Saturday, January 26, 2013

movie review: The Kid With a Bike

The Kid With a Bike (2011)
directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
starring Thomas Doret and Cecile de France

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I liked this movie a lot. It's a pretty simple story: Cyril is an eleven year old boy who is put in a boys' home after his father abandons him. He spends a lot of time trying to track down his dad, running back to the housing estate where he used to live, heartbreaking in his queries to the locals about whether they know where his dad has gone. The people who work at the home, who always bring him back, are pretty sympathetic, but they know what Cyril doesn't: that his dad doesn't want to be found and is not capable of caring for him.

By chance, Cyril meets a nice woman, Samantha, who agrees to take him in as a foster mom on weekends. Will she be his salvation? It is difficult, because Cyril is a wounded child and acts in predictably self-destructive ways. This sounds like it could be the setup for a melodramatic movie of the week, but it isn't. It's a very simple story, and it's told well. We can understand why Cyril acts the way he does. He's vulnerable, because he desperately wants a father, and he's naive because he's only eleven.

I really liked how this movie unfolded. It's beautifully shot, well paced, and simply told. It has quite a few moments of natural suspense, but it never feels like the directors are playing cheap tricks on their audience. The cast is excellent; Thomas Doret, who plays Cyril, is so natural that I honestly forgot I was watching an actor and started to believe he WAS Cyril. Cecile de France's character Samantha is a little bit of a mystery as a secondary (but very important) character, but she is warm and real and very good in her role.

If you like simple human dramas told with empathy, I would recommend this movie.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

book review: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad 

by Stacy Horn

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I find police detective work fascinating, and I've never read a book that focused on cold cases, so I was looking forward to this book when I ordered it through interlibrary loan. Unfortunately, I found it rather disappointing.

One of the biggest problems I had with it was the writing style. It did not seem to suit the subject matter very well, because it was (at times) very chatty and informal. It sort of reminded me of a first draft by a student who has some good ideas but needs to learn how to revise and edit. I also found that Ms. Horn has a fondness for the melodramatic and several parts were quite heavy-handed. I know that murder is bad--I don't need you to convince me, over and over again.

I also had issues with the structure of the book. We are taken from topic to topic with no transitions--first there is a detailed description of a detective or two; then there is a detailed history of the origin of the cold case squad; then there is a brief intro to one of the cold cases. Then, just as quickly, we're back to talking about crime stats, now another cold case, now meet another detective, here's some more history, here's another cold case, let's go back to the first cold case...augh! The result is disruptive and disjointed.

If I had been Ms. Horn's editor, I'd have advised her to cut out most of the history of the Cold Case Squad and police department politics. Just as a cold case chapter was getting interesting, the book would switch back to talking about NYPD politics and the narrative would go back to inching along at a snail's pace. These details were just tedious--not nearly as interesting as the actual cold cases themselves.

As I mentioned, I was interested in the cold cases themselves--to be honest, this is the only reason I actually finished this book. I wanted to find out if the cases were ever solved, and if so, how. Overall, however, I can't really recommend The Restless Sleep. I am sure there's a great book to be written about New York City's Cold Case Squad, but this is not it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Hmm, I'm pleased that I didn't have to delete too many spam comments after my gigantic blogging hiatus. I get a lot more spam on my work e-mail, which supposedly has heavy-duty spam filters on it. I find it particularly hilarious that the most recent spam e-mails are encouraging me to buy a ready-made university degree (easy! discreet! printed on high quality paper!).

Anyway, rather than let the blog languish further or delete it entirely, I've decided to use it to put all my reviews--books, movies, etc.--in one convenient place. First up:

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Originally I gave this 3.5 stars, but after thinking about it some more, I've decided to upgrade it to 4, because I feel is so admirably complex and well-written. One of the real strengths of the novel, in particular, is the way that Rowling takes such time building each character so that we are not in the least surprised when one of them acts a certain way. By the end of the novel not a single person in the book acts out of character. Their actions are--with one exception--predictably selfish and disappointing.

I really enjoyed this--the characters are interesting and the weird petty machinations of the small village are fascinating. It's true there are very few completely sympathetic characters, but there are also only a couple who are really truly irredeemable (Simon, Shirley and Howard are unlikable from beginning of the book to the end) and more than a few who are just kind of pathetic, or are sometimes unpleasant but in a realistic, everyone-is-flawed, human and understandable way. We might not LIKE what the characters do, but we understand completely WHY they do it.

The book is fairly tragic but oddly enough, not exactly grim. Rowling includes enough low-key comic touches to keep it from becoming grindingly depressing. I thought her writing was really pretty good in this one; she's developed a good voice and a sharp style. There was one sentence that stuck out awkwardly in the first few pages of the book and then after that, the writing flowed smoothly.

However, I did think the book was a little bit too long. It needed trimming--for example, there was a bit of a lag in places where the tedious machinery of the village council was discussed in too much detail. But even so, I can't fault Rowling for the sprawling cast of characters, because I think she handles them well. And it does all come together at the end--though this was another place I thought the novel faltered slightly. The end was not unsatisfying but was a little bit too tidy, albeit in a gloomy way. [I'm being vague on purpose so as not to spoil it if you haven't read it.]

Overall, though, if you like big sprawling novels with sharp social commentary (and it is extremely sharp--you're not left wondering about Rowling's social views) and you don't mind reading about humans behaving abominably to each other, I do recommend The Casual Vacancy.