The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George (2015). I saw a glowing review of this novel, so I picked it up. Although it was apparently a runaway bestseller in Europe a couple of years ago, and then it was a bestseller in the good old U.S. of A., I thoroughly disliked it. It’s about a Paris bookseller named Jean Perdu. He’s 50ish, and he has been nursing a broken heart for 20 years because the woman he loved suddenly left him without so much as a good-bye. But now things are happening that may finally break Perdu out of his long grief. How to summarize the things I did not like about this book? The characters are unbelievable and behave unbelievably. Coincidences pile up to make things happen right. The pages drip with neo-hippie philosophizing and cloying descriptions of food and landscapes. And the more I learned about Perdu’s mystery lover, the more I loathed her. I kept hoping the book would get better, but it never did. I urge you to give this one a pass.
My favorite was the first one, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which we see how a medical experiment gone wrong makes apes superintelligent and kills most of humanity. The middle installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was a solid if grim movie in which the apes and the surviving humans try to co-exist, with middling-at-best results.
The finale turns the grimness up to 11 as a human military band led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, The Edge of Seventeen) seems to be intent on wiping out the apes. Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, Inkheart) decides to send most of his “people” on a quest for a safe haven while he and few trusted lieutenants set out to find and distract the Colonel. Along the way they pick up a sweet mute human girl, whom they dub Nova (Amiah Miller, Lights Out), and then another talking ape, a not entirely sane chimpanzee who calls himself “Bad Ape” because that’s what his human captors called him before the plague. As voiced by Steve Zahn (Sunshine Cleaning), Bad Ape provides some much-needed comic relief, because this War is dark dark dark. But it’s well-made, on the whole. (I did roll my eyes a little in the middle part when the Colonel momentarily turns into a James Bond villain and gives Caesar a massive lecture/monologue to explain why he’s doing what he’s doing and what’s going to happen for the rest of the movie.)
The Circle (C-). When this movie ended, I said to myself, “I thought it was just getting started.” The movie never takes off. It is based on a young woman named Mae (Emma Watson, Noah) getting a job at a big brother version of Facebook that basically records and monitors multiple aspects of a person’s life (and physiology) as well as in society. Tom Hanks (A Hologram for the King) channels his inner Steve Jobs as the leader of the technology and social-media giant, making presentations to his Circlers with a coffee cup in hand showing off his latest technology on a stage. You get the gist that he has some sinister plan, but it was never clear to me what exactly it was, but maybe I just got bored. John Boyega (The Force Awakens) plays Ty, who actually founded the Circle but managed to go “off line” and lurk around the Circle mothership without anyone noticing or even knowing who he is for the most part. Ty befriends Mae rather quickly, but the relationship storyline doesn’t really go anywhere for a long time. It appeared to me to be simply a tool used near end of the movie, and then the movie suddenly ends. Overall I found the movie unrealistic and trying way too hard to be cool and mysterious, relying upon its casting over its storyline. Bill Paxton (Aliens) makes an appearance as Mae’s father. This was apparently his last role before his unexpected death and I’ve read that there is a dedication to him at the end of the credits. This movie is supposedly based on a book. If you like reading, I’d suggest trying the book instead.
Dunkirk (B+). Having recently read a newish history of WWII, I definitely wanted to see Christopher Nolan’s movie about the 1940 evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. It’s a pretty effective ground-and-ocean-eye view (except for a few scenes involving a heroic RAF fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) of those events. Much of the movie follows a nameless British soldier who is desperate to escape back to England and is not entirely scrupulous about how to do it. 860 civilian vessels took part in the evacuation, and so we also get to follow one of them, a smallish boat called Moonstone captained by an older gent named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies). Things get tense fast when Dawson picks up a lone soldier from a wrecked ship, and the shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy, The Dark Knight) freaks out when he realizes the boat is heading towards Dunkirk instead of England. Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) pops up in a few scenes as a high-ranking British guy stuck on the beach with his army. I enjoyed it. For another view, calling it an “astonishing filmmaking achievement and an epic narrative failure,” you can click here.
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, by Geoff Dyer (2016). I’d never heard of Dyer until I read a favorable review of this book, but he’s a Brit, now living in Los Angeles, who has won a whole passel of awards for his writing. I thought this book of essays, mainly about travel, was okay. It had some good bits, like the story about the trip he and his wife took to Norway in mid-winter in an attempt to see the Northern Lights. And the story of the time they picked up a hitchhiker in New Mexico about a minute before coming to one of those big warning signs about not picking up hitchhikers because there are prisons nearby. The final story about a minor stroke he suffered at age 55 was pretty good. But other parts are less memorable, and there’s a fair amount of hippie-ish mumbo-jumbo that I could not appreciate. And I was put off by the book’s forward, in which Dyer says that the book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction without explaining why he added the fiction. Well, there’s something that sounds like an explanation, but I didn’t get it.
Gifted(B-). Chris Evans is probably best known for his roles as Captain America in the Avengers movies or as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four series. He has gotten some lower-profile roles in other films and, in my view, has proven that he’s more than an action figure actor. He turned in a solid performance in the film Snowpiercer. He’s proven himself again in Gifted.
This is a film about a highly intelligent and adorable little girl—Mary Adler (played brilliantly by Mckenna Grace, Independence Day: Resurgence)—who presents something of a challenge to her Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank just wants Mary to have a normal childhood, which is something his mother deprived Mary’s mother from having. But Mary’s intellect is far above average, and that quickly comes to the attention of Mary’s teacher, who pushes to have Mary put in a more challenging educational environment. The push to harness Mary’s intellect creates a conflict that threatens the close bond Mary and Frank have forged. At times the story seems somewhat contrived, but Mary’s charm, along with the superb dialogue and an unexpected resolution of the conflict, make the film well worth the investment of your time.
The Big Sick (B). This is a pleasant and affable little romantic comedy with a couple of twists. First, it’s apparently based on the star’s real life romancing of his wife. And second, the main plot point is that the female lead (Zoe Kazan, What If) gets a mysterious illness that puts her into a coma halfway through the movie. After that, it’s mostly about the fellow, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, Life as We Know It) having to deal with the girl’s parents (well-played by Ray Romano, TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, and Holly Hunter, Thirteen) while their daughter is in potentially mortal danger. Also, he’s juggling his would-be career as a stand-up comedian and his overbearing Pakistani parents’ attempts to push him into an arranged marriage. Not everything totally worked for me, but there were enough chuckles, and the leads were likable enough, that I enjoyed it.