play that are potentially smarter than he is, that’s when things get even more interesting and you start to worry that these characters won’t make it out of this situation fully intact.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is such a fun and thrilling adventure story. There’s twists and turns and surprises, as with any good heist story, and there’s bloody fights and verbal battles. The Gentleman Bastards are characters I can’t wait to spend more time with, and I’m tempted to carry on this serious with the audiobooks if they have the same narrator because they were that good. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Venezuela: The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno

Translated by Guillermo Parra.

When leftist revolutionary Sergio’s sniper shot misses the President of Venezuela, he’s thrown into a sudden tailspin. As he attempts to escape the increasingly militarized regime, he winds up taking residence in a bohemian beachside commune, where he keeps a low profile until Lourdes, his former comrade, the object of his desire, and his possible betrayer, turns up one evening. Pursued by their former trainer in guerrilla warfare on the orders of the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, the two team up with unlikely partners to hatch a new plan for their survival.

Reading The Conspiracy is an experience. You follow multiple characters point of views throughout the story, giving you a wider understanding of the events unfolding after the failed assassination attempt than the majority of the characters. The sections from Sergio’s point of view are in the first person and there are often very long paragraphs and run on sentences. His mind is frantic and that comes across in the words on the page. There are times when he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing or doing and sees threats from everyone, making his narrative even more jumbled up and like a stream of consciousness.

The other characters point of views are written in the third person and while there’s still often long paragraphs, they tend to come across more measured and in control than Sergio, highlighting how his grip on reality is loosening.

The women in The Conspiracy are often described in a sexual manner with greater attention paid to their physical appearance – especially when it’s from Sergio’s point of view. It can be uncomfortable and eyeroll inducing due to the overtly sexual and lewd language used to describe them. But, with Lourdes especially, these women aren’t just there to be visually pleasing to the men. Lourdes is smart and capable and can tell when the walls are closing in and will go down all guns blazing if she sees no other choice.

There are a lot of twists and turns in The Conspiracy and while you as the reader tend to have more of an overview as to what’s going on than Sergio, there’s still surprises and people turn on one another or reveal secret plans. It makes it difficult to tell who to trust and while you learn more of Loudres’ backstory, the way the story is written means that like Sergio, you don’t always know if you can trust her motives.

The Conspiracy is full of backstabbing and political intrigue, but the writing style won’t be for everyone though with its manic energy and an unreliable narrator in Sergio. But at just over 200 pages, it’s a story that goes by at a steady pace and is an engaging read. 3/5.

REVIEW: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

After splitting up from the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is pulled into the hunt for street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) by crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) where she crosses paths with club singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

First of all, the rather long title of Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is misleading. This film really should be called Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey because it’s Harley’s movie first, and a Birds of Prey introduction second. So, adjust your expectations over who is more likely to get the most screen time here.

On to the film itself. Birds of Prey is a lot of fun. It does take a while to find its groove and that’s down to the multiple flashbacks that often grind the flow of the film to a halt, especially towards the beginning when you just want to follow these characters who all seem so interesting. Birds of Prey is a story told from Harley Quinn’s point of view, she narrates the story and interrupts herself now and then when she realises she’s skipped a bit. The narrative is often as chaotic and fractured as Harley’s mind which is equal parts interesting and jarring.

The start of Birds of Prey is more of a character study of Harley. She and the Joker have broken up and she’s struggling to get over him and find her who she is when she’s not tied to him. With all the gangsters, criminals and cops out to get her now she’s no longer under the Joker’s protection, Harley must think quick on her feet. It turns out that Harley isn’t as defenceless and as in need of protection as a lot of people think, of if she does need or want help, it’s not going to be from the men who seek to control her. Margot Robbie’s Harley has so many layers and insecurities and strengths and it’s refreshing to see a character like her work through the pain of a breakup and find an inner resolve.

The five main female characters cross each other’s paths in different combinations throughout the film which is great as you get to see different aspects of their personality depending on who they’re with. But it’s in the final act when they finally all come together to take down the bad guys that the film really clicks. It’s an absolute joy to watch them all fight side by side, have banter in between punches and generally compliment and encourage each other at any chance they get.

The fight choreography is brilliant as each character’s fighting style suits their character and no woman fights the same. Harley’s incorporates gymnastic elements, Huntress’s is clean and precise after so many years relentlessly training, while Renee’s is more like a bruiser, throwing punches and is far from elegant. The fight sequences are also fun and innovative with the soundtrack (which is full of absolute tunes) complimenting the action on screen.

While there’s a lot of bad guys for the leading ladies to overcome, the main threat to them all is Roma Sionis. He is volatile, menacing and dramatic. He’s the sort of character you never quite know what he’s going to do next and McGregor gives a great performance. Sionis’ right hand man is Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and their relationship comes across as queer coded and there’s often shifts in power dynamics between the two of them which is as fascinating as it is unnerving.

Birds of Prey is a bit shaky at times, but the characters and the action pull everything together. It’s a bright, psychedelic fairground of a film with paint bombs and glitter and it suits these characters perfectly. 4/5.

REVIEW: Little Woods (2018)

Ollie (Tessa Thompson), a reformed drug runner who was caught coming back from Canada with medicine for her dying mother is trying to do the right thing when her sister Deb (Lily James) arrives on her doorstep in need of help. As the sisters try to get the money together to stop their family home from being reposed, Ollie must go back to the dangerous way of life she thought she’d left behind.

Little Woods is described as a modern Western and that description makes sense. Ollie does illegal things, crossing the border into Canada to buy drugs, to help people. The people she sells the prescription drugs to are her friends and neighbours who often don’t have insurance or the time or the money to go to the hospital to get treated themselves. This job Ollie finds herself in, is not one she enjoys, and she is in constant fear that she’ll get caught, but when things get tough for her and her sister, they have very few options. She’s fighting the system and helping the little guy while in a town that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.

Little Woods shows how messed up the American health care system is when a pregnancy can cost at least $8,000, and getting an abortion is even more difficult. Never mind all the other health care costs characters in Little Woods face, and as they are in a former oil boomtown with very few financial prospects, it’s like a hopeless cycle.

Tessa Thompson and Lily James both give a brilliant performance full of pain as they struggle to dig themselves out of the bleak situations they are in. Thompson is the lead and the main focus of the film but the strong sisterly bond the two of them have is palpable and it adds another dimension to Little Woods as each of their actions are not just for themselves, but to help each other.

Director and writer Nia DaCosta allows the camera to linger on the characters, so you get to see more of their inner conflict, especially when a character is now on their own or no one except the camera, is looking at them.

The score composed by Brian McOmber is haunting and compliments the beautiful cinematography by Matt Mitchell. Set in an North Dakota town, the setting of Little Woods is equal parts pretty and desolate as the wide-open spaces give way to struggling communities.

Little Woods is a tense atmospheric thriller with compelling performances from Thompson and James. 4/5.

Little Woods or Crossing the Line as it’s called in the UK, is currently available to rent and buy quite cheaply on iTunes – I’d definitely recommend it.

REVIEW: Runaway Jury (2003)

The biggest court case of the century is taking place in New Orleans and it’s against one of the biggest gun manufacturers in the country. But this case can be bought thanks to man on the inside Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) aka Juror Number Nine, and his woman on the outside Marlee (Rachel Weisz). As the case heats up with the defence doing anything to make the juror’s follow their game plan, Nicholas and Marlee, along with the other juror’s, get in increasingly dangerous situations.

Having read and really enjoyed The Runaway Jury by John Grisham earlier this year (my review is here if you’re interested) I thought I’d give the film adaptation a go. And all in all, it’s a fairly decent film though naturally a lot is left out to make adapt the over 500-page novel.

Runaway Jury is a decent courtroom thriller. It follows the standard format for the genre, with twists and turns, some are predictable while others not so, but it never really over does them. It’s the central performances which are the really good and interesting thing about Runaway Jury.

Gene Hackman plays Rankin Fitch, a shady jury consultant who will use any means necessary to get the verdict to go in the favour of the defence, the gun manufactures. Fitch is ruthless and the way Hackman plays him makes him more than the moustache-twirling villain he could’ve been. On the other side of the courtroom is Dustin Hoffman playing prosecuting lawyer Wendall Rohr. Rohr is more affable and charming than Fitch but doesn’t make him any less smart or competent at his job.

There is just one scene Hackman and Hoffman have together and it’s possibly the most intense and electric scene in the whole movie. As they verbally spar over the morality of what each of them is doing to win the case the tension is palpable and it’s one of the few times either character seems to be close to breaking point.

Cusack and Weisz making a dynamic duo as they play cat and mouse with the lawyers and the other jurors. Weisz especially stands out as she holds her own in confrontations between both Hackman and Hoffman.

Runaway Jury is standard courtroom thriller but thanks to the compelling performances of the four central actors it becomes an entertaining film. 3/5.

REVIEW: Joker (2019)

In Gotham City, wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is disregarded and mistreated by those around him. As he embarks on a downward spiral of violence and crime, he comes face-to-face with his alter-ego – “Joker”.

There’s been much debate and “controversy” surrounding Joker long before it was released to the general public, and to be honest it wasn’t high on my list of films I wanted to watch. But when a friend from work said he wanted to see it, and I’m not someone who needs much of a push to go to the cinema, I said “Sure let’s go.”

Joker is the origin story of perhaps the most famous comic book villain. But really, it’s more of a character deconstruction than just an origin story. You see Arthur get beaten up multiple times and he’s lied to and made fun of – it’s tough to see a character being ground down so much and so often. Slowly, Arthur is pushed to the edge, and when he finally puts on the Joker makeup (which is different to the clown make up he wears for work) he becomes a whole new person.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a fantastic performance. His whole physicality changes bit by bit as he becomes closer to the persona of the Joker. The camera lingers on Phoenix’s body when he’s half-dressed, making his unhealthy skinny body on full display and an uncomfortable image. Phoenix’s “Joker” laugh is different to a lot of the iterations that have come before it. It’s unsettling as it goes on far longer than you’d expect, and it’s an uncontrollable and almost painful thing for him.

This film doesn’t have much action with the Arthur going crazy and causing chaos, instead the moments of action and violence are used sparingly which amps up the tension and makes the whole experience more uncomfortable as you’re never sure when Arthur is going to snap next.

Arthur is an interesting and flawed character and as everything in Joker is from Arthur’s point of view, pretty much all the other characters and their actions are window-dressing to the downward spiral of his life. The same can be said for the films setting. There’s brief mentions of the huge divide between the rich and the poor, and the cutting to funding for mental health and social services, that’s present in this Gotham City and how it affects Arthur and the city’s population. However, these themes are never fleshed out fully, and are instead a backdrop and a potential reason for Arthur’s issues.

Joker leaves you a lot to think about, but upon reflection, it might not say as much as it thinks it does. It’s an uncomfortable viewing experience and for the most part that is down to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He is great, but the film he’s a part of is perhaps not as deep as it thought it was. 3/5.

REVIEW: Hot Pursuit (2015)

Uptight and by-the-book cop Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) tries to protect Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara), the wife of a drug boss, from crooked cops and murderous gunmen as they race across Texas so Riva can testify.

Hot Pursuit is a crime-comedy film which isn’t that funny. Witherspoon plays the uptight and desperate to prove herself cop well, but her character is very one note for the majority of the film, and that one note can become grating after a while. Vergara’s Riva is loud and brash, and watching her and Cooper clash can sometimes be fun, however her shtick does get repetitive rather quickly.

There are the usual tropes of the witness trying to get away, the arguments and then the unlikely duo working together to survive. It’s when Cooper and Riva do reluctantly work together that the film starts to be fun, but there’s too many times where one turns on the other, so they end up at cross-purposes again and it feels like the story and the characters have taken three steps back again.

One thing Hot Pursuit has got going for it is it does get to the main plot and the action pretty quickly but it also has some very cringey and almost wince-inducing moments too as jokes fail to land and everyone just looks very awkward.

Unfortunately, the funniest part of Hot Pursuit is the gag reel that plays during the credits. That gets you laughing out loud, and a few proper belly laughs too, whereas the rest of the film is lucky to get a few chuckles at best.

Hot Pursuit is full of clichés and not very funny, though the sparks of what could be great chemistry between Witherspoon and Vergara manages to make the film a bit more bearable. 2/5.

REVIEW: Bright (2017)

In an alternate present-day where magical creatures live among us, two L.A. cops, human Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and orc Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) become embroiled in a prophesied turf battle as they try to protect elf Tikka (Lucy Fry) and her magic wand.

As a concept, Bright is interesting but unfortunately that doesn’t make the finished product interesting. Though it doesn’t go into detail, it’s clear that magical creatures have been a part of the world for centuries and humans, orcs, elves, fairies and presumably any other magical creature we don’t see in the film, have been coexisting that long. That means then that really the present-day world in the film should be at least a bit different to what we know in our world so references to things like Shrek just felt out of place.

Bright uses the differences between magical and human races to talk about racism, segregation and racial profiling but it’s very heavy handed which makes it both cringey and kind of insulting to the real-life situations it’s mirroring.

The conflict between Ward and Jakoby as they both don’t really trust or like one another which is typical to the buddy cop genre but unfortunately Smith and Edgerton don’t really have any chemistry. Normally when this kind of odd couple is clashing it’s entertaining but not here as Ward and Jakoby’s arguments seem to go on forever and the humour that’s supposed to be found in those scenes is nowhere to be found.

Once Ward and Jakoby discover Tikka, the plot of Bright basically becomes them going from A to B, trying to stay alive and keep Tikka safe as a variety of different people try to catch them and get the wand in Tikka’s possession. There’s orc gangs, human gangs, evil elves, corrupt cops and this world’s magical version of the FBI, on their trail. The plot could’ve been a bit tighter if one of those aspects was removed because at times it seemed like there was far too much going on, and the numerous shootouts didn’t leave a lot of time to flesh out the characters – especially Tikka who was mostly silently a lot of the time.

The action sequences in Bright are good, as is the make up on the various magical creatures, but unfortunately the characters aren’t interesting enough to make this film consistently entertaining. 2/5.

REVIEW: In the Line of Fire (1993)

Veteran Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is haunted by the fact he couldn’t save Kennedy in Dallas, and now thirty years later a man who calls himself “Booth” (John Malkovich) threatens the life of the current President and Frank is determined not to fail a President again.

In the Line of Fire is a film where it wastes no time setting up the characters and getting straight into the main plot. You learn as much about the characters as they share with each other, and when Booth starts to make his presence known, it takes the time to tease the character with extreme closeups on his eyes or mouth.

Eastwood’s Frank is a veteran of the Service. He’s a good agent but not the man he was, something he and everyone else knows, but he’s not willing to accept that yet. Eastwood’s performance is full of charm, but he also presents an uncompromising figure especially when others start to believe he’s not fit for the Presidents protection detail and should leave the case alone.

While Eastwood is certainly the lead of In the Line of Fire, it’s Malkovich who steals every scene he’s in. Booth is an incredibly cunning man and knows exactly what buttons to press to make Frank go off his game. The phone conversations between Booth and Frank are the epitome of cat and mouse as they each try to learn things from one another, though Booth always seems to be one step ahead. Malkovich give a performance that’s cool and calculating one moment, and then full of fury the next. As Frank digs deeper into who Booth is or was, he starts to become an almost tragic character.

In the Line of Fire is a smart thriller. While there are a few chase sequences and scuffles, it’s how Frank and the other Secret Service agents work through the limited information they have to catch a potential killer that’s so gripping. The score, the editing, and the cinematography all work together to rack up the tension as Booth gets closer to his goal of killing the President, and Frank gets pushed closer to the edge.

In the Line of Fire is a tense thriller with gripping performances. It’s only shortcoming is the romance between Frank and fellow Secret Service agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) which feels awkward, rushed and just unnecessary. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

They are the twelve men and women at the centre of a multimillion-dollar court case. They have been watched, assessed and manipulated by high-priced lawyers who will stop at nothing to secure a verdict. Now the jury must make a decision in the most explosive civil trial of the century – a precedent-setting lawsuit against a giant tobacco company. But this jury has a leader and it is Nicholas Easter, Juror #2. He has planned every detail and, with the help of a woman on the outside, will bend the jury and its verdict to his will. As a corporate empire hangs in the balance and as a grieving family waits, the truth about Easter is about to explode in a crossfire of greed and corruption – and justice fights for its life.

John Grisham is known for his gripping legal thrillers and that reputation is well earned with The Runaway Jury. This is the first book by Grisham I’ve read, but I have seen and really enjoyed The Pelican Brief starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts which was adapted from his book of the same name.

The Runaway Jury is a riveting read. Considering it is about a court case and has a lot of characters with the twelve jurors, their family and friends, the lawyers on both sides and the judge and his court staff, it never feels overwhelming or boring. There are a trio of main characters really. Easter, the juror who knows more than he lets on, Marlee, the woman on the outside who appears to be calling the shots, and Rankin Fitch, a consultant for the tobacco companies who is known for using unethical schemes to win trials. These three are the ones who drive the plot forward and the verbal sparring between Marlee and Fitch as they each try and get what they want is brilliant.

The other jurors are featured to varying degrees and each have their own side plots as people with connections to the lawyers put pressure on them through their families to vote a certain way. These characters are juggled very well and while some of them you only spend a few pages with at a time, they all tend to have strong personalities and are easy to distinguish from each other.

Fitch is the kind of character you love to hate, while Marlee is smart, strong and resourceful. There are so many twists and turns as Easter, Marlee and Fitch try to manipulate one another and everyone around them, but nothing feels unearned or having a twist just for the sake of it. Considering how much legal jargon there is in The Runaway Jury there’s some surprisingly funny moments in it. A lot of that comes from how events are described in a very to the point manner, so the writing almost feels like it has a sardonic sense of humour.

It is funny reading The Runaway Jury over twenty years since it was first published because in some ways it is so incredibly 90s – especially in how it talks about smoking. A lot of the people giving evidence in the case are doctors. The ones on the plaintiff’s side describe in great detail how smoking is bad, causes diseases including cancer, and nicotine is addictive, while the doctors and researchers on the defences side dispute those claims, saving there’s not enough evidence for all that. It’s fascinating that something that is a fact now, smoking can and does kill, was something that was so heavily debated twenty years ago.

The Runaway Jury is a compelling courtroom drama that has humour and suspense in it too. The way all of the characters and plot threads are deftly handled is to be admired and it’ll keep you guessing characters motivations and the outcome of the trial to the end. 5/5.