Thursday, 9 June 2022

Review of Tell Me Your Lies (2022) by Kate Ruby



I really enjoyed this - it has lots of elements I enjoy, packed together in one book: therapy and its jargon; how New Ageiness can cross into sounding like therapy but not being therapy; relationships between characters that are layered with broken dynamics, resentments real or imagined, and expectations galore; possible unreliable narrators; lots of immersion in the characters mindsets...and more!

One of the reviewers on the back cover said the protagonist was 'flawed' but we 'can't help rooting for' her.  The oddest thing about the protagonist Rachel, is that she's so normal!  Not book middle class normal - but real life 'don't know who the hell I am and lie quite a bit as a result' normal.  The sort of casual lying we all do here and there for self protection, or to grease the wheels of conversation, or to bond with a stranger: faces we wear.  Rachel is a more extreme example but I can see where it all comes from; and as a narrator, she's very honest about her lying, you know when she's doing it - it makes her a reliable witness.  In many ways she's so wonderfully open and almost desperate for connection and a sense of worth that she lies to herself, knowingly, to keep connections even when she knows they are all wrong for her, hurting her. I sympathised with and understood her, so many elements of me in there (hence I think she's 'normal'; I think we all lie about how much or often we lie in social situations (see my review of Fake Accounts here too), so Rachel was refreshing and true.

The other two main characters are Lily and Amber.  Lily is Rachel's mother and the focus of her anger and desperately thwarted love (and vice versa).  All she wants is a normal relationship, yet she has to choreograph each and every meeting and moment, to try and keep things even with Lily.  Lily is a powerfully scary creation: someone who is so certain of herself and her right to control her children's (whole family's really) lives, she just goes right ahead and does so, with a mixture of passive aggressive "weaponised" conversations, twisting words and feelings to suit what she wants to happen and for them to feel; and outright hostility, toward the end. It's her undoing.

Amber is the therapist Lily finds for Rachel to help with her drink and drugs problems (is there an echo of Marian Keyes' Rachel of Rachel's Holiday here? The way Rachel in that book thought she was living one life and its not till later we see she's living quite another more tawdry drink and drug filled one). Amber is very expensive, very exclusive, and is a wonderful mixture of confidante, best friend, Catholic confessor (- the sort we all might of wished we had while reading the Susan Howatch Glittering Images series long ago, a Father Darrow figure), New Age guru and cult leader.  She's hypnotic, you feel yourself falling for the intensity even as we see her leading the questions and turning the conversations with Rachel exactly where she wants them to go while bolstering Rachel with all the things she wished had been said to her, all the boundaries broken she wished she could have had with 'normal' family relationships, deep and satisfying.  

(Moment while I ehem, as I haven't experiences anythimg like that in real life, but people write it so often, you assume either we are daydreaming our way to the better family lives we all crave, or someone out there has them and we are ever increasingly whispering these tales of betterness to each other and living vicariously through them...I don't know.)

Of course, Amber is more than she seems.  The other main characters in the book are mostly female (nice, I like that) - Esther, a once upon a time teenage nanny to Rachel's sister Sophie, who is also not what she seems; and Sophie herself who who is adoreable and honest and ordinary in a way that Rachel is both frustrated by and protective of.  The remaining male characters of the main ensemble are Nick, Rachel and Sophie's father - a bull and a bully with a swagger and money, who is nevertheless protected by his wife from life (whether he asked for that to be the case or not); and Rachel's brother Josh, in many ways a MiniMe of the father and also a bully.

It's a wonderful exploring of the roles we get assigned in families - you are the black sheep, you are the dutiful daughter, you are the long suffering mother, you are the provider father etc - and there's a scene about halfway through the book at a retreat where Amber plays with these sorts of names for her clients during a very hippyish and almost Laing-like rebirthing scene, where the clients see 'past lives'.  What the past lives appear to be is metaphoric realignings with how they see the relationships with the most problematic family member in their lives: Marco (another client at the retreat) sees his inappropriate and over fun-loving father as a soldier with him in a previous life, where they were best friends, and that the soldier-friend then died, causing Marco a terrible feeling of not having looked after him, that covers his feelings toward his father in this life: a man who behaves like a naughty uncle or friend instead of a father, causing Marco to beleive he must always look after him instead of the other way around - leading Marco to a sort of permanent adolescence, stuck needing a father but being a caretaker. When Rachel has her experience, its anything but ecstatic and illuminating; instead it's terrifying, but tells a truth about how she perceives her mother.  Note: I'm definately a hippywitchy type and I do regard past lives (it's one of my notions) as possible; and yet I loved the reason for these probably very false ones.  It made perfect sense, with Amber's need to control her clients and their emotion flow toward others and especially toward her; and therapeutically, it seemed to help the others (a convoluted placebo; a reframing of a narrative).

I won't spoiler where the story goes - just to say that I very much enjoyed the interplay of these characters and I could not put the book down - this was a read till 3 a.m. and sod the consequences book for me.

Lastly, it's a book about addictions and how we swap drugs and substances for behaviours (self destructive usually) and sometimes people.  Sometimes an unholy mix of all of those.  It all rang true - expressed psychologically and pop psychologically; I even bought in to the hippiest of New Agey talk from Amber, because I could really see how it applied to Rachel; sometimes vague and lacking meaning when you examined the sentences spoken, sometimes simple and profound, like finding something you'd lost a while ago and being happy and surpised to see it again.  

I don't know if Kate Ruby's subsequent books can be as absorbing and true to its characters as this one, but I really really hope so!  Do I need to say this is recommended?? :-)

Friday, 13 May 2022

What I watched for Friday The 13th - 'The Sadness' (2021), a free association to a madness not that far away


**SLIGHT SPOILERS, nowhere near as many as usual, as that would ruin the effect for you if you haven't seen it.  So ...some spoilers...***

Blank face. 

Ok.  I was meaning to watch a triple bill for Friday the 13th, but this was the only one of the three I had planned that I could get hold of for today, and to be honest, it's enough all by itself: it's concentrated horror.  'Gruelling' the way people first described The Evil Dead [1981] as, all those years ago, and I remember it being when I first saw it.

Premise: it's an infected film, not a zombie film. Taiwanese made, set in Taipei. There's a pandemic people are not taking that seriously globally, as its been going on a long while. Within a very very short space of time, the virus mutates to have elements of rabies in it.  People are crazed if infected.  This is what happens in what feels like less than one day with a focus on two main characters, boyfriend Jim and girlfriend Kat. They get seperated and try to get back to each other. There's a major third, Molly, and fourth character, Creepy Businessman on Train, but they appear later. That's the plot, slight, simple, a vehicle.

This isn't so much a review of the film, as what it made me think about while I was watching it and immediately after.  Yes: I was thought provoked, my favourite kind of horror (after a bogstandard slasher, that is). So I won't be talking about the debut Canadian director (whoa dude, well done), the politics of the film (ah, I will, but not in depth), the amazing special effects team, the borrowing from the 'Crossed' comicbook saga.  Or that all the actors were very good indeed.  None of that, really as such. So, off we go...

I haven’t seen anything so utterly theatrically bloodsoaked since Ichi The Killer [2001]. This was…it really felt like you could see how people were nothing but their random bad thoughts acted out: ‘if I hold your hand, if I squeezed it, how long till your bones pop – could I pull your hand right off your wrist, or would I need a saw?’ That doesn't happen in the film, but it so could have and worse things do (the teenage boys and their coach scene). They aren’t just random thoughts, they are then immediately acted on.  And the worse and more taboo the thought is, the worse the action, the more you have to do it, to satisfy your obsession, single-minded focus with fulfilling your every wish. That is what the infection does to you.

This is a film about how angry we all are, under the surface, all the time.  And how sad. Hence the title.  It’s massively nihilist – all the main characters die (that's not really spoilering you), and with the virulence and quick onset of the violence virus, I can’t see how anyone would survive long, in the whole world.  Also – there are some places in the film where you can’t tell the difference between the crazed Id people, and the non-infected (Subway Worker had me confused twice). The heroine Kat is shot at the end [a la Night of the Living Dead the original], but has she just turned, or did they just shoot an immune person they could have made a vaccine from who was having a bit of a breakdown because her boyfriend Jim wanted to slice her up…and he loves her so much he would really enjoy it

The infected are all happy, they are doing whatever they want.  They smile and laugh, with black depthless reflective eyes. They aren’t zombies, once they are down, they are down. They talk, they reason, in a crazy violent person way. They are lost and found at the same time. In a place of total violence saturated madness, which is a happy place for them. They are insane, and the film I think, is trying to tell us that we all have a person like that inside. And, you know, they should stay there.

That there’s no truth, there isn’t allowed to be anymore – there’s only politics: the mad doctor, and the President and his army men showed that. This film is a short route to everything you keep a lid on, and what happens if everyone lets it out. The levels of misogyny men have; the levels of violence and fear we all have: all that resentment and anger and prejudice and wanting revenge. Creepy Businessman on Train – one of the main characters, a most excellent creation of what scares me about all those things. The endless hate and woman-fearing anger he spews are almost numbing after a while. All the infected men end up like that; Creepy Businessman just has a bit more wits left about him so he lasts a bit longer than most.

It Is Dark. And occasionally blackly funny.

And for all the violence and blood it does show – there is a surfeit of gore and brain bits and electronic saws, barbed wire, torture, rape, necrophilia, an eye socket event [no, way worse than Fulci in it’s second act] and more – there’s plenty that’s not shown but only implied [the second act].  Of course by then, you can imagine it all, as the film has helped you along with that; and as the mad doctor says: the infected have no lack of imagination; they just now have no impulse control whatsoever.  And did he turn very late, was he turned already or was he so cold as to already be a killer when poor Kat, the heroine, finds him? I think the latter.

Callbacks to many other films, notably Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976) with the tube scene; and  his Scanners (1981) with the President scene.  The whole film has a Romero's The Crazies (1973) vibe in places. I’ve been suspecting for a very long while that horror is one of the truest things we have, as an art form, because it shows us a/the horrible truth underneath things, and how to survive it – or not.  It’s why I watch it. But it rarely lies to us.  Horror is viscerally truthful. This film tells a definite truth about how people can be when others are just objects and their suffering as lesser creatures than you is the goal. And it gave no solutions, as I don’t think we’ve thought of any yet, for this moment in history. Things can go very wrong, very bad, very quickly, and sometimes what you might do then doesn’t even matter, except to you; because the wrong things are so big and so widespread and you're so isolated you can't stop them. 

It's a very paranoid film.  Other people are the enemy, at any time.

The only thing to do is to create beauty in the face of destruction, I think. And in the case of the universe of this film: get to somewhere blockadeable, defensible, have a lot of weaponry and water supplies. And then…you probably wouldn’t have to wait too long till everyone was infected and killed each other for fun.  Then…then…??? Then?

No one in the film gets that far.  Maybe the helicopter people at the end (Dawn of the Dead [1980] echoes), but I doubt they'll last either.

Perhaps the ultimate message of the film is listen to the scientists – as they were trying to say what was going wrong right at the beginning of the film and no one was listening [‘this virus is a hoax’; 'a lockdown would harm the economy'].  Listen to the science, listen to the experts in whatever field.  Hear truth and actual facts when you hear them, don’t layer it up with politics and confusion.  If there’s a disaster: pandemic, climate change, and it’s going to get bad very quick – listen to people who know about these things and take suggestions.  Sod election year, the economy etc.  All this is in the film, I’m not pulling it out of my free associating arse, here.

This film is what would happen if we all listened to the sudden flashed bad pictures in our head, or the occasional thoughts of ‘I want to cheese grate your face, you are SO annoying’ that I’m going to go out on a limb and say we all get, if we’re honest. Mostly, they are so over the top as to be funny, and they dispel tension.  In this film, people think them, then do them and find that funny. Its very prescient of the darkness in parts of the world, the fear, the dread of it coming closer, the contrast between me safe here, typing away on a sunny spring day, and  - flash – somewhere on the other side of the world, or the next street, where someone is cowering in terror at what someone they love or have never met is doing to them, right now.

I think this film just shows us the dark that's around the corner, anywhere. 

Don’t hide from it, keep a damn eye on it; and then make something good to counteract it. What else is there to do?


Wednesday, 11 May 2022

'The Wilds' Season 2 - I am loving all the complications...

 **MAJOR SPOILERS!!! Only read this after you've seen it**

OK, so the premise is a bit familiar: some girls on their way to a retreat suffer apparent engine failure on the plane and they crash on a deserted island.  How do they cope when they realise no one is coming?  How long does it take to sink in?  How do the dynamics work?  And is that actually what happened, or is it all a set up? Why are there boys on another island, in seemingly the same position? That's season 1.

I don't think I blogged at all about the first season, which apparently some people hated – and there was a lot of rather privileged white angsting; the whole thing may have been done completely differently had there been people of different classes and backgrounds making up much more (instead of just some) of the mix.  But nonetheless, great idea, good mindfucking and excellent music. That was my main takeaway for the first season, that and an abiding love for Dot's character.

I only noticed a day or so ago that Season 2 was available, and then I ate it whole and now I'm sad and sorry its over.

Firstly, the soundtrack – Cliff Martinez, Contagion – is amazing, alone. The synthiness sets a wonderful tone of disjointed consciousnesses, emotional confusion and obsessive ideas.  It's a soundtrack to study to, listen to late at night.  It's very single minded.  And beautiful.

Second, I thought I would hate the story of the boys being added (as the control group) and only want to see the girls, but I’ve been loving both.  The differences between the way the boys and the girls camps are turning out. 

The boys camp got all rapey and abusive quite suddenly mid season, and I found the sexual assault scene very disturbing, even though it was very minor in what was actually shown – it was the fact of the character who did it: Seth, the seemingly nicest most reasonable teambuilding calm one.  I was horrified. I had totally bought it, him with his lovely curly hair and nerdy glasses making him look all harmless.  Especially compared with Kiran the uberjock (who later unpacked to a quite perceptive character with an unfailing BS meter).  

And then Josh, the abused assaulted shy and insecure kid, in a small segment of being interviewed later showing a totally different face – seeming in control, superior, scarily cold. His entire face was almost shaped differently, his bearing and manner - it was a wonderful transformation of mere seconds (a bit like the transformation scene in Gotham that reveals the Joker in conversation - proper face changing to a different person, wonderful acting). The sudden manipulation of the perception of both of these characters was really well done, I was unsettled by it the rest of the series.  Especially the fact we only see Josh's other self that once in the interview scene, and back on the island he's as unsure as ever, especially once seperated from Kiran, his protector and mentor - so when does this new scary cold confident self take over?  We must see more of that in season 3, I guess. The abuse scene and the later Josh interview scene were so minimally done they really freaked me out - I felt as taken in and unsure as Rafe does. In many ways Rafe is the focaliser of the season, the still point around which we see the other boys.

All the boys were great, Ivan, Kiran and Rafe in particular, but all. Ivan was perfect: his confidence in who he is - an out gay Black man, his unsureness when confronted sometimes, his manner, his speech, his realisation that you have to fight stereotypes and prejudice, but if you become nothing but the fight, you are lost to yourself.  He is simultaneously so young, and so old.

Henry. What a character. Loved him too. Useful knowledge and a depressed outlook. He was a quiet foil to all the other male characters.

The girls had more complications but their problems didn’t get as physical and visceral to watch as the boys.  You have Shelby, the now ex-evangelical Christian loved up with her lesbian friend in the girls camp; in the boys, a rapey assault about domination, power and identity.  It's not as Lord of the Flies as it sounds either, remniscent, but subtly different: you feel for all the characters; you aren't allowed to see them as anything less than complicated.  Bad actions can mean a bad person, but...if you understand it's so much harder to judge cleanly.

And the mother issues going on here!  I should have been annoyed by it – blaming all these people’s problems on the mum, as usual, like we are so utterly all powerful and therefore so utterly utterly to blame for anything our children do…but it was played well, so I couldn’t be annoyed. 

I wanted to hate Seth for what he did, but I couldn’t when I saw how he blamed himself for his mother’s leaving and how he got all obsessive and needy and chameleon-like trying to get a base line of love and security from anyone, everyone around him; leading to that horrible temper when it failed. 

I did manage to hate the main doctor, Rachel Griffith’s character for her Medea like role in it all – trying to prove that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…not more mental [dubious]; using her ‘children’ as tools for her vengeance and point proving to the world.  A feminist who wants to create other feminists by killing all that’s soft in a person.  She was a good character to despise. They haven't yet (the writers) managed to humanise her fully for me: I still see too much her will, not enough her frailties (blanket scene notwithstanding).

In the girls camp, the saddest thing was watching the character that reminded me most of me  - Martha - because of her love for animals and her unfitness for general society, having a bit of a nervous breakdown.  She has gone from loving animals and being unable to face the fact that there's not enough fruit and veg alone on the island to live on, in season 1 (the girls have an ongoing problem with preserving food that the boys sort far more quickly; though the girls camp is definitively psychologically the healthier place to be IMO) - to becoming a hunter.  She's almost proud of the trapping, and seems to try and kill humanely.  But then one of her traps goes wrong, and she sees the consequence to a small family of animals and their young that she has done.  It tortures her and after mercy killing the young she fades out, for most of the rest of the season.  It was a beleivable development, and good in that no one screamed at her about not being tougher, and instead all banded together to look after her and try to help her come back to life - despite showing 'weakness' she was valued. As they did with Rachel, mourning Nora's death the whole season (as well as the loss of her own hand). Her grief was moody and true.

It was in all, a way darker season than the first.  Which is not a bad thing. It was also funny and suspenseful.  And surreal (Leah having all those conversations with a hallucinatory Ben Folds).

The further layer to the end of the season, screaming out for an immediate continuation was good – I was left thinking how Lost-y and Homecoming-y it was becoming.  I like shows about experiments and shifting perceptions, so all the reveals made me more curious. Season 3 needs to appear yesterday. 

Oh, and buy the soundtrack.  Really, buy the soundtrack.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

'The Balloon Thief' by Aneesa Marufu (2022) - small review

 I loved this.  It was written very calmly, and very visually.  I loved the blend of Islamic folklore – djinn and djinn possession/exorcism, with a tale of female empowerment.  Issues of transgender politics and repression were also woven in.  

I felt engaged and sympathetic to the heroine, Khadija, and her friend, the fair skinned Jacob of the hari, the slave labour of her people, the dark skinned Ghadeans – known as ‘darkers’ in anger by the oppressed hari people.  

There was much about perception and prejudice here, about the need to feel self-agency and have control over your own life – and the image for it all was floating free and high in a hot air balloon.  The protagonist steals several balloons over the course of the book, but by the end, has her own, symbolising her newfound freedom. It felt incomplete in that the hari people and their treatment wasn't extensively addressed or solved at the end; but then again, that made it very true to our lives: racism isn't ever resolved here either, it takes education, activism and a lot of time.  I think Khadija's story showed the beginning of a civil rights movement going into its next phase, becoming more powerful, reaching more people. And yet it didn't read as a political book at all - it read as a story of one girl doing her best to navigate life and her need to choose for herself.

It was a good story and I’d read anything else the author writes next.  

Photo by Noah hill on Unsplash

Destroyer (2019) - layered heist film with noir elements


SPOILERS!!! Only read after watching.

Nicole Kidman is brilliant.  Again.  And does that thing people always wow about, where a beautiful actress allows herself to do a part where she’s very real, old and haggard looking.  I thought the most amazing bit of the transformation was still the acting: her walk – it was as though everything hurt, all the time.  This pained arthritic walk.  She's Erin Bell, aging detective, haunted by a case involving a heist long past that she would give anything to redo and fix her part in.

Everyone was good in this  - Sebastian Stan as the other undercover cop, Chris, who loved Erin; Toby Kebbell as Silas, perceptive and ruthless; Zach Villa as Arturo, also haunted by the heist and trying to atone; Bradley Whitford as the horribly supercilious DiFranco; and Jade Pettyjohn as Shelby, Erin's daughter, in particular.  

It was a very sad story of a heist that goes wrong with an undercover pair of cops.  Due to Kidman’s character’s understandable greed.  Two people die.  She could have stopped the heist from happening by reporting it, but she doesn't, as she wants in. She is haunted by it, and the film cleverly does a loop where you think the beginning was the beginning and the events spin from there; but actually the beginning was the end – she kills Silas and then dies alone in her car, having sort of apologised to her daughter and in her mind having squared the circle a little, for what happened in bungled heist and for wrecking her own daughter’s childhood by being unable to be a reliable mother - she hadn't had one herself either. 

She’s a brilliant example of the fucked up detective trope, done really well.  This was a character led film - more of a psychological portrait than a heist film or simple thriller, and SO sad at the end.  Sitting dying in her car, she sees a memory: her walking off, with her daughter as a child on her back, through the snow, walking determinedly…for no reason they were there in this messed up lost situation out in the freezing winter, but what she remembers is being there, walking forward – protecting her child.  It was like she tried to go back and walk out of her life and take daughter Shelby with her. But of course, there is no squaring the circle, she did bad things that can't be undone.  

Its all very dark, and just gets darker as you go along, a feeling of inevitability about her actions.  The whole thing is scripted beautifully by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (they've paired on several other films as writers, preferring to always write together; but I didn't like any of them as well as I liked this; this was understated loveliness, in scriptwriting terms).

I think the film is called Destroyer because that’s what she thinks she is.  She thinks it’s all her fault.  There are hints of a neglected and deprived childhood, explaining her ‘hungriness’, but they are explanation, not reason.  She doesn’t forgive herself for any of it - witness her never using the money.  She also doesn't forgive Silas, for accurately seeing that part of her, back in the past, as well as shooting Chris - who belatedly tried to stop the heist, as Erin and he had agreed...While Erin, when it came to it, sat by and did nothing, resulting in his death.  It’s not just about what Silas did at the heist; it’s about what he saw of herself that she can’t bear: "I know what you are". She kills Silas, then dies herself.  It’s all a bit Shakespearean tragedy. 

Great to see it directed by a woman, Karyn Kusama (known mostly for Jennifer's Body [2009]) - incidentally married to one of the scriptwriters, Phil Hay. Well made and very watchable - a different take on the heist genre. Almost noir, in the sense that when you think about it, Erin Bell is a femme fatale - just no longer a beautiful one.

Strongly recommended if you have a spare two hours and like character portraits with depth.

 The memory of when younger, walking with Shelby through the snow storm (image copyright - Ascot Elite)