Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely
now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each
case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.
The Lehman Brothers Trilogy
A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.
Van Gogh & Japan
A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost
140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese
art (trailer). He
learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His
interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme.
Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than
a showing here.
Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China
action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy
rain and fog throughout (trailer).
The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the
shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero
(Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a
pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does
win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the
leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like
yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you
enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers,
you’ll love this one!
By Matt Gianni – The Knights Templar, a Catholic military
order that distinguished itself during the Crusades, existed for less than two
hundred years. But it has been a treasure trove of secrets and mysteries, real
and imagined, ever since. When this thriller begins in 1307, the Holy Land has
already been lost, and the Templars are under siege. One thing has preserved
them through the era’s political vicissitudes—the Lever Templar—a scroll that
would “redefine Christianity.” What and where is it?
In the opening scenes, Knight Malcolm of Basingstoke and his
sergeant Brimley Hastings break into the Templar’s Preceptory south of London to
steal an ancient leather pouch. Only later does Brim, who becomes the hero of
the piece, learn the pouch contains the Lever Templar. Malcolm and Brim escape to
Cyprus, where the Templars maintain a tenuous presence. There they reconnect
with old friends, including a young woman who becomes Brim’s love interest,
while violent opposing forces scour the island for the missing scroll. And so Brim’s
quest to safeguard the Lever Templar begins.
In current-day Mosul, Iraq, American Rick Lambert works for the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s Investigations Unit, trying to solve a rash of Christian priest abductions. He partially foils the latest attempt, during which a dying priest hands him an ancient domino, saying, “protect Cyprus.” Vatican emissaries are sent to bird-dog Lambert (that is, to make sure anything he finds that’s important ends up back in Rome). The Farsi-speaking terrorists targeting Christian churches know about the scroll and believe it will destroy Christianity. And so the modern-day race to find the scroll commences.
This is a rip-roaring adventure told in chapters alternating
between ancient and current times and with lots of characters. Gianni does what
I wish more authors would do to help you keep it straight: maps of the
principal locations are especially helpful, because he’s not generous with place
descriptions; ditto his list of characters, real and fictional. He’s done a
creditable job in portraying life seven centuries ago in a believable way. I
loved the detail of how they used carrier pigeons to deliver messages across
Gianni’s writing style is clear and has strong forward
momentum. With more delving into his characters’ feelings, he might encourage a
greater emotional connection with them, but if people are best known by their
deeds, those are certainly on view here. He makes a half-hearted attempt to
give Lambert a character flaw—excess drinking after his terrible Army
experiences in Fallujah (left to your imagination)—but it isn’t convincing,
never gets in Lambert’s way, and has been done too many times.
If you’re a fan of the Indiana Jones franchise
or appreciate the speculations of Dan Brown and others, you’ll find this an
By Maggie Gee — Far from the ordinary crime story, literary author Maggie Gee’s Blood is a comic excursion into the rough-and-tumble mind of narrator Monica Ludd. She’s 38, over six feet tall, outspoken and awkward, far from tiny with, as she is fond of pointing out, an enormous bosom. When Monica squeezes you into the rollercoaster seat beside her on page one, you’re in for a wild ride.
Monica claims to be a respectable citizen of East Kent.
Doubtful. Much of the story plays out near the seacoast there and on the
peninsula of Thanet. The little community, the seashore, the shops—come to life
nicely. Even such a remote area has its dose of violence, terrorism, and, well,
Monica has a job. She’s the deputy head in a school, loathes
her new boss, and takes no pains to hide it. She thinks he’d like to be rid of
her, and who could blame him?, but he rarely stands up to her.
Monica has a family. She calls them “artistes of awfulness.”
She landed in the middle of a congeries of three boys and three girls, all
grown up now. Ma’s in a care home, forgetting everything or choosing not to
remember, it’s hard to say which. It’s Dad who drives the family disaster
train. He’s a dentist who has sex with his patients in the chair. He’s a serial
philanderer whose current girlfriend is two decades younger than Monica. When
his children were young, he beat them. He mocks them yet. His bullying drove
his youngest son Fred into the Army, and the siblings blame him for Fred’s
The final insult—and the inciting incident of the
novel—occurs when the siblings organize an elaborate party in Fred’s memory,
and Dad doesn’t show up. Monica is so angry, she says she’s going to kill him.
Alas, a lot of people hear this threat, and the next morning when Monica finds
Dad’s brutally beaten, blood-soaked body, even her siblings think she’s a
murderer. That attack launches her impulsive and lengthy campaign of lies and
misdirection. There’s truth in the old saying, blood is thicker than water, and
you see it here. Her siblings’ loyalty to her through this whole saga says
volumes about the sides of Monica that she tries to hide with her bluster.
In Monica, Gee has created an unforgettable character. Not
only large, but larger than life. Profane and resourceful. She speaks her mind,
loudly (rarely a good thing). And she is a genius at self-justification. All of
which I found highly entertaining, even on the not-infrequent occasions that I
was embarrassed for her.
From a crime fiction point of view, Blood is refreshingly unconventional and a reminder that violence and retribution, jealousy and fear, have been important literary themes forever. Literary novelist Maggie Gee, OBE, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was its first female chair.
Twelve times since 1973, an international set of racing yachts
has taken to the ocean for a Round the World Yacht Race (first sponsored by
Whitbread brewery and now called the Volvo Ocean Race, under its new sponsor).
It’s dangerous work, with crews pitted against each other, the weather, and the
implacable seas. Until 1989, ocean racing was a man’s game, with women
unwelcome even in the galley. Only five of the 200 crew members on boats in the
race before 1989 were women.
But in that year, everything changed, as shown in the
riveting new documentary written and directed by Alex Holmes detailing the
voyage of the Maiden (trailer). Using 30-year-old
footage it includes film of the trip, comments by other captains, and excepts
from upbeat interviews with the Maiden’s
captain, Tracy Edwards. Interviews with her today reveal how frightened she
was. For a very long time, she couldn’t get a sponsor for the expensive venture;
even running the race was costly, with a land crew to meet and help them at
every stop. A lot was riding on her boat’s success.
No one expected them to do well against the 22 other boats
in the race. Everyone knew “girls” couldn’t sail such a demanding course. The
local Portsmouth punters took bets on how far they’d get—out of the harbor,
then back? the Canary Islands? No one expected them to finish the race’s first
leg, across the Atlantic to Uruguay, much less the entire race. The dismissive yachting
journalists and rival captains reinterviewed today have vivid memories of how
Edwards scuttled their assumptions.
The Maiden won the
most grueling leg of the race, across the far south latitudes, icebergs and
all, to reach Australia, then the shortest, around to a stop in New Zealand,
which required precision boat-handling. It wasn’t just the physical challenge
of controlling a 58-foot boat in heavy seas. It was a mental and endurance
challenge as well, especially for Edwards, who served as skipper and navigator.
For every member of the crew then and now, this experience
was the adventure of a lifetime. An uplifting journey for viewers too. Says Adam
Graham in the Detroit News, Maiden “ tells a story whose tidal waves
were felt far beyond the deck of her ship.” And you stay dry.
By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US
or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to
late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert
van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was
delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.
The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions,
just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with
both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent
Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to
serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in
the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had
made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of
the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for
the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer
by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations
(striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but
she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and
bloody, had been stabbed in the back.
The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and,
if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher
authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath
of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments
were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses
700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic
memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.
The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey kicks off its 2019 season with a rollicking dramatic comedy adapted from the Alexander Dumas classic by popular playwright Ken Ludwig, which opened June 15 and runs through July 7.
As director, renowned fight choreographer Rick Sordelet makes good use of his experience in the swashbuckling swordplay the stage barely contains. Sitting in the front row, I was sure a rapier-wielding musketeer would end up in my lap!
In 1625 France, the handsome young d’Artagnan
(played by Cooper Jennings) and his sister Sabine (Courtney McGowan) leave their
home in Gascony for Paris in search of adventure. He wants to join the famous school
of musketeers, charged with defending King Louis XIII (Michael Stewart Allen)
and Queen Anne (Fiona Robberson). Sabine is bound for a convent school, but
disguised as d’Artagnan’s servant, gleefully finds herself embroiled in his
In Paris, d’Artagnan stumbles into
the three most admired musketeers, each in turn—Athos (John Keabler), Porthos
(Paul Molnar), and Aramis (Alexander Sovronsky)–offending each of them. The
result is a schedule of three duels for that very night. Before d’Artagnan can
be skewered, they are set upon by the minions of the scheming Cardinal
Richelieu (Bruce Cromer) and his guardsman Rochefort (Jeffrey M. Bender). The
now four allies fight the Cardinal’s men bravely. Impressed with d’Artagnan’s
fighting skills, he’s won three important friends. An assignation d’Artagnan
has made with the queen’s lady-in-waiting Constance (Billie Wyatt) also turns
out rather well.
The plot proceeds mostly along the
story’s familiar lines, except that Ludwig has given a larger role to the
women. His creation Sabine is her brother’s equal in fencing and in enthusiasm
for combat. In several scenes, the women are active fighters, including Sabine,
the evil Milady (Anastasia Le Gendre), and the serving wench at an inn who uses
a short sword and a serving tray as shield.
With all of Ludwig’s trademark
humor and love of stage chaos, there’s not a dull moment, and the 20-member cast
delivers the action convincingly, with a heady mix of heroism, treachery,
narrow escapes, music, and laughter. Especially fun was the somewhat dim Louis
XIII. He may not be the brightest, but, boy, does he love being king! Jennings
is physically perfect for the unworldly d’Artagnan. He’s a young actor, yet
plays the role with perfect assurance. The “inseparable three” (Keabler,
Molnar, and Sovronsky) establish distinct and interesting personalities.
Special mention should be made of McGowan, who stepped in on short notice when
the original actor playing Sabine broke her foot in previews. She had only a
few days to prepare and performed flawlessly.
The adaptation, originally commissioned by the Bristol Old Vic in England was a tremendous hit when it premiered in 2006, a result of its judicious updating alongside its timeless evocation of loyalty and honor. “All for one and one for all!” Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!
Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the
Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a
biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade.
Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi
occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis
in the war.
Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she
married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three
children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and
did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an
affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived
the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.
The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Graydepict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.
You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war,
but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services,
characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for
quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She
was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again
captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth
and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked
She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able
to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most
part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten
today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an
organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.
Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.
Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on
the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing
Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.
A Tuba to Cuba
Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have
featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has
struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the
story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation
Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts,
get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by
T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).
The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with
their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they
delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band
on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.
Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose
parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, moved
to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being
lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band,
for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.
The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.
When they’re good, thrillers set in interesting foreign
places are like a trip without the airport hassles. Both of these seemed like promising
journeys, and both had good points. If the premise intrigues you, go for it.
***Secrets of the
By Murray Bailey – This is the second of Murray Bailey’s crime thrillers to follow the adventures of Egypt archaeologist Alex MacLure, and it’s clear the author knows his subject.
Secrets of the Dead
begins, not in Egypt, but in Atlanta, Georgia, where a cache of bodies has been
found, eight in all. The victims were buried in a crawl space under The Church
of the Risen Christ. FBI agent Charlie Rebb and her annoying partner Peter
Zhang are immediately brought into the investigation because she’d worked a
previous serial killer case in which the eight victims were murdered in the
same manner as those under the church. They bear a mysterious mark loosely
linked to a local tattoo artist who appears to have fled the country.
Alex MacLure’s research is under way in the town established
by Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Ancient secrets hide in
the artifacts of the period, and MacLure hopes to reveal them. A stranger claiming
special knowledge asks MacLure to meet him in Cairo, and MacLure follows a
rather obscure trail of breadcrumbs to find the mysterious man. When he enters
the apartment, he finds not an informant, but a dead body. Hard on his heels
are the police, and an uncomfortable time in an Egyptian jail ensues. Bailey’s
vivid description of jail conditions are enough to make you not risk even a
jaywalking ticket in Cairo.
Charlie Rebb is sent to Egypt to work with Cairo police, as
a body has been found there with similar markings as those under the church. Clearly
the two stories are becoming intertwined. Occasional sections are from the
point of view of the killer and his Master, unnecessary in my opinion, and not
Bailey intersperses Rebb’s and MacLure’s narratives with the
story of Yanhamu, an official from 1315 BCE who became the Pharoah’s Keeper of
Secrets. He was given the charge of finding one particular secret, that of
Bailey’s writing moves the action along smoothly. His
authentic passion for the country’s long and complicated ancient history shines
through. It’s a strong contender for your summer beach bag, the kind of book
you don’t want to have to think about too much. That’s partly because Bailey
doesn’t give you much help. The map and schematic of the Great Pyramid are a
step in the right direction. A glossary, perhaps a timeline, would be equally
By John Di Frances
– This is the first book of a trilogy about an international hunt
for a trio of assassins targeting European politicians. As a crime thriller,
the tradecraft of the assassins is detailed and persuasive, and the police
procedural elements also are good. It’s billed as a book that demonstrates
disenchantment with the European Union – the assassination targets are
big EU supporters – but it doesn’t really work as a political thriller, because
there’s very little politics in it. The assassins could just as well be
murdering top chefs or social media gurus.
The assassins are an Irish couple, handsome and strikingly
beautiful, wealthy, elegant, and socially adept (in a too-good-to-be-true way)
and a more rough-around-the-edges German man, who is an expert sniper. The
couple’s first target is Slovakia’s prime minister, killed by a car bomb outside
a Bratislava restaurant. The German accomplishes the second murder, that of the
Polish prime minister. It’s technically difficult, shooting from a distance of
640 meters into a packed stadium of excitable soccer fans.
The three escape to Berlin, several steps ahead of the multiple
security services now on their trail. The cat-and-mouse game is well done and
may carry you through some of the clunky writing. Technical information dumps
show Di Frances did his homework. Yet the weight or length of a rifle is
immaterial, of itself. Such information needs to be brought into the story. Has
the sniper had experience with a rifle of that type, is its length an advantage
or does it make it hard to conceal? Worst was a bullet-point list of 16
variables affecting the soccer stadium shot. Dude, this is fiction!
The plot pulls you forward nevertheless, and Di Frances has a great twist in store. Unfortunately, when you reach the end of Pretense, you’re not at the end of the story. To really understand what’s been going on, you’ll have to read book two and very probably book three. Not sure I’m ready for that.Link to Amazon.
Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).
The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.
There’s a special prison program (in
place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to
work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to
the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman
in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and
is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps
they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to
control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”
The parallels between the confinement and anger of this
mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in
charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters.
But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most
of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most
beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .
Woman at War (2019)
This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.
The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.
She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption
request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From
this point, carrying out one last adventure before flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is
also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I
laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.
Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad
Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial
political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated
into civil war (trailer).
In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in
Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go
back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked
by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund
Pike seems to have her head on straight. He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely
protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving
him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%.
This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of
recent films on Caravaggio and Van
Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a
week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late
works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those
other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these
masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary
from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put
together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was
“An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you
can find a screening
Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet.