Books

Redundant Middle and Far-Fetched Ending Make “The Breakdown” Disappointing Thriller

B.A. Paris writes her second novel with means and motive in mind, but gives little thought to proper characterization

Considered to be “One of the Most Anticipated Thriller Novels of 2017” by Bustle, the second novel from bestselling author B.A. Paris was a tough one for me to read.

The BreakdownThe Breakdown opens on Cass Anderson, a schoolteacher who lives in a small hamlet near the wood, on a stormy night as she’s driving home. She takes the shortcut home through the wood despite promising her husband Matthew that she wouldn’t, but she soon realizes how lucky she was to not have crashed in the treacherous conditions. Someone smarter than her had pulled over in a layby to await help or wait out the storm. It isn’t until the next day Cass hears on the news that the car she’d seen had been driven by her new friend Jane – and that the woman had been murdered.

Cass feels incredible guilt at not having stopped to help Jane because then she’d still be alive. Or perhaps, she wonders, would the killer have gotten them both?

It’s this horrible thought that makes Cass grow anxious and suspicious of everything around her. Her anxiety leads to stress, which leads to forgetfulness. Or is the forgetfulness actually the result of early-onset dementia, just like her mother? She can’t tell her husband because she’d promised him she wouldn’t take the shortcut home and she’d never told him about her family history of dementia. So she must figure it out alone if she’s in danger. The only problem is she might not even be able to trust herself.

It sounds interesting, but I’m sorry to say it’s not.

The first twenty pages offer a premise that quickly outstays its welcome. By page fifty I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the same three things: a woman was murdered, Cass feels guilty and anxious, Cass is having increasing lapses in memory. B.A. Paris wants the reader to know that something is very wrong, but once the answer of “early-onset dementia” (EOD) is presented, I literally scoffed.

The memory alone might have suggested EOD, but coupled with the anxiety and paranoia Cass begins exhibiting in regards to the murder I started guessing schizophrenia. In fact, the idea of debilitating mental illness had become so engrained in my mind—thanks to the incessant reminders provided by the author—that after the first hundred pages I half expected the murderer to be Cass.

And then everything about the murder stops. The focus of the novel narrows to Cass and the apparent decline of her mind. The silent calls continue, but Cass stops referencing back to the murder. Her desire to see the killer caught evaporates. Every situation from page 100 forward is meant to detract from the reliability of our narrator. It’s effective, but once again so infuriatingly redundant and not at all what I expect in a thriller.

When the twist finally came—in glorious deus ex machina fashion—I craved the excitement promised by a “psychological thriller” so much that I stayed up reading into the early morning. I tore through the end of the book that had taken me over a month to get even halfway through, and then I set aside the book and got angry. Of course, I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story, but suffice to say that even though everything is laid out and explained, the reader had no chance of figuring out the far-fetched ending.

Half the fun of thrillers and mysteries is the process of putting the clues together for yourself, but only knowing the truth when the protagonist does, or beating yourself up for not having seen it sooner. I reacted by wanting to beat up B.A. Paris for making it impossible. She had the means and motive developed, but the characterization was absent. There were no early hidden hints of whom it might be, only the verdict in the final pages.

Thankfully The Breakdown is easy summer fare. The prose is fluid enough, even if the characters weren’t. Most of the time I felt like I was reading template characters, albeit with only mildly cliché dialogue. It could easily be devoured over the course of a weekend vacation.

But why would you want to?

D&D Podcast

PHB Podcast Beta – Delayed

Happy Tuesday everyone!

So far I’ve edited and posted 6 episodes of my friends’ and my beta D&D podcast. This is the first week I fell behind.

Though it’s personally disappointing that I’ll have to push back the upload for Test Episode 7 until next week, I’m happy I figured out my limits as an audio editor during beta. Twice each week is too aggressive to be sustainable. This is why we wanted to do a test run: we needed to understand our abilities and shortcomings as podcasters.

So we hope you tune in next week for Test Episode 7 – We Are We, and until then, don’t trust your DM!

D&D Podcast

PHB Podcast Beta Posted – A Live Play 5e D&D Podcast

The first test episode of the PHB Podcast is now posted!

As I said last week, my friends and I have been getting together every Sunday for almost two years now to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e. We’ve had a blast doing it, and we want to share that fun with others.

So head on over to the new D&D Podcast menu option and check out our Beta. Leave a comment to let us know how we’re doing, and check back every Tuesday and Thursday for the next few weeks for a new episode.

We’ll see you on the adventure trail!

Books, D&D Podcast, Film

A Week of (Relative) Rest in Lieu of “Atomic Blonde”

Film Score: TBD

I’d originally planned on posting a review of Atomic Blonde this week, but I decided to take some time off from film to work on other projects instead. So if you see Charlize Theron kicking butt this weekend — or if you want to comment on any other movies — leave a message in the comments below!

Atomic Blonde

If you’d like to hear about some of the other projects/thoughts on my plate, continue reading. In addition to some things I’m hoping I’ll get to share with you soon, I’ve got a big announcement that I’m very excited about.

Upcoming Book Reviews

For a blog that touts its film AND book reviews, it’s been sorely lacking in book reviews. I’d mentioned last week that I don’t give my reviewed books a rating because I become invested in them — both bad and good.

The Breakdown by B. A. Paris is one of those less than stellar books in which I’ve invested a significant amount of time. I started it almost 2 months ago as an Advanced Reader Copy, and though the prose is easy enough to read, the premise got worn out so quickly that I dreaded sitting down to read it. So the days have stretched on, and still I haven’t finished it. Even though I want to finish it, if only so I can give a thorough review. So expect One of the Most Highly Anticipated Thriller Novels of 2017 by Bustle” to be my next review.

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein will be after that. I got my Advance Reader Copy a little late (two days after public release), but ever since I heard about this sci-fi novel set in 2147, where teleportation is a common means of travel, I’ve been eagerly anticipating its release. It might just be enough to help me finish The Breakdown.

“Art” You Not Entertained?

I also spent a little time earlier this week revisiting my art skills. Every week I get together with some friends of mine to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e, but one of our group was called up for military tour with the Army. He was always the one making sure we were going to meet each week and he really enjoyed playing.

Yesterday was his birthday, and though we couldn’t celebrate with him, we made him a care package and each member of the D&D group tossed in a card. I wanted to give him something special, so I drew his RPG character.

Tim the Enchanter.png

Tim the Enchanter is a tiefling wizard inspired by the character of the same name from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I couldn’t remember all the details of my buddy’s D&D version, but I thought I’d make him happy-go-lucky with sparklers instead of a fireball for a Dungeons & Dragons-themed birthday card.

Which I think fits with our group as a whole. As I say, my friends and I get together every week to play Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve been doing it for over a year now and we have so much fun playing that sometimes we wind up doubled over from laughter. More than once we’ve considered recording ourselves just so we can have it to playback our nonsense.

But we’ve decided to take it one step further…

Which Brings us to the BIG Announcement…

My D&D group will soon be launching a Live Play 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Podcast!

PHB Podcast Logo

I’ve really come to enjoy podcasts as a medium over the past few years with shows like The Joe Rogan Experience or The Dollop. But when my group and I found out there was a market for D&D, we decided to try our hand at our own brand of podcasting.

We’re still testing the waters and figuring out what works/what doesn’t. So we’re recording test episodes as we finish up our current campaign. Look for those to be posted once a week starting next Tuesday!

Again, we’re still testing the waters. Please give us feedback so that when we officially launch, the ball will already be rolling.

TL;DR – I’ve got The Breakdown and The Punch Escrow book reviews coming soon, I drew a tiefling for my Army buddy, and my D&D group is launching a podcast!

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the weekend.

Film

Technical Sights and Sounds Aren’t Enough to Make “Dunkirk” Worthwhile

Christopher Nolan’s war epic is immersive art but devoid of much-needed historical and dramatic context

Film Score: 6/10

After Dunkirk ended, I sat for a moment to collect my thoughts and wound up talking to a gentleman in the next row. He said he’d worked in film and studied World War II. When asked what he thought of the film, he said, “If you didn’t know anything about Dunkirk coming in, you wouldn’t learn a thing.”

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Fionn Whitehead is one of 400,000 men waiting to evacuate in Dunkirk

I’d done some mild research before my viewing, so I knew the history. After several failed attempts by the Allied forces to break the German advance through France, British and French troops were forced to evacuate from the port town of Dunkirk on the northern end of the English Channel. German forces had surrounded the area and threatened to break through before an evacuation could be organized, prompting Britain to consider the possibility of conditional surrender. But in one of the most widely debated decisions of the war, the German forces halted for three days to regroup and ensure the Allies couldn’t break through the line. This was enough time to set a defensive perimeter – held mainly by the French – while British naval ships and smaller private vessels ferried over 338,000 Allied troops off the beach.

However, as the gentleman in my theater commented, if you didn’t know any of this going into the movie, you weren’t going to leave much the wiser. All the viewer learns is that the Germans are drawing close and the men can’t get off the beach fast enough, with a few additional lines to hint at Britain’s surrender. There’s no historical context. The importance of this “colossal military disaster” (Winston Churchill) isn’t examined until the final few moments of the film. And the three different timelines of the Mole, Sea, and Air are so confusing it took me half the movie to sort them out.

But Christopher Nolan wasn’t aiming for a history lesson or a documentary. He wanted to place viewers in the midst of the Dunkirk evacuation and immerse them in the sights and sounds of that beach. He wanted to create an experience.

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Dunkirk was shot using 70mm IMAX cameras, which means the frame is twice as wide as normal film, creating expansive shots that, according to Nolan, are like “virtual reality without the goggles.” The format allows him to capture the vastness of sea and sky, the endless expanse of beach and foamy surf, and the thousands of men standing in rank waiting to be evacuated. It truly is visually stunning, which is why Warner Bros. has made Dunkirk the largest 70mm film release in a quarter-century.

The sounds are technically wonderful and add to the immersive feeling. The groaning of ships, the shuffling of men, the scream of planes, and the whistling of incoming weapons all contribute to the experience Nolan is trying to create. In the first ten minutes of the film all you can hear are the sounds of war, while the men remain virtually silent. Humanity has been swallowed whole, with only one lone voice crying out in desperation, “Where’s the bloody air force?” The opening sequence is amazing and I love it. If you go to see Dunkirk in theaters it should be because of this.

But after that the men continue to speak very sparingly, and suddenly the sounds of war give way to an incessant soundtrack that refuses to let you forget that the situation is supposed to be suspenseful. Hans Zimmer has recently developed a nasty habit of scoring films by giving each section of his orchestra a single bar of perpetually repeating notes and then introducing them one at a time. About every twenty seconds he’ll add a blaring brass note or synthetic run and call it complex. It’s annoying, loud, and numbing.

Ultimately that’s what happened with the whole film: I went numb to it. The sound mixing was excellent and will almost certainly win awards, but after an hour I’d already heard it all before. The cinematography is wonderful to behold and also award-worthy, but by the end of the film I’d already seen the beach fifty different ways and the ocean fifty others. Nolan’s desire to immerse viewers in the film worked wonderfully for the first ten to fifteen minutes. After that the awe wore off and I found myself needing a reason to continue the experience.

Aquar.IMAX.Dunkirk.6-1500489512

Not even the cast of typically excellent actors was convincing enough to return some feeling to my viewing experience. The script just wasn’t built to foster connections between the characters and viewers, eschewing dialogue and dramatic context wherever possible. Mark Rylance delivered the strongest performance as calm and steadfast Mr. Dawson. Fionn Whitehead in the lead of Tommy was a close runner-up; he handled his lack of lines with aplomb. And other than a cringe-worthy final scene, I’ll even give admit that Harry Styles can act. They did everything they could with a script that wasn’t meant to do anything except demonstrate man’s survival.

I wanted Dunkirk to be better. As art it was fresh and intriguing, but as a film I found it overwhelmingly underwhelming. The sounds and the visuals and the soundtrack all clamored for attention, but after the first fifteen minutes I had little reason to stay. Even though I was successfully immersed in Nolan’s creation, I wasn’t learning any history, I wasn’t learning about the characters, so I just stopped caring.

If you find yourself wanting to see Dunkirk, see it in theaters and definitely see it in 70mm or in one of 31 theaters showcasing 70mm IMAX format. As a piece of technical art I’d give 8.5/10 for the film, and even higher if it weren’t for Zimmer’s soundtrack which really is that irritating. Otherwise I’d say you can skip it. As the gentleman from my theater put it: “I didn’t like this one.”

 

 

Books, Film, Uncategorized

How to Use My Reviews

Happy Monday!

I know I didn’t post a review this past week, and even though that might have been a bummer for everyone, I thought it might be better to write a post explaining how (and why) I rate the way I do.

After five films reviewed, I figured posting a scale would help readers understand my review at a glance:

10 –  So good I’ll be paying to see it in theater twice.
  9 –  Definitely something you should watch in theater.
  8 –  Highly recommend it, but if you miss it in theater not a big deal.
  7 –  I recommend it, but wait to catch this on home video.
  6 –  If it’s on TV or Netflix, it’s not a total waste of time.
  5 –  If you never see it, you won’t be missing out.
  4 –  Not worth your time.
  3 –  Not worth my time.
  2 –  Why was this movie made?
  1 –  I’ll be suing for my money back.

And for those of you who followed me hoping to read more book reviews and wondering what my scale is for those…

I don’t have one.

I spent a full day trying to think of a good way to structure a rating system for books and came to the conclusion it’s better not to have one. When I watch film, I either like it or I don’t. There are very few instances where I dislike a film but appreciate the art behind it (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one).

With literature, I can easily think of a dozen books that I did not enjoy reading but still appreciated the author’s style or tone or character development. I don’t have the same level of objectiveness for novels as I do for film. It takes me two hours to consume a movie. It takes me two weeks to properly absorb a book for critique. I become invested in what I’m reading. The best I can do is write out my thoughts and let others decide if the book will be worth their time.

So whether you’re looking for film or book reviews, I hope this post helps you to understand my process a bit. Thank you to all of my readers and followers. Your feedback and comments are always welcome and they certainly make my work feel meaningful.

 

Have a good week everyone!

Film

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” Ties Marvel Universe Together

Tom Holland is energetic and enjoyable in this superhero coming-of-age tale

Film Score: 9/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the culmination of nearly a decade of interlocking storylines and successful films from Marvel (see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review here). Each has led to a believable world in which superheroes exist. But so far none of the Marvel films really focused on what this world might be like for an average citizen.

What new jobs would be created, and which would become obsolete? How would education be affected by the presence, the science, and the battles of superheroes? Instead of movie stars and boy band crushes, which superheroes would high schoolers choose to F, marry, or kill? And would the average citizen feel more, or less, safe? Spider-Man finally answers these questions by giving us a friendly, neighborhood superhero who’s “looking out for the little guy.”

Holland-Spider-Man
Tom Holland stars as the new Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

After the massive events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to New York, now under the watchful eye of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and mentorship of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). He’s told to sit tight and focus on his sophomore year of high school when all he wants to do is find his next mission and prove himself worthy to join the Avengers full time. Parker believes taking down the Vulture (Michael Keaton) will earn him Stark’s respect, but his mistakes at school, with friends, and even his superhero life begin to add up and he soon begins to wonder if he’s even meant to be the Spider-Man.

It’s as much a traditional high school coming-of-age tale as it is a superhero flick, which is what makes it relatable. The story is evenly balanced between the actions of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, but through it all Tom Holland plays an exceptional character. His excitement at even the smallest new detail of his life is so genuine that I couldn’t stop smiling. I was geeking out watching him geek out. And just like a real teenager, he wants to be cool, has his mind on girls half the time, and is incredibly stubborn about who he wants to be while still harboring a deep anxiety that he’ll never achieve it.

His energy in the role is best matched by Jacob Batalon, who plays best friend Ned. When he discovers his best friend is Spider-Man, he has to know everything. He wants answers to the most ridiculous questions, he wants to try on the suit, and most importantly, he wants to know if he can be “the guy in the chair.” He’s the logistical smarts behind Parker’s technical skills, and his excitement at having Spider-Man for a best friend is only outweighed by his desire to fit in at school. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance and look forward to seeing more of him. Especially since he delivers probably the best excuse I’ve ever heard for being somewhere he’s not supposed to be.

Michael-Keaton-Spider-Man
Michael Keaton is The Vulture in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming

As for the villain, Micheal Keaton is a worthwhile adversary in the role of Adrian/Vulture. Adrian didn’t begin as a bad guy, but he was never afraid to do some questionable things if pushed. Keaton recognizes this and does an excellent job of never losing that character core even as he becomes the Vulture. Keaton isn’t my favorite villainous actor of all time, but I can appreciate his handling of the character’s complexity.

I’d love to speak on the overall visual aspect and CGI of the film, but as I was forced to see Spider-Man from the front row with my neck craned back, I didn’t have the best perspective (see what I did there?). Keep in mind: show up to early screenings way before you think you need to.

And even with the poor viewing experience, I know that I’d still recommend this film. The fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did, even when seeing it in less than ideal conditions, proves that a movie doesn’t need to be about spectacle. A good story with excellent actors and believable worldbuilding is all that you need. Marvel has certainly perfected that.

P.S. Stay through all the credits. No spoilers, but you’ll probably enjoy it.