Mahershali Ali is brilliant as an African-American jazz musician touring racist southern USA in the early 60s, and Vigo Mortensen is even more brilliant as Tony Lip, his hired Italian-American driver, in the feel-good “Green Book.” The movie quickly transcends the regrettable mantle of “based on a true story” and rattles along at just the perfect pace. The issues of racism are smoothly and sensitively tackled, all the acting is flawless, and the film’s only downside is a huge crest of sentimentality over the final quarter hour. A sweet example of a mismatched duo film that exudes intelligence.
Musicals and I don’t mix but for some reason I was attracted to seeing “Mary Poppins Returns” as a window into my childhood memories of the original. I’m pleased to report that Disney and director Marshall have not messed with the vibe of the original, indeed they have faithfully echoed it amidst a narrative shift to the modern day. The conceit is that the original Mary Poppins kids are now adults, the grown-up boy now having three precocious kids. Their mother has died, the dad is in trouble, and Colin Firth plays a malevolent banker. Zing! Down floats the “almost perfect” nanny, played to perfection by Emily Blunt. Moments of sentimentality abound but it all depends on your attachment to the original; we went with older friends who despised this treacly singalong but I channeled my inner boy and enjoyed it from start to finish. A triumph of restrained Disney magic.
An earnest thriller in the vein of Grisham, “The Runaway” kicks off at pace and accelerates without any slack. A simple enough tale – a boy in a family under witness protection runs away and a host of corrupt company heads and killers chase him – is made human by a surprisingly large roster of in-their-heads characters, good and bad, old and young. Thompson writes smoothly and without literary flourish but with an ease that facilitates a fast, enjoyable read.
Jonathan Franzen is as brilliant an essayist as novelist, and “The End of the End of Earth” collects fifteen essays, mostly, he tells us, from the last half decade. Franzen speaks deepest to me when he describes himself birding, and in “Why birds matter,” he is in full stylistic flight. In that essay, he asks about “our ability to discern right from wrong”: “Doesn’t a unique ability carry with it a unique responsibility?” He slams the bird-decimating “sinkholes” of Albania and Egypt in another essay. The title piece evokes an Antarctic trip conflated with memories of his deceased godfather. Franzen is angry, discerning, and intelligent, and I’d love to say the entire collection is as spellbinding as its peaks. But the major essays sit slightly oddly among odd short essays, book reviews, and appreciations of Edith Wharton and William Vollmann. Overall, this is a deft, if often kinetic collection that readily kills an evening of boredom.
“Roma” is subdued yet stark, arty but earthy, an odd film for someone like me, sitting at the askew end of the mainstream movie-going public. The writer/director/ cinematographer has shot the entire two and a quarter hours in a dreamy black and white palette with an expressive range of grays, and he has an instinct for drawing in close or backing out into chroreographed sweeps. The story of a year in the life of the maid of a Mexican middle-class family in the early 1970s is presented with little setup or concession to storytelling ease, so I was forced to concentrate hard, and I found that intoxicating. Yalitza Apiricio, the newbie actor playing the maid, is stunning, especially in her silences. Her relationship with her mistress’s children is rendered subtly and convincingly. The actual storyline – the plot if you like – is the film’s only drawback. Though there are scenes of great drama – the massacre, the surf – the overall narrative lacks punch. Call it verity if you like but parts of the showing dragged. Overall, a most intriguing expression of a vision, but one that needed, in my opinion, additional dramatic depth.
A gentle book by seemingly gentle Australian naturalist and writer, Harry Saddler, “The Eastern Curlew: The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird” examines one distinctive species of migratory bird. The Easternn Curlew has a curved bill like an exaggerated scimitar and annually migrates 10,000 kilometers from the Arctic to wintering grounds in Australia, and returns again in time to breed. A few years ago, Saddler traveled to China and Korea, along the Curlew’s flyway, as well as throughout his state of Victoria, to investigate what he already knew, namely the incursions of developers into the shores that are its feeding stops, incursions that are slowly but surely destroying this splendid bird. Saddler writes smoothly and intelligently, with a wonderful air of curiosity, and the slim book is beautifully structured and paced. As he puts it: “And shorebirds can’t exist in the world that we are making. A bird that has long-distance flight so deeply and essentially ingrained in the very fabric of its existence can’t be held in a zoo. Migratory shorebirds will survive in the wild or not at all..” Even if you’re not a birder (and if not, why not?), this is a lovely example of penned naturalism in action.
There’s no one in this world who can immerse us, as watcher or reader, in the murky world of espionage, in which treachery is committed by allies as often as by. enemies, in which the spies are real people, as ably as can Olen Steinhauer. Episode 1 of “Berlin Station Season 3” threatened to unmoor my enthusiasm because its scene setting in Tallinn, Estonia, was so intricate. I’m happy to report that from Episode 2, the mighty engine of Steinhauer’s plotting chops and imagination roar into life. Richard Armitage is at his best as spy Daniel Miller fleeing the Spetnatz, Leland Orser (as Robert Kirsch, second in charge) is magnificently harried and driven, and station head Valerie (played wonderfully by Michelle Forbes) is the cool, principled leader. I was especially delighted when Ismael Cruz Cordova’s cameo role as action agent Rafael Torres explodes into a major constituent. The camerawork is tight and the locales are splendid and the pace simply rocks. No episode fails to deliver a twist, almost always a disastrous one for our heroes. Motives are more circuitous than ever. Oh, I could carry on, and if espionage thrillers are not your bad, look away, but otherwise, clock on for the ride. How can the final five episodes possibly maintain this standard?
William Boyd is one of those skilled practitioners with ardent fans who straddles popularity and acclaim. My own reading splits about halfway between bedazzlement and a sense of stasis, and his latest, “Love Is Blind,” is more of the latter. His previous outing, “Sweet Caress,” swept up the life of a female photographer, in his latest we follow Brodie Moncur, a piano tuner at the tail end of the 19th century, and his adventures of the heart and profession across England and Europe. Boyd adroitly spurs the action from chapter to chapter, our hero and his love and his enemies are vividly drawn, and the period-piece locales are excellent. But when all is said and done, it’s the story of a life well depicted but ultimately bearing a flat lack of purpose. An enjoyable read.
Knowing Matt Scudder, loner New York PI, defines one as a crime fiction fan from three decades ago, and seeing Lawrence Block release the novella “A Time to Scatter Stones” had the heart pattering. Both Scudder and his creator helped form me as reader and writer (who can forget Block’s inspired how-to books?). So it pains me to report more disappointment than reading pleasure. The story is a straightforward one, very Block-ish in its subtle unfolding – Scudder is intro’d by Elaine his wife to a prostitute who is trying to get out of the game but threatened by a creepy client – but “straightforward” can mean simplistic, and this tale unfolds as ho-hum. The climax foreshadows itself. Much of the novella is discursive, riffy conversation between the married couple or with the prostitute, and while Block is master at this stuff, the gentle pace numbs quickly. If you like New York locales, you’ll appreciate the detailed street color. All told, this is a completist’s pleasure in a minor key but would baffle any newcomer to Block’s oeuvre.
Heaven for a mystery buff is a treat like “November Road,” the fourth book from Oklahoman Lou Berney. He puts three memorable characters on the road from New Orleans to Las Vegas in the weeks after JFK’s assassination: a loyal Mafia gangster fleeing a mop-up operation; the hit man sent to track hm down (who chillingly reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh); and a housewife fleeing her husband with two young daughters. In time-honored noir fashion, we know nothing good’s going to come out of the journey unless supreme sacrifices are made. Berney slaps us fully into the three lives and knits the crackerjack plot together with a sure hand and measured pace. I felt dread on my shoulders from the very first page. The writing is first rate: never verbose but gently comprehensive, with lovely phrasing and forward momentum. One of the standouts of 2018.