Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Book of Henry and My Cousin Rachel

                               Brain Tumors Were Only the Beginning

                                                         Reviews by Ken Burke

 I can’t say that the strained muscles and pinched nerves I reported in my previous posting have healed all that much over the last week, so please bear with me if more typos than I’ve noticed make their way into this set of ramblings.  At this point all I can say is “Thank God for Biofreeze and Bourbon” (used separately—or simultaneously—not as blended-ingredients in a new craft cocktail).
                      
                                       The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow)
               
A young boy genius makes every effort to run the family business for his little brother and not-fully-adult mother, but he’s also taken on the quest of bringing justice to his same-age-female neighbor who’s being abused by her father, although no one will believe him because her Dad’s the local police commissioner; ultimately, Henry and Mom take action together.
                
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Henry Carpenter’s body is only 11 but his mind in many aspects is soaring into the reaches of graduate school; not only does he provide protection for his often-picked-upon-younger-brother, Peter, he also takes care of the family finances for waitress Mom Susan (single due to a useless ex) who prefers to use her down time mostly in thrall of violent video games.  In addition to his intricate mind, Henry’s also a close observer of his neighbors where classmate Christina Sickleman is being abused by her stepfather Glenn, the local police commissioner.  Henry attempts to report the crime, but no one at the school or the local government will even act on it, with Christina not helping matters by keeping silent about her Dad’s unwanted intrusions.  Henry decides he’s going to have to go it alone to bring about justice so he works out an elaborate plan in his well-detailed-notebook, but unexpected complications make the execution more difficult than anticipated, although what transpires makes for some thrilling scenes.

 I can’t say anything further here in order to adhere to my No-Spoilers-at-this-point-promise, but I will say I enjoyed The Book of Henry enough to recommend it, with the understanding that the complexity of the revenge-against-Glenn-plot-device is the main attraction because the ending becomes a bit easily-predictable once all the balls are in the air; however, this is another one of those cases where you might want to look into other responses to this movie before making a financial investment because the critical-community-at-large is very hostile toward … Henry, with both Rotten Tomatoes (23%) and Metacritic (31%) seemingly giving you no reason to even bother.  I don’t agree with those results, but as you know sometimes my opinions skew away from the norm.

So, curious readers, if you can abide plot spoilers in order to learn much more about the particular cinematic offering under examination this week please feel free to read on for more of the traditional Two Guys in-depth-explorations in our brilliant (!)-but-lengthy review format.
                  
What Happens: Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) lives in upstate Cavalry, NY with his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), and mother Susan (Naomi Watts), a waitress at a local diner run by John (Bobby Moynihan) where she finds companionship and a wine-drinking-buddy with fellow-worker (Sarah Silverman).  Given Susan’s single-parent-status (we never learn much about her ex except for a quick, sneering dismissal), she can be forgiven for just wanting to relax a bit after work, but she takes it to a new level by indulging much of her at-home-time engrossed in violent video games while 11-year-old-Henry takes care of a lot of the family business, especially the finances which he’s well in command of, making stock-market-investments that could easily give Susan a reason not to work but she refuses to accept his recommendations on that front.  Henry also has to act as a guardian for Peter when he’s picked on by school bullies, although Henry’s left alone, not because he’s especially tough or athletic but because he’s literally a genius who awes the other kids (and his teachers, although they’d prefer him in some special school, but he stays in the public one [probably much to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ chagrin if she knew about this] in order to better socialize himself with the people he’ll need to understand for his family’s benefit rather than any like-minded-geniuses operating in their own private stratospheres).  

 One area Henry can’t control, however, is the abuse he’s seen through adjoining windows of next-door-neighbor/classmate Christina Sickleman; despite attempts to bring action through his own testimony to Principal Wilder (Tonya Pinkins) and the local Protective Services office (unfortunately, the girl won’t say anything about it; she just remains a bit sullen in public most of the time), no one wants to take any action because Stepdad Glenn Sickleman is the town’s police commissioner.

 Henry can’t get any support from Mom in his crusade to save Christina either (even as she keeps prodding him to consider the neighbor as marriage material when the kids are older) because she’s not  yet convinced that Henry’s accusations are valid along with her stern hands-off-attitude: even if this is happening what goes on in other people’s lives isn’t any of her family’s business.  In the face of these frustrations, Henry constructs a very elaborate scheme in his notebook about how to make Glenn pay for his horrible acts, including slipping into a local gun shop, listening to a shady customer use the local under-the-table-strategy to buy a firearm without going thorough the requisite background checks.  (Hey, NRA, are you paying attention to this?  Hell, you’re probably the ones who set up the strategy.  [Readers, if you never find another posting from me, you’ll know why.]Henry’s plan has to be put on hold, though, as one of his troubling headaches becomes so acute he has to be hospitalized; there he finds he has a brain tumor, which takes him directly out of the movie about halfway in (although there are a couple of coy follow-up-scenes not fully revealing his death immediately, but we soon have to acknowledge and accept this surprising plot-twist).  Susan’s now pulled into Henry’s anti-Glenn-strategy when Peter gives her the notebook, in which her son’s detailed what he’s seen of Christina’s abuse as well as the elaborate ruse to avenge her; after Susan herself witnesses another molestation of the girl (none of these horrors are ever shown to us, fortunately) through the near-adjoining-windows of the houses, she decides to follow up on Henry’s scheme, aided by his detailed voice instructions left for her on a handheld audio cassette recorder.

 As she carefully follows Henry’s directives (while responding in incredulous or miffed ways to the many caustic comments that her departed son regularly makes to her), Susan goes through the meticulous process of buying a powerful sniper rifle (using that learned no-background-checks-on-me-procedure—which works effectively in this narrative but provides a potentially-deadly bit of audience-instruction for those who may be so inclined), arranging with Glenn for her to drive Christina to the school talent show so he’ll be home alone that night, carefully sneaking out of the event for a split-second-timed-45-minute-plan allowing her to race home, then set up for the shooting from Henry’s fascinating outdoor room in the back yard* with Glenn called into the adjoining woods by strange noises from a pre-placed walkie-talkie.  However, just as she’s about to take the shot she bumps against Henry’s Rube Goldberg-like complex machine which goes through its inventive mechanizations to end in a reveal of a collage of Henry photos, an accident that calls to Susan’s attention the underlying fact that—despite the good intentions of saving Christina from further harm—this assault's been concocted by a young boy whose solution’s not much better than the homicidal diversions Susan indulges with in her video games.  Based on what he knows of Henry’s quirky use of objects, Glenn easily finds Susan in the outdoor room but instead of what we might expect of him doing her harm they simply have a verbal confrontation in which she threatens to expose this corrupt cop, to which he replies his position will carry more credibility.

*It’s not easy putting a name to this structure; it’s too unique to just be called a shed in that it’s more like a treehouse—except almost on ground-level—with numerous quirks seemly put in by Henry’s construction, the most obvious one being the entryway, a refrigerator door separated from the rest of the now-gone-appliance then fitted into the wall-structure of this marvelous “boy cave.”

 She then rushes back to the school (stopping on a bridge to dispose of the rifle, part of the plan anyway) just in time to see Peter’s magic trick (an explosion of confetti from an old trunk which somehow [?] represents the ongoing presence of Henry), but previous cutaways have shown Christina’s inspired solo dance (you can watch it in the 3rd link to this movie far below), with Principal Wilder finally accepting the agony in the child’s face as evidence of the home-abuse Henry tried to convince her of so we understand she’s taken action when the talent-show-scene cuts back to Glenn at home as police cars arrive, lights flashing.  The next flash we see is a burst of light through that familiar next-door-window (or at least that’s how I remember it; even if it were shown some other way I think my directorial choice is the better one—as if director Treverrow gives a hoot about what I think) as we understand that Glenn’s decided to take his own life rather than face the legal ramifications of how he’s brutalized his stepdaughter.  To further bring it all to warm, fuzzy closure we find Christina’s now the ward of Susan, based on another of Henry’s tricks where Mom got Glenn to sign the release form for Christina to perform, then copied his signature onto a document giving her custody of the girl should he ever be unable to fulfill his duties as a (stepChristina always made that distinction clear) parent.  We end with Susan back to having 2 kids, Christina now in Henry’s bed sharing the room with her new stepbrother—they seem easily OK with that.  (Further, while we don’t get any scenes to push this last point, it’s clear the surgeon who tried unsuccessfully to remove all of Henry’s tumor, Dr. David Daniels [Lee Pace], is set up for future romance with Susan, adding a caring father’s presence to the lives of these 2 previously-traumatized-children.)

 So What? As I was writing the final parts of the above section of this review I had to admit to myself that aspects of … Henry do get overly-melodramatic, especially the prim, well-packaged-ending as Glenn himself provides the punishment he deserves, alleviating Susan of the need to become a clandestine-criminal, followed by the quickly-easy transition of Christina into her former neighbor’s family (if there was any explanation of whatever happened to her actual parents it sure didn’t stick with me).  Further, I think I see a fatal flaw in Henry’s plot, in that when the police would have done an investigation of the likely trajectory of the bullet intended to kill Glenn it would surely have led back to Henry’s outdoor room, casting some level of reasonable suspicion on Susan even if the weapon was nowhere to be found, so maybe this genius kid wasn’t quite as brilliant as we (and he) saw him(self) to be.  However, nitpicking a fictional story intended to deliver plot intrigue (as well as surprise, with the unexpected departure of Henry from what seemed to be set up as his primary story rather than him becoming a supporting character in Susan’s late-flowering) and condemnation of child abuse (with an equal emphasis on how the offending adults are often allowed to escape retribution due to the inequality of social position between themselves and the child—especially when the adult is an authority figure in the community) can easily be a thankless task.  (Although that didn’t prevent critics from blasting this movie as ill-conceived, improperly constructed: Kate Taylor, The [Toronto] Globe and Mail—“The Book of Henry is big on whimsy [... but] I began to wonder if [screenwriter Gregg] Hurwitz and Trevorrow had ever met any children”; Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times—“a grotesquely phony and manipulative new drama that places Watts’ talents in service of a dubious emotional cause.”)

 Then there’s the quick reversal at the end when all it takes is a phone call from Principal Wilder to rush the police into action against their own boss, another weak point in a script which needed to spend much of its time establishing the situation of Christina’s abuse, the intricate scheme Henry concocts to save her from further defilement, then the execution of this plan (with constant voiceover from him into Susan’s earbuds so we never lose contact with the titular character, even though he’s no longer physically present within the action); therefore, the filmmakers don’t seem to have a chance to give us at least one scene of Wilder calling in the troops with some firm, visible justification of why they respond as they do.  (Yet, at an existing 105 min. isn't there an opportunity for just a bit more narrative closure?)  So, I admit there are aspects of this movie’s concepts and presentation verifying some of the critical rejection so easily forthcoming; why, then, with all these admissions of “guilt” on … Henry’s part am I being so tolerant of it overall?  Mainly, because I see the noticeable problems outweighed by a lot of intriguing elements: the complex personality of Henry as a viable savant who’s still dealing with tween-child-emotions; the surprising presentation of Susan not so much as a noble single parent giving of herself for her children’s benefit but instead withdrawing when she can into an escapist realm of video games or boozing it up with Sheila; the effective performances of Watts (compelling in her various stages of reaction spurred into action), Silverman (brief scenes but effective patter with “Hank”), Norris (creepy authoritarianism personified), but also from the boys we’ve seen succeed on screen previously, Lieberher in St. Vincent (Ted Melfi, 2014; review in our October 30, 2014 posting), Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016; review in our April 14, 2016 posting), Tremblay in Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015; review in our November 5, 2015 posting); finally, the intrigue of Henry’s complex plan against Glenn, which may not fully hold up (especially for moral reasons, as Susan realizes before she shoots) but keeps us interested as to how it’s all intended to play out.
         
Bottom Line 
Final Comments:
There have already been a few times this year where my ratings of what I’ve seen on screen are totally at odds with the collective weight of the critical establishment.  (In all cases I’ve gone higher [even though most of my examples here are merely 3-star-decisions—largely because I try to do some background investigation before deciding what to watch, so I don’t often end up with something that will prove to be a waste of my time] as for instance The Comedian [Taylor Hackford; see my review in our February 2, 2017 posting] or, for that matter, Ghost in the Shell [Rupert Sanders; see our April 6, 2017 posting], The Circle [James Ponsoldt; see our May 4, 2017 posting], Snatched [Jonathan Levine; see our May 18, 2017 posting], Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales [Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg; see our June 1, 2017 posting].)  But rarely—except with The Circle—have I been so out of step with the critical mainstream where my 3½ stars (roughly 70% of the 5-stars-possibility [even though I rarely go above 4]) for … Henry are light years beyond what you’ll find at Rotten Tomatoes (only 23% positive reviews) and Metacritic (31% average score,  infrequent for this review cluster to come in higher; more details on both groups in the links to this movie farther below).  I’ll admit that the ending of … Henry gallops along in a facile manner, bringing all the drama that’s gone before into sweet harmony—while the script gets too cute at times with many of Susan’s comments anticipated by her son so he’s got rejoinders ready for her on the little recorder (although it’s hard not to laugh at such a prescient boy who’s come to know Mom all too well, even in their short time together)—but that doesn’t negate the fascinating collection of characters we’re presented with, the intriguing complexity of Henry’s plan to save Christina from Glenn’s abuse, plus the welcome transformation of Susan from at-times-childish-adult into someone who not only takes on a righteous crusade in honor of her son’s compassionate concerns but also shows maturity in not taking the final step of revenge, an ending that reveals Henry still carried a bit of a childish perspective himself, despite his highly-advanced-cognitive-development.

 As I’m sure you know by now (You're a regular Two Guys in the Dark reader, aren’t you?), I try to finish up each of these reviews with a Musical Metaphor, intended to offer a final approach to the subject under consideration from the varied perspective of an aural artform.  I had to ponder quite a bit over what to choose for The Book of Henry before eventually steering myself to The Beatles’ “Help!” (on the 1965 soundtrack album for their movie of the same name) at both https://www.youtube.com /watch?v=yWP6Qki8mW c (a 1965 TV appearance) and, for my further nostalgic purposes, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plSvZY-MMMI (from their massively-successful live concert at NYC’s Shea Stadium, August 15, 1965) because to me the lyrics—when you understand this movie’s really about Susan and her progression as a responsibility-taking-adult rather than about Henry and his inventive mind (a necessary component of Susan’s development but he's more supportive than lead, as the trailer tricks you into assuming,
because even with all of his ["from the grave"] spoken encouragements the actions still have to be taken by her, including the final inaction to not pull the trigger on Glenn)—seem appropriate to her situation: “When I was younger so much younger than today I never needed anybody’s help in any way [… but now she’s working in a strange partnership with what almost seems to be Henry's ghost, asking for the lost boy to try to] Help me if you can, I’m feeling down And I do appreciate you being ‘round Help me get my feet back on the ground Won’t you please, please help me? [... because] I'm not so self-assured Now [that] I find I've changed my mind, I've opened up the doors."

 At this point in her life, regarding the absence of the stabilizing factor of her gifted son, Susan realizes “I just need you like I’ve never done before,” setting her on a path that will eventually benefit her and the children who’ll carry on this family unit in the absence of previously-responsible-Henry.  Not that I think my partial defense of this movie will change any negative critics’ minds nor open up any doors for reconsideration, but I still think you’ll find at least some worthwhile aspects of  … Henry, even if just in bargain-matinee-fashion (although it’s yet to catch on at the domestic [U.S.-Canada] box-office, playing in just 579 theaters so far, taking in about $1.4 million in its initial week, so let’s see if my own genius-level-arguments make any impact in the weeks still to come).
          
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
              
                                    My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell)
              
In 19th-century England, young man Philip gets word his cousin/former-guardian Ambrose has married another cousin, Rachel, in Italy, but later a letter shocks Philip that Ambrose is convinced Rachel’s in the process of poisoning him; Ambrose dies, then Rachel comes to visit but instead of taking out his anger over the death of Ambrose, Philip falls in love with her.
                  
 I wasn’t all that excited about seeing this one (something about 19th-century-English romances—even with a dose of mystery added—just don’t do all that much for me), but my valiant wife, Nina, often does things for me she’s not that interested in (not those kinds of things, you dirty-minded-miscreants, although … oh, never mind!) so I figured I owed her  the decision on seeing ... Rachel. (Especially because I still haven’t shaken the lingering guilt of not having shared enough of her desire to see Aretha Franklin when she performed in Oakland last August in what turned out to be a most-memorable-concert, so I do hope the Queen of Soul finds her way to our area again sooner than the 30 years between her last trips out here; I don’t know why I wasn’t more enthused about seeing Aretha’s show last year, but I guess all my attention was on the Desert Trip weekend last October, which did help make up somewhat for missing Aretha, although I apologize again to Nina for being so disinterested in one of the great superstars of our time when we could've easily attended the concert.)  After dutifully watching … Rachel, however, I can honestly say while I’m glad to have seen the fabulous Rachel Weisz again (Nina also admires her, even though this so-so-story’s pretty much a drop in the bucket regarding my Aretha debt) there’s not much else happening here, at least for me.  I made mention of this movie in my previous posting (scroll down to Short Takes there too) in case I never got around to seeing it so you can find some earlier commentary if you like, which I’ll now add to briefly about this tale set in the bygone-era of horses and candlelight.

 This plot of passions concerns Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), raised for some years by cousin Ambrose Ashley, a man who then turns his ward over to godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) when declining health calls out for the “sunshine” of Italy; there Ashley decides to marry another cousin (Weisz)—talk about a close family!—but before dying (from a brain tumor, as stated on the death certificate [Did he catch it from youngster Henry in a cinematic-time-warp?]) Ambrose managed to slip a letter back to England to now-in-mid-20s-Philip saying Rachel’s poisoning him.  Oddly enough, she gets no inheritance (the family manor in England’s set for Philip when he soon turns 25, although when Rachel comes to visit she has Ashley’s later will leaving it all to her but he never signed it, seemingly because she had a miscarriage*).  Charmed by her gracious demeanor—as is everyone else—Philip puts away his intentions of chastising his relative, dismisses the poisoning accusations as the delusions of a man with mental trauma, quickly falls in love with Rachel.  She’s quite wiling to just make love with him (in scenes that purposely begin in soft focus; when the camera sharpens up in their second tryst [in the woods] she looks distracted while he’s in passionate agony) but bristles 
at the idea of him setting up a most generous allowance for her (although she accepts it, after which she overdraws this bank account), then spurns his marriage proposal (she seems determined to do everything possible to push away any suspicion about her intentions, despite Philip writing a new will leaving all his possessions to her should he die).  Sure enough, he’s soon dealing with his own illness (which we’re given every reason to believe comes from the “special tea” she keeps brewing for him), assumes the worst about his cousin, encourages her to take a horseback ride along a ridge above the ocean (which he know from experience is likely to crumble beneath her), then has a change of heart only to arrive too late to save her after she’s plunged to her death.  A few years later he’s married to neighbor and long-intended-spouse (at least by Philip's godfather) Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger), father of 2 kids, continuing to wonder in voiceover (as he did at the very beginning) whether Rachel was a homicidal schemer or not.  That’s the clever part of the plot because we’re presented with many selfless acts from Rachel (along with the cleared-up-misunderstanding she’s not sneaking off for romance with Italian lawyer Rainaldi [Pierfrancesco Favino] because he’s gay) butted up against plenty of evidence her generous spirit’s simply a ruse to cover up a carefully-concocted plan to bilk her cousins of all their worldly goods.

*She’s further tainted because her 1st husband died in a duel with her then-lover.  She’s easily cast as a woman of “ill-repute” if there ever was one, despite her more-attractive-qualities and actions, making her an intriguingly-ambiguous-character whose motives constantly stoke audience interest.

 As I noted in the Two Guys' previous posting, the RT average for … Rachel is 75% positive, with a MC score of 63%, so my 3 stars (a nominal 60%, although with a fudge-factor in that I rarely venture into the realm above 4, saving those numbers for true masterpieces, as you can see from the summary of Two Guys reviews noted in the links just below) are largely in line with the rest of the critical community, most of them not so overwhelmed by what they see in this literary adaptation either.  Still, I'll offer a Musical Metaphor for it, “Family Affair” (from the 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On) by Sly and the (2007 edition of the) Family Stone at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-sonJId90Y, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek-intentions (matching my overall interest in this movie, which basically met my expectations [a backhanded-compliment]) given that the family in the song is ultimately bonded together despite differences which may arise while it’s never clear if members of the Ashley family should be held without bond for various crimes (apparently the original 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel of this title 
leaves us the implication Philip could be charged for Rachel's death [on a faulty, collapsing bridge which he purposefully failed to warn her about]), as we’re never really sure whether their “Blood is thicker than the mud” or not.  I will note (in my own fragile defense) that Nina wasn’t so overwhelmed by what she saw in … Rachel either (except for her pleasure with the presence of Ms. Weisz), but she’s still waiting for that return concert from Ms. Franklin, with our hopes Aretha's tour bus will once again come our way (it has to, as the Queen refuses to fly, even to attend a celebration for another Queen—Elizabeth II’s 2002 Golden Jubilee—because it would have required a trans-Atlantic-trip for which no highway yet exists).  You might find more fascination with … Rachel than I did, but then I never warmed up to PBS TV’s Downton Abbey either.  (I know, Anglophiles; I’m hopeless—I’m also falling short of my own standards by reusing Musical Metaphors [twice for Sly's tune, 3rd time around for Help!] which I try to avoid but sometimes the Wayback [or WABAC; I need to confirm this with Mr. Peabody and Sherman] Machine of my memory’s only marginally efficient.)

 Nina and I are headed to Paso Robles, CA next week for a few days in sun-kissed-wine-country so no new postings until July but you’re welcome to catch up on any older ones you might have missed because of their timeless literary quality.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Queen Aretha doing her famous Carol King-written-song, in tribute to my wonderful wife, the most natural woman I’ve ever known (even when I don’t always pay enough attention to her concert interests).
             
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
            
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are just too many to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 forward this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about The Book of Henry:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsMrPirmKkk (2:47, Maddie Ziegler’s dance as Christina  at the school talent show, as her heartbreak from what’s happening at home starts to break through)



Here’s more information about My Cousin Rachel:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ky6G2jP9oRg (4:00 discussion of whether Rachel’s a killer or not, which lead actor Weisz refuses to reveal)


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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I have to keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 4/12/2017.  Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one.  The corporate overlords triumph again.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
                       
 UNLESS YOU’RE READING THIS ON A MACINTOSH COMPUTER USING MAC OS X 10.10.5 AND SAFARI 10.1.1 YOU MAY SEE A SLOPPIER PRESENTATION THAN WHAT WE INTENDED (Google Chrome 59.0.3071.109 meets our layout design; hopefully all other options will look decent also).  OUR APOLOGIES FOR ANY INADVERTENT MESS THAT WE CAN’T CONTROL.
           
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 35,060; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (I’m proud to have reached 5 of 6 hoped-for-continents again; someday I hope to include Africa):

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dean

                            Not So Long, Well Drawn Out

                                                 Review by Ken Burke
                   
iPhone 5 photo of Roger Waters show by Nina Kindblad
(Yeah, she knows she needs an upgrade; coming soon.) 
 I’m reviewing just one film this time because my movie-going-options have been a bit limited lately due to several factors, some of them marvelous but others not so much, damn it! My good experiences center on recent events at the local Oakland, CA Oracle Arena (next to the Oakland Coliseum, home of my beloved-but-again-stuck-in-the-cellar Oakland Athletics baseball team—whose error-prone-antics lately remind me of an old joke that I can modify without intending any disrespect to a departed musical giant: “What do the Oakland A’s and Michael Jackson have in common?  They both wear one glove for no apparent reason.”).  First, on Saturday, June 10, my marvelous wife, Nina, and I attended the Roger Waters Pink Floyd “Us + Them” concert at the Arena, a fabulous encounter of thought-provoking, mesmerizing, magnificently-staged music and multi-screen, multi-image projections (involving a vast array of computer-based and photographic images, along with inlays of the performers) worth the price of admission alone.By the following Monday the Arena had been transformed back to its use as a basketball court where my other favorite team, the Golden State Warriors, won their 2nd NBA championship in the last 3 years (beating, once again, the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers—with their force of nature in LeBron James—the same team that won the trophy over the Warriors last year; how much longer this will be the Finals scenario is hard to say, but few other teams can even begin to compete with either of them, the Warriors going 12-0 through the playoffs, the Cavs 12-1), with a grandiose celebration to move through downtown Oakland not long after I get this posted. So, with putting my energy into those 2
events (plus watching the Friday, June 9 Warriors game on TV, which they lost but allowed them to return home to clinch the title—I saw that one on TV as well as the Monday victory; while I was willing to pay $85 per balcony ticket for the huge Waters show [excellent view from up there anyway, no loss of impact given all the stunning projections], the "golden" Warriors options [resale only, of course] were considerably pricier as one report said that someone coughed up $133,000 [including fees of $17,000] for a pair of courtside seats, an NBA record) I sacrificed some cinema-availability during those days but for good causes indeed (unless you're from Cleveland).  However, the not-so-good-reason I’m cutting back this week is a strained-muscle/pinched-nerve problem in my left shoulder and arm, making typing none too pleasant as I’m using various remedies to help the swelling recede which has led to time invested in doctor visits and physical therapy (if you ever dislocate a shoulder, even if it was 11 years ago, please remember that your doctor told you not to push upward on a gym weight machine), so I’ll try to be briefer than usual this time because powering through the pain all night last week (in an especially long posting to boot) gives me little incentive for a repeat performance.  OK, enough of these distractions; on with the regularly-scheduled-program of analytical brilliance.

*You can get info here on other venues for this tour through much of the rest of this year in the U.S. and Canada, which I highly encourage your attendance at, as long as you’re not opposed to Waters’ overt “Trump Is A Pig” denunciations during “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Money,” along with the “Resist” t-shirts worn by the kids accompanying him during “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II”)” and “… (Part III),” assuming the set list will stay the same at upcoming locations, which, given the investment in staging that this massive concert requires, I’m sure will be the case.
            
                                                          Dean (Demetri Martin)
            
A young man with some introductory success as a cartoonist is despondent over the loss of his mother, the ending of his engagement, and estrangement from his father so he goes across country from NYC to LA at the invitation of a friend; he finds himself attracted to a woman (just as Dad is with the real estate agent selling the family home) but complications arise.
                   
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Dean’s already hit a low point in his young mid-20s life: his mother’s recently died; he allows his engagement to Michelle to terminate (largely through his increasingly-catatonic-attitude even as he insists it’s a mutual deterioration); he’s had moderate success with an initial book of interesting hipster-like cartoons yet has no decent ideas for a follow-up; he’s starting to lose contact with his father, an estrangement made somewhat-hostile because Dad wants to sell the now-much-too-big family home which Dean’s not ready to part with yet even though he lives in his own apartment.  To stall a decision with his father about the house, Dean accepts friend Eric’s offer to visit in LA, where he’ll meet with an upstart ad-agency’s “creatives” interested in his work; as it turns out, he’s not interested in their attitudes, but when attending a party with another friend, Becca, he meets Nicky with whom he has a clumsy beginning even as there’s clearly a spark between them, yet it seems to be going nowhere when he tries to follow up on it.  She finally does contact him, though, just as he’s on a plane to return to Brooklyn, so he stays in CA to see what can develop with her; meanwhile, Dad—tired of waiting for dialogue with Dean—has moved on with the house sale while becoming attracted himself to real-estate-agent Carol.  Of course, complications ensue on all fronts, but this light-hearted-romantic-comedy (set against the personal clouds of Dean’s depression) makes for a pleasant time at the cinema.

 Martin’s film has been compared by some to Woody Allen’s work, which is a viable observation, but Dean doesn’t feel in any way derivative of whatever parallels you might find in Allen’s films (especially in mild resemblances to aspects of Annie Hall [1977]).  I highly recommend Dean, but, as with other rather-obscure-films I’ve supported lately, you may have trouble finding it as it’s currently playing in only 32 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters where its slight income is also falling off fast.  Once again, viewing on video might be the most reasonable choice where this one’s concerned.
So, curious readers, if you can abide plot spoilers in order to learn much more about the particular cinematic offering under examination this week please feel free to read on for more of the traditional Two Guys in-depth-explorations in our brilliant (!)-but-lengthy review format.
                  
What Happens: Dean (Demetri Martin) is a young guy in Brooklyn who should have a rather bright future awaiting him given he’s already successfully published a book of his sparse, eccentric cartoons and is engaged to attractive, vivacious Michelle (Christine Woods).  However, his mother’s died recently with Dean still in a deep stage of grief about it; he’s floundering, trying to find ideas for a follow-up cartoon book, so in his depression he uncouples from Michelle (which doesn’t please her—even though he tries to claim the moribund, “eroding” relationship is a mutual problem), further alienating her by suggesting she keep the ring as something she could use on a charm bracelet.  Finally, he’s getting even further estranged from his father, Robert (Kevin Kline), whom he accuses of simply ignoring his own grief with a series of distractions (because he’s an engineer focused on fixing things), with their problems coming to a climax when Dad wants to sell his now-too-big-home, bringing stunned refusal from Dean only in an attempt to protect his needed-stability-memories.  (I understand why he wants to get out of a place bringing him immediate memories of remorse, just as my mother years ago needed to move to a new assisted-living-site after my father died [they’d been married 63 years; by that time all their closest relatives were dead also]; she never said it was because she was haunted by the memories in that place, but Nina was quick to know it, calling it to my obtuse attention, helping me better appreciate my mother's needs.)

 As a means of trying to bring Dean out of his ongoing-morbid-mood, his friend Brett (Reid Scott) suggests he reconsider the non-engagement with Michelle which Dean hopes to do at Brett’s wedding (where he’s 1 of 2 best men, in a clear indication of the oddities this quirky film easily takes for granted), but once there he realizes she’s already connected to another guy; to make matters worse, he gives an honest toast the newlyweds are willing to accept but macho-other-best-man Kevin (Barry Rothbart) takes offense, creating yet more havoc as Dean must avoid an all-out-brawl.

 When Robert insists they discuss selling the house, Dean opts out of the pressure by taking up friend Eric’s (Rory Scovel) offer to come out to LA for awhile, where he can put his stagnant East Coast buddy in contact with some young, oh-so-hip West Coast guys at an ad-agency (they prefer to refer to themselves as "creatives") interested in using his drawings in a new campaign until his meeting with them results in a quick exit as Dean has no interest in their attitudes nor marketing strategies (no sweat for them; they’ll just use another artist to copy his style).  Before returning home, though, Dean goes along to a party with his self-absorbed-old-friend Becca (Briga Heelan) where he once again makes a fool of himself but attracts the attention of Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), which, unfortunately for him, seems to lead nowhere, that is until he’s on a plane back to NYC when he gets a text message from her to meet him at the beach that day.  He does (dragging his suitcase across the sand), has some further encounters with her, is clearly infatuated, then arranges to go on a drive up to San Francisco with Nicky, her friend Jill (Ginger Gonzaga), and Eric.  When they arrive, Eric gets a text that his precious cat’s been injured in an accident caused by roommate Toby (Luka Jones) so he flies home in a panic, with Dean going to a hotel, the ladies to Jill’s parents’ home.  Later that night Nikki comes calling, they 
have sex, but she’s gone when he wakes up in the morning, leaving a note about how she’s actually married but separated from her husband, at this point needs to figure out her life, hopes they might reconnect someday.  Back in Brooklyn, Robert’s also in process of becoming attracted, in his case to looking-for-love Carol (Mary Steenburgen), the real-estate-agent who sells his house, accepting his interests in her in the process of the transactions.

 Dad’s also not destined to finalize a new relationship at this point, though, as he’s still sorting out his feelings about his lost partner of many years so he declines Carol’s invitation for coffee at her place following one of their dates, although in the closing scenes we see them happily bump into each other again while walking in a park.  Dean’s back home, accepting the house sale and Robert’s move to an apartment, closing out this slim, oddball plot with encouragement to Eric he’ll eventually get over the grief about his cat who didn’t survive the accident after all, even as Dean finds inspiration to finish his next cartoon book, this one about not succumbing to the fear of death, as we finish with some old home movie footage of Dean as a boy with Mom Karen (Florence Marcisak).

So What? In some reviews I’ve seen there are comparisons of what Martin’s doing in this film to Woody Allen’s well-established body of work, especially what I see as some mild parallels to aspects of Annie Hall (the contrasting milieus  of the NYC-LA settings; the male lead’s breakup with a woman he’d seemingly found a heart-connection with, especially because she’s as goofy as he is in many ways; the nebbish-persona manifested by awkward Dean, like that of Allen's Alvy Singer character who’s also not comfortable with media fame [becomes nauseous at the idea of appearing on an LA talk show just as Dean can’t find an inspiration for his next book, so the young man keeps listening to a recording on his phone, words of encouragement from his departed Mom]; even Woody’s tactic of split-screen-imagery which he occasionally used for comic comparison whereas Martin uses variations of diptychs and triptychs at times purely for graphic diversity on screen, along with his frequent insertion of his low-key-caustic-cartoons [also drawn by Martin, a true auteur in his command of so many areas of this film] either to comment on plot events or just to continue to help us understand Dean's psyche), but that's really not the focus here (unless you want to greatly stretch the concept by also making comparisons between Martin’s appearance and that of Jason Schwartzman—with their similar [at times] mid-‘60s Beatle haircuts [not as specific on the latter, I admit, plus he’s often wearing a beard, but I still see facial resemblance, maybe because of aspects of their respective Greek and Italian heritages], prominent noses, and embodiment of laconic characters [a good many for Schwartzman, too early for me to know yet about Martin]); further, it undermines what Martin’s creatively brought to a story where finding stability doesn’t always mean being successful in a relationship nor even in a clear career path but instead depends on a resolved sense of self-acceptance embracing the present, not maintaining a hold on the past.

 Dean’s not any fantastic cinematic breakthrough, but it’s consistently unique and entertaining, well worth watching (easily done in 93 min.), indicative of ongoing-onscreen-pleasures to come from this emerging writer-director-actor-artist.  (He’s also a comedian [particularly with TV’s Comedy Central] and a musician [as is Schwartzman, for another apt comparison], but you didn’t really expect me to be all that well-informed on these young punks, did you? Although I should have remembered Martin from starring in Taking Woodstock [Ang Lee, 2009], yet another pleasant, offbeat comedy.)

To give you an idea about how difficult it was to find useful images
of this film to illustrate the review, I had to use these next 2 just
to have something to accompany these final paragraphs. 
And Now, The Long-Awaited Bottom Line:
Once again I’ve come up with an obscure filmic option for you to be aware of, simply because I was curious to see it, although it might not be that easy for most of you because after 2 weeks in release it’s playing in only 32 theaters throughout the domestic market, taking in a paltry gross of about $123,000 so far; therefore, if there should be anything you might hear/read about this film (including here) which intrigues you, possibly a later access in some form of video might be your best actual route to seeing it for yourself.  I'll further note that overall critical response has been more restrained than my 3½ of 5 stars, with a tally of 61% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, an average score of 58% at Metacritic (more details in the links farther below—a rare situation of such close numbers from these sites, with the MC results usually notably lower than the RT ones [the only time they’ve been in unison this year for a film I’ve critiqued is for The Zookeeper’s Wife {Niki Caro; review in our April 6, 2017 posting}, but their agreement was at only the 58% level whereas I was touched enough by that film to give it 4 of 5 stars]).  Critics’ responses to Dean seem to be restrained by a frequent consensus that the concept Martin’s concocted here isn’t supported well enough by the plot structure nor the dialogue, but for me it’s a quite enjoyable experience (especially on a lazy Sunday afternoon at bargain-matinee-prices, in case such further limitation-parameters will help prod your interest to blossom into attendance [or, at least, a rental]).

This one really shows how desperate I
was to find photos for this review; PR
options for these small, independent
films are often terribly limited in scope.
 In choosing my usual Musical Metaphor, to conclude this review from the viewpoint of another artform, I’m going with the Eagles’ “Desperado” (from their 1973 album of the same name)—even though I’ve used it twice before (for those of you at home keeping score), so I hesitated about a 3rd time but I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate for Dean—at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= bkFoqmIRq8o (sadly, an imageless-video but I couldn’t find a live performance version that was worth watching) despite its ranch-hand-related-imagery (reminding me of the Willie Nelson-Waylon Jennings version of Ed and Patsy Bruce’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”*)—which can still be understood as not having to be just about loners in the wide-open-spaces of the west but also about confused cartoonists in NYC—because its lyrics speak of a guy who’s a “hard one [… even though] I know that you’ve got your reasons” being given advice that “the queen of hearts is always your best bet” even though where his happiness is concerned the case seems to be “you only want the ones that you can’t get [… resulting in a situation where] Your prison is walking through this world all alone.”  It’s clear that writer/director Martin is saying to alter-ego Dean (hard to know just how autobiographical all this is, but the circumstances imply a lot of self-direction here) “You better let somebody love you before it’s too late,” advice that we could all benefit from.

*On their 1978 Waylon & Willie album; take a listen if you like (this video's a Highwaymen performance so you also get Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson on the choruses).  Given this song’s overtly about cowboys, specifically their idiocentric personalities and temperaments, it’d be harder to rationalize it for a Dean Musical Metaphor except for this one aspect of the lyrics: “He ain’t wrong, he’s just different but his pride won’t let him Do things to make you think he’s right.”
           
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
                   
 Considering the usual round of new openings this weekend I can’t tell yet if I’ll ever work in seeing My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell), based on the Daphne du Maurier novel (1951), detailing a 19th-century genre-mix of romance clouded by mystery about a young Englishman named Philip Ashley, whose cousin, Ambrose Ashley, served as a guardian for him during his boyhood, then Ambrose marries another of their cousins, Rachel, in Italy, afterwards writing letters to Philip implying Rachel is poisoning him; after Ambrose's death under these mysterious circumstances, we find that Philip inherits the family estate.  Rachel (a couple of decades older than him) comes to visit as he’s prepared to despise her but falls in love instead, even as the plot allows us to question whether she may be slowly poisoning Philip until she meets her own accidental demise by means of a collapsing bridge.  A 1952 cinematic adaptation starred Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland as Philip and Rachel, with Sam Claflin and the marvelous Rachel Weisz in those same lead roles now.  I’m not really a big fan of such stories but Nina is if we can work it in so maybe I’ll be reporting on it in the near future; if not, however, my long-time reader/contributor Richard Parker offered me these comments on both film versions (paraphrased because I know he didn’t intend for his email to be published verbatim): You might be able to find the older version on Turner Classic Movies (I’ll note that’s likely your best option as it’s not available on Netflix*), but regarding the novel’s last line there’s an implication Philip’s accused of murdering Rachel (he didn’t warn her about the condition of the faulty bridge); however, in this new version the end has Philip at a later time married to neighbor Louise with 2 children, an addition to the book leaving us even more to speculate about.

*You can get a vague sense of the 1952 movie at this site, but the audio’s almost inaudible (unless your computer's hooked up to a very strong amplifier), while the imagery’s of poor quality at best.

 If you’d like to know more about … Rachel, the RT support is at 74%, MC’s score is 64%, the official website's here (wouldn’t fully open on Safari but did on Chrome, at least for me), and here’s the trailer (you can also visit here to get to the 4 parts of a [well-produced, I'm sure] 1993 BBC adaptation, starring Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Guard, if you’d like to take that route) so check it out if you care to, even if I never get around to ... Rachel.  Something else—totally unrelated—that you might be interested in is this discussion by New York Times film critics Manohia Dargis and A.O. Scott about their Top 25 films of the 21st century (so far); at the end of this article is a link to a similar package of pickings from a group of 6 directors: Antoine Fuqua, Sofia Coppola, Paul Feig, Denis Villeneuve, Brett Ratner, and Alex Gibney, or you can go directly to it here.  One other option for you to consider is something I did find on Netflix (at Nina’s suggestion after she watched director Joseph Cedar’s comments linked to my review of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer [May 18, 2017]) is Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind (Oren Moverman, 2014) in which he plays a desperate, alcoholic, homeless man in NYC, making an interesting spectrum of a significant actor in a variety of roles as he goes up the ladder from the streets in Time … to 2 current releases in which he’s a barely-getting-by-attempted-mover-and-shaker in Norman ... to being a Congressman running for Governor (keeping a secret about an atrocity committed by his son and nephew) in The Dinne(Moverman; review in our May 11, 2017 posting).  Something from all that should keep you busy until next we meet, with hopes that I’ve regained a good bit more left-arm-strength by then.
            
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
              
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are just too many to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 forward this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about Dean:



Here are some clips from the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQ9SPoZS4hQ  
(1:46, father and son discuss selling the house, Dad struggles with his smartphone)        
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pef07uAMO08 (1:32, Dean screws up at the party);
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INVXNFdttIQ (:57, after the party screw-up); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwIg1QvuQkc (1:39, Dean and Nikki at the art gallery).  
Along with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4JQFPFsvJk (1:20, director Martin talks 
about his intentions with the drawings in the film).



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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I have to keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 4/12/2017.  Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one.  The corporate overlords triumph again.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
               
 UNLESS YOU’RE READING THIS ON A MACINTOSH COMPUTER USING MAC OS X 10.10.5 AND SAFARI 10.1.1 YOU MAY SEE A SLOPPIER PRESENTATION THAN WHAT WE INTENDED (Google Chrome 59.0.3071.86 meets our layout design; hopefully all other options will look decent also).  OUR APOLOGIES FOR ANY INADVERTENT MESS THAT WE CAN’T CONTROL.
             
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 35,028; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (with once again 5 of my 6 hoped-for-continents represented—welcome back China, Brazil, and Colombia; I hadn't heard from you folks for awhile):