North of the Tension Line, by J.F. Riordan (2014). I read a couple of rave reviews of this novel, Riordan’s first, by reviewers I trust. One of them even compared Riordan to Jane Austen, so of course I was hooked. Sorry to say, I thought the book was a bit of a let-down. The main character is Fiona Campbell, a single woman who finds herself living in small-town Wisconsin near her close friend Elisabeth. On a dare, she buys a run-down old house in an even smaller Wisconsin town on Washington Island out in Lake Michigan. Events ensue. Elisabeth wants a relationship with Roger, who runs her town’s coffee shop. Fiona doesn’t want the goat Roger gives her as a housewarming gift. Fiona’s next-door neighbor is a wicked witch. It’s fine, but it’s nothing special.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015). I loved Ishiguro’s last novel, 2005’s Never Let Me Go. It haunted me for days. Then ten years slipped by, and then he finally published this new novel about a strange, magical England shortly after the departure of the Romans and the reign of King Arthur. I wasn’t too sure about it, based on the reviews, but I couldn’t resist. It’s a weird tale, and it’s not in the same league as Never Let Me Go, but it is not without its merits. A strange fog seems to lie over olde England, making people forget most or all of the past. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to leave their little village and visit their son, whom they have not seen in many years. It’s a dangerous quest, and they aren’t sure where their son is or even why he left. They have adventures involving ogres, knights, and a mysterious dragon. It’s a melancholy tale of memory, forgetfulness, and loss. I kind of liked it. But Never Let Me Go is way better.
The Peanuts Movie (B-). I have liked Charlie Brown ever since I was a kid. Not just the Charlie Brown Christmas TV special, which I have seen a million times, or the less-seen Halloween and Thanksgiving TV specials, but also many of the old collections of old Charlie Brown comic strips. But I was surprised to hear that they were making a movie about good ol’ Charlie Brown, and I was even more surprised to hear that it was generally getting good reviews and doing pretty good box office. I guess I just didn’t think the Peanuts gang would translate well onto the big screen. Well, I saw it today, and I really didn’t think it was any great shakes. Pleasant enough, for sure, and suitable for the whole family. But I have to think quite a few youngsters out there would find it a little bit boring. The main plot involves Charlie Brown’s crush on the little red-haired girl, who moves in across the street from him and of course ends up in his class at school. So for the next several months, he tries to impress her so that she will like him. How well does that go? Well, he is Charlie Brown after all. The main subplot is the saga of Snoopy versus the Red Baron. It’s all fine enough, and there are plenty of nods to the old TV specials and comic strips. They did a great job finding voice-over artists who sound just like the voices in the old TV specials. And there’s a nice moral of the story. But somehow, unlike Snoopy’s doghouse, it just didn’t take off for me. Good grief!
Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, by James Romm (2014). Seneca was an ambitious philosopher–poet–politician in ancient Rome. He became a tutor of Nero, who was heir-apparent to Roman emperor Claudius, and attempted to instill Stoic philosophy and virtue in the young man. Unfortunately, Nero turned out to be a homicidal maniac who, among other things, arranged for the murder of his own mother. Things ended badly for Nero, Seneca, and lots of other people in Nero’s orbit, but only after a reign of terror that lasted about 13 years. It’s definitely an interesting story, and well told by Romm, a classics professor at Bard College.
Crimson Peak (B). Horror movies aren’t usually my thing, but I have enjoyed some of director Guillermo del Toro’s past work (Pan’s Labyrinth, the first Hellboy). Plus, the three headliners are two top-notch actresses (Jessica Chastain, The Martian, and Mia Wasikowska, Only Lovers Left Alive), and the entertaining Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers). Anyway, this is a gonzo, over-the-top ghost story set back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an attractive young lady and aspiring writer who occasionally sees freaky apparitions. She falls in love with Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a mysterious Englishman who seems to be accompanied everywhere by his chilly sister Lucy (Chastain). Turns out that Thomas and Lucy are down-on-their-luck aristocrats who own a gloomy, falling-to-pieces mansion back in not-so-jolly England. Could the creepy old mansion, with a gaping hole in its roof and garish red clay oozing up from the ground below, be haunted? Are Thomas and Lucy hiding something? Do bears like honey? I didn’t think this was as strong a movie as the inventive but bleak Pan’s Labyrinth, but definitely it held my attention for a couple of hours. The R rating is well earned for some very strong violence and some pretty ghastly ghosts.
Bridge of Spies (B+). So, I set out to see Crimson Peak, but somehow I got the time messed up and arrived at a theater where it wasn’t playing until much later in the day. Casting about for something else, I saw that I was in time to see this movie, which I knew had gotten good reviews. So I bought my matinee ticket and was pleasantly surprised to learn during the opening credits that Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds) directed and the Coen brothers (True Grit) co-wrote the screenplay. The movie itself was even more of a pleasant surprise. Based on true events, the film stars Tom Hanks (That Thing You Do!) as Jim Donovan, a Nuremberg-prosecutor-turned-insurance-lawyer. In the late 1950s, a Communist spy is arrested in New York, and the feds recruit Donovan to defend the Commie (Mark Rylance, The Other Boleyn Girl). Needless to say, his vigorous defense of the hated spy doesn’t win Donovan many friends. Then the feds have to turn to Donovan once more when U-2 pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the U.S.S.R. and captured. Can he go alone into East Berlin and negotiate a prisoner exchange? Although this is all ancient history (and the movie clocks in at a lengthy 141 minutes), Spielberg and Co. make it fresh and exciting. Alan Alda (The Aviator) and Amy Ryan (TV’s The Office) pop up in small parts as Donovan’s law partner and wife respectively.
The Martian (A). Woo-hoo! The Movie Snob is back in action. Recently I’ve been taking care of my mom after cataract surgery, so not much time for movie watching. But today I got out and finally saw the latest movie from director Ridley Scott (Alien), and I thought it was great. If you liked Gravity and Apollo 13, you need to get out there and see this film. Matt Damon (Interstellar) plays a modern-day Robinson Crusoe—an astronaut on a mission to Mars who is separated from the rest of the crew in a terrible windstorm. His comrades believe (with good reason) that he has been killed, and they have to blast off to save their own lives. But he survives the storm, and the rest of the movie is about whether he can somehow survive long enough to get rescued. The cast is full of big stars: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as the mission commander. Michael Pena (Ant-Man) as the pilot. Sean Bean (TV’s Game of Thrones) as the earth-side head of the particular Mars mission. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as the overall head of the Mars program (if I understood right). Jeff Daniels (Arachnophobia) as the head of NASA. Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) as the NASA public-relations person who mostly stands around and looks concerned. Anyhoo, this movie will keep you on the edge of your seat. I saw the 2D version, but I heard good things about the 3D version. Check it out before it leaves the theaters.