Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (2017)

What I remember about the much-hyped tennis match between the remarkable Billie Jean King, then the top women’s player in the world, and the 55-year-old former men’s Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs, was that we all thought it was a joke. Riggs had won Wimbledon in 1939—34  years before. How could that old man possibly think he could even stay on the court with the young, healthy and dominant King at the top of her game? I mean, sure, if King had been matched against, say, Jimmy Connors, then in his prime, it would have been a different story, with the man’s strength being perhaps insurmountable even if other skills were essentially equal. But Riggs? Come on.

But apparently I, and the people in my circle of friends and acquaintances at the time (basically graduate students in literature), were not exactly in the mainstream of public opinion (go figure). Even if the film was going to some lengths to underscore the secondary status of women’s tennis—and, by extension, women’s rights—at the time (1973), it was something of a rude shock to see the actual historical commentary by Howard Cosell at the match in the Astrodome, so condescending and misogynistic as it seems today, yet apparently absolutely typical at the time. So apparently, the vast majority of folks thought Riggs was going to dominate Billie Jean.

What I also believed at the time was that Riggs wasn’t at all serious about the outrageous things he said about women—how they belonged in the bedroom and the kitchen and nowhere else. He was essentially a clown, I figured, who was making himself into a caricature, even a parody, of the “male chauvinist pig” stereotype flourishing at the time. He was just trying to stir up interest in an event that ultimately drew 30,000 fans to the Astrodome, and reached a television audience of 90 million. And about that, if the accuracy of the film can be trusted, I was completely correct. What I wasn’t quite prepared for is how many people actually held such beliefs seriously. That was disheartening, but at least Riggs wasn’t running for president.

The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who gave us the irresistibly upbeat Little Miss Sunshine, take on this material, which in the script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) is less about one specific sporting event as it is about a particular moment in history and the lives of two particularly colorful characters who came together at that moment and played an entertaining tennis match.

The film opens in 1972, just after King (Emma Stone, coming straight off her La La Land Oscar) has just won the U.S. Open and become the first woman in tennis to top $100,000 in income. Immediately we cut to a meeting between King and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and several male members of the tennis establishment, led by former pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), in which King and Heldman are bringing up the huge discrepancy in pay between winners of men’s and women’s tournaments. “Men are more of a draw; the men are simply more exciting to watch,” Kramer mansplains. “Eight times more exciting?” King wants to know.

When the sport’s organizers refuse to address the issue, King withdraws from the establishment and founds her own women’s tennis circuit with eight other pros and with the sponsorship of Virginia Slims cigarettes (“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”), obtained by Heldman, who keeps trying to get the women to light up occasionally on camera to keep the sponsor happy.

When former pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) hears about the new women’s circuit intended to protest the small purses in women’s tennis, he makes a comment about players in tennis’s “senior circuit” being shortchanged as well, a bare hint of a motivation beneath the hustle, but that’s the last we hear of any such concerns. Riggs is presented as a hustler, a promoter, a lover of the spotlight stifled by a 9 to 5 office job in his father-in-law’s business, and a compulsive gambler. His frustration at being a “has been” when he was once one of the top players in the world meets his huckster’s recognition of a golden opportunity to cash in on Billie Jean’s defiance of the tennis establishment. But when he calls her with the idea of a “Battle of the Sexes” match, she dismisses the idea as the publicity stunt that it is, and turns him down.

Not to worry. Riggs has always got a backup. When Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), former women’s grand slam winner, wins the 1973 U.S Open, Riggs turns to her as likely substitute, and Court, lured by the $35,000 purse, agrees to meet him. To her it’s also a meaningless exhibition, and when Riggs defeats her handily she  is disappointed but doesn’t seem to see it as a major setback for women in general. Unfortunately, the rest of the sports world, particularly the tennis media, begins to make noise as if Riggs was right: Any man can beat any woman at any time. And the implication is, at anything. There’s no way Billie Jean can let that go, and the match is on.

A large part of the movie is about the hype, and that’s mostly Riggs’ job. He clowns through all kinds of public appearances and doesn’t do much training, apparently overconfident after the ease of his victory over Court, and putting his faith in a regimen of vitamin supplements his trainer swears by. But in private, Riggs’ personal life is going through a very rocky period, as his long-suffering wife Priscilla (a welcome Elisabeth Shue) finally throws him out of the house when he continues to break his vows to stop gambling (he even has an ongoing card game with his therapist during sessions). At the same time, he is trying to restore a relationship with his estranged son, to whom he claims to have all kinds of plans, only to get the response, “I’ve heard them all before.”

But Billie Jean’s private life is going through its own twists and turns in the lead up to the much-hyped match. On the long tennis tour, King, who travels without her spouse, like the rest of the women (except Court), becomes romantically involved with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough of Birdman). The two begin to room together on the road, and Billie Jean tries to keep the affair secret, not only because of her husband, but also because of what that kind of scandal might do to the budding women’s tennis renaissance she is spearheading. Court, who is aware of the relationship, is highly offended by it, but the tour’s gay clothing designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) gives her support and a confidante. Ultimately, Billie Jean’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell of Bridge of Spies) becomes aware of the affair after all. His response is memorable for its humanity. No small roles.

By the time the match occurs, it is actually anti-climactic, since the movie has really been about human relationships, about justice and tolerance, about dealing with our personal demons and about how our partners live with those things. Or don’t. Carell has the flashier role here as the flamboyant Riggs, though his Riggs is mainly surface, with only very rare descents into the psyche. And perhaps that was the way Riggs himself was. Stone is far more understated as the introverted King, who has many balls in the air, only one of which is tennis. King’s two blocking figures, Jack Kramer (Pullman)—the personification of anti-feminist discrimination in tennis—and Margaret Court (McNamee)—the personification of society’s non-acceptance of same-sex couples—are presented pretty two-dimensionally. This is particularly unfair to Kramer, who was executive director and founder, in 1972, of the Association of Tennis Professionals. Kramer actually led a boycott of Wimbledon in 1973 when a Croatian player was denied the right to play in the tournament, so his history of advocacy for the underdog against the system is fairly strong. As for Court, she definitely is an opponent of LGBTQ rights, having just recently claimed that a Marriage Equality law, if passed, would destroy Christmas in Australia. So while her role in the film is two-dimensional, it is probably not inconsistent with the facts.

I did think that Cummings’ role might have been worth beefing up. As it is, it’s little more than a cameo. But his character, Ted Tinling, had started out as a tennis player himself, then became a fashion designer for women players, whose designs were so controversial that he was banned from Wimbledon for 33 years. The openly gay Tinling designed tennis wear for King, Martina NavratilovaChris EvertEvonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1986. I wonder if Cummings’ role was bigger in the original script, but got edited in a move to cut back on the social commentary of the film. Which would be strange, since the film seems bent on making the tennis match a more significant event sociologically than it really was. I’d like to rate it higher, but this little bit of uncertainty about what the movie wants to be when it grows up makes me give it three Tennysons.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

American Made

American Made

Doug Liman (2017)

In real life, Barry Seal was a drug smuggler turned DEA informant and, ultimately, a CIA tool (on one assignment) involved in the Reagan White House’s obsession with ridding Nicaragua of the communist Sandinistas by any means necessary. So when Doug Liman’s new film American Made says that it is “based on a true story,” it does have this kernel of truth. And in fact the last twenty minutes of the film contain more actual historical facts than the first ninety minutes, which are largely the product of the fertile imagination of screenwriter Gary Spinelli (Stash House). Spinelli was certainly inspired by Seal’s improbable real life and the geopolitics of the early ’80s, as well as by the style of Martin Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas, which this film resembles in its mood and narrative technique.

In American Made, it’s Tom Cruise who takes on the Henry Hill role of Seal, who narrates his own story in motel rooms night after night in 1986, looking back at events. It’s unclear what he plans to do with the tapes—use them as evidence, or as leverage if someone comes after him? In any case, the tone he adopts in these narrative recordings is light, amoral and even boastful, despite the questionable legality—and morality—of the events he’s recapping. It’s this tone more than anything else that calls Scorsese to mind. Liman and Cruise worked together previously in the hit sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow, but Cruise’s character in this one is far more like his Maverick way back in Top Gun—cocky, swaggering, irreverent—but far more sleazy and, ultimately, far less honorable.

The film opens in 1978, when Barry Seal is a young T.W.A. pilot who amuses himself on long overseas flights by turning off his autopilot and putting the plane into a lurch until the oxygen masks fall, just to scare the passengers before he comes on the PA system and apologizes for that “little bit of turbulence.” We see that Barry is a something of a loose cannon and bored enough with the mundane day-to-day aspects of his job to do something a bit dangerous for an adrenaline rush. So we are not surprised when, approached by a CIA operative named “Schafer” (the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson of mother!, Harry Potter, Star Wars), who wants him to photograph guerilla camps in Central America in a twin-prop Aerostar 600, Barry says yes.

Of course, he can’t tell his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright, best known for TV work in series like Parks and Recreation and Marry Me) that he’s quit his TWA job. And unfortunately, though he risks life and limb to bring back great pictures of communist guerilla camps in Guatemala and El Salvador, and he makes secret deliveries and pickups in Panama for the CIA with a guy named Norriega, he does not seem to be bringing home enough money to support Lucy and his growing family. So when he is approached by three Columbian businessmen with a proposition involving his carrying a few packages back to the United States for them—since he has to fly back and forth anyway—he says yes again.

Thus Barry becomes a drug runner for the Medellin cartel, working for Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia). And he makes a lot of money doing it. At one point, forewarned that his Baton Rouge home is going to be raided at 6 a.m., he convinces his family they must move immediately, and they throw everything into a few bags and take off. “Do you trust me?” he asks his frustrated wife. “No.” she tells him. Turns out the CIA has relocated them to—wait for it—Mena, Arkansas, where Barry now owns his very own airport and a few thousand acres around it. From here he builds an empire: The CIA now wants him to fly guns to the Contras, whom they are funding and supplying—illegally, of course—believing that this rag-tag group of would-be soldiers can overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Contras are more interested in stealing his sunglasses and girlie magazines than they are in the guns he’s delivering, but it turns out Escobar and his group are very happy to take some of these guns off Barry’s hands.

And now things get really crazy, since of course, at the same time he’s still running drugs. And he is ferrying Contra recruits to his land in Arkansas where the CIA wants to train them. Of course, half of them run off, glad to be let loose in America. And Barry has to hire several pilots to help him with all this business. Of course, it’s a cash business, so he has suitcases full of cash stashed everywhere he can find a spot, and he opens several new businesses in Mena as fronts to launder his money, and he has millions stashed in every bank in town. Things begin to unwind for Barry, especially after (as a favor to his wife) he hires his hapless brother-in-law J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones from this year’s hit Get Out), a luckless loser whose character arc proves to be no surprise. While the D.E.A., the F.B.I., the A.F.T., the state police, and the Attorney General of Arkansas are all on Barry’s tail, in step Colonel Oliver North and President Ronald Reagan with a new plan to sink the Sandinistas.

Jones is just weird enough to make his part memorable. Wright is a good foil to Cruise, but one wonders why she stays with him. I guess it must be the suitcases full of money. Gleeson is slippery, amoral and incompetent enough to make you believe he really is CIA, especially when he finally comes up with this great idea about using Iran to funnel arms money to the Contras. But of course it’s Cruise who must carry the movie. Cruise is always better when he is not playing the earnest good-guy saving his family or his country or the world, but the hustler, the shyster, the guy with a felonious streak under that charming smile. So it’s Vincent from Collateral, it’s Frank T.J. Mackey from Magnolia, it’s Charlie Babbit from Rainman that stand out in his film repertoire. Here, he not only has that nefarious undercurrent, he’s also just not very bright. He just thinks the entire project is a lark, and has a blast flying into danger and making tons of money. He never has a single qualm nor does he ever take one second to ponder the right or wrong of what he’s doing. Besides, he has “Schafer” there to tell him that as long as what he’s doing is for “the good guys,” it can’t be illegal, right?

In a sense, Cruise is even a parody of himself, or at least his film persona. Yes, he’s a crack pilot who thinks he can get by on his charm and winning smile. But unlike Top Gun’s Maverick, he can’t—the mob wants him dead, his wife doesn’t trust him and at one point he even gets some teeth knocked out of that famous smile. The charm only goes so far. At another point he has a Jack Reacher moment when, as he predicts, he is plucked out of a situation where the law is about to nail him—but the reprieve comes from a source he never expected.

There is something disturbing about Barry’s cavalier attitude about his drug-smuggling, gun-running, shoot-from-the-hip derring-do. Mainly it’s the audience reaction: We are manipulated into rooting for this guy, or at least the intent of the film seems to be that we be so manipulated, and certainly the audience when I saw the film was moved to laughter at the comic tone surrounding the dangerous situations Barry ends up in. But this seems to be Liman’s intent: In a kind of homage to Scorsese, who has us rooting for Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill until we find ourselves culpable in winking at his atrocities and are horrified that he might be living next door in witness protection, Liman has us hoping somehow that Barry will get out of this mess. But it seems that Liman’s chief aim all along has been to expose the mess. In this regard, it is worth noting that it is probably no coincidence that Liman’s father, Arthur L. Liman, a prominent attorney famous for his report on the Attica prison massacre, was also the chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation into the Iran-Contra affair. Perhaps the constitutional violations of that debacle have gnawed at Liman all these years, and he’s taken this opportunity to expose the absurdity and chicanery of that enterprise. But I’m not sure that’s what audiences are getting out of the picture. I got more of a feeling that the impression was “Ah, good old Ronnie. Those were the days when geopolitics was fun!”

The film is well done, though I’m not sure it hits the public where it’s aiming. I’ll give it three Tennysons.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

Stronger

Stronger

David Gordon Green (2017)

Well, you won’t find this movie in Conway, and you’ll have to look pretty closely to find it anywhere in central Arkansas, I suppose because movie houses around here were committed for reasons known only to them to provide as many screens as possible for the less-than-favorably reviewed Kingsman 2 and The Lego Ninjango Movie and the abysmally reviewed Friend Request, so they didn’t have room for Stronger, which has a 95 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. But at least Stronger found one screen in central Arkansas, at Colonel Glenn 18. That was more than the 86 percent positive Battle of the Sexes got. To see that I guess you have to move to Chicago, which seems to be the closest place it’s playing. Oh well, maybe next week.

The “official” description of Stronger on its IMDB page calls it “the inspiring real-life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.” Thank God that’s not what it is. Yes, the basic story outline is reminiscent of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, and to some extent Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, so it may seem like you’ve seen this before. But director David Gordon Green (Our Brand Is Crisis) and first time screenwriter John Pollono (whose script was based on Bauman’s own autobiography, co-written with Bret Witter) are committed to giving a warts-and-all picture of Bauman’s character, including his reluctance to take on any kind of “hero” role, his depression and PTSD, his aversion to public appearances in the wake of his trauma, and his personality flaws, including his immaturity, lack of responsibility and drunken carousing.

The film opens by giving us a pretty clear picture of Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a screw-up. He’s just messed up the chicken-roaster at his job at Costco but begs off having to work overtime to fix it because he has to go watch the Red Sox with his friends at his local bar holding his “lucky beer.” We also get to meet his one-time girlfriend Erin Hurley, movingly portrayed by Emmy-winner Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), who has broken up with him because he is so unreliable, and who keeps trying to convince him that they are never, ever getting back together. Erin, however, is about to run in the 2013 Boston Marathon, and Jeff works on a large sign to hold up for her as she crosses the finish line the next day. As it happens, though, he is standing directly next to one of the bombers near the finish, and when the bomb explodes, it destroys both of his legs.

In the hospital, where Jeff becomes a double-amputee, he lies unconscious while his family and friends, including Erin, crowd the waiting room, where we make the acquaintance of his loud, vulgar, aggressive family, including his protective but somewhat hapless mother Patty—a superb and almost unrecognizable Miranda Richardson (Churchill), whom we have already seen getting drunk at Jeff’s bar the night before, and her estranged ex-husband, Jeff’s father “Big Jeff” (Clancy Brown), who bullies everyone in sight and even abuses Jeff’s boss Kevin (Danny McCarthy), who it turns out has come to assure everyone that Jeff will remain on Costco’s payroll and to obtain signatures to get the insurance claims going to pay for Jeff’s medical bills. This film may be the best advertisement for Costco ever made, though I assume that was not its main intent. Aside from Kevin and Erin, however, everybody else in that room is to some degree boorish or even vile, and it becomes clear just why Jeff may be as undependable as he appears to be.

Upon waking up, Jeff reveals that he saw the bomber, and when from his hospital bed he gives his evidence to the FBI his family and others begin to talk about him as a “hero.” As he leaves the hospital in a wheelchair, giving a very tentative thumbs-up sign to a cheering crowd waiting for him outside, the pained, bewildered, stressed-out and near-panicked expression on his face reveals just how awkward he is in the “hero” role. But he discovers he has become a very unlikely symbol of “Boston Strong” for his city and for the nation in general. The rest of the film explores how very uncomfortably that mantel sits on his wary shoulders.

In the first place, his personality hasn’t really changed. He hasn’t suddenly become more mature because of his handicap. Maybe it even gives him an excuse to screw up. But he fails to attend his physical therapy sessions, either because he doesn’t get out of bed or his mother, whom he lives with, is too hung-over to take him. Out of lingering feelings for him and perhaps the realization that he really needs her because no one else in his life is reliable, Erin moves in with him, and it appears that without her he would never get anywhere. In the second place, he is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, which makes him fear a number of things, including the events that he is asked to attend, such as opening a Bruins hockey game waving a huge flag. Yet still his family, particularly his mother, urges him to make public appearances. Patty is obsessed with his being a hero, and her heart is set on his being interviewed by Oprah.

But third, and most importantly, Jeff is well aware that his injuries have nothing to do with heroism, and that he falls far short of being anything like the icon people have made of him. When first told he is being touted as a hero, his unbelieving response is, “What? For being blown up?” When a couple comes up to him in a bar to ask for his autograph, they tell him that they admire him so much because his strength in coming back from his injuries means that “the terrorists didn’t win.” Jeff finds this attitude strange. “Well,” he says, gesturing to his amputated legs, “at least they got one on the scoreboard.” The great gulf between the public’s perception of Jeff as heroic icon and the real-life Jeff is made especially clear one night when Jeff, on a drunken binge with two of his buddies, ends up driving home because the other two are too wasted to get behind the wheel. One of them lies on the floor and works the pedals while Jeff drives. But it seems even this can’t get him into trouble, since the police see him as a hero as well.

Jeff’s self-awareness, and his self-effacing humor in the wake of personal tragedy, are what keep us from losing all sympathy for him. That plus the fact that Erin stays with him, which makes us believe there is something there worth saving. But he can’t hold on to her forever being the person he was before, and it seems inevitable that she will leave him.

There is one other tsk that Jeff is unwilling to perform, and that is to meet the man who saved his life on the day of the bombing. This is Carlos Arendondo, portrayed with a quiet but unforgettable intensity by Carlos Sanz (from TV’s NCIS: Los Angeles), whose meeting, when Jeff finally consents to it, proves to be a major turning point for Bauman.

The film itself, focusing on the human detritus left by the marathon bombing, proves far superior to last year’s Patriots’ Day, which focused on the manhunt for the bombers. Richardson and Maslany give notable performances in supporting roles, But the film really belongs to Gyllenhaal, whose history of taking on unusual roles that compel him to explore extraordinary extremes of emotional depths and angst (Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, The Nightcrawler) is capped by Jeff Bauman. He makes us feel all the trauma, all the humiliation, all the inadequacy, all the fear and the bewilderment that his character experiences. This is the sort of role that gets noticed at Oscar-time, and Gyllenhaal may be the first real contender of the season. Nothing in this film is easy or cliché. I’ll give it three solid Tennysons.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

mother!

mother!

Darren Aronofsky (2017)

Many people—I would venture to say most people—will not like Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! When you take a look at the movie site RottenTomatoes.com and note that 68 percent of the critics have given it a favorable review, while only 42 percent of the audience liked it, you have to wonder what could explain that large a divide. A general explanation may be that critics will often reward something bold and new with a positive rating, while the typical moviegoer is looking for something that will captivate and move him emotionally or, less often, intellectually. Mother! does spark some intellectual interest, but is so off-putting emotionally and so deliberately provocative that the majority of viewers may be disenchanted long before they are tempted to put in the effort to figure it out.

Because the movie is so bold and unusual, one difficulty that even critics who like the film have is in deciding what category of film mother! belongs to. Several critics have labeled it a horror film. While it does use certain elements of the horror genre—there’s a bit of a Rosemary’s Baby feel to it—it’s certainly not a horror movie. It is much closer to a novel by Kafka: The protagonist is put into a situation that seems to make sense at first, but then is confronted with inexplicable obstacles that suggest a world metaphysically opposed to the character’s wishes, in a plot that has the structure and coherence of a dream. In fact, even more than in Kafka, this film suggests fairly clear religious parallels to aspects of the movie’s plot. What the film is, in fact, is an allegory, not exactly a familiar genre in post-modern America. In fact, there hasn’t been a successful religious allegory in English since Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in the 17th century.

To give you an idea of the plot, or at least the situation, of the movie, it opens with Jennifer Lawrence (yes, The Hunger Games woman) awakening alone in bed in a large, beautiful Victorian mansion, which sits in a clearing surrounded by woods. There is no visible road or driveway giving access to the house She looks around the house, searching, apparently for her husband, who seems absent. While she stands in the doorway looking out into the surrounding wood, he suddenly appears behind her, startling her. It is Javier Badem (yes, the guy from No Country for Old Men). The cast list identifies her only as “mother,” and identifies him as, well, “Him.” We never learn whether they have other names. Their isolated life seems rather lonely. She spends all her time restoring the house, which we learn was earlier burned in a fire. He spends his time brooding and staring at a blank piece of paper. He was a famous writer at one time, we learn, but has been unable to write anything for some time.

One night someone comes to their door. It is Ed Harris (billed simply as “Man”), who claims to be a doctor looking for a place to spend the night, who has been told that the couple run a bed and breakfast. The couple give him a drink, though “Him” is far more welcoming than “mother” is, and she is therefore appalled when her husband invites the strange man to stay the night. This causes some tension between the two, a tension that is only exacerbated when the following morning Michelle Pfeifer shows up (so nice to see her in a film again!). Billed as “Woman,” she turns out to be “Man’s” wife, and has come looking for him. And of course, Javier Bardem invites her to stay as well. Turns out Harris’s character is a big fan of his, and had only come there to meet him because his words “changed my life.” Well now it seems the two will be moving in indefinitely, and when “Him” and “Man” go out for a hike, “Woman” becomes incredibly inappropriate in her conversation with “mother,” prying into all kinds of personal aspects of her life with her much older husband. Lawrence’s character becomes more and more uncomfortable as “Man” and “Woman” seem oblivious and indifferent to the damage they keep causing to the perfectly ordered house she has restored.

The house is suddenly invaded by two brothers, aptly named in the cast list Older Son (Harry Potter’s—and the new Star Wars’—Domhnall Gleeson) and Younger Brother (real-life brother Brian Gleeson, recently seen in Logan Lucky). These charming boys turn out to be the offspring of “Man” and “Woman,” and immediately get into a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred brawl over their inheritance and over which one mom and dad loves best. I won’t go into too much detail for fear of creating spoilers, but Javier Bardem ends up taking the group to the hospital. When he returns to the house, which “mother” has taken pains to try to put right again, her husband now tells her he has offered to hold a wake in their house. A wake that turns more and more violent as more and more guests show up, until some of them actually break a sink by bouncing up and down on it, and flood the building.

Now Aronofsky, who directed Noah, is well aware of the significance of a flood. And if you haven’t recognized it by now, it will become clear by the end of the film (which is only half over at this point) that we are dealing with an allegory of the creation stories of the Old Testament. The second half of the film gives us an allegory of the New. Where Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the flood unfold in the first part of the film, the birth and death of Christ and Armageddon occur in the second half. Allegorically, of course, since it is still all narrated through the metaphor of the house, the marriage, a new baby, and thousands of uninvited guests, enamored with Javier Bardem’s new poems—his new creation. The “Him” character lives to be admired—he is so obsessed with people loving him that he overlooks the great harm they are doing to his house, his wife, his marriage, even his child. As he film ended, my wife said to me, “Well, that’s what it’s like to live with a narcissist.”

Of course, considering the film allegorically, she was just calling God a narcissist. But given the event of the film, it’s hard to deny the assessment. Why did God create human beings? Because he wanted to be loved, though in this film he doesn’t really return that love, to the people or even to “mother.” He is absent much of the time, leaving the world—the house—to fend for itself. He looks the other way when humans engage in harmful actions against themselves or others or his son (Son?), or the house (world?) itself. It is the humans who bring the flood upon themselves, and ultimately it is humans who are destroying the house in the second half of the film. As long as he is being loved, this God metes out no punishments and makes very few demands. He is self-centered and weak. The film thus underscores a problem that theologians and philosophers of religion have recognized for centuries: to describe God in human terms is to limit him, to make him into something less than he is. God is not a human. He wants humans to love him, and he forgives them their sins. He can create beautiful things to inspire human beings to love him. He will sacrifice everything for the love of the human race. But this is what that looks like when we think of God as “human” himself. Weak. Needy. Narcissistic.

But human sin is allegorized brilliantly in the film by the uncontrolled crowds of people who ruin the beautiful house, and that underscores an even more crucial theme of the film. And that is where Jennifer Lawrence comes in. The film is not called “Him,” it is called “mother.” Hers is the first face we see, and it is a face that fills the screen in extreme close-up for a huge segment of the screen time. Her face registers every emotion that the audience feels at the absurdities, the inconveniences, and ultimately the horrors that multiply in the film until its crescendo near the end. She becomes an actual mother by the film’s end, but from the beginning she is the personification of another mother—mother earth. She makes the house livable, as, allegorically, nature presents humans and other living creatures a beautiful home. As God’s first creation, the film seems to suggest, she is mindful of the world he made. The unrestrained, undisciplined destruction of the house highlights what Aronofsky has said is one of the main themes of the movie: the global warming that threatens to destroy that home because of short-sighted exploitation by those who assume the house will never collapse. Nor, the film suggests, will God ultimately step in and save us. Humans must bear the responsibility and suffer the consequences for their own willful destruction.

When the credits roll, the old Skeeter Davis song from the 60s, “The End of the World,” plays you out of the theater. It’s something of a shock with its gentle, pop ballad tone, but it truly tells us what the movie was about.

Nothing in this film would work without Lawrence, with whom our sympathies lie throughout, so that Aronofsky compels us to see the destruction through the eyes of Nature herself. It’s a huge burden that Lawrence is able to carry. Bardem is fairly unlikeable as Him, though never overtly tyrannical, vengeful, or judgmental. He’s just passive-aggressively narcissistic, needy, and he never pays any regard to his wife’s feelings. Some have suggested he is the image of the self-involved artist, and hence an ironic self-portrait of Aronofsky himself. But again, if he’s the omnipotent God, he reminds us how unsatisfactory it may be to imagine God in human terms. Bardem plays these contradictory aspects brilliantly.

In the end, mother! is a powerful, thought-provoking movie-allegory, but one that fails to communicate its message to a large segment of its audience, who are put off by what seems incoherence, by scenes of what seem gratuitous violence and disgust, and by the use of a genre little understood by today’s audiences. I’m giving it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. But be warned. It’s not rated R for “religious.”

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

The Little Hours

The Little Hours

Dan Baena (2017)

The closest thing to Jeff Baena’s film of The Little Hours that you’re likely to have seen is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both films set their stories in the Middle Ages, both burlesque the period with some fairly contemporary jokes and sensibilities, and both provide not so much a unified story arc as a series of comedy sketches reminiscent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live. This is not surprising considering the fact that Holy Grail featured the creators of Flying Circus, and Little Hours stars a number of veterans of TV sitcoms like Parks and Recreation, Community, The Big Bang Theory, and yes, Saturday Night Live. But actually, the similarity stops there, in that Python’s Terry Jones, codirector and, of course, cowriter of Holy Grail, is a serious (if iconoclastic) scholar of medieval history, while Baena (Life After Beth) and his collaborators seem to have little actual knowledge of the period (as a bizarre witch’s coven scene late in the film makes clear) or of nuns in general (as the fact that one of the nuns in the film, presumably one who has taken her vows since she’s not presented as a postulant but as a full member of her order, is waiting for her father to arrange a marriage for her so she can leave the convent and get married, clearly indicate).

It’s wild gaffes like these that keep the film from being a reasonably faithful dramatization of its chief source, Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Decameron, or the hundred stories, is a collection of tales within a frame tale in which ten young Florentine aristocrats flee the Black Death in Florence, spending ten days at a country estate where they take turns telling stories to one another, each of the ten telling one story a day. Hence, a hundred stories. For the outline of his plot, Baena has taken the first and second stories of the third day from Boccaccio’s text. In the original, the first story of the third day tells of a young man who, in order to get a job as a gardener at a convent somewhere in the Tuscan countryside, pretends to be a deaf mute. The sexually frustrated nuns, believing that the young gardener can never tell anyone, all end up coming to be sexually serviced by him regularly. When the abbess herself begins to monopolize his services, it is too much for him and he has to tell her to stop, claiming that he’s been miraculously cured of his inability to speak.

The second story of the third day involves a groom who works for a certain king, and who slips into the queen’s bed pretending to be her husband. When the king discovers what has happened, he visits the grooms’ quarters, where they all sleep in the same room, and feels the heartbeat of each sleeping figure, knowing that the guilty party’s heart will still be beating fast from his recent exertions. He finds the culprit by his heartbeat and, in order to keep his cuckolding a secret, resolves to deal with the guilty groom later, and cuts a forelock from the guilty man’s hair before leaving the chamber. But once the king has left, the clever culprit goes around and similarly cuts a forelock from the head of every groom in the place, so that in the morning the king is not able to tell who the guilty party is.

Baena takes these two tales and mashes them together, so that the groom who cuckolded his lord becomes the young man who poses as a deaf mute in the convent, which he does in order to hide from his master who has finally discovered who cuckolded him. Boccaccio’s tales are a form of story called a fabliau, popular in the later Middle Ages in France and later in Italy and in England. Students of English literature may be most familiar with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, the most famous and celebrated fabliau in English. But Chaucer himself was inspired by Boccaccio, and while the Decameron (like the Canterbury Tales) contains tales of every genre popular in the Middle Ages—romances, saints’ lives, tragic stories, folk legends—it also contains a significant number of these fabliaux. Fabliaux are characterized typically by a few basic criteria: First, there is almost always some illicit sexual encounter, most often one that involves a member of the clergy or someone in holy orders. Second, the world of the fabliau is a world in which characters’ motivations tend to be far from noble: Innocence and gullibility are the greatest sins of the fabliau world, and are usually punished severely in the course of the action, while cleverness, aggression and self-interest tend to thrive. Third, the action of the fabliau is usually set in motion by some trickster who, ultimately, is tricked himself, so that the plot of the fabliau is the “trickster tricked.” What goes around comes around is the basic structure of a fabliau. This is not so much the way that Baena structures the story.

In The Little Hours, the nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie of Community and Mad Men), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation) and Ginerva (Kat Micucci of The Big Bang Theory) are all pretty uncomfortable in their vocation, and spend their time gossiping and complaining about each other and about the convent’s hired laborer, who ultimately quits because of their abuse. Meanwhile, Massetto (Dave Franco of Scrubs), groom to the grumbling tyrant Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman, Plaza’s co-star from Parks and Recreation), is having a vigorous affair with Bruno’s far-from-unwilling wife Francesca (a hilarious Lauren Weedman from TV’s Looking). When Bruno finds out, Massetto is forced to flee, and after he helps the nun’s confessor, a drunken Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), the good father invites him to become the new laborer at the convent. They agree, however, that Tommasso should pretend to be a deaf mute, to prevent the nuns abusing him as they did their previous laborer. Well, needless to say, the deaf-mute thing doesn’t exactly discourage the sexually repressed sisters from abusing Tommasso one way or another. Meantime Father Tommasso seems to be having his own way with the abbess, Sister Marea (Molly Shannon from Saturday Night Live). When the convent gets a surprise visit from the bishop (Fred Armisen, another SNL alumnus), everything comes crashing down.

The film has a casual air to it, a feeling that this is a kind of lark that a bunch of pals got together and decided to make. The fact that Baena and Plaza (credited as the film’s producer) are married, as are Brie and Franco, and that several of the actors have worked together before on TV or in Baena’s previous film Life After Beth, adds to this perception. In particular, the fact that there was no script for the film, just a twenty-page plot outline, which meant that all of the dialogue essentially had to be improvised, underscores that casual “let’s put on a show” feel. This latter fact explains the initial jarring discrepancy between the period-costume setting and the characters’ contemporary language and vocabulary. But once we get over the anachronistic humor of medieval Italian nuns dropping the F-bomb so casually, the linguistic humor fades, and we are left with the fact that the improvised dialogue is not particularly snappy or clever.

Some of the changes Baena makes from Boccaccio work, and some don’t. The whole pagan witch’s midnight Sabbath scene lacks humor or any particular point as far as the film’s plot is concerned, but seems only a gratuitous opportunity in which to have the women leap about in the dark stark naked. The story of Massetto and the nuns is actually funnier in Boccaccio than it is here, but the relationship between the priest and the abbess introduces a tender element, foreign to the rough and tumble fabliau world of Boccaccio, that makes for a more meaningful film after all. When Father Tommasso tells Sister Marea “that monastery is so boring, all we do is pray! I mean, it is important, but …,” the film takes a turn into some sort of actual thematic commentary about the need to find the sacred in the secular world.

Shot on location in Tuscany, the film is pretty to look at, and Dan Romer’s score may be the best thing about the movie: Its lively choral arrangements and ancient-sounding tunes do as much to create a late medieval atmosphere as the costumes and scenery do.

There have been a number of Catholic-affiliated protests of this film, mainly online, but these seem to me to be unnecessary. Any harm The Little Hours may do to the Church is negligible compared to what films like 2015’s Spotlight have already done. The Little Hours does no more than Boccaccio or Chaucer did more than 600 years ago: point out that for whatever reason, there are various people in religious vocations who should never have entered them. But the onus is on those people, not the Church itself. It’s actually Father Tommasso’s implication that prayer is important, but there are other important things in life, that does the most in this film to undercut the Church’s ideal of cloistered religiosity, but that mild comment is the least likely thing about the film that folks will find objectionable.

In the end, there may be more positives than negatives about this movie, but just barely. I’ll give it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

 

Tulip Fever

Tulip Fever

Justin Chadwick (2017)

If you have a lush period piece with gorgeous costumes and you get Sir Tom Stoppard, a four-time Tony Award-winning playwright who also happens to have an Academy Award for penning Shakespeare in Love, to write your screenplay, and you fill your cast with Oscar-winners Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench, why does your movie end up with an 11 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com?

A good part of the reason may have to do with a troubled history. Justin Chadwick’s Tulip Fever was originally scheduled to appear two years ago. The Weinstein Company then set its release for July 2016, moving it to February 2017 as that date approached, then bounced it to August, and finally settled on September 1 for a limited release date for the film. But with that limited release they decreed that no review of the film would be allowed until 1 p.m. on Friday, effectively ensuring that no reviews of the film would appear before it showed in theaters. When those reviews finally did appear, it was as if critics, sensing a disaster in the works, went for the film like sharks smelling blood in the water. It’s too bad. The movie is actually quite enjoyable.

The story, set in a beautifully realized seventeenth-century Amsterdam, focuses on an orphaned girl named Sophia (Vikander), raised in the charity of Saint Ursula’s Convent, who agrees to marry a wealthy merchant, Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz), who is a childless widower. Sandvoort has reached a stage in life where he wants to leave something of himself behind, and specifically wants that to be a son who can inherit his wealth and his estate. And for that he needs a fertile young bride. Problem is, he can’t seem to get her pregnant, despite, or perhaps because of, his regular somewhat preposterously mechanical love-making, coupled with lots of prayers for a fruitful outcome. In the meantime, the Sandvoorts’ maid, Maria (Holliday Grainger of Cinderella) is carrying on her own lovemaking with the local fishmonger Willem (Jack O’Connell of Unbroken), and doing it a lot more successfully and with more fun.

After three years of trying unsuccessfully to father a child with his beautiful young wife, Sandvoort decides to hire a talented but relatively unknown (and therefore inexpensive) local artist by the name of Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) to paint his portrait along with his wife. At least he can leave that behind, and subsequent generations will be envious, he figures, that at his age he would be blessed with such a beautiful young wife. Jan soon becomes obsessed himself with that beautiful young wife, as she does with him, and before long they are having their own private sessions, which interest Sophia a great deal more than those close-your-eyes-and-think-of-England couplings she’s been having with poor old Sandvoort.

All of this is taking pace against a backdrop of wild economic speculation—in tulips. In seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the merchant capital of Europe, tulips had only recently been introduced from Turkey. By 1634 there was such a rage for tulips in the Netherlands that a speculative craze now called the “tulip mania” was sparked. In what is now considered by economists to be the first example of a speculative “bubble,” tulip bulbs became so valuable that they were used as a form of currency or futures. Prices continued to go up until, inevitably in 1637, the market crashed. In this environment, characters in the film risk everything on one throw of the dice—that is, on one roll of the tulip bulb. Willem the fishmonger, hoping to put together enough money to marry Maria, risks all the cash he has on a patch of white tulips and, through a miraculous turn of fate, makes a bundle of money—which is almost immediately stolen from him and he is pressed into the Dutch navy. This complicates things for Maria, who, as it turns out, is secretly pregnant.

What follows is a dizzying string of mistaken identities, more speculation in tulip bulbs, a subterfuge in which Sophia pretends to be pregnant and Maria not, characters faking their own death and other characters thought dead turning up again. These make for a complex but quite amusing story. So why are so many people bashing the film?

Part of it is the editing. Based on a popular best-selling novel by Deborah Moggach (who shares screenwriting credits with Stoppard and who also wrote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), the story is already condensed with trying to encapsulate the plot of an entire book into less than two hours of screen time. Critics complain that, having been edited and re-edited over a period of three years, the film has lost much of the coherence of its plot. The intricacies of the tulip market aren’t clear, some characters are not well-developed, a final catastrophe wrought by Jan’s friend Gerrit (Zach Galifianakis) is not well prepared for, and as for Judi Dench, the old Dame has hardly any screen time and virtually nothing to do. It is quite possible, I think actually probable, that Stoppard’s original script had none of these flaws, but that the inordinately excessive editing process muddied some things. Still, the film is by no means edited to the point of incoherence, as some critics would have us believe.

Critics also complain that Vikander and DeHaan lack chemistry—though that is probably the result of our hardly ever seeing them together, which may, again, be an editing problem.

A number of other critics simply think that the plot of the film is just too preposterous. But these motifs of mistaken identity and subterfuge, false pregnancies and cuckolded husbands, have been the stuff of comedy for two millennia, and they appear here as they would in a Shakespearean comedy a generation before the setting of this film, or in a Restoration comedy a generation after. But the chief knock on this film is that, while it does all of these things, it is really not a comedy. It takes itself too seriously, the critics say, and it is clearly a flaw to make a serious film, one that should really be a melodrama, and give it a comic plot.

Thus it seems that critics’ biggest problem with the film is one of tone. If it’s a comedy, damn it, it should act like a comedy! People should be silly, and not invite us to take them seriously. If Zach Galifianakis is in this, why isn’t it The Hangover?

But the movie is a comedy, by any classical definition of the term. After a number of often unbelievable obstacles, the characters emerge better off and happier in the end. What bothers critics is that characters we may want to sneer at or condemn actually do experience a change of heart by the end of the film and are the better for it. But that, too, is a function of comedy, a genre that, like the springtime world it reflects, is optimistic about human beings’ ability to be better than they are. For awhile in the film, a kind of madness grips the characters, reflected in the symbolic background of the tulip bubble, but as that bubble bursts, those characters’ madness abates, and they become the people they were, perhaps, meant to be all along. I found the comedy of the film hilarious, even if the actors weren’t playing it as if it was supposed to be hilarious (that’s called subtlety).

And so, while some criticism of the film is fair—Dench is woefully underused, Galifianakis comes out of nowhere, the tulip speculation is confusing, and there are questions that are left unanswered—most of it is a kind of piling on to a project that seemed in trouble. I’d go to see this film again, and I suggest that if you like historical costume movies, you will probably like this one. I’m going to give it three Tennysons.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

Wind River

Wind River

Taylor Sheridan (2017)

Taylor Sheridan, author of the screenplays for Sicario and the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, tries his hand at directing his own screenplay for the first time in the new film Wind River, which has been in limited release since August 4 but opened in central Arkansas this past weekend. Sheridan succeeds in putting together a beautifully shot, well-acted thriller with an effective and tense soundtrack and terse but effective dialogue, but one that left me with a disturbing feeling that something here was off.

Set in Wind River, a Shoshone and Arapaho reservation in Wyoming, the film begins with a teenaged Native American girl running barefoot across the icy winter landscape of the reservation at night. She stumbles and falls, then, gasping, she gets up and continues to run. We then cut to daylight, brilliant in the glare of the white snow. A predatory pack of wolves has surrounded a helpless flock of sheep who stand, surrounded and afraid. It is an unmistakable metaphor for the nighttime scene we have just witnessed, though the girl seems to have been more difficult prey for the predators than these sheep are. Suddenly a shot rings out, picking off one of the wolves. Dressed in white camouflage, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, steps out. His job, it seems, is to protect the innocent from the predators.

We soon see Cory picking up his son from his estranged Native American wife, telling her he has been called to the “rez” to take care of a mountain lion that has been attacking cattle. He will take his son to his grandfather’s while tracking the lion. But Cory doesn’t get far before he comes upon the body of the girl we saw running in the first scene. She has died when her lungs froze after running for miles while breathing in air at 20-below-zero temperatures. Cory recognizes her as a local girl named Natalie. He consults with the chief of the tribal police, Ben (a wry and cynical Graham Greene), and they contact the FBI, who send a new and inexperienced agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who happened to be the closest agent to the scene, in Las Vegas. Jane arrives, as Ben says, “dressed for winter in Las Vegas,” and must be fitted out with appropriate gear for the harsh Wyoming winter by Cory’s ex-mother-in-law. She ends up wearing clothing that had belonged to Cory’s daughter, who, we learn, herself perished in the cold, under circumstances as suspicious as those that killed Natalie.

It being clear that Natalie must have been fleeing something threatening her life, Jane must begin an investigation into this suspicious death. Ben has very little in the way of resources, having only six officers available to police an area the size of the state of Rhode Island. This might clue us in to the fact that here, in this sparsely policed area, there are some who, as in the old westerns to which this film alludes, will disregard the social contract that makes civilization possible, or conversely will take the law into their own hands. But Jane, the embodiment of the law in this place, commandeers the services of the local Fish and Wildlife agent, and Cory assists her investigations with his knowledge of the area and his ability to track movements through the snow. Cory also steps in to take on the responsibility of talking to Natalie’s parents when Jane’s inexperience hampers her effectiveness. It turns out that Natalie and Cory’s own daughter were best friends, and Cory can most effectively empathize with Natalie’s father Martin (played by Gil Birmingham, who is as impressive here as he was in Sheridan’s Hell or High Water last year).

The investigation leads to a confrontation with Natalie’s drug-addled brother and his reprobate companions, and the discovery that the eighteen-year-old Natalie was involved with a much older member of the all-white security team at an area oil-drilling site, and ultimately to a climactic confrontation that is as intense as it is shocking. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score reflects both the bleakness of the icy landscape and the intensity of the emotional pressure that builds to that climax, while Ben Richardson’s cinematography turns the frigid vastness of the landscape into a character in its own right, one that, without malice or cunning, will kill more surely than the predator wolves.

If there is a point at which the film seems to veer off course, it is not in the performances, which are uniformly strong. In addition to Greene and Birmingham, Renner is spot on as usual, managing to squeeze out a tear or two from his stoic façade for his daughter and all the women like her who are lost without a trace in this environment, and Olsen is sympathetic as the naïve rookie who learns what it means to be a warrior, emulating Natalie herself, played in a devastating flashback by Kelsey Asbille, who managed to run six miles through the frigid landscape before being felled by the cold rather than any human hand.

The film ends with a graphic revealing the sobering fact that there are no records kept of how many Native American women go missing each year. We can ponder what that means for some time—is it because so many are lost in hostile place like these? Or because society has dropped the ball so badly in its obligation to protect these people that they’ve even neglected to make them a statistic? There is something fitting in Jane’s character arc in the film that in the end she has become, like Natalie and Cory’s daughter, a warrior, but one that, at least this time, has not been defeated by the land or its predators.

But by the same token there is a part of Jane’s character that becomes hard to swallow. Much like Emily Blount’s character in Sheridan’s Sicario, she is a young naif who must be brutally introduced to the fact that, to deal with the lawless predators of society, she must leave behind her childish notions that we should follow rules, procedures, and laws. To deal with predators, you must become a predator. Which means she must become a man.

This is a disturbing notion in itself, but it is only underscored by the fact that, although the film makes a nod toward the missing Native American women and includes a woman protagonist, it’s not about the plight of the girls who were killed, but about the effect those deaths had on their fathers, and the fathers’ need for revenge. This becomes clear in the film’s disconcerting ending, which for spoiler’s sake I won’t reveal here but which, trust me, is all about a father’s revenge.

Add to this the fact that, although the victims in this film are Native Americans, and the crimes occur on a reservation, it’s the two white characters who wind up solving the case and bringing about “justice.” So what are we learning here? Women are too naïve and unrealistic to survive in a world where you need brutal male aggression to make things right. But Indians are too helpless, or too “primitive,” to solve their own problems, which must be resolved by…uh…those “primitive,” brutal white men—or white women who’ve learned how to be white men.

See what I mean? Something in this film just doesn’t sit right, even though it’s made extremely well. I’m giving it two Jacqueline Susanns for its themes, and half a Tennyson for its quality.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky

Steven Soderbergh (2017)

So just how far is it from Boone County, West Virginia, to the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, South Carolina? This may not be a question that keeps you up at night, but it was one that I found myself unable to ignore while viewing the new Steven Soderbergh film, Logan Lucky. The answer, now that I’m sure you’re dying to know, is 280 miles, or about four and a half hours by the shortest route. This according to Mapquest on what one character in the movie calls “the Googles.”

The reason this question bothered me was that the film’s protagonist Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) apparently lives in Boone county, but works with a construction crew on an excavation project under the speedway, at least until he gets let go by the company because he has a limp—a “pre-existing condition” the company wants no part of for insurance purposes. But despite the eight-hour workday and the nine-hour there-and-back drive that he would have to have accomplished, Jimmy still seems to have time to hang out with his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) while he’s working on his car, or be chided by his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) for missing his daughter’s rehearsals (was she rehearsing between 9:30 p.m. and 4:30 a.m., which would be the only times he could possibly have been home?). Still, Jimmy freaks out when Bobby Jo tells him she wants to move across the state line with her new husband, even though that would be far closer than driving to his job.

But maybe that kind of logic isn’t to be expected from Hollywood, where the assumption must be that “flyover states” are all the same anyway.

But the gaffe does seem to be symptomatic of a certain condescension apparent in the film, in which the “rednecks” played with exaggerated gusto by Tatum, Adam Driver as Jimmy’s one-armed bartender brother Clyde, and Riley Keough as their hairdresser sister Mellie, comprise a family that prompts one character to opine “You Logans must be as simpleminded as people say.” Even closer to the shallow end of the gene pool are the brothers Fish and Sam (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), enlisted by the Logans to help with a robbery they are planning, who need to find a way to harmonize their taking part in this heist with their new born-again status—an ethical scruple that takes them about fifteen seconds to hurdle.

The one actor who does not really appear to be slumming is the one you’d think would be most likely to: Daniel Craig as the incarcerated safecracker Joe Bang is so completely divergent from his suave, sophisticated James Bond persona that he might be expected to be chewing the scenery, but no, Craig is the biggest delight of the movie, and his seems the most sincere performance.

Still, if you begin to think that this is just a broad comic spoof of southern country folk and their hick ways—which you may be forgiven for thinking based on a number of details in the film—you may find it hard to account for a number of other aspects of the picture. Most obviously, there is a particularly annoying British race car driver played by Seth MacFarlane with an outrageous British accent who ridicules Jimmy’s gimpy leg as well as Clyde’s arm, lost in the Iraq war. So Soderbergh creates a completely unsympathetic character who is shown ridiculing people whom Soderbergh appears to have been deliberately ridiculing. Is this some kind of self-flagellation on the part of Soderbergh, or is it a warning to the audience that these characters are intended to be more sympathetic? Or both?

Clyde’s combat loss of his arm and Jimmy’s health insurance and employment difficulties are serious issues under the farcical facade of the film. Add to that an apparently rather gratuitous appearance by Katherine Waterson as Jimmy’s old high school acquaintance Sylvia, a health-care professional in a traveling medical van who seems to serve no other purpose but to underscore the area’s inadequate access to healthcare, and it looks as if Soderbergh is trying to make a social statement, however disguised, with this movie. But the message is mixed—the tone is too difficult to pin down to make it clear just what attitude is being taken. Perhaps the epitome of this ambiguous tone is the scene in which Jimmy’s daughter Sadie, hair and makeup done up to make the twelve-year old Mackenzie look like a relatively inexpensive lady of the evening, performs in the highly questionable venue of a child glitz beauty contest—one of those events so justly criticized for encouraging girls to adopt and perpetuate a harmfully sexualized image of femininity that may result in eating disorders and issues of self-esteem (in addition to costing their parents thousands and in some cases even tens of thousands of dollars). And yet this scene, so deserving of satire or parody, is presented in a disturbingly straight way.

To be sure, basically, this is really just another heist movie. If Ocean’s Eleven and O Brother, Where Art Thou had a baby, this film would be that child. For the first third of the film, it does seem as if Soderbergh is channeling the Coen Brothers, with quirky regional characters and speech patterns, with the exception that with the Coen brothers, one feels there is some genuine affection for the quirky characters that I don’t pick up on here. Then the film turns into a Soderbergh heist movie, with the Clooney of Ocean replaced by the one from O Brother.

The plot of the film is entertaining. Jimmy—hoping to reverse the bad luck that the Logan family is notorious for—conceives of a plan to steal a great deal of cash from the Charlotte Motor Speedway, having seen precisely how all vendors on the site use pneumatic tubes under the speedway to send cash into an underground safe. His former job excavating under the place has allowed him to conceive of how this could be done. The brothers do need the help of safecracker Joe Bang, however, but there is a small problem: Joe is in jail. But he agrees to help the Logans with their plan if his brothers, the Neanderthals Fish and Sam, ae included in the heist. And, of course, Joe has to be busted out of jail—but only for the day and only if nobody knows about it, since he’s going to get out in five more months anyway. So part of the plan to rob the speedway must incorporate a sub-plan to get Joe temporarily out of stir.

To reveal much more of the plot itself would be to impose upon you numerous spoilers which I ought not to do. Suffice it to say that you won’t be disappointed in the high-jinks and hilarity that ensue. Still, I must admit that there were aspects of the plan, and of the late twist, that I didn’t really follow. I’m not sure anybody did.

An FBI investigation led by no-nonsense agent Hilary Swank in foisted onto the end of the film for little apparent reason other than to set the stage for a possible sequel. This actually adds little to the present film. But then, it’s hard to explain the Seth MacFarlane role or the Katherine Waterson either for that matter in terms of straightforward plot. But that too is something, perhaps, that Soderbergh—or his credited screenwriter Rebecca Blunt—may have learned from the Coen brothers. It should be noted, though, that no one has ever heard of Rebecca Blunt before, and she has no other screen credits, so it seems fairly likely that Blunt is a Soderbergh pseudonym.

This is an entertaining film that most people will probably enjoy. In the end, though, it doesn’t bear up very well under scrutiny the next day. But if you’re not interested in scrutinizing your entertainment, by all means give it a shot. I’m giving it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in my new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Pre-order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

Pre-order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle

Destin Daniel Cretton (2017)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

The official synopsis of this film from the distributor says that it “chronicl[es] the adventures of an eccentric, resilient, and tight-knit family.” I guess that’s just a euphemistic way of saying “criminally dysfunctional.” At the end of this film—this is not really a spoiler—the father of the family, Rex Walls (a mercurial and highly believable Woody Harrelson), surprises his favorite daughter Jeannette (Academy Award-winner Brie Larson of Room) by apologizing to her in a kind of deathbed mea culpa. My wife, herself no stranger to relationships with Narcissists self-medicating with alcohol, left the film under a heavy cloud, saying “Those people never do that.”

This ending is the biggest flaw in a film that boasts a number of positive things, including a no-holds-barred tour de force from Harrelson and an understated, intense performance from Larson. But perhaps the most memorable, and surprising, job of acting is from Ella Anderson, playing the tween-aged Jeanette, who allows us to see the complex feelings the young girl has for a father whom she both adores and fears, trusting in his dream of building the family a glass castle, but in the next instant gasping for breath as he throws her into the deep end of a swimming pool telling her she has to “sink or swim” in this world, and later sewing up a deep wound in her father’s shoulder with a needle and thread and pleading with him to stop drinking.

The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (of Short Term 12, which also starred Larson), was adapted from Jeanette Walls’ best-selling memoir of the same name by the director and co-written with Andrew Lanham. I have not read the book myself, but I wonder how satisfied the many fans of the book will be with this adaptation, particularly with the Hollywood-style ending providing such very convenient closure and, it seems, an acceptance and forgiveness of her parents’ shortcomings by Walls herself. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? God never gives us more than we can handle. And other platitudes that are intended to make you feel better about inscrutable malice that you can do nothing about, or unforgiveable and unnecessary cruelties on the part of people who would just as soon not be held accountable for their actions.

Walls’ father, and to a large extent her mother as well—something we learn by the film’s end but which I won’t reveal because that really is a spoiler—put her and her siblings through dangerous and unconscionable childhoods because their own narcissism and enabling personalities apparently made them incapable of shouldering the responsibility to be actual parents. The fact that the film attempts to portray that experience as a positive influence on Walls’ life because, as the official synopsis of the film puts it, it gave her “the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms,” is a failure of ethical responsibility on the part of the filmmakers, a fact that the sentimental and unconvincing death-bed confession underscores.

To be sure, there are scenes of memorable pathos, like the one in which a very young Jeannette (played by Chandler Head), sets herself on fire while trying to cook on a gas stove, and suffers burns that scar her for life, while her inattentive mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) is caught up in her painting. Or when Rex chastises his daughters for “causing trouble” when they try to prevent Rex’s deplorable mother from molesting their brother. But these are not scenes that in any way persuade us in the audience to cut the parents some slack.

The film begins with the adult Walls and her fiancé David (Max Greenfield from The Big Short) in New York City in 1989, where Jeannette is a successful gossip columnist and David is a wealthy financial adviser. At a dinner with a potential client, Jeannette is asked about her parents, and David makes up some cover story for her, but on her way home through Manhattan, Jeannette sees her mother and father on the street going through a dumpster. She ignores them and her taxi moves on, but this encounter sparks the first of a series of flashbacks through which the story of Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960s and ’70s unfolds, parallel to her life with David in 1989 as she tries to adapt to a new and different world while her parents are squatting in an abandoned building in lower Manhattan.

Since two thirds of the film deals with Jeannette’s childhood, the top-billed Larson is only on screen for perhaps a third of the movie. Through the lengthy flashbacks we witness Jeannette and her siblings, Lori, Brian, and the baby Maureen, as they are dragged from town to town, one step ahead of the law, the bill collectors, and the child welfare authorities. Rex cannot hold onto a job even if he’s willing to take one, which is seldom, and Rose Mary just wants to paint, though we never see her sell a single painting, or even give one away, for that matter. The children are given books to read but never stay anywhere long enough, or openly enough, to actually go to school, until Rex finally brings the family to his hometown of Welch, West Virginia, where they live briefly with his stern, abusive mother, an episode designed to round out Rex’s character and in part explain his eccentric personality and make him more sympathetic.

In fact, the film seems to go the extra mile in getting us to sympathize with Rex. We see him give up drinking and get an actual job in Welch, after moving the family into their own house—a wreck that needs a lot of fixing and where he plans to build his glass castle, the blueprint of which he continually works on. Presumably this is a symbol of his unattained dreams, so we are intended to see him as to a dreamer, and perhaps meant to sympathize with him as someone who never achieved his dreams. Well you know what? There’s only one way to achieve your dreams, and that’s to work toward them. Rex’s actual job lasts about five minutes in the film, before he abandons his good intentions and starts drinking again. Ultimately, the siblings make a pact that they will take matters into their own hands and leave this home as soon as they can earn enough money to get away.

Even after Jeannette makes her own escape to New York, her parents show up and continue to make her life miserable, Rex at one point cold-cocking David at a Thanksgiving dinner and bloodying his nose. One thing that the film does not make clear is exactly what happens between David and Jeannette—they don’t seem to be together by the end of the picture. Are we supposed to believe that Rex and Rose Mary were right, and that Jeannette realizes that her “values” were messed up because she wanted a job and a secure marriage?

This is a well-made film complemented by moving performances by Harrelson, Watts, Larson, and particularly Anderson. But ultimately it fails because there is nothing in the evidence presented in the film itself to justify what seems to be the effect Cretton wants the film to have: the vague sense that what Walls and her siblings endured was ultimately positive because it made them strong and determined, and created a powerful bond among them, is really not enough. All I see here is that whatever doesn’t kill you leaves you scarred, like Walls’ poor burned torso. Perhaps the children can forgive their parents finally, but they sure as hell can’t excuse them. The only message I get from this film is that there are some self-involved assholes that have no business being parents. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

 

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Detroit

Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow (2017)

In July of 2016, a black man named Philando Castile, driving with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul, was pulled over because his brake light was out. Asked for his license and registration, Castile informed the officer that he was carrying a gun. Then, while reaching for his license, he was shot several times and killed by the officer. There were videorecordings of the shooting and its aftermath. Despite the video evidence, the officer was acquitted of second-degree murder in the slaying.

African Americans are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police as white Americans, and are five times more likely to be unarmed when they are shot. In the Minneapolis area, however, it has taken the recent shooting of an unarmed white woman, Justine Damond, by a black officer to get a majority of people calling for an investigation into police training and culture.

Into this contemporary controversy, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit has been dropped. The film, written by Bigelow’s regular collaborator Mark Boel (who also wrote the screenplays for her acclaimed films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) is set during the race riots in Detroit in 1967, which ended with 1,100 people injured, 7,000 arrested and 43 killed. The film, which premiered in its title city on July 25—fifty years to the day from the riots, which occurred July 23-26, focuses on the infamous brutalities (one might be inclined to say the atrocities) inflicted on a group of mostly black residents of the Algiers Motel, resulting in the deaths of three black men at the hands of three white Detroit police officers.

The film begins with a strangely out of place animated history of black Americans chronicling in thin outline the emancipation of slaves, the great migration to the north, white flight to the suburbs, and ghettoizing of blacks in overcrowded central cities, resulting in broiling tensions and, in Detroit by 1967, a powder keg whose explosion is virtually inevitable. This background is supposed to give context to the film’s content, one assumes, but in its oversimplification and ignoring of important things like, for instance, the entire civil rights movement to that point, as well as the Watts riots of 1965 and the Newark riots just two weeks earlier, it sheds more heat than light, and I can’t help but feel that the film would have been better without it.

The story itself opens with a police raid on an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood on the night of July 23. As police arrest patrons of this “private party,” a neighborhood crowd that has gathered around begin to complain to the mostly white police about what seems police overreaction to the apparenty peaceful after-hours club. Things escalate as the crowd becomes more agitated, and soon becomes violent. This violence spreads through the neighborhood, ultimately turning into a riot with looting and burning of buildings, and it grows to involve both city and state police, and ultimately the National Guard is brought in to restore order.

We are kept on the street for the first part of the film. Bigelow uses a documentary style of filming, with handheld cameras and mixing in actual historical footage. In one incident, a black man loots a grocery store and is running home with two bags of food when a police officer, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter of The Revenant), chases him down and finally shoots him in the back. The man escapes but ultimately bleeds to death, and Krauss is dressed down by his superior, who tells him he’s classifying the action as a murder—but then sends Krauss back on the streets. Krauss, It should be noted at the outset, is not the actual name of any of the police officers involved in the incidents depicted in the film, and as presented he is a composite character. Despite the documentary style of the film, and despite the fact that the events depicted are essentially true and reconstructed from survivors’ testimony, some details and some characters are fictional. But while there was no actual Krauss, one of the officers involved in the Algiers incident was implicated in a prior shooting of a looter during the riot. And that is a significant point with regard to how much responsibility must be attached to the department itself for subsequent events.

We’re also introduced to a black security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega from Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the only officer involved that we see with a home life. Dismukes, who also works on the line at Ford, eventually gets involved in things at the Algiers Motel in order to try to assure a nonviolent outcome.

The story segues into the detailed sequence at the Algiers, which we see mainly through the eyes of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics, a local Detroit doo-wop group. On the third night of the riots, the group is about to get its big break, appearing onstage in a downtown theater, when suddenly the concert is shut down by police fearing violence in the area. Reed and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore from The Maze Runner) try to make their way home through riot-torn streets lined with national guard troops and police beating suspects with night sticks, but finally decide to rent a room at the Algiers for the night, and head home when things quiet down in the morning. Also staying at the motel are two teenage white girls from Ohio named Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and the brasher Julie Ann (Hannah Murray), the Vietnam veteran Green (an impressive Anthony Mackie, who was also in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker), and an impulsive hothead named Carl (Jason Mitchell of Straight Outta Compton), among others. Carl, frustrated and annoyed by the situation in Detroit, impulsively fires a small starter pistol out his motel room window.

That is the catalyst that brings three area police into the motel, looking for what they assume to be a sniper. Led by the loathsome Krauss, three Detroit police, plus at various points Dismukes and a National Guardsman, enter the motel and round up the lodgers and proceed to line them up against a wall and terrorize them, insisting that they “tell the truth” and reveal who the sniper is and where the nonexistent gun is hidden. As the guests insist that there is no gun and no sniper, Krauss ratchets up the interrogation tactics to the point of torture. And it goes on and on. The film is relentless as Krauss in its cruelty, and let me warn anyone planning to see this movie that it is not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach.

Without going into spoiler detail, let me just say that by the end of the night, three black men are dead at the hands of the Detroit police. Perhaps even more disturbing, we see both the state police and the National Guard, both in a position to step in and stop the atrocity, wash their hands of the business. The last section of the film raises the hope that justice may actually be done, as the three police officers (as well as, flabbergastingly, Dismukes), are charged in the killings and put on trial. No one wathing the movie will be surprised at the all-white jury’s verdict. One of the flaws in the film, it seems to me, is that Dismukes is essentially dropped as a character after his arrest. We don’t learn why he is brought up on the same charges as the white officers. Is his problem his passivity, his willingness to go along with what is happening in the belief that he can mitigate damages, rather than actively seeking to prevent the abuses? We are never told.

The film’s chief effect, and no doubt its intent, is to stir up a feeling of moral outrage in the audience, which then, one assumes, might carry over into support for causes like the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Its effect, that is to say, is chiefly emotional. In this way it is actually much like a horror movie, a kind of home invasion story with Jason or Freddy Krueger replaced by the maniacal racist cop with the Nazi-sounding name of Krauss. Thus the effect for some viewers may be nothing more than horror, and they may see Krauss as simply the personifiation of inexplicable malice.

For nothing in the film gives Krauss any complexity. Even his two fellow officers have a little depth—one, Flynn (Ben O’Toole of Hacksaw Ridge), is a less overt racist who becomes incensed at finding white women in that black veteran’s room; the other, Demens (Jack Reynor from Macbeth) is motivated simply by doing what is expected of him, and does what the others do because he thinks he’s supposed to. But we know nothing about Krauss beyond what we see him do, and his motivation seems to be simply sadistic racism. The problem is this makes it too easy for us to dismiss what happened at the Algiers, to attribute to a single bad apple, to mark this sort of crime as an aberration.

But continuing incidents of the past fifty years, including the two incidents in Minnesota cited earlier, suggest that such acts of violence are endemic in the system. They aren’t all acts by deranged monsters. Or if they are, why are such persons so common among the police? Is the problem poor screening at the entry level? Or flawed training of new officers? Or burnout among veteran officers? Or a fundamental fear of black people that causes law enforcement to shoot first? These are questions Bigelow and Boel leave on the table, and that’s a sadly missed opportunity. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

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