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#russelreads, #russelwatches — what Russel’s been up to this week

If you followed me on Twitter/X/Whatever the hell that is now, you’ll know that I’ll usually put up what I’m watching or reading with a hashtag like #russelreads or #russelwatches. I figured I might as well start noting these things here as well since no one can see anything on Twitter/X any more beyond the brain farts of Elon Musk and a lot of very very angry people you’re pretty sure you didn’t intend to follow (if you do follow me on twitter and want to find me elsewhere, I’m using threads @russeldmclean, and you can find me on Bluesky at the same name, too, although I’m there less often).

Anyway, we’ll try and do this weekly. Its a way of me getting back to my roots when I was bookseller, always reccomending things, but I want to add a few extra elements too, like all the movies I consume instead of, you know, sleeping…

#Russelreads w/c 7/8/2023

Widespread Panic by James Ellroy

Widespread Panic By James Ellroy : James Ellroy is one of the reasons I became addicted to crime fiction. That pop-pop prose, that sneering cycnicsm, that devil-dog derring-do… Yes, in some ways he’s in danger of becoming a tribute act to himself, but there’s still so much that feels frightening fearsome in this latest novel that spans the forties to the sixties (and even up to the present day) and the adventures of Freddy Otash, the muscle for Confidential magazine, who cheats, lies, and scandalises his way to the top of the LA food chain. As always with Ellroy, especially the later works, there’s an uncomfortable line walked in terms of content and interpretation, and sometimes a sense that agonising alliteration and senseless shock-value-scandal is a bug more than a feature. But its all done with endless enthusiasm and vivid va-va-voom that Ellroy remains a writer doing macho noir in such a way that no one else could ever top. This is the real-deal-devil-dog. Accept no substitutes.

The Night Parade By Ronald Malfi: A chilling pandemic horror where a disease called Wanderer’s Folly causes people to to suffer from delusions and unpredictable behaviour. Only a young girl seems to hold the key to a cure, and she’s on the run with her father. But she may be more than just the cure. She may have other, more unusual powers, too… This was my first novel by Malfi, and its got a very Stephen King-esque vibe, right down to the way he portrays ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In fact, the book really made me think of a crossover between The Stand and Firestarter or King’s more recent The Insititute in the way it handled kids with extraordinary powers. However, while he may be in King territory, Malfi’s the kind of writer who keeps you turning those pages effectively, and his depiction of paranoid people in an uncertain world really chills you to the bone in certain sequences.

Girl A By Abigail Dean: A huge bestseller on first release back in 2021, I’m only just catching up to it now, this is the story of Lex, also known as Girl A who survived a “house of horrors” along with her siblings, all of them brought up in a cult-like environment and now having to deal with the emotional fall out as adults. There are some gut-wrenching elements to the story, and that all-important emotional resonance is doled out in spades, making you empathise with the characters, even if you don’t always sympathise with them.

#russelwatches w/c 7/8/2023

Only Murders in the Building on Disney Plus

Hardboiled (dir. John Woo, 1992): I only ever knew Woo from his Hollywood adventures, starting with Broken Arrow (which was okay but has not aged well), then Face/Off (One of my favourite action movies — absolutely bonkers!), and Mission Impossible Two (AKA the one that just didn’t work), but even when those films didn’t hold up (*cough* MI:2 *cough*) there were at least interesting stylistic flourishes. And all of those flourishes are here in the film that made his name: the two-handgun slo-mo jump, the explosion of something innocent (flour in the case of the opening restaurant shootout), the apparently endless number of bad guys being knocked off their feet by shotguns, and cars inexplicably exploding except when the heroes are hiding behind them…. Its ludicrous, macho, and so so stylish in the most guilty-pleasure kind of way. But the version I had seemed to be an English only dub, and the translation/dialogue is among some of the most ridiculous I’ve ever heard, akin to the game on Whose Line is It Anyway where they would dub over a foreign movie in the most stupid way possible. But ignoring all that, the action is quite spectacular, and you kind of wish Woo had a better chance to make more films in the US that played to his strengths. (Viewed via DVD from Tartan Video)

Before Dawn (dir. Dominic Brunt, 2013): Low budget brit-horror directed by and starring that Nice Vet from Emmerdale as a man deciding to take his wife for a country holiday even though she clearly can’t stand him and is more concerned with being on her mobile phone. As he tries to woo her with wine and reminiscing, a zombie apocalypse is happening outside. And then one of the undead bites his wife… The budget for this was probably around ten pence, and yet Brunt clearly wants to make a proper horror movie, leaning into the best kind of horror framework of domestic drama interrupted by the terrifying. It doesn’t always work (the first zombie attack feels rushed and too in love with shaky-cam), and there are a few too many scenes that repeat themselves (the arguments between our married couple can be a little repetitive) but then you get a moment like Brunt’s character confronting a zombie in a confined garage, and a brilliantly dark turn for his character after he meets an unpleasant fellow survivor. There is also quite stunning use of isolated Yorkshire countryside as a setup. Rough around the edges, but enough for me to want to check out Brunt’s more recent horror, Wolf Manor. (viewed via VOD on Amazon Prime)

Still/Born (dir. Brandon Christensen, 2017) More low budget horror, this time from Canada as a woman who gave birth to twins — one of whom was still born (geddit?) — starts to believe her surviving child may be being targeted by a demon who wants to consume it. Is what she is experiencing real, or is it all in her head? A hugely committed central performance from Christie Burke is the highlight here, and there’s an unexpected cameo from Michael Ironside as a doctor you’re not sure whether or not you should trust. Its a slow burn, but once the action really kicks off, you’re utterly invested and spend the movie osscilating between whether you believe the mother or not, right up until a climax that leaves you holding your breath. (Viewed via VOD on Shudder)

Only Murders in the Building (season 3, eps 1 and 2): It’s back! The most generously fun show on streaming/television/whatever we call it now. Steve Martin and Martin Short continue to charm as the neighbours/dad substitutes we all wish we had, while Selena Gomez channels the perfect mix of sarcasm and charm as we go to the theatre this time when a murder occurs on stage at the debut of Oliver Putnam’s new show. Of course, this is Only Murders in the Building, and a brilliantly daft twist of fate results in the need for our three amateur sleuths to resurrect their old podcast and crack on with a new case. Its odd to say this about a show focussed on murder, but this really is like wrapping yourself in a wonderfully huggy blanket: simply one of the the most reassuring joyous shows available to watch right now. (viewed on VOD via Disney Plus)

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