The Twisting Thrills and Complex Humanism of Joseph Souza’s Pray for the Girl

Where does one even begin to review a book like Joseph Souza’s Pray for the Girl? And how can any in-depth analysis not reveal one of its major plot twists? And believe me, there are many jaw-droppers here. Souza’s novel follows many of the standard modern murder mystery tropes, but’s it’s all told from the point of view of a protagonist unlike any other.

Lucy Abbott is a veteran of the Afghan War, both emotionally and physically scarred by her experiences and haunted by the death of a young girl she couldn’t save while stationed there. After a stint in New York City where she honed her culinary skills as a way to avoid dealing with her PTSD and other issues, she returns home to Fawn Grove, Maine to help her ailing sister only to find the once proud mill town economically devastated and tensions rising between the townies and recent influx of Afghan refugees. When a young Afghan girl (like the girl Lucy couldn’t save in the war) is found buried up to her head and stoned to death, Lucy takes on the classic role of amateur detective as a way to wrestle her own demons and find redemption, she hopes for both herself and her town.

In Lucy Abbott, Souza has created an unforgettable character who is tortured, complex, and tough as nails. Her PTSD only scratches the surface of what she’s been through and amplifies the conflicts she’s had with her own identity all her life. Continue reading

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This is Us and We Are Terrifying

I was six years-old in 1986, and I have a vivid memory of the Hands Across America initiative. We were visiting my aunt’s house on the day it was to happen, and I thought that people were actually going to step out of their houses at the designated time and literally hold hands across the entire country. How disappointed I was when I eagerly ran out of my aunt’s house onto her front porch and saw no one holding hands. Jordan Peele must have had a similar memory, and he uses that sense of disappointment in hope as a set-up to his newest complex and fitfully terrifying horror opus, Us.

There’s a palpable sense of dread in the film’s 1986 prologue where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz fun fair and has a harrowing experience in a house of mirrors. Later, as an adult, that same little girl finds herself back on that beach during a family vacation that leads to a home invasion by a red-suited, scissor-carrying family of shadows. Dopplegangers brood throughout Peele’s sophomore effort as a writer and director, and with a larger budget, he casts his net of ideas broader than he did in the succinctly satirical Get Out. There’s a lot going on here, and Peele has clearly found his groove in setting a unique mood, cutting tension with his now signature sense of humor, and then going all out in turning modern horror film tropes on their head. Bunnies and beaches, social commentary and mass killings, ballet and butchery…it’s all on the table, and it’s gripping, fascinating and sometimes confounding. Peele leaves no horror cliché unturned, including the twist ending, which I assumed during the first sand-tray therapy scene. In lesser hands, it could have become a bloody mess, but Peele shows complete control of his runaway train wreck. Continue reading

Is this Hell in Transit?

In ways complex, subtle and surreal, Christian Petzold has crafted another enthralling think-piece / thriller with Transit. When troubled opportunist Georg (Franz Rogowski) agrees to deliver papers to a writer looking to flee the fascist take-over of France and quickly finds the writer has committed suicide, a sea of events take place leading to Georg to Marseilles where he becomes entangled in the stories of a multitude of refugees, including the dead writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who knows not her husband is dead and has fallen into the arms of an altruistic doctor (Godeheard Giese) who passed up a passage to Mexico to stay with her while she still pines for her husband to join her.

While this bizarre love triangle (or is it a square?) built upon stolen identities and pining for those already passed on (both literally and metaphorically) is enthralling enough on its own, Petzold layers in side stories to enrich Georg’s tale. When he first arrives in Marseilles from Paris, he has to deliver bad news to the wife and young son of his traveling companion who died in transit, and he quickly becomes immersed in their loneliness. The woman (now widowed) is mute and deaf, and the boy (now orphaned) is just looking for someone to play soccer with, and both had been waiting in Marseilles for the boy’s father who was to help them all flee to the mountains. Meanwhile Georg gets distracted by his own conflicting drives to flee and stay. His feelings for the boy (who has an asthma attack after Georg takes him to an amusement park) are what lead him to the doctor and Marie, and when he falls for Marie, too, his feelings and anguish only become more twisted. Meanwhile other refugees come and go from his stage (a sickly conductor, an architect stuck with her client’s abandoned dogs), all longing for someone to listen to their story, just as Georg ends up telling his story to the proprietor of the restaurant where he, Marie, and the doctor frequent.

Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, whose original context for the story was Nazi-occupied France, Petzold makes a bold choice in assigning no definitive time period to the story…it could’ve been told then…it’s certainly potent now. Continue reading

Spying on Whales Reveals the Greatest Survival Story Ever Told

I’ve been on a science reading kick lately, following up last year’s reading of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus (a fascinating psychological study of octopi and the people who love them) with Nick Pyenson’s enthralling Spying on Whales. Pyenson weaves a fascinating adventure tale, as he globe-hops from archaeological digs in South America to whaling stations in the arctic, in his insatiable quest to track the past, present, and future of the largest animals ever to inhabit the earth.

Clearly blessed with the spirit of an adventurer and a natural-born storyteller, Pyenson is able to revel in the scientific details without losing the lay reader. His personal thoughts on the matters are often poignant, sometimes puzzling. As a new father, I was heartbroken by his personal anecdote of his young son writing him a “I miss you” letter while he was on a mission thousands of miles away. I can’t ever imagine that kind of lengthy separation. But later in the book, he walks with his son on a beach, and his son discovers a fossil that turns out to be of a previously unknown species of whale, and the fossil gets classified under the boy’s name, providing a kind of longer view outlook on the impact of his life’s work on his family. What a memory for a child to have! What type of legacy is Pyenson leaving in his both his professional field and at home? What types of adventurers will his children become?

The center piece of the book is the vivid depiction of a sprawling archaeological dig in the Atacama Desert of Chile poetically called Cerro Ballena, where excavation of a new highway has uncovered layers upon layers of complete whale skeletons – a historic find that not even Indiana Jones could’ve imagined. In a race against time and human expansion, our fearless scientists must salvage as many fossils as they can. These chapters unfold in thrilling fashion while perfectly blending in colorful side-characters, political intrigue, science, and adventure. Continue reading

Widows: What Went Wrong

Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with the tense inter-cutting sequences of a heist gone horribly wrong and shows us in a few propulsive minutes how four women became the widows of the film’s title. It’s a cracker jack set-up to what promises to be an emotionally explosive thriller…but what follows is two hours of slow-burn that goes nowhere thanks to an undercooked screenplay and woefully underdeveloped characters. While McQueen shows us in brilliant brevity how these women became widows, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay gives us no insight into how they became wives of criminals or why their husbands were criminals in the first place. And when the women bond together for a heist, there’s nothing in them (except for Viola Davis’ natural fierceness that comes more from her as a performer than anything evident in Flynn’s limp writing), we have no emotional investment in the outcome or belief that they can pull it off.

Widows is one of those crime thrillers full of endless, clichéd scenes designed to show us how a character is one of three things: tough as hell, corrupt as hell, or trapped in hell. McQueen does his best to eek something out of the story with crisp, perfectly framed shots of environs and exquisite camerawork. Chicago, in a grim visual poetry, arises from the ashes of this junk heap of a story as the best written character. One scene where a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) is being chauffeured from the bad side of a neighborhood to the posh side in just a few blocks is a minor masterpiece of sociopolitical commentary on gentrification and wealth inequality. Sadly, nothing else in the film elaborates on this in any insightful way. Continue reading

My Favorite Film Scores

It’s been two weeks since I experienced it in the theater, and I still can’t get Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk out of my mind.  It’s the best film of 2018 and one of the best of the decade, by the way.  I encourage you to see it in a theater with someone you love and then tell everyone you love about it.

One of the big reasons it continues to haunt me is Nicholas Britell’s extraordinary score.  The themes he created (especially “Eros” and “PTSD” and “Hypertension”) ear-wormed their way into the ever-present background music of my mind, and when they work their way to the forefront…Barry Jenkins’ images, James Baldwin’s characters, the performances, and most importantly, the feelings all come rushing back.  When I first heard “Eros” in the theater in the context of a poignant love scene, I instantly thought, “This might be one of the best film scores of all time.”  Then there was “PTSD” like a hammering heart building up to a panic attack in the background of that scene where Fonny’s friend, fresh from prison, slowly reveals his thoughts on his brief stint in prison and the worst part of it…the fear.  It’s echoed later in “Hypertension” when a racist cop harasses Fonny and Tish outside an Italian market.  You feel the fear not just through the characters, but through Britell’s music.  I knew right then, indeed, Britell had composed something for the ages.

My favorite film scores often mirror (and elevate) my favorite films.  They can’t be extracted from the context of the film they help breathe deeper life into.  When I hear the music in my head, images and feelings from those beloved films rush through me.  Memories from my life at the time I first saw the film, or from ensuing years where thoughts of the film or revisits punctuated pain, joy, and transitions often mix with the memories of the film.  All of it forming a rich tapestry or sound and images and feelings. Continue reading

Happy 2019 and 2018 Year in Review

Well, it’s 2019.

Looking back, 2018 was the most life-changing year of my life.  Though not without its share of heartbreak and struggles, I’ll focus on the positive here.

In February, I again changed the course of my career at the company I’ve been with for almost fifteen years, this time with a promotion into a different department with new mandates.

In July, I became a father when my wife and I welcomed our bouncing, baby boy.

And in November, I published my Depression Era noir novel, Then Came Darkness.  Which, as a New Years gift to my readers will be available for free download to your Kindle from January 1st through January 5th (after which it will return to its normal Kindle edition price of $4.99.  Paperback edition is always $11.99).

Here’s a quick recap of films, books, and travel at The Spin in 2018: Continue reading

Unbow Your Head in If Beale Street Could Talk

How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?

How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?

“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.

If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.

Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Continue reading

The Gruesome Thrills of Dracul

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the first “adult” book I remember reading as a child, and being all about horror as a lad and having already been exposed to the Bela Lugosi and Hammer film classics, I was positively obsessed with the book…so much so that years later as a senior in high school I took a mythology and folklore class where Stoker’s tale was the primary topic for a full semester and we dissected the book journal entry by journal entry, line for line.

I always imagined a bold modern update…in the 80’s and 90’s the story would’ve been told through television news clips, emergency room visit logs, and frantic 911 calls.  Today, it would be told through tweets and vlogs.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker however, imagined something quite different, driving a stake through the heart of the 1897 classic further back into its origins and Bram Stoker’s childhood and young adulthood where the mysterious fate of his beloved nanny, Ellen Crone, becomes intertwined with that of his siblings and an evil force even more fantastic than what ended up on Bram Stoker’s pages.  The result is a fun, gruesome thrill-ride complete with the tearing apart and re-assembling of a man, among other supernatural horrors. Continue reading

The Flow of Life in Roma

There’s something paradoxically both achingly intimate and frustratingly passive in watching Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-autobiographical familial drama, Roma.  There are few, if any, close-ups, and his famous tracking shots display a gleeful chaos bubbling up as we flow in and out of the everyday life of an upper middle class family’s nanny/maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City (and later the countryside and then the coast).  The first two-thirds of the film are intermittently fascinating (in an “oh, look at how amazing that shot, or that framing, is!” kind of way) and meditatively boring (in an, “oh, huh, what just happened and who is that?” kind of way).  We’re just kinda there, floating along with his camera (Cuaron epically does his own cinematography here – and it is astounding), awash in heavy water symbolism.  It drips, drips, drips, much like the scattered details of these people’s lives.

But there’s an external political chaos brewing in the background, Cleo gets pregnant by a martial-arts loving deadbeat, and the family’s patriarch flakes off and never comes home after a business trip to Quebec.  Suddenly there’s a political riot while Cleo is shopping for a crib, and all emotional hell breaks loose.  The last third of the film is an engrossing, unforgettable revelation, and the water that once merely dripped or washed away dirt is now swelling (literal ocean waves) and washing away regret and grief, simultaneously threatening and bringing loved ones closer.  The quietly thrilling beach sequence involving Cleo and her young charges is one of the most beautifully shot enthralling pieces of emotional suspense ever captured on film. Continue reading