Wolves of the Calla, by Stephen King / *****

This is the fifth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, and Wizard and Glass (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). 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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And finally, after decades of writing and an near-fatal car accident, Stephen King brought us into the home stretch. I still remember the excitement when Wolves of the Calla was released – not just the excitement of a new Dark Tower book (though that was no small part of it), but the realization that the end was in sight – that within the next year, we would have the final novel in the series in our hands, and that King was focused on the Tower in a way he had never really been before. More than that, all of the various threads and hints that King had been tossing out – from Insomnia to Black House, from Everything’s Eventual to Hearts in Atlantis, King had been building to this in almost every book he’d written as of late, and I was eager and ready to see what came next.

What came next was an absolute crackerjack adventure story, one with a heavy (and acknowledged) debt to Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, and yet one that was undeniably a King tale, and even more specific, a Tower tale. More than that, it’s the most focused Tower novel since The Gunslinger – the first since the original to have a single, clear, focused throughline. Yes, there are diversions and sidetracks, and there’s setup for the two books to come, but by and large, Wolves of the Calla is simple: a village needs help, and Roland and his ka-tet will aid them. The details are more complicated, of course, with mysterious hooded raiders, children who are kidnapped and returned as shells of themselves, and a mysterious cave that might be the key to saving a singularly important rose, but really, this is a tale as old as Kurosawa…or King Arthur.

But still, this is a King tale, and he’s at the top of his form here, immersing us into this community and its population, investing us in their fears and worries, and ratcheting up the tension and the pacing slowly but inexorably until you’re rocketing through pages to get to the fight that we’ve been simultaneously dreading and awaiting for hundreds of pages. Does King manage to do this while still giving us rich character depth and development, moving the quest ever forward to the Tower, and creating a rich world? Of course he does.

And, as usual, it’s the details that stick out so much – the rich patois of the local villagers, the odd behavior of Andy the “useful” robot, the strange unease around the number nineteen…all of it works, giving the book detail and depth that makes it even richer than it would have been otherwise. Even the sidebars are rich here, with one characters’ long backstory being every bit the equal of the rest of the book, as he narrates a story of supernatural vengeance, shadowy roads, and low men in yellow coats. (Indeed, some parts of that story may be the best parts of the book.)

It wouldn’t be right to call Wolves of the Calla the calm before the storm – there’s plenty of storm here – but there’s a sense that, by book’s end, we are plunging into the endgame more quickly than we realized. But in Wolves, King gives us a sense of what this quartet – quintet, if you count their furry friend Oy – was capable of. Just as Wizard and Glass let us see Roland in his youth but at full capacity, Wolves gives us a glimpse of what a world with gunslingers could be – a world of violence, yes, but one of justice and honor, even in the face of horror. It’s a welcome entry in the series, and one of my favorites to date.

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

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“The Little Sisters of Eluria,” by Stephen King / ****

6356190A Dark Tower novella released in the long period of time between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla (and ultimately collected in King’s Everything’s Eventual), “The Little Sisters of Eluria” is hard to pin down. It’s a Dark Tower story, but it’s a prequel to The Gunslinger, taking place while Roland was still hunting for the trail of the Man in Black. That means…well, it means a lot of things. It means there’s no ka-tet to be found, but also no Cuthbert; this is Roland, alone and already hardened by the events of Wizard and Glass. It means that the world has moved on, but not as much, and that Roland hasn’t made it to the wastes of The Gunslinger, though he may be near the edges.

But most importantly, “The Little Sisters of Eluria” differs from the main Tower books in two key ways: that it’s a novella, which reduces the scope, and that it’s a horror story – the only truly single-genre piece of the series. And given that King has a gift for short form horror, that’s all the more promising.

And luckily, though “Little Sisters” is inessential other than for Tower completists, it’s a gloriously unsettling little tale, one where King can take advantage of his fantastical world to give us a glimpse of the dark shadows lurking at its edges. The result is a lot of fun – a unique take on a classic monster archetype, as a wounded Roland tries to recover from a mutant attack in a hospital where patients seem to disappear rather than leave. There’s no huge shocks here – it’s clear early on what kind of creatures we’re dealing with, but that’s okay, because the details are what matters. And as King reveals the doctors that have been healing the patients, or follows the Sisters on their feedings, or as he turns the knife for a nicely nasty ending, “Little Sisters” is constantly weird, unsettling, and gripping. Nothing profound, nothing deep, but a solid horror gem nonetheless.

For all of that, it feels like a Dark Tower story only vaguely – almost more of a side story in this world, one that happens to feature Roland. Nonetheless, there’s something compelling about seeing more of Roland’s world, especially parts that are further from the Beam and the Tower. It reminds us that this isn’t just a world of one man; it’s a world in ruin, and as it’s collapsed, darkness has found its way into the cracks. And, as always, a solo Roland is most compelling when he’s wounded and less capable; to watch this unstoppable powerhouse forced to think his way out, instead of shooting his way out, is always interesting to see.

Is it a true Dark Tower story? Not of the main arc, and even fans may find themselves forgetting it when they think of the whole saga (I certainly had). But it’s a great little horror story, and a nice tale of Roland beyond the boundaries of his quest. What more do you want to tide you over while you prepare for the home stretch?

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Dunkirk / **** ½

dunkirk-posterFor the second time in a row, I find myself reviewing a movie that undoubtedly has flaws on a character level, and yet is a movie that I find myself recommending solely on the technical merits of the filmmaking. Last time, it was Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, where the film leaned on archetypes in favor of stylish, musical style and editing. But now comes Christopher Nolan’s visceral, intense Dunkirk, which focuses on the experience of those living through the Dunkirk evacuation in frightening, relentless detail, eschewing all but the barest character beats. And while a lack of almost any character depth would be an issue in almost every other film, Dunkirk makes it work, simply by virtue of focusing on the experience of the war as a whole, and making that the story of the film.

Unfolding in an unconventional three-part structure (more on that in a moment), Dunkirk follows the evacuation on three fronts: land (represented by the soldiers waiting to get home), sea (following the English citizens sailing their private crafts to the beach), and air (I. This case, a pair of RAF pilots running interference against the bombers constantly straying the beach and the boats). There’s little dialogue to the film; our main soldiers barely speak, our pilots are largely restricted to mission talk, and the only characters we somewhat get to know are our three primary civilians, a father and son accompanied by a close family friend. Instead, Nolan throws us into the action early and fast, letting the characters be defined by their action – and just as importantly, their reactions, as they cope with the danger around them. For the beach-stranded soldiers, that’s relentless German strafing of guns and bombs; for the boatsmen, it’s the constant and worrying presence of those same bombers, and the worry of the stranded men they find along the way; and for the pilots, it’s the worry that they may look behind them to find themselves in the gunsights of an enemy fighter.

As he did in Inception, Nolan plays the three threads against each other, letting the tension build in each simultaneously and cutting among them to keep the dread and unease building without pause. Instead of keeping that to the climax, though, Nolan pretty much juggles tension and dread through the entire film, with only one notable pause along the way that I can think of. Meanwhile, bombs are dropping, men are dying, ships are sinking, and there’s hardly a moment to catch your breath. The end effect is equal parts nerve-wracking, exhausting, and incredibly effective – rarely has a film managed to make audiences feel the dread of war so constantly without giving them an easy out.

That goes double if you’re lucky enough to see the film in 70mm as Nolan intended. Often using every bit of the massive frame, Nolan immerses you into this world, particularly in the aerial combat sequences that emphasize the space and the distance at all times, or an early overhead shot of the pier, beach, and water in an incredible tableau that drives home the scope and horrible beauty of all of this. Even more effective, though, is the deafening and relentless sound of the IMAX system, whose overwhelming and brutal roar reminds you that war isn’t exactly a quiet affair.

So, yes, on every technical and filmmaking level, Dunkirk is a knockout. But in other ways, it has some deep, critical flaws that keep it from being the masterpiece it could have been. The biggest is the lack of character work; while it’s understandable that the film focuses on the experience of war and the nature of these battles, there’s a sense that we care about these people because they’re human, not because we know them. And while there’s something interesting about that – that it doesn’t matter why you’re in the war, you deserve to be saved – it makes the film drier and colder than it could have been otherwise.

But the bigger issue to me is that three-part structure, which borrows another conceit from Inception – namely, that each part takes place over a different period of time, and only gradually does the film reveal the points at which they connect. It’s a showy gimmick, but one that never benefits the film; indeed, all we tend to think when we see those connections is about the film, not about the story. In other words, they end up taking you out of the film more than immersing you in it. It doesn’t help either that the film doesn’t make this time dilation particularly clear; even though each part is labeled “one week,” “one day,” or “one hour,” there’s no explanation of what that means, and I heard several people still not understanding the connection after the film ended. (To be fair, I don’t know that I would have gotten it worth having known about the idea before seeing it.) The result feels more like Nolan showing off than it does something for the benefit of the film, and the confusion and disorientation it brings detracts from the experience.

And yet, for all of those flaws – and they’re not insignificant ones – I still find myself recommending Dunkirk as a theatrical experience, and doubly so for 70mm. In some ways, it reminded me of my feelings about the film Avatar, a deeply flawed and simplistic film that I found myself realizing the flaws of throughout, and yet found myself incredibly swept up in as a theatrical experience. I don’t know that Dunkirk will ever play as well on a small screen as it does on the 70mm IMAX, or even just a good theater. But I can say that, even while I recognized its issues , I can’t deny the exhilaration, tension, and cumulative impact of the film as a experience, nor could I ever say that it’s not powerful, incredible viewing, taken all in all.

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Monsters of Venus, by Martin Berman-Gorvine / ***

513gh0jx4ul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Monsters of Venus boasts a pretty great premise – it’s a science fiction tale set on Venus, but one created from the mind of a Polish Jew alive during the rise of the Nazi party. Desperate to escape, her pulp tales took on a life of their own, and she ultimately escaped into the world she had created, along with a couple of other girls – and she can still make changes to this world by writing them on her typewriter and having others read it. But now, others have found their way into this universe, and they have more malicious intentions – and typewriters of their own.

That’s a really cool idea for a book, and at its best moments, Monsters of Venus becomes this wonderful piece of metafiction, with characters literally writing their way out of their predicaments. Mind you, it’s worth noting that Monsters of Venus is actually a follow-up to an earlier book entitled Seven Against Mars, which I hadn’t read, nor did I realize going in; the learning curve here is a bit rocky, although you’ll get the hang of everything eventually. It’s just that Berman-Gorvine doesn’t exactly lay out his premise or things that have already happened in any sort of clear, easy way for a new reader.

Unfortunately, that’s also the case for much of Monsters of Venus, which feels constantly jumbled and unclear, with characters bleeding into each other, overwrought accents, and messy action scenes that left me trying to figure out what was going on. None of which is to say that the big picture of Monsters of Venus isn’t a lot of fun – on the macro level, there’s a neat story here, and a lot of cool ideas. But the execution is less effective, with me often confused as to who was where, why certain actions were taken, or what people’s goals were. Add into that a number of literary allusions that feel fun but ultimately distract from the story (I’m still not quite sure what the point of all the Hamlet allusions is, or what they were supposed to mean; while they end up aligning with a couple of characters, the question of what it matters beyond being cute is unclear), and the result is a great idea, poorly executed.

That seems to be Berman-Gorvine’s M.O., though – I said similar things about his Heroes of Earth, which had great ideas but once again felt overstuffed and cluttered. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and some really cool ideas; it just feels like it needs some tightening and polishing to make it work as well as it should.

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Roofworld, by Christopher Fowler / ***

9780399180422A London man with a boring job and average life suddenly finds himself drawn into a side of London that he’s never seen before – a place where those who have dropped out of normal life have set up their own alternate society, where the rules are different, life is dangerous and exciting, and there’s nothing but disdain for the “normal” people. There’s a sense of old ways here, a sense that this is a way of getting back to something primal and mysterious, and maybe even magical. But our hero finds himself falling into something he doesn’t understand, and not only this new world, but our own, could be in danger.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “ooh, I’ve read that – it’s Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman,” well, you’re not wrong, really. Indeed, even though Roofworld predates Neverwhere by some time, I couldn’t help but spend a lot of the time as I read it comparing it to Gaiman’s richer, stranger, and altogether more successful novel. It doesn’t, however, really detract from Fowler’s imaginative idea, for this society lives on the roofs of the city, navigating from building to building with ropes and ziplines, and refusing to touch the ground. That’s a neat idea (I constantly found myself thinking of the navigation of Bioshock Infinite as I read), and the glimpses we get of this world are more than enough to draw you into the strange, shadowy society on the roofs of London.

It’s a shame, then, that Roofworld doesn’t have the substance it needs to support the fun and imagination that it promises in the first half. The book’s opening promises all sorts of fun, with a missing book of notes, a dangerous death cult, a series of brutal murders, and an odd couple romance. But by the time I hit the halfway point of the book, I was rapidly coming to realize that Roofworld is in desperate need of some fleshing out. Yes, it’s fun, and yes, it moves well. But the characters end up thin and generic (even now, less than a day after finishing, I’m struggling to remember much about some of them), and the plotting ends up making little to no sense, with the bad guy basically being motivated by…um…evil, I guess. (It doesn’t help that I never quite figured out the point of his evil scheme or what he was hoping to do, and it doesn’t seem like the book wanted us to, either.) It feels like a book that’s had about 30-50 pages of exposition and character work cut out of it, and the result feels like nothing so much as the weak screenplay based off of the fun and imaginative book.

Is there some fun to be had in Roofworld? Most definitely. But don’t be surprised when you end up feeling like it’s got nothing beyond a neat idea and a few fun scenes when you’re done.

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Baby Driver / **** ½

baby-driver-posterI frequently cite Roger Ebert’s famous quote, in which he argued that “a movie is not about what it is about; it’s about how it goes about it.” That rule informs so much of my opinions about Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, because if all you focused on with Baby Driver was the story, you’d be pretty let down. This is a heist movie, and pretty much every character in it is an archetype, at best – the Good Kid, the Crazy Psycho, the Femme Fatale, the Good Girl, etc., even down to that famous One Last Job. What unfolds, by and large, is what you expect, with few true surprises or shocks.

And yet, I’d be lying if I said any of that mattered that much, because Baby Driver is so wonderfully stylish and well-executed that I forgive pretty much all of those flaws. Because, yes, it’s a heist movie, or even a car chase movie…but it’s also one that basically turns the genre into a musical, with every gunshot, punch, swerve, brake, and accident timed out to the beat of the constant soundtrack, and the energy never flagging. And it’s hard not to get swept up into the fun of that, even before you realize that Wright isn’t just doing it in his action sequences – it’s his dialogue, his solo walks, his briefings, all of it. (Even better is an early-film tracking shot where the graffiti and passerby all sync up the music quietly, without ever drawing attention to themselves.)

So, yes, Baby Driver has some issues. Almost nobody surpasses their archetype in their role (though I think Jon Hamm does better than most), and Jamie Foxx’s character is particularly underserved by the film, bringing evil and violence for their own sake in a role that could use some fleshing out. (And yes, it’s a heist film, which is a genre that uses archetypes as a rule, but these are pretty flatly presented ones.) Even our hero and his love interest don’t really exist much beyond the confines of the plot or their roles in the big picture, and that’s a bit of a letdown. And yet, every time Baby gets behind the wheel of a car, or the laundry in a laundromat spins in time with the beat, or Wright times all of his pieces so masterfully that you can’t help but just giggle in happiness, all of my complaints washed away. Yes, Baby Driver is all style, no substance…but when the style is this well-done and this entertaining, I’m pretty okay with that.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming / ****

ono08hbmbenyI am, at best, an agnostic towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and that may be generous. I’ve skipped most of the entries in the MCU, and by and large, the ones I’ve seen have been fine, but forgettable – in other words, they’re boring, empty calories. Yes, there have been highlights – the weirdness that James Gunn brought to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Shane Black’s surprisingly subversive plotting in Iron Man 3 – but for the most part, I haven’t even been able to motivate myself to watch more than a couple of them. And making it all worse is watching interesting, talented directors and actors being sucked into a world where everything comes out as the same generic, homogenized product.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, I wasn’t that excited about Spider-Man: Homecoming, even before you take into account the needlessness of another reboot. And yet, what I was excited about was the chance to take my son to a superhero movie, because one of the things that the MCU has done is pitch so hard for an older audience that it’s forgotten to be there for kids, who can’t always deal with big, apocalyptic battles or constant double entendres (especially if your kids already get anxious easily). But with its high school setting and wisecracking character, I got the vibe that this might be the perfect one to take a ten-year-old boy to go see in theaters.

And I’m glad I did – not only for him (he loved it), but because I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up really enjoying it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming does a lot right, but one of the most welcome changes is the lowering of stakes and the resulting focus on more personal connections. The film’s villain, played by the always welcome Michael Keaton, isn’t interested in taking over the world, or killing people, or destroying a universe. He wants to provide for his family, and little else matters to him. What that means is a villain without some big, grandiose plot – no giant glowing columns of energy; even more to the point, no attacks on civilians at all – but instead, a human being, and a sympathetic one. Yes, Keaton is the film’s villain, but he’s likable, and more importantly, he’s understandable. He’s terrified for his family and their lives – and those are stakes that can matter to us.

Similarly, with its focus on high-school life and Peter Parker’s inexperience and age, Homecoming makes its themes more interesting than “responsibility” or “power” or “justice”. Instead, it’s the story of a kid who wants to be taken seriously, who wants to figure out his place in the world and to be special. That’s prime material for a superhero story, and Homecoming makes it work, making it echo through every part of the film, from Parker’s high school life to the combat sequences. And when things like “responsibility” do come up in the film, the movie has a way of making them sneak up on you, playing with the risks of super-powers more effectively than most, and reminding us how they can do a lot – and that works in a lot of ways.

But best of all, Homecoming echoes the best lesson from Logan: the best superhero films realize that “superhero” isn’t a genre in of itself, but an element. Where Logan was a Western injected with superhero DNA, Homecoming feels like a high school film – one of those where a nerdy kid gets the chance to prove himself as something more, only using superhero material to elevate it all. And what that results in is something that feels like an actual movie, not just an extended trailer for a film yet to come.

Mind you, there’s still some of my usual Marvel grumbles – for instance, the way that at least two different characters are clearly there only as placeholders for greater roles to come, or a general lack of interesting style of any sort. But by and large, the film overcomes its MCU obligations nicely, handling them with humor and wit (see the clever method of recapping Civil War as the film opens, or even better, the final credits scene), or else making them vague but solid subtext (the villain gets his start cleaning up battle sites from the earlier films). And instead of worrying about spending too much time about what’s to come or what may happen (or, for that matter, on telling a story about Peter’s uncle that we’ve heard too much), the film can focus on being its own satisfying, engaging story. And really, that’s what I wanted from a superhero movie in the first place. Yes, some style would be nice…but in the meantime, I’ll settle for fun with an emphasis on character and world.

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