The Gunslinger, by Stephen King / *****

Introductory note: It’s been a little over a decade since the release of the last novels in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and every bit as long since I’ve read them. In fact, setting aside my reading of the revised edition of The Gunslinger, it’s been probably 15-20 years since I’ve read some of the Dark Tower books, despite my deep love for the series. So, with the release of the film later this year, I’ve decided to do a re-read of the entire series, as well as The Wind through the Keyhole after I read the original seven. It’s an undertaking I’m looking forward to, even though I’m worried that the series won’t live up to my love and affection for it.

One more key note: after each main review, I’ll do a section headed “All Things Serve the Beam,” in which I’ll discuss some spoilers for the series as a whole for those like me who’ve read it all or know how things turn out. I’ll mark it pretty clearly, but don’t read that section if you’re not wanting the series beyond this book spoiled for you.

the_gunslinger2The Gunslinger is a strange book, by any standards. That goes doubly if you’re reading the original version (which I recommend), but even if you’re reading King’s revised version that came out, The Gunslinger doesn’t quite feel…well, like a Stephen King book, yes, but really, it doesn’t feel like much else.

But for me, that’s much of what drew me into the world of The Dark Tower, and that goes doubly for King’s original version of the book, which is starker, less polished, and less familiar. It’s undeniably the work of a younger author, one who hadn’t honed his craft yet, and yet whose imagination and mind are truly like little else out there. Mixing together Sergio Leone, King Arthur tales, horror novels, and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Gunslinger puts us into a world that, as so many characters repeat, “has moved on.” This is not a vivid or rich world; it is a world that is dying, and dying rapidly.

And yet, the gunslinger – Roland Deschain – exists, and stays true to his quest. Despite the death of the world, despite the fact that he’s a forgotten relic of a bygone time, he clings to his quest – and there’s something primal and archetypal in that for me, a story of a knight on a pointless quest that has echoed into modern books I love like The Last Policeman or The Devil’s Detective, and no doubt, some of it started here.

Except, of course, that Roland isn’t a typical hero. It’s something I hadn’t considered entirely until this read, but King didn’t just borrow the style and grandeur of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns; he borrowed the amorality of its hero, giving us a hero who cares about his quest first and foremost, and finds all other attachments ultimately expendable. Roland is not the brightest character, not the warmest, not the most noble – but he is dedicated, and there is something fascinating about that, to no small degree. (King’s revised version seems to make Roland a little softer around the edges, and it’s my least favorite aspect of the revisions; Roland is a cold-blooded son of a bitch, and I think the original version of the novel stays true to that more clearly.)

The Gunslinger is a short book; it’s a foray into a strange world, an introduction more than a true entry in the series. And yet, there’s something so strange, so alien, so haunting about it that I still love it, all these years later. And while I understand King’s desire to revise the book (more on that in a moment), I love the stilted, uncomfortable nature of the original, and its rawness. It’s a magnificent first entry in a unique series, and a microcosm of what’s to come: not always perfect, but always unique and off-kilter, and the product of a mind incapable of doing the expected.

rehost2f20162f92f142f9bdfb44b-07d8-4df9-88d7-f78648933abeThe Revised Edition: After reading the original draft, my plan had been just to check out some of the edits, but I ended up reading the revised version the day after I finished the original. King’s choice to revise the novel is entirely a sensible one; his argument, that he always goes back and revises the openings of his novels to fit the work entire, is a logical one, and there’s little denying that the revised version of the book better fits the tone of the series as a whole. More than that, setting aside the numerous continuity fixes, the revised version feels more like the author we know, and the author who concluded the series – for better and for worse. There’s a better sense of where the story is going, and how it fits together, and who Roland is. More to the point, there’s a far better sense of who Jake Chambers is; his portrayal in the revised version is far richer and more interesting, turning the character into someone who feels out of place in Roland’s world and not just of a piece with the strangeness.

For all of that, though, and even though I’ll concede that the revised Gunslinger is no doubt a better sell for the series for new readers, I can’t deny my preference for the unpolished, rough edges of the original novel. The Dark Tower is as much a snapshot of where King was as an author and a person over the course of the many years that went into the pieces, and there’s something magical about seeing King’s talent in its original form. More than that, the strange, alien feeling of the original text is more haunting in many ways than the more fully-realized version that we get in the revised. Is the revised more true to the series…but it’s the original that made me a fan.

Amazon: Original Version | Revised Edition

All Things Serve the Beam (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Gunslinger, by Stephen King / *****”

Fargo (Season 3) / ****

fargo-s3-key-art-1For two seasons, Noah Hawley’s Fargo has blown me away. What seemed like an absurd idea – a TV series inspired by a great Coen brothers movie but having only the most tenuous of connections beyond the tone – became something great, giving us first a season of good vs. evil on a massive scale, and then a second season about the change in the American landscape from small, family-run business to something bigger and less personal. That it managed these while telling tight, tense crime stories is only part of what made the show so magnificent; what was even better was the great character work, giving us not only phenomenal performances, but characters like Lorne Malvo, Mike Milligan, Molly (and Lou) Solverson, and so many others. It all added up to truly amazing television that I absolutely loved, and ranked among the best shows out there.

So, when I talk about how disappointing this season of Fargo was, it should be noted that, in no small way, that comes partially in comparison to the incredible first two seasons. While the first two seasons each felt fresh and novel and unique, there was a sense in Fargo‘s third season of going through the motions, that the team couldn’t quite bring the novelty and unique approach for a third time. Yes, there was the careful blend of black comedy and violence; yes, there were foolhardy, greedy men getting swept up in affairs out of their control; yes, there were forces of good and anarchic forces of evil. But we’d seen all of that before, and especially in the early going, there was little sense of anything…well, new to be had here.

Making things worse, though, is that season 3 gave us little investment in the characters. Sure, Ewan McGregor was fine as the Stussy brothers…but there was little substance to either Emmit or Ray, and little that made us feel one way or the other to them, apart from the plot. Even the season’s best work, done by Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango, never really lived and breathed as much as they should have. Coon was fantastic in the Marge Gunderson/Molly Solverson role, but there wasn’t as much there to Gloria as there was to those two women. And while Swango ended up becoming a great and enjoyable part of the show, there wasn’t much substance to her either, apart from a desire for payback.

The one big exception to this was David Thewlis’s bizarre, verbose villain, V.M. Varga, a man with an uncanny ability to talk his way into…well, anything. Varga’s verbal digressions were fascinating, yes, but they were also a subtle, strange new threat, one in which he would simply deny the reality of what was happening, and enforce his own worldview onto a situation. And it was in that that the season truly came to life thematically. Because while Fargo has always been a show interested in morality and justice, this season, written and filmed at a particularly bleak and frustrating time for America, reflects a cynicism that hasn’t always been in this show before. Both the film and the series – until now – have believed in a moral rule to the universe, a sense that enough light and kindness can overcome, even if people at their core are greedy and selfish and dumb. But in the face of Varga – or people like Gloria’s ineffective new supervisor – and those who simply deny the reality of what they are faced with, and impose their own words and control the situation by doing so…well, how can we ever succeed?

It’s rich fare for a show’s theme, and one that came to a magnificent head in the season’s final scene, which I truly loved. And yet, for all of that, Fargo‘s third season still doesn’t work as well as I wish it did. The early stretch is too flat for too long, taking until nearly 6 episodes (out of ten) to truly get going and do anything interesting. And while the last three episodes are all genuinely great, there’s a sense that Hawley was throwing things at the wall without a sense of what mattered to the series. For instance, I loved the strange, surreal sequence at a bowling alley overseen by the reliably amazing Ray Wise…but it seemed like a fluke, one that had no keeping with a season about truth and lies. The same for the California-set episode, and the same for so many digressions of the season.

But worst of all, there’s the fact that Hawley’s ideas, for the first time, have overstepped his characters. Yes, I love that final scene of the season, and I love the ideas at play. But in the end, Gloria and Varga feel less like human beings, and more like representations of ideas – and that holds true for too much of this season. Did I enjoy a lot of it? Sure. Was it still imaginatively filmed, occasionally great, and wonderfully tense? Often. But was it ever even close to the greatness of those first two seasons? Not even in the same ballpark.


I Am Not Your Negro (2016) / *****

i_am_not_your_negro_xlgI’ll confess, up front, to being largely unaware of James Baldwin before watching I Am Not Your Negro, a fascinating and powerful documentary by Raoul Peck. Oh, of course I knew the three major names around which Baldwin’s unfinished book – which forms the basis for this documentary – revolves; I knew how the dichotomy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is used for so many to represent the polar opposite approaches to race relations in America. And of course, I knew the tragedy of Medgar Evers, and the pain that followed.

But Baldwin was unfamiliar to me, and after watching I Am Not Your Negro, I regret that very much. Anchored entirely by Baldwin’s words – sometimes recorded as he spoke, but generally narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in a world-weary, exhausted tone whose power never diminishes – the documentary takes, as its starting point, Baldwin’s unfinished novel about those three iconic figures in American race relations. But in Peck’s skilled hands, I Am Not Your Negro becomes something else, like listening to Baldwin talk about his life, his observations, and his feelings on America for an hour and half. And given that Baldwin is incredibly insightful, intelligent, compelling, and effective as a speaker, that’s a pretty incredible way to spend an hour and a half of time. Indeed, there’s little way to come away from I Am Not Your Negro unimpressed with Baldwin’s thoughtful approach to the world, and the accuracy of so much of what he says.

Nor does it hurt that so much applies still today. Peck skillfully ties Baldwin’s words to modern events, using images of Ferguson, Obama, Trayvon Martin, and other modern touchstones to draw the connections more obviously when needed. Other times, he’s willing to sit back and let the audience realize the connections for themselves; for instance, when you hear another academic lecturing Baldwin on being so “obsessed” with color, you can’t help but feel echoes of every “All Lives Matter” activist who’s ever spoken.

But Baldwin is fascinating, no matter what he’s talking about. From commentary on pop culture and films to politics, from his first meeting with Malcolm X to his memories of the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, Baldwin’s prose and voice are inimitable, evoking emotion and senses for things I’ve never experienced, and conveying far more effectively than I could have imagined his ideas. He’s matched, it must be said, by Jackson’s incredible narration; while Jackson is known for his bluster and anger, his quiet, weary voice here speaks wonders, immersing you in Baldwin’s contemplative, thoughtful prose and evoking the pain that he so often writes of.

But more than anything else, I Am Not Your Negro is a great film for the way it addresses directly, without flinching, issues of race in this country – issues that we’re still dealing with, and still running away from. Baldwin is never less than honest, and his perceptions are so accurate as to be painful. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” he says at one point, “and it is not a pretty story.” That is a painfully accurate quote, and one that makes this film and its words every bit as important and trenchant as they were when they were first written. I Am Not Your Negro will hurt you, will make you question yourself, will make you think, and will make you feel empathy for people you truly may be unable to understand – and for those reasons, and so many more, it’s the kind of film that I wish I could force people to watch.


Better Call Saul (Season 3) / *****

dimsBy this point, it’s become unnecessary to say that Better Call Saul is better than I ever expected. What started life as a somewhat questionable idea – was anyone really that interested in how Saul Goodman got there? – has become maybe my favorite show on television, one that explores many of the same ideas and themes of its parent series, and yet does so in a very different way than Breaking Bad ever did, eschewing the pulp operatics in favor of a more low-key, character-driven approach.

And yet, season 3 proved that this is still much of the same crew that gave us Walter White, as characters were pushed further and further, nearly every one of them hitting a breaking point and being powerless to stop it. What’s more fascinating still, for many of those stories, rather than climaxing at the season’s end, that point came just over halfway – which meant that we saw the fallout in every one of their lives.

Mind you, this is still a show primarily about how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, and this season followed through on that, as Jimmy turned darker and nastier than we’ve ever seen him before, and started showing signs of becoming the cold, pragmatic, selfish figure he would become. But one of the best things about Better Call Saul is that it invests equal emotional time and plot in its fantastic supporting cast. Rhea Seehorn’s Kim faces a test not only of her commitment to Jimmy, but a reckoning with how she handles her own work and life. Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin has to come to terms with what’s best for the firm he’s worked so hard to help create. And most fascinating of all, perhaps, is Michael McKean’s hateable and yet deeply broken Chuck, a man who is generally right in nearly every point he makes, and yet may be one of the most odious characters in recent memory. There’s not a bad performance in the batch; every actor brings their A-game to every single scene, and as the show hurls them against each other and sparks fly, we realize that is the rare show without an easy villain – even Chuck, cruel though he can be, is generally right, which is an amazing thing for a show to pull off. What that gives us is a deeply complex show, morally speaking, and an even more tragic one than Breaking Bad, since the dense dramatic irony constantly reminds us where we’ll end up.

Mind you, there’s another half to Better Call Saul, one that follows Jonathan Banks’s Mike as he becomes involved with Gus Fring and the drug trade. That show, luckily, remains riveting, with Banks once again proving that his physical performance – so often done without a single word of dialogue – is among my favorite things on television. Whether he’s disassembling a car or digging holes, Banks brings a methodical intelligence to the role, conveying everything through his expressive face and physical bearing. Of course, it’s been fantastic to have Giancarlo Esposito back on the show as Fring, reminding me what a rich presence he could be, but the best – and most surprising – part of this half of the show is Michael Nando as Nacho, who seems to have been taking lessons from Banks in how to convey a story wordlessly. As a character whose doubts are never allowed to be expressed clearly, Nando has made Nacho a phenomenal character, one whose role is becoming more and more complicated and less easily categorized – just like everything else on this show.

That Better Call Saul can manage all of this while still being the most engaging, fast-paced, funny, tense show on television is testament to the entire cast and crew, who work together to tell a simple story beautifully. It’s a fall from grace, a tale of two brothers, a love story, and a complex meditation on morality – and it’s entertaining as hell while it does it. I’m so glad it’s on, and I wish the seasons never had to end.


It Comes at Night / **** ½

it_comes_at_night_xlgLast year, at the Chattanooga Film Festival, I caught a phenomenal film named Krisha, written and directed by a newcomer named Trey Edward Shults. Telling the story of a family’s Thanksgiving that gets crashed by a long absent relative, it was a searing piece of drama, filmed with a natural talent that blew me away and telling an emotionally powerful story in an exceptional way. In short, it was one of those debut features that leaves you knowing that you just saw the birth of a new talent, and someone worth keeping an eye on.

Now comes Shults’s second film, It Comes at Night, which offers up no end of surprises, even before you actually see the film. For one, I wouldn’t have expected Shults to make the jump to bigger budget, wide release films so quickly; even more surprising, though, is the fact that Shults has left behind domestic drama for the tougher genre of horror. That’s a tough genre, and while Krisha was undeniably tense and emotionally fraught, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a horror film from Shults.

What I got, though, was superb, marrying the “family under pressure to the breaking point” themes of Krisha with the paranoia and isolation of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and using shadows and silence to phenomenal effect. It Comes at Night is the story of a family who’ve isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods; while the specifics of what’s happened to the rest of the world never become entirely clear, it’s obvious that a disease has wiped out much of the population, and left the rest fending for themselves. But when the family gets discovered, questions of trust and loyalty come into play, and the characters are forced to deal with a simple question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Shults’s strengths as a writer and director are evident from the get-go here, especially as regards the performances, which are uniformly excellent, with nary a missed step in the batch. Joel Edgerton is one of the only “names” you might recognize, but he’s rarely been better, getting a role that befits his masculine practicality and gruffness. And Kelvin Harrison, Jr., the film’s de facto lead (as much as there is one), uses his youth to phenomenal effect, internalizing the horrors around him as he attempts to make his peace with the violent world he’s forced to live in, and figure out his own moral compass.

But as great as the performances are, what really floored me here was Shults’s command of mood and tone. This feels like a low- to mid-budget film; the scares are few, with more reliance on an atmosphere of dread and unease than on jump scares. More than that, Shults keeps us in the head of his characters more than we realize, leaving us questioning people’s motivations and understanding the stakes at any given moment. The result is maybe more of a psychological thriller than a true horror film, but the lines are blurred, and the film’s use of night and darkness leave no doubt as to where its genre roots lay. And it’s in keeping with Shults’s independent-film roots all the way to the film’s ending, which is destined to leave some mainstream audiences grumbling and unhappy, but which floored me pretty well.

It Comes at Night is going to be one of those cult horror films soon, one held up alongside The Witch and The Babadook and others as a reminder of how the decade was home to a rich new burst of creative, interesting horror movies. And more than that, it’s a sign that Shults is a talent to be watched; with his first two films, he’s hit two home runs. You better believe I’ll be there for attempt #3.


Vacation Reading

We’ve been on vacation for the past week or so, which means that I’ve had a little more time than usual to get some reading in, including two review copies and a fun little twisty thriller. So, with so much to talk about (to say nothing of the movies and TV I’ve been ingesting), let’s do a few shorter reviews than usual.

894645323Evan Marshall Hernandez’s Breaking the Skies is an ambitious piece of work, especially for a more independent author. In broad terms, it’s a science-fiction war novel, opening its action with the final stand of a revolution set to end the reigning Queen on this planet. Hernandez’s heroes are largely on the side of the Queen for this novel, and yet Hernandez doesn’t necessarily make either side noticeably better or worse than the others. Indeed, many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it navigates moral complexity so well, establishing its heroes and villains clearly while letting everyone by fully realized, complex creations. More than that, Hernandez handles his action well, leaning both into the chaos of the war but also the morality of such violence, grappling with questions about who we ally ourselves with, the tactics we use in war, and humanity’s relationship with this alien planet.

But it’s that planet that makes for the most interesting material in the novel, which leans more heavily into the fantasy genre and brings out the best elements of the novel. Not content with just having complex human characters, Hernandez fills his planet with several animalistic races, each of which has its own personality, culture, and approach to the world. Even more interestingly, Hernandez offers his own variation on Philip Pullman’s daemons, pairing many of our heroes with creatures that are their partners and friends, which often tells you much about the people themselves. And Hernandez spends just as much time on these creatures as he does his human characters, investing them with backstories, culture, personality, and every bit as much richness as the others.

The end result is a rich, well-realized novel, one with enough complexity to the story to keep readers satisfied while never neglecting the world-building and detail that makes a fantasy world come to life. Breaking the Skies definitely feels like the first entry in a series, with sections that feel a bit drawn out at times, and some pacing that could use just a little more momentum at certain points. The sheer number of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, even while Hernandez makes them all work, and it ultimately feels like the book could be a bit shorter and lose little of its strengths. And yet, it’s a solid book that I don’t hesitate to recommend; its sheer imagination and solid storytelling, its great character work, and the fascinating world all work together wonderfully. The shortest, most focused recommendation I can give? I’m more than ready to read the second novel in the series at any time. Rating: ****

the-passenger-lisa-lutzLisa Lutz’s The Passenger kicks off with such a great opening that it’s almost a relief when the rest of the book lives up to it. It’s the story of a woman named…well, honestly, that’s complicated, given how many names she has over the course of this book. So let’s just say that it’s the story of a woman whose husband falls down the stairs and dies in a genuine accident. But she’s a) not that upset to see him go, b) worried that people might think she did it, and most importantly, c) seems awfully nervous for the police to go digging around. So she packs up and hits the road, calls a mysterious benefactor, and gets a new identity. And that goes well…for a few pages, at least.

Honestly, that’s about all I want to say about The Passenger, which is one of those books that are far more fun to read if you don’t know anything about them. Suffice to say, our heroine is on the move, constantly shifting identities based on the events around her, and only gradually revealing to us, the readers, exactly why she’s on the run in the first place. Even better, Lutz constantly raises the tension and the stakes, with dangerous run-ins, suspicious friends, and a kindred spirit who might be using her for nefarious means. It’s a gloriously twisty plot, one that uses every twist for maximum impact, whether to increase our unease or to stun with revelations.

But even better is our heroine, a complicated figure who lives comfortably in a world between villainy and heroism. Not a good person by any means, Lutz’s heroine also isn’t the antihero we might suspect; she’s a survivor, through and through, and as we learn more about her, her actions become more and more understandable. Her narration and pragmatic worldview make for a great aspect of the book, and the perfect companion for the twisty plot. The result is a great read, especially for the summer; it’s light but compelling, twisty but never unfair, dark but never horrific – in short, it’s a complete blast for anyone wanting a great thriller. Rating: **** ½

29468624Christopher Fowler’s Spanky was apparently originally released in the mid 90’s, a fact that feels right, given its central theme of a man who feels that his life has gotten off track and been far from what he hoped for. That was in the zeitgeist in that time, a fact that shows up in so many films of the time (American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club, and so on), to say nothing of other books (again, Fight Club, but more notably, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed). And so, in its broad strokes, Spanky‘s idea to marry that male anxiety to a modern riff on Faust, as a twenty-something Briton named Martyn gets offered a chance to turn his life around by a daemon named Spanky? That’s nothing too surprising, in hindsight.

That being said, what makes Spanky so much fun is how it uses its supernatural elements, first with a sly sense of humor, and then for absolutely horrific effect. Spanky starts as typical male wish-fulfillment stuff, but the titular daemon makes for a wonderfully anarchic figure in the midst of it all, playing Tyler Durden to Martyn (in his foreword, Fowler remarks that Fight Club, which came out after this, definitely feels like it’s almost the same book). As Martyn goes through his image makeover, dives into family trauma, and tries to meet women, Fowler keeps everything darkly funny and engaging, letting Martyn’s unease with some of it poke holes in the potentially toxic worldview.

But it’s really the novel’s second half, where Fowler lets the horror side of the story run wild, where Spanky shines. Fowler sets some tough boundaries on Spanky’s abilities, which could easily rob the horrors of their punch. Instead, they only make it better, as Martyn – and the reader – aren’t just subjected to twisted creatures and brutal violence, but thrust into an increasingly unreliable reality where we’re never sure what’s actually happening. It’s a great final act for a wonderfully nasty, fun read, one that holds up even twenty years (!) after its original release. Hopefully its American release will find it a new audience that enjoys it as much as I did. Rating: ****

Amazon: Breaking the Skies | The Passenger | Spanky

Documentary Day

tickledBy now, you’re probably aware of some of the story behind Tickled, the fascinating, bizarre documentary from David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. How Farrier, a journalist with a penchant for offbeat stories, got tipped off to a series of videos of an underground “competitive tickling” competition. How Farrier started looking for interviews, only to get far more blowback and pressure than would seem logical for the situation. How Farrier and Dylan Reeve began investigating the situation, only to realize that there’s a much bigger – and stranger – story behind these videos. But even knowing some of that won’t prepare you for how gripping Tickled really is as a piece of investigative journalism, as Farrier and Reeve move step by step through this insane story that starts with what are clearly fetish videos, but end up in a world where money can let you get away with anything. Tickled struggles a bit along the way; without giving too much away (although there’s little here that’s truly out of nowhere, it’s still best to watch things slowly unfold), this ultimately becomes an effort to find someone who has no interest in being found, which leaves the documentary with a hole to be filled. (The long section where the film tries to present the tickling fetish as something far weirder than it is is a prime example of that, and easily the film’s weakest point.) That leads to a bit of a fizzling end to the documentary, which is why I’m so glad that HBO has released a short follow up, The Tickle King, which follows what’s happened since the film’s release, including confrontations at film festivals, legal threats, and more. It’s a far more satisfying conclusion to the film, even if it leaves out the most recent – and most final – update to the story (which happened in March). But watching them back to back makes for a riveting, bizarre experience, and a wonderful piece of storytelling that immerses you bit by bit into a strange world of fake identities, blackmail, bluster, and more. Even though there are some issues, and the better film would cut out some of Tickled and replace it with the end of The Tickle King, the pairing makes for a riveting night’s viewing that leaves you pondering the strangeness of human nature. Rating: ****

large_2iu7m8zs5fha4ct3c55ah38bc5sWhat I expected from Nick Broomfield’s Tales from the Grim Sleeper was another piece of investigative journalism. This was the story of a serial killer who preyed on South Central, a largely African-American community in Los Angeles, for nearly 25 years. And as such, what I expected was that the film would open with the early murders, then follow the case as it unfolded up until the arrest. Instead, Tales of the Grim Sleeper opens with the arrest of Lonnie Franklin, a largely beloved local man, and then investigates the obvious question: how did this take 25 years? And what does a revelation like this – that a local institution could be capable of possibly more than a hundred murdered women – do to the neighborhood around him? Director Nick Broomfield mainly stays out of the way for much of Tales‘ running time, instead letting the inhabitants of South Central – Lonnie’s friends, the activists, but also the prostitutes, the crackheads, the criminals – tell their stories largely uninterrupted. What emerges is a film that accurately reflects its title: this is tales from the world of the Grim Sleeper, a world where the murder of prostitutes were dismissed with the acronym NHI: No Humans Involved. It’s a world where black women didn’t feel safe going to the police to ask for help, and a world where the Los Angeles police didn’t feel the need to alert the community to the threat living among it, nor to investigate the evidence given by the lone survivor of the attacks…not until 20 more years (and countless more victims) had passed. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, heartbreaking film, one that exhibits endless empathy for its interviewees. There is no judgment for their bad choices, be they crack or prostitution or both; instead, the film constantly reminds us that no matter what people have done, they don’t deserve to have been killed in such a horrific way. More than that, it’s a film that makes it impossible to ignore the racial double standard at work with the Los Angeles police, and forces us to grapple with the ways in which that double standard cost the lives of so many women. And most hauntingly, it shows us what it must be like to have to come to terms with the fact that we may never truly know the people around us, and what it would be like to deal with the revelation that someone you knew and cared for could be so violent. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, powerful piece of filmmaking, one that’s far more about the world that allowed this man to prey on women and the damage he left behind than it is the man himself – and is all the more powerful for that choice. Rating: *****

weiner-posterIf you’re at all interested in the political process, or the role of the media in that process, or in the line between public and private lives, I can’t recommend Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s fascinating, uncomfortable documentary Weiner, which follows infamous former New York congressman Anthony Weiner as he makes an ill-fated attempt to run for mayor of New York City. Knowing how Weiner turns out – that a new sex scandal will break midway through the election, dooming his chances – doesn’t take away in the least from the fascination of Weiner, which attempts to take a “fly on the wall” approach to Weiner’s campaign and marriage; instead, it makes the campaign all the more excruciating, as we wait for this bomb to explode, destroying all of this work. Weiner does a phenomenal job of staying neutral in its reporting, and the result is fascinating, showing Weiner both as a savvy, intelligent politician and a capricious hothead who’s unable to think sometimes before he acts. In other words, we get both the sense of how great of a leader Weiner could have been, but also why he’s completely unelectable. The film never judges Weiner for his actions, allowing him to explain how little they have to do with his public persona or his platforms, while never flinching from the face of Weiner’s long-suffering wife Huma Abedin, whose strained, placid face reflects the pain she’s in all too often. Whether Weiner should be judged for the actions of his private life, whether the media’s focus on those issues prevented the real problems from being addressed, whether Weiner deserved to be constantly raked over the coals for his actions – the film raises all of these questions, but leaves them to the viewer to decide for themselves. Instead, it shows Weiner as a human being, letting us see both the energetic, avid politician and the conflicted, wounded private individual – and even the blurring of the lines between those two that so often hurts his marriage. Weiner is fascinating as a snapshot of a political landscape where private and public lines blur, as a snapshot of the modern political machine and how it reacts to scandals, and as a humanizing portrait of a flawed human being. All in all, a fantastic watch. Rating: **** ½

9e436d15140d704796d42283497ed5275ff2edf7John Huston’s Let There Be Light first came onto my radar after the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, when he cited it as a major influence on that film. It wasn’t all that familiar to me, and once I started looking into it, I understood why. A surprisingly controversial documentary, Let There Be Light was Huston’s effort to capture the realities of PTSD at a time when that phenomena was little understood or even acknowledged. By modern standards, Let There Be Light is a little slow-paced; more than that, it definitely feels of a piece with a lot of the World War II propaganda documentaries that we’ve seen over time, only with a different focus. And yet, none of that detracts from the power of this footage, which simply sits and observes these men as they attempt to come to terms with their experiences. Some have developed twitches or stutters; some have psychologically-induced amnesia; one has even developed psychosomatic paralysis. And over the course of the brief running time, Huston walks us through some of the therapies being implemented, from hypnosis to talk therapy sessions. It’s a calm, non-judgmental film, one that simply depicts these men’s psychic wounds and their efforts to heal. And yet, the government repressed the film for years, worried that it would lead to decreases in morale or a reluctance to enlist. But what’s evident from watching this film is that Let There Be Light is an important piece of work, a way of showing people that war doesn’t just destroy people physically; it takes a toll on the mind, and those wounds are no less deadly. It’s a remarkable, and even an important, piece of film that has earned its place in the pantheon of military documentaries, even if it feels a little slow and overstated by modern standards. Rating: ****

IMDB: Tickled | The Tickle King | Tales of the Grim Sleeper | Weiner | Let There Be Light