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 /watch?v=yWP6Qki8mW c (a 1965 TV appearance) and, for my further nostalgic purposes, at (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 knows 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, 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: (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: (4:00 discussion of whether Rachel’s a killer or not, which lead actor Weisz refuses to reveal)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  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.
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):

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