Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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On Chesil Beach

Few contemporary British writers are as lauded as Ian McEwan, author of more than a dozen accomplished novels in the last 25 years. He has won a string of major prizes and has had several of his novels converted to the screen, including “The Comfort of Strangers” and “Atonement,” among others. One of his more distinctive works, “On Chesil Beach,” a novella from 2007, has now become a feature film.

The film’s location is a real—and most picturesque—piece of coastal landscape situated at the very tip of Dorset in southern England. The word “chesil” comes from an old English expression meaning “gravel,” or “stony,” the latter the principal feature of the extensive beach itself. That stony appellation could just as well describe the rocky marriage we witness in “On Chesil Beach.”

The time period—1962--is carefully chosen to straddle the end of the post-war recovery (and a more correct, reserved British milieu) and presage the coming of the “”Swinging Britain” of new music, new fashions, and a kind of youth quake. Two newlyweds, Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, personify this interim period, the first representing a proper, respectable life, and the second depicting a more boisterous, searching one.

Florence (Saoirse Ronan) comes from a well-off Oxford family of formal style and means. Her father Geoffrey (Samuel West) is a domineering and wealthy businessman and her mother Violet (Emily Watson) a stern taskmaster and believer in rules. Florence is prim in manner, diction, and dress and harbors a love of a most formal kind of music, the string quartet. Edward’s family is working class, with a reticent father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough)) and a vulnerable mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) who has suffered brain damage. Edward (Billy Howle) is rough around the edges, scruffy in manner and wardrobe, but bright, with a recent degree in history, and is a lover of the emerging rock-and-roll phenomenon.

Their honeymoon experience is the framing device for “On Chesil Beach.” Over the film’s arc, we see them settling into their room in a mediocre seaside hotel, plainly nervous and tentative about themselves and the night to come. They order dinner in but barely eat and are clumsy in conversation. Their move to the marriage bed is hesitant, awkward, and ends in an incident which drives Florence, disgusted, out to the beach, where Edward later finds her, troubled and chastened. The hotel and beach scenes are punctuated throughout with flashbacks to each one’s backstories, their meeting at a ban-the-bomb event, their growing infatuation, their lives within their respective families, and their personal passions and dreams. Such sequences sample both the genuine affection they have for each other and those elements that separate them.

Young Saoirse Ronan is on a role with a string of splendid performances, including this one. As the prim Florence, she exudes confidence as a musician while being poignantly squeamish about what marriage entails. It’s a tough balance to pull off, but she does. Her co-star Howle likewise balances a portrait of an eager young bloke who struggles to be a gentleman but doesn’t quite know how to pull it off. The two of them dancing on the edge of a sexual cliff is both tantalizing and heartbreaking to watch.

“On Chesil Beach” was directed by Dominic Cooke, an English stage director, who had the veteran US cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) at his side. McEwan himself was the screenwriter. They craft a handsome and touching picture, one which deftly guides a splendid cast, captures wonderfully the flavor of the period, and displays the magnificent strip of Chesil Beach itself from all angles. The filmmakers also realize the filmic equivalent of the couple’s sexual dilemma by selectively using telling close ups-–of hands and feet and limbs-- that effectively signal both the passion and the stress of their matrimonial encounter. Such parts make the whole the more affecting.

(This film is rated "R" and runs 110 minutes.)

(May 2018)

Saoirse Ronan (left) and Billy Howle in “On Chesil Beach,” a Bleeker Street Release.
Photo credit: Robert Viglasky/Bleeker Street.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG for short) has spent a rich and fruitful life in the law and in life. Yet for all of that, her contributions, however epoch-making, did not change her essentially retiring and restrained nature. She is not one to make a show, or to show up others. However eventful her life, it has always been somewhat under wraps. Only quite recently, perhaps more so after the death in 2010 of her beloved husband, the more outgoing Marty, has Ginsburg come into her own as an atypical celebrity. That celebrity may shift a bit closer to rock star after the release of “RBG.”

“RBG” is part life story, part personality profile, and part legal history of gender equality, much of which Ginsberg contributed to. That contribution is properly recognized in “RBG” with the descriptions of a landmark series of arguments she made before the Supreme Court in the 1970’s when practicing in New York City as ACLU’s general counsel. These cases for equal pay standards and female recognition in the military and the professions are not only described in the film but enhanced by hearing—from audio tapes—her own oral arguments. It was these cases that led her being named to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter in 1980, and her eventual assumption to the Supreme Court in 1993 after being nominated by Bill Clinton.

Her Supreme Court tenure, now approaching 25 years, is also given due weight in this film, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Here again, her major agreements and dissents are heard on audiotape, her deliberate and clear voice giving additional authenticity to her arguments. She is so logical, so sensible—how can anybody not agree with the woman?

Ribboned through the legal Ruth is the personal one, a short Jewish Brooklyn girl of unhurried drive and robust moral values, excelling in school at every level, with eventual college work at Cornell, Harvard, and a degree from Columbia Law School. Central to that life is her meeting the love of her life, Marty Ginsburg, as teenagers at Cornell, then following him, with two kids in tow, to study in New York. Their personalities and demeanor were apparent opposites, but their bonds were adamantine. Through file footage of the irrepressible Marty and the testimony of Ginsburg’s two children, John and Jane, we get a clear sense of a wholly anchored family.

Other elements of Ginsburg’s story are told. Her warm friendship with her utter ideological rival on the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia, is nicely sketched, highlighted by their joshing during a dual stage appearance. Her passionate love of opera is also noted, including a sprightly scene where she appears in a speaking role in “The Daughter of the Regiment” with the Washington National Opera, surely a highlight of her life. A sour episode is also pointed out: her denouncing candidate Trump during the campaign of 2016, an outburst for which she (as a sitting judge) later apologized. Her everyday life at the Watergate apartments in DC is also shown, including her steady workouts at the gym.

What is finally truly telling in “RBG” is her own recorded testimony, delivered at various points in her life and up to the present day. We hear her in court appearances, testifying at her Senate hearings, making her major court arguments, in public appearances and interviews, and, most intimately, with the filmmakers themselves who get her to reveal just a bit more of herself. This is a most winning documentary, one that befits an unassuming American icon.

(The film is rated “PG” and runs 97 minutes.)

(May 2018)

Photo Credit: Justice Ginsberg doing her workout routine in “RBG.”
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The Rider

This film is a surprise, an earnest, well crafted portrayal of a life interrupted, based on real events that actually happened to the people depicted. It feels like a documentary in much of its look and method but is in fact a careful fiction, and the “real” players, who could come off as the most obvious kind of amateurs, appear fully authentic and true.

We first encounter Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) as he awakens from a dream of horses in slo-mo then must tend to a vicious wound on his head. It turns out he was a promising rodeo cowboy, but a horrible spill from a bucking bronco has left him badly injured (he has survived a coma and has undergone multiple brain surgeries). We see him excruciatingly pull nasty staples from his wound, knowing that his days performing rodeo are behind him. Doctors have advised him to never ride again. Since being a “rider” has been his whole life, the future looks barren.

Brady lives in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota’s Badlands with his dad Wayne (Tim Jandreau), a Sioux ranchman and widower who has turned sullen and cynical and uses gambling as a crutch. His little sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) is a 15-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome who is full of spirit and love for her brother. He has a coterie of buddies, all rodeo hopefuls, too, and they hearten him, but they also have riding futures he cannot expect. With no work, he spends too much time watching old videos of rodeo competitions. His life is sparked only by visiting best friend Lane Scott, a promising bull rider who had his own rodeo accident and has become brain-damaged and wheelchair bound.

What motivates Brady most is his love of horses, including one on his farm called Gus, whom he can spend pleasant hours riding. But Wayne sells Gus for needed cash, and Brady must turn somewhere to fill his days. With no education or prospects outside of rodeoing, he takes on a job at a supermarket and, in one instance, is hired by a neighbor to tame a wild horse for use. Even that positive experience turns dire when the horse, Apollo, is injured and must be put down by Wayne. What can you do when your whole life plan collapses before you?

A large part of the surprise of “The Rider” is its creator. Chloé Zhao was Beijing-born and US-educated and now works here. She comes to this project from previous experience. In 2015, she won acclaim with the independent “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” another thoughtful take on another struggling Indian family on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was during filming “Songs” that she discovered Brady and his family and resolved to tell another tale of the plains.

Clearly, the reservation’s world and the stark beauty of Pine Ridge have inspired Zhao. Her use of vivid landscapes is brilliant, especially for multiple scenes shot at the “magic hours” of dawn and dusk, and she and her fine cinematographer (shout out to the talented Joshua James Richards) offer a genuine and generous vision and avoid excess. She tells her watchful story at a measured pace, giving scenes a chance to breathe. Never more so than in a lengthy sequence that shows the true horse trainer that Brady is, gently, serenely, breaking a skittish wild horse to obey him. It is simple yet riveting cinema.

(The film is rated “R” for language and runs 103 mins.)

(April 2018)

Photo Credit: Brady Jandreau (as Brady Blackburn) is “The Rider.”
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics