1922

1922

Netflix’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella 1922 (2017, directed by Zak Hilditch) is a tale of murder, guilt, and retribution.

Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) and his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) live with their 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Schmid) in Hemingford Home, Nebraska on their farm, but it’s not a happy home. Arlette has never taken to the farming life and is unhappy, wanting to sell off the 100 acres she received from her father and move to Omaha, where she has dreams of opening a dress shop. Wilf, on the other hand, scorns city life, and feels that a man has two things that gives his life meaning: his land and his son. He covets his wife’s 100 acres, and her desire to sell, divorce him and abscond to the city with Henry puts dark thoughts into his head. He’s come to hate his wife, and works to turn Henry against against her, mostly by suggesting that he’d never see his girl, Shannon (Kaitlyn Bernard) again.

His poisonous whisperings into his son’s ear convinces the boy to help him put an end to Arlette. One night Wilf lies to his wife and tells her he’s changed his mind; she should sell her land and they’d all move to the city. A jubilant Arlette celebrates by drinking, and while she sleeps off the alcohol, they do the deed. Henry holds a canvas bag over her head while Wilf attempts to cut her throat with a knife, but he botches it and it’s far from clean and quick. After a bloody struggle, they dump her body into the empty well behind the house and spend the rest of the night cleaning up the blood.

Wilf promised his son that once Arlette was gone, they could go on and live the life they wanted, but naturally this was not to be. In horrific Stephen King fashion, a tragic series of events unfold leading to Wilf losing everything he holds dear.

Thomas Jane is an actor I’m not familiar with, but he’s a revelation in this movie. His subtle and understated portrayal of the laconic, intense Wilford James was impressive, as was the rest of the supporting cast. The real horror is the psychological implications of murder, but there’s just enough guts and supernatural gore to give you the willies and remind you you’re watching vintage King.

I first came across 1922 in King’s book of novellas, Full Dark No Stars, a couple of years ago, and can’t sing its praises enough. I’ve always felt King is strongest with short fiction, and 1922 is a great example of what he can do with the limits of the short form. This film version perfectly captures the dark heart of the story, of a man turning to evil to hold onto his version of heaven, only to find hell instead.

 

 

 

The Angel of Darkness

the angel of darkness

The Angel of Darkness (1997) by Caleb Carr is the sequel to The Alienist, or rather, a continuing chronicle of the work of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a 19th century psychologist using his knowledge of human behavior to solve crime.

The Alienist focused on a male serial killer who mutilated and murdered boy prostitutes in New York City in 1896. The Angel of Darkness takes place a year later, begins with a seemingly simple kidnapping case, and leads to a long road of investigation of a woman who’s left a string of dead children behind her.

The Alienist was narrated by John Moore, a friend of Dr. Kreizler and a reporter; and though Moore, and the rest of Kreizler’s intimate group–Sara Howard, the Isaacson Brothers, and Cyrus Montrose–are still present in the story, it is narrated by Stevie Taggart, Kreizler’s young ward and driver of the first book, now grown and relating the events of 1897.

It begins when Sara, now running her own private investigator service, calls upon her friends for help with her latest client–the wife of a Spanish consulate whose baby daughter Ana has been kidnapped. The situation is a delicate one, as the U.S. has been agitating for war with Spain, and vice versa. Senora Linares’ husband is unwilling to help find his own daughter, even beating his wife when she suggests they go to the police. As before, it must be an undercover investigation.

Sara enlists the help of John, Cyrus and Stevie, and the Isaacsons, but they soon realize they need the help of their friend Kreizler, who has been despondent over the suicide of one of his young patients, and the resulting investigation into his beloved Institute. They soon draw him in, however, and they zero in on one Elspeth Hunter/Libby Hatch.

They find that wherever this woman goes, in her services as a nurse or caregiver, children die. And yet her behavior leading up to their deaths is exemplary–loving, nurturing, even heroic. It’s a puzzling contradiction, one that gets to the heart of why Kreizler does what he does.

It’s a complex tale with many threads, one that Carr weaves over 700 pages. I often felt that I’d never finish the book, but each successive clue to Elspeth/Libby kept me reading, pulling me deeper into her confounding mystery. The prevailing belief at the time that women were incapable of committing such a crime as murdering children was something the group came up against again and again. If women were guilty of such crimes, the logic went, then they must be insane. But the cold, calculating behavior of Libby contradicted this conclusion in Kreizler’s opinion. The conflicting views of women (the angel/whore dichotomy) and the impossible standards women were held to during the 19th century (and have we really escaped such standards, even now?) is a central theme in the story and what makes Libby so fascinating–and tragic.

The Elspeth/Libby trail leads our group from the streets of New York City controlled by the coke-blowing gang The Hudson Dusters, to the lovely wilds of upstate New York in Saratoga County. As in the previous book, a few famous historical figures make an appearance: feminist agitator Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts, and everyone’s scrappy Police Commissioner turned Naval official turned President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Our group suffers personal tragedies, for the group as a whole, and for Stevie in particular. It’s a big, sprawling book with street fights, courtroom drama, and even a poisonous-dart-throwing pygmy from the Philippines.

I loved the TNT limited series The Alienist, and would love to see a second season. The Angel of Darkness, with its continuing themes of the complexity and darkness of the human mind and the horrific acts resulting from it, would be, in my opinion, an admirable addition to the series. One can always hope.

Dracula Untold

draculauntold

This movie has been languishing on my DVR for quite a while, so I finally grabbed some popcorn and settled in.

I’m always interested in new interpretations of the Dracula myth. I’ve read the book a few times, and enjoyed the 1992 movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. This one plays on the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian prince who lived in the fifteenth century, known for his cruelty and impaling of enemies.

In Dracula Untold (2014, directed by Gary Shore), Vlad (Luke Evans) is a loving husband and father, who will do anything to protect his people. Taken hostage by the Turks as a child to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Sultan, Vlad now rules his kingdom and pays tribute to the Turks to keep the peace. On a scouting trip, he and his men encounter a terrifying supernatural creature in a cave atop Broken Tooth Mountain. Vlad learns that centuries before, a man had made a terrible bargain with a demon; he got the demon’s powers but became stuck in that cave forever until someone else comes along to take up the burden.

During an Easter celebration, the Turks barge in and demand 1,000 boys for their armies. They also demand Vlad’s young son (Art Parkinson) as a hostage, just as he had been held captive years before. At first, he feels compelled to acquiesce, but at the last moment changes his mind and slaughters the Turks sent to bring his boy back. Now he’s in big trouble and needs a miracle to save his people.

He races toward Broken Tooth Mountain to face the demon-like creature he had encountered earlier–he wants his powers, and sees it as the only way to defeat the Turks. He faces the vampire (Charles Dance) and agrees to his deal: he’ll get the powers, and if he refrains from drinking human blood for three days, he’ll go back to normal. If not, then he’ll be a monster for eternity, and agrees to help the present vampire get revenge on the demon who tricked him into his present state.

Simple enough, right? Right. It’s fun watching Vlad take on the entire Turkish army by himself (with his millions of bats), but you just know things are going to go terribly wrong. He’s pretty much useless by day, his own people start to distrust and fear him, the thirst for human blood becomes unbearable, and personal tragedy isn’t far behind.

I thought this was an entertaining movie for what it was, dark and sweeping and wrenching, and the ending promises a sequel at some point (remember the bargain with the original vampire?). I’d go see it.

dracula untold montage

Lady Macbeth

lady macbeth

Lady Macbeth (2017, directed by William Oldroyd) looks, on the surface, like a period costume drama, but turns out to be a psychological horror replete with sex, murder, and the utmost cruelty.

The story takes place in 1865 in rural England, and begins with young Katherine (Florence Pugh) marrying older Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). One gets the feeling it is not a joyous union of love, which is further proven by her husband’s cold and resentful treatment of her. He can’t or won’t consummate the marriage, expects her to stay inside the house at all times, and is generally derisive and dismissive. Even worse is her husband’s father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) who rules the roost, and is actually the one who “bought” Katherine to marry his son and expects her to bear him an heir. It’s clear father and son cannot stand each other.

Katherine is presented as a sympathetic figure, and we buy right into it, witnessing her near suffocating boredom and isolation. It’s clear early on that she’s tough and intelligent, but there’s also something cold about her as well. Her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), timid and subservient, is not someone she chooses to bond with, preferring to snap and condescend instead.

Finally, her husband leaves the estate, apparently on business, and his father leaves not long after, leaving Katherine gloriously alone. She revels in this newfound freedom, taking long walks outside on the moors, corset-less, long hair unbound, answering to no man.

But then she meets another man: Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the new groomsman. They meet under strange and disturbing circumstances–he and the other men have strung up the housemaid Anna in some cruel game, teasing and tormenting her. Katherine confronts the men and demand they let her down, not out of any concern for Anna but simply to regain control of the men and assert her authority. The fact that she feels an attraction to this man, and shows no concern for Anna’s welfare whatsoever, hints that there is something terribly wrong with Katherine, a selfishness of sociopathic proportions.

katherine and sebastian

She and Sebastian start up a passionate affair which quickly turns obsessive. They have their fun, but inevitably her father-in-law returns, and her lover is banished back to the stables. This does not sit well with Katherine, and it’s at this point in the film when events begin to spiral out of control.

Lady Macbeth is based on Nicolai Leskov’s Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, which illustrates the ways in which a woman’s spirit could be crushed in the 19th century. Apparently its repressive ways could turn a woman into a monster, for that’s what Katherine becomes: a creature not willing to let anything or anyone get in the way of what she wants. Having tasted freedom long denied and forbidden, she’s not willing to give it up, and will pay for it in blood.

Florence Pugh, at only 21 and in her second film role, is impressive in bringing Katherine’s cold and calculating rage to life. The starkness of the film (there is no score, only the sound of Katherine’s footsteps echoing off the floors of the house) brings Katherine into greater relief; she is the vicious beating heart of the story, one that thumps with I want, I want, I will, I will. 

 

 

 

 

The Beguiled

the beguiled movie

I’ve been a fan of Sophia Coppolla since “Lost in Translation”, as well as “Marie Antoinette” and “The Virgin Suicides”. If you take her and add one of my favorite actresses (Nicole Kidman) and mix it with Civil War-era Southern Gothic, you’ve hooked me.

Kidman plays Miss Martha, who runs a finishing school for girls in the battle-ravaged South. In its heyday before the war, it turned out elegantly poised and intelligent young ladies, but during the war the handful of students (ranging in age from 9-17 or so) seem more like prisoners in their crumbling mansion, and the locked gate acts as an attempt to keep out the horrors that are happening all around them. Often, the sounds of battle can be heard nearby; otherwise, the buzzing cicadas are the only sound, deepening the eerie (and menacing) sense of their isolation.

One day one of the younger girls finds a wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) outside their gates–a Union soldier. Miss Martha decides to bring him inside and tend to his wounds out of Christian charity, with the admonition that once he heals, he must leave.

The younger girls are fluttery and excited at having an “enemy” in their midst. The older ones–17 year old Alicia (Elle Fanning), Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Miss Martha’s former student and helper, and even Miss Martha herself–are unsettled and disturbed at having a handsome, charming man among them.

farrell and dunst

And Corporal John McBurney does charm them–making friends with the young ones, and flirting with the older. He’s certainly come to understand the great fortune of his situation: if he can convince them to let him stay on as a gardener after he heals, he can escape the nightmare that is the war. An understandable motive, but this stranger’s true character remains elusive. Is he truly a good man in a bad situation, or is he merely trying to serve his own ends in whatever way he can?

Soon, the sexual tension comes to a head, and violence erupts. Miss Martha and her charges must deal with their suddenly dangerous guest on their own, with no help from the outside world.

Kidman  never fails to disappoint, bringing the nuances of Miss Martha’s predicament and mixed feelings to light, and Farrell’s smoldering volatility serves his character well. It’s a quiet film in which the tension mounts incrementally; the explosion that follows shocks the characters into actions they perhaps never imagined they could do. This movie beguiled me, from start to finish.

Wind River

wind river movie

Wind River (2017, directed by Taylor Sheridan) is an understated yet absorbing crime drama that takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a Fisheries and Wildlife employee who finds the body of an 18-year old woman in the snowy mountains of the reservation. She is barefoot and seems to have died from exposure, but when the medical examiner reveals that she had been raped, the FBI is called in. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is the rookie agent sent to deal with the situation. In a harsh environment that is routinely neglected or ignored by the federal government, Jane enlists the help of Corey, as well as the local Sheriff (Graham Greene).

The victim turns out to be Natalie, a Native of the reservation, who happened to be friends with Corey’s daughter, who had died several years earlier in an unsolved crime. Corey carries the weight of this tragedy, which led to the dissolution of his marriage to Wilma (Julia Jones), a Native with whom he also shares a son. Corey considers himself a hunter, of wildlife up to this point, but is willing to use his tracking and hunting skills to find who is responsible for Natalie’s death. He promises Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham) to bring the perpetrator to justice.

corey and martin

Jane is dropped with some bewilderment into this rather desolate situation and realizes early on that some aspects of the investigation cannot be strictly by-the-book if she wants to solve the crime. Her passion and bravery, balanced by Corey’s grim determination and knowledge of the land, bring them closer to answering the riddle of what happened to Natalie.

This isn’t your usual shoot-em-up crime drama, although there is violence, of a rather sinister kind. The despair of reservation life is keenly felt here, from rampant drug problems to the lackadaisical response from the feds to the undeniable sadness at the devastation of a once proud culture. The harsh beauty of the landscape remains, and it’s in the mountains that the final justice is played out to satisfying effect.

Wind River is sad and disturbing, almost hopeless in its tone, but well worth your viewing time if you enjoy a grittier sort of crime drama.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

zookeeper's wife

Based on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017, directed by Niki Caro) recounts the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II.

The zoo flourishes under the care of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenberg) . But in 1939, Poland is invaded by the Nazis, and the zoo is nearly destroyed by bombs. The zoo falls under the control of Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a former acquaintance of the Zabinskis. With his permission, they transform the zoo into a pig farm, under the guise of providing the Nazi soldiers with meat; they also secretly use it to take in and hide Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. By the end of the war, they help nearly 300 people escape the Ghetto and certain death as the trains roll out of Warsaw toward the concentration camps.

With the help of those sympathetic to the cause, Jan drives into the Ghetto to retrieve the garbage to feed the pigs; he smuggles people out under cover of the refuse, risking detection and arrest. He eventually finds a way to get passports for those he hides, and later fights in the Resistance. Antonina must stay at the zoo to care not only for their young son, but the people hidden in the rooms beneath her home, all under the nose of Herr Heck, who frequents the zoo to conduct his breeding program to bring back the extinct German bison, or aurochs (another hare-brained Nazi project to bring back their old glory).

Antonina must diplomatically fend off the advances of Heck, while defending her actions to a jealous Jan, who thinks she doesn’t understand what he’s going through, watching the trains fill with doomed men, women and children. They survive the stresses of virtually being owned by the Nazis, only to have Jan disappear while fighting in the Resistance, shortly after she gives birth to their daughter. Antonina must make a desperate bid to find her husband and save the Jews under her care.

Antonina and friends

Chastain in luminous as Antonina, communicating both her vulnerability and her strength, and the supporting cast is superb. There are many wrenching images in the film: the animals of the zoo being shot in cold blood by the Nazis; the shell-shocked face of a girl after being raped by two soldiers, blood running down her inner thighs; Jan’s heartbreak while helping innocent-faced children up into the trains that will bring them to their deaths.

This is a deeply moving film, reminding us of the harrowing experiences of those who lived through the war, and the sacrifices that were made to survive it.

zookeeper quote
Antonina Zabinsky

 

 

All Things Alienist

alienist book

I read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist when it came out in 1994. I loved it, and then promptly forgot what it was exactly about except that a person called an “alienist” (an early psychologist, so dubbed because they believed the mentally ill were alienated from their own natures) was trying to solve a crime involving a serial killer with his knowledge of the human mind.

Fast forward 24 years, and previews of TNT’s limited series The Alienist reminded me of it, and I got very excited. I promptly watched the show (twice through, for good measure) and picked up the book again. On having discovered that there was a sequel called The Angel of Darkness, I picked that up, too. Call me obsessive.

On re-reading the book, I was eager to discover how the writers of the show had adapted the novel–what was kept in, what was left out, what was changed completely. The book gives much more detail concerning New York City of 1896, historically and architecturally, though the lavish sets on the show brought it vividly to life as well. Small details were changed, dialogue tightened up and scenes re-arranged. But I was more curious about the characters: how did they measure up?

alienist

The book is narrated by Dr. Kreizler’s friend, the New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans). In the show, he’s an illustrator rather than a reporter, which solves a few plot quandaries and tightens up the storytelling. In the book, he can seem a bit boorish (this is especially true in Angel of Darkness, which he does not narrate), but he’s more likable in the show. The show has him develop feelings for Sara Howland (Dakota Fanning), a family friend who, as the first woman to work in the NYPD (as a secretary to Teddy Roosevelt), helps with the investigation. In the book, the author nixes that development fairly early on, preferring to keep Sara the proverbial independent woman who needs no man.

john moore

Sara herself is warmer and more playful in the book, while the show keeps her somewhat cold and aloof, wrapped in a kind of armor that John tries to penetrate along the course of the show. He nearly succeeds, but it’s left up in the air as to whether she’ll actually let him in.

sara howland

Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), perhaps, remains the least changed from book to show, although we get to see some of his more intimate moments on the screen that we couldn’t in the book, especially with his love interest, his mute ward and housekeeper Mary Palmer (who was changed from a blonde, blue-eyed beauty to a Native American beauty played by Q’Orianka Kilcher). These scenes are touching and gives us more insight into Kreizler’s vulnerability, while also setting us up more efficiently for the tragedy to come.

laszlo

The Sergeant Detectives Isaacson, Marcus and Lucius (Douglas Smith and Mathew Shear) are fraternal twins in the show, rather than Marcus being the older brother in the book, but they remain essentially the same bickering, brilliant pair. The show, for reasons beyond my comprehension, created a subplot with Marcus having an affair with a lovely single mother, a thread that had no connection to the main storyline whatsoever.

Isaacsons

I was pleasantly surprised that in the show, Teddy Roosevelt (in his role as Commissioner to the Police Department) was not portrayed as the knee-slapping, cowboy/adventurer  who often cried out “By thunder!” , as he was in the book. Perhaps that was the man’s actual personality, but every time I encountered him in the book, I cringed a little bit. He seemed like a caricature, someone to laugh and roll your eyes at. Brian Geraghty played the future president with a subtlety and depth that made him come across as a real person, while still making it clear he was a man of action.

teddy roosevelt

So what about our murderer? John Beecham’s life and motivations, as uncovered by our team of investigators, follows pretty much the same route as in the book, though the book naturally went into more detail. The show invented a red herring in the form of Willem Van Burgen, the son of a powerful Old New York family, to distract the investigation and put a spotlight on the way members of these families were nearly beyond the law.

The climax, while taking place in the same building in both book and show, played out quite differently. I preferred the show ending, as it was tighter and more believable. The book had Beecham clinging to Kreizler’s leg, weeping and whining, before being ultimately shot by Captain Connor. The show had Beecham defiant until the end, taunting him and trying to get away. I’m not sure which is more believable psychologically, but the show ending is better, in my opinion.

I’m about halfway through The Angel of Darkness, and I’ll have a proper review once I’m through.

If you like psychological crime thrillers, either the book or show of The Alienist (or if you’re obsessive like me, both) will keep you entertained for quite a while.

 

The Signature of All Things

signature of all things

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2013) is a sweeping story about a woman scientist in a time when it was not expected or encouraged.

Alma Whittaker was born in 1800 to a self-made millionaire and his no-nonsense Dutch wife in Philadelphia. The book spans the entirety of her life, from her indulged childhood through her early years of heartbreak and the study of mosses, to her middle years of disappointment and more heartbreak. Her search for a lost husband takes her across the world to Tahiti, while her later years are spent in Amsterdam, pursuing her ideas on evolution and natural selection at the same time Darwin was coming up with his evolutionary theories.

It’s a fat 500 pages, and I loved it. I’ll not soon forget Alma, privileged and homely, brilliant and lonely, brave and stubborn. This book is full of ideas about the interplay between biology and spirituality, and the puzzle of human beings; but it’s also full of love and thwarted desire, of desperate loneliness, and the dignity of work and study.

It’s a complete arc of an extraordinary woman’s life, and despite all the heartbreak and struggle and loss, she’s content at the end of her life, having spent it doing what she loved: studying the world. Despite the mysteries that remain, it proves enough.

If you loved Gilbert’s nonfiction (Eat Pray Love, Big Magic), try out her fiction. You won’t be disappointed.

Station Eleven

station eleven

Station Eleven, by Hilary St. John Mandel (2014), takes place after a devastating flu epidemic. Far from another end-of-the-world story, this spare, eloquent novel blends everything I love about genre and literary fiction, and is another stellar example of how two styles don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.

It begins with Shakespeare as Arthur Leander, a prominent actor, portrays King Lear on what is to be the last day of the known world. He suffers a heart attack on stage, and a stranger (of sorts) leaps on stage to help, but it’s too late. As Arthur dies, the Georgian Flu begins its near annihilation of the human species.

It turns out the stranger, Jeevan Choudhary, is linked to Arthur, as are many of the characters in the novel. It’s this connection to Arthur and the ripples left behind of his life that forms the core of the book, rather than any showdown between good and evil. There is an antagonist called The Prophet, a religious zealot who causes some problems for The Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel throughout the isolated communities after the flu (“Because Survival Is Insufficient”); but this conflict isn’t the entire focus of the book, and the Prophet himself turns out to be profoundly linked to Arthur as well.

“Station Eleven” refers to a sci-fi graphic novel written and illustrated by one of Arthur’s ex-wives, Miranda, and showcases some of the themes of the book: the mourning of a lost world, and the search for home. As the novel unfolds back and forth across time, as the threads of Arthur’s life are woven together and connections are revealed, the narrative becomes much more than another dystopian yarn. It examines the nature of fame, and the longing for immortality. It’s about art and how it connects us and reflects our experiences as human beings. It’s about memory and remembrance. It’s a book I won’t soon forget.