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June 16/14

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

Reviewed here: Locke (Movie); Young and Beautiful (Movie); Jack 1939 (Thriller); Cold Case Squad (Mystery)

Locke (Movie) written and directed by Steven Knight; starring Tom Hardy; with Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner, Danny Webb, Alice Lowe

One of the best ways to see a movie – for me – is to walk into a theatre with hardly any idea of what’s on offer. Let’s say I’ve heard there’s something good about the movie. That’s all. No idea of plot, actors, story, theme, setting.

That’s the way it worked in this case. All I knew was that the movie had received some good response. The publicity showed a guy at the steering wheel of a car. Period.

That left a lot for me to discover. It took ten or fifteen minutes to figure out what was going on.

Since that process was one of the best aspects of the movie, I’m not going to reveal any more to you than absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t want to rob you of the pleasure of making your own discovery. (If you don’t care about that sort of thing, then go ahead and read reviews that will tell you a lot more.)

All I’ll say about the plot is that the man driving the car is under tremendous pressure from three sources: his work, his home, and somewhere else. He’s in England and he’s driving towards London. His name is Ivan Locke; it sounds like he’s Welsh but, as far as I can tell, that’s never confirmed. As he drives, he’s taking – and making – calls on his car phone (a hands-free model, I’m glad to report). He is driving through the night. In the past, he has done something wrong and major consequences are now pending. He is doing everything he can to make things right.

The calls keep coming in and the complications keep piling up. If you think you once had a very bad, terrible day, I’m guessing it was a breeze compared to this night of Ivan’s. In fact, as you’re watching him juggle all the problems, you may begin to think that the scriptwriters are piling it on a bit too thick. What stops the movie from tipping over into melodrama, however, is the fact that Ivan maintains such a steady, conscientious attempt to deal with it all. He does, understandably, have the occasional temperamental outburst, but it usually isn’t inflicted on any of his callers; it’s usually private.

What you have here is a study of a man in an extreme crisis doing everything he can to be a decent person. (If it weren’t for the rather crude pun implied, given that the film is set in a moving automobile, a person might say that this is "where the rubber meets the road.") We get a deeper look into him during occasional monologues addressed to the car’s rear-view mirror. One diatribe directed at his deceased dad gives us insight into why Ivan is trying so hard to do the right thing. You seldom get such a close, microscopic study of the guts of a human being. Except perhaps in Shakespeare. Maybe it’s Ivan’s monologues that suggest the comparison. Towards the end of the movie, Ivan makes a reference that could be considered a definite allusion to Lear. (The biblical character Job comes to mind too.) And yet, perhaps the more apt association is with Cordelia. Ivan is a person who will not yield to requests for easy, comforting words; he will not express any feeling that he does not consider to be authentic. In particular, he is careful about the use of the word "love."

Given that the entire movie takes place in the car and that you never see anyone except Ivan, the question arises, at some point: is this just a demonstration of acting and scriptwriting skills? Are the filmmakers doing this just to show that they can actually make a movie with just one actor on screen and no set other than the highway and the interior of his car (except for a work site that we see in the opening sequence)? Well, maybe there is an element of showing off. But it’s justified. The filmmakers and the actor have produced something astounding. Not to skimp on the credit due to the cinematographer. For visual variety, we’re treated to a poetic and impressionistic show of the lights on highways at night. Lots of credit should also be given to the actors who play Ivan’s various callers. Tremendous dollops of personality come through in the different voices, even though some lines are difficult to catch, what with the diverse accents and the inevitably blurry – but utterly realistic – effects of some phone calls.

Ivan’s car phone also deserves mention as an important character. I’m not one of those moviegoers who gets a kick out of movies that rely on technological marvels to push the plot forward. You know the kind of thing – where giant machines battle each other. But this is a case where you come to know Ivan’s phone almost the way you’d get to know the boss’s secretary or the family’s maid in another kind of movie. This phone, with its screen showing the names of callers and contacts, comes to seem like a friendly helper acting as Ivan’s link to the outside world. The news it’s bringing him may be mostly bad but you can’t blame the phone for that.

If I have one reservation about the movie, it would be about the point of view. Ivan is a tremendously sympathetic character. But I’m wondering if the women in his life get a fair hearing. From what we hear of them, it could be argued that they’re presented as overly emotional, unreasonable and unfair – what some might see as a male view of the female nature. After pondering the movie for some time, however, I’m inclined to think that, while the women on the phone with Ivan have good reasons for extreme emotion, it’s entirely plausible that the writer/director would expect us to understand that these women would, eventually, come around to a more reasonable attitude.

 

Young and Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie) (Movie) written and directed by Franois Ozon; starring Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas, Frdric Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen, Charlotte Ramping, Serge Hefez, Carole Franck, Olivier Desautel

This movie gave me the opportunity to experience the difference between responding to a movie as a passive observer or one who’s fully engaged.

For the first part of the movie, we’re sitting back watching, as Isabelle (Marine Vacth), a very beautiful seventeen-year-old French girl, loses her virginity to a German guy she’s met on the beach. Back in Paris, between her classes at the lyce, she sets herself up in business as a high class call girl. She lines up eager males on the Internet, then meets them in hotels. The assignations pile up, one after the other. We watch the resulting spectacle – which could be considered a form of soft-core porn – with only a bemused interest. No explanation for Isabelle’s behaviour is forthcoming. She doesn’t need the money she hides in her clothes cupboard. It’s not as if she’s lacking support at home; her parents are loving and kind. Yet, she plods through her appointments with an implacable, stolid air. They don’t seem to be providing much pleasure or excitement. It’s as though she has set herself a duty to get through.

Up to this point, there are virtually no relationships of interest in Isabelle’s life – other than her rapport with a little brother (Fantin Ravat). He appears to be on the verge of puberty and he’s eager for as much detail as she’s willing to share about her sex life. But then something happens – an accident, let’s call it — that upsets Isabelle’s routine. The accident is predictable, but never mind, the results are what matter. Suddenly, a lot more people are involved in what’s going on with Isabelle. Now the movie becomes very engaging. You find yourself thinking: hmm, how are these people going to handle these situations? The acting from everyone is excellent, most notably from Isabelle’s parents (Geraldine Pailhas and Frdric Pierrot). I was particularly struck by a female cop (Carole Franck) who has that uncanny real-ness that you often get from actors in European movies. In a Hollywood movie, this cop would be, if not glamorous, at least spiffy and brisk. Here, she seems more like the lunch room supervisor from your kid’s school – but with more authority. In a few scenes near the end of the movie, Charlotte Rampling provides that Helen Mirren-ish touch of fading beauty that adds class to any film.

Not that this one is lacking in that quality. It’s all gorgeously photographed, very sleek, very contemporary. You get to drool over Paris with its gracious old apartments and its ritzy hotels. Maybe the superficial look is meant to reflect the fact that we’re never going to get much understanding of Isabelle’s behaviour. The closest I can come to any explanation is that it was curiosity that was driving her. Or maybe not. What, then? Perhaps the point is that life doesn’t always offer the explanations that we expect from drama.

 

Jack 1939 (Mystery/Thriller) by Francine Mathews, 2012

If you want to take a famous person from history – even fairly recent history – and use that person for your own purposes in a novel, that’s fine with me. All that matters is whether your portrayal of that person is plausible in the context of what we know about him or her. And whether or not your writing is good, of course.

Francine Mathews has given John F. Kennedy the starring role in this mystery-spy-intrigue tale. It’s set in 1939, the year that JFK, as a twenty-one-year-old, was in Europe gathering info for his Harvard thesis. But Ms. Mathews has him undertaking business that none of us might have suspected. Turns out, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has asked him to dig up details about a nefarious plot. A number of prominent and wealthy Americans have been contributing to a Catholic nuns’ charity which is actually a front for a Nazi-controlled effort to buy the next US election away from FDR. Hitler and Co. know that FDR’s ready and willing to go to war with them; they’d rather have someone in the White House who’s more amenable to their ambitions – like maybe JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy Sr.

JFK’s assignment from FDR has him zipping around Europe like a grasshopper on a Saskatchewan prairie. He’s forever hopping into and out of various conveyances. On one occasion, he’s even jumping off a moving train and dodging an oncoming train on an adjoining track. He gets into fights when necessary; he shoots at people, as needed. All this while coping with an illness that requires him to cut open his leg and insert pills every day. This guy makes the Hardy Boys look like stick-in-the-muds. And, of course, he becomes inextricably bound up in the complicated games of a femme fatale.

As far as I can tell, Ms. Mathews gives a reasonably accurate picture of the many people we know from those days. Joe Kennedy Sr, the US Ambassador to Britain, is the conniving businessman who doesn’t care about anything much other than his prestige and his erotic pursuits. Mrs. Rose Kennedy is the exacting, religious mother whose main concern is that everybody in the family keep up appearances. JFK’s relationships with his brothers ring true: a sort of chippy, sparring rapport with Bobby, a fondness for the loveable little Teddy and a somewhat awed deference to his older brother, the charismatic Joe Jr. Affection flows freely between JFK and his sisters. FDR sustains the role of the wise, cautious leader in which history has cast him. Winston Churchill is gruffly witty in his brief appearances. J. Edgar Hoover is shown the way we think of him now: a Machiavellian cad.

And, of course, there’s JFK, himself. Although Ms. Mathews gives him an abundance of energy and high spirits that seem somewhat implausible for a guy who’s so debilitated by various illnesses, the portrait of a JFK who’s younger and more callow than the one we knew is believable. Due reverence is given to his priapic concerns. As is true in the case of many men like this, it’s the quest for the elusive female that excites him more than the conquest.

But the plot is so complicated and the entanglements so convoluted that the book almost becomes a parody of the genre. JFK seems to run into far too many shadowy bad guys and he keeps being given extra duties and responsibilities by his mysterious "handlers." The femme fatale isn’t much more than a clich; the way that JFK falls under her spell is corny. The fact that JFK’s findings have dire implications for his famous family seems heavy-handed and the climactic confrontation between JFK and his father is cheap theatre. Still, I have to give Ms. Mathews credit for having the imagination to weave such an elaborate story around a character that none of us would ever have seen in this light. And the book is well constructed: good pacing, with effective variation in mood and point of view from scene to scene.

I’m not so impressed, however, with the prose. Too many passages threaten to turn the book into something of a pot boiler.

He dropped her coat and hat in the street and pulled her roughly into his arms, careless of the world’s gaze. He kissed her hard and viciously, biting at her mouth, lashing her with his rage. She was fighting him and he could feel her anger like a coiled spring, a punch she wanted to throw. He kissed her chin and her arched throat and pulled his hands through her black hair saying God damn you, Diana. God damn you.

And, just one more example (of many):

It was no accident they were gathered here, Jack and Willi and Diana and Denys, in the remotest valley of Europe, while the logs settled and the frigid drafts of spring winds circled their ankles like hungry dogs. Secrets had drawn them. Tension, voiced and unspoken, ricocheted around the room.

Writing like that makes me feel that the writer is trying too hard to crank up the emotion, rather than letting the story itself do so. It’s as if the chef has put too many spices in the dish, for fear that the main ingredients won’t have sufficient appeal for our palates. In contrast to the highly contrived descriptions of feelings, there are the banal and repetitive ones. In one crisis, we’re told of JFK that "fear washed over him" and, on the next page, that "Fear surged through him." In another situation, "Jack’s hackles rose." (Surely such a well bred kid would not have hackles?) Dialogue at times can be wooden and stagey. Also, Ms. Mathews sometimes has a very peculiar sense of English usage. She speaks, in one place, of "claustrophobic crowds." Does she mean crowds that could cause a person to feel claustrophobic? On another occasion, JFK is reflecting on the language used in a certain town. "Many people spoke German. It was one of history’s occupational hazards." Huh???

Ms Mathews loses no opportunity to show us that JFK is reflecting on the fact that nothing is to come of him, that he’s a failure. Although the irony can be heavy-handed at times, I did find the following passage effective. JFK’s in the back seat of car, pinioned between thugs who are planning to kill him. One of the thugs has an itchy trigger finger but the boss tells him not to shoot JFK in the car because of the mess.

The mess.

That’s what he was to them.

Not Jack Kennedy, failed choirboy; not the Black Sheep, or the kid lost in his brother Joe’s light; not the best friend Kick [his sister] would ever have; not the wiry skeleton incandescent with energy, or the crack sailor tipping his keel in Nantucket Sound; not Roosevelt’s man with his own reckless brand of guts. Just the mess.

He supposed that’s all he’d ever been, really.

 

Cold Case Squad (Mystery) by Edna Buchanan, 2004

In a way, my reading of this book was an exercise in nostalgia. I remember liking a special quality in Edna Buchanan’s writing when I discovered it years ago. For many years she was a noted crime reporter, based in Miami, and she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for general reporting. That year, she was considered such a celebrity that no less a writer than Calvin Trillin wrote a New Yorker profile of her. Thanks probably to her reporting experience, her fiction has a gritty, hard-boiled feel, not without a leavening of acerbic wit, that gives the impression of somebody who really knows the scene. (Or, at least, an impression that we like to regard as one that comes from somebody who knows the scene.)

Here we have three detectives in the Miami police department who are assigned to a cold case squad. Their boss is a somewhat demanding woman and there is, of course, pressure from the higher-ups who are threatening to shut down the squad for lack of significant results. But our guys are determined to crack a couple of cases. One has to do with the serial murders of elderly women whom their killer has arranged decorously in their beds as if an undertaker had tended to them; the other case has been launched by a woman who came into the squad’s office to say that she suspects her ex-husband, presumed killed in a horrible fire in his garage twelve years earlier, is still alive.

There’s good stuff in the investigation of these two cases: some interesting legwork, some nice twists and surprises, colourful characters and plenty of the trademark Buchanan wit and grit. But the book has the feel of something thrown together by a writer who had neither the patience nor the ideas to produce a fully-fleshed and well-structured novel.

We’re introduced to our three detectives in a slipshod way. It’s as if we’re supposed to know them and their routines already. You get the feeling that Ms Buchanan is thinking of this as a tv series, in which we "viewers" would already be quite familiar with the characters. Often, it’s not well established who is present at the opening of a scene, with the result that you’ll be taken aback by a speech from somebody you didn’t know was there. Again, this would not be a problem on tv. Ms Buchanan’s habit of shifting settings abruptly – almost imperceptibly – can be confusing. Our guys will be riding along in the car, chatting among the three of them, and suddenly their boss speaks up. You have to go back to find the fragment that indicated – just barely – a shift to the office.

A great deal of time is spent regaling us with the cops’ memories of cases which, although fascinating in themselves, have nothing to do with the matters at hand. One cop’s wife has a mad-on for him that leads to ridiculously vindictive pranks. And Ms Buchanan makes too much use of what might be called the slow reveal. We’ll be told that somebody has discovered something important but we won’t find out until later what the discovery was. This kind of narrative technique can be effective – indeed such suspense is essential to a mystery – but Ms Buchanan over-uses it to the point that it becomes silly and cloying. In one instance, one of the cops, on returning to his home, is attacked by an intruder and we have to keep reading for nearly a page to find out that the intruder is a cat.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com