Promising Young Woman has been described as a rape revenge thriller. But is the hero, Cassie (Carey Milligan), seeking revenge? Or is she seeking justice?
To begin with she is not out to settle a score for harm done to her. Rather, she is settling the score for harm done to someone else. In this, the film resembles Unforgiven, the great western in which William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a bounty hunter, sets out to get justice for someone overlooked by the justice system.
Also, she is not out to demand an eye for an eye from the men who raped her friend. She does no violence, despite the near constant threats she creates. She is not out to punish the men who pick her up in bars, the medical school dean who dismissed her friend's accusation, or any of the others she hoodwinks. Instead, she wants to force them to recognize and admit what they did.
This is a film about a woman seeking justice, not revenge. This is a significant variation on the revenge thriller. And it is thrilling.
QUASI-SPOILER: Much made of having to explain the ending, but it is completely consistent with the film. In one way Cassie loses. She becomes a victim of the clueless guys who treat women as objects. In another way, she succeeds by guaranteeing their cruelty will become known and they will have to face the consequences.
These two Victorians were almost certainly built at the same time in the 1880s. Originally they probably looked similar.
The blue house on the left still has its over-sized cornice and other fancy trim. The three-color paint job emphasizes all the details. There are four colors if you count the black front door.
The red house on the right no longer has its cornice, though the wall that extends above the roofline is still there. I'm told architects refer to this as a false front.
Along with the cornice, the fancy trim around the windows is gone. A close-up look reveals that the front of the house has been covered with asbestos shingles.
This tells us a couple of things. At some point in its history, the owners decided to remove the fancy woodwork rather than pay for a paint job. They may also have been convinced that asbestos would fire-proof the house.
Left in place, those shingles will probably last as long as the house does. Removing them would be extremely expensive, given the precautions now required to avoid the health-hazards of working with asbestos.
The red house will probably never be restored to its original glory.
As Barnard says in A Talent to Deceive, Agatha Christie's characters are one-dimensional, her settings are undistinguished, and her prose and dialogue are nothing special. By comparison, her fellow mystery writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey are much better novelists,
And yet, Christie has far more readers than any of them. In fact, by all accounts, Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of fiction of all time. Only The Bible and Shakespeare have sold more copies than she has.
Barnard gives two ideas about why Christie continues to be so popular. First, she does one thing better than anyone: manipulate the reader into guessing wrong about who committed the murder. Barnard's analysis of how she does so is worth studying.
Second, he suggests, her mysteries should not be read as modern fiction but rather as an older kind of story, the tale. He mentions "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
One might also think of fairy tales in which character types---an old man, a wicked woman, a young lover, a trickster---play out the action in a simple setting---a forest, a castle, a village. The tale is told in simple, conversational language.
In the tale, there is no attempt at realism or literary sophistication. The plot is everything.
I don't know if anyone has come up with a better explanation for Christie's phenomenal success since Barnard published this book in 1980, but his ideas have me reading Christie again.
Murphy vows to find out who killed a teenager who was one of the good guys in her tough urban neighborhood. She has to contend with gang members and crooked cops.
And she is blind.
Murphy lost her sight at the age of fourteen due to retinitis pigmentosa. She is now in her twenties. Her disability has not made her a better person. She drinks too much, and smokes, and likes casual sex. When was the last time you saw character with a disability who is not a saint? And who is willing to kick some ass for a just cause.
The title, In the Dark refers to Murphy's blindness, but this is a dark story because of the characters around her. Some of the friendly ones turn out to be wolves. Some of the scary ones turn out to be honest. But there are a few reliable if quirky people around her.
The revelations throughout Season One keep this series lively. The acting is strong throughout the cast.
Season Two is also on Netflix. A third season will be produced this year, and a fourth season has been ordered.
Howdunit makes good on its promise of offering "A Masterclass in Crime Writing," so long as you define "masterclass" as "a class taught by masters." All the notes and essays in this book are written by highly accomplished writers of crime fiction. The title is a riff on the slang for murder mysteries as "whodunits." The emphasis here is on how to write one.
Naturally some are just what I'm looking for while others are remotely interesting. I'm working my way through the book, marking essays that speak to the challenges I'm facing at the moment in my writing and finding quite a few that do.
For instance, I am benefiting from Andrew Taylor's essay, "How to Change Your Murderer." The title refers to some writers who say the started off thinking they knew who murdered whom, and ended up changing their mind by the end of the first draft. Taylor uses this as an example of how unplanned a plot can be.
The Detection Club was founded in 1930 with G. K. Chesterton as its first president, and has counted such all-time greats as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in its membership as well as many contemporary writers. Since it's a British club, all the essayists are British, though they have good things to say about the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, and Patricia Highsmith.
The Difference is a Charles Willeford crime novel wearing a cowboy hat instead of a fedora, riding on a horse instead of in a Plymouth, and set in the Sonoran desert rather than San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Johnny Shaw, the first-person narrator, is as unscrupulous as the hero of Willeford's The Woman Chaser or, for that matter Thompson's The Killer Inside Me or Williams's The Hot Spot. Shaw has a noble quest---to regain control of the land left to him by his father---but, as he pursues it, he takes whatever he needs and kills whoever is in his way.
It was normal for "paperback writers" of the 1950s and 1960s to write more than one genre: crime, western, sci-fi, or romance. In this book, Willeford seems to know horsemanship and the Sonoran desert as well as he knows the used-car business and Los Angeles in The Woman Chaser. I'm not sure this will make me a fan of westerns, but I enjoyed this one.
This book shows how the thriller (using that term loosely) became more popular than "mainstream fiction" and "literary fiction" and, in the hands of some writers became as sophisticated.
Anderson's short list of "modern masters" includes Thomas Harris, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and a few others, but he discusses many writers in several categories. I've added some new names to my to-be-read list. I also enjoyed his discussions of writers I've read such as Lawrence Sanders. It's nice to be reminded what is good about those books.
Throughout the book I found answers to questions I have long pondered. For instance, he says Sue Grafton's first book is about 200 pages, but a book from later in her Kinsey Milhone series runs to 337 pages. Anderson says this is not because the plot has more twists and turns, but rather because Grafton includes more description.
For me this was similar to another book about books I like, Books to Die For. The Triumph of the Thriller was published in 2007, so it ends before the rise of ebooks and print-on-demand, which uprooted many of the assumptions of book publishing.
Charles Willeford is mentioned along with Jim Thompson and Charles Williams as among the best writers of paperback originals, a publishing phenomenon that started in 1950.
The Woman Chaser was published in 1960, the sixth of his eighteen novels. Its hero is devoid of empathy. He interacts with others only to entertain or enrich himself. This recalls the heroes of Williams' The Hot Spot and Thompson's The Killer inside Me.
The Woman Chaser is the story of a used-car salesman who moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and takes a break from making money to write and direct a film. On this level, he is a spoof of every guy who has "a great idea for a movie" and thinks that's all he needs.
Along the way the salesman has an Oedipal relationship with his mother and uncaring sexual encounters with two other women. These characters are barely tethered to the plot. They are included so the author can check off requirements of the genre.
Willeford has a lot of fun experimenting with form. Instead of chapter breaks, he uses movie scene headings such as "Dissolve To:" The flow of action seems at times as arbitrary as the hero's brainstorming.
The Woman Chaser may not be a lesson in how to construct a narrative, but it successfully brings a sociopathic narrator to life.
San Francisco is famous for fog. Tony Bennett sang about it: "the morning fog may chill the air, I don't care." Lots of black-and-white suspense films, mostly film noir, have used it to great effect.
I took this photo in Tiburon, not far from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. If it weren't for Angel Island and fog we'd be looking at the city of San Francisco across the bay. This small town has turned its waterside into a walkable park. I was mighty impressed by the way someone used that natural rock as the base for a fishing pedestal at the end of that pier.
Decades ago, when I was reading Popular Photography magazine, I saw an article which said not to wait for sunny days to take pictures; some of your best opportunities are in "bad" weather.
Blood Simple was a revelation for me when I saw it in a theater. It was scary and funny at the same time.
Ray is having an affair with his boss's wife (Abby). The boss (Marty) hires a private detective (Visser), to get proof of the affair. Ray and Abby prepare to run away together. Marty hires Visser to kill them.
Ray, a nice guy, winds up acting like a cold-blooded fiend. Marty, the vengeful husband, loses everything. Visser, a paid killer, ends up looking like a clown. Abby, a dependent woman, becomes the toughest of all.
Since everyone is keeping secrets, they sometimes work at cross-purposes. And accidents happen. Sometimes the surprises are scary, sometimes funny.
The filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Cohn, were certainly not the first to combine suspense and humor. Hitchcock always looked for humor in his stories and sometimes abandoned an idea if there was no humor in it. But the Cohn brothers made the scary parts scarier and the funny parts funnier.
I recently published a novel entitled The Con Man's Son, but I've just discovered a book which is apparently an important source of information on the type of criminal called a "confidence man."
First published in 1940, it offers a detailed study of con artists and their trade based on extensive interviews with practitioners.
It gives a historical survey of how simple street games like three-card monte developed into more elaborate "long cons" requiring establishment of a "store," a rented space set up to look like a betting parlor or stock brokerage.
There are also chapters on the crooks themselves, their social norms, the psychology of their victims, their cooperative relationships with law enforcement, and more.
Since the author was a linguist, the book makes use of the con-man's vocabulary ("rope a mark," "cop a heel," "steer against a store," etc.) and a glossary is provided.
I have no doubt The Big Con was a source for another book I have consulted, The Confidence Game. And anyone familiar with The Sting will recognize pages 31 through 52 as a description of the game operated by Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford).
More and more I am convinced that when writing fiction, it's helps to know the facts.
Run is the latest thriller from writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, who made Searching, which played in theaters in 2018. Run made its debut on Hulu, November, 2020.
Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) does everything for her daughter, Chloe (Kiera Allen). Everything includes among other things managing a long list of medications, caring for a teenager bound to a wheelchair and motivating her to high academic achievement through home schooling.
The story begins, as so many good thrillers do, when Chloe notices some things that don't quite make sense. When she looks for answers, her mother restricts her access to those things. The exciting part of the movie is watching this "rebellious" teenager outwit her mother in her quest to take control of her life. The scary part of the movie is watching the mother go to ever greater lengths to control her.
Ultimately Chloe learns, as we've suspected all along, that her mother needed to do things for her more than Chloe needed to have them done. The ending is dark, but stops just this side of horror.
Like Searching this is a well-crafted machine that works through an average person's struggle to regain what matters most.
Since 1915, the station next to the Bay Bridge has been home to the San Francisco Fire Department's boats and firefighters who respond to fire alarms near the water's edge and calls for water rescues.
Last week it's replacement showed up, a new fire station built on a barge and brought to town from Treasure Island by a couple of tug boats.The new station is permanently moored and will float up and down with the changing tides. The old station will be maintained and used for storage.
In a way this is the latest phase of a process that began with the Gold Rush in 1849. A long wharf was built to cross the mud flats that separated dry land from the deep water where ships could anchor. Over time oyster shells and other refuse were used to fill in the flats and create dry land between the shore and the ships. Today, about seven city blocks separates the sea wall from the former shoreline.
Even in recent decades there have been proposals to fill more of the Bay to create valuable real estate next to downtown. They have all been rejected. But occupying more of the Bay by building barges looks like it may have a future.
The Undoing is a murder mystery driven by the strangeness of the victim, a young mother, whom we get to know in the first of six episodes. In her scenes with Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), she seems to call out for understanding, help, and affection.
Jonathan Fraser, (Hugh Grant), is a suspect because he was the oncologist for the victim's child and had an affair with her. He is arrested and held on $2 million bail. The case seems open and shut, but Grace, Jonathan, and Grace's father (Donald Sutherland,) behave in unexpected ways.
As I write this, I've watched four of the six episodes. The suspects are multiplying and I'm eager to find out who done it, but I'm more eager to find out what would explain the things the victim does in those early scenes. The Undoing generates all the suspense of a traditional murder mystery without sticking to the usual formulas. It puts more emphasis on the characters than on the logistics of how the crime was committed.
One week in 2018, I checked the listings of movies, saw there was a new thriller called Searching, found the nearest theater showing it, and went with friends. Back then, we did that.
I was not particularly drawn by the idea that the story played out entirely on electronic screens. The hero (John Cho) searches for his missing daughter on her laptop, and later on a phone and through TV news broadcasts. We never see the characters directly. Mostly I hoped this gimmick would not get in the way.
For me at least, the gimmick adds a little to the suspense. Best of all, it's a good story. I cared about the teenager in distress, I was pulling for her father to find her. The dark twists the story takes in the second half were satisfying.
Writer-director Aneesh Chaganty has a new suspense film about a disabled, home-schooled teenager whose mother may not have her best interests at heart. Since theaters are not up and running, it debuts on Hulu today---Friday, November 20, 2020. The title is Run.
Based on Searching, Chaganty is good with parent-teenager relationships and he tells a good story. You might want to watch both Searching and Run this weekend, in either order.