The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King / ****

This is the second entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my review of The Gunslinger. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”


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One of my least favorite tropes in sci-fi and fantasy novels is the idea of characters showing up in the “real” world. I’ve always hated that sort of “fish out of water” story, with its wacky misunderstandings, vocabulary clashes, heavy-handed moral lessons that often result, and so forth. And maybe that’s part of why I had never really liked The Drawing of the Three as much most of the other Dark Tower fans – that instinctive dislike of that genre and its shortcomings.

And so it was sort of a relief to re-read Drawing of the Three and remember how little of that element there is to the novel. Yes, Roland has a few moments where he comments on the weirdness of this “modern” world; yes, there are a few silly misunderstandings (the neon tower sign is the one that bugs me more than the others); but for the most part, The Drawing of the Three is anchored in its characters – not just Roland, but those who he is drawing – the three deeply flawed characters drawn into the orbit of our deeply flawed hero.

As he did in The Gunslinger, King populates his fantasy series with characters who inhabit a wonderfully murky, grey moral area. Even with the first figure drawn from our world, King gives us a co-dependent heroin addict who’s smuggling drugs – not exactly a standard fantasy figure. And that pattern repeats with each of the next drawings, where King gives us broken, even horrific people, and tries to give us empathy and feeling for each of them. They – along with the coldly ruthless Roland, still willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive and to succeed in his quest – are our protagonists, and it’s another sign that King’s mythic fantasy quest isn’t going to be like many others.

But what makes The Drawing of the Three a strong second entry in the series is the reminder of how great King has become at storytelling since that young, inexperienced man wrote The GunslingerThe Drawing of the Three feels like multiple books shoved into one, mixed wildly together – there are thrillers and dramas, crime novels and fantasy worlds, all shoehorned together into a strange, alien world that doesn’t always give us answers. (Indeed, one of the best things about the book is how little explanation is there for the drawing and the mechanics that surround it.) But no matter where the story is taking us, King makes it move, constantly ratcheting up tension, shifting the stakes of the conflicts, leaving us to question what it will mean to survive and succeed. Even better, he makes the characters’ evolutions intrinsic to the plot, making the drawing part of the shaping of their lives and their destinies.

None of which is to say that The Drawing of the Three is perfect. There is absolutely no denying the weirdness and discomfort of King’s racial choices when it comes to Detta Walker; while King makes the exaggerated caricature a conscious choice and has the characters themselves comment on the awfulness of it, it doesn’t make it less distasteful. (There’s a sense that, if King were to revise this one as he did The Gunslinger, he might make more of an effort to explain exactly what has turned Detta into such a hateful stereotype – there’s an explanation there, but it’s never made concrete in this novel.) And while it’s generally a good choice to lean into the inexplicable, alien nature of the doors, the way King uses them to resolve one character’s arc/dilemma ultimately feels a bit odd and shoehorned in – again, a rare case when a tiny bit more exposition might help things out a little bit.

For all of that, though, I think I better understand The Drawing of the Three‘s appeal for so many fans. I still don’t love it the way I love the rest of the series – it feels like a transitional book, and a stage-setting one at times – but there’s little denying that after the bleak, strange atmosphere of The Gunslinger, this second book feels like momentum is building in the series, and gives us characters we can more easily identify with than our strange, stark protagonist.

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

Rogue One / ****

rogueone_onesheetaI’m naturally skeptical of the whole “extended universe” of Star Wars. It’s nothing really against Star Wars, which I like pretty well – I’m not an obsessive fan, but I’ve enjoyed the movies on the whole. But it’s not like the original extended universe of Star Wars was particularly great – need we remind everyone of the whole “Chewbacca was crushed by a moon” debacle? And now, with everything borrowing from Marvel’s “shared cinematic universe” thing, everything has to be a franchise, ideally without ever feeling too risky or interesting.

And yet, there’s a lot that’s promising about Rogue One, even though it’s an undeniably flawed movie. There’s the fact that, tonally, the movie feels legitimately different from the other Star Wars movies. Yes, it’s an adventure film, but there’s a different feel to it all, most notably in the ending. It feels like a movie made up of Han Solos, for lack of a better term; it’s a collection of selfish rogues, caught up in this story almost against their better judgment or rationale.

Better than that, though, is Rogue One‘s approach to action, which feels far richer and more ambitious than much that we’ve seen in any of the other Star Wars films. It’s not just that there’s no lightsabers deployed here; the action feels bigger and broader, turning into the first time we’ve seen a true “war” in the Star Wars films. And in Gareth Edwards’ hands, there’s a sense of dread in the scope that we haven’t seen. Just as Gareth slowly doled out the glimpses of Godzilla in his film, Edwards makes great use of the Imperial elements of his battles, whether it’s the terrifying reveal of the Walkers or the dreadful looming of the Death Star. And that doesn’t even get into the instantly iconic scene near the end of the film that finally underlines something that’s been an undercurrent for the whole series.

This all makes Rogue One sound great, and to be honest, whenever Rogue One is letting action loose, it’s phenomenal. But a movie has to have a script and a plot, and that’s where Rogue One falls down. In many ways, Rogue One is a heist movie; it’s about the theft of the Death Star plans that set the first film into motion, and the film’s climax is all about that heist. But any heist has to have a coming together of the crew, and Rogue One‘s motley cast, while enjoyable, never really comes to life more than as archetypes and sketches. Motivations feel rushed at times, most notably in the case of Felicity Jones’s lead role, which feels like she decided to join the Rebellion offstage between scenes. (That’s better than Forrest Whitaker’s non-role, which feels like a blatant nod for some tie-in novel somewhere.) We know who these characters are a little, but not much, and it’s hard to be too invested in their fates when they feel a bit tossed in. It all ends up feeling like a functional script, and not much more, and one that hopes that the director can paper over the holes.

The result isn’t a great film, really. But it’s a promising start for these spin-off films, in that it shows that there’s a chance for these stories to be their own thing – not just more Star Wars, but a chance to find some of their own personality and style. Rogue One isn’t quite there yet, but in its action and style, it’s a step in the right direction, with enough action and fun to keep fans happy.

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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.

IMDb

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.

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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.

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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.

IMDb