The Book of Henry – Critics Hate it – Audiences Love it

The Book of Henry film poster.jpg

“The Book of Henry” is much deeper in meaning and in spirit that most movie critics are willing to acknowledge.  It is a movie that critics hate and audiences love.  I found it to be a spell-binder.  The film is about a single mother, Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts), attempting to raise two sons.  Eleven-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is an off-the-charts genius who manages the family finances, makes many adult decisions and looks after his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay – “Room”), partly out of necessity because mom is an incompetent flake.  While this is a movie about and starring children, it is also an adult coming-of-age movie.  Henry is our immediate focus as he acts as the parent in this story because his mother Susan has yet to grow up.  It is Henry who finally forces his mother to accept and embrace adulthood and responsibility.

As for Susan, her burning desire is to illustrate and write children’s books, but she is so uncertain of her own abilities as an adult, let alone a writer and artist, that she works as a waitress in a neighborhood cafe and drives around in an old heap that is barely hanging together.  She is perpetually late picking up her children from school and spends her leisure playing interactive video games.  She will never be nominated for Mother of the Year.   But there is something endearing about her in the way she befriends her fellow waitress Sheila (Sarah Silverman) and reads to her children at bedtime every night with an affection that is reminiscent of what is aspirational in all parents.  Yet part of her emotional growth is stilted because Henry is so masterful in all matters of organizing a life and running a household.  He totally manages the family finances and cannot get Susan even to look at a financial statement.  It is Henry who is on the phone with brokers tweaking the family’s financial portfolio.  It is also Henry who uses all the traditional avenues to try to find justice and asylum for his neighbor.

Henry spends much of his time in an eclectic tree house where he works on Rube Goldberg-type inventions.  He and his brother Peter communicate by walkie- talkies even when standing next to each other.  It is Henry’s decision to remain in a regular neighborhood classroom because he believes he should interact socially with his peers rather than be isolated in a school for geniuses.   He also has an obvious crush on the girl next door, Christina Sickleman (Maddie Ziegler), who lives with her stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), the local chief of police.  Christina shows all the symptoms of abuse at the hands of her stepfather, and Henry is determined to put an end to it.  But Chief Sickleman is surrounded by people who are either related to him or are fearful of his influence.

There are some sad moments in this movie which I do not believe rise to the level of being labeled a “tear-jerker” as some critics have alleged.  The sad moments are the jumping off place for the inevitable growth of Susan into adulthood, the affirmation of Peter as a person of confidence, and an answer to the plight of the neighbor Christina.  Other critics are angry because they did not see the ending coming – yet I am certain if they had seen the ending coming they would have criticized it for being predictable.  And, finally, Roger Ebert was upset because he felt this movie was a formulaic throw-back to earlier films, as if the only good movie with a kids’ cast was “E.T.”  Ebert never even reviewed “LaLaLand” – which I also loved in spite of its regeneration of the old Hollywood musical genre – including “Singing in the Rain.” To my way of thinking, watching a movie is about the experience of seeing something for the first time.  Hopefully, it is fresh and entertaining – sometimes, enlightening.  I believe this film hit upon all three.

The acting is excellent.  Watts is totally believable in all her iterations of parenthood.  The performances of Tremblay and Lieberher are so engaging it is almost disappointing when they are not at center screen.  And although Silverman has taken a lot of criticism as a stand-up comedian, she is very likeable as Susan’s alcoholic-leaning, tattooed best friend.  There are wonderful moments of humor in this movie.  My favorite is when Henry is determined to make his little brother laugh by casting himself as a mountain climber in a blizzard – that’s where the aviator’s cap and goggles come in.  And we will all be quoting how Henry observed that there are worse things than violence – namely, apathy.

This movie is not big on hype or budget, but it offers big entertainment for anyone willing to immerse him/herself in the movie experience and to wait to find out how the story gently unfolds and the actors skillfully play their parts.

MY COUSIN RACHEL – Good Period Piece

My Cousin Rachel

The 2017 film version of Daphne du Maurier’s  gothic mystery novel “My Cousin Rachel” can’t help but invite comparison to the 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland and, yes, Richard Burton.  The contemporary script attributed to director Robert Michell is an almost word-for- word adaptation of the earlier Nunnally Johnson script, so the distinctions between the two films rest primarily with the casts.

De Havilland was the headliner in the earlier film, but her performance as the youngish widow Rachel Ashley was only lukewarm compared with the powerful and enigmatic performance of Rachel Weisz who clearly shines in this role.  Unhappily, Sam Claflin’s version of the 24-year old Philip Ashley pales in comparison to the Oscar performance of Burton.  Claflin comes across as manic and child-like compared with the more subtle adaptation by Burton.

Philip Ashley, orphaned as a child, was taken in as a ward of his cousin Ambrose who clearly adored and spoiled Philip.  The two shared a rather isolated life together on the stormy coast of Cornwall in a dark and gloomy mansion.  Their only regular companions, apart from their dogs and servants, seem to have been Philip’s godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger).  When Ambrose’s health being to fail, at the advice of his physicians, he seeks the warmer climate of Florence, Italy.  There he meets and marries Rachel, who insists on being called Cousin Rachel.

In the beginning, the letters Ambrose sends to Philip indicate total contentment with his new bride.  In time, however, the letters grow much darker and Ambrose grows more and more suspicious of his wife Rachel who forces him to drink foul potions she brews herself.  Only when she is out of the house does Ambrose dare to post a letter home.  Although Philip becomes more and more concerned, it isn’t until he receives a final plea from Ambrose to come at once that he rushes to Florence to save his cousin.   Alas, Philip arrives too late and finds that Ambrose has already died.  The death certificate reveals that Ambrose died of a brain tumor, though Philip is convinced that Ambrose died at the hand of Cousin Rachel. Philip plots revenge on the widow.

As it happens, Philip, and not Rachel, is the sole heir of the Ashley fortune, although it is possible that Rachel may make a case for receiving her fair share of the late Ambrose’s estate.  When she shows up at the Ashley estate, making no claim on the property, she is nothing like Philip had imagined.  She is charming, witty, and completely companionable, much to Philip’s surprise.  She is so charming, in fact, that Philip falls madly and blindly in love with her.  Philip is only a short time away from coming into his inheritance at the age of 25.  Although both his godfather Kendall and Kendall’s daughter Louise try to warn Philip away from falling to the wiles of a possibly promiscuous and clearly mysterious Rachel, Philip is adamant that Rachel is an innocent.  In fact, he leaves his entire fortune to Rachel with the proviso that if she ever marries the estate will revert to Philip.

No wonder that when Philip asks for Rachel’s hand in the company of a dinner gathering, Rachel is appalled.  She refuses his offer.  Louise has to explain to Philip that Rachel’s marriage, even to Philip, would cause the entire estate to fall back to Philip.  Now we are wondering ourselves about the motivation of the enchanting Rachel.

There is a back and forth as Philip tries to wrestle with the idea of Rachel’s motivation.  She sneaks off almost daily to rendezvous with her old Italian friend, played by Pierfrancesco Favino.  In addition, she offers Philip bitter brews of herbs and Philip falls quite ill.  This causes us to question the real character of Cousin Rachel.  Is she a charming killer, or killingly charming?

Unfortunately, the 2017 film leaves out the enigmatic ending that du Maurier provided in her book and that was the ending of the 1952 film.

If you are a true film buff, you will want to watch both movies to invite your own comparisons of the high points and low points of each.  But either way the film is mostly true to the book and the photography of a sunny and brilliant Cornwall is stunning.  Weisz’s performance is brilliant and makes the movie worth seeing.

THE MUMMY should stay in the tomb

“The Mummy” is the worst movie I have ever seen and quite possibly the worst movie ever produced and promoted as a “must see.” What was Tom Cruise thinking? Did he ever read the script? Or, like our president, have someone read a few highlights to it because he hates to read? If the latter, then the reader clearly skipped over the parts that would have made a normal actor decide to skip the role.

So entirely mundane and totally without relevance, we begin this movie with an unlikely scenario of two military nothings scavenging for buried treasure in the middle of a war zone. Then we are whisked away to the Crusades of the middle ages where some holy men are entombed in a catacomb – one such monk is buried with a precious stone – dating back thousands of years to the Egyptians. Back again to today we find an ancient burial ground and a smart blonde who seemingly is a civilian annexed to the military who unearths the tomb of the ancient queen of evil. Well, you can imagine the rest. Or maybe you can’t, and that is just as well. Consider yourself lucky. What? You don’t get to meet the evil doctor J. Hyde? And you don’t get to crash with an aircraft that is torn to shreds and live to tell about it? But wait there’s more… Oh, forget it. This script was clearly written by a committee and everyone got to keep his juicy part in the script. Maybe that is why it never hangs together. Too many cooks?? Too many writers. Save your dime – don’t even watch this when it is streaming for free.

If you absolutely MUST see the movie, watch the Boris Karloff version circa 1932.  It is at least compelling and horrifying.

Wonder Woman is Wonderful

“Wonder Woman” is, well, a wonder.  It’s a wonder that it took the DC Comics franchise so long to offer its fans this flesh and blood superhero in a starring role.   Warner Brothers has discovered that this wonderful woman has attracted an audience of both genders, perhaps because she appeals to the machismo and feminine sides that reside together in all of our psyches.  Apart from the usual action film message of action for action’s sake, there is also a nobler idea presented in this film:  that war is not good and that maybe women have a more simplistic sense of how to dismantle it than do men.  Perhaps because this film is directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, the secondary message of non-violence comes across as a dominant theme.  Yet, as with any action movie, there is the striking juxtaposition of good versus evil with a violent war as background for this film.

The film starts with a cherubic little 5 or 6 year-old Diana (Lilly Aspell) gleefully running away from her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) to watch the Amazonian warrior women in training under their general Antiope (Robin Wright) who is also the Queen’s sister.  From her imitating jabs and antics on the sidelines, it is clear that Diana is taken with these warrior women. Her mother, however, envisions a life of enduring peace since the island they live on is hidden away, presumably by a spell cast by the Greek god Zeus, and she sees no reason for her daughter to learn martial arts – we’re talking bows and arrows and swords and shields – clearly the trappings of an earlier age.

Antiope prevails as she sees potential in Diana as a warrior, and she is also aware that Diana is no mere mortal.  Through hard physical lessons and relentless training, Diana (Gal Gadot), now magnificently mature and talented, becomes a fearsome warrior.  In a parallel universe, World War I is being waged – apparently not far from the Amazonian paradise.  Through some chink in the armor that protects the island, an Allied pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his flaming biplane into the sea, just as Diana is standing watch from a cliff.  Diana saves him, but he soon drags the perverse outside world with him as boatloads of Germans rush onto the island shores.  In many respects the guns of the Germans are no match for the warrior women’s bows and arrows, but the women prevail.

Believing that all war is caused by the evil god of war Ares (who escaped the hand of Zeus and made his way into the world of men), Diana asks Steve to take her to the war – presumably the western front.  Diana believes that she can take the magical “god killer” sword with her, plunge it into the heart of Ares, and end war – not just this war but all wars.

Before arriving at the front, there is a humorous scene of Diana trying on western garb which makes for difficult martial arts maneuvering.  There is also a delightful scene of Diana (a woman, heaven forbid) entering the House of Lords where the factions are debating the possibility of continuing the war or declaring an armistice.  What makes the movie so engaging is Diana’s naivety when it comes to the ways of the modern world.  She is both flabbergasted and amused at the complexity of it all because everything is, to her point of view, rather straight forward.  In fact, this is precisely how she faces the war when she finally gets to the front.  She charges right into battle, into the oncoming fire power of machine guns, with nothing more than her shield, sword and the magical armored bracelets.  The Allies fall in behind her and it seems that peace will prevail.

But there are sinister plots in the making, and the Germans continue to develop a poisonous gas that will quickly wipe out whole villages of innocent citizens.  German commander Ludendorff (Danny Huston) encourages the evil German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) to perfect the gas, and it is soon ready to be transported by plane to an unsuspecting world.

It is easy to pan the stereotyped characters of the bad guys; and for some audiences, the ultimate final airborne battle between Diana and Ares, who has assumed the persona of an ordinary human, may be a bit too much fireworks.  But we knew all along that Wonder Woman would prevail amid the explosions and pandemonium – which is one of the many reasons we came to see this movie.  Still, this is a giant step forward for women in superhero starring roles, and I hope it is the beginning of many.

The photography in this film is magnificent.  The sets and costumes totally capture and lend authenticity to the period of World War I London.  The acting on the part of the Amazon women is engaging and energetic.  The interaction between the young slightly irascible aviator Stephen and the thoroughly schooled but naïve Diana is priceless.  It all makes for a fun movie experience.

THE LOVERS – Sex among the 60’s+

Lovers movie poster

It’s been days since I viewed “The Lovers” and I’m still not sure what to make of it.  It feels like a low budget Indie film, which it is, and debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.  It is not much on dialogue, with lots of pregnant spaces instead of conversation, since the marrieds (Debora Winger and Tracy Letts) have little to say to each other after 25 years of a disappointing marriage.  At its core, the film is about infidelity, since both parties are having affairs with younger people, and each is planning to spring the news on his/her spouse in the very near future.

Infidelity is not a new subject, but in the form of sixty-something year olds with pot bellies, wrinkles, and sagging everything, it comes across as amusing when the scenes turn to sex (as they often do).  Mary and Michael have both resolved themselves to a life of less than mediocrity.  Both seem to have unfulfilling jobs where they can get away with showing up late for work, taking long lunches for trysts with their lovers, and arriving at work looking like they were just mugged in the parking lot.

To make matters worse, they have not upped their standards in the lovers they have chosen; and both have promised they will be moving in as soon as they can spring the news on their spouse, and, by the way, on their collegiate son Joel (Tyler Ross).  A car buff I once knew cynically called marrying a paramour as “trading a leak for a squeak.”  That is surely the case in these proposed re-unions.

Michael’s paramour Lucy (Melora Walters) is a middle-aged dancer who is petulant, vindictive, highly emotional and totally self-absorbed.  Although we wonder what Michael sees in Lucy, we know from innuendo that this is not Michael’s first trip to the dark side.  We can wonder what Lucy sees in Michael who is hardly a knight in shining armor as he struts around in his shorts with his stomach taking the lead.  However, to his credit, Michael is both charming and disarming – causing one to think he may have been quite a success if he had pursued a career in sales.

On the other hand, Mary’s lover Robert (Aidan Gillen) is no prize either.  Also, self-absorbed, he is a one-time writer of sorts who has apparently gone dry and seems to have nothing to do but chain smoke and lie in wait for Mary to break from work.  With no evident means of support, he lives in a tiny apartment drafting prose that literally puts Mary to sleep.  As for Mary, who always looks like she misplaced her hairbrush and slept in her clothes, she comes alive when she is with Robert, but after the boredom of her married life, who can blame her?   Truth is, we don’t blame any of them for their current situation.  As all parties anticipate the great split and even greater union to come, we can only imagine the fire/frying pan adage.

As if the situation were not already zany, the zinger that turns this dark comedic movie even darker is that Mary and Michael suddenly rediscover each other as sexual beings.  After long years of non-communication, they are strangers to each other.  It is the newness of discovering the stranger in each that pulls the couple together sexually, and each ponders what this can mean for the other lovers and their futures.  It also baffles son Joel when he sees his parents acting in a loving way toward each other.  It seems to invalidate all he has observed over the years and what he has promised his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) that she will find.

The acting is superb on the parts of the entire cast.  With so much silence that hangs between Winger and Letts, they must rely on facial expressions and body language to communicate to the audience.  This is no easy task.  Further, their expressions and actions are the focus of high humor as we look at the ridiculousness of the whole situation.  If lies and deceit were the stuff of stars, this would be a five-star movie.  It is well worth seeing for its fine cast and provocative thought.

 

Alien Covenant – Same Old-Same Old

Alien: Covenant | Teaser Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX  David the Humanoid

I love a scary movie.  It doesn’t matter if the element of terror springs from a person (“Psycho”), a fish (“Jaws”), an act of nature (“The Perfect Storm”), a creature from outer space (“Alien” 1979), or the arrogance of man (“Titanic”).  It is fun to peek through the cracks of my fingers, let out a shriek of surprise, try to warn the reckless actor on screen not to go down the cellar steps (or into the attic).  It’s the element of surprise that creates the adventure.  On the other hand, I cannot imagine anything scary about seeing a “Psycho 2” or “Titanic 2”.  We already know the dangers.  “Jurassic Park” was not scarier the second time around, nor was “Jaws 2”.  So why did I think that “Alien Covenant” (“Alien 6”) might scare and surprise me?

Not only did it not scare and surprise me, it was only marginally entertaining, which is agonizing when the film is more than two hours long.  In my mind, Director Ridley Scott has played this hand once too often.  We are talking about the same slimy creatures with big heads, skinny limbs and a terrific set of teeth and who explode from your insides or latch onto your face before their young explode from your insides.  It’s just the trappings that are different, and the cast.

Actually, the film opens with a fascinating vignette recalling the creation of the humanoid (robot) David (Michael Fassbender).  The sleek starkness of the interior space and distant landscape is visually beautiful and engaging.  In fact, the photography and the sets throughout the film are wonderful.   So I was really looking forward to the rest of the film.

We next find ourselves in the year 2104 on the mothership Covenant as it makes its way through time and space carrying 2,000 colonists who are sleeping through their journey to a new world which is still many years away.  David is part of the crew – most of whom are also sleeping through the journey.  An unexpected astral disturbance abruptly awakens the sleeping crew and the adventure begins.  Following the untimely death of the captain, a very uncertain Oram (Billy Crudup) is suddenly catapulted into captaining the ship.  I found myself hoping for his untimely demise; his character is so spineless.

When the ship picks up a rogue signal from space, before we have a chance to stop him, Oram leads a squad to investigate an unknown planet producing the signal.  Unfortunately, there is a violent space storm underway, as well as a blinding rain storm on this new planet, so the mothership has to remain out some distance while the witless squad descends to the unknown in an explorer.  Some squad members are quickly infiltrated by morphing spores which enter their bodies through ear and nostril.  We surely know what will happen to these unsuspecting explorers.  In the meantime, they are all pursued by giant-headed slimy creatures and are saved only by a mysterious cloaked and hooded stranger who leads them to safety.

Frankly, I thought the next part was the most engaging part of the movie.  The trip to safety takes them through a sea of blackened and burned humanity and into a mysterious mausoleum/temple.  The stranger turns out to be Walter, an earlier humanoid model like David, the sole survivor of an earlier exploration party, all of whom were presumed to be dead by the rest of humanity.  Actually, both David and Walter are played by Michael Fassbender.   But where David is altruistic and seeks to serve his human betters, Walter is cunningly treacherous and his loyalties lie with the slimy creatures he has nurtured.

Since most of the squad perish on the spot, only three of the crew are saved through the valiant efforts of the remaining Covenant crew who fly to the rescue.   Alas, salvation does not come without its price.  We know that the aliens will soon burst into creation on the ship, and mayhem and bloodshed will follow.  There is much intrigue as the last survivors attempt to rid the ship of the slimy monsters so they can proceed unmolested to the new colony.  There is a somewhat surprise ending to this film, but if you have not already fallen asleep, you could easily figure out the surprise long before it is revealed.

The one character in the film whose performance is truly noteworthy is Fassbender, who plays his dual roles with enough finesse that we are willing to forget that it is the same person playing the counterparts of good and evil.

I found the film disappointing partly because the original “Alien” was so original, but also because there is simply no more mystery left in this franchise.  So the only thing of interest is how the same old story is retold.  Frankly, I would opt for some newly designed aliens.  And maybe they can hatch without disemboweling  their hosts.  But since there is always the possibility that something fresh just might turn up, I’ll probably see “Alien 7” when it is inevitably released.

Fate of the Furious – a Furious Reunion

The Fate of the Furious

“The Fate of the Furious” (Furious 8) is a wild ride and a mega reunion.  Even if you are not a Furious fan but love action films, you won’t want to miss this movie.  If you are a sometimes fan, you will enjoy seeing vaguely remembered old characters emerge from any of the seven previous Furious films.  Of course, if you are a true fan, you’ve probably already seen the movie and pieced together the missing parts from past movies – like, “whatever happened to so-and-so?”  And, “I thought he/she was dead or in prison.”

What I love about these movies is longer than a Thanksgiving grocery list.  Every car chase scene has you stepping on an imaginary gas pedal, gripping the arms of your chair or looking for the rearview mirror to see the villain chasing you.  The cars are fabulous muscle machines reminiscent of an era when cars were fast, super sexy and ever changing, and ordinary people eagerly anticipated the annual new car models.  Furious movies always create new venues for chase scenes, and all crashes increase by a factor of 10 over the last movie in the series.  The stunts defy gravity as well as the imagination – in many cases the distinctive stunts help us identify the number of the Furious film.  (Remember hijacking fuel tankers in Furious 6?  How about “cars don’t fly” in Furious 7?  Ah, but apparently they do.)

This film opens in Havana, Cuba, where Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon and plan, more or less, to stay on the island forever.  The old Furious team has moved into retirement.  There is an early drag race through the streets of Havana that initiates our adrenalin rush.  After that it gets a little weird.

Following a mysterious phone call, Dom appears to slip over to the dark side where Charlize Theron reigns and spreads terror as the beautiful and evil Cipher.  Flying in her own stealth plane, Cipher has literally managed to stay beyond the radar.   In the meantime, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) gets arrested as he coaches his daughter’s soccer team and is put into an orange jumpsuit and shackles.  And who is across the corridor at this maximum security prison but Hobbs’ arch enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), ex Special Forces assassin and mercenary who was the central villain in Furious 7.  Since it is impossible for any prison to successfully hold Hobbs, he is soon sprung along with the hateful Deckard.

The team is called out of retirement by the Black Ops guy who goes by the name Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his bungling sidekick Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood).  It seems Dom has managed to steal a nuclear device for Cipher which she plans to use to spread terror across the globe.   The globe-trotting – or driving – takes the team to the arctic Barents Sea where Cipher has armed a dry-docked Russian submarine with the lethal nuclear weapon and plans to set to afloat.  The chase scene on the icy plains is chilling as the Furious are chased by the partly submerged submarine.

As with all of the Furious movies, there are a lot of hilarious moments.  Tyrese Gibson’s Roman Pearce is a delightful foil to Ludacris Bridges’ Tej Parker, and when the two are together it often produces sidesplitting results.  In an early scene, Hobbs’ girl soccer team performs a totally menacing martial arts warm up in front of a wide-eyed visiting team which will have you rolling in the aisles.

The acting is much as you’d expect – no Oscar performances here since the Academy does not single out awards for the most daring car chase scenes – not since Steve McQueen (“Bullitt’) and Gene Hackman (“The French Connection”).  But the performances are gripping as the plot picks up speed and races along from chase to crash in true Furious fashion.  It is interesting to see a lot of old characters show up from previous Furious movies.  To Hobbs’ chagrin, he has to join forces with Deckard to fight the even bigger villains – Cipher and Dom.  Luke Evans is back as Deckard’s brother Owen.  Kurt Russell is back as Mr. Nobody.  It’s a veritable Furious reunion and the audience isn’t complaining.  The piece de resistance is an appearance by Helen Mirren as the mother of Deckard and Owen Shaw with some uproarious results.  What always works for this crew are the easy relationships and friendly bantering that were even apparent in Furious 1.