Saturday, July 18, 2015

Men Without Women

The Various Haunts of Men: Simon Serrailler #1  by Susan Hill (2004): Prior to reading this novel, I knew Susan Hill's work solely through The Woman in Black. That 1980's novel was a pitch-perfect tribute to 19th-century ghost stories. This novel is the first of seven DCI Simon Serrailler mysteries. It's very long. Very, very long. And while the development of the large cast keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the serial killer in the English cathedral town of Lafferton for the first three-quarters of the novel, the last quarter of the novel disintegrates in what I think was meant to be a 'realistic' way. 

Unfortunately, two events that occur in the novel's closing pages have never, so far as I know, occurred in the history of the world. The effect feels cheap and unpleasant with the first shocking event and completely ridiculous with the second. And I was gripped enough by much of the novel that the denouement felt like the worst of cheats, one that will for now ensure I don't read another Simon Serrailler novel, or Susan Hill novel for that matter, until the bad taste is out of my brain. Not recommended.

The Descendants: adapted from the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash; directed by Alexander Payne; starring George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Nick Krause (Sid), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Michael Ontkean (Cousin Milo), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), and Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer) (2011): Winner of the Oscar for the Best Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants gives us George Clooney and director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways) in top form. Clooney's super power as a movie star is a grace note of vulnerability. Here, that vulnerability goes up to 11, and Clooney's performance is all the better for it. 

Payne has always had the knack of making rich people likable and closely observed drama imbued with sharp-witted melancholy and mirth. The performances are all fine, with special fineness in the  work of Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as Clooney's character's two daughters. The paradoxes of Hawaii become part of the narrative, with visuals doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to portraying the island-state as part urban sprawl, part natural wonderland, part bland suburb, and part tourist over-build. Highly recommended.

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