' ' Cinema Romantico

Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday's Pimm's Cup: Dater's Handbook (2016)

Even if the Hallmark non-seasonal romance “Dater’s Handbook” is principally about one women, Cass (Meghan Markle), it is nevertheless a story that comes in twos, as Cass is made to date two guys at once, trying to decide between both, while two family members, her mother and her sister, give counsel and keep score. And director James Head underscores this idea, so to speak, with emphatic, if emphatically artless, cuts between dates and situations. Like, if Cass is getting ready for one date in a white dress, then suddenly we see her getting ready for another date in a green dress.. Do not presume, however, that all these twos are “Sliding Doors”-esque. This is not a movie about parallel dimensions, or even about What Could Be? as much as What Is. Then again, even as it all takes place in the here and now, “Dater’s Handbook” finds duality in both accepting the conventions of these sorts of movies and moving a few inches past them. If these movies typically refuse to let women have it all, “Dater’s Handbook”, while nevertheless still sometimes dated (peddling cringe-worthy Jewish jokes), never exactly forces Cass to give up who she is for what she wants. She does, in a sense, get to have it all, even if she has to navigate a minefield of bad advice that nearly undermines so much goodwill.


As “Dater’s Handbook” opens, Cass’s life doesn’t look half-bad, taking her dog Duke (great dog performance) for a hike in the scenic Denver mountains, which is lingered over with a little too much rear projection. Quickly, however, we ascertain that she is Married to Her Job because we see her purposely striding through a work hallway with a to-go cup of coffee, the universal emblem of Hard-Charging Career Gal. Thing is, though, while a lot of Hallmark leading ladies play these moments with an air of I-Want-Something-More-I-Just-Don’t-Know-It, Markle does not; she lets her character like this life. It reminded me a little of Jennifer Aniston in “Wanderlust” explaining she dug her Blackberry, sleeping pill and latte to Malin Akerman’s nouveau hippie. And so even if Cass’s beau is obviously a lunkhead who does not deserve her, taking her to the batting cages for a date, there is an air of credibility to the idea that she would be in a relationship that does not require her true emotional presence.

The plot instigator here, frankly, is less Cass than her sister, Nadia (Christine Chatelain), as obnoxious a movie character as I have encountered though I am unconvinced the movie creators were mindful of this obnoxiousness. It is Nadia who urges her sister utilize the coaching of Dr. Susie (Teryl Rothery), author of self-help romance books that gives the film its title, in the hopes that this self-proclaimed guru’s belief that it is generally you, not him, at fault for relationships going bust will help flip a switch in Cass. And so, after Cass splits with her lunkhead and then meets cute at a wedding with Robert (Kristoffer Polaha), rather than letting fate chart her course, Cass lets Nadia, with the aid of Dr. Susie, guide her instead.

This is the only reason why Cass even starts seeing George (Jonathan Scarfe), a client, at the same time she is seeing Robert, meaning that each time she has a date with one, she reports back to Nadia and her mom Gloria (Lynda Boyd), with the latter taking Robert’s side and the former taking George’s. Nadia likes George because he seems to check key un-amorous boxes on Dr. Susie’s checklist regardless of Cass’s clear hesitation, and despite Cass’s clear-cut chemistry with Robert. Markle lends great credibility to that chemistry, flirtatiously giving shit with great aplomb, effusing a detectable glow in his presence. (Markle could have played the Cody Horn part in “Magic Mike.”) And in scenes with George, quietly, she mutes that glow by aiming to please rather than being herself, as if she is tip-toeing around that one room in the house your parents forbade you from entering.

Granted, George is not as blatant a dolt as you usually get in these situations. If nothing else, he is entirely respectful of Cass even if he does not seem to be all that interested in what she’s like as a person. And even if Markle evinces the idea that cosmically she is just blundering into the wrong relationship all over again, the obvious strings that Nadia, anti-matchmaker, pulls are enough to make you (that is to say, me), utterly partial viewer, Meghan Markle fan, want to scream at the television. Seriously, Nadia seems to operate from a place of knowing next to nothing about Cass’s actual wants and emotional failings which is ridiculous because, obviously, this should not be about what Nadia wants.


It made me think a little about Harry – you know, Harry, Prince of Wales. Monarchies, of course, are insider-exclusive, but Harry, bless his heart, chose an outsider to wed, one Meghan Markle. Why you can practically imagine the Queen consulting her own Dr. Susie and being inspired to point the young Prince toward a more suitable George-ish Duchess. Ah, but like Markle’s Cass eventually allowed herself to see the light, so did Prince Harry, adhering not to some Royals-Only Search Committee but to the desires of his own heart. Perhaps it’s not an exact match, but still. Hallmark Channel movies are, rightfully, respectfully, televised clotted cream; they are also, occasionally, rarely, really rarely, emotionally true.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story, Best Case Scenario


Han Solo was not really always my favorite “Star Wars” character. When I was first falling in love with George Lucas’s space opera, Luke Skywalker was my favorite character. It was easier as a precocious adolescent to identify with a kid who hadn’t been further than Anchorhead than a grouchmaster gruff who had seen it all. Over time, however, Han Solo’s charms worked on me, which is to say that Harrison Ford’s I-Wish-I-Was-A-Carpenter anti-charm worked on me. If as a little kid I understood on some non-cognitive level that there was something innately cool about the spice smuggler propping his feet up on the table shooting Greedo first, it didn’t really begin to hit home until reality begin intruding as I tried, desperately, to come of age, striking MTV-influenced disaffected poses while on vacation with my parents to make it seem like I wasn’t with my parents. I was trying to leave Luke Skywalker behind, in other words, to become Han Solo, which is impossible but the compulsory De-Leon-ish teenage quest nonetheless. All that is to say, if you had told me in the early 90s that there was going to be a Han Solo standalone movie, oh my God, I would have flipped my lid. Back then we only had three “Star Wars” movies, after all, and at that time maybe Harrison Ford still would have been spinoff Solo, even if he would have sabotaged all his lines like the “Blade Runner” voiceover, which would have been just right. A Han Solo spinoff anchored by a disinterested Ford would have been the tops.

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Once upon a time a Steven Seagal thriller was as commonplace during the movie season as a superhero movie is in the present. Seagal’s movies were interchangeable entertainment, reflected not merely in their gunplay and kung-fu but in titles like “Out for Justice” and “Marked for Death” that seemed to come straight from some Hollywood brainstorming session overseen by risk management experts who prefer Bud Light at the bar and their fish served very plain. The quasi-snappy three words, in fact, are a hallmark of Seagal movie titles, where even the ones that are not three words sound like they are, whether it’s “Under Siege” blowing two words out to three syllables or “Fire Down Below” sounding less like four syllables than roughly 3.5. The essential sameness of these names correlates directly to their analogous adventures. I have seen some of these movies, but I could not necessarily tell you which ones I have seen and which ones I have not. I have seen “Hard to Kill”, I think, and not “Above the Law”, but it could be, I suspect, that I have seen “Above the Law” and not “Hard to Kill.” This is entirely appropriate. Steven Seagal Three Word Title Movies are not intended for rumination, which is why I always found it funny that he tried to jam environmental issues into “On Deadly Ground” (which I have seen…maybe). This blog supports protecting the environment, sure, but A Steven Seagal Three Word Title Movie is designed to go in one ear and out the other and left with your empty Junior Mints box on the theater floor, experienced in the moment, enjoyed in a mindless sort of way, and never thought of again.

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“Solo: A Star Wars Story” doesn’t sound like a Steven Seagal Three Word Movie Title. It sounds more like “The Path Beyond Thought”, a documentary about Steven Seagal’s time as a sensei in Japan, which I have not seen and which might be really, really good, but is nevertheless a title a few leagues apart from, say, the expository glory of “Half Past Dead.” “The Hutt Gambit”, which was the second book in a series concering Han Solo written by A.C. Crisp, is more indicative of the eponymous ring I wish Ron Howard’s movie was going for, less a Memorial Day weekend event than a late April or late September release. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” makes it sound determined to fit squarely into the franchise, meaning it will become fodder for endless conversations about its place in the canon. And whereas long ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I would have been ripe for those conversations, these days I find myself exhausted with them, a little burned out on this franchise that once meant so much to me. I have, I realize, become, finally, all these years later, in a way, Han Solo, just as I always dreamed, meeting his own movie on his level, less excited than indifferent, wishing that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was nothing more than a Steven Seagal Three Word Movie, watched and forgotten, destined to be followed a little while later by an eminently forgettable movie too.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

5 More Musicals Based on Movies Absolutely No One Needs


I saw a lot of theatre on my recent jaunt to London, but what I did not see was any musical based on a movie. And, near as I could tell, there were numerous musicals based on movies from which to choose. Every tube stop was adorned with multitudinous posters for “School of Rock” the musical and “Strictly Ballroom” the musical and “Young Frankenstein” the musical and “Aladdin” the musical, and soon England’s capital will have “Bring it On” and “Heathers” musicals on the docket too.

This, frankly, is just as true of my city, Chicago, where a quick scan of upcoming musicals finds such names as “Pretty Woman”, “Dirty Dancing”, “Waitress”, “The Color Purple”, and “Tootsie.” If interest in going to the movies is on the wane then perhaps this spate of movies cum musicals suggests that the movies’ future is, paradoxically, on the stage. That, however, is a theory that probably is not true and that I am not inclined to follow up on anyway. No, what interests this blog, as you no doubt expect, is what other musicals based on movies should (not) exist? Do we have ideas? You better believe we have ideas.

5 More Musicals Based on Movies Absolutely No One Needs


The Avengers. Triple dog duh. Sure, “Spider-Man” flopped on Broadway, but our “Avengers” musical will not. This is because we will forgo complicated staging derring-do for ironic posturing. Robert Downey Jr. has sung and danced before, of course, in “The Singing Detective” as well as an episode of “Ally McBeal.” Except we do not want Downey Jr. to sing and dance. As comically disagreeable Tony Stark, he will spend all of “The Avengers Follies” trying not to sing and dance as his various Avenging cohorts melodically exhort him to join in the fun.


Runaway Jury. My friend Daryl long ago dreamt up the seemingly ludicrous idea of a musical based on “Runaway Jury.” Daryl can pitch ideas like the rain falls and yet, for reasons I struggle to explain, this one always stuck with me more than many of the others. Maybe this is just because picturing John Grisham Comes To Broadway! subway advertisements sounds hilarious. Whatever the case, the idea was just tossed off, not really fleshed out, and so what I propose is this: a “Mamma Mia!” inspired adventure in which our dueling lawyers try to select a jury all while singing, in a nod to the movie’s News Orleans setting, the hits of Fats Domino.


Jurassic World. The resurgent “Jurassic” franchise is ripe for cashing in via the stage. So, for the musical let’s turn Jurassic World into a sort of Sleepaway Camp where paleontologists double as chaperones and feud with their charges against the backdrop of dino mayhem. A T-Rex named Doug plays the King George III of “Hamilton” role as intermittent comic relief.


Cocktail. I’m actually a little insulted that Roger Donaldson’s 1988 box office bonanza, non-masterpiece has yet to receive the musical treatment. Its soundtrack, after all, was a Billboard powerhouse, fueled by The Beach Boys’ (Mike Love version) “Kokomo.” And whether the musical version embodies the trivial all-inclusive Caribbean resort atmosphere of the song’s surface or evokes the tune’s melancholy undercurrent that Molly Lambert latched onto several years ago in a piece at Grantland (rip) to render it euphonic revisionism, I don’t particularly care. Let’s just do this thing and start brainstorming how to get a waterfall on the stage.


Streets of Fire. Like “Cocktail”, Walter Hill’s cult(ish) classic, billed as A Rock ’n Roll Fable, is readymade for the stage. Why two of its songs were written by Jim Steinman whose “Bat Out of Hell” musical is running in London too! So let’s cast Carly Rae Jepsen as Ellen Aim and put on a show.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Kodachrome

“Kodachrome” takes its name from the Eastman Kodak color reversal film beloved by photographers, professional or otherwise, all the way up until it went bust in 2010. Paul Simon explained Kodachrome by verse in the 70s, singing how it “Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.” True, but director Mark Raso’s movie is mostly cloudy given that it turns on a son, Matt Ryder (Jason Sudeikis), estranged from a father, Ben (Ed Harris), who is, as he must be, on death’s doorstep. His impending demise from cancer coordinates with the demise of Kodachrome itself, meaning that Ben, a renowned professional photographer, and his live-in nurse, Zooey (Elizabeth Olsen), enlist Matt to briefly squelch his anger to squire them from New York to Kansas to get Ben’s final rolls of old school Eastman Kodak developed at the last Kodachrome lab standing.


The movie was based on a jaunty 2010 New York Times piece by A.G. Sulzberger suggesting something like that scene in “Contact” when Jodie Foster's character encounters an endless parade of E.T.-adoring eccentrics camped outside Cape Canaveral. Alas, “Kodachrome” prefers to mope, which doesn’t have to be bad thing except the movie fails to extract any genuine revelation from all its despondency. Given that the movie centers on a road trip, and given that Kodachrome’s heyday was the 60s and 70s, and given that several conversations revolve around the authenticity and tangibility of actual film as opposed to the data & dust of our present day digital landscape (and which is nominally tied into Matt’s career as a music agent), it is tempting to think that “Kodachrome” might harken back to the American New Wave road trip movies. It does not. It forgoes breaking any rules, or even teasing narrative disobedience, to paint by numbers, right down to Ben’s Magical Negro manager (Dennis Haysbert).

What’s more, for a movie in which photography plays a pivotal part, the cinematography fails to inspire, opting for standard issue country-passing shots out of car windows and shots of Matt standing forlornly at windows of various places he stays. The exception is a shot of Ben in the backseat of the trio’s convertible seeing a young girl at the window of a passing Amtrak train and snapping her photo. As he does, he beams a smile ultimately revealed as the character’s most earnest moment in the whole movie, briefly unlocking a world in which his photographic subjects bring him more joy than his own kid at the wheel of the car.

That moment informs Harris’s agreeably prickly performance. He has a little Royal Tenenbaum about him, not that the movie explores it any real way. When Matt briefly catches sight of his father looking at him through a bathroom door, Ben quickly slams the door shot, a moment evoking a well of fatherly resentment that, like the scene itself, the movie keeps locked away. Instead Ben’s arc builds to a deathbed confessional. The dialogue, alas, illuminates little, though Harris gives the moment all he’s got, purposely refusing to look at Sudeikis’s character throughout, keeping his eyes closed.

Sudeikis, meanwhile, is as Sudeikis does, falling flat in dramatic moments and excelling when comically riffing with his counterparts, particularly Olsen. Oh, Zooey is a woefully written character, less any kind of actual nurse than a female who is there not to do much more than help change the male protagonist. That she does, exiting at the end of the 2nd act to give him space to figure things out, and then, when he has, re-appearing to embrace him. For God’s sake.


Still, Olsen, like Harris, musters up a little dimension on her own. When Matt pointedly begs to differ at her pleas to give his Dad a chance, Olsen lets the anger just roll right off, like his language is rain moving through a gutter and out the spout. Even better is a late night hang scene at some nameless bar where Zooey sings along to Live. Ostensibly this is nothing more than the trigger to Matt and Zooey’s Will They / Won’t They Moment, though Olsen makes it something more. It is, I suppose, glorified karaoke, but sometimes in karaoke the performer channels the artist being covered. And in channeling Ed Kowalczyk, Olsen makes it electrifying, comically electrifying and electrifying electrifying.

I know. I get it. It’s hard to explain. But then, Norman Maine once opined of Esther Blodgett, “She’s got a little something extra.” And people, I’m telling you, Olsen, in that moment, had a little something extra. It’s the one image in the whole movie you actually see — mystically, that is — in Kodachrome.

Monday, May 14, 2018

You Were Never Really Here

The world is polluted by noise, whether it’s the omnipresent industrial sounds of the city or the perpetual din of our various electronic devices. As such, movies take great pains to remove that noise. A scene filmed under train tracks siphons the rattle from the soundtrack while a joy ride in a convertible with the top down eliminates the rushing wind so we can actually hear the characters communicating. In “You Were Never Really Here”, however, director Lynne Ramsey, in concert with her sound designer and supervising sound editor Paul Davies, works hard to put all that sound in, concocting a cacophony of a whole city that seems to bring about the slouch of the movie’s protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), as if he is pinned beneath this unremitting racket. On a stroll through the city, the sound of cars and construction is raised to almost deafening levels. And when the movie ends, Ramsey lets a gaggle of indecipherable voices float over the closing credits. And because the movie has ended, and because the movie has ended the way it has, this conversational low hum pointedly evokes the sensation of so much noise going on long after we have left this rock.


Joe is a traumatized Afghan vet caring for his mentally, physically diminished mother (Judith Roberts) while making money by playing hero, or a version of it, rescuing little girls who have been kidnapped and placed into sex trafficking rings. If his actions at least place Joe on the right side of good and evil, it does not necessarily mean he holds the moral high ground entirely as his methods of salvation are never presented as anything other than brutal. In a scene where he acquires job supplies, Joe lingers over a ballpeen hammer, which Phoenix underlines by grinning, as if search and rescues go hand in hand with grisly kicks. It is a little moment offering a world of insight, which is the standard m.o. of “You Were Never Really Here”, a movie building outwardly in, like a thousand scattered puzzle pieces, all of which fit together by the end though not necessarily in the way that picture on the box might have led you to believe.

“You Were Never Really Here” opens not with any kind of establishing shot but a series of quick close-ups, so jumbled and discursive that it takes you some time to not only piece together what’s happening but that they are not all happening at the same time. What’s more, we don’t even get a real good look at Joe until much later, and even then he seems to be hiding from the camera. This is a movie that makes you work to put it all together, disassembling flashbacks to Joe’s past without ever really settling down to explain what’s what and where he is. This fragmentation, frankly, is a more effective device at putting us in his throbbing headspace, as is Jonny Greenwood’s ferocious score, rather than a brief reference to Joe’s pill-popping.

This abstraction extends to the movie’s violence. As Joe is tasked by a Senator (Alex Manette) to recover his daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), bodies pile up. Even as they do, Ramsey evades the most ghastly details, preferring to artfully elicit an uneasy feeling through atmosphere. As Joe infiltrates the house of horrors where Nina is kept, the scene is scored to Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” which might have suggested the kind of kicky gratuitousness that Quentin Tarantino loves. Except that Ramsey shoots the scene primarily in obtuse angles from the viewpoint of black and white security cameras, all of which add up to an otherworldly sensation, almost as if the ghost from “The Ring” is starring in a macabre music video.

From there, Joe finds himself ensnared in a web reaching higher than he expected. That it does seems to suggest the movie building toward a traditional sort of climax, particularly as Joe storms a scenic mansion, like a peasant invading Versailles. Yet at the moment of truth, the movie takes a turn, evoked in Joe’s reaction to an unexpected development which Phoenix has the character meet with an incredulous sort of chuckle that is at least as good as Josh Brolin’s fatalistic grunt when finding that case of cash in “No Country For Old Men.” And what seemed to be trending toward superhero territory opts for the surreal, with an ending that simultaneously illuminates and mystifies.


It’s a dangerous game being played by “You Were Never Really Here”, not so much in its anti-narrative as in threatening to dissolve into a cloud of negativist acceptance or tipping into child exploitation. That it dodges these traps is because of the sunshine Ramsey lets in, and the unexpected ways she does, like the bizarre delight Joe finds in picking a lone green jelly bean out of a bowl of all the wrong colors, or, most particularly, the comfort he tenders to a nameless, dying bad guy. It’s a shot recalling the denouement of “Heat”, though that shot was deliberately built to for three hours and this one is just all of a sudden dropped in which is what makes it special. As the dying guy lies there, he and Joe begin singing along with a song on the radio. If they seem to do this in spite of themselves, the tug on your heart might well be in spite of yourself too, and for a moment, all the rest of the noise falls away, leaving you only bizarre, beautiful lyricism.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Local Hero (1983)

The fictional Scottish town Ferness at the center of “Local Hero”, while thankfully not stereotypically presented as a pocket of backward thinking rubes like these sorts of movies are wont to do, still feels out of time. And that is appropriate because “Local Hero” itself feels out of time too. It is not simply that the film often feels apart from its 1980s setting, but that it feels apart from the various genres it seems to inhabit. The film is not as supine as a simple fantasy nor as obvious as a fish out of water comedy or as grave as a drama. No, it swims along its own wavelength. If that wavelength is not exactly magical realism, because it never gives itself over to make believe and never even passes itself off as a parable despite environmental urges on the periphery, it nevertheless comes across a little fantastical. And that, I think, is because no movie so astutely, effortlessly captures the, shall we say, spirituality that goes hand-in-hand with traveling, where a place intrinsically surrounds and then overwhelms you, until you find yourself standing in the middle of it, wishing you could remain there forever.


“Local Hero” turns on a business trip undertaken by Houston’s Knox Oil and Gas exec MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) at the behest of his overlord, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), to acquire Ferness in order to erect an oil refinery on their beach. MacIntyre is chosen on account of his ostensibly Scottish surname, which isn’t really the case since his family changed its name, an early signifier of the lie that our emergently heroic, in his own leisurely way, exec is living. MacIntyre is introduced calling co-workers on the phone even though they can see one another from across the office, eating lunch at the vending machine, and more connected to his Porsche than any human being. We see him in the Porsche in the very first scene, cruising the freeway amidst so many skyscrapers, talk radio blasting. This moment works as a wonderful contrast against a later shot across the pond of he and local Knox rep Danny (Peter Capaldi) stopping progress on account of fog and sleeping in their car for the night. When they awake, the fog has lifted. Eventually, metaphorically, the fog will lift from MacIntyre too.

It is a testament to Forsythe’s direction that MacIntyre’s character shift is not simply explicated in dialogue or virtue of any kind of clear-cut inciting incident. Rather the place itself just sort of seems to wash over him, evoked in the way he eventually ditches his suit for a cable-knit sweater and lets a beard grow in, as if his change has bubbled up from the inside-out. That place, meanwhile, is not presented as a mere postcard. Even if the aurora borealis and a few comets illuminate the night sky, in the morning that same sky is dotted by practicing fighter jets, a paradise compromised. These warplanes play directly into the townfolk not only not being opposed to the sale but actively rooting for it, represented by Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the innkeeper but also the town accountant, a reveal in which the comedy is deliberately undercut by the straightforward way MacIntyre receives it.

If this American might initally leave Urquhart a little skeptical, he is never exactly cold, and by the end the two have become something akin to friends. This is best seen in a mid-movie sequence where the town gathers for a dance. Here, through music and character interaction, you glean the sadness and sweetness at the center of Ferness, where custom might bind them together but also suggests why time is running out. Still, like any hardened traveler who suddenly feels his heart lifted, MacIntyre cannot help but be moved. And he confesses a desire at switching places with Urquhart, which Lawson has his character meet with a good-natured nod, like he has heard it all before. For an instant, you wonder if the scotch they are drinking might be a smokey elixir to making MacIntyre’s wish come true.

If we are conditioned from so many movies before to expect the sale to be called off in the end, particularly when it turns out the beach is owned by an old man who refuses to sell, “Local Hero” actually finds a way around this without compromising its narrative integrity. Oh, Happer might swoop in to the save the day at the end, but his character is more than a deus ex machina. He is introduced not in any grand manner but sound asleep, snoring through a meeting outlining the acquisition, as if he has already checked out from the business he ostensibly oversees. If he has, he nevertheless cannot rid himself of it, which is what the aversion therapist following him around seems intended to help correct, by repeatedly invading Happer’s space to call him unkind names in the movie’s most obvious nod toward broad comedy. But what really saves Happer is the sky, where he is constantly looking, even if it is more often a make-believe one in something like a faux observatory he has installed in his office. And when he arrives in Ferness, the solution he fashions is agreeably casual in its obviousness rather than making a big fuss about how it all works out.


It all works out for everyone except for MacIntyre, which is “Local Hero’s” real twist, if you want to call it that. Because as the movie winds down, Happer asks MacIntyre to head back to Houston, deliberately rendered as the one moment in a slow burn movie that feels brusque. MacIntyre does not want to leave, of course, but he is duty bound. And the concluding juxtaposition of the glittering but impersonal Houston skyline with the red phone booth of Ferness evokes the spell travel casts so quietly but so searingly that it’s enough to make anyone who has ever fallen for some faraway place weep.