First Love, Last Rites, by Ian McEwan / ***

3526A few years ago, I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a truly incredible book that pretty much floored me on every imaginable level. Ever since then, I’ve been curious to check out more of McEwan’s work, to see how it compared to that modern masterpiece, and learning that First Love, Last Rites was a collection of short stories sounded like a great place to start – it would give me a bit more of a sampling of his work, a wider array of experiences that McEwan could create.

Now, I didn’t realize when I picked it up that First Love, Last Rites actually represented McEwan’s first published writings, and that they largely represented the author’s attempts to experiment and find his voice. Had I known that, I doubt I would have jumped in here; I’d probably have gone with something more polished, or something closer in his career arc to Atonement, at least chronologically. As it is, First Love, Last Rites is a pretty far cry from Atonement in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the grim, disturbing subject matter. At the time, McEwan had the nickname “Ian Macabre,” and it’s not hard to see why – this is a collection of horrors, from incest to sexual abuse, from rapists to murder, almost always told from the point of view of the criminal. And, as he did in Atonement, McEwan immerses himself deeply in the characters’ perspectives, which means that there’s no moral judgment, no sense of justice or morality. These characters often get away with their actions, without even a sense of guilt, and that can make these hard to take. (That the eBook version I read opens with the story “Homemade,” which involves a confident, amoral teenager’s efforts to rid himself of his virginity through deeply upsetting means, didn’t help me to get adjusted into the book quickly; indeed, it almost put me off reading the rest, just because I wasn’t quite aware of what I was getting myself into, and because the story’s perspective is so vile.)

And yet, in a lot of ways, you can see many of the same skills that McEwan would put to work in Atonement getting their trial runs here. His empathy and ability to truly step into someone’s mind; his knack for watching events unfold without introducing morality or judgment into the writing; his insistence that the reader interacts with the text to unpack some of the meaning. And at times, as repulsive as his characters are, McEwan still knocks you out; my personal favorite is “Conversation with a Cupboard Man,” a long confession by a deeply damaged man whose mother infantilized him to a toxic degree and left him barely able to function in the real world – it’s a story that reminds me of the depth and nuance that someone like, say, Thomas Harris would bring to a similar character.

There’s little way to walk away from First Love, Last Rites and not feel like you need a bit of a shower. The actions depicted here are toxic, and even if McEwan is accurate in the way masculine drives and the demands of society so often push them in horrible directions, that doesn’t make the collection any more pleasant to read all in a batch like this. But there’s no denying the talent that McEwan was bringing to bear even here, in his earliest work, and it’s to his credit that the stories are as engaging as they are, even as they disturb. They’re not perfect by any means – the title story gets too pretentious with its symbolism for my taste; “Cocker at the Theatre” really only has the advantage of being short; several feel like experiments in amoral perspectives more than they feel like full stories – but they’re fascinating glimpses as to some of what would make Atonement great. I still think my next taste of McEwan will be something more modern than this, though.

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Blue Ruin / **** ½

blue20ruinI wanted to see Blue Ruin even before I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, his follow-up and all around incredible film. Indeed, as much as I loved the claustrophobic tension of Green Room, the fact that Blue Ruin sounded so Coen-esque – a murder story that escalates – had me even more intrigued. But what I got was something more interesting and substantial (though no less well-made) than I expected; while Blue Ruin handles some of the same themes as other revenge films – primarily, the question of whether or not revenge is worth the blood that it spills, or the violence that sometimes blows back upon the avenger – it does so by creating something more complicated and mundane than most revenge films. This is Coenish in the “regular folks getting in over their heads” feel that it creates, but rather than using it for black comedy, as the Coens so often do, it’s used to increase our unease, our tension, and the emotional impact of the movie.

Much of Blue Ruin‘s impact has to be laid at the feet of Macon Blair, who has to carry so many scenes entirely on his own, without dialogue or any other actors to play off of. Even from the film’s opening notes, where we’re introduced to Blair as a homeless, unkempt drifter, the film lets his performance tell the story, as he wanders around, gets food, and eventually finds himself brought in by a police officer who wants to let him know that someone is being released from prison. Saulnier fades the audio here, prolonging the mystery, but Blair’s face tells us all the story we need – there is some deep tragedy here, and it’s how this man ended up where he is. To some degree, that sets up the recurring theme of the film: the way that violence ripples out far beyond its original target, leaving far more devastation in its wake than a single act might suggest.

Yes, Blue Ruin is a revenge film, but it’s not the one you expect; indeed, Blair’s act of revenge doesn’t end the film so much as it kicks it off, leading to a chain reaction of escalating violence that leaves plenty dead, more wounded, and the damage both emotional and physical hard to quantify. Saulnier stages it all perfectly for tension and unease, constantly reminding us how over his head Blair is, but also how broken he is – how little he has left in him beyond this quest to even the scales, no matter what it takes. And while there’s a lowkey comedy to some of the proceedings, Blue Ruin feels more like a tragedy than anything else – not just in terms of Blair, but in all of the participants in what follows.

None of this might make Blue Ruin sound as good as it is, or as tense; as he did in Green Room, Saulnier stages things expertly, extending the tension until it’s unbearable, using gore and violence for maximum impact, and investing us in these characters so that their fates matter to us beyond the machinations of a plot. Much of this comes down the performances, but also Saulnier’s control of the film; especially given how little this film gives us in terms of exposition, the fact that we’re never lost as to what’s going on is remarkable. But the way each setpiece unfolds slowly and horribly makes for some truly gripping viewing; yes, these are undeniably the acts of an amateur, but that only makes them more emotionally affecting and desperate, investing the film with even more power.

Blue Ruin‘s Coen brothers comparisons are understandable on a number of levels, but they don’t really prepare you for the film, which feels more like a very violent drama than a true revenge thriller or crime caper. It’s a film about violence that doesn’t flinch from it – similar to what Saulnier would do with Green Room – but it’s also about what these acts can do to a human being, both as a perpetrator and a victim. It’s a pretty stellar entry into the film scene, and bodes well for years of Saulnier films to come.

IMDb

The Two Faces of January, by Patricia Highsmith / *** ½

highsmith_januaryThe more work by Patricia Highsmith that I read, the more that two things become very clear. The first is that Highsmith had a fascinating mind for suspense, immersing readers in minds shaped by guilt and perverse impulses that they themselves didn’t understand, and using simple premises to play people against each other. The second fact, though, is that Highsmith is, at best, a decent author, one whose prose often failed to elevate the material around it, and sometimes made it feel as though her books aren’t as good as they really can be. (In other words, Highsmith has a bit of what I’m going to call “Philip K. Dick Syndrome” – great ideas, phenomenal complexity, iffy writing.)

Mind you, it’s possible that I’ve just been picking some of her lesser work since knocking out most of the Ripley books. But The Two Faces of January undeniably fits into this realm; there’s a lot of great psychological tension being built into this story of a trio of Americans whose lives get entangled when they meet over the course of a quick body disposal, only to find things get far, far more complicated. A middle-aged swindler; his much younger, attractive wife; and a young man running from a shadowy reputation and a complicated family life – Highsmith brings them to life and plays them beautifully off of each other, constructing their minds so carefully and intricately that everything feels inevitable, horrifyingly unstoppable, and unrelentingly tense as it unfolds. The plotting is simple but effective, much in the way that so many of Highsmith’s works revolve not just around a crime, but around the repercussions and the way they ripple outward for far, far longer than you would think.

And yet, for all of that tension and craft and psychological insight, The Two Faces of January sometimes feels like a bit of a drag, perking up every so often as Highsmith turns the screws again. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, but what I came back to again and again was that Highsmith, for all of her thoughtfulness, so often lived so deeply in the mental lives of her characters that she forgot to keep things in motion. More than that, the hand-wringing and internal debating is fascinating up to a point, but ultimately, it takes until the book’s halfway point for things to really take off, when Highsmith plays her hidden ace and we see what the book is really about – at least, until a somewhat disappointing, rote ending that feels like a fizzle.

And so, appropriately enough (given the title), we have a strangely divided book. The characters are rich and intriguing, and when the book is at its best, watching Highsmith pit them against each other as they play their horrifying game, it’s wonderfully taut. But when Highsmith dives too deeply into Freudian motivations or internal waffling, it can feel glacial and overwrought, belaboring material that works best when it’s tense and uncertain. It’s well-crafted, intricate, carefully paced…and also overlong, a little flat at times, and fizzles towards the end. On the whole, there’s more good than bad, but there’s definitely a sense that this isn’t her best work.

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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

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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Horror Triple Feature

mpw-39550One of my favorite auteurs of 80’s trash horror is Frank Henenlotter, director behind the wonderfully gonzo Basket Case and its equally twisted, entertaining cousin, Brain Damage. But as much as I love those two, I hadn’t managed to see Henenlotter’s famous follow-up Frankenhooker until today. Luckily, it was worth the wait; while it may have leaned more heavily and clearly on comedy than the other two films, it’s no less wonderfully silly and demented than any other Henenlotter I’ve seen. A very loose retelling of FrankensteinFrankenhooker follows a mad scientist who decides to resurrect his girlfriend after a gruesome lawnmower accident. The problem? There’s not exactly enough of her left…which means it’s time to hit pre-Guiliani Times Square and find some women of the night to use for parts. The result is gorey, splattery insanity, with self-induced cranial pressure relief (in other word: drilling into your own skull), electrified kisses, and, oh yes, exploding hookers. It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek, with Henenlotter steering more overtly into comedy, but the result is absolutely entertaining as anything, from the mad scientist’s constant self-encouragement to the ludicrous facial expressions on the reconstructed girlfriend. I don’t think Frankenhooker is as good as Basket Case or Brain Damage – I enjoy those film’s ability to balance horror and comedy more than this – but I had a blast watching it anyway. Rating: ****

poster_thirstTo say that Thirst is easily the weakest film I’ve seen to date by Chan-Wook Park sounds like a harshest criticism than it necessarily should be. After all, this is the director behind such films as OldboyLady VengeanceStoker, and The Handmaiden, just to name a few – it would be awfully hard to make it to the top tier of that kind of filmography. And even with Thirst‘s flaws – which largely spring from the film’s pacing issues – there’s little denying that Park brings his usual flair, bizarre sensibility, and beautiful style to bear to this vampire story. After all, who else would let his vampire film largely render its vampiric elements almost irrelevant, instead turning it into a twisted love story about a priest who becomes a vampire thanks to a medical experiment gone wrong, and who then falls in love with the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. If that doesn’t sound like your typical vampire film, well, Thirst really isn’t typical in any way, apart from using vampirism much as Bram Stoker did back in Dracula: as a metaphor for repressed desire, lust, and a wish to break beyond the social and religious strictures that are governing one’s life. Of course, this being a Korean film, exactly how far the characters are willing to go…well, let’s just say that things escalate quite a bit from the early scenes where our “hero” is trying to stick to stolen blood from hospital patients. Thirst is too long by at least twenty minutes, and it doesn’t quite make its lead female character work as well as I wish it did; she feels more simplistic than Park tends to let his female characters be (especially in something like The Handmaiden). Still, even with those flaws, Thirst is rich, interesting fare – a more thoughtful, complicated take on the vampire tale than we often get, and one with enough substance to keep thoughtful audiences satisfied while still delivering violence and horror (and style) to spare. Rating: ****

cronos-mondo-criterion-posterI’m a big, big fan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose fantastical sensibility – and how it blends together with his grasp on horror – has led to some truly great cinema, including Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone, and most recently (and one of my favorites), Crimson Peak. But somehow, I had never gotten a chance to see del Toro’s feature debut, Cronos, until my wife bought me Criterion’s new Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro box set. Even here, as he’s just getting started and working under a limited budget, there’s no denying del Toro’s rich visual style, his astonishing imagination, nor his unique approach to creatures and horror. The tale of a Mexican antiques dealer (played by Federico Luppi) who stumbles across an ancient invention said to hold the secret of immortality, del Toro brings his usual mixture of fairy tale and horror to bear here, spending equal time establishing the charming relationship between Luppi and his granddaughter and the surreal horrors that this invention can unleash. Like many of del Toro’s films, it slides between fantastical visions and bloody horror  without warning, which makes for an even better watch for the daring viewer (and that doesn’t even get into the genre elements that del Toro allows the film to slowly incorporate). Even better, there are signs even here of del Toro’s astonishing imagination, as he dives into the gears – and weirdly organic elements – of this invention, turning something simple into something arcane and eldritch in the process. That Cronos is a solid, inventive, strange piece of horror goes without saying, knowing del Toro’s involvement; that it largely holds its own against his later work, even with its lower budget and learning curve, is all the more impressive and wonderful. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Frankenhooker | Thirst | Cronos

The Crossing, by Michael Connelly / **** ½

51-j9ahfjllFor a long time, my general rule of thumb on Michael Connelly was that his series were great, but anytime he did a crossover novel – A Darkness More than Night‘s meeting between Bosch and Terry McCaleb, for instance, or The Narrows, which found Bosch investigating the killer from The Poet – the results were invariably among his weakest work. And yet, somehow that rule has been broken once Connelly starting combining Harry Bosch, the dedicated cop, and Mickey Haller, the effective (if grandstanding) attorney. Part of that, I think, is that these characters contrast nicely with each other, giving them wildly different perspectives on the world, and different approaches to the same problems. But part of that also comes from how each character has developed over time, to the point where we know not only how complicated they are internally, but how they project a different side of themselves that isn’t always accurate.

The last collaboration between the two came from Haller’s perspective, so it seems only fair to switch to Bosch’s for The Crossing, which finds Bosch finally leaving behind the police life once and for all by crossing the line into helping a defense attorney. That the man is his half-brother doesn’t matter; that this is genuinely a case of justice gone wrong, even less. No, for Bosch – and for many of his former brothers in blue – the taking of this case is the final move away from being a homicide detective and from how Bosch defines himself, and that’s no small thing. Thankfully, Connelly treats it as such, making Bosch’s self-questioning as much of the book’s content as the case he’s investigating (as well as allowing Bosch to constantly weigh his sense of justice against Haller’s trial-based approach to the world).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Connelly’s gift for plotting has only gotten better over time, this time creating an intricate web of murder and blackmail that only gradually reveals itself as, once again, tying into the zeitgeist as Connelly so often does. From casual references to Ferguson to community police relations, Connelly makes the book contemporary while never beating the reader over the head. As for the murder case itself, the motivations and plotting are great and fascinating; admittedly, some of the mechanics and logistics of what happens are a little over the top, but I’ll let it slide in favor of a good story.

But best of all, The Crossing once again shows Connelly’s ability to keep the Bosch series fresh and evolving, even after 20 years. From an active police beat to cold cases, the Bosch series has changed with its hero, letting his job shift as his career and personality dictate. And The Crossing finds Bosch trying to figure out who he’s going to be if he’s not a policeman anymore. And while he may not stay a defense attorney’s investigator for more than one book, it’s a sign of what kind of character that Bosch is that I’m willing to follow him for no matter what comes next in his life.

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