Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Movie – If you like movies that are weird, but in a good way, and reminiscent of Pulp Fiction, then you will enjoy Bad Times at the El Royale. Set in 1969 near Lake Tahoe, the El Royale motor lodge used to be grand in its day. Unique that it is on the border of California and Nevada, the once austere lobby of the hotel has a line going down its center separating the two states. Something very bad happened there a decade ago and the seven strangers that randomly gather will be affected by those events.

A vacuum cleaner salesman, a Catholic priest, a Motown singer, and a hippie chick enter the lobby that appears to be deserted. After banging on an office door Miles, who is the manager and lone employee, emerges and assigns rooms based on the guest preferences – if they want to be in California or Nevada. (California rooms cost a little more.) When the priest requests a room, the hotel manager tries to discourage him by saying, “Father, this is no place for a priest.” Regardless, Father Daniel Flynn needs a place to spend the night. We already have a feeling that there is something sinister and creepy. As each guest begins settling into their room we begin learning their secrets and there is plenty of mystery. So far, I mentioned five characters. Who are the other two? You will have to find out for yourself. The film is very atmospheric and you feel like you have been transported back to the late ‘60s. There is also lots of great music from that era, including some Motown tunes which are belted out by the singer. This is a hard boiled thriller with lots of twists and turns. The storyline and stellar cast make for a fun viewing experience.

I also really enjoyed music, so I was very pleased that Hoopla has a soundtrack from the film.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

BooksThe 57 Bus is a “ripped from the headlines,” true story of one teenager lighting another’s clothes on fire on a public bus in Oakland. Author and journalist Dashka Slater goes beyond the headlines to present the story and characters in great detail and nuance.

Sasha is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and does not identify as male or female, instead using the pronoun “they.” Sasha has supportive parents and goes to a school where they have many friends, but on the public bus ride across Oakland from school back home Sasha’s skirt is lit on fire by Richard. How will this affect Sasha, their family, friends, and community?

Richard’s actions were unquestionably intentional. Sasha spent weeks in the hospital having painful surgeries in an to attempt to repair the burns. Should sixteen-year-old Richard be charged with a hate crime in addition to the obvious charges he faces? Should he be tried as an adult or a juvenile? What are the potential ramifications of these decisions?

I am not good at remembering the specifics of books and movies, nor do I remember the lyrics to many songs. (You really don’t want me on your trivia team.) I like most of the books I read, but ask me to recall the plot and characters a few months later, and we’ll be lucky if I can extract much information.

It’s too early to tell since I only recently read The 57 Bus, but I think my recall of it will be different. The characters and plot are memorable. The journalistic treatment of the story—seeing the perspectives of friends and family of both teens, in addition to getting a glimpse into the workings of the juvenile justice system, made this book a well-rounded and thought-provoking read.

Death Wish (2018)

DVD – Death Wish is a remake of the 1974 version, which I admit I have not seen. I saw this movie on the shelf and thought, “Hey, I love Bruce Willis and the Die Hard movie collection, so why not try this one?” This is a great action thriller movie about an emergency room doctor (Bruce Willis) who is unwittingly tasked with fixing up the bad guys of Chicago. A grave situation befalls his family, at which time he has a moment of awakening and plots his revenge. The police- overwhelmed with cases and coming up empty- starting with lowly purse snatchers, and moving up to carjackers, and eventually murderers – he doles out justice as he sees fit.

This was a great action movie for Bruce Willis. Not too much CGI and a plausible storyline. It felt honest and true to the types of mistakes one might make while learning to be an everyday superhero incognito. I am somewhat confused about the role his brother plays in the film, but not enough to discourage me from watching it a second time. I think this one hits home for the action lover of the family as well as the romance/story lover of the family.  An all-around A+ in my book!

Bad Boys (1995)

DVD – Will Smith and Martin Lawrence make a comedic-winning duo in Bad Boys. Officers Mike Lowry (Smith) and Marcus Bennett (Lawrence) lead an investigation into a break-in at the police station’s evidence locker room, where a load of heroin is unassumingly stolen. They have 72 hours to reclaim the drugs before the FBI and CIA are called in. To complicate matters, they have to protect Julie, a witness who saw the thieves murder her best friend amid a heroin exchange. Told by her friend that if anything ever happened to her and needed help, Julie should contact Mike, because he is THE ONLY person she trusts. Off pursuing lead, his partner Marcus intercepts a call from Julie, saying that he is Mike. The two characters lead very different lives, so it is highly entertaining to see how each portray the other. Will they retrieve the heroin? At what cost to the city? Will they keep Julie alive?

Bad Boys is an older movie, but a goodie. There is a significant amount of adult language, use of racial slurs, intense action and recommend this for adults only. The film’s success was later followed up by Bad Boys II released in 2003.  Snuggle up for a fun adult night with this pair of movies!

 

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

Book–Amateur comic book artist and high school student Jess Wong is painfully, unhealthily in love with her best friend Angie. Jess is content to obsess over Angie secretly until Angie enters into a relationship with Margot Adams, a beautiful student from the nearby posh boarding school. Naturally, Jess thinks Margot is no good for Angie, but is this just sour grapes on Jess’s part or is Margot really bad news? When tragedy strikes at an off-campus party and everyone is a suspect, Jess must face up to what really happened that night. Or must she?

This is a dark, twisty thriller, like Pretty Little Liars meets Gone Girl meets The L Word. The book is split in two parts: the beginning is told in first person from Jess’ POV and the end is made up of police interviews and third person limited POV following multiple characters. This allows Lo to build up the tension without giving it all away too quickly. If you enjoy A Line in the Dark, you might also like twisty young adult books like We Were Liars and Last Seen Leaving.

Get Out (2017)

Movie–I don’t really like horror movies. But, I do like good movies, and I’m always motivated to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible. So, that’s how I found myself checking out and somewhat begrudgingly watching Get Out, a horror movie with serious racial themes.

Chris, an African American photographer, hesitantly goes to his white girlfriend Rose’s house for the weekend to meet her family. His best friend warns him that no good will come of this. In scenes reminiscent of The Stepford Wives, Chris notices that something is “off” about the African American groundskeeper and housekeeper. Then the family’s friends come for an annual party, and things get even weirder. Chris quickly realizes he needs to leave. But, will he be able to get out?

Written and directed by Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele fame), Get Out has been getting critical acclaim since its release in early 2017, so it was really no surprise when it earned nominations for four of the big categories at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor for Daniel Kaluuya). Although it was outside my comfort zone, I’m glad I watched it (well, all except for the parts that got so violent that I covered my eyes). If you are interested in a well-made horror movie that also tackles race issues and might just win an Oscar, then this is for you.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

Imperium (2016)

Movie – Nate Foster is an FBI agent. He pays attention to the little things. This trait is something agent Angela Zamparo is looking for in a good agent. Zamparo has her interests in white hate groups. She understands Nate’s specialty is Islamic terror, but challenges Nate to look closer to home when it comes to terror suspects and upcoming events.

Nate keeps to himself, retains a lot of what he reads, but is not well respected. The other agents pick on him because his is younger. Angela is looking for in a partner with these types of attributes, however. Nate goes undercover to infiltrate a white power hate group at Angela’s request. Angela needs Nate to look for the individuals who could have access to Cesium 137, a chemical they could use to create a dirty bomb. Nate changes his name and moves to Maine to meet with an informant already in the mix. Angela instructs Nate to get close to the group leader, Vince, and meet others in the movement, Dallas Wolf. Wolf is a well-known radio host in the movement. Nate eventually catches the eye of Gerry Conway, an engineer with a family man. Gerry also catches Nate’s, and Nate begins to wonder how someone so put together like Gerry could be part of this world.

The movie takes several turns before we really find out who is who in these groups. This is not a very violent movie compared to others. There is one scene where two groups of protesters clash but not much thereafter. Most of the movie shows interactions between the major players of the different groups; as to demonstrate how they may have one common goal, but are still very different.  This is no Harry Potter; and it is refreshing seeing Daniel Radcliffe in other roles that are nothing like the childhood wizard.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

dbd04a03f81f114a28fac1068a273e72Book—  His Bloody Project concerns the murder of a husband, wife, and child in a remote 1800s Scottish highland town. There is no question that local teenager Roderick Macrae is guilty. Framed as a series of historical documents found by the author, Macrae’s fictional descendant, the novel captivates not on the basis of who did the murders, but why he did the murders. We get views of Roderick from his neighbors, his lawyer, the newspapers, his priest, a famed criminal anthropologist of the time, and his own diary, each of them proffering viable explanations . Despite all of this testimony, I was unsure at the end what motivated Macrae and am still spinning theories to explain his reasons.

I was surprised to learn this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. His Bloody Project has all the drive and atmosphere of a tautly written thriller and is more reminiscent of the documentary Making a Murderer than the literary fare that generally garners Man Booker prizes. If you enjoy this novel, I would recommend others with compelling, unreliable narrators in historical settings, such as The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Book – Although high schooler Fabiola Toussaint grew up in Haiti, she is an American citizen.  Her mother is not.  They’ve both been planning to come and live with family in Detroit, but when Customs and Immigration stop her mother at the airport, Fabiola finds herself flying alone to a strange city in a strange country to live with an aunt and three cousins she knows only over the phone.

It’s a rough dunking in the deep end of adulthood, and Fabiola’s three cousins, while loving and supportive in their own way, don’t always make her transition easier.  Tough and street-smart, they have a neighborhood rep as the Three Bees–Brains for the eldest, Chantal, and Beauty and Brawn respectively for twins Donna and Pri.  Nor does Aunt Jo, partially paralyzed from a stroke and often bedridden with pain, play much of a role in welcoming Fabiola to Detroit.

Bit by bit, Fabiola feels her way through assimilation to a new culture and a new family.  Her cousins’ fierceness soon translates to an equally powerful protectiveness and love.  Donna’s abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend is a blot on all their lives, but Fabiola is drawn to his sweet friend Kasim.  A police officer offers Fabiola a chance to help her mother through the immigration process, for a price.  And Fabiola can never feel too disconnected from her roots as the daughter of a Vodou mambo when Papa Legba spends his nights on the sidewalk across from her new home, singing cryptic riddles under the streetlights at the corner of American and Joy…

American Street is a powerful, original and deeply relevant first novel from a talented writer.  Anyone who objects to profanity would do best to steer clear, but for other adult and older teen readers this is a strongly recommended exploration of the present-day American experience.