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“The Killing: Uncommon Denominator”: A Book Review

The KillingAfter 14 years and multiple spinoffs, chances are you’ve seen an episode of the TV franchise “CSI” at least once in your life. Perhaps you watch “Bones” on a semi-regular basis. Or maybe you prefer “Criminal Minds,” or “Castle,” or “Burn Notice.”

But have you read them?

Browse Amazon’s digital shelves and you’ll find original books inspired by popular television series like “Revenge,” “24,” “Veronica Mars,” “Supernatural,” “Grimm” and more.

These aren’t novelizations of existing episodes. They’re new works, written by established authors, that deepen the characters’ backstories, add to the program’s overarching universe and keep viewers hooked during those long hiatus months. And while some might scoff without ever having read one, these tie-ins can be every bit as gripping as any other work of genre fiction.

With that in mind, I urge fans of “The Killing” to pick up a copy of Karen Dionne’s recently released novel “The Killing: Uncommon Denominator.” More than just a solid prequel to the series, it’s an atmospheric, impressively-hardboiled thriller in its own right.

Based on a Danish police drama called “Forbrydelsen” (or “The Crime”), the Americanized version premiered on AMC a few years ago and just wrapped up its fourth, and supposedly final, season on Netflix.

Since the show’s two main characters, Linden and Holder, are introduced to each other in the first season, one of the pleasures of the book is seeing how close they repeatedly come to crossing paths. There’s a witty “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” aspect to the tale, a playful gamesmanship to the way that Dionne continually toys with what we already know about the series and its characters.

The book can easily be enjoyed without having seen an episode, but for longtime viewers it’s a far richer experience. There’s a chilling moment late in the novel where Linden, while searching an eerily deserted house, hears a child crying softly behind a closet door. For a split-second she freezes, remembering another child who hid behind a similar door in the past, a child whose trauma formed a major subplot in the show’s disturbing third season. An earlier sequence finds Linden out of her jurisdiction at an Indian casino, where she receives a bitter cold-shoulder from the security staff and management. Astute viewers know that the casino is destined to become an important location during the Rosie Larsen murder case from the first season.

Fans of the series are in for some wonderful shivers of recognition throughout the story.

Set in Seattle, but shot in Canada, “The Killing” was one of the frostiest shows in recent memory, and Dionne expertly captures its frigid, rain-soaked landscape with a cinematographer’s eye for detail. This is a bleak, cold book, filled with gray skies, torrential downpours and cops huddled inside cars to keep warm. In one particularly evocative scene, you can practically smell the icy breath of the junkies gathered around a trash-fire beneath an overpass, with undercover officer Holder secretly among them.

Dionne’s prose style, especially during the first few chapters, is clipped and terse, cutting directly to the point. There’s a “just-the-facts-ma’am” vibe to her writing, a lean Joe Friday-esque directness that works nicely within the world of the show. It’s punchy stuff.

Like the TV series, the book is structured in 24-hour blocks of time, with each section marking another day of the investigation. What’s unique is the way that Dionne alternates between her three main characters: Linden, Holder and a new Detective named John Goddard. This is due to the fact that, in order to maintain continuity with the program, Linden and Holder can’t be allowed to meet in person. Dionne carefully plots the novel to keep them apart, using Goddard as a go-between when necessary. It’s a technique that works well, thanks in large part to Goddard himself.

A warmer, more easily relatable character than either Linden or Holder, Goddard is a welcome addition to the series. It’s interesting to see the way that he views the other two detectives, particularly Linden whom he partners with when their individual investigations merge. We sense that although he respects her skills as a cop, he doesn’t entirely trust her judgment in other areas. Considering how emotionally damaged she is, that’s probably wise.

Holder takes a slight backseat role, but when he’s the focus of attention it’s easy to imagine Joel Kinnaman’s twitchy performance. There’s a quiet sadness to Holder that Dionne clearly understands, a lost quality that makes us root for him, whether onscreen or on the page.

The book’s version of Linden is every bit as flawed as the one portrayed so hauntingly by actress Mireille Enos. From her constant chain smoking, to her awful mothering, to her control-freak need to always drive, Dionne paints Linden as a walking-wounded survivor of the foster care system. There’s a heartbreaking sequence in the novel where Linden returns to the lonely child placement agency that she was once a part of. Entering the building, she’s both fearful and curious, a tightly-wound cop coming face-to-face with her past. Dionne allows us to glimpse that inner conflict and the result is quite moving.

As for the actual murder case that propels the story, it’s decent, but not amazing. Unlike the grisly, sexualized murder of Rosie Larsen in the first two seasons, or the creepy serial killings in the third, the deaths in the book lack a sense of palpable horror. Perhaps that’s because the victims are middle-aged men, killed for financial reasons, not vulnerable teens and street kids being stalked by psychos. I must admit, I missed the nightmarish quality of those earlier crimes.

Another area where the show trumps the book is in its use of well-drawn supporting roles. There were times when the novel felt slightly under-populated. The TV series spent a great deal of time with important side-characters, like the grief-stricken Larsen family, Darren Richmond and his campaign staff, Bullet and her fellow runaways and especially death row inmate Ray Seward and the prison staff. They helped flesh-out the narrative, adding layers of depth that the novel sometimes lacks.

Overall though, “The Killing: Uncommon Denominator” (admittedly not the greatest title in the world), is an engrossing crime novel and an excellent prequel to the television series. I suspect it’ll please fans who aren’t ready to say goodbye quite yet to Linden and Holder. Speaking as one of them, I hope that Dionne writes another book in the series… and another one after that.

May the killing continue.

The Geffen Playhouse’s ‘Wait Until Dark’: A Theater Review

The Geffen Playhouse’s revival of Frederick Knott’s classic thriller “Wait Until Dark” is a whole lotta fun.

The first act is a bit creaky, showing its age in a few places, while highlighting Alison Pill’s fine lead performance. The 1940s setting, changed from the mid-60s for this new production, appears to have freed the actress from the overly mannered tics she often exhibits on screen. I thought she seemed surprisingly at home in the period, capturing Susie’s plucky spirit without relying on self-conscious gimmicks or quirky bits of business. Aside from her role on HBO’s “In Treatment,” this might be the most natural I’ve seen her.

Mather Zickel is dependably solid as Mike, making it easy to believe that he could gain the trust of a vulnerable woman in over her head. His square-jawed charm helps sell the character as a professional con man, and as the story progresses he exhibits a welcome air of desperation. Plus, his final dive down the stairs is nicely gruesome.

Adam Stein as Roat wasn’t working for me at first, but by the exciting second act he was totally in the psychopathic groove and I appreciated what he was going for. Early on, he seemed to be channeling John Waters for some weird reason. But once the lights went out, he was a maniac to be reckoned with. His knife-wielding stage leap elicited a few genuine screams throughout the audience.

On a technical level, the apartment set felt nicely lived-in (loved the rain falling outside the windows), the lighting effects were beautiful (particularly during the climactic refrigerator gag), the sound design was subtle yet intriguing (an eerie low hum emanates whenever the tension builds) and the fight choreography was impressively brutal. In fact, during the curtain call, when the stage lights went up, I was pleased to see just how much blood was actually covering Pill’s face and dress.

“Wait Until Dark” was well worth the wait.

Lisa Unger’s ‘In the Blood’: A Book Review

The best thing about Lisa Unger’s thriller “In the Blood” is the ominous mood it occasionally captures. An icy dread prevails at key moments throughout the story, making this a book best read on a cold winter’s night.

Unfortunately, the novel’s first-person narrator is a whiner, prone to asking herself plot-centric questions over and over again, to the point that it becomes silly. Here’s a short paragraph to illustrate her annoying habit:

“I got dressed swiftly and walked into the living area. What did he mean, time was running out? What had he seen that night? Who had he told? Did he know where Beck was?”

She does that throughout the entire book. I put up with her constant self-pity (the character describes herself as a “misery magnet”), but the way she kept posing questions that the reader should be asking got old really fast.

The mystery plot was okay, but never truly grabbed me. Unger sets up all kinds of nicely creepy elements (a bloody trauma hidden in the past, a series of missing girls on a secluded college campus, a weird little sociopathic boy, an eerie scavenger hunt, a hidden journal…), but there’s not a lot of forward momentum to the narrative.

I wish there was more of a ‘ticking clock’ aspect to the missing person case that fuels the main story. A greater sense of urgency might have helped quicken the reader’s pulse. Instead, events happen at an almost leisurely pace. Part of the problem might be that the missing girl isn’t much of a character. We barely know anything about her, and what little we do know doesn’t particularly warm us to her.

On the plus side, the creepy little boy is a lot of fun in a “Bad Seed” kind of way, and some of the darker elements found in the journal entries interspersed throughout the novel are intriguing. At its best, the book recalls the classic Italian Giallo films from the 60s and 70s. The prologue contains echoes of Dario Argento’s “Deep Red,” and the campus setting reminded me of Massimo Dallamano’s 1972 shocker “What Have You Done to Solange?”

There are two or three semi-decent twists towards the end of the story, but none were all that thrilling. Ultimately, the whole thing felt a bit too safe and somewhat hokey to me. For a novel with the word ‘Blood’ in the title, it could have used a bit more of the stuff.

Lee Grant’s ‘I Said Yes to Everything’: A Book Review

lgIf, like me, you spent the late 1970s glued to ‘The ABC Sunday Night Movie,’ ‘The CBS Late Movie,’ and ‘NBC Monday Night at the Movies,’ then the name Lee Grant probably conjures up images of All-Star casts, international intrigue and blockbuster drama.

From Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” to “Voyage of the Damned” to “Airport ’77,” Grant appeared alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood, in some of the best (or worst, in the case of Irwin Allen’s wonderfully loopy killer-bee epic “The Swarm”) films ever made.

For a period of time, you couldn’t turn on a television without hearing broadcast announcer Joel Crager’s deep, rich baritone voice reciting a who’s-who list of movie stars, ending with the familiar refrain “…and Lee Grant starring in…

This might explain why Grant’s new autobiography “I Said Yes to Everything” is a book I’ve been waiting years for her to write.

Beginning with dreamy childhood memories and ending with a celebratory Christmas dinner in 2013, Grant takes us through her life’s arc with all the passion and candor that one could hope for. There’s an artfulness to her prose, a sense of adventure and revelation in the way she structures the tale. Not one to dodge a fight or hold her tongue, Grant writes with a clarity and self-deprecating honesty that’s all-too-rare these days. From boldly confessing her deepest fears, weaknesses and vanity, to exposing embarrassing moments like the time she visibly got her period on stage during an opening night performance (and kept right on acting), this is the memoir of an artist with nothing left to hide.

The fact that she does it all with a ribald sense of humor and razor-sharp intelligence makes it that much sweeter.

There’s a vibrant, sensuous quality to the early chapters set in 1930s New York and France. Grant writes with a child’s eye for detail, painting the sights and sounds of the Bronx and Paris with a heightened intensity that’s impossible to resist. We wince at the vicious anti-Semitism she suffers as the daughter of Jewish/Polish parents, and experience her fumblingly awkward sexual awakenings amid the subways and tenement houses of NYC.

Around this time, we witness the birth of an Academy Award winning actress. From the moment she’s chosen at random while walking across the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House on her way to a children’s ballet class, to her years studying alongside Sanford Meisner and teaching at the famed Actors Studio, Grant takes us step-by-step through her development as a performer.

For fans like me, it’s thrilling stuff.

The twelve years she spent on the Hollywood blacklist forms the most fascinating section of the book. Married to a communist playwright at the time, Grant’s fearless commitment to social justice and her outspoken support of accused fellow artists landed her on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) watch list. Just as her career was skyrocketing, offers for film and television roles dried up overnight. The Kafkaesque events that followed eventually destroyed her marriage and threatened her sanity.

And yet, as righteously angry you’d expect her to be, Grant’s story never bogs down in bitterness or blame. The person we find within these pages is far too practical and grounded for that. Although the toll that Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohen exacted was enormous, Grant outlasted her political enemies and reclaimed her career through sheer determination. It’s truly inspiring.

And then there are the larger-than-life personalities she encounters along the way; from a brooding, mercurial Marlon Brando, to a desperate, haunted Lenny Bruce. Grant spills juicy details about illicit romances with Burt Bacharach and Warren Beatty, and sheds sad light on Melvin Douglas and Grace Kelly, both of whom seem lost and tragic by the time she meets them. Best of all are the outrageous stories she tells about the incomparable Shelley Winters. The two actresses worked together on “The Balcony,” and Winter’s narcissistic bullying instantly clashed with Grant’s professionalism. Their uncomfortable rivalry eventually exploded during promotion for the film at the Playboy Club in New York. I won’t soon forget the image of Lee Grant literally chasing Shelley Winters across the grotto screaming “Cunt!” at the top of her lungs.

The final chapters of the book document Grant’s transition from in front of the camera to behind it. At a certain point, the lack of good roles, coupled with a crippling fear of forgetting her lines, forced the actress to reevaluate her career. An article in the news about a group of women on strike against a bank in Minnesota inspired her to document their plight, which is how she added award winning documentarian and filmmaker to her list of credits.

Covering almost 90 years in the rollercoaster life of a gifted artist, “I Said Yes to Everything” is exactly the book I’d hoped it would be. Near the end, Grant hints that there might be a few more stories for a second memoir.

We should be so lucky!

Disney’s ‘Saving Mr. Banks’: A Film Review

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a well-produced bore about a singularly unpleasant person.

Understand this: I love movies about assholes. Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is one of my favorite films, and I consider Neil LaBute’s “Your Friends and Neighbors” to be a caustic masterpiece. But spending two dullish hours in the company of Mary Poppins’ noxious creator was almost more than I could handle.

Watching it, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s final line in his review of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.” He summed up that classic gangster film as “a wonderful portrait of a real louse.”

Well, “Saving Mr. Banks” gets the second half of that quote right.

This is actually two movies crammed into one. The first is set in 1961 and depicts the meeting between author P. L. Travers and filmmaker Walt Disney during pre-production for the adaptation of her beloved novel. The second storyline deals with Travers’ difficult childhood in dusty Australia. These sepia-toned flashbacks are so cliché-ridden, so lacking in honest emotion, so transparently manipulative, they make the animatronic Lincoln robot in Disneyland’s ‘Hall of Presidents’ seem like Daniel Day-Lewis.

Most of the blame lies with a script that mistakes hoary old chestnuts for psychological depth. Colin Farrell does what he can with the stereotypical ‘drunk dad’ role, but everything about the character is so overtly telegraphed it’s an uphill battle. The moment he coughs into a handkerchief, you just know it’s going to come away stained with blood.

Casting is problematic as well. The child-actress who plays the young P. L. Travers is simply not up to the task of portraying a complex human being at this stage in her career. She mostly just stands there, backlit, looking golden and angelic as the sun catches her curly hair just right. She’s little more than a prop, a semi-realistic doll that occasionally mumbles a corny line or two. Perhaps the filmmakers should’ve cut these sequences down to just a few fleeting images, instead of filling the movie with them.

The Disney half of the picture works better, but never quite catches fire. My main qualm is how repetitive it is. When we first meet Emma Thompson as Travers she’s complaining about selling her book to Hollywood. Two hours later, she’s still bitching about it.

The movie just keeps covering the same ground over and over again. While there’s some undeniable fun to be had in watching the birth of a classic like Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” the real-life Travers comes across as uniquely unsuitable for biopic treatment. She’s a one-note figure, almost exactly the same at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Basically, she’s like Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man… but not as lovable.

I guess we’re supposed to find her constant insults and cruel remarks “witty.” Instead, I just thought she was a bitter, humorless, nasty piece of work. There’s a pettiness to Travers that no amount of mildewed flashbacks can explain.

Tom Hanks lays on the folksy drawl pretty thick as the creator of Mickey Mouse. Personally, I had trouble believing that his Walt Disney could order his own lunch from the studio commissary, let alone run an empire.

I was surprised at what a small-scale movie this was. Most of the Australian sequences take place in a single drab farmhouse, while the bulk of the Disney scenes are set in one small rehearsal room. The whole thing felt oddly claustrophobic after about an hour.

I’m not exactly sure who the target audience for this is. Certainly not children, as I imagine they’d be bored to tears by it. And I have trouble picturing the modern teen who’d find it enthralling. Maybe it’ll resonate with adults who grew up loving the Poppins book and film, but I doubt it.

My advice for them would be to stick with the originals.

Peter Berg’s ‘Lone Survivor’: A Film Review

I admire Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” on a technical level, and respect the courage and prowess of the real-life soldiers upon whom this true story is based. However, the film’s near-complete lack of characterization, coupled with its torture-porn brutality, made it an endurance test to sit through.

And that’s probably what Berg had in mind.

Like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down,” this is an ultra-realistic combat simulation that drops the viewer directly in the line of enemy fire. There’s a ‘caught-in-the-crossfire’ intensity to the violence that never lets up once the first bullet leaves its chamber.

Shattered bones are rendered in extreme close-up and shrapnel wounds are documented in near-clinical detail. We’re talking state-of-the-art carnage, created by cinematic craftsmen of undeniable skill.

It’s too bad then that we never learn much about the four main characters who suffer the worst of it. The most I could glean from the film’s brief pre-combat opening is that two of them apparently have wives and fiancés waiting for them back home. Apart from their facial hair preferences, that’s about as in-depth as they get.

Having starred in the war film “A Midnight Clear” (1992) and directed “The Kingdom” (2007) – not to mention the amusingly goofy “Battleship” (2012) – it’s obvious that Peter Berg has a deep admiration for the extraordinary sacrifices soldiers make. So it’s doubly-hard to figure out why he’d invest so little humanity in the main characters, while lavishing enormous effort to show how painfully they died. It’s clear that he wants to honor them with this movie, but I don’t understand how stripping them down to bearded mannequins in a gory shooting gallery accomplishes that. Once they come under attack, we may as well be watching videogame avatars.

The movie’s centerpiece battle lasts a full hour. I wish Berg had carved fifteen minutes from it and added them to the opening section of the film.

Where did these men grow up? Why did they join the military? Do they truly believe in what they’re fighting for? What plans do they have once their mission is over? “Lone Survivor” doesn’t bother to ask those questions, let alone answer them. Instead, we’re treated to a semi-standard ‘Band of Brothers’ philosophy and little else. I don’t know why the producers cast actors like Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch and then gave them nothing to play. These are purely physical performances, the kind that could have been accomplished by any number of charismatic stuntmen.

If we learn very little about the movie’s heroes, we’re given even less info about the Afghanis in the film. In many ways, this is an old-school war movie, the kind that paints every non-American in strictly black and white terms. Some are “good guys,” most are “bad guys,” and we can tell exactly who’s who by how much they scowl. I could overlook this shallowness if even one of the “bad guys” was the slightest bit memorable. But here they’re virtually interchangeable. Investing one of them with a smidgeon of personality might have made the climax seem a bit more exciting. As it stands, the finale is the film’s weakest sequence.

Another problem is that there’s almost no context to the heroes’ mission. We’re told that they’re supposed to identify a high ranking Taliban bigwig, but then what? There’s no larger scope to their task, and very little seems at stake if they fail to complete it. Without a greater sense of risk, or some kind of global urgency, they might as well be a bunch of heavily armed backpackers who got lost behind enemy lines.

The film opens with real-life documentary footage of young recruits training in boot camp, and I have to confess, this felt more than a little exploitative to me, especially once the high-velocity, high-gore action sequences began a short while later. I’m just not sure that “Lone Survivor” is serious enough to warrant its inclusion.

And finally there are the photos of deceased soldiers shown during the end credits. Whoever decided to score this heartbreaking montage with Peter Gabriel croaking out a dirge-like version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” should have picked another song. It’s borderline ghastly.

I’m glad I saw “Lone Survivor,” but I doubt I’ll be seeing it a second time.

Nick Cutter’s ‘The Troop’: A Book Review

The Troop CoverNick Cutter’s “The Troop” is advertised on its front cover as a “Novel of Terror,” but it’s more like a high-class gore book.

That’s not meant as an insult.

Similarly, the back cover describes it as “28 Days Later” meets “Lord of the Flies,” when it’s actually closer to “Cabin Fever” meets “Bushwhacked.” Again, I’m not putting it down, mainly because… well… I couldn’t put the damn thing down. It’s well paced, tightly written and keeps you turning pages long into the night.

Although not as revolting as Ed Lee’s “The Bighead,” Bryan Smith’s “Depraved” or Wrath James White’s “Succulent Prey” (because it, mercifully, lacks sexual violence), “The Troop” might be the most gleefully grotesque novel that Simon & Schuster has ever published.

Admittedly, there were times when I felt that the gore slowed the story down a bit. I mean, I love movies like Lucio Fulci’s “The New York Ripper” and novels like Richard Laymon’s “Flesh” as much as the next guy, but when “The Troop” paused for three solid pages to depict the graphic slaughter of a sea turtle in agonizing detail… well the book just stopped dead in its tracks. Cutter was clearly making a serious point about the difficulty of killing something that wants so badly to live (mainly because he repeated that point twice in no uncertain terms), but did the turtle scene really have to drag on for so long? Was there no other way to introduce that concept?

The same holds true for a flashback sequence involving the torture of a kitten. The story just screeches to a halt while the graphic details pile up. Moments like these (and there are several others involving self-mutilation and bodily disintegration) might help to distinguish “The Troop” from the mainstream horror pack, but they do so at the expense of narrative momentum.

Aside from those few scenes, however, this is a very fun book. It’s an energetic, over-the-top monster story about five kids trapped on an island while being menaced by killer tapeworms. What’s not to like about that? It’s got a pitch-black sense of humor and a plethora of wonderfully sick images scattered throughout its pages.

I just wish that it had a touch more originality. Scott Smith’s similarly themed novel “The Ruins” had a unique, dreamlike quality that this book lacks. “The Troop” never quite transcends its enjoyable B-movie logline the way that Colson Whitehead’s brilliant zombie novel “Zone One” does. Nor is it interested in subtext or social satire like Chase Novak’s recent pregnancy horror novel “Breed.”

And yet I had a total blast reading it. Highly recommended for horror fans with strong stomachs.