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July 19/18

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: On Chesil Beach, First Reformed and Darkest Hour (Movies); Don't Let Go, Never Go Back, The Child Finder and The Second Sister (Thriller/Mysteries)

On Chesil Beach (Movie) written by Ian McEwan (novel and screenplay); directed by Dominic Cooke; starring Billy Howle, Saoirse Ronan, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, Samuel West.

The novel was so good (see the rave review on DD page dated June 8/07) that there was no way I was going to miss the movie. It’s the story of a young British couple on their wedding night in 1962. Given their inexperience, things don’t go so well in the honeymoon suite, with tremendous repercussions.

It’s a lovely movie to watch. Lots of beautiful scenery: bleak seascapes surrounding the honeymoon hotel. And, in the flashback to pre-marriage days, country gardens chock full of flowers going wild around cramped, cluttered cottages. Some tender and moving scenes in those settings, especially one moment where Adrian Scarborough shows a middle-aged dad’s love and compassion for his son in the restrained way that a man of his generation would. Not least among the other pleasures of the movie is some gorgeous chamber music, given that the young woman plays in a quartet.

But there are two major problems with the movie.

First, I had trouble believing in this young couple (Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan). They seem younger, more callow than I imagined them, the man in particular. He doesn’t seem like the university grad that he’s supposed to be. And yet, even though they seem so jejune, it was difficult to believe that any two young people, even in 1962, could be as tentative about carnal affairs as these two are. This isn’t the fault of either actor; they’re both good. Maybe it’s partly an issue of casting.

Fundamentally, though, what we’re up against is the difference between your experience of a movie and of a novel. When you’re reading a book, you form your own picture of the characters according to how you feel about them. If there seem to be any inconsistencies, you can somehow reconcile them in your mind, provided that you do like the characters and you find their situations engaging. When confronted with real people on the screen, however, people who look a certain way and talk a certain way, there’s the risk that they may not fit into your conception of what they might be like. The discrepancies keep getting in the way of your believing in them. That’s what was happening to me in this case. Admittedly, this wouldn’t be a problem for a viewer who, not having read the book beforehand, had no preconception of what the characters would be like.

Still, there’s another problem with the movie that, I think, might bother any viewer. The dramatic structure isn’t strong. The whole movie turns on one thing that happens in a few seconds on that wedding night in the hotel room. (It’s difficult to discuss the movie without referring to this plot point because it’s the only one.) Up to that point, there really isn’t much dramatic tension. Through many flashbacks, we see the romance and the build-up to the wedding. It’s all sweet and charming. If you’ve read the book, you know the problem that’s coming but, if you haven’t, there isn’t much to hook your interest.

When that pivotal moment occurs, about half way through the movie, the floodgates open and the drama comes pouring out: long, tempestuous speeches like the tidewaters spreading over the beaches. Torrents of angst that had been hidden in the first part of the movie. That doesn’t make for effective theatre, in my estimation. In good theatre and movies the main argument of the piece catches your attention in the first few moments and carries you through to the conclusion.

So what are we left with here? Not a study of human nature that we can take some meaning from. Not the kind of drama where we can learn from the characters’ mistakes. Not something we can apply to our own lives. Just one tiny incident that wrecked everything. An unfortunate mishap. In an ugly flashback we see the girls’ father (Samuel West) being egregiously over-bearing in a tennis game with his prospective son-in-law. Is that supposed to be a hint of the ensuing problems in the up-coming marriage? Is it a warning to fathers-in-law? Doesn’t work for me. What’s the point of the movie, then? Maybe it’s a plea for better sex education in schools. But that battle has long since been won.

And I take it as a sign that a movie’s not working well when it has to jump ahead about fifteen years, and then another three decades or so, to reveal how things turned out in the long run. Lots of prosthetics to show you how our friends have aged and lots of sentiment to tie up loose ends. The movie might have had more impact if we’d left those disconsolate youngsters back on the beach in 1962.

 

First Reformed (Movie) written and directed by Paul Schrader; starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man with a tragic past, has been given charge of a small church somewhere in the rural U.S. After church service one day, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks the Reverend if he will have a chat with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Problem is, Mary’s pregnant, but Michael, an environmentalist, thinks it’s wrong to give birth to a child on a planet that is doomed to destruction as a result of our wanton disregard for nature. That strikes me as an excellent premise for a movie that could be quite gripping.

But not this one.

It’s so stagey and solemn that it reeks of Ingmar Bergman. Do we really need another opus about a clergyman who’s struggling with his faith, who can’t pray? Do we want to hear his lugubrious journal entries constantly intoned in portentous voice-over? What’s with these stark interiors – vast, empty rooms in the pastor’s house with nothing in them but a chair and a chandelier? How does such a pathetic little church keep going with an average attendance at services of about ten people? And why does the Reverend insist that he’s keeping a hand-written journal when we see him laboriously printing it by hand, not writing it? Is he really that stodgy?

Nothing wrong with Ethan Hawke’s acting, but his character is such a sad sack! One of the few points where you see anything like human ambiguity in him is the scene where he tries to figure out how to respond to an off-colour joke that somebody tells him. The rest of the time, he’s unrelentingly morose and somber. At times, he's photographed so studiously that a glow in his eyes makes him look like he's possessed of some demon.

By contrast with the laboured feeling of the rest of the movie, I do like Mary and Michael, the young couple. They have an unpolished ordinariness about them. The Reverend’s scene with Michael – where the two men argue their positions as vigorously as they can – is one of the best in the movie. In fact, it’s the kind of scene that belongs in any text on screen writing or acting. And the actor who calls himself Cedric the Entertainer (otherwise known as Cedric Kyles) manages to inject some warmth into the role of Reverend Toller’s hearty boss. But the scene where he and Reverend Toller are duelling with scripture quotes treds dangerously close to the clich cliff, barely managing not to fall over.

The movie does have a few good scenes. A funeral at a junky, polluted waterfront lot offers one of the more unconventional episodes in that genre. A flicker of life leaps up in a youth group discussion at the church: one teenager protests that this Jesus stuff is for losers; it doesn't lead to success. That looks like it might lead to something interesting but it doesn't. One of the few charms of the movie is some gospel singing. A lot more of that might have helped the medicine to go down. And a little bit of hanky-panky during the singing – a female chorister’s slapping a male chorister’s hand away from her bum – offers practically the only light moment in the whole movie. A bit of magical realism that's supposed to have a leavening effect didn't do anything for me.

The ending provides all the over-the-top angst and frenzy that you’d expect from such a steamed up concoction. The only things missing are thunder and lightning.

 

Darkest Hour (Movie) written by Anthony McCarten; directed by Joe Wright; starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West.

The man who is the subject of this movie could not be mentioned in my childhood home. The reason? His attitude to the Irish. Somewhat less than sympathetic, it might be said. His solution to the problem with the Irish, reportedly, was to exterminate them.

So it was not easy to appreciate the chorus of praise that the mention of the man’s name usually elicited in the culture that surrounded us. However, I have gradually steeled myself to the possibility of learning that he might have had something worthwhile to contribute to humanity. Hence, my viewing of this movie.

I’d forgotten – if I ever knew – that there was so much opposition to Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War. He was, to say the least, an unfavourable choice when Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) was forced to step aside. The popular choice, it seems, would have been Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) but he declined, for personal reasons, to take on the job. King George VI was particularly dismayed at the thought of having Churchill as his Prime Minister.

Nor did I recall that there was such strenuous opposition to Churchill’s aggressive response to Hitler. Chamberlain and Halifax were, in fact, conniving to arrange a peace with Hitler, Mussolini acting as go-between. It was their hope that such an arrangement would force Churchill to quit and Chamberlain would take over as PM again. Churchill apparently was willing, at one point, to see if such a pact might be possible with Hitler, but he changed his mind and reverted to full out combat against Germany.

Gary Oldman isn’t Churchill – he misses some of the man’s weight of personality and his slobbering sensuality – but he’s enough like Churchill to carry the movie convincingly. We get several of the famous quotes, like "All babies look like me" and "Stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you!" And his response, when asked how he can handle so much booze: "Practice!" It would be nice to know, though, whether some scenes are historical or apocryphal. For instance, Churchill’s escaping his minders and taking a ride on the underground where he tries to find out what the people really think about him. Did that happen? And the King showing up unannounced in Churchill’s bedroom late at night. Is that plausible?

Ben Mendelsohn, by the way, is the best King George VI that I’ve seen in any of the recent movies and tv series touching on that era. With cigarette almost always in hand, he captures perfectly the elegance, the shyness, the aloofness and yet the humanity of the man. One of the most interesting aspects of Darkest Hour is watching how the relationship between the King and Churchill gradually moves from a frosty correctness on the monarch’s part to a genuine friendship.

It’s great entertainment in the Masterpiece Theatre style, including majestic music. Lots of smoky rooms, rainy streets and umbrellas re-create the period in picture book style. Although not a minute of it feels real, it’s enjoyable and informative. Still, I felt worn out by the watching – for the simple reason that it was so hard to figure out, most of the time, what Churchill was saying. Early on in the movie, a secretary (Lily James) who’s coming to work for him is warned that she'll have to listen to him closely because he mumbles a lot. That’s one trait of the man that Mr. Oldman captures all too well.

 

Don’t Let Go (Mystery/Thriller) by Harlan Coben, 2017

One of the enjoyable things about Harlan Coben’s books is that he introduces a new hero every time. They’re always unique and interesting characters. Here, we have Napoleon "Nap" Dumas, a suburban New Jersey detective. He has recently found reasons to look into the deaths of his brother and his brother’s girlfriend whose bodies were found on a railroad track fifteen years ago. However, the book opens with a fiendish swindle perpetrated by a male cop and a female accomplice. It’s a brilliant scene, but it takes a long time to figure out how this connects back to the deaths of the teenagers so many years ago.

One thing that helps to fill out the character of Nap is the fact that he often addresses his thoughts to his dead brother, Leo. This also adds considerable poignancy to the story. In one speech to Leo, he says:

I told you everything. Everything. There is nothing I kept from you. There is nothing I was embarrassed or ashamed to tell you because I knew you’d still love me. For everyone else, there is a bit of a facade. There has to be. But with you and me, there was none.

And here are Nap’s thoughts about a woman friend:

I have had my share of bad breaks in life, I guess. I have no family, no girlfriend, no good prospects, not a lot of friends. But this magnificent person, this woman whose pure goodness is so blindingly obvious in the darkest of nights, is my best friend. Think about that. Ellie chose me for that role - best friend – and that means, no matter how much of a mess I may be, I do some things right.

Nap also has what might be described as a certain do-gooder instinct, in that he takes it on himself to intervene with smokers he doesn’t even know, as in this speech to someone he has encountered at random:

My father died of lung cancer because he smoked. So I can just walk right past you – or I can try to save your life. Chances are, you won’t listen to me, but maybe if I do this often enough, maybe just one time, someone will stop and think and maybe even quit. So I’m asking you – I’m sort of begging you – please don’t smoke.

Which is not to say that Nap is a saint. Following an incident where he wreaked bloody vengeance on a guy, Nap admits that we readers will wonder how he, as a cop sworn to uphold the law, can justify what he did. "I don’t. I’m a hypocrite. We all are." He then explains that he’s "not a huge fan of vigilantism." But he sees the world, as he puts it, like a bar where a man is beating the crap out of a woman, taunting her, then promising to make amends, then smashing her in the face again. Nap has to step in. Towards the end of the book, though, he has some second thoughts about this method of proceeding.

A touch of social satire has Nap making this observation about what he calls "one of those McMansions":

.... with an indoor pool, a formal ballroom, eight hundred bathrooms, and a million square feet of mostly useless space. Everything about the house is nouveau riche. The driveway gate is an overly ornate metal sculpture of children flying a kite. It is all wanting to look too old by looking too new. It’s labored, trying too hard, tacky. But that’s my take.

As usual, Mr. Coben’s writing is a pleasure to read, for the most part. A grammatical anomaly startled me, though. Mr. Coben has Nap saying (twice): "He you remember." Why would anybody say this? Surely, anybody would know instinctively that the correct form of the pronoun, being the object of the verb remember, would be "Him." Is the speaker trying to be very proper, thinking that the subjective case is required since the pronoun comes at the beginning of the sentence? Nap doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would resort to that kind of pretension.

The author doesn’t fall back on autonomic responses as often as some mystery writers do, but he does rather over-do the physical sensations accompanying emotions. Nap tells us that the sound of a name "punches me in the teeth" and twenty pages later we get "Another punch in the teeth." Sprinkled throughout are statements like: my heart stops, I feel my heart bottom out, a cold finger is travelling down my back, Ellie’s words rip through my head like talons, I feel the chill sitting in this dark car alone with this man, even as he is warming up to the tale, relief courses through me, my heart drops.

In terms of more overt physicality, Nap tells us: "Then I reach out, grab him by the balls, and squeeze." An emphatic gesture, to be sure, but is it actually possible to do that to a man who is wearing pants? And perhaps the most amazing – and implausible – example of physical prowess is the situation where a man gets hit over the head – it might be with a tire iron or a baseball bat – and he’s out cold for a bit, then he’s tortured with water-boarding, but an hour or so later, i.e. twenty pages on, he’s ready for randy sex.

The book ends with a nice suprise; well, not a nice surprise, but a surprising one.

 

Never Go Back (Mystery/Thriller) by Lee Child, 2013

This is one of those Jack Reacher adventures where the author puts our hero back in the military service. If that’s somewhat unexpected to us, it is to Reacher too. He’s hauled back into the forces by some technicality that he wasn’t aware of but that entitles them to call on his services when needed. Turns out he’s being charged with some bad stuff that went down on his watch in the military some years ago. Meanwhile, something’s gone wonky at the base where he was once the Commanding Officer. The woman who was the CO until just recently has been sidelined because she’s accused of taking bribes, but the charge looks suspicious to Reacher. His search to find out what’s going on will take him deep into his own past.

Several engaging aspects of Reacher’s character come to the fore. A touch of his mordant humour comes in the scene where he informs some thugs that one of their pals is dead. First, he asks if they’ve got some dark suits. They ask why. Because you’re going to a funeral, he tells them. A woman tells Reacher that it’s like he’s "been sanded down to nothing but yes and no, and you and them, and black and white, and live or die. It makes me wonder what does that to a person." Reacher’s answer: "Life. Mine anyway."

He gives an intriguing explanation of why he never settles down. It’s all about evolution, he says. To counteract inbreeding, a gene evolved for wandering; every little band of humans had to have one person who liked to wander, so that the gene pools would get mixed up a little: "I think ninety-nine of us grow up to love the campfire, and one grows up to hate it. Ninety-nine of us grow up to fear the howling wolf, and one grows up to envy it. And I’m that guy." Another interesting reference to evolution comes in Reacher’s explanation of why he doesn’t mind going hungry:

He believed hunger kept him sharp. He believed it stimulated creativity in the brain .... If you’re hungry, you work out a smarter way to get the next woolly mammoth, today, not tomorrow.

One bit of rueful wisdom is vintage Reacher: "No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy." And yet, as in every book, we get a good description of Reacher’s fighting technique, especially his knack for figuring out all the moves a second before anybody else can. This helps to make his victories believable. In a couple of instances, he breaks the fingers of some guys on an airplane – necessarily, of course – but it doesn't make for comfortable reading. Again, though, we’re reminded of Reacher’s limitations; he’s not a superpower. He’s a bad driver, for instance. "His spatial awareness and his reaction times were all based on a human scale, not a highway scale. They were up close and personal. Animal, not machine."

One of the things that comes back from Reacher’s past to haunt him, says Mr. Child, is an official charge of adultery, cited as a crime in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I wonder if this is a slip on the author’s part. As far as I can see, neither Reacher nor the woman involved was married. The charge wouldn’t be adultery, then, but fornication – if there is such a charge.

The convoluted explanation for all the skulduggery underlying Reacher’s problems in the book takes about two pages of complicated debriefing that can be hard to follow, but that doesn’t mitigate the pleasure that the book provides overall.

 

The Child Finder (Mystery) by Rene Denfeld, 2017

It took me a while to get into this one. Unlike the typical whodunnit, it’s a moody, brooding, poetic piece. The ambiance, the setting, the atmosphere, the feelings of the detective and her relationships with the other characters count more than the plot details.

The plot, such as it is, involves the disappearance three years previously of Madison, a girl who was five years old at the time. She and her parents were choosing a Christmas tree in the woodlands of Oregon. One moment she was with them; next moment she was gone. Now they’ve called in Naomi, a woman known to have some skill in finding missing persons. As Naomi goes about her search for Madison, we get fragmented glimpses of her own mysterious childhood and her efforts to make sense of her origins.

One of the things that makes this book less plot-driven and suspenseful than might be expected is that, interspersed with descriptions of Naomi’s search, we get passages that tell of the life of Madison, the young child, as it’s happening now. She’s being kept prisoner in a cabin by a trapper. Told expertly from a young child’s point of view, with the limited comprehension of how the world works, these passages have a heart-breaking believability about them. (They remind me of Emma Donoghue’s Room as told by the little boy who’s being held captive with his mother.) Along with her fear and bewilderment, Madison, of course, develops a strange bond with her captor. He is, after all, her only source of food and shelter. He is her everything.

We know that Naomi has some work to do on her sense of her own value when she tells someone: "I’m only worth the kids I find." And yet, her professionalism is impressive:

She had found her way into homes by acting lost and asking for directions, by yelling in a panic as if she was the one being chased, and by pretending to be everyone from a door-to-door salesperson to a long-lost relative. In the trunk of her car she kept a yellow safety vest and a hard hat, both with the false logos for a demolition firm. More than one captor had opened his door thinking that Naomi was there with a condemned-property notice. Others had opened their doors because of one of the dozen fake business cards she kept in her bag.

From her experience, Naomi offers this note that could be seen as a bit of sociology or psychology: "Of the children she had found, the ones who did best over the long term were the ones who had found a way to play. They created fantasy worlds in which to hide. Some even talked their captors into getting them toys."

To my taste, there is too much reliance on telling dreams in this book. (Wasn’t it Henry James who said something like "Tell a dream and lose a reader"?) And granting that the style is meant to be evocative, I found some over-writing, as in:

You, her heart said, as the miles and earth began to move again. You, as the trees unfolded to a sky. You, as scent and light awakened.

Me.

And:

The inside of fear, snow girl knew, was like the inside of a wet animal pelt. The fresh hide was ribboned with white, glossy with fat, the feel of muscle not far away - the pot where it bubbles. That exposed, stretched skin.

Fear? Really?

In spite of my initial hesitancy about this book, however, I find that, in its quiet way, it has more resonance than many more exciting, adventurous ones. A possibility of romance with a kind man who shared some of Naomi’s childhood is handled sensitively. Without wanting to give away too much of the story, I can say that there is a satisfying sense of things coming full circle in the end. You begin to understand why some terrible things happen and you can even feel some sympathy for the troubles of the perpetrators as well as the victims.

 

The Second Sister (Mystery) by Claire Kendal, 2017

Ella, a young Brit, is obsessed with finding out what happened to her older sister, Miranda, who vanished ten years earlier. The setting is somewhere in England. (I’m not sure that the town is ever identified.) One of the most likeable aspects of the book is Ella’s relationship with her nephew, Luke, Miranda’s son. It’s not often that we get such a believably warm and friendly communication between an adult and a ten-year-old relative.

While the story is engaging, this book suffers from some traits that are more common in a less satisfying kind of detection fiction. A friend of Ella’s, or perhaps we should say an erstwhile friend, is entirely too awful in her venom and spite to be real. I frequently found myself noting that things were stated too strongly; people’s reactions were exaggerated. Ella’s mother is ridiculously strict about claiming that Ella is a bad influence on their grandson. The grandma won’t let Ella take him to a Halloween bonfire, for example, because bonfires are too dangerous. Bonfires? Dangerous? A policeman friend of Ella’s – an attractive and intelligent man – is too blatant in his contempt for psychiatrists who exculpate certain criminals on the grounds of mental illness.

The book is so reliant on autonomic responses that I gave up making notes on them. In about two hundred pages, I counted at least twenty incidences of things like: a stomach lined with nerves, a small electric shock in someone’s fingertips, fingers tingling, knuckles going white, some photos make someone’s insides freeze, a sentence pulses away through someone’s blood.... and so on. I don’t know why writers, if they think about this at all, keep using these shorthand ways of trying to convey feelings. The descriptions would be acceptable if life were like that, but I don’t think most people’s bodies are constantly reacting that way. Similarly, I think this author makes too much of the sense of smell. Granted, my own olfactory function is somewhat deficient at this stage of my life, but Ella’s frequent and extreme reactions to smells make me feel that the author is laying it on too thick.

In a similar way, it seemed to me that the writer sometimes draws out the delaying tactics in a too obvious attempt to create suspense. In a meeting with Ella and her mother, for instance, the older woman keeps refusing to divulge information that she has summoned Ella with the express purpose of divulging. (Maybe Ms. Kendal is thinking of the scene where the Nurse reports back to Juliet after arranging an assignation with Romeo.) Among other flaws in the writing, attention to versimilitude is a bit slack as, for instance, in a section where a mere ten minutes is supposed to have passed while we’ve ploughed through twelve pages of contentious dialogue. A feat of lip-reading that’s important to the plot looks much too handy. Some of the romantic to-ing and fro-ing is so melodramatic that there’s a tinge of Harlequin in the air. At one point, a crucial action on Ella’s part is launched by not much more than a typical Nancy Drew prompt: ".... something makes me kneel down to examine the wardrobe’s floor." And is it a little cynical on the part of a reader to anticipate that, because Ella is taking impressive classes on women’s self defence, the climax of the book will call on Ella’s training in that art?

Given that the mechanics of the mystery work well enough, this book would have been better, in my opinion, if the author hadn’t relied on so many cheap tricks to try to up the thrill quotient.

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