Back from the dead?: A critical review of “Cari Mora” (2019)

There is something rather clever about staying dead. Writer-director Satoshi Kon died unexpectedly in his mid-40s after having created no more than half a dozen intelligent and atmospheric thrillers like “Perfect Blue” and “Paranoia Agent.” The result? He would never go on to have a disappointing career. Likewise, Jim Morrison’s romantically early demise ensured that there would never be a bad Doors album–at least not with Unca Jimbo’s name on it.

The best part–if you’re into life–is you don’t even have to go that far. You can just wander off like a mad recluse, ala J. D. Salinger. Simply write some short stories and a great American novel, then go into self-enforced retirement, spinning a top sheet out of your fortune and infamy, possibly inspiring a few unhinged murderers along the way.

For a while, this appeared to be the strategy of Thomas Harris, the American writer who created the unforgettable serial killer Hannibal Lecter. As of last year, Harris had only written five novels, four of which featured Lecter and three of which I had read, all of them very literate and engaging thrillers. Even if the other two books were just OK, he would still be an above average, even great, pulp writer, very much in the vein of Ira Levin. And that had been his status since 2006, when “Hannibal Rising” was released (that’s one I haven’t read).

All that changed this year when Harris released “Cari Mora” and interrupted the formula. The new novel is still a thriller, but it does not feature Lecter, which all his novels have since the Reagan administration. So we’ve already drifted from that. Have we drifted from the top shelf quality of literate pulp thrillers? That’s a little harder to answer.

“Cari Mora’s” titular character is a former child soldier who fled Colombia and is now living–illegally–in Miami. She does odd jobs that keep her under the judicial radar, but they also throw her into the presence of characters that are either sketchy or somewhere south of sketchy. She has been tasked with house sitting a beachfront rental property whose central occupant is $25 million in gold in the basement. Two rival factions want it, and Mora finds herself in the middle and squaring off against one faction’s enforcer: the chilling psychopath Hans-Peter Schneider.

“Cari Mora” is, in a single word, disappointing. It’s not that it’s bad. There are a number of things that are quite good about the novel. Harris has a gift for creating fascinating characters, and many of them stand out here. I’m not just talking about Mora, who is a sufficiently sturdy female lead. She has standard action girl qualities, but they feel natural given her background and she has believable emotions to balance them and everything.

I’m also not just talking about Schneider, who could have just been a junior Hannibal Lecter, but maintains his own eccentric quirks and bad habits and suggestive past. I’m also talking about an old woman in a neighborhood Mora wants to move into who communicates with her sister across the street by whistling. Characters like that cement the dark central world and make the whole feel real.

Also, the novel is definitely descriptively deep enough, with Harris’s journalistic background on full display. He knows Miami Beach and he knows blasting caps, and all of it ought to fit perfectly naturally into the narrative. But it doesn’t.

The problem is that these elements aren’t strung together well. The pacing is all over the place. Sometimes the novel moves quite fast, but it often it does this by sacrificing coherency. Rather than glide, it jumps, and readers can be left wondering how exactly we got here.

Perhaps accordingly, some of those characters seemed tacked on or incomplete. For example, there’s a cop who is partially motivated by a grudge against one of the factions seeking the treasure. His character gets somewhat developed, until the narrative forgets that his background exists, and he only gets brought back to the foreground when he’s needed.

It almost feels like Harris wanted the character to be more, a love interest for Cari perhaps, but then dropped the whole thing. That makes sense for Cari’s character, as she could not just be handed love by a boilerplate plot, but it makes the cop’s presence in the book overdrawn and confusing. Why not give his time in the book instead to build up one of Cari’s criminal counterparts, who are already established? or the crocodile?

Maybe the whole book can all be summed up by the crocodile. A character was partially eaten partway through the book, and his death seemed awfully crocodilian, so I kept expecting a crocodile to emerge from the narrative sea. And it did. And it was great. That croc was a real monster. It had its own chapter and everything. And then, that was it. This wasn’t even the end, so the crocodile wasn’t an agent of fate or finality or at least the climax. And the crocodile didn’t die, so it could have come back. It just didn’t.

Look, I don’t want to tell you how to write your thriller, but it seems to me if you have a saltwater crocodile with a taste for human flesh, and you have both the researching and descriptive powers of Thomas Harris, you shouldn’t just forget about the crocodile. But that’s what this book is. All of the old potential is still on display, but it has little of the old payoff.

The visual centerpiece of the novel is a statue of the Virgin Mary, located in the basement of the house that contains the stockpile of gold. In a moment it suggests guilt, storms and salvation, the complex cultural stew of Miami, even the name of our heroine. It’s a nice central image. It’s just too bad it’s not surrounded by a more coherent story.

Lost in the labyrinth: A critical review of “Under the Silver Lake” (2019)

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell made horror headlines a few years ago with “It Follows,” a movie that, while not without flaws, was a clever and stylish indie flick that appeared to play homage to 1980s suburbia horror. So how does one follow that up? With a conspiracy soaked dark comedy Los Angeles noir. Obviously.

The biggest claim to fame Sam (Andrew Garfield) has had in his thirty-something years is either that he’s been successfully able to dodge paying his rent for months at a time or that he lives next to a bunch of attractive women. When one of them, Sarah (Riley Keough), vanishes, Sam takes it upon himself to figure out where she went.

Before he can figure that out, Sam will stumble upon multiple conspiracies, from who’s building those bunkers under Griffith Park to who controls the music industry to the identity of the mysterious Owl Woman, a naked woman with a bird head who murders men in their sleep. And before he can figure those out, we’ll have to wade through avant-garde art shows, indie film screenings and a few angry homeless people. It’s just another day in LA–although Sam still hasn’t paid his rent.

It can be interesting to see something from an outsider’s point of view. This seems to be Mitchell’s modus operandi, taking something he has seen before and giving it a go himself, which so far has had visually fascinating results. In “Under the Silver Lake,” he’s looking at Los Angeles. His view of the town is not quite right–material around the film referred to Silver Lake as “east Los Angeles,” which, I suppose, could be accurate if your home was in the Pacific Ocean–but it’s interesting nevertheless.

The expected way to look at Los Angeles since World War II has been film noir and crime thriller, and it’s obvious Mitchell has done his homework. Much of the film suggests classic cinema, from the deep, clean photography to the punchy orchestral score to the leisurely editing (cinematography, music and editing were Mike Gioulakis, Disasterpeace and Julio Perez IV, all “It Follows” alums). The Alfred Hitchcock vibes are strong, with shades of “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” most obvious, plus a little David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick thrown in for good measure.

On the one hand, a lot of appreciation of the film can come from one’s ability to recognize all these cues. On the other hand, like “It Follows,” the cinematic era is subtly suggested, with the cues woven into the overall fabric of the film rather than bluntly stated with obvious references. It helps to be a classic thriller fan to like “Under the Silver Lake,” but it’s not necessary.

What might be necessary, however, is an appreciation for a conspiracy insanity. In classic thriller fashion, the plot is cryptic, convoluted and tighter than a time lock, hinging on half-glimpsed monster sightings, near supernatural coincidences and secret messages in cereal boxes. The underground LA mythology of the movie feels so complete one could walk away from it thinking there must really be a legend of a killer Owl Woman stalking the Hollywood Hills.

Part of this is Garfield’s performance. The actor is utterly brilliant as Sam, convincing as both an unlikable, deadpan noir antihero and a head over heels conspiracy theory true believer. He dove so thoroughly into the part that critics raved about his role as the lead, even as their heads spun from the plot.

Like “Vertigo,” “Under the Silver Lake” is long and feels long, but it doesn’t feel overlong. All right, so there are a couple of climaxes, and your mileage may vary as far as ending fatigue goes, but the odds are, if you’ve enjoyed the bizarre and labyrinthine plot so far, you won’t mind the direction it eventually goes…unless we haven’t gone anywhere at all, and we’re all just lost in the labyrinth. At least we’re in good company.

“Can you hear me?”: A critical analysis of “Doki Doki Literature Club” (2017)

It goes without saying that language is important in “Doki Doki Literature Club!” The game is a visual novel, which means that a lot of the game requires players to click–and click and click–through boxes of written text. One prominent gameplay mechanic involves players selecting individual words, presumably prepping to write avant-garde poetry. It’s even in the title; the game is set in a literature club.

Poetry, literature, text and words. Language is the foundation of both “Doki Doki’s” story and gameplay. But the game is doing more with language than using it as a building block. It also makes a statement about language, about its purpose and value in defining us as human, and it does so with the character of Monika.

A quick exploration of “Doki Doki” fandom online reveals that Monika is one of the most popular club members. Perhaps this is unsurprising because, once you get past the memes and conspiracy theories, Monika is by far the most personable character–well, personable aside from acts of wanton digicide, but she had her reasons.

This has everything to do with the way the club members are all characterized. In the cases of Sayori, Yuri and Natsuki, the game uses stock visual novel character tropes to reveal depth and help us sympathize with them. Sayori is an overly cheerful optimist whose bright exterior hides a depressed interior; Yuri is initially aloof and chilly, but she grows passionate and intense; Natsuki’s blunt and harsh attitude guards her sensitive nature.

Combined with their cute anime designs, the characters’ personalities encourage players to get to know them, understand them and possibly help “fix” them–except one only has to watch Sayori’s story unfold to see that this isn’t that kind of game.

“Doki Doki” encourages us to sympathize with Monika in a much different way. For the first two acts, she never neatly conforms to a character type like the other club members, and she is largely a referee in the background while the game happens in the foreground.

But in the distinctive third act she winds up sitting across from the character. What does she do with her newfound focus? She talks. And talks. And talks. If you leave her “alive” long enough, Monika will talk indefinitely about a wide array of topics, as well as reflect on the present, have a concept of the future and perhaps reveal feelings of guilt about the past.

While this suggests that Monika is–or has been programmed to be–a deep thinker, it also indicates that she has been starving for someone to talk to. After all, before the player came along, who else was there? Not one of the other club members. They were never meant to think outside or be aware of a world beyond their personality types, and they don’t characterize themselves through meandering conversation. Monika has been waiting for someone like herself–someone informed and speculative–to come along.

This desire might go back to the purposes of language itself. Language has the practical benefits of helping us communicate and identifying us as members of a particular tribe. Language also has a psychological benefit; by naming objects or events, we gain a sense of understanding or control over them. Combine these benefits and another more existential or ontological benefit emerges. Language helps us affirm our humanity to others, and we use it to gauge the humanity of others as well.

We use language to determine other people’s knowledge and trustworthiness; to determine their identity, from what part of the world they come to individual quirks that identify a specific person; to determine their intelligence, since well spoken people are, for better or worse, generally thought to be smarter.

This is partly based on how our language is a representation of our intelligence and identity, both to ourselves and to others. We can’t help living inside our heads, and we observe and interpret reality through those heads. Language provides a way to catalog that reality for ourselves, as we can use language to categorize experiences, memories and information.

When we translate that inner dialogue to others, we can use spoken or written language. This is why writing is so personal. It’s not just words. It’s an expression of how smart we are, how much we have learned and how we see the world. It is also an expression of shared humanity–this is how I see the world, and I know I’m human, so if you’re human too, you probably see things in a somewhat similar way (ever notice how we often assume that people we like hold similar beliefs to us?).

Recognizing a fellow English speaker is an expression of a shared culture; recognizing a particular memory is an expression of a shared experience. In these cases, language provides a structure that bridges the gap between individuals. Any time we point language toward another human being in a reflective way, we are acknowledging their shared humanity while attempting to prove our own. That’s perhaps why the Turing Test relies on language–essentially the ability for a machine to use language in such a way that it appears to be human–to test machine intelligence.

The phrase “Can you hear me?” is used multiple times by Monika. She says it in text box to get the attention of the player rather than the player character; it’s the name of a .txt file, presumably written by Monika, that appears in the game’s directory in the second act; and it introduces the song that plays over the closing credits, the only truly spoken dialogue in the game. It is not enough that Monika can speak. She wants to be heard, she wants you to do the hearing, and what she wants you to hear is that she is basically human–unlike those other club members who were clearly not.

There is debate about whether there is something special about Monika’s character, but she is the only club member who seems to have some of the attributes we use to determine humanity: complexity of character, intelligence, a sense of destiny and agency. It’s one reason why it’s possible to reconsider Monika’s character and her horror movie actions. After all, if you suddenly found yourself the only truly human being in a world where you were surrounded by philosophical zombies–pesky beings whose humanity you could not verify and did not trust–what would you do to get close to the only other apparent human being and have a real conversation?