If You Liked Gone Girl, Check Out Dark Places

Gillian Flynn
Broadway Books, 349 pages, 978-0307341570
* * * * *

Before there was Gone Girl, there was Dark Places, which for my money is a superior effort by Gillian Flynn. Dark Places will appear as a movie latter this year and it might be a good idea to read the novel first as liberties are being taken with the original. Moreover, as many readers know, Ms. Flynn’s Gone Girl was a terrific novel, but Hollywood’s treatment of it was merely so-so.

Gone Girl was about bourgeois society, but Dark Places is, well, darker, with a take on rural farm country poverty that’s Carolyn Chute-like on the bleakness scale. The action shuttles between the indeterminate present and 1985, the year that five-year-old Libby Day was the only survivor of a brutal massacre in which her mother and two sisters were butchered inside their Kansas farmhouse. Her older brother, Ben, has been in prison ever since for what the courts determined—partly on Libby’s testimony—was a drug-addled satanic ritual slaying. And not even Libby avoided harm, as her flight into the winter woods led to several amputated frostbitten toes and fingers.

As we move to the present, Libby has a more pressing problem. When news of her misfortune hit the media in 1985, donors and well-wishers set up a trust fund for young Libby, but twenty plus years later the money’s nearly gone, the public is occupied by newer thrill parades, and Libby is living in hand-to-mouth squalor in a down market trailer park. Out of the blue, a man named Lyle contacts Libby and offers to pay her for a personal appearance before the Kill Club, a consortium of do-gooders, get-a-lifers, and creeps dedicated to getting at the “truth” of various sensational murders across America, including the 1985 slaying of Libby’s family. It seems that numerous Kill Club members have been in contact with Ben and are convinced that he’s innocent, that Libby’s “false” memory was planted by child psychologists, and that she needs to help them expose the “real” killer.

Libby is certain that Lyle and his cohorts are ghoulish conspiracy theory crackpots, and prison meetings with Ben do nothing to convince her otherwise. Still, she needs money and the Kill Club is willing to pay her to track down suspects on their list: Libby’s tramp father Runner, who abandoned his family years earlier, but showed up whenever he needed booze or drug money; Trey Teepano, an older boy with whom Ben hung out and who was a known Satanist; and Diondra, rumored to have been Ben’s girlfriend. They also want to hear from Krissi Cates, a stripper who was then an eight-year-old who accused Ben of molesting her.  Senseless murder… Satan… copious amounts of blood…. cokeheads… alcoholism… crippling poverty… hobo camps… strip clubs… pedophilia….  Talk about your stroll down Low-Life Lane! I doubt anyone has ever accused Ms. Flynn of being the Queen of Sunshine.

Okay, so this is not an uplifting novel. It is, however, a very taut murder mystery and, if you know anything of Flynn’s work, you know that even revelations come drenched in moral ambiguity. It’s a whale of a story and its look at social class is sharper than in Gone Girl. Another reason to read the book and not wait for the film: Rumor has it that parallels to the Manson cult murders are grafted into the narrative. Why? If you’ll pardon the expression, that seems like overkill.  Rob Weir


Nashville Female Roundup: Make Me a Star

Nashville is to singer-songwriters what Pittsburgh used to be to steel. The first question one must ask, though, is whether the Starmaker Machinery (phrase courtesy of Joni Mitchell) is cranking out high quality products or interchangeable widgets. The second question is whether supply has outstripped demand. The marketplace will probably resolve both of these questions better than I, but what I've heard in the past year leaves me torn between optimism and pessimism. Here's my take on a crop of several female Nashville recording artists.

Sometimes the best "new" singer-songwriter is a vet who has been kicking around but hasn't yet made the big leap. Garrison Starr heads that list for me. Her slightly nasal young-sounding voice belies the fact that she just turned 40, has 10 LPs to her name, and has been shuttling between LA and Nashville since 1993. Her latest EP, The Forgotten Street is a damn good reason to discover her if you've not already. Call these five selections 'trials-of-love' songs mostly in a country/pop vein, though her "I Could Be Your Girl" is evocative of Robyn's dance hall tunes. Starr has a supple voice that can be little girl-like, guttural, tender, or heart-wrenchingly gorgeous and what she knows that a lot of youngsters don't is which voice to put with which song. You can hear this on "In the Silence," available on YouTube, though my personal favorite is "Halfway Whole," a healing-in-process exploration that's way more honest than 99% of the processed pop platitudes one hears.

All the Pretty Things, the Nashville debut release of Ashley Riley (her third overall), induced less excitement for me. Riley has a bit of Emmylou Harris husk in her voice, but not nearly her range or depth. The album title (and its second track) sum up all that's promising and still in development about Riley's music. She indeed has a pretty voice, but she needs to add colors to her vocal palette instead of relying on shiny baubles. For example, she has a song titled "Love Shark" that, like many of the selections, simply needs to be tougher. This is particularly the case if she is going to keep working with her current band, one that features heavy bass lines and electric guitar breakouts. Put directly, Riley's material is in the country/folk realm, but the instrumentation leans toward pop/rock. She began her career as an acoustic artist and perhaps that was her best destiny.

Sarah Miles might be the artist most likely to break through, simply because she's the one with the most commercial potential. You'll see some of her releases labeled "folk," but that's utter nonsense and she might want to do all she can to discourage that handle. Think Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift; that is, she's pop music as filtered through those rock-influenced big arrangements favored by the country music industry. She has released four recordings, of which I sampled One (2013). Miles certainly has her pop hooks in order: catchy melody lines, danceable tempos, and a tight backup band. On a less charitable note, One could also be seen as mostly one-note in tone.  With the exception of "Gray," every song on the album opens small and abruptly shifts to high gear. It's a classic pop diva maneuver but, for me, these songs lack to emotional impact of "Gray," where she manages to stay in the slow lane for the entire song. But then again, the pop industry loves singers like this and it won't hurt that the New Jersey-born, UVM grad, Atlanta-based, Nashville-produced Miles is fresh-faced and leggy. If she does make it, good for her. This music isn't my cup of tea, but it's very good of kind.Here's an official video.

Jessica Campbell is trying to follow the same path as Miles. She's an artist whose work I've known for several years and her latest III (2014) will either be the record that makes her, or brings her back to earth. Campbell has a terrific voice and has some fine moments with the pen as well, but she's struggled to find her niche. III is a very Nashville album in that its very slick and polished. The open question is whether its processed like American cheese. There are several nice moments, including "Brighter Days," a soulful pop song, and the chirpy, happy "Better ThanThis." To my ear, though, four of the eleven tracks feel like filler and several others imply fail to ignite. Campbell has certainly paid her dues, but in my heart of hearts I think she's in the same boat as Ashley Riley, and that Jessica Campbell Unplugged is a better musical space.

Rob Weir


The Battle of the Five Armies: Time to Surrender

Directed by Peter Jackson
New Line Cinema, 144 minutes, PG-13 (violence and orcicide)
* * ½

One of the better sequences of a padded film
After part two of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), I purposely dodged part three, The Battle of the Five Armies, when it hit the theaters earlier this year. My ennui with the series was akin to the hysterical 1969 Bored of the Rings parody penned by National Lampoon founders Henry Beard and Doug Kenney. I wasn’t bored at all by Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, but it seemed to me that Jackson had said all he needed to in those three majestic films and that The Hobbit felt like Lord of the Rings Lite.

Lord of the Rings made $3 billion on a $280 million investment, so I understand the allure of making The Hobbit, but my skeptical hackles rose when the project mushroomed from a one-off, to two films, and then a trilogy. A trilogy? J.R.R. Tolkien’s namesake book was just 320-pages-long. One can literally read it in a shorter period than it takes to view the three films (nearly eight hours worth). My skepticism was well placed; if The Hobbit were an undergraduate film, it would have been marked down for “padding.” I felt this keenly after The Desolation of Smaug, so I stayed away from the cinema in hope that more time would allow me to enjoy The Battle of the Five Armies with a fresh set of eyes. It didn’t work.

Martin Freeman is delightful as Bilbo; Richard Armitage is convincing as Thorin, the  dwarf king slowly driven mad by greed and dragon sickness; and Ian McKellen, perhaps to his chagrin, was born to play the wizard Gandalf. Performances are uniformly great throughout, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s voiceovers for both Smaug and Sauron. Still, The Hobbit was a children’s book and only four things of note happen in it: the formation of the dwarf/hobbit alliance, Bilbo’s escape from the Mirkwood spiders, Bard the Bow-man’s takedown of Smaug, and the final man/elf/dwarf/wizard clash with the nasties (orcs, wargs, goblins, trolls). In other words, the story could have been told in one film without resorting to tack-on slapstick sequences, giving big roles to minor book characters (Radagast, Alfrid, Kili), and inventing new characters to introduce an elf/dwarf romance (the elfin Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly.  Jackson even inserted Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) into part three, though she’s not mentioned in the novel.

The problem with The Battle of the Five Armies is simple: once Smaug is felled about 20 minutes into the film, the next 90 minutes are just filler to get us to the culminating battle. I wish I could say the wait was worth it, but it wasn’t. What was spectacular in the Lord of the Rings series is now old hat. Jackson got us to suspend disbelief within those glorious battle sequences, but when obvious padding occurs in The Hobbit we start to ask questions about how a small intrepid band manages to slaughter thousands of orcs, why an orc chieftain can be killed with a single sword swipe on the street but can endure blow after blow and a near drowning in hand-to-hand combat, how you can “kill” ghosts with a sword, etc. In several scenes we watch orcs being mowed down, tumbling as if they were stalks of grain falling before a mechanical reaper. After one mind-numbing scene after another of this, the forces of evil begin to seem more like forces of ineptitude. I suppose this gives thrills in the ways progressing through a video game can satisfy, but at some point the vicarious sensations wear off and we wonder why we are spectators in this video game.

It’s fun to return to Hobbiton, the elves remain magical, and Smaug setting Lake-town ablaze is better than any fireworks spectacle.  Good stuff, but not enough to justify over two and half hours. The Hobbit trilogy made almost as much money as The Lord of the Rings, but count me among the exhausted viewers who are glad this franchise is finished. You know you’ve lost interest when you find the DVD special feature on filming in New Zealand to be way more interesting than the film itself. Time to move on….  Rob Weir