Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald / * ½

mv5bzjfimguzmtatndawmc00zjrhltk0otutmmjimzm5zmvjodqxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdm2ndm2mq-_v1_Look, I’m about to spend a lot of time tearing The Crimes of Grindelwald to shreds. A lot. So before that happens, let me concede the following points:

  1. I really wasn’t sold on the idea of Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore, but he pulls off the role wonderfully, bringing an energy, wit, and charm to the part that’s completely necessary to make it work. Law is funny and engaging, and a blast to watch; he’s undeniably the best part of the film, even though he’s barely in it.
  2. The other part of the film I genuinely enjoyed was Newt Scamander’s magical menagerie; it bends reality in a wonderful way that taps into what magic should be, giving the movie one of its only moments of actual wonder. (Mind you, this was also already done in the first movie, so this is basically only repeating a trick that worked once. But I’m trying to find a few positive notes before the rest of this review continues.)
  3. There’s a brief moment where the movie gives Grindelwald a motivation that taps into something truly interesting and complex, turning him into more than a cartoonish villain and instead into a figure who could take the movie in an interesting place. It’s scrapped almost immediately, but for a moment, it’s there.

Okay. Got that? Because that’s about the last nice things I have to say about Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is a sloppy, badly constructed, poorly plotted, thrown together piece of fan-service that forgets everything that made the Harry Potter series wonderful in favor of disappearing up its own ass, delivering supposed “revelations” that lack any impact other than what you bring in with you from outside the film, hoping that the audience can do the heavy lifting for the movie. I may not have loved the original Fantastic Beasts (which, to be fair, I didn’t hate, either; I just found it entirely empty and unnecessary, and so in love with setting up later films that it forgot to be worth seeing on its own terms), but compared to Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s a masterpiece of plotting and tightness.

I don’t even know where to begin explaining the problems with this film. Do I start with the fact that it basically has no story, eschewing anything like a multi-act structure in favor of a story that basically revolves around one character saying a sentence to another one, and just finds way to stall until we get there? Because, lord, there’s no story here at all; characters simply lurch from scene to scene, often stopping for massive exposition dumps to push things along, or chasing another character who’s running away for no clear reason. If there’s a point to the film, it’s supposedly about the orphan boy from the first movie (I’ve honestly forgotten his name, and I don’t care enough to look him up) learning who his family is, and Grindelwald tossing up obstacles so that he can claim he’s leading him on a path, mainly so he can stall the kid for two hours before telling him something he could have done at the beginning of the movie. Beyond that, things happen for no reason – or for dumb reasons – giving us a muddled mess of a movie that doesn’t even make sense on its own internal logic. (There is one other plot, involving one character’s missing brother, which I can’t get into for fear of spoilers; suffice to say, it maybe shows that the movie shouldn’t do plot, because that one incident is completely bewildering and doesn’t register as anything that a human being would actually do in life. So maybe no plot is better than incredibly stupid, incomprehensible, nonsensical plot?) Why does that one character sacrifice herself for what appears to be no reason? Why is there so much child murder in this movie? When did Nifflers become capable of advanced thinking? Why would a newspaper print a mistake like the one here? Why is Grindelwald escaping from prison not a big deal (characters literally say, “well, he’s done nothing wrong”)? Who knows? Certainly no one who watched the film.

None of this is a story in anything sort of a reasonable way, but luckily, the movie matches that by not having characters develop at all, so much as they arbitrarily make decisions. One character defects to the side of evil largely because it’s time for someone to make A Shocking Decision You Never Saw Coming, but it doesn’t really make any sense for her to do that. Dan Fogler’s muggle friend appears in the film thanks to the laziest hand-waving away of his memory wipe, but then proceeds to really do nothing except wander around in the background. And our nominal hero, Newt Scamander, decides to be neutral, and then not neutral, for reasons best known to himself, changing because the movie is over and it’s time to tease the third. That’s your character arcs and development, pretty much. And given how much the original Potter series worked because of its rich characterization, how did Rowling turn her back on that in favor of convoluted mythology and high-fiving herself for her clever canon connections?

Because, trust me, the lack of story isn’t nearly as infuriating as the sheer number of times that characters appear only so that the audience can say “ooh, that’s someone I know!”, and have nothing to do with the story? That’s maybe most notable in the case of Nagini, who’s here revealed to be a young woman who will one day be stuck as a snake forever. That could be interesting, I guess, but Nagini literally gets no lines of note in the film, other than occasionally looking scared or worried. We know nothing more about her at the end of the film than we did at the beginning, and her purpose seems only to make people go “wow, that big scary snake in the books was actually a person.” I guess that matters for some reason, but it’s certainly not clear why, because you could replace Nagini with any other female character from the series and have the same effect. (That Rowling has so little interesting done with female characters here is a pretty colossal letdown on its own terms.) But that sort of thing is par for the course for Grindelwald, where a mentioned character from the first Potter book appears without explanation or purpose, Professor McGonagall is mentioned as being in the background so we can all “ooh” and “ahh” (despite the fact that her being there doesn’t actually work within the series’ timeline), and the final line of the movie rams home a “shocking” canon revelation that’s so incredibly stupid and smug that I wanted to throw something at the screen in irritation. (Seriously, even if this movie was good, that ending would be so bad as to ruin the rest of it by itself.)

And, of course, there’s Grindelwald himself. Let’s set aside the choice to cast Johnny Depp, which is pretty awful on at least two levels (as a cinephile who’s bored of Depp’s schtick and laziness, and as a human who’s pretty repulsed by his actions of late) as best as we can, and just focus on this role, which basically is “I’m a bad man.” That’s it. There’s nothing interesting about Grindelwald, no sense of why he’s dangerous, no charisma, nothing more than a heavy-handed Nazi allegory (and, oh, will I have more to say about that in a moment) and a character who is evil because we need a big, over-the-top, EEEEEEEEEEEVIL villain in our “grounded” second series. But what makes him tick? Why is he evil? Why does he fear Dumbledore (a point which literally makes no sense, given some of the film’s revelations)? WHO KNOWS? The movie has no interest in doing anything other than letting Depp wander around and be evil, and that trick got old real quick in the first series with Fiennes. But at least there, it was a bit more forgivable, given the series’ roots as a book for younger children. Here, though? It’s ridiculous, and makes that aforementioned one jab at complexity all the more frustrating and angering.

Not enough flaws for you? Should we discuss how J.K. Rowling continues to want all the credit for declaring that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers, but gleefully elides out any mentions of it from her film, when it would honestly make sense for it to be explained? It’s hard to think of a defense of this that doesn’t boil down to “I don’t want gay characters to hurt my box office,” and that’s a pretty toxic argument to make.

Or should we discuss the way the movie wants to let its villains be Nazis in all but names, but then features a recurring theme that maybe if we didn’t attack and crack down on Nazi rallies and meetings, people wouldn’t want to be Nazis? Because let me tell you, in the wake of events like Charlottesville, that message is pretty hard to take. (And lest you think I’m reaching, I’d only tell you that a legitimate moment in this movie is when one of Grindelwald’s followers attacks someone and gets killed, and then they publicly rally and remind everyone “We are not the ones hurting people,” which is a bit on the nose.)

The short version of all of this is that I hated this pathetic excuse for a movie. All of the actors do their best, and director David Yates films it fine enough, but The Crimes of Grindelwald makes no sense, has no story, gives us no characters to care about, piles on the fan-service to an obnoxious and desperate degree, revises canon in a nonsensical fashion for shock factor, and if all of that’s not enough, legitimately offended me and made me angry in the way it treats gay characters as a tease without any courage and basically takes the side of right-wing zealots in public debates. It’s a mess of a film, and one whose message is at best incoherent, but at worst, legitimately horrible and against what I truly think the views of its author are. It’s a bad film, a bad excuse for storytelling, and one that truly makes the series worse for existing.

But, hey, it’s not like Rowling could have learned the dangers of overly fan-servicey prequels that tie everything into too neat bows while not giving us interesting characters from any other movies, right? Right?

IMDb

 

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Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky / *****

roadsidepicnicIt’s hard to know exactly how to describe Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Russian science-fiction classic Roadside Picnic in any way that can convey the haunting, oppressive, surreal mood of the novel. Made up of four sections, each separated by periods of time, the novel unfolds in a small town near an area called the Zone, which was left behind after an alien visitation unwitnessed by any humans – indeed, the only evidence of their arrival and presence was these leftover Zones, scattered around the globe. But in the small North American town of Harmont, where the novel unfolds, men known as “stalkers” lead expeditions into the area (some legal, some not) to retrieve the alien leftovers for profit.

But what exactly are these leftovers? What was their original purpose? Study them though they might, the scientists have only barely begun to understand anything about these objects. “I’m absolutely convinced that in the vast majority of cases we’re using sledgehammers to crack nuts,” says a scientist at one point, illustrating how infuriating and bewildering it is to be so close to mind-expanding technology, but unable to know anything about it.

And that all goes double for the Zone, a bizarre, nightmarish area whose outward normality belies bizarre rules, deadly traps, bending gravity, and more. These are areas in which normal rules no longer apply, where the very rules of science seem to no longer hold true. But why are these Zones here? Are they testing us? Are they windows into a larger world? Or, as the same scientist says, are they simply the refuse and trash of aliens who stopped for a roadside picnic on our earth, and saw us as ants and animals – not even worth speaking to?

That’s a bleak philosophical backdrop to a novel, but seems fitting for a novel written in 1972 Russia – after all, this is a culture known for its weary, laughing acceptance of all the cruelties of life, and Roadside Picnic is no different, American setting or not. Whether the book is a critique of the Russian system or an allegory for the corruption of capitalism or simply a science fiction story, I leave for each reader to decide for themselves; yes, there’s a long history of censorship of the novel, but as Boris Strugatsky explains in the fascinating afterword, it was never quite clear exactly what was wrong with the novel, other than maybe its tone. But whatever the deeper meaning, Roadside Picnic ultimately feels like humanity coming to terms with its own insignificance, and trying to make peace with what that says about us. Are we just base animals, scrabbling for money and self-interest? Could we be more than that?

All of this makes Roadside Picnic sound existential and crushing, I know; indeed, if you’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s film version of the novel, Stalker, you might expect something weighty and heady like that. Instead, Roadside Picnic is remarkably down-to-earth, engaging with its ideas through drunken conversations and private musings, all while living through its primary lead, a stalker named Red whose incursions into the Zone are tense, unnerving, and unsettling, all without much ever truly happening. Indeed, one of the things that makes Roadside Picnic so effective is the way it suggests so much without ever explaining anything, allowing the reader’s mind to fill in the gaps of this world around the edges, while giving us an interesting, relatable, down-to-earth character we can empathize with. After all, all Red wants is to provide for his family, and exploring the Zone is what he’s good at.

I’m not wild about the ending of the novel in some ways, which seems like it comes from a different story entirely, eschewing the more existential and weirdly practical questions of the rest of the book for a quest for a mythical object which may or may not exist, but demands much. There’s something fascinating about where the Strugatskys choose to end the novel, though, which ties into that larger question of what exactly we are as a human race, and whether we truly can overcome our limitations. It’s a compelling ending, even if I’m not sold on the way we get there.

But even with that, it’s hard to really convey how much this strange, slight novel will stick with you, informing how you see the world and creating a haunting, grim world that you’ll think about for a long time after you finish the pages. Its ideas, its worldbuilding, its imagination, and its characters all live and breathe, giving you a novel whose ambitions and ideas linger beautifully and whose classic status is justly deserved.

Amazon

Noirvember 2019 #11-12: Modern Hard-Boiled (Anti-)Heroes

BloodStandardIt really shouldn’t be a surprise that Laird Barron can write straight-up crime fiction; after all, in his short fiction, Barron has shown a love of mixing hard-boiled noir with Lovecraftian horrors on numerous occasions. So why not take on crime, free of cosmic horror, but with plenty of focus on the evil in the hearts of men? All of which gives us Blood Standard, Barron’s first hard-boiled noir novel, and his first starring half-Maori former mob enforcer Isaiah Coleridge, a literate, hulking man capable of dishing out (and taking) brutal harm but attempting to figure out his own moral code.

If you’ve read Barron before – and really, you should have, if you’re into horror at all – it’ll be no surprise that what you get in Blood Standard is beautifully written and crafted prose, with a literary feel that never becomes pretentious, but a willingness to go brutal and bloody when the story demands it. What’s fascinating, though, is the way that Barron has created a character that contains all of those same contradictions and complexities, incarnating the perfect representation of Barron’s prose and worldview. Here’s a character raised with a deep love of literary classics (Roman myths, Beowulf, etc.) but also a brutally violent Mafia enforcer. A man hardened by life in Alaska but also a man whose devotion to his dog has shaped his emotional life forever. A man capable of inflicting brutal, horrifying pain on another human being without so much as a sliver of guilt, but also one who finds himself trying to save a girl from her fate for fear that he can’t live with the consequences. Coleridge is an archetypal hard-boiled noir hero in so many ways – capable of anything, but with a decent core that he may not even be aware of – but in Barron’s hands, he becomes wholly his own creation, one that stands out from the crowd.

And that’s good, because while the story of Blood Standard is an effective one – dealing with Coleridge’s separation from the mob and his sudden plunge into something like detective work – in its broad strokes, it’s fairly traditional fare. The daughter of a couple who’s taken him in has gone missing, with most of the signs pointing towards some shady characters, and Coleridge is attempting to save her. Nothing groundbreaking, and while the ultimate resolution is an interesting one, this feels more like Barron trying something more akin to a traditional formula before branching out. That’s maybe most notably proven by some of the strange edges around the borders of the story, like a brief sojourn into a Nazi bar, or an encounter with a fearsome mother who proves that she’s not to be trifled with in no uncertain terms. It’s in these moments that we best see what Barron is capable of, stretching the boundaries of genre while respecting all of the things that make it appealing in the first place.

But even with some of those more cautious first steps, Blood Standard is a great read, one with all of the myriad pleasures Barron brings to readers, all with the added bonus of watching as he tries on a new genre and shows off his skills there as well. This may be only his first step into this world, but he’s already far beyond what so many others have done years in – so bring on more Isaiah Coleridge!


9780805093995Originally, Richard Price planned on releasing The Whites under the pen name “Harry Brandt,” saying that he wanted to separate the novel’s more commercial, plot-driven aspects from his usual writing. It’s a decision he didn’t stick with, obviously, and has made numerous jokes about, remarking in one interview that he realized that the novel would be just “another damn book by me” too late into the process.

All of which is to say, it’s not surprising that The Whites feels like an uneasy union between a traditional hard-boiled police procedural and Price’s more thoughtful, internally driven novels focused on social factors. The hook is pulpy enough – an NYPD detective named Billy Graves starts realizing that numerous “white whales” (hence the title) that have gotten away with horrible crimes on various technicalities keep turning up dead, and starts investigating – and once you mix in the way that another officer begins slowly stalking and terrorizing Graves and his family in payback for a long-ago crime, you’ve got a pulpy setup for revenge and hard-boiled retribution.

But that’s not really entirely Price’s style, and while The Whites gives us a good mystery to hang onto and some tightly paced thrills, Price keeps turning the novel into something more complex and introspective, making us understand not only the appeal for revenge but turning it into a question that touches on religion, divine purpose, and a lack of justice in the world. And while Price never comes across as pro-vigilante justice, he never forgets the way that grief can impact people and tear apart families, leading to victims not only of the original crimes, but victims of the rippling consequences that spread out from them. And, as if that’s not complicated enough, Price realizes that you can’t take on the idea of murdered suspects without taking on questions about police brutality, racial profiling, and more, and while The Whites never quite dives into those aspects fully, they undeniably linger around the edges of the novel, informing the debates and shaping characters’ reactions to what’s going on.

With all of that thrown into the mix, as you might imagine, The Whites turns from a pulpy revenge thriller into something far more complex, and that juxtaposition doesn’t always entirely work. Price’s work often works best when he lets his characters drive the story, keeping the plots simple and allowing internal monologues and psychological complexities be the hook for our story. Here, The Whites sometimes struggles to hold up under the weight of its characters, as though Price really wanted to deliver a nasty noir novel and instead couldn’t help but turn it into a character study in which these people’s decisions are rendered in all of their complexity and nuance.

That all may make for an uneasy marriage of elements, but it also means that The Whites is a rich, engrossing novel, even if its one that feels like its story is holding it back some. (For instance, it’s worth noting that the novel’s best scene involves an interrogation sequence which has no bearing on either of the main plot threads, and yet whose emotional impact has stuck with me for many days, long after I finished the book.) But maybe that’s the best thing about The Whites; what you’re expecting is a lurid noir tale, but what you get is something more sophisticated, more nuanced, and more complicated, giving us not archetypes but people, not bloodless murders but awful crimes, not easy motivations but complex reasoning, and not easy answers but instead an awful uncertainty. Maybe that’s what makes it a better book than you’d expect it to be.


Ratings

  • Blood Standard: ****
  • The Whites: ****
Amazon: Blood Standard | The Whites

Noirvember 2019 #9-10: Noir Isn’t Just a Boys’ Club

After having a lot of fun reading nothing but horror for October, I decided to make November another themed month, stealing the popular film blogging idea of Noirvember for my month’s reads. So this month, it’s all hard-boiled gangsters, con artists, mysteries, and grizzled police detectives, with a publication range that spans 90 years. 

Admittedly, both entries today aren’t quite true noir, but they fit with the crime and mystery theme I’d been going with, and I wasn’t sure until I read them whether they’d be true noir or not. I still think they fit comfortably in the month’s reading, though.


coverIt’s hard to know exactly how to categorize Laura Lippman’s remarkable, effective, haunting mystery novel What the Dead Know. On one level, this is undeniably a mystery novel, one in which a woman walking away from an accident admits to being one of two young girls who disappeared from a shopping mall nearly thirty years before. Is she lying? Is she crazy? Or could she be telling the truth – in which case, what exactly happened thirty years ago, and why has she been missing for so long – and where is her sister?

That’s a good hook for a mystery novel, and Lippman lets the novel reveal its cards slowly and with perfect pacing, giving us windows into the disappearance and hints about the girls while never offering real answers – only clues and misdirections – until she’s ready for the big reveal – which comes along with a pretty genuine surprise that I didn’t see coming, as well as an explanation that’s satisfying and makes sense of the actions we’ve seen so far.

But if all the novel was was this mystery, it would be fascinating, but not as rich as it is. No, what makes What the Dead Know so powerful is the way it becomes a faceted, complex exploration of grief and loss, one that finds new takes on the topic through all of the book’s many characters, through the slow passage of time that the book covers, and maybe most effectively, in the way we wash the marriage of the girls’ parents slowly come apart over years and years together. Lippman alternates between the present-day mysteries and periodic check-ins on the family in the past, but each flashback jumps a large swath of time, allowing us to feel the slow, inexorable way that the mysterious loss becomes just another thing to live with. It’s a complex way to handle the mystery, but one that lets Lippman not only look at the disappearance itself, but on the effects such a thing would have on those left behind, and the toll it would take.

With a solid mystery and this thematic richness, What the Dead Know is a fast read you’re going to struggle to put down; it moves beautifully along, sweeping you up in its characters’ lives while also egging you on to unravel the bizarre mystery at its core. And if some of the modern characters never quite fit into the book – I’m thinking especially of the womanizing police detective – they’re still well-realized and well-written, helping to bring the book to life even if they don’t quite feel like they fit thematically. It’s a great read, and one that might linger with you in ways you don’t expect – ways more powerful and human than a typical mystery novel.


girlwaitswithgunsI was about halfway through Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun when I found out that its tale of a young woman in the 1910’s who starts fighting back against violent factory owners and investigating crimes wasn’t just a fun idea for a novel – it was the true story of Constance Kopp, America’s first female sheriff. Stewart, a nonfiction author, stumbled across the story while doing some research, realized what a fascinating tale it was, and turned it into her first work of fiction, mixing a lot of research and background with just a bit of invention, and creating something wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable as a result.

It all started – both Stewart’s research and this story – when a car driven by a man named Henry Kaufman runs into a buggy carrying Constance and her sisters. But when Henry refused to pay for the damages, Constance decided to take matters into her own hands, unaware that the man she was going after was unwilling to suffer insults of any kind, much less from a woman, leading to a series of verbal threats, bricks through windows, and more. Kopp, however, refused to back down, and ultimately fought back against Kaufman, arming herself and defending her house overnight on multiple occasions (one of which led to the actual headline that gave the book its title).

Girl Waits With Gun is a lot of things – family drama, historical fiction, character study, crime story, biographical fiction, just to name some – all of which can make it a hard book to know exactly who would love it. It’s not hard enough for some crime aficionados, I’m sure, but Constance is a little darker and tougher at times than your typical proto-feminist heroine. What’s more, the book definitely feels a little sprawling at times, as though Stewart had so much research she’d done and couldn’t decide what all to cut, so she kept most of it – all of which helps build out this 1910’s America we’re in, but some of which feels like the book loses its way at times.

Even so, Girl Waits with Gun works because of how great of a character Constance and her sisters are. Sure, the story doesn’t fit your typical crime beat patterns, but such is the case when you’re stuck using true life, which doesn’t always fit your typical tropes. Instead, you get this hard-headed, tough, self-determined young woman who’s not so much interested as being a “new woman” so much as she’s protecting her family and tired of being dismissed or expected to wait for her older brother to save her. Constance’s fight against Kaufman is satisfying not just as a “woman standing up for herself” kind of story, but just as a story of this woman being tired of being bullied and refusing to take it, no matter what he throws at her. No, it’s not quite crime, but it is a window into a great historical story I knew nothing about and am glad people are being told about, especially when it’s done with such a nice sense of fun and a great voice.


Ratings

  • What the Dead Know: **** ½
  • Girl Waits with Gun: ****
Amazon: What the Dead Know | Girl Waits With Gun

Noirvember 2019 #7-8: Murderous Robots!

After having a lot of fun reading nothing but horror for October, I decided to make November another themed month, stealing the popular film blogging idea of Noirvember for my month’s reads. So this month, it’s all hard-boiled gangsters, con artists, mysteries, and grizzled police detectives, with a publication range that spans 90 years.


KillingIsMyBusinessWith each successive entry, Adam Christopher’s Ray Electromatic series gets better and better. I loved the pulp noir of Ray’s debut, Made to Kill; part Raymond Chandler tribute, part LA noir, part bizarre robotics tale, Made to Kill gave us a fascinating hero: Ray Electromatic, the last robot in America, and one who makes his living in 1940’s Los Angeles as a private detective. Oh, and as a paid killer, working for an automated supervisor that’s definitely playing her own games – an easier task than normal with Ray, since his memory only lasts 24 hours at a time before having to be reset. Made to Kill was a lot of fun, but ultimately a bit slight; more fun pastiche than unqualified success on its own terms, but a lot of fun.

Christopher stepped up the game with the novella Standard Hollywood Depravity and the accompanying short story “Brisk Money,” both of which found the world around Ray fleshing out, but more importantly, Ray himself becoming more complicated. Ray was starting to question his programming, and as “Brisk Money” ultimately revealed, Ray’s existence isn’t always what he thinks it is – but he’ll never be allowed to remember some of that.

That’s a long build-up to talking about Killing is My Business, I know, but I’d argue that it’s hard to understand just how great this book is without knowing the way the series has deepened as it’s gone along. Much of that comes from Ray himself, whose isolation in a world that views him as a curiosity from another time is becoming more poignant. But a lot has come from the games Christopher has started to play with his protagonist, steering into Ray’s memory issues and serving up a variation on Memento that keeps us constantly uncertain what’s going on.

At first glance, Killing is My Business is standard fare for the series – Ray is trying to track down one target and gets called in to deal with another, both more in the permanent sense rather than the investigative. But it’s not long before we realize that none of this is business as usual. Yes, one target is in the wind, and it’s hard to figure out where…but the other is a mob boss whose life Ray is supposed to save before he kills him, which means that our programmed, steel hero is infiltrating the mob so he can betray the man at its head – dangerous work by any standards, but especially for someone who’s not exactly a master of disguise.

All of this is satisfying, engaging stuff, and Christopher is doling it out with his usual great patter, prose, and Chandler-influenced style. But what really makes Business a blast is the way he undermines our confidence that Ray knows exactly what’s going on. Memory gaps, important details forgotten, clear lies being told by his “supervisor”, references to cases we know but Ray has been misled about…all of this starts creating a fascinating metanarrative where we’re trying to figure out what’s going on behind Ray’s back, and how he’s being played. It’s noir with an unreliable narrator who doesn’t even know he’s unreliable, and that makes for a pretty great combination.

Killing is My Business still suffers from some of the over-the-top pulp plotting of Made to Kill, which is fun but a bit excessive, and there are times where – as in the best hard-boiled fiction – it can all be a bit cluttered. But on the whole, it’s the most complicated and interesting the series has been, and attains a level of richness and complexity that I wouldn’t have expected from the light, fun homage of the first book. Here’s to more adventures with our confused hero as he attempts to gain control of a life that he’s not even aware he’s losing.


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I couldn’t really tell you where I first heard about Scud: The Disposable Assassin, a cult favorite indie comic that ran for a few years in the late nineties before a long hiatus that culminated in an ending published nearly ten years later. But the premise was so good – a robotic assassin purchased from a vending machine discovers that it’s going to self-destruct when it kills its primary target, so instead keeps it alive on life-support by taking odd jobs for the mob and anyone else who wants someone killed – and the bonkers tone so beloved that I knew I needed to check it out. So when Scud: The Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang, a collection of the entire series, went on sale, I decided it was time to pick it up. Nearly 800 pages long, The Whole Shebang covers all 24 issues of the comic – the original 20 and the 4 issue final arc – as well as two standalone episodes that provide backstory for a couple of characters.

I had no idea what I was getting into, but what I got was absolutely, wonderfully, incredibly bonkers on almost every imaginable level. How bonkers, you ask? Let me give you a slight rundown of things that happen in this series:

  • A horrific eldritch horror with a plug for a face, mousetraps for hands, and a piano sticking out of its back
  • Scud getting a human arm that also turns out to be a werewolf arm that ends up making him speak in Elizabethan English
  • Benjamin Franklin as an evil voodoo mastermind that’s running his factory with kites attached to massive keys
  • The ghost of Gus Grissom
  • A sidekick named Drywall who appears to be a large sack covered in zippers that can pull out anything from the extradimensional space inside of him (and who, incidentally, becomes one of the series’ most oddly heartbreaking characters)
  • Scud placing a crown of barbed wire on his own head in a berserker rage and declaring himself “Jesus with a laser gun” (see below)
  • An intergalactic he-man competition that includes zero-g bullfighting, jackhammer fencing contests, and more
  • The severed head of Jayne Mansfield conjuring demonic entities courtesy of Anton LaVey
  • An 8o’s summer camp/slasher film pastiche
  • Zombie dinosaurs

And honestly, that doesn’t even scratch the surface. (Did I mention it all takes place during the Rapture?) Taking that basic premise – Scud’s efforts to keep his first target alive – a87creator Rob Schrab, along with writers including Dan Harmon, toss in every idea they could possibly have and then some, creating this unbelievably ridiculous saga that’s satirical, funny, action-packed, wildly imaginative, and surprisingly engaging. Scud is undeniably a product of its times – it has a lot of the spirit of the indie comics boom, and an anarchic spirit that could easily be dismissed as “random” if it didn’t hold together in its own wonderfully weird, incoherent way – but it’s also engaging and well-told, delivering some great action sequences and a constant sense of escalation that never gets boring or old. And as it satirizes the world around it, from TV competitions to brand names to sitcom tropes to absurd masculinity to the (then deeply relevant and timely) worries of sampling replacing actual talent, Scud makes you laugh at the world as often as you’re laughing at the book itself.

Now, this is a book that never really stops moving, and that can definitely get exhausting at times. But Schrab and company know how to make things work, and it’s a wonder that all of the many, many action sequences all work – they don’t get old, they don’t get redundant, and they all stay fun, inventive, and well-staged. This is a series about a robotic assassin, of course, and so it’s all about combat. And for a long time, that’s pretty much what it all appears to be – chaos, absurdity, and violence on a grand scale.

But then, we get to the end of the original arc, and the final arc, and things…turn.

The story about Scud goes like this: Rob Schrab was dealing with a breakup, and decided to impress the girl and get her back by drawing a comic. But the comic – Scud – got his mind off of her, and became a hit. And Rob was having fun. And then he got his heart broken again, and the thing he loved was becoming a burden…and Scud got dark. Really, really dark. And rather than ruin the thing he once loved – a thing Schrab was apparently worried he had already done – scudthedisposableassassin252311257bdcp-angrybadger257d-024he left the original series on a bleak, depressing cliffhanger and a moment of violence that feels excessive even by the standards of the series, not in gore, but in terms of emotion.

And then, nearly a decade later, Schrab returned, and not only ended his series, but did so in a surprisingly heartfelt and emotional way – maybe to a fault, but a way that feels like it both values the characters but also – and maybe more so – reflects a Schrab who’s a lot happier in his life, but also wrestling with what it meant to leave this world behind for ten years for pretty petty reasons.

All of that means that Scud is sometimes more interesting as a reflection of Schrab than it is as a comic, especially in those final five issues, as Schrab’s own feelings are coming through more and more clearly. And yet, even so, none of it keeps the book from being compulsively readable and generally completely fascinating, even as the final arc cuts way back on the anarchy of the rest and instead focuses in on the characters making their peace with who they are and their own place in the world.

Look, Scud is, whatever else I can say about it, absolutely unclassifiable. Part sci-fi picaresque journey, part satire of America, part gonzo comedy, part relationship allegory, part action film, part supernatural thriller, part Mob drama…the list goes on. And no, it doesn’t all fit together, and the ending is a bit jarring and doesn’t quite fit the rest of the series, and the tonal shifts towards the end are odd. All of that is true.

But it’s also true that what you’re getting is wildly entertaining, very funny, completely bonkers, compulsively readable, and unlike anything else you’ve ever read. It’s a wonderfully personal work that’s undeniably idiosyncratic, ambitious, sprawling, and messy, but all of that just makes it more interesting and wonderful to unpack and talk about. It’s funny, violent, introspective, interesting, weird, thoughtful, metaphysical, and constantly entertaining, flaws and all – what else can you want in one book?

(By the way, let me concede: no, Scud really probably doesn’t hit my monthly theme of noir novels. But honestly, what genre could this bizarre, gonzo piece of work truly fit into?)


Ratings

  • Killing is My Business: **** ½
  • Scud: The Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang: ****
Amazon: Killing is My Business | Scud: The Whole Shebang

Noirvember 2019 #5-6: Two Modern Neo-Noir Knockouts

After having a lot of fun reading nothing but horror for October, I decided to make November another themed month, stealing the popular film blogging idea of Noirvember for my month’s reads. So this month, it’s all hard-boiled gangsters, con artists, mysteries, and grizzled police detectives, with a publication range that spans 90 years.


97803164798133It’s no surprise that George Pelecanos has found a new career for himself working with David Simon on shows like The WireTreme, and The Deuce; Pelecanos’s fiction has often overlapped with Simon’s interests, commenting on the world and the society that creates crime just as much as its investing in the human beings – not criminals, but flawed humans – that commit those crimes. In other words, Pelecanos is writing neo-noir, following his characters as they struggle with their darkest impulses, but also looking outward at an environment that makes those choices harder and harder to escape. His latest, The Man Who Came Uptown, is no exception to any of that, telling a story of a man released from prison and trying for a new start, but feeling himself pulled back into a world he thought he could leave behind.

Michael Hudson went to prison for driving a getaway car – hardly the worst offender living in the prison he inhabits, but still enough to ruin his life. Now he spends his days reading books, talking with the prison librarian – a young woman named Anna – and thinking about what he’ll do when he’s released. But that day comes sooner than he expected, thanks to some witness influencing done by a private detective who’s moonlighting as a robber of pimps on the side – and now he needs a getaway driver. But all Michael wants to do is stabilize his life and make things right, taking his best shot at this second chance – but that takes money, doesn’t it?

As with so much of the best noir, The Man Who Came Uptown sounds familiar enough as a broad outline, but it’s the details that truly make it sing. Pelecanos’s character work is second to known, and it’s impossible to come away from the novel without pity – or, at least, empathy – for every character, from robbers to pimps, from prisoners to guards. Pelecanos never forgets that people are shaped not just by their choices but by society and forces beyond their control, and yet at the same time, he adroitly sidesteps any accusations of being lecturing or didactic, instead always driving the story through his characters, not his plotting. Every one of these figures is just trying to figure out their place in the world, whether it’s providing for a family, erasing a bad past, questioning their purpose, or figuring out a career, and Pelecanos makes those internal debates every bit as gripping and thoughtful as he does the tense crime setpieces in the novel.

But more than that, this is a story that lives and breathes in the way it observes the world and is willing to just sit back and listen. The banter between kitchen staffs; the odd dynamics of a prison book club (some of my favorite scenes of the novel); the awkward tension between two people attracted to each other for reasons they both know are wrong – Pelecanos nails the sense not just of a criminal enterprise and the seductive pull of greed and self-righteousness, but of being human in a complicated world. And it’s those elements that make him one of the best crime writers today. Anybody can write crime; what’s hard is to write humanity. But Pelecanos does it, and does it so that it looks easy.


9780316327596I’ve never read anything of Richard Lange’s before reading his astonishing piece of neo-noir The Smack; indeed, I honestly don’t even remember why I picked the book up in the first place. Sure, the plot sounds intriguing, but it’s pure noir: a washed up con artist gets the chance for one big score that could let him get out of the game forever. That’s an idea we’ve heard…oh, too many times to count. But trust me, that familiarity doesn’t do anything to detract from the greatness of The Smack, which is riveting, engaging, and will break your heart even as it crafts a fantastic piece of LA noir.

Rowan Petty, when we meet him, is not having what one could call a lucky streak. Indeed, while he’s sourly commenting on the washed-up family friend who wants to meet with him, it’s not hard to see that Petty resents him for fear that he’ll become this man: a laughing-stock, a bad-luck totem who’s constantly begging for scraps. So his first instinct, of course, is to laugh off this supposed dream job – a bunch of money smuggled back by Army soldiers defrauding the government over in the Middle East. But the more he sniffs around, the better the deal sounds, and the more his old conman instincts want to kick in. And all that is before a pair of women enter into his life – one new, one old – that give him a reason and a motivation to get out of the game.

All of this could be old-hat, easily. But in Lange’s hands, The Smack comes to live, turning Petty from an archetype (or a cliche, if you’re feeling less generous) and into something richer – someone we really care about. There’s no reason that we should get invested in a relationship between a con man and a prostitute who’s named herself after Tina Fey, but somehow, it works, giving us a bond between two people who’ve given up on ever finding a connection to someone that’s not about money. It’s fraught stuff, one that treads on complicated emotional dynamics, but it comes together beautifully, making me genuinely concerned as to whether these two people can make this unlikely connection work.

That’s more important than the story itself, in terms of making The Smack work, but that story is no slouch either. With corrupt soldiers, a slew of cons ranging from small to large, and a lived-in sense of what the underworld looks like, The Smack‘s story is a gripping tale of double-crosses, theft, deception, and some very dangerous men willing to do anything for that money – pure noir tropes, sure, but done with style and grace, and a sense of stakes that’s hard to match. Writing a complicated set of heists and cons is one thing; making me genuinely concerned not just that the cons will work, but that these people will come out emotionally okay on the other end – that’s far more impressive, and the thing that really made The Smack so great for me.


Ratings

  • The Man Who Came Uptown: *****
  • The Smack: *****
Amazon: The Man Who Came Uptown | The Smack

Noirvember 2019 Film Interlude: Widows / **** ½

After having a lot of fun reading nothing but horror for October, I decided to make November another themed month, stealing the popular film blogging idea of Noirvember for my month’s reads. So this month, it’s all hard-boiled gangsters, con artists, mysteries, and grizzled police detectives, with a publication range spanning 90 years.

But what’s a month of noir without a noir film or two? And it turns out that there’s a great one at cinemas right now.


WidowsIt’s hard to know how you could better sell me on Widows, sight unseen, than the sheer collection of talent on display. Steve McQueen, one of the great directors working today, turning his talents to a thriller? A cast that includes Robert Duvall, Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Colin Farrell, and Garret Dillahunt, just to name a few? A script co-written by Gillian Flynn? And it’s a heist picture, which is maybe one of my favorite genres in existence? There was basically no way that I wasn’t going to see Widows – but that also left it a lot of expectations to live up to.

By and large, though, Widows delivers and then some, mixing McQueen’s exquisite craft with a riveting story of crime, political corruption, greed, and betrayal. Adapted from a BBC miniseries (unseen by me), Widows opens with a heist gone wrong, killing nearly everyone involved with it. But the people who got robbed? They don’t care so much about that little fact; they just want their money back. And that means going to the widows of the men and presenting them with a very short deadline to get it back. As a result, when the ringleader’s widow (Davis, with Neeson in flashbacks as the leader and her husband) finds a notebook full of plans for a heist with a massive payday…well, what else is there to do?

What all this has to do with an election for Chicago alderman between the son of a political dynasty (Farrell) and an African-American man (Brian Tyree Henry) who’s tired of seeing a white aristocrat represent his poor, largely black district…well, you’ll need to watch the film to understand that. But it’s not an accident that the film mixes and matches these stories, interweaving them together seamlessly until it’s hard to say where crime ends and politics begin – except that greed lies behind all of it. That’s an ambitious thing to try to do, and that’s before McQueen and Flynn add in a postmortem on Davis and Neeson’s complicated marriage and a lot of strong character work that develops not one, not two, but four main players, plus a wide supporting cast, none of whom feel cheated of time.

There’s undeniably a little bit of scar tissue left behind in the abridging process taking a miniseries and reducing it to a two-hour film, and there are definitely moments in Widows that feel like they existed in longer form at some point. But those are minor flaws, and indeed, in some ways, they help the film feel more like you’re getting a glimpse into a much larger world at times. We are stepping into these women’s lives in media res, and while we get some glimpses of backstory here and there, McQueen and Flynn prefer to use sketches, outlines, and suggestions, giving us glimpses into their inner workings while never feeling the need to spell everything out for you. That goes throughout the film, giving us enough pieces of what’s going on to follow everything while never feeling the need to hold our hands or hammer things home.

All of which is great, on a story level, giving us a great noir thriller that also manages to develop its characters, toss out some plot twists, and deliver some great setpieces. But beyond the script, there’s the visual storytelling of McQueen, who takes all of the techniques and prowess he’s demonstrated in his previous films and uses it to underline the tension of his action scenes, immerse us in the grief of a widow, or beautifully underline the class conflicts that are playing out in subtext. (This is most notable in a knockout shot that starts at an inner-city rally, follows a politician to his car, the car down the street, and then unfolds against a background of rich, upper-class houses, all without ever feeling forced or heavy-handed.) McQueen fills the movie with long, flowing takes that are a joy to watch unfold, letting the actors’ performances or the cinematic technique do the lifting for the script and carry the story.

He’s more than matched by the fantastic cast, without a weak link among them; Elizabeth Debicki maybe gets the juiciest role, as a woman tired of being treated like moronic eye candy, but this is Davis’s movie to dominate, and that she does, commanding every scene with her presence and her sheer force of will. Of course, there’s Robert Duvall, reminding you how naturally watchable and charismatic he is, and his natural contrast with Farrell makes for a fascinating dynamic. But the real scene-stealer is Daniel Kaluuya as a dangerous, violent enforcer constantly lurking in the background of the film. Kaluuya is absolutely terrifying when he’s out in full force (there are two scenes he gets that have to rank among the great villain scenes in recent memory), but even when he’s not outwardly violent, he’s like a panther, watching its prey and waiting for the right moment to strike.

Widows is just a pure knockout, and if its ambitions occasionally feel like the film can’t live up to them (again, there’s a sense that there’s a longer movie in here somewhere), that’s okay. There are easily half a dozen instantly classic scenes here, and every other moment is equally riveting in so many ways. At a time when so many movies are franchise pieces, sequel bait, or pure formula, it’s a joy to see something that’s equal parts political firebomb, quiet character study, relationship drama, action thriller, and neo-noir film, even before you get into just how incredibly well crafted it is. It’s a true treat for cinephiles and heist fans alike, but also a film that’s got more to say than just fun thrills, and I’m all for that.

IMDb