Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: The Book of Henry (dir by Colin Trevorrow)


In the movies, child geniuses inevitably turn out to be little creeps at that’s certainly the case with The Book of Henry.

Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 11 year-old with an exceptional IQ, which essentially means that it’s supposed to be cute when he talks down to people and treats them like shit.  In fact, Henry is such a genius that he’s managed to make a lot of money on the stock market and he also invents stuff.  He practically raises his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay, who is as authentic as Lieberher is overbaked).  He also takes care of his mom, Susan (Naomi Watts).  Susan’s a waitress because it’s a rule of movies like this that the single parent of a child genius will always either be a waitress or a physicist.  There’s really no middle ground.  Anyway, Susan appears to be destined to be forever single but she says that’s okay because Henry is the only man she needs in her life.

(Cringe)

Anyway, Henry lives next door to the Sickleman family.  You know that’s going to be a problem because, in the movies, good people never have names like Sickleman.  Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris) is not only the police commissioner but he’s also not a very good neighbor.  He’s the type of neighbor who complains if the leaves from your tree gets in his yard.  He’s also not really comfortable living next door to a child genius.  It’s probably because Henry is kind of a condescending jerk.

Henry suspects that Glenn is abusing his stepdaughter, Christina (Maddie Ziegler, who is best known for Dance Moms).  However, before Henry can do anything about it, he has a seizure dies.  Uh-oh, turns out that Henry had a brain tumor!  A genius killed by his own brain.  So.  Much.  Irony.

However, before he died, he left behind a book and recorded instructions for Susan.  It turns out that Henry knew he was going to die because Henry was a super genius who could see the future.  (At least, I assume that’s what happened.)  So, he decided that his mother should murder Glenn and he even came up with some helpful instructions for how she could do it and not get caught.

Now, let me ask you a question.  If you discovered that your recently deceased son spent the last few days of his life plotting how to murder his neighbor would you…

a) Destroy all the evidence and pretend you never saw it

b) Shrug and decide to grant his last wish by following his instructions and killing the neighbor?

I mean, let’s think about this.  By all evidence, it would appear that Henry was a sociopath.  Even if you accept the idea that he had to kill Glenn to save Christina, you still also have to accept the idea that he coldly and methodically plotted out the perfect way to commit a murder and then, realizing he was going to die, he decided that his mom should commit the murder instead.

This is the type of material that a director like David Fincher, Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier could have a lot of fun with.  However, The Book of Henry was directed by Colin Trevorrow and he takes this weird sentimental approach to the material.  Instead of freaking out over having raised a sociopath, Susan immediately starts to follow all of his instructions.  What’s amazing is that, even in the recording he made for his mom to listen to after his death, Henry is still a condescending little jerk.  At one point, from beyond the grave, Henry directs his mom to take a right turn.  Then he adds, “No, your other right.”

But what really gets me about this movie is that, after all the build up, Henry’s big genius plan is for Susan to get a rifle and shoot Glenn.  That’s it.  I mean, anyone could have thought of that!  If you’re going to make a movie like this, at least have Henry come up with some big complicated scheme!  At least give us that!  I mean, honestly, Susan could have come up with Henry’s plan on her own.

Does Susan follow through with the plan?  I’m not going to tell you.  But I will tell you that the film’s climax features a school talent show.  Maddie Ziegler gets to dance.  Jacob Tremblay gets to perform a magic trick.  They’re both really talented.  Sparkle Motion does not perform and that’s a shame.  Sometimes, I doubt Colin Trevorrow’s commitment to Sparkle Motion.

Anyway, to say that The Book of Henry is a bad film doesn’t quite do justice to just how ill-conceived this film really is.  Someone decided to make a heartwarming and rather humorless film about a child ordering his mother to commit a murder.  You may think it’s a parody at first but no, it’s a real movie.  It’s The Book of Henry.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #113: Gran Torino (dir by Clint Eastwood)


Gran_Torino_posterWalt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a grumpy man.  And by that, I mean that he’s extremely grumpy.  Remember how grumpy Bill Murray was in St. Vincent?  He’s got nothing on Walt Kowalski.

Walt served in the Korean War and, five decades later, his experiences still haunt him.  After the war, he lived in Detroit and he worked on an assembly line.  He’s since retired but he still loves his old Ford Gran Torino, a car that he could very well have helped to build.  His wife has recently passed away and his children are eager to move him into a nursing home.  Walt is slowly smoking himself to death and the only person who visits him regularly is an earnest young priest (Christopher Carley, playing the ideal priest).

Just as Walt’s life has changed as he’s gotten older, so has his neighborhood.  The neighborhood is now dominated by Hmong immigrants.  When Walt catches Thao Vang Lor, a 16 year-old Hmong, attempting to steal his car, it leads to an unlikely friendship between Walt, Thao, and Thao’s sister, Sue.  When the same local gang that put Thao up to stealing Walt’s car subsequently attacks Sue, Thao wants revenge but Walt says that if Thao kills a man, it’s something that he’ll never recover from.  After locking Thao in his house, Walt goes off to confront the gang on his own…

And, since Walt is played by Clint Eastwood, you’d be justified in thinking that Walt’s confrontation would amount to a lot of quips and violence.  But actually, it’s the exact opposite.  Gran Torino does not find Eastwood in the mood to celebrate violence.  Instead, the film is a meditation on both the cost of violence and the impossibility of escaping one’s own mortality.

Whenever people talk about the 2008 Oscar race, the focus always seems to be on the snubbing of  The Dark Knight.  However, I would say that Gran Torino (among other films) was snubbed even more than The Dark Knight.  After all, The Dark Knight may have missed out on best picture but it still received 8 nominations and won an Oscar for Heath Ledger.  Gran Torino, on the other hand, received not a single nomination.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing that Gran Torino deserved a best picture nomination.  It’s a fairly predictable film and some of the symbolism, particularly during Walt’s final confrontation with the gang, gets a bit too heavy-handed.  (Any time a character spontaneously strikes a crucifixion pose in a movie, you know that things are starting to get out of hand.)  But I would argue that Clint Eastwood definitely deserved a nomination for best actor.  In many ways, Walt is a typical Eastwood character but, right at the moment when we’re expecting him to behave like every other Eastwood character that we’ve ever seen, Walt surprises us by doing something completely different.  As a director, Eastwood subverts our expectations of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and a character.  As a result, the audience is taken by surprise by Walt, if not by the film’s plot.

I remember, at the time the film was released, there was some speculation that Gran Torino would be the last time we ever saw Clint Eastwood onscreen.  That proved to be false, as he subsequently starred in Trouble With The Curve.  However, even if it wasn’t his final acting role, Gran Torino still serves as the perfect monument to Eastwood’s unique screen presence.