Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.

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Suspiria / **** ½

suspiria-previous-design-2It’s taken me a long time to come around on Suspiria. The first time I saw it, probably 15+ years ago, I saw it knowing only that it was hailed as an essential and classic horror movie. What I got was bewildering to me; stylish and colorful, sure, but also nonsensical, unclear, and just sort of a mess. Then, a few years ago, I decided to give it another shot, seeing it on the big screen, to see if maybe I just had a bad first experience…but this time, a butchered and neutered print left me even colder to it, not really understanding any of the appeal of the film. To me, Suspiria’s popularity was bewildering; the script was a mess, the sequences often incomprehensible, the acting off-kilter…I just couldn’t get it.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve finally started to understand Italian horror – the style, the emphasis of mood and mise-en-scene over story, the focus on surreal and nightmarish imagery more than script or acting. It started for me with Lucio Fulci films, but there have been others along the way, including some more exposure to Argento. And so, I decided it was time to revisit Suspiria one more time, if I could find the right chance. So when the Belcourt theater in Nashville announced that they’d be screening the new 4k, uncut restoration of the film on the big screen, it seemed like the perfect chance.

And, man, am I ever glad I went.

There’s no denying that being more attuned to the rhythms of Italian horror had a huge impact on my viewing this time, as did realizing exactly how much – and how little – story I was going to get with Suspiria. Because, make no mistake, this is a thin, thin movie, in which a ballerina attends a school run by witches, and creepy things happen. That’s about all there is to Suspiria in terms of plotting, and yet, seeing the film in its full, uncut, restored glory, it’s hard not to get swept up in the nightmarish, intense setpieces. From a haunting pursuit that ends with creative use of a stained glass window to a blind man being attacked by his own guide dog, Suspiria shows off Argento’s knack for staging a sequence, and if it doesn’t always stand on the logic of the film or entirely make sense of its own accord, well, you’re certainly not thinking about that while you’re watching it.

But more than that, the colors – my god, the colors. Seeing Suspiria not just in a pristine  restoration, but in a restoration that made every single super-saturated color nearly pop out of the screen…well, it was a jaw-dropping way to see the film, one that frequently left me speechless at the imagery on display. It’s the ideal way to see – and to appreciate – Suspiria, a film that almost entirely relies on its ability to sweep you up in its saturated, hypnotic, strange world. (Mind you, the iconic score by Goblin does no small amount of work here, creating a strange, off-kilter mood that’s impossible to shake. It’s a bizarre, atypical score for a bizarre, atypical movie, but man, do they ever work well together.)

There are always going to be things about Suspiria that just don’t work for me. Even knowing how loose and shaggy the story is, there are big chunks of the movie that just feel silly and nonsensical, stretching the already tolerant boundaries of Italian horror to their breaking points. That’s probably most true in the film’s climax, a truly jumbled set of moments that feel like nothing so much as the film running out of time and hurriedly wrapping itself up so it could beat traffic. And even with the unbelievable style on display, part of me prefers the sleazy, go-for-broke horror of Fulci to Argento’s controlled, beautiful death.

But for the first time, this screening helped me understand what everyone loves about Suspiria.  It left me in awe of the iconic death sequences, unsettled by some of the intense mood setting, and absolutely floored by the beauty of the compositions. And more than that, it finally helped the film fall into focus not just as a niche art thing, but as a unique and fascinating piece of horror unlike most anything else. It’s beautifully, intricately composed, worried entirely about its visuals over its story (and even its scares), and absolutely, carefully controlled in its craft. And as someone who so often loves horror but finds the craft lacking, that’s no small thing.

IMDb

The Chains of War, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

23001356It’s almost become a fun trope of fantasy novels to see how many of them feature a dense and absurd glossary of terms in the back of them. For a long time, it was almost a requirement of the genre (I constantly used them as I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, for instance), but they’ve fallen by the wayside over the years. And while generally I’m fine with that, there have definitely been times as I’ve read Dean F. Wilson’s epic fantasy trilogy series The Children of Telm that I could have used one. With its dense style, its huge cast of characters, and its epic scope, it’s easy to lose one’s way for a bit in Wilson’s world, or to fear that you may be missing out on some of the details.

But what makes The Children of Telm so great – and in particular, what makes The Chains of War, the final book in the series – is that not only did I follow every page of the book even without remembering every detail, but that I found myself wanting to read the entire series over again, to see how Wilson had been writing these details from the beginning and how much of the world and the story’s arc had been foreshadowed since the beginning. Wilson is playing with any number of tropes of the genre – an ancient evil released from its bonds, the gods reincarnating themselves in mortal bodies, the armies of the dead amassing, a love of the natural world that may lend itself to certain powers – and yet, The Chains of War (and the series as a whole) never feels like anything other than itself, and the characters become wholly their own. Yes, they may have started as archetypes, but they become something far more compelling and unique as the series has continued, with moral debts, shades of complexity, guilt that hangs over them, and a difficulty grappling with their own powers.

In many ways, as much as I loved Wilson’s Great Iron War series, it feels like The Children of Telm may be his greater accomplishment, in no small part because of how far Wilson pushes his writing. Consciously mimicking the formal, “ancient” diction of Tolkien and other high fantasy writers, Wilson lets his words carry some of the weight of his world-building, turning this story into a chronicle of something larger and more ambitious. That he does this while still letting the characters live and breathe, while still bringing out ambiguities and nuances, while still surprising with plot points – that’s no small feat.

Look, The Chains of War is hard to describe – it’s the final book in a fantasy series, and builds on what’s come before it. To talk about what happens in here would ruin some of the joy of the rest of this series, or of the surprises to come in its pages – the sudden realization of what’s causing the ancient evil to be unleashed, the slow dawning of how our heroes can fulfill the prophecies, the cost of the battles, and a perfect epilogue that not only concludes the story, but also gives us closure on the characters. But it manages that difficult feat of concluding a fantasy series in a satisfying way that feels both appropriate and surprising, delivering an exciting story that ends the series but doesn’t feel like it’s just the formula playing out. It’s a great read from an author whose quiet, assured talent has been pleasing me for book after book, and really pays off so well here. In short, if you like high fantasy? You owe this one a read. Just, you know, maybe read them all back to back, and don’t wait months like I did.

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Mario Bava Double Feature

Even with my recent embrace of Italian horror, one of the big holes in my film knowledge has been the works of Mario Bava, who’s held up as one of the Big Three directors of the genre (the others being Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). So when the Belcourt offered up a double feature of Bava films, it seemed like a no-brainer for me to knock out two of his films with one shot.

511qbkdvwelThat being said, despite its fame, Black Sunday may not have been the one to start with. Make no mistake: Black Sunday is beautifully shot, embracing the gothic nature of its story (which involves the resurrection of a medieval witch who wants vengeance on the family that killed her originally) and then some, using its black and white cinematography to incredible effect, and giving out some beautiful framing that I was in awe of. Yes, Black Sunday undeniably showed me the style that Bava brought to bear, and gave me a sense of what he would do once he threw color into his palette of tools. But as a horror film, Black Sunday moves at a snail’s pace, feeling far longer than its 87-minute running time might suggest. There are some incredible moments, and a (somewhat) surprising amount of gore, all done with style to spare and a gloriously gothic mood that you know I’m up for (I am, historically, very pro Gothic films). But from a story point of view, it’s a drag, stretching out every reveal to a point of tedium, and overexplaining every moment (at least in the English dub that I saw; perhaps the original Italian version is stronger there). Still, if you can get past that, there’s little denying the beauty of the film on display, nor the obvious talent behind the camera. It’s just the pacing that drags it down. Rating: ***

blood-and-black-lace-movie-poster-1965-1020436027

Luckily, though, the next film was all I hoped for and then some. Often held to be the origin of the giallo genre, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is a blast from its opening moments (a gloriously stylish set of posed opening credits that finds every actor striking a pulp noir cover pose next to their name), and that holds true through to the end. The film is pure giallo, with its gloved, behatted figure murdering (mostly) beautiful woman in stylish ways, for reasons that only sort of make sense by the film’s end. Not that that really matters; for all of its soap opera plotting, Blood and Black Lace is an exercise in style – and what style it is. Adding color into his toolbox, Bava delivers an incredible experience, with the standout being a thrilling sequence set against the backdrop of blinking green lights that give us only glimpses of the killer stalking his prey. Yes, Blood and Black Lace spends a bit more time on its labyrinthine story than the typical giallo film (complete with some gloriously soapy confrontations), and that definitely results in a few draggy sections along the way; that being said, the horror elements are so good – tense, sure, but also executed with such style and visual craft – that you’ll find yourself forgiving the film for any shortcomings.  Rating: ****

IMDb: Black Sunday | Blood and Black Lace

Dead Aim, by Joe R. Lansdale / **** ½

imagesI’ve really come to feel that Joe Lansdale is all but incapable of writing a truly bad book, and that rule might just be doubly true if it’s one of his “Hap and Leonard” books. With a conversational style, an incredible ear for dialogue, beautifully noir plotting that never overshadows the characters, and humor that keeps everything feeling light even as the material goes dark, the series has been a treat throughout its run, and that streak remains intact for Dead Aim, a novella that follows the characters on a “simpler” case not long after the events of Devil Red.

The plot, as usual for Lansdale (and for noir), starts simply enough: Hap and Leonard are asked to help a woman who’s having some issues with a violent ex. From there, of course, everything gets complicated, as characters show up dead, motivations get questioned, and betrayals abound – in other words, it’s a typical noir story, with double-crosses and uncertainty everywhere. And as usual, Lansdale has a way of taking unexpected turns, or of taking familiar elements in unusual directions; here, while it’s not a surprise that the boys are being played, the reasons for it are more heartfelt and interesting than you might expect.

But really, the reason you read Hap and Leonard books isn’t for the plots; those are the hook that draws you in, sure, but it’s Lansdale’s rich world and fantastic characterization that you really come for, and Dead Aim provides. I could read Hap and Leonard banter and verbally spar for hundreds of pages and never get bored, and the same goes here; there’s a lived-in feel to the characters and their friendship that’s hard to explain, but undeniably present throughout. Moreover, Lansdale manages to bring all of his characters to the same life; yes, everyone in these books has a bit of a smart mouth, but Lansdale makes them all stand on their own, giving each their own personality, even in a short page count. From the wronged woman who may be using those around her to a malevolent hulking man who may be misjudged, Lansdale sketches in his characters quickly and efficiently, bringing them to life so effortlessly that it’s easy to ignore how good he is at it.

Being a novella, Dead Aim by necessity feels a little slighter than the best “Hap and Leonard” books (Bad Chili, for me, holds that title), but in some ways, it’s also a gift for readers, who get something richer than a short story that still holds all of Lansdale’s gifts for pacing, storytelling, humor, and style. And the fact that I get to pick up a bunch of these novellas for a cheap price? That’s a steal for the amount of enjoyment these books bring me. A great read, whether or not you’ve read Hap and Leonard before – and if you haven’t, get on it.

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Possession / **** ½

possession_800The last time I saw Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession was back in 2012, at a midnight screening of what turned out to be the American cut of the film (something I didn’t know at the time). Watching it, I talked about how so much about the film shouldn’t work, but at the same time, it had a way of sticking with you, of haunting you with its insanity and surreal visions. And once I found out that what I saw was an attempt by American studios to turn the film into something more “conventional” (an insane idea, as you’ll understand if you’ve seen the film), I was even more intrigued by the idea of seeing the original film, to see if the flaws were in the film itself or a result of the re-edited cut.

So let me put this simply: if all you’ve seen of Possession is the American release, you haven’t really seen the film, any more than, say, if all you’ve ever seen of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was the “Love Conquers All” version. Because what was a haphazard collection of moments and scenes surrounding a nasty divorce becomes far more cohesive and emotionally coherent when presented in order, and while the film would never in a million years be viewed as “conventional”, it’s far more understandable and emotionally constructed than my first experience.

Mind you, Possession is still a surreal, bizarre experience. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani both start the film on an acting level of basically 9.5, and then go way beyond the pale as the film continues. So all the theatrical overacting that sort of overwhelmed me on the first time is still there…but when presented in a more coherent order, it all works better, giving a through line to the emotional development that makes it all work, with each scene building off of the last (more or less).

But even that emotional intensity doesn’t quite prepare you for how purely weird Possession can be, putting all but the most Lynchian of Lynch films to shame. This is a film that’s about a nasty, bitter divorce, yes, but it’s also got espionage, murder – oh, and tentacle monsters, deployed in some most unusual ways. It’s undoubtedly an art film’s approach to divorce – it’s using its theatrics and excesses to explore the hurt and the anger and the betrayal that comes with such an end of a relationship, and it uses its horrors as a stand-in for all of it, turning the emotional pain of abandonment and the need to control one’s spouse into something more operatic and nightmarish. It’s a film in the vein of Buñuel and Polanski (especially Repulsion), but also one that clearly paved the way not only for Lynch, but people like the Coens (whose cuckolding lover in A Serious Man feels heavily inspired by a similar character here).

The result is a film that’s incredibly hard to explain, and also hard to easily “recommend” in any conventional way. It’s an incredible experience, make no doubt about it, and the emotional heft that it conveys through its surrealism is far more effective than any more conventional method would ever be. But it’s also a film that’s cranked so far over the top, and can be so aggressively strange, that it won’t work for everyone. Indeed, even as someone who loved the film a lot, there are undeniably points that I just threw my hands up and gave up on following things, or felt like the film was so unrestrained as to be a bit grueling. So, no, it’s not for all tastes.

Here’s the thing, though –  it’s telling that for those who can attune themselves to its rhythms and moods, it’s incredibly beloved, giving an emotional punch that few films can match. To me, it’s maybe one of the all-time great films about divorce, for all the pain and introspection that brings with it. But none of that makes for an easy watch – which may be part of why the film’s honesty and punch is so effective. And it says something that for all of my confusion, for all of my frustration, the film is packed with moments from the film that haunt me and I can still remember in pristine detail – a nightmarish mental and physical meltdown in a subway tunnel, the chilling reaction of a child to a crumbling marriage, a disturbing union between a woman and a monster, a brutal exchange of hatred between Neill and Adjani in the kitchen – the film bypasses all logic, all reason, and strikes right at the emotional centers of your brain. It’s the joy of art in that Lynchian sense, where you don’t need words or logic – just images, mood, and emotional heft. And that’s what Possession gives you in spades. Taken all in all, you won’t see much else like it…but you won’t be able to forget it either.

IMDb

Don’t Torture a Duckling / *** ½

220px-don27ttortureaducklingAfter a few stumbles with the works of Dario Argento, I began to wonder if Italian horror just wasn’t for me. But it wasn’t long after that that I was introduced to the work of Lucio Fulci, whose tendencies towards excess, gore, and an admittedly high level of grime all somehow made Italian horror click for me in a way that Argento never has.

Now comes my exposure to the film that put Fulci on the map outside of Italy, as well as the one which found him exploring gore and horror for the first major time in his career: the giallo crime film Don’t Torture a Duckling, about a series of brutal child murders in a small Italian town and the resulting hysteria that arises. All the usual Fulci staples are on display; bad dubbing, excessive gore, a fixation on eyes, and some (gratuitous) seediness. What’s not quite there is the sheer excess of his horrors; the grounded nature of the film, which is more of a traditional horror fil½m than the unchained horrors of The Beyond or Zombie, keeps it from hitting those splattered peaks that Fulci would attain later.

The result isn’t bad, especially if you’re a Fulci fan; while it’s nowhere near the magnificent mood and tension of his best works, Don’t Torture a Duckling compensates by having some of the more interesting ideas of the Fulci films I’ve seen. This is a movie that anchors itself in small town paranoia and judgment, using that to deliver a nightmarish sequence where the town citizens decide to dole out justice on their own terms. There’s also the film’s choice to grapple with religious fervor and mania – a choice that caused no small issue on the film’s release, but also gives it a punch that simple giallo didn’t usually manage.

For all that, though, it also feels like a director dipping his foot into a genre and realizing that it’s too narrow for his ambitions and ideas. Don’t Torture a Duckling feels like Fulci is trying on the giallo film for size, but pushes back against the restrictions and ideas of what it’s doing, and starts figuring out his own interests along the way. It’s not a bad film at all, but it’s more interesting as a stepping stone to better films than it is on its own, despite a few great moments and some intriguing choices along the way.

IMDb