A Cure for Wellness / **** ½

cureforwellnessposterAs a movie fan, there can be little more dispiriting than feeling like you’re in a film era that’s so filled with franchises, remakes, sequels, and comic book films that there’s little room for originality. Watching great movies like The Nice Guys fade out without anyone noticing can be depressing. And as a horror fan, the problem can be even worse, with more and more horror fans turning to independent and fringe films in the hopes of finding something original, weird, and unsettling.

And yet, the astonishingly weird, atypical, surreal A Cure for Wellness proves that the studio system can still surprise you sometimes, even if it’s entirely possible that this is a fluke that won’t be repeated often. (That it happened twice in the past few years – with the last being the great, underrated Gothic romance Crimson Peak – is a sign of hope, though.) Maybe it takes the clout of so-called “visionary” director Gore Verbinski to get something like this made, though the poor box office performance doesn’t bode well for it happening often.

(A side note: I’ve always kind of laughed at that “visionary” tag with Verbinski, whose filmography is nothing if not erratic and uneven; while he’s made some great movies, he’s never been someone whose style would earn the title “visionary.” And yet, I’d give it to him for this one, as will become clear in a bit.)

And that’s a shame, because A Cure for Wellness is a blast. It’s undeniably strange – one of the most nutzoid, balls-to-the-wall studio horror films, just in terms of how far it’s willing to go in its surreal nightmare of a story. And more than that, its visual style is absolutely astonishing, turning the film into a true Gothic horror story with a bit of a steampunk vibe to it, as we lose our way in a medical institution set up in an old castle, and find our connections to the past from there.

As with many Gothic stories, the plot is almost beside the point – it’s all about the style – but Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe give us a great hook, following a driven, ambitious Wall Street type (Dane DeHaan) as he’s sent to retrieve the company’s CEO from a retreat in the Swiss Alps. But once he arrives, he starts realizing that this isn’t the kind of place that people want to leave, for whatever reason – and he starts finding his own departure to be similarly difficult.

Verbinski and Haythe start off with some meaty ideas about whether ambition and greed are our modern plagues, and there’s no denying the film’s interest in separating the modern world from the old. But ultimately, that’s window dressing for the psychological thumbscrews he’s got waiting, and really, the film benefits as it starts leaving behind its pretenses of theme and diving into its nightmarish visuals. From tubs of swirling eels to a torchlit dance sequence, from a perfectly reflecting pool to an ominously twitching handle, Verbinski leans hard into his style and cinematography, and the result is an absolute knockout. It’s one of those films where separating the style from the substance is missing the point; the style is the substance here, with the terror, unease, and discomfort all arising from Verbinski’s shadowy halls and surreal images.

Does it all makes sense, by the end? More or less, in that Gothic sort of way, with a few niggling questions. But really, by the end, I was too swept up in this strange world to care – I was disturbed by the images I was seeing, in awe of the lush world Verbinski had created, and thrilled by just how far – and how bonkers – Verbinski had gotten away with making this film. The result isn’t a perfect film by any means – DeHaan is adequate, at best; there’s a CGI animal scene that’s fairly bad; the ending is overlong, even if it contains one of my favorite moments – but it’s lush, it’s original, it’s beautifully filmed, and more than anything else, it feels like little else out there, all while still succeeding at being a nasty little piece of horror driven by its technique. And that is more than enough for me.

IMDb
Advertisements

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead / *****

9780385537032If all Colson Whitehead’s remarkable The Underground Railroad had to offer was its central conceit – in which the “Underground Railroad,” a covert, loose organization that worked to help slaves in the Confederacy get to freedom, becomes a literal subterranean rail network – that might almost be enough to capture the imagination and make the book great. Because, in short, what this allows Whitehead to do is tell an age-old story – the efforts of a runaway slave to escape – in a way that feels like little else out there, bringing new life to a story that none of us can ever afford to forget. It’s a minor tweak to reality, but it gives the story a unique, odd feel, making literal the astonishing work that went into saving these people.

So, yeah, that might be enough. But luckily for us all, Whitehead has more on his mind than just that one conceit. Instead, Whitehead turns this flight for freedom into a modern day Odyssey, letting each stop along the way become an entirely different narrative in the life of slavery, America’s race relations, prejudice, and fear. And the result is a sprawling, strange, haunting novel, one whose separate episodes combine to make something far more fascinating and complex than any one story might have been able to do on its own.

For instance, a more traditional slave escape narrative could never contain the subtly wrong paradise that feels at first like heaven on Earth, only to have Whitehead slowly turn that world on its head. You wouldn’t have the nightmarishly violent community that has purged itself of African-Americans in the most horrific way possible; nor would you have the beauty of acts of kindness that come when least expected. In Whitehead’s capable hands, the journey becomes a more complex one, echoing back and forth through time as he takes on racism not just as an explicit force of slavery, but as a much more insidious, subtle evil that can hide behind people’s smiles. In other words, it’s not just the slave catchers we need to fear; it’s those for whom help means condescension and manipulation.

Make no mistake, though; this is undeniably a book about slavery, and one that deals with the horrors of the institution without blinking or flinching. Violence is casual and brutal, with torture being commonplace and almost barely worthy of mention. And while our heroine’s plantation is known for its cruelty, that doesn’t mean that it’s any more cruel than half of what she sees in her journeys. Whitehead doesn’t allow us the luxury of “this place is the worst”; it’s just a particularly bad one, but nothing special. And even if it were somehow worse, it barely compares to some of the psychological and emotional horrors to come, and the wanton cruelty and disregard that we see on display throughout the book.

And yet, for all of that, The Underground Railroad is still a slave escape narrative, one in which we’re invested in our heroine’s success, and one that keeps us reading in the face of all of the potential horrors, hoping for something good. Whitehead never lets The Underground Railroad become crushing or so bleak as to be unpalatable; he tempers it, mixing the good and the bad, and investing us in the characters so that we need them to succeed – and feel it all the more when some of them don’t.

In other words, The Underground Railroad is something remarkable – a look at history that finds its truth through fiction, a dose of magical realism that serves to emphasize hard facts, a novel that explores ideas that many of us wish we had left in history. That it does all this is no small feat; that it does so in such a complex, powerful way without ever becoming didactic or simplistic, even less of one. But the fact that it manages to do all of that while still telling a gripping, exciting story? That‘s what makes it such an incredible novel, and worthy of its reputation.

Amazon

Toni Erdmann / **** ½

toni-erdmann-posterBy the time Toni Erdmann made its way to Nashville, its reputation was already far ahead of it. Almost universally acclaimed and beloved, it was hailed by many as one of the best films of the year, if not the best film of the year. That can make for an intimidating experience to approach a film, and when you factor in that Erdmann is a nearly three-hour German film, you’d be forgiven for making certain assumptions about the film.

But one look at the trailer for Toni Erdmann makes you realize that this film isn’t what you might think it is. Not unless you assumed that it’s a comedy about a prank-playing father who loves wearing false teeth and creating elaborate stories/lies for his own entertainment, and often at the cost of embarrassing those around him. And when he realizes that his work-obsessed daughter is at risk of letting her life pass her by, he decides to inject some madness into her world.

That’s right. This great film, this powerful experience? It’s a broad, silly comedy that mines some of the “slobs and snobs” archetypes. And that definitely isn’t quite what I expected.

To be fair, that’s not exactly what Toni Erdmann is, but it’s a good starting point. Because, yes, this film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with a knack for absurdism and broad comedy that you don’t often see in films like this, and a willingness to be silly that serves it well. But to call Toni Erdmann a comedy isn’t quite right, either; it’s a melancholy film in many ways, one that uses its comedic touches to lighten the material it’s grappling with: a father who worries that he’s failed his daughter; a woman struggling to make her name in the male-dominated (and often misogynistic) business world; a daughter who doesn’t understand her father at all, a feeling he reciprocates; a disconnect between corporate-speak and the real consequences that affect people’s lives; and plenty more. In short, this is heavy material, made palatable and enjoyable by the film’s comedy.

The result is a fascinating, odd film, one that really feels like little else that I’ve seen. It’s undeniably long, and yet, it lives in that length, using every minute of its time to let its characters breathe and develop, even in scenes that don’t add much to any traditional “narrative”. It’s a film that follows its characters through no end of trails – conversations with friends, awkward encounters with lovers, power struggles, moments of despair – and watches them all with equal compassion and understanding. And while the film’s synopsis above might make you think you know whose side the film is on – after all, in any film with a career-minded woman and an anarchic man, has any film ever taken the side of the woman? – writer-director Maren Ade doesn’t want to do anything so simple. She loves and admires both of these characters, and simultaneously finds both of them lacking and wanting in so many ways.

I’m still, to be honest, not entirely sure what I thought of Toni Erdmann, a film whose greatness seems to be less in filmmaking or being groundbreaking, and more in its humanity, its heart, and its kindness. (In some ways, it reminds me of my reaction to Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, a film whose greatness arrived in a way I never expected.) It’s an endearingly odd, unique film, filled with memorable scenes, odd moments, and rich characterization, and marked by a refusal to give us any simple moral, any one lesson we can learn. Instead, it takes on the world, its characters, sexism, parenting, guilt, love, business, and more, and throws it all together into one unique mixture. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s overlong at times, and just right at others, and in all really like little else out there. And at times, it’s genuinely profound, touching on the human experience in a way that a more “conventional” movie never could. But more than anything else, it’s wonderfully human, and wonderfully humane, and I kind of loved that about it. Is it great? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty wonderful (and wonderfully odd) movie.

IMDb

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman / *****

norsemythology_hardback_1473940163It’s been kind of wonderful to see Neil Gaiman’s reaction to the runaway success of Norse Mythology, a book that, to be fair, really shouldn’t be as popular as it is. Let’s be clear – Norse Mythology isn’t a new novel from Gaiman, isn’t a new collection of stories. Rather, it’s exactly what the title suggests: a retelling of Norse myths by Gaiman himself, infusing the rich, vibrant Norse myths with his own dry humor and rich storytelling voice. And while the book is undeniably wonderful, you can’t help but understand where Gaiman is coming from. Books of mythology aren’t exactly your typical bestsellers, give or take a Rick Riordan novel, and Norse myths even less so – they’ve never had the cultural cachet of the Greek and Roman gods.

And yet, in many ways, that’s what makes Norse Mythology such a rewarding read. Oh, yes, there’s Gaiman’s inimitable voice, which brings these tales to life as they’ve rarely been done before; with his direct, demanding Thor, his sneaky Loki, and the menagerie of creatures and tales at his disposal, Norse Mythology feels undeniably like the work of the same man who wrote American Gods and Sandman. (Indeed, any fan of American Gods will be thrilled to see the origins of some of that book’s odder scenes here.) Gaiman’s love of myth and archetype is long since established, but his joy in exploring this vein of stories really comes through in every page.

But more than that, Norse Mythology works partially because of its novelty. Most of us don’t know much about the Norse myths beyond what we’ve gained from Marvel’s version of Thor and Loki (a starting point Gaiman himself shares, as he discusses in his introduction), which means that these aren’t stories we know that well. That allows the book to feel fresh and new in a way that Greek myths might not, telling stories we don’t already know – everything from the origins of poetry in the world to the creation of the wall around the world, from the beginning of it all to the final battle, Ragnarok. And in Gaiman’s hands, it’s all exciting, funny, charming, and utterly magical.

More than that, though, the Norse myths don’t feel like the myths we know – and while some of that is no doubt to Gaiman’s style, much of that comes from the characters themselves, who cheat, sneak, steal, battle, and betray every bit as much as humans, maybe even more so. These are universal tales, ones that play off of classical archetypes, but plunge us into a world most of us have no knowledge of. And if Gaiman takes a little too long to set it up (the first couple of chapters, which familiarize us with the world and the cast of characters, are undeniably a bit dry, but worth powering through to the first real tales), that’s okay; we need our chance to get our bearings.

So, yes, Norse Mythology is a hit, and while it may be an unlikely one, it’s not an undeserving one. It’s pure Gaiman, in terms of theme and feel; while he may not have written the plots here, they reflect his love of myth and legend, his unique sensibility, and his ability to combine the archetypal and the personal into something rich. And more than that, it’s a window into history, belief, and religion of a sort that many of us never know. It’s a wonderful read, and deserves all of its success and then some.

Amazon

Wayward / The Last Town, by Blake Crouch

There was a trend in Hollywood for a little while – about ten years ago – to approach trilogies in an odd fashion. The idea was to release a mostly standalone film – think The Matrix, or Pirates of the Caribbean – and if it did well, to turn it into a trilogy by filming the next two entries simultaneously. The result was always slightly odd-feeling, with a solid standalone film and then one long story split into halves, complete with the requisite cliffhanger. And more often than not, there was a sense of the unnecessary about those sequels – that however fun they might or might not be, they were less about telling the “whole” story, and more about extending the world of the original not once, but twice.

I mention all of this here because Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy feels so much like it’s following in this model’s footsteps – down to the fact that none of it entirely feels needed. The original novel in the series, Pines, was a blast – a pulpy, twisty mystery about a Secret Service agent who ends up in a strange small town, and can’t leave. And by the time the book laid its cards on the table, things had escalated wildly, leading to a payoff and reveal that pushed way, way beyond what you ever would have guessed. It was a lot of fun, and if it had its flaws – some middling writing, some thin characters – the intriguing story and pulpy fun made up for it. (My original review is here, if you’re interested.)

But when I discovered that Crouch had turned the original book into a trilogy, I was a bit confused. Pines pretty well wraps up its story; while there’s more of this world you could explore, really, things are settled by the end. Our questions are answered. Our hero has made the important choices, and all is settled.

waywardp05But, to borrow from The Royal Tenenbaums, what this book presupposes is, what if it wasn’t?

Wayward, the second volume in the series, deals with the ramifications of the big reveal in the first book, particularly as they affect our main character. If you learned, as he did, something that changed how you saw the world, how would you deal with it? Would you help to keep that secret, or would you fight for the truth? Crouch anchors his book in this internal debate, letting Ethan slowly realize just what his role in this town will entail – and what it will mean that he has to do.

It’s a compelling enough idea to keep the story going, and as Crouch fills in some intriguing details around the edges – particularly as it regards the growing amount of resistance that’s coming together in the town – there starts to be a feeling that this sequel, while not quite necessary, at least intrigues in how it expands on the world Crouch has created. What’s more, it builds to a spectacular climax, one that pays off your patience beautifully – it’s big and showy, but satisfying, and makes you realize what Crouch’s big game is for the sequels. And the cliffhanger he sets up? Gleefully nasty and taunting.

Wayward, then, does what a good sequel should do, and what the second entry in these trilogies tries to do – it expands on the world, it goes deeper, and it tries to set up the big picture of the series. And if it still feels tacked on, it’s a fun sort of tacked on.

Now, if only The Last Town could stick the landing.

the-last-town-coverIn many ways, it’s in The Last Town that my earlier Matrix comparison hits its peak. Like The Matrix Reloaded, Wayward runs with the premise of the first book, taking it to logical extremes and exploring what it would all really mean. And like The Matrix Revolutions did, the last book ignores most of those interesting ideas and plans in favor of an overlong action sequence where a ton of characters die, most of whom we don’t really know or care about.

That’s not to say that the action isn’t exciting; indeed, if there’s one thing Crouch does well, it’s letting his inner horror writer loose as he does here, turning the attack into a visceral, unsettling nightmare. More than that, Crouch starts expanding his point of view, showing what’s going on all over the town, and the result is genuinely gripping, exciting stuff – it’s anarchic, terrifying, and violent. It also, though, ultimately feels a bit excessive and pointless, losing track of the intriguing story and the characters that we’re anchored with, and tossing out a lot of cannon fodder, hoping that we’re more invested in their fate than we are.

By the time we get past the action sequence, Crouch feels as though he could be setting up some interesting ideas – what it means to be a leader in dire circumstances, the harsh choices we’re forced to make, things like that. Instead, his choice for ending is an odd one, feeling both right for the material and simultaneously deeply unsatisfying. It doesn’t feel like a bad choice for the characters, per se, but it does feel like a whimper of an ending to the series. (And that’s not counting the cheesy, very brief epilogue, which could – and should – be easily ignored and skipped over.) And when the ending of a series is a letdown, it has a way of tainting the rest of the series (and once again, the Matrix comparison comes in, doesn’t it?)

It all ends up feeling like a missed opportunity, and while it’s clear that Crouch had some novel ideas about how to expand on Pines, you can’t help but feel that the original book would have been better as a standalone. Sure, the climax and payoff of Wayward is great, but when you don’t have a way to stick the cliffhanger or the ending, you end up feeling as though it retroactively shouldn’t have been done. In short? Stick with Pines as a standalone. If you’re really curious what happens “next”, you can read these…but be prepared for a bit of a letdown by where it all goes.

Wayward: *** ½
The Last Town: **

Amazon: Wayward | The Last Town

Conspirata, by Robert Harris / ****

conspirataRobert Harris’s second entry in the “Cicero Trilogy” (the first was Imperium), Conspirata follows the famed Roman orator through his career as consul, charting his battles with a complex conspiracy that threatens both his country and himself, only to find that the threat is far more complex and subtle than he ever expected. More than that, though, it shapes the arc of Cicero’s life between two of the biggest events of his career, a historical choice that may satisfy the novelist, but leads to some muddling on the part of the reader.

Harris maintains his structure from the first book, allowing the story to be told through the perspective and writing of Cicero’s longtime secretary Tiro, who was present for all of the machinations, the orations, the negotiations, and the family crises. Tiro continues to be a rich, compelling narrator, one who’s allowed to comment frankly on Cicero’s strengths and weaknesses, all while becoming a subtle commentator on the world itself, whether it be lamenting his station in life, developing a relationship with a woman, or speaking truth to men who need to hear it. More importantly, though, it allows the story to live and breathe the air of ancient Rome, bringing it to life effortlessly, and speaking not as a historical writer, but as a citizen, for whom all of this is second nature. Harris provides a helpful appendix that gives both a character listing and a terminology guide, and I’ll admit that I used both a few times, but more often than not, his storytelling and craft conveys the meaning and the importance without much effort.

Such can’t always be said for the book’s complicated political situation, which starts off dense and becomes overwhelming by the end. It’s clear that Harris is building towards a certain moment in Cicero’s life, but that point doesn’t end up feeling like a culmination of the book around it; moreover, it comes about only as a result of some truly labyrinthine alliances, betrayals, beliefs, and maneuvers, and Harris ends up rushing through some of them, leaving me consulting online sources for more clarity and understanding of exactly how things got to the point they did. The result ultimately feels less streamlined and accessible than Imperium does, and that’s a shame, especially because the first half of the book? It’s an absolute rocket, as Cicero carefully, thoroughly works his way through the conspiracy that’s rapidly tightening its noose around Rome and himself. It’s only towards the end that the book feels rushed and cluttered, but unfortunately, the moment it’s all building to is so critical that it feels muted without fully understanding everything that led to it.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Conspirata, if not as much as its predecessor. Once again, Harris manages the unenviable task of converting a densely political tale of an ancient empire into a gripping novel, and manages to mostly succeed, against all odds. But more than anything else, what he manages to do is bring these figures  – not just Cicero, but the confident Julius Caesar, the larger than life Pompey, the arrogant Crassus, and so many more iconic figures of historical import – to vivid, rich life, so much that you can feel your perceptions of them changing permanently to accommodate Harris’s descriptions and personality traits. That’s no small feat, but Harris pulls it off, and it makes Conspirata worth reading, even if it gets a bit too dense by the end.

Amazon

Pastoralia, by George Saunders / *****

europastoraliaThere may be no short story writer alive than George Saunders, and that’s no small praise; indeed, you could even argue that with his talent, he ranks among the great writers of the day, full stop. (How his talent will hold up in novel form, I look forward to discovering when his first novel is released next week.) Veering between social commentary and dark satire, between biting comedy and empathetic character studies, Saunders brings his bizarre, off-kilter worlds to life with his rich, fascinating prose and compelling dialogue. His second short story collection, Pastoralia, is no exception, making me laugh out loud frequently while never shirking from his craft.

As always, Saunders love of bizarre, excessive amusement/theme parks is evident, whether it’s the recreated Stone Age cave of the title story (where the actors are expected to stay in character even when no one else is around, and the corporate management communicates through bizarre, rambling memos) or the intricately structured strip club of “Sea Oak.” But he also loves his misfits, whether it’s the bullied young man of “The End of FIRPO in the World,” the harried title character in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” or the motivational speaker attendee of “Winky”, who just wants to work up the nerve to kick his sister out. Indeed, pretty much every character has their struggles, their neuroses, their fears, and all of them fear that life has passed them by – and in most cases, it has.

In lesser hands, that would depressing, bleak fare. But Saunders’ prose and observational style make his stories uproariously funny at times, as characters lose themselves in imagining how others will treat them, engage in long dialogues with themselves, or the situations just get increasingly bizarre. From actors playing cavemen trying to ignore faxes to ghosts that do little more than angrily yell at everyone, from unlikely heroes to fantasy lives that far surpass anything in waking lives, Saunders infuses all of it with a sense of wry wit, but also affection for his characters that keeps the stories from being bleak. Instead, they become universal, clinging to big feelings and emotions that we all have, satirizing human (and corporate) foibles beautifully, and just generally entertaining with their absurdity, heart, and soul.

In other words, it’s more typical greatness from Saunders, who seems incapable of doing anything less than creating rich worlds and complex characters, all without missing a beat with his offbeat prose and rich descriptions. And if you can’t empathize with his flawed, failing, but still human characters, then I can’t imagine that you’ve lived any kind of life at all, because these are universal tales. Off the wall, funny, and satirical, and yet universal in the best way.

Amazon