Chattanooga Film Festival 2017

cff-logo-17-01-emI’m a big fan of the Chattanooga Film Festival, which has been going now for four years, and has yet to really let me down. Maybe it’s just a case where I’m in line with the tastes of the festival runners; maybe it’s just that their love of cinema in every form, from music videos to trashy exploitation, shines through in the festival programming. But whatever the case, the Chattanooga Film Festival has quickly become something I always look forward to, giving me the chance to see a lot of great films that I might never otherwise get the chance to see, to say nothing of exposing me to things that I’d never heard of. And while this year only found me able to attend for two days (really, one and a half), I still managed to fill my time with a lot of great movies – a couple of knockouts, a bunch that were all mostly good, and only one that sort of missed the mark – and even that one wasn’t without its moments. Not a bad streak at all.

Saturday kicked off with the animated film My Life as a Zucchini, which tells the story of a young boy who finds himself in a foster home after the accidental death of his alcoholic, abusive mother. my_life_as_a_zucchini_posterThat sounds like it’s setting you up for a grim experience, but Zucchini nicely walks a difficult, narrow line, managing to make a warm, joyous experience that simultaneously deals with the awful circumstances that brought each of these children to this house. My Life as a Zucchini isn’t a film about foster care reform; indeed, the house here is a good one, and the children thrive under the loving care they receive. More to the point, the film generally avoids easy characterizations, letting even its bully character evolve into something funnier and more interesting very quickly. At its core, this is a film about finding a family, like so many other children’s films; for all of that, there’s a warmth and kindness here, and a willingness to face up not only to the darker sides of childhood, but also of the weird edges (lots of conversations between young boys trying to figure out sex) that give it a rich, honest feel. Not a film for young kids, but a charming film nonetheless, and one that won me over quickly. Rating: ****

The next film may also have been animated, but apart from that, they couldn’t be more different in pretty much every way. Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a silly mock epic, the story of a high school that, we1032268-hssposterwebll, is literally sinking into the sea. In theory, this allows the film to trade on the sort of apocalyptic adolescent imagery that made Donnie Darko or The Age of Miracles so effective, turning a coming of age into a literal end of the world. In practice, though, My Entire High School is a bit of a mess, with low-tech animation that doesn’t add much to the story, a decent voice cast that doesn’t get to do much, and a jumbled plot that feels sort of cobbled together. For all of that, it’s still often very funny – Shaw has a knack for absurdity, and brings out some great details, including a Lord of the Flies riff where the senior athletes set up their own society, or the weird backstory of a hardcore cafeteria worker. The absurdity works better than the film, though, resulting in something that feels like it wouldn’t be out of place as an Adult Swim series, but doesn’t have enough meat to work as a film. Rating: ** ½

Luckily, I followed the weakest film of my festival run with one of the best. Liam Davis’s A Dark Song is a haunting, deeply unsettling film – adark_song_poster_final horror film more concerned with psychological dread and unease than it is with scares, though it more than provides those. It’s the story of a woman who has decided to engage in a dark ritual, one that can last up to eight months, and once started, forbids the participants from leaving the salt circle which sets the boundaries of the ritual. What that means is that, for the vast majority of its running time, this is a film about two people, in a closed-off house, and the stresses of their occult ritual. Catherine Walker and Steve Oram, both unknown to me before this, play their parts incredibly, with Walker slowly revealing the trauma that led her to request this dark rite, and Oram playing the part of an expert whose experiences have helped him to understand what he calls the “architecture” of this world. Davis, not content to let A Dark Song simply be a horror film, lets his characters breathe and converse freely, becoming more than just archetypes, and grappling with questions ranging from grief and coping with loss to metaphysical, religious questions raised by the nature of the rites they’re engaging in. And if that’s not enough, it’s also beautifully shot, whether in our brief glances at the Welsh environs or the shadowy interiors of the house. But at its core, this is a horror film, even if it’s one with more on its mind than simple scares. And it builds to one of the most memorable images I’ve ever seen in a horror film, one that elevates A Dark Song to nearly a whole different genre in its final moments, and creating an instantly iconic moment. I truly loved this film; it’s not like much else out there (the closest thing I could compare it to would be The Witch, with its lived-in feel and low-key approach to its horrors, as well as its fascination with ritual and religion; nonetheless, this is too modern and minimalistic to make a perfect comparison there), has some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a long time, and tells a wholly unique, strange story that I loved. Rating: *****

I was worried about following up A Dark Song with Lake Bodom, simply for fear that it wouldn’t be able to hold up against the comparison; when you follow one horror movie with another, you can’t help but make comparisons. bodom-posterFortunately, Lake Bodom couldn’t be more different from A Dark Song, preferring gore, violence, and old-fashioned slasher atmosphere over A Dark Song‘s headier fare. But don’t hold that against Lake Bodom, because it does all of that stuff incredibly well, delivering a stylish, fun movie that wears its influences on its sleeve (a bit of Carrie here, a bit of High Tension there, a lot of Friday the 13th throughout) and just encourages you to have a darkly violent time. Based on a real incident in Finland, in which a group of teenagers were butchered at a lake as they camped by a still unknown suspect, Lake Bodom follows a group of teenagers as they go to camp at the killing spot in order to check out some theories. But there are other tensions here, even apart from the constant sexual tension between two guys and two girls out in the woods apart from parents; there are hints of a deep disgrace that’s led to one of the girls becoming a social pariah, and then there’s that one kid who just seems super obsessed with the murders…you get the idea. Lake Bodom isn’t anything groundbreaking, but what it does, it does well, delivering several big twists and reveals that keep the movie transforming before your eyes into something else, all before ending with a frustrating epilogue that I kind of hated, but whose purpose I understood more after reading up on the original events and realizing what they were trying to do. More than that, though, Lake Bodom has style to spare, using its shadows and darkness with art and style (there’s an underwater shot late in the film that I absolutely adored), and doling out its scares and violence nicely. There’s not much here you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well, with style, grit, and relentlessness, and the constant shifts in the story keep it moving like a sick, bleak rocket ride to hell. Rating: ****

What came next couldn’t have been more different – and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The closest way I can possibly describe the joyous, funny, wonderful Dave Made a Mazeposter is to tell you to imagine that Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Michel Gondry got together to watch Labyrinth and thought, “I bet we could do something even more fun than this.” Because how else can I describe a movie in which a struggling artist builds a cardboard labyrinth in his house, only to find that it’s much bigger on the inside, and he may have gotten lost…oh, and there may be traps that are killing people. If that sounds dark, it shouldn’t; Dave Made a Maze is an absolute joy, delivering laugh-out-loud dialogue, boundless imagination, and even staging the deaths with a burst of inspired lunacy. Director Bill Watterson, who makes his debut here (and that is insane, given how inspired this film is), stages the action wonderfully, never missing the chance to go both for a joke and a bit of incredible imagination, and using cardboard and household craft supplies to incredible effect. It doesn’t hurt that the cast is uniformly great (or that I will never not enjoy James Urbaniak in things, and letting him play a documentary filmmaker who’s directing all of the action around him only gives him more to do), but more than anything, this is just pure fun, with enough emotional heft to keep you invested, and more than enough imagination, style, and joy to keep you smiling throughout. It’s maybe my favorite movie from the whole festival, and I can’t wait for it to open wide so it can become the cult hit it’s destined to be. Rating: *****

Mind you, as imaginative and wonderful as Dave Made a Maze was, it doesn’t even begin to approach the sheer insane weirdness of Angieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which is almost definitely the best Polish disco musical about murderous, man-eating mermaids ever made. lure_poster_900Words can’t possibly do justice to the insanity of this movie, which is – naturally, as you’ve assumed by now – a super loose retelling of The Little Mermaid, which follows two young mermaids as they make a name for themselves into a disco nightclub, find romance, and struggle to figure out their place in the world. How this results in bizarre surgeries, full-on musical numbers, massively uncomfortable sexual imagery, and more – well, it should really be experienced, rather than explained, because there’s no way I can convey what it’s like to watch this movie. (I feel like critic David Ehrlich saying that he watched the movie on Ambien, and had to go and rewatch it to confirm that he didn’t hallucinate some of it, makes good sense.) The Lure doesn’t always work; its weirdness can be a bit much at times, and you’ll start to see that, underneath it all, it’s a story you kind of know already, and it’s going about like you think it will. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth seeing, though; whatever else you may think of The Lure, it’s astonishing to watch, with some absolutely incredible sequences that hold their own against the numbers of La La Land, some surreal comedy that never failed to crack me up, and just the sheer insanity of it. Just, you know. Brace yourself. Rating: **** ½

If you’re feeling like there’s a lot of style in these films, there undeniably is, making for a rich theme for the weekend. Nowhere was there more style – but sadly, less substance – than in The Void, voida piece of cosmic horror that gave me some incredible images and moments, but falls apart in its weak final act. Set almost entirely in a rural hospital that’s only a few days away from shutting down completely, The Void follows a small group of survivors – some medical personnel, a local sheriff, a few assorted patients, and a couple of others – as they find themselves under siege by a strange, cloak-wearing cult that seems to have surrounded the hospital out there in the darkness. With some fantastic creature design, and glimpses of a nightmarish cosmology, it doesn’t take The Void long to show its true colors – this is horror in the vein of Lovecraft and Barker, and its dark themes are pretty gripping and interesting ones. However, the film feels about thirty minutes longer than it is, and that’s before the never-ending “bad guy monologue” that starts to close out of the film. I liked The Void more than most of the people I saw it with, but I’m not going to deny that it’s got some big problems with regard to pacing and storytelling. (There are two characters whose involvement in the story never ends up making much sense, once you learn why they’re there.) Still, if you can give yourself over to its style, there’s a lot there to love, with some fantastic images and some truly disturbing moments. But it feels like the first work of a directorial team whose best work is still ahead of them. Rating: *** ½

The final film of my film fest experience was one I was looking forward to, mainly because of a film I had seen at an earlier Chattanooga Film Festival. A couple of years ago, I saw E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, a gleefully nasty, darkly comedic little thriller that followed a pair of friends who found themselves squaring off in a visceral competition of wills. It was an absolute blast, and made Katz someone to watch. With his second film, the great Small Crimes, screen-shot-2016-05-05-at-9-26-11-amhe goes from “a director of interest” to “man, this guy is fantastic.” Co-written by Macon Blair (who’s worked with Jeremy Saulnier on his films), Small Crimes follows a convict named Joe Denton (played by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as he’s released from prison and tries to figure out what to do next. Small Crimes feels like a 70’s noir in many ways, complete with a dark antihero who uses just about anyone in his path, lies constantly, and is capable of horrifying actions; more than that, though, it’s also a story about the way we struggle to redeem ourselves, and to escape our pasts. How that escalates into an increasingly violent series of events should be seen rather than told; suffice to say, there’s a noir-like sensibility to the film that I loved, with bad men doing bad things in a bad time. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the film has a knockout cast, with supporting roles by Blair, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Jacki Weaver, and best of all, Robert Forster as Denton’s father, trying to understand how his son came out this way. Small Crimes is gritty stuff, with a rich, lived-in feel, a complicated take on morality, and a nicely complex plot that keeps you gripped throughout (though there’s one big exception in the end, with a single plot thread that feels a bit arbitrarily ended). It’s great stuff, and I hope it picks up an audience; it’s fantastic work, and even better than Cheap ThrillsRating: **** ½

IMDb: My Life as a Zucchini | My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea | A Dark Song | Lake Bodom | Dave Made a Maze | The Lure | The Void | Small Crimes

Devil Red, by Joe R. Lansdale / ****

joelansdaledevilredThe other day, I was raving about Joe Lansdale’s wonderful Hap and Leonard books (Lansdale’s neo-noir series about two best friends living in Texas and the various, shall we say, incidents that arise in their lives) and talking about how I hope the new TV series gets the books more readers. Someone responded to me that they really wanted to, but they just couldn’t handle another series right now.

Not to worry, I explained; the Hap and Leonard books are essentially standalone cases; while some supporting characters and some emotional ramifications carry over from book to book, you can pretty much read each one on its own. Indeed, I explained, I love to space them out, treat each one as a little gift to myself when I need a dose of Lansdale’s hilarious dialogue, rich characters, and more than anything, more time with Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, two of my favorite characters in books these days. (It’s to Lansdale’s credit that the central dynamic of the book – that Hap is a straight, white former Vietnam war protester who served time for being a conscientious objector, while Leonard is a gay black Vietnam vet, never feels like a contrivance or a hook; instead, the two men just feel like old friends, and Lansdale never lets that friendship be anything less than the central relationship in their lives.)

All of which is a long leadup to saying that, for the first time, Devil Red feels not like a standalone adventure in Hap and Leonard’s lives, but rather, a continuation of an earlier one; it’s a book that feels less like the newest entry in the series, and more like part two of the previous book, Vanilla Ride. And while that’s not entirely a bad thing, it definitely makes Devil Red a little less satisfying on its own terms.

Mind you, this is still Lansdale, and still Hap and Leonard, with all of the joys that that brings with it. (An ongoing character beat involving Leonard’s new choice of headgear never gets any less funny; in fact, it only gets better and better as the novel continues.) And in some ways, the choice to continue on after Vanilla Ride allows Lansdale to follow some intriguing threads – most notably, Hap’s efforts to come to terms with the violence he has been doling out in this series, and how it conflicts – or worse, maybe doesn’t conflict – with the pacifistic beliefs he claims to hold. In Lansdale’s hands, Devil Red ends up being a fantastic exploration of Hap, and how far he’s come over the course of this series – and whether he wants to be that person or not. What’s more, it allows the final quarter of the book – in which Lansdale does something truly shocking for this series, in many ways – to function not only as a climax for the series, but to build off of all of the tensions and violence that’s come before it, and deliver a character-driven payoff that’s far more satisfying as a long-time reader than it might be on its own terms.

Nonetheless, Devil Red doesn’t quite hold its own against the best entries in the series. More than anything else, the plot here feels a bit perfunctory and threadbare; what starts as an intriguing mystery turns out to not have much meat on the bones, and without the twists and turns that Lansdale is so good at (to say nothing of how this entry lacks the usual rich subtext that Lansdale so often brings), it feels a bit less colorful and fun than his best works. Is it still a fun read? Of course – I don’t think Lansdale is capable of anything less than that, and that goes doubly when Hap and Leonard are around. But it doesn’t compare to the peaks of the series, and feels more like an extended epilogue than a true standalone novel.

It’s still a blast, though.

Amazon

The Fell Hound of Adversity, by Parker T. Geissel / ***

514mc52eclI’m on the record as loving books that blur together genres; there’s something invigorating and exciting about reading a book that doesn’t quite fit into any known categories, and whose outcome seems far more in question than your typical read. But at the same time, I’m the first to admit that defying genre boundaries is a high risk maneuver. Even setting aside the question of readers (many of whom prefer their books easy to categorize), the bigger problem is that such blurred lines require a high amount of skill to pull off correctly – a confidence and grace that many authors can’t quite pull off.

Which brings to to Parker T. Geissel’s original, ambitious The Fell Hound of Adversity. Part pulp fiction throwback, part supernatural tale, part parable, part romance story, Geissel writes his book like an author who wants to let his world develop in whatever way he pleases. And while that can be exciting at times, the ultimate result is that the book feels less wild and imaginative and more overstuffed, with plotlines and characters that feel underdeveloped and unexplored, and a storyline that feels incomplete and frustrating at times.

Geissel has created a great world to play around in, though, plunging readers into the city of Adversity, where IRS agents from the Capital have arrived in an effort to crack down on the corruption that’s been plaguing the city. But once they arrive, they find their efforts continually thwarted by a series of brutal murders, anarchists and revolutionaries, and a stonewalling by local officials. And into that mix we throw our protagonist Rudimental Quince, a line cook who gets himself involved in all of this against his better judgment.

If “Rudimental Quince” and “Adversity” seem a bit too precious as names, you might want to brace yourself for the slew of affected names in The Fell Hound of Adversity, which includes characters like Rudi’s brother Lenient Quince, Blazing Buck Cortez, Colonel Dashenka Ivanaovna Stavrogin, Killer Hrapp, Injal Skube, Chairman Tinpot, Mayhew Cue, and more. If you’re into the book, you may enjoy the colorful names, which plays into Geissel’s colorful, larger than life world; for me, the names felt like an affectation, a dose of weirdness and color for its own sake that distracted from the book rather than helping to build the world or tell the tale.

That tale can be a fun one, but it’s also massively overstuffed with twists, reveals, and secrets, many of which Geissel doesn’t feel the need to explain. Which, again, can be fun at time, but here feels like he’s either telling the story badly or just being coy to draw us in. And here’s the thing about noir tales like this: you can play fast and loose with specifics, but backstories and characters matter. (The choice, for instance, to put a critical incident from the book only as an appendix after it ends is a bewilderingly bad one, and it leaves the reader confused and annoyed for much of the book – only to be more annoyed when you get the answers long after they quit mattering and you quit caring.)  And Geissel ultimately plays too fast and loose with some of his main principals, letting his labyrinthine plot take the foreground and hoping it’s enough to keep us going.

And for a while, it is. Geissel has a lot of plates he’s spinning here, and he keeps them all going for a lot longer than you might think, as his story of corruption starts spreading into realms of supernatural horror, romance, espionage, and political maneuvering. But at a certain point, Geissel overcommits himself, and plot becomes so overly complicated – and the characters not involving enough – that I got frustrated with the whole thing.

For all of that, The Fell Hound of Adversity isn’t wholly bad. Geissel’s world is compelling, and he’s got the ambition and imagination to write something spectacular in him at some point. And while I don’t think this book entirely works, and that it ultimately collapses under its own weight, I feel like there’s some promise in here – a lot of talented sections, some strong ideas, and a refusal to be hemmed in by genres and boundaries. And if his reach exceeds his grasp, well, I’d rather read something overly ambitious that doesn’t quite work than read another bland, forgettable best seller any day.

Amazon

Ridley Scott double feature

At this point in his career, Ridley Scott has made nearly 30 feature films. That’s a lot, by any standards, and Scott’s willingness to take chances and push himself into different directions means that not all of them work. And yet, here he is, 78 years old, and still turning out remarkable, astonishing works that put other filmmakers to shame, as well as other works that at least show a director who refuses to play it safe.

poster-largeLet’s start with The Martian, which reminded everyone that there’s a reason that Ridley Scott was once synonymous with great science-fiction. The Martian feels more like Alien than Blade Runner, but more than either of those, it feels like a master of his craft telling a story, and telling it well. Andy Weir’s novel was a lot of fun, telling the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and his efforts to survive; what it lacked in craft, it more than made up for in intelligence, fun, and sheer readability. And in adapting the book for the screen, Scott takes the best parts of the book and holds them intact, while adding a visual style that brings the alien world of Mars to vivid life. In other words, it’s the perfect way of adapting the book – it keeps its strengths, but corrects for its weaknesses. And the result is an absolute treat – a fun, smart piece of science-fiction that satisfies both as pure entertainment and a great piece of storytelling.

My biggest worry about The Martian was whether or not the film would keep the science of Weir’s book, or if it would make an effort to dumb it down. Luckily, Scott trusts his audience, letting Matt Damon keep his video diary entries and counting on the inherent fascinating we have with people just doing things with their hands. The Martian invests us in Watney’s survival, yes, but it also counts on us to keep up with the science being performed – at least, in broad terms – and to enjoy watching people puzzle their way through scientific problems. It helps, of course, that Scott has such an insanely great cast to carry the load; Damon does a lot, of course, but Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and a slew of others all do their part, conveying thoughtfulness, intelligence, and charisma that keeps us involved. More than that, they’re allowed to be funny, which can’t be overstated; the humor of the film keeps us going, and keeps it from turning into a dour piece of survivalism.

And, of course, there’s Scott’s fantastic style, which keeps everything together. From grainy video diaries to camera feeds, from sweeping shots of Mars to claustrophobic moments in a rover, Scott keeps things moving beautifully, reminding us at all times of the science involved in keeping Watney alive, but also of the fact that he is alone on an utterly alien world – and that there’s something truly beautiful about that. It all comes together beautifully, and if there are a couple of pacing problems it inherited from the novel (a mid-film setback on Earth feels like a bit of a narrative drag that’s shoved in, and slows things down a bit too much), it’s hard not to find yourself gripped by the events. And I defy you not to find yourself riveted by that finale. It’s a blast of a movie, and that rare case of a film that outdoes the book that inspired it. Rating: **** ½

counselor_ver8From there, I moved back a few years, to a much less beloved piece of work. Like The Martian, Scott’s 2013 film The Counselor boasts an incredible cast of actors, including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and a slew of others. And once again, there’s a connection to the world of books, although it’s a very different one: The Counselor was written by the incredible Cormac McCarthy, the author of Blood MeridianNo Country for Old MenThe Road, and more. It was his first screenplay, and the idea of Scott and McCarthy finally teaming up (they had been trying to get Blood Meridian made for years) sounds incredible.

Man, is it ever not.

There’s a great story somewhere in The Counselor, which tells the tale of a lawyer who gets involved with Mexican drug cartels and learns the price of stepping foot in that dark world. It’s rich material for McCarthy, who is fascinated by the evil and cruelty which men are capable of, and whose ability to capture horrific violence and savagery should find plenty of material to work off here. And given the cast that Scott has assembled, and McCarthy’s stark prose, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that there are some fantastic monologues and conversations to be had. Brad Pitt owns his role as a shadowy figure associated with the cartels, and his conversations with Fassbender are a treat, engaging with some of the film’s themes in a far more successful way than others. And while Bardem is playing his role to the hilt, he more or less works as well, giving us a caricature of a drug dealer that pales in comparison to the reality of the cartels.

The problem? Look, McCarthy does a lot well in his novels. He writes memorable scenes, he creates compelling characters, he writes great dialogue. But his books are more about mood and theme than they are plotting. And film needs more of a throughline, and The Counselor doesn’t have that. Exactly how Fassbender gets involved with the cartel is maddeningly unclear, as are the exact reasons why everything goes bad. And while it’s great that McCarthy writes roles for his female characters that gives them some interesting things to do, Cameron Diaz is woefully out of her element in the role, feeling like an actress who’s asked to do work she’s just not capable of. And given that the role shapes much of the action of the film, that’s a serious problem.

Even with all of that, Scott does everything you’d expect, delivering some truly astonishing sequences, and using the film’s sparse action to maximum, horrific effect. More than that, he lets his actors soak in McCarthy’s dialogue, letting them bring out the meaning and depth of the great author’s words. He can’t tie the script together, and he can’t make it all work. But he can take what he’s given and turn it into the best version of it that we could get. And if nothing else, you have to admire a director in his 70’s still taking risks to this degree, delivering something so wildly unconventional – and uncommercial – at a point where most directors just play it safe. It doesn’t work, but you have to admire that it certainly tries. Rating: **

IMDb: The Martian | The Counselor

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville / ****

515jvth5w9lThere’s a lot of things that can draw you into a book. Sometimes it’s the author; sometimes it’s the plot description; sometimes, it’s something as simple as an intriguing cover or title that draws you in. In the case of The Ghosts of Belfast, it was the pull quotes. More specifically, it was the authors of two of those quotes, each of whom raved about the book, calling it an incredible debut, and a great – and unsettling – piece of crime fiction. Those two authors? James Ellroy and John Connolly, two men who rank among the finest craftsmen working in the genre today. So when you get their praises, you’ve got my attention. But in a way, those two names can tell you everything you need to know about this book.

The Ghosts of Belfast (originally titled The Twelve) focuses on former (more or less) IRA hitman Gerry Fegan, a man haunted – perhaps literally – by his crimes. Neville’s novel is set after the worst of The Troubles, as Ireland works on an unsteady path to peace – a path that means men like Fegan are out of their place and time. As the novel opens, Fegan is drinking – something he does quite often these days – and trying to ignore the twelve spectral visions which haunt him day and night. Maybe they’re only in his head; maybe they’re real. But whatever the case, each represents someone he’s killed. But when Fegan kills a man to appease one of the visions, and the vision disappears, he becomes a man on a new mission – one of vengeance.

The connection to John Connolly seems obvious for anyone who’s read the Parker series. A hint of the supernatural, dark men with dark motives, a penchant for violence, and, of course, the Irish worldview that permeates the book. And yet, to focus too much on the ghosts – which may or may not exist – is to miss the point of the book. Indeed, even though both titles the book has had imply that the book centers on these figures, instead, this is a novel about guilt, and violence, and shame. It’s a book that’s about the scars left behind in the wake of the Troubles, yes, but also the scars left behind by the men who fought for their independence, and who’ve done horrific, brutal things in the name of that fight.

Which brings us to the Ellroy connection. The men of Ghosts of Belfast are fighters. They’re revolutionaries, freedom fighters – and, with all the emotional heft that comes with the word, “terrorists.” And even the closest thing we get to a hero turns out to be a deeply broken one, a man who may have lost any sense of a moral compass in an effort to stay alive and stay safe. In other words, they’re the exact sorts of men that Ellroy writes about: men capable of anything, as long as the cause – or the money – is right. And as the book’s focus widens beyond the mission of Gerry Fegan, we see that the book is about more than one man’s guilt; it’s about the uneasy new status of Ireland, the complex new morality and balance that’s giving Ireland a new lease on life.

The Ghosts of Belfast is a complex novel, and not an easy one to pigeonhole. In some ways, it’s a bleak revenge novel; at other times, it’s a complex, nuanced look at a politically difficult period in Ireland’s evolution. Sometimes, it’s a sprawling look at corruption and crime; other times, it’s a painful dissection of guilt and violence. Sometimes, it’s a book about what it takes – and what it’s worth – to maintain peace. And other times, it’s simply about brutality and what men do to each other in the name of the greater good.

All of that makes it a difficult book to describe, and hard to figure out sometimes. And yet, it’s also that same complexity that makes it so rewarding, and so unlike much else out there. To read Ghosts of Belfast is to dip your toes into a very different world, one that’s utterly foreign to many Americans, and one where lines are far blurrier. And if the book sometimes feels uneven, or full of odd juxtapositions, or a bit bumpy…that’s okay. Because there’s something refreshing about a book that feels this ambitious and different, and when it works, it really, really works.

Amazon

World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane / *****

worldgonebyfinal1A few years ago, Dennis Lehane published Live by Night, the story of gangster Joe Coughlin and his rise to power in the Tampa/Cuba mob. It was a fascinating take on gangster stories, one that hadn’t been told before, and it felt fresh and exciting in a way that many gangster stories can’t, simply by virtue of being familiar. But by the end of that novel, Joe was stepping away from the life, moving towards something calmer.

So it’s unexpected, in some ways, to have a sequel to that book. And yet, here we are. World Gone By picks up nearly a decade after the end of Live By Night. Joe is mostly a legitimate businessman, but serves as the consigliere for his friend Dion – his name still carries a lot of weight, as does his business sense and ability to make money. He’s trying to raise his son, Tomas, on his own. And he’s wary of the ongoing fight in Europe – as is everyone around him – not just for fear of the Nazis, but also for what it means for his business.

And then, through a complicated series of events, Joe finds out that someone is trying to kill him. And while he knows the date, he doesn’t know who, and no one seems to know why.

That’s about all of the plot you should know about World Gone By, which unfolds from there, following Joe as he seeks to figure out this threat on his life, protect his son, and maintain his balance between his past and his efforts to be a better man. It’s a rich plot, one filled with fascinating characters, shocking violence, infinite shades of morality, and no easy answers – in other words, it’s exactly what you would expect from Dennis Lehane, who is one of the great masters of modern noir. While Lehane could have made World Gone By its own book, making it a sequel to Live By Night feels appropriate – this is the outcome of Joe’s life, and the book’s theme – that, in some ways, this is the world Joe created, and one which he deserves – is all the richer for us having seen his ascent to the top.

More than that, though, to read World Gone By is to read one of the great modern writers at the top of his game. There are chapters here that feel like nothing Lehane has done before, and succeed beyond your wildest imagination. The book’s prologue, for instance, follows a newspaper writer as he notices some pictures from a society charity event a few months, and realizes just how many of those people would die in the months following that picture. It’s a beautiful, and oddly bittersweet, way to open the book, and gives Lehane a fascinating way to get into his story. We know that violence is coming; we know that these people – well, many of them – won’t survive the book.

And yet, that still doesn’t prepare you for what Lehane does as he transitions into the party and Coughlin’s perspective, as he sees a most unique visitor to the party. It starts a compelling, strange thread in the book, one that reaches its climax only at the very end, and one that feels not only like Lehane trying something new, but pays off in a beautiful, haunting way by the end.

Even with all of this said, I don’t think I’ve quite done World Gone By justice; I haven’t even touched on the nightmarish scenes with King Lucius, or the perfect relationships between fathers and sons that fill the book, or Coughlin’s complicated relationship with a local woman. Suffice to say this: when I finished Live By Night, I thought it was Lehane’s best book to date. Now, World Gone By elevates that book, working together with Live By Night to make a pair that’s more than the sum of its parts. I can’t recommend it enough; as it is, I was heartbroken to get to the end, and to realize that I had no more pages left.

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Vanilla Ride, by Joe R. Lansdale / *****

vanilla-ride-775467Let me open with a disclaimer: I really, really, really love the “Hap and Leonard” series. I mean, to be fair, I pretty much love Joe Lansdale’s writing in general; the man is funny, offbeat, unpredictable, and just a great storyteller. And whether he’s writing a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in Texas, a gonzo horror epic that ends up being one of the most gleefully weird stories I’ve ever read, or dazzling you with his sheer range in a short story collection, I have yet to read a Lansdale book that I didn’t love every moment of.

But there’s something genuinely special about the Hap and Leonard series, which follows a pair of unlikely friends as they continually get tangled up in violent, dangerous situations. Hap Collins is a white Vietnam War protester – a man who went to jail rather than serve in the military during that conflict. Meanwhile, Leonard is a gay black veteran, a man who loves Vanilla Wafers, goes through relationships quickly, and has a notoriously short temper. And the two of them are best friends. There’s never been an explanation, a setup for this, and really, that’s for the best; these two men simply trust each other, and they have each other’s backs, and they love each other, for all of the contradictions and disagreements.

With that basic setup, Lansdale has crafted a continually rewarding series of adventures that’s found the men working together in any number of situations, almost all of which end up with a stack of bodies, a lot of blood, and a good amount of psychic scar tissue for a man who believes – or wants to believe – that he’s a pacifist. It’s pure neo-noir, in other words, but done with such a hilariously fantastic ear for dialogue and character that you spend as much time in each book laughing as you do cringing from the danger.

With all of that being said, it’s hard to know what to say about Vanilla Ride that doesn’t apply to most of the Hap and Leonard series. It once again finds the boys helping out a friend – in this case, a man whose daughter has taken up with a drug dealer and seems on her way to being a strung out addict who’s given up on life. But in the effort to set her free, Hap and Leonard end up angering some very dangerous people – the Dixie Mafia, in fact. Not only that, they get the attention of the local police, and FBI as well, and end up having to figure out how to get themselves out of a situation where everybody is coming after them for one reason or another.

As with most noir, half of the fun is watching the plotting unfold here, so I don’t want to get into much specific about how this all plays out; suffice to say, it’s satisfying, twisty, engaging, and constantly surprising, as Lansdale lets his story evolve and change in front of your eyes to something unexpected. That’s maybe most true in the climax, which goes in an entirely different direction than I ever guessed it would, and ends up being far more satisfying because of that, to say nothing of being far more morally complex, and getting into some deeper territory with the characters.

But the biggest thing I can say about Vanilla Ride is that it may well be the single funniest Hap and Leonard book I’ve read so far – and that’s high praise. You’d never argue that Vanilla Ride is a comedy, but Lansdale’s ear for Texas-fried banter and snappy comebacks has never been stronger, and his willingness to let conversations meander (especially between Hap and Leonard) pays off dividends left and right, as I found myself laughing out loud more times than I can count. (My favorite recurring joke may be the interesting way in which Leonard chooses to show his anger at his current boyfriend; suffice to say, it’s an impressive way to make a stand in an argument.) Make no mistake: Lansdale’s characters are profane, sarcastic, mean, and, oh, did I mention profane? But his dialogue here is wonderful, and gives the book more character than I can possibly express.

In short, Vanilla Ride may be my favorite Hap and Leonard book so far, and that’s a tough call to make; there’s not really a bad book in the series (even the first, which I’ve argued is the weakest, is still really solid; it just doesn’t measure up to what came later), but Vanilla Ride stands out with some of the greatest dialogue, a complicated climax whose messiness I admired, and some great plotting and character work that lets it stand out from the rest. But let’s be clear: it could just be that I love Hap and Leonard, and any chance to spend time with them is going to win me over. Whatever the case, I loved it; now I have to force myself not to jump into the next book  just yet. (I space these out as treats to myself, if you’re wondering.)

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