Life of the Party

Life of the Party

Ben Falcone (2018)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

In 1960, Bing Crosby starred in a Blake Edwards film called High Time, in which Bing plays a widower and self-made fast-food millionaire who at the age of 51 (Bing was 57 at the time so…not toomuch of a stretch) decides that it’s “high time” he pursued his dream of getting a college education, and who enrolls as a freshman in college, living in the dorms with the rest of the 18-year-olds. This idea is denigrated by his haughty grown children, but Bing eventually becomes valedictorian and also ends up romantically involved with the French professor. His classmates include the likes of Fabian and Tuesday Weld. The film was a box office flop at the time, and is little remembered nowadays except for Bing’s introduction of Oscar-nominated song, “The Second Time Around.”

Flash forward 26 years and substitute comedian Rodney Dangerfield for Bing Crosby, and you’ve got a film you are more likely to be familiar with, the Alan Meter-directed comedy Back to School, which uses essentially the same basic plot as High Time, though Dangerfield’s character made his millions in the clothing industry, and his motivation for going “back to school” is to keep his son room dropping out of college. Father and son do some quarreling, but get back together by the end. Sally Kellerman plays the love interest—this time a literature professor. Dangerfield’s classmates include Robert Downey, Jr., and the film boasts an awesome cameo by novelist Kurt Vonnegut. The film is a lot funnier than Crosby’s and probably a little more realistic, if less inspiring.

Flash forward another 32 years and substitute Melissa McCarthy for Dangerfield and you’ve essentially got the premise of McCarthy’s new film, Life of the Party, directed by and cowritten with hubby Ben Falcone. McCarthy plays Deanna, a forty-ish mother who, moments after dropping her daughter off for the senior year at Decatur University, is informed by her husband (Matt Walsh of TV’s Veep) that he wants a divorce, because he is now in love with another woman—his realtor (Julie Bowen from TV’s ModernFamily). The suddenly single Deanna decides that it’s time for a new start, and decides to return to college to complete her degree in archeology, a goal she had abandoned when she married her jerk of a husband 20-some years earlier. Her decision to go “back to school” mortifies her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon from TV’s Animal Planet), especially since Deanna insists on dropping by her daughter’s sorority house bringing mom-treats. Turns out the sorority sisters take to Deanna as a kind of adopted mom, and any friction between Dee and Maddie fizzles pretty quickly.

So what we get in Life of the Partyis sort of the un-Dangerfield version of the parent-going-to-school-with-child theme. Dangerfield (like Crosby) plays a multi-millionaire who uses his riches to get into the university despite his lack of credentials—he just donates a building to the School of Business. Deanna has no money at all, and her attendance at school is funded by money from her ex-husband. Dangerfield and Crosby have romantic relationships with professors, and while Deanna’s archaeology prof (Chris Parnell) turns out to be a former classmate of hers from 20 years earlier, no romance springs up between them. Instead, Deanna has an affair with Jack (Luke Benward), a student less than twice her age who is obsessed with her.

Although this latter liaison serves to set up a surprising twist later on, in itself it doesn’t seem to work. Though it’s certainly possible, it’s an unlikely state of affairs and might have seemed funnier when first conceived than it turns out to be in practice. And that essentially is this movie in a nutshell. While the concept of the film, a divorced middle-aged woman going back to school, is statistically more realistic than a wealthy middle-aged businessman dropping everything to accompany his son to college, what the film portrays is actually not realistic at all. Further, the answer to the “wouldn’t it be funny if…” question that must have come up a hundred times in the writing of the script turns out, most of the time, to be “no, it wouldn’t.”

When Crosby made his movie, the notion of a nontraditional male student coming back to school was pretty unusual. Of course, the G.I. Bill had allowed many World War II veterans to enter college when they returned in the late 1940s, but those 20-somethings for the most part not 50-somethings. By Dangerfield’s film in the mid ’80s, nontraditional students were far more common, though few would have been anything like him. Nowadays, however, nontraditional students, especially women, form a large percentage of university populations, so there’s nothing unusual at all about Deanna coming to school. And nothing unusual about her financial challenges. So any comedy that might have attached to the unusual or unexpected in her situation is just no longer there.

What isunusual is Deanna’s decision to stay in a dorm room on campus. This isn’t particularly realistic given her financial worries, but it does lead to some of the actual humor in the film, which comes in the person of her neurotic roommate Leonor (Heidi Gardner of TV’s SaturdayNightLive), who, true to her straight-outa-Edgar-Allan-Poe moniker, is pure Goth, as well as being an agoraphobe who never leaves the room, even to attend class. What’s also unrealistic but far less funny is the abuse she receives from some of the other younger women on campus. On today’s campuses, when a good quarter of the women you see are going to be nontrads of one kind or another, this is pretty lame, and smacks more of junior high school than college.

There is also a scene in which (spoiler alert, I guess, if that’s possible with this movie, which essentially has a series of vignettes rather than an actual plot per se), having had a few too many drug-laced college party treats, Deanna and her daughter’s sorority sisters pretty much destroy the venue for her ex-husband’s wedding to his realtor fiancée. I had the feeling this was supposed to be a kind of surprising and hilarious scene, given the amount of energy put into it, but for me it seemed to fall completely flat, and bordered on the pathetic rather than the hysterical.

There were a few high points in the film. In addition to Gardner as the freaky roommate, Gillian Jacobs (from TV’s Community) plays one of Maddie and Dee’s sorority sisters, but she too is a bit older than the typical freshman (she’s 30 or so) because she was in a coma for eight years. She seems pretty spaced out most of the time, but is just flaky enough to be amusing and memorable. McCarthy’s Bridesmaidsco-star Maya Rudolph turns up as Deanna’s off-campus best bud, and there are a few scenes in which she gets some funny lines or bits, though they don’t have much to do with the main plot of the film.

McCarthy is a significant comic talent who, having burst on the film scene in the highly successful Bridesmaids, found equally effective roles in The Heatand Spy. It is probably no coincidence that those three films were all directed by Paul Feig, who seems to have a knack for how to use her comic talents. Her non-Feig films—including The Boss, Identity Thiefand Tammy—have been far less successful, and I’m afraid Life of the Partyfalls into the latter category. There is a kind of sweetness to the movie in the depiction of the close mother-daughter relationship (the reason, I suppose, that the film was released on Mothers’ Day weekend), and a message about it being never too late to follow your dreams (not unlike Crosby’s movie) as well as the necessity for female solidarity (not unlike McCarthy’s earlier Bridesmaids), but it doesn’t all come together into a memorable movie. I didn’t find it compelling, so I’m giving it two Jacqueline Susanns. If you are a big McCarthy fan, you might want to go see this film. But most of you are probably planning to go to Deadpool 2this weekend, so this review is probably a moot point anyway. Enjoy!

Tully

Tully

Jason Reitman (2018)

Charlize Theron could have had a comfortable career playing beautiful, graceful, and sexy women. She never would have had to stretch or play anything other than herself and people would have paid her to do it because lots of people would have liked to go see her be beautiful, sexy and graceful. And then she ruined all that, announcing in no uncertain terms by her Academy-Award-wining turn in Monsterthat what she really wanted to do was act. And she subsequently took on more tough roles in North Country(2005), Young Adult (2011),Mad Max:Fury Road(2015), and now Marlo, a mother on the edge of a nervous breakdown, in Jason Reitman’s new film Tully, a role that Theron reportedly put on fifty pounds to play. That’s some hard dedication.

Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody have collaborated before, on Juno(2007), for which Cody won the Oscar, and also on Young Adultwith Theron. Juno was a cynically comic look at teenage pregnancy, in which the young mother-to-be decides to have the baby, but struggles with the decision of giving the child up for adoption. In Tully, Reitman and Cody have taken another swing at motherhood, this one even darker and even more unsentimental. Theron’s character Marlo is a mother in her forties, who already has two children and, five years after her last child, finds herself pregnant again with a child who was obviously not planned. Post-partum depression is mild compared to what Marlo experiences.

Marlo’s other two children are a normal if precocious eight-year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) and a five-year old son named Noah (Asher Miles Fallica) who appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum and who is so disruptive in class—with behavior that his principal calls “quirky” (which, as Marlo says “makes him sound like a ukulele”)—that he is being dismissed from his school to find an education elsewhere. Marlo’s husband, Drew, is played by Ron Livingston, who seems to be just about as excited about his role as husband and father as he was about his job in Office Space. As Marlo describes his evening ritual, Drew“Goes upstairs, puts on a headset, kills zombies, and passes out.” It’s hard to blame Marlo if she is not particularly excited about the birth of her third child.

Marlo does have a brother named Craig (Mark Duplass from Zero Dark Thirtyand TV’s TheLeague), who seems to have more money than he knows what to do with and who is something of a jerk and married to the Perfect Mother (something that’s a lot easier to be with a lot of money) Elyse (Elaine Tan of TV’s Hand of God). Craig does seem to realize what a difficult time Marlo is going to have with another baby, and offers to pay for a Night Nanny to help her out. She initially refuses, not wanting some stranger to come into her house every night, but eventually, after many a sleepless night of baby wrangling (during which Drew plays video games and then sleeps soundly through), Marlo relents and calls in the cavalry. Tully (Mackenzie Davis of The Martianand Blade Runner 2049), a nanny in her early twenties who claims to be “older than I look” arrives, Mary Poppins-like, on Marlo’s doorstep. She is fresh, funny, energetic, and caring—in short everything Marlo needs, and furthermore promises Marlo “I’m here to take care of you.” When Marlo objects that it’s the baby that needs caring for, Tully assures her “Right now, you pretty much arethe baby.”

It doesn’t take long for things to take a sharp turn upward. Not only does Tully take loving care of the new baby, Mia, she even cleans and bakes during the night, and Marlo is soon perked up after nights of glorious rest. Only there are some strange things that begin to surface. Marlo and Tully seem to be getting uncomfortably close. And how does Drew not care enough to even come downstairs to meet the woman who is taking care of his new baby? Turns out things are not as harmonious as they seem, and are building toward a pretty surprising denouement.

Motherhood is something of a sacred cow in the media, a concept so idealized that even to suggest that sometimes the responsibilities can be overwhelming, and that mothers sometimes need relief from their children, is blasphemous to certain segments of society. Those same segments are quick to blame and shame mothers who fail to live up to the perfect ideal. Reitman’s film tries to take a realistic and unsentimental look at the true everyday problems of mothering. And some people may not like it for that reason. But this sort of objection seems unrealistic. Our society glorifies war too, but does that mean the film industry should not make war movies that depict the gruesome realities of the battlefield?

OK, so raising children isn’t a war. Though sometimes it may seem like it. But there are also people on the other side of the spectrum who have criticized the film, even called for a boycott of it, because of its failure to go far enough in clarifying the actual mental difficulties of its main character. Maternal mental health advocates are calling the film irresponsible and misleading, reacting mainly to a surprising twist near the end of the film that I won’t reveal because it’s too much of a spoiler. But according to Diana Spalding, a pediatric nurse and education editor for the online source Motherly,“The reason that people are so excited about ‘Tully’ is because they feel like it is the first time that true motherhood is being portrayed on the big screen — but this is not true motherhood…Motherhood is hard, yes, but it is not this. This is mental illness. Brushing aside her mental illness again refuses to give it the attention it deserves.” The illness depicted is, according to mental health professionals, not common post-partum depression but the rare condition of post-partum psychosis, a disease that can sometimes lead to the death of the child if unidentified.

It does seem misplaced, though, to blame the film for not naming what it presents. We don’t know what will happen to Marlo after the bizarre twist of the end. She is a fictional character, after all, but we can imagine that perhaps after the end of the film she will get the help she needs. But we do not have to worry that women seeing this film will think what ultimately happens to her is normal. They may in fact be curious enough to ask their doctors, or more likely Google, about this condition, and so the film may serve the useful function of raising awareness of the condition. In any case, the film is not an educational movie about post-partum psychosis, it’s a piece of art, and having a final scene in which a doctor explains to Marlo what her condition is and what should be done about it would not exactly be the most aesthetically pleasing way to end the movie.

I have seen a number of online complaints about the movie because it is billed as a comedy, but in fact is not even remotely that. There are a few funny lines (Craig and Elyse’s daughter is in a talent show. “What’s her talent?” Marlo asks. Elyse says “Pilates.”) But there is surely nothing amusing at all about post-partum psychosis. In some ways that makes this film almost more of a horror film than a comedy. It’s extremely well-acted, and Theron and Davis have a remarkable chemistry together, and the hapless Livingston ultimately evokes some sympathy from the audience by the end. But there are a number of things in the film that don’t quite ring true to me. Why would a school toss out a “quirky” child without referring him to another school that may be more equipped to handle an autistic child? Why would that school not diagnose his problem? Why would Marlo not be seeing her own doctor, and why wouldn’t her doctor recognize any danger signals? And really, how could any husband be that checked out from his newborn baby’s life? And why wouldn’t his wife call him on it? Now my own awesome wife says that no, the kid goes to a private school and he own experience working at a private school suggests that they could have done exactly what they did. Nor would Marlo necessarily be connecting with her doctor, especially if she didn’t think there was anything wrong with her. My wife also, less convincingly, argued that a lotof fathers are that checked out. Be that as it may, I’ll leave it to youhow believable you think the ending is. Personally, I found it a difficult stretch.

Still, chiefly on the basis of impressive work by Theron, I’m giving this one three Tennysons. It’s probably worth seeing for most folks.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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

Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War

Anthon and Joe Russo (2018)

Perhaps the most anticipated movie in the long ten-year construction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that in some ways weaves together strands from the previous 18 films so as to seem like the culmination of a lengthy process, Avengers: Infinity Warexploded onto the screen—I should say onto thousands of screens worldwide—over this past weekend. The film, which cost somewhere close to $400 million to produce, making it perhaps the most expensive film in history (or the second most expensive, depending on who you believe) has already recouped that huge budget in its first weekend, which early returns indicate set records for domestic gross (more than $258 million) and world-wide earnings (roughly $640 million—and it hasn’t even opened in China yet). Of course, charging an arm and a leg for 3D showings (which there’s never a good reason for) doesn’t hurt that income total.

These huge earnings seem to validate the philosophy of the film: if one superhero is good, then two superheroes are better, and twenty superheroes must be best of all. If one ten-minute CGI-enhanced battle scene on one planet is better, then two twenty-minute battle scenes on two planets must be better still, and continuous battle scenes on many planets for the entire length of a 156-minute film (they don’t call it “Infinity War” for nothing) must be best of all. For that certainly seems to work: whether your favorite is Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spiderman (Tim Holland), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), or Black Panther (Chadwich Boseman), you’ve got a chance to see them here. As an added bonus, you also get to see all of the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and everyone’s favorite, Groot (Vin Diesel). Add to that some of those marginal Avengers who have yet to get their own movies: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (really, apparently that’s his name, who knew?) (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap’s buddy the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and all those Wakandan buddies of the Black Panther—except for Martin Freeman who, like Paul Rudd and Jeremy Renner, must have had other commitments during the filming of this movie and its sequel, so don’t count on seeing Ant-man or Hawkeye. Belovedly villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) does make an appearance, though, as does everyone’s favorite Lannister, Peter Dinklage, as Eitri, a “dwarf” (with an ironic twist) straight out of Tolkien or Norse mythology who is the last survivor of a race of smiths who forged Thor’s great hammer, Mjolnir.

The fact that it probably took you twenty minutes to read that list of heroes, and another twenty minutes to try to remember who exactly these people are and why you should care, underscores one of the film’s chief problems: there are simply too many characters for an audience to try to keep up with or to care about. As my awesome wife likes to say, “If everything’s important, then nothing’s important.” None of this galaxy of stars gets more than a few minutes of screen time out of that precious 156. So for them to have anything interesting to do other than fight evil with their superpowers in battle after battle, the writers have to give them a few clever bantering lines as they jockey for position in the superhero pecking order, so Thor and Star Lord can bicker about who’s in charge, or Iron Man and Dr. Strange can squabble about whose plan they should follow. Probably the most memorable of these is Bruce Banner’s (Ruffalo’s) difficulties in catching up (in case you haven’t memorized all 18 prequels, he’s been out of circulation for awhile), learning that the Avengers actually broke up (“Like a band? Like the Beatles?”), and that there are some new heroes on the block (“You mean there’s an Ant-man anda Spiderman?”). He also spends much of the film unable to get his inner Hulk to blossom, and must do his fighting mainly in an Ironman suit.

With our focus spread over the entire galaxy and trying to keep up with dozens of characters, creating a coherent plot is something of a challenge for writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the team that gave us three Captain Americamovies, Thor: The Dark World, and two Chronicles of Narniamovies). What we get is not so much coherence as it is a swirl loosely orbiting the kernel of an idea: It seems that at the time of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe, six precious gemstones were created—stones that govern space, time, reality, power, soul and mind. If one possesses one of these stones, one possesses power over that which is in that stone’s dominion. If one possesses all six, well golly, I guess he would be in control of everything. The villainous Thanos (Josh Brolin) has already got one and wants to gain all six, and thereby the ability to exert his will on the entire universe. There’s kind of a “one ring to rule them all” vibe about this whole thing, and wait a minute, weren’t there sixhorcruxes somewhere, or am I dreaming that? The point is, we don’t exactly have an original plot. And for you to follow every twist of it, you kind of have to have not only seen all 18 previous MCU movies, but actually have to remember stuff that happened in them. I realize there is a devoted core of fanboys out there of which this is true, but most people have seen these films and let them wash over their brains like popcorn for the mind—something pleasant enough at the time but not something that’s going to nourish you substantially. But don’t worry if you don’t catch every connection: this, too, will wash over you and be gone. Or you can watch it on DVD or streaming ad infinitum.

The one character in Infinity Warswho has any chance to develop, or for whom directors Anthony and Joe Russo(who directed the last two Captain Americamovies and won an Emmy in another universe for directing TV’s Arrested Development) have given any room for a character arc, is Thanos. This is a villain who measures up to the superheroes ranged against him. He’s potentially a threat to all life in the galaxy, for he wants those six stones so that he can end trillions of lives with a snap of his fingers. But he is not simply monomaniacally evil. He actually believes what he’s doing is a good thing, and his motive is to relieve suffering: His Malthusian understanding of the universe is that there are not enough resources to support all life, and fewer living sentient beings could live a rich life, while overpopulation results in miserable lives. So he only plans to kill half of everything living. It’s a difficult and controversial choice but a moral one, he argues: “The hardest choices” he says, “require the strongest wills.” What a perfect Fascist he is.

He is also created convincingly through motion capture, like Lord of the Rings’Gollum or Planet of the Apes’Caesar. Brolin does a creditable job with the technology—I guess Andy Serkis must have been unavailable. Indeed, if what you want from your movies are these kinds of gimmicks, if you like visual CGI thrills (I won’t say “cheap thrills” because there’s no way $400 million can be called cheap), there is plenty in this film to get your heart pumping. The Russos know better than anyone what to put their money into. But you probably already know that the movie ends disturbingly, with a lot of deaths, including those of a number beloved characters. And, as Thanos threatens in the very first scene after one such death, there will be “No resurrections this time.” But if you really think that I’m pretty sure you’ve got another think coming. Because as you are also probably aware, there is a 20thMCU movie coming, the sequel to this one, that was filmed at the same time during the first half of 2017. Don’t be too surprised if there are resurrections next time (after all, Thanos has a “time” stone, doesn’t he?). The good thing about all those deaths is that they’ve vastly reduced the number of superheroes left to take the fight to Thanos, which means that the follow-up film might just be free of some of the excess superhero problems of this one. We can only hope.

Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one, with a half a Tennyson for those who want those well-done CGI thrills.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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

I Feel Pretty

I Feel Pretty

Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (2018)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Early in Amy Schumer’s new movie I Feel Pretty, when her character Renee Bennett is at a particularly low point self-esteem-wise, she happens to be watching Penny Marshall’s Bigon television, and is transfixed by the scene in which the young protagonist makes a wish with the mechanized “Gypsy Fortune Teller,” saying “I wish I was big,” after which he receives a card that says, “your wish is granted.” Inspired, or maybe just desperate, Renee races out into a downpour to stop at a fountain near her New York apartment in order to throw a coin into the water and cry, “I wish I was beautiful!”

The following day, Renee visits a SoulCycle class during which she takes a fall from her cycle and suffers a severe head blow that knocks her unconscious. When she comes to she begins to admire her own arms and her thighs, and when she looks in the mirror, she suddenly sees herself as a glamorous beauty with the body of a supermodel. The catch is, this isn’t a case of young David Moscow turning into Tom Hanks. Renee looks exactly the same. The only thing that’s changed is the way she sees herself.

This has the makings of a significant movie, one that underscores the need for women to be self- confident in a society that does its utmost to squelch any self-confidence they may in fact have. And one that at the same time examines the body dysmorphia characteristic of so many women in contemporary America. This is a neurosis fed daily by completely atypical supermodels who are paid to sell those same women things that will make their “unacceptable” bodies thinner, firmer, sexier, better toned and better dressed. And the subtext of all those ads is that the only way to actually havean acceptable body is to have one just like those supermodels. I Feel Prettyseems poised to take on that unrealistic image and tear it down. The empress has no clothes.

Amy Schumer has made a career out of irreverently undercutting the expectations laid upon women in American culture, and such a film seems made for her as, in fact, it was. The film was created as a vehicle for its star, like 2015’s very successful and well-reviewed Trainwreck, in which she plays a career woman with a fear of commitment. So why would a film like this, with such a promising premise, be getting such poor reviews, not only from critics, who give it a 34 percent positive rating on review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com, but also from audiences, consisting mainly of the women who are its target market, and who give it only 31 percent on the same site?

One reason at least for this negative response is probably the blatant product placement that pervades the film. Aside from being a fairly obvious advertisement for Target, especially in its second half, the film also has no fewer than four scenes set in a SoulCycle studio—not simply at a gym or a generic kind of workout—but specifically SoulCycle. Four of them. I wonder what the message is here? But think about this: Here is a film the avowed purpose of which is trying to send women the message that it’s OK to have a normal human body and that you don’t have to succumb to the advertising propaganda that tells you you’re not OK unless you have the body of a supermodel, so that they can sell you all kinds of “correctives” for your imperfect body—correctives like, uh, SoulCycle. Is it just me, or are there conflicting messages here?

Schumer’s far more successfulTrainwreckwas helmed by proven director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) and written by Schumer herself, and thus was perfectly suited to her style and personality as honed in her stand-up routines and TV shows. I Feel Prettyis written by the team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (authors of the not wholly successful screenplays for He’s Just Not That Into Youand Never Been Kissed), who also make their directorial debut with this film. Between the writing and directing, there are a number of troubling inconsistencies and mixed messages in the film that parallel the product-placement debacle.

For example, at the beginning of the film, we see Renee working in a shabby underground space with the socially awkward Mason (Adrian Martinez, a veteran of Schumer’s TV series Inside AmySchumer) which is the site of online operations for a huge successful cosmetics company called Lily LeClaire. It seems absurd that in today’s economy, so reliant on online sales, a large company would hide their potentially most important sales division in a basement far from company headquarters. When Renee visits the headquarters, which is staffed solely by supermodels, it becomes clear that she and Mason are hidden away because they do not meet the company’s standards for beauty. After Renee begins to think of herself as beautiful, she applies for and gets a job as receptionist in the company headquarters (taking a cut in pay in the process—so she would rather belong to the “beautiful people” club than to make a living wage?). Of course, the reason she is given the job is that the company, trying for the first time to market to everyday women instead of models or the super-rich, needs a “normal” woman to advise them on things nobody in the company headquarters knows—just what is it that average women look for when they shop? So let’s consider this: The film wants you to think that Renee can land a job based on her own self-confidence, but what actually happens in the film is that she is given the job specifically becauseshe is not one of the beautiful people.

To take one more example: self-confident Renee gets a new boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovel, another alumnus of Inside Amy Schumer), whom she picks up in a dry-cleaning store—something she would never have had the confidence to do before. But when she has a chance to seduce the handsome Grant LeClair (Tom Hopper of Game of Thrones), brother of her company’s head Avery, she becomes nervous and tongue-tied in his presence. How does that make sense?

But inconsistencies and non-sequiturs aside, the worst part of the film is the mixed message it sends. If we are supposed to agree that normal-sized and normal-looking women have a right to feel comfortable in their own skins, then what are we to make of the jokes at Renee’s expense when she asks for a “double wide” shoe size, or when she apparently is so heavy that she breaks the SoulCycle that she is riding and has to leave the class having split her pants at the seam? And what are we to make of the bikini contest she enters against several other women, all of whom are super-model types, and moves her body around in a sexy manner while her new boyfriend cringes and people in the bar shout insults at her? She ultimately wins them over by turning the whole thing into a kind of satire with comments like “Renee is notafraid of returning things for store credit,” underscoring the fact that she is actually a normal woman and not a supermodel. But there is clearly a body-shaming aspect to this performance that invites us to scorn Renee’s incongruent performance. So…the film seems to be saying that women should be true to themselves and reject the unrealistic images foisted on them by media versions of femininity, but we’re going to laugh at them when they do.

These inconsistencies and mixed messages are the result of poor writing, as is the film’s climactic monologue in which the main character tells an assembled crowd as well as the film’s viewing audience what the message of the film is in no uncertain terms. No subtlety here, folks! This, coupled with the other obvious fact that Amy Schumer is notan unattractive woman or even overweight in the first place, makes one wonder just what sort of audience would relate to this film, despite its surface premise.

Schumer is entertaining in a badly written role. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) as Avery LeClaire, the impossibly glamorous head of the cosmetics company, is strangely appealing as the powerful maven whose chipmunk-like voice makes herself-conscious. Busy Philipps (of TV’s Cougar Town) and Aidy Bryant (of Saturday Night Live) are sympathetic as Renee’s oldest and truest friends. But overall the film is a disappointment, because it fails to deliver on its promises. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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Beirut

Beirut

Brad Anderson (2018)

Let’s deal first with the elephant in the room: Brad Anderson’s new film Beirut has received a good deal of negative advance publicity, including a condemnation from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which called the portrayal of Arabs in the film “racist” and the movie’s depiction of Middle Eastern politics “simplistic.” They also labeled the film’s protagonist Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm of TVs Mad Men) a stereotyped “white savior” figure. The film has also faced criticism for being filmed in Morocco rather than Beirut itself, for using no ethnic Lebanese actors and for failing to portray the Lebanese as fully rounded or complex characters. The film is being boycotted in Lebanon itself. If one looks at the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.com, one sees that the critical response to the film has been generally favorable (78 percent), but that audience responses have been less than stellar (53 percent), with many of the negative audience evaluations influenced by the negative publicity (it seems clear that a number of the negative reviews were from people who did not actually see the film).

The fact is that much of the criticism of the film derived from its trailer. In particular the trailer’s tagline—“2,000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder…welcome to Beirut”—was decried as an offensive and inaccurate representation of the nation’s history. The film itself, while it can hardly be called a sensitive and nuanced record of Lebanese history and politics or a complex examination of the Lebanese people, is less guilty of these offenses than the trailer may suggest. And some of the complaints about the film concern things that were likely out of director Anderson’s control. Shooting such a film in Beirut itself, for example, would be difficult for a story set in 1982. The modern stylish and sleek city of Beirut (“the Paris of the Middle East”) would provide an incongruous background for a film set in the war-torn city of 36 years ago. Furthermore, Beirut was filmed with a relatively small budget, and, as the film’s producers argued, it was much easier—and cheaper—to get insurance to film in Morocco than to film in Lebanon.

As for the charge that the film employs the hackneyed “white savior” motif—a story that focuses on a white hero who saves people of color from some danger or difficulty (a la, say, Lawrence of Arabia), nothing could be further from the truth. Hamm’s character is no Lawrence, nor is he a Robert Gould Shaw in Glory or a John Quincy Adams in Amistad. He’s not the heroic Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom or the principled Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s a sad drunk bemoaning his murdered wife who doesn’t ever want to see Beirut again, but he has some negotiating skills that may help to rescue another white American from a particular group of terrorists. He’s not there to save anybody of color. And he doesn’t.

The criticisms of the casting may be less easy to dodge. It is true, for example, that Leïla Bekhti, who plays Skiles’ Lebanese wife Nadia, is a French actress of Algerian descent; Idir Chender, who plays Skiles’ chief antagonist Karim Abou Rajal (a Palestinian, by the way, not a Lebanese) is also French, with a vaguely Islamic name and appearance. None of the other characters are played by Lebanese actors, or Palestinians either for that matter. They were mainly Moroccan. It was probably easier and cheaper, again, to cast actors who lived in or near Tangiers, where the film was headquartered, but it is hard to believe that a few Lebanese actors couldn’t have been secured for the major parts in the film. After all, the American characters weren’t played by French actors, were they?

Such considerations aside, the question I want to address here is whether the film succeeds at what it is trying to do. It is not a documentary or a sociological study. It is intended to be a political thriller in the John Le Carre style, so the question is, as my wife likes to say, is it good at what it’s good for?

The screenplay for Beirut was actually written back in 1991. Tony Gilroy, Oscar-nominated writer of Michael Clayton and the four Bourne films, wrote the script before his first film, The Cutting Edge, was released, but was not able to find anyone to make the movie at that time. As co-producer, he’s finally brought it to the screen with Brad Anderson (The Machinist) as director. In a way the film seems a bit of a throwback to films of that era (think The Finest Hour, Courage Under Fire, Three Kings—or even Not Without My Daughter) and thus perhaps shows little of the sensitivity Hollywood is beginning to become conscious of. But when it comes down to it, this is a film about Americans in Beirut, more specifically about hidden agendas of particular American politicians and operatives in Beirut, at a particular point in history: just prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and the subsequent terrorist attack on the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut in April 1983.

This story actually begins in the title city in 1972, when Skiles (Hamm) is a U.S. diplomat hosting a party for visiting American dignitaries, including a congressman. As the film opens he is trying to describe in a nutshell the complexities of politics in the city—the conflicting interests of Lebanese Muslims, Lebanese Christians, Palestinian refugees and Jews. He and Nadia (Bekhti) have taken in a 13-year old Palestinian orphan named Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg) whom they are talking about adopting. The party is interrupted by Skiles’ friend Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino from TV’s Lost and Being Human), a CIA agent who tells Skiles that Karim needs to come in for questioning: It turns out his older brother Abu Rajal was involved in the recent murders of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. While Skiles objects that Karim is “one of the family,” the party is plunged into chaos when disguised terrorists invade the home, Karim is abducted and Nadia, held by one of the gunmen, is caught in the gunfire when Cal attempts to rescue her.

Ten years later, Skiles is drinking his way through Boston, where he is using his diplomatic skills to mediate labor disputes and trying to forget what happened to his family a decade earlier. Out of nowhere, a summons comes to him from the State Department: It seems his talents are needed back in Beirut (“the last place in the world I want to go”), where his old friend Cal has been seized by some splinter militant group that is demanding Skiles and only Skiles to negotiate Cal’s release.

At the embassy in Beirut, Skiles must maneuver the conflicting agendas of three rival State Department and CIA figures: Gaines (Dean Norris of TV’s Scandal), Ruzak (Shea Whigham of TV’s Boardwalk Empire and Fargo), and Ambassador Shalen (Larry Pine of TV’s House of Cards), all of whom seem far more concerned about the secrets Cal might be forced to reveal and the possible reaction from Israel than with getting Cal back alive. Only cultural attaché Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pyke of Gone Girl) seems to have Cal’s best interests at heart. She and Skiles don’t get along at first, but end up, predictably, as allies in this mess.

To say any more would need a lot of spoiler alerts, but that point about predictability is a significant one. Much of this film is predictable—it seems like we’ve seen this or something like it fairly often in other films. There is one surprise at the end of the movie, but even that might have been foreseen by cagey viewers familiar with history. The film, while not “based on a true story,” does suggest possible reasons for the Israeli invasion and the Marine barracks bombing, footage of which we see as the credits begin to roll. The best thing about the film is the performances of Hamm and Pyke (sounds a little like a Surf ‘n Turf dinner). He proves that he can carry a feature film just as smoothly as he carried a TV series for years. This is certainly Hamm’s best work on the big screen. And Pyke is as impressive as ever, though her role is certainly second fiddle to Hamm’s.

But it is still true that the film could have been more culturally sensitive. It also might have been less predictable. To fans of Tony Gilroy, it is interesting to see as an early work, a precursor of the more impressive Bourne films and the brilliant Michael Clayton (also about a negotiator). All things considered I’ll give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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

 

A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski (2018)

John Krasinski’s new film A Quiet Paceis making a lot of noise at the box office this week, and scoring a big buzz among critics, who are nearly unanimous in their admiration of the movie. Krasinski, probably best known to most viewers for his seasons on TV’s The Office, has used this film as his Citizen Kaneproject, directing, writing and starring in the film. He was also executive producer (a role he earlier performed for the acclaimed 2016 film Manchester by the Sea). Krasinski’s one earlier big-screen directing foray, 2016’s The Hollars, was not particularly well reviewed, but this recent effort is bringing him accolades.

Think about all the noise there is in our everyday lives. The sounds of television, radios, podcasts, iTunes, audible and countless other devices bombard us everywhere we go; the white noise of traffic, other people’s conversations, elevator music, sirens, animal noises, lawnmowers, leaf-blowers, workers doing their jobs, people talking on bluetooths (blueteeth?) is inescapable and ultimately our brains tune it out. To experience absolute silence is rare and, perhaps, even a shock to the senses. Krasinski asking us to sit in the dark in a movie theater with no sound is awkward, even nerve-wracking, for the first several minutes, and causes a good deal of tension in itself, without the need for the monsters.

But monsters there are. For A Quiet Placeis a horror movie, and not a horror movie in the sense of slasher flick with a whole bunch of blood and dismemberment, but a science-fiction horror movie in the classic sense of, say, Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s first two Alienmovies.It keeps you on the edge of your seat watching for these initially hidden monsters who, like Scott’s creatures, race across the screen to kill people before you even have a chance to catch a glimpse.

As the film opens, we see a family in a drug store. But it’s a post-apocalyptic drug store that they are scavenging in, as it turns out. It’s “Day 79” of, apparently, the fall of civilization, and the family is looking for medicine for one of the children, who is sick. They communicate with one another only in sign language, though, which probably makes us wonder—or at least it would in an ideal world in which we haven’t already read or heard about the premise of this movie far in advance. As they leave the store, we see the front page of a tabloid newspaper with the banner headline “It’s Sound!” the import of which will become all too clear to us just a bit later. The film will focus on the story of this family, Lee (Krasinsky) and Evelyn Abbott (played by Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt), and their three children: Regan (Millicent Simmonds, previously seen inWonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe of Wonder), and the baby of the family, Beau (Cade Woodward in his first film role).

A tense scene ensues in which the boy, barely out of toddlerhood,forgets or ignores the rules and turns on a loud toy.Why? Because he has picked up a model Space Shuttle toy in the store and, against his parents’ stern prohibition, has put batteries in the thing so that, as they walk away from the drug store on railroad tracks a la The Walking Dead, the kid presses a button that makes the toy ding and whistle. And at the moment that sound is emitted, and his parents turn back in horror. We learn in early scenes how the creatures work, responding to sound with a swoop that means the death of the person making the noise.

Essentially, the plot of the film revolves around this situation: The world has apparently been overrun by these creatures, who seem to be blind and covered with an armor-like exoskeleton, but they have incredibly sensitive ears and attack anything that makes a sound. The Abbot family live in a house that they’ve tried to make creature-proof. Regan is deaf (which helps explain how the family has survived so long, being already proficient in sign language that helps them communicate while keeping silent),but she’s also intrepid, though she feels a rift with her father, blaming herself for an earlier family tragedy. The younger brother, Marcus, is more fearful, balking as his father takes him away from home to try to teach him survival skills that will help him stay alive amidst the monstrous threat.

Ninety minutes of this film is enough—it keeps you so tense that you’d explode if you had to endure much more. Krasinsky chooses to shoot the film largely in close-up; since the characters can’t express themselves in spoken words, they communicate most of their thoughts and emotions through their facial expressions. This makes the film very intimate—you are as close as you can be to these characters, and you are with them in their closed fortress. Traveling beyond that fortress feels dangerous, but it is also in a sense liberating: When Lee and Marcus reach a loud running stream, you feel a great relief that for once they are able to talk without fear of immediate violent death, their voices masked by the sound of rushing water.

The strangest aspect of this whole situation is the fact that Evelyn is, yes, pregnant. Logically, this seems crazy. What rational couple would have the cajonesto bring a child into this dystopian world? Never mind the dangers and likely suffering this child will be subject to. Just in about the fact that babies, hello, cry. You can’t stop them. But the new life is here a physical manifestation of the family’s determination to survive, to ensure that human life goes on despite the inhospitable waste land this world has become.

What we don’t really know is what things are like elsewhere in this world. Are these monsters fairly local, or have they ravaged the entire continent, or the whole planet? How many other humans are still alive, trying to survive? It seems as if all infrastructure has broken down (which makes me wonder why the electricity and plumbing still work in their house. Perhaps they have a private well and generator). But there are other logical problems with the film. How many of these monsters are there? Where did they come from? Are we supposed to believe that all the firepower of the U.S. military could not defeat these things? Sure they are covered with a kind of armor, but could they really stand up against a tank?

But clearly we’re not supposed to ask those kinds of questions. This is a genre movie, so the question to ask, as my wife is always quick to remind me, is whether this film is good for what it’s good for. As a horror movie, it does its job, keeping you on edge from beginning to end, and does it without grossing you out with blood and guts. Further, it transcends its genre to some extent, with memorable performances by Krasinski, Simmonds, and especially Blunt, who makes us believe a woman can deliver a baby without making a sound; and more importantly by effectively illustrating, through a kind of parable, the importance of family and of human life even in the bleakest of circumstances. I’ll give this one three Tennysons.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg (2018)

The box office champion of this past weekend by a wide margin was Steven Spielberg’s newest effort, Ready Player One, a slick CGI extravaganza bringing to the screen Ernest Cline’s 2011 best-selling novel of the same name. Now let me just say that my awesome wife doesn’t much like young-adult novels in general, really hates dystopian fiction in particular, and has never understood why anyone would waste his time playing video games. So, we can safely say that she is not the intended audience for this film—and, if you feel the same way, then neither are you. After a bit of cajoling, however, I was able to get her to agree to come with me to a local screening of the movie (hey, it’s Steven Spielberg after all. And maybe some of the nostalgic ’80s references would strike her fancy). Let me just say, though, that expectations were not high as we entered the cinema.

Turns out that, despite all the bells and whistles, Ready Player Oneis essentially an archetypal quest narrative: The hero must pass through many challenges and overcome many dangers in order to reach the goal: conquer the dragon, destroy the One Ring, defeat the Death Star, find the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, or, in this case, the vast treasure.

The story begins in 2045—years, we are told, after the “corn syrup droughts” and “bandwidth riots.” In Columbus, Ohio, the fastest growing city on earth, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of X-Men:Apocalypseand Mud), an orphaned teenager, lives with his Aunt Alice in “The Stacks”—a Columbus slum consisting of endless piles of trailer houses stacked one upon another (I couldn’t help thinking that one tornado would destroy everything in that area). Whether Wade ever goes to school or not, or whether most people have any kind of job, is anybody’s guess—you can’t tell from the movie. It’s a world in which human life has become so onerous, devoid of meaning or joy, that all anybody in Columbus seems to want to do is don a headset and enter a virtual world called the Oasis. Here you can be anything you want, do anything you want, in a world that seems a combination of every kind of video game ever conceived. Who needs drugs when everyone is addicted to virtual reality? Who needs reality?

The Oasis was the brainchild of a socially challenged geek-genius named James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance, an Academy-Award winner for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies). Halliday has been dead for seven years, but upon his death he announced that he had created a game within Oasis that challenged any player to find three keys (what gamers would refer to as “Easter Eggs”—perhaps that’s why the film premiered on Easter weekend?) within his virtual world that, when found, would unlock his fortune—that is, the first person to find the keys and unlock the secret would inherit ownership of the Oasis, a fortune with the estimated value of half a trillion dollars. After seven years, no one has found even the first key, though nearly everyone is looking, including a whole army of minions of an evil capitalistic giant called IOI (Innovative Online Industries).

Wade, of course, is deeply into the game himself through his avatar Parzival. So is his muscular online Avatar friend Aech (Lena Waithe, best known from TV’s Master of None, for which she also won a Writing Emmy) and Aech’s warrior sidekick Avatars Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Phiip Zhao). But his chief competition is actually the Avatar Art3mis (Olivia Cooke from TV’s BatesMotel). Art3mis, named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, is avidly on the hunt in this game. But when Wade’s superior knowledge of Halliday’s biography and habits enables him to figure out how to solve the puzzle of the first key, he becomes a target for the head of the real-world corporate giant IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn of Darkest Hourand RogueOne) in the realworld, since IOI needs to control the Oasis in order to control the real-world economy. So the film develops into a quest on two fronts: Parzival’s virtual quest to find the keys and unlock the treasure, and Wade’s real-world quest to escape the IOI killers and prevent Sorrento’s push for world domination—a quest that requires him to seek out the real-world versions of his Avatar friends. He has, of course, fallen in love with the Avatar Art3mis by this time, but has been sharply warned by Aech that Avatars can be completely different from their real-world counterparts, and that Art3mis might be a 300-pound fan-boy couch potato.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot of this film, though from what I’ve already told you, you can probably figure the major stuff out for yourself, because it is pretty predictable. For me a lot of the interest in the film comes from its reworking of the traditional grail-quest narrative. The features of the grail legend are all here: There is, first a vast Waste Land that is the contemporary real world of Columbus and the stacks. In the grail legend, the grail knight (whose name in the early versions of the legend is Perceval or, in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s—and Richard Wagner’s—German versions, Parzival) has the task of finding the grail (in this version the keys), which will restore the health of the wounded Fisher King, and consequently also restore fertility to the Waste Land (an Oasisis a fertile spot in a desert or Waste Land, suggesting the water that might be associated with a “fisher king.”). In the original version of the grail story, Perceval is confronted unwittingly with a test, which he fails to pass and so fails in the quest. Halliday is the Fisher King in this instance, and his wounds were psychological. It is Wade/Parzival who figures out the great regret of Halliday’s life, his psychic wound, and uses his knowledge to pass a final test.

So that was my biggest take-away from the film. But I suspect for most people it will be the pop-culture allusions with which Halliday, and Spielberg, have filled the Oasis, stemming mainly from the ’80s or the late ’70s: Parzival rides around in a Delorean that seems straight out of Back to theFuture, and there is a major tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s TheShining, but those are only the most prominent references in what amounts to a visual phantasmagoria of pop-cultural trivia that includes The Iron Giant, Saturday Night Fever, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Star Wars, The A-Team, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, King Kong, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Nightmare on Elm Streetand on and on, while the soundtrack blasts the Bee Gees, Duran Duran, Van Halen, Michael Jackson, etc. etc. etc. If you grew up in the ’80s you will almost certainly watch this movie with a rush of nostalgia.

That’s actually both a blessing and a curse for the movie. If the film is in part a warning about the tendency in contemporary society to allow our online lives to interfere with or even transcend our real lives, not unlike a drug addiction, and what that tendency might look like if it continued to expand for another 25 to 30 years, Spielberg has made the Oasis so attractive in this film that we really don’t care all that much about the real lives of the characters, and there’s something of a let-down when the action returns to mundane reality. He’s made the addiction so much more enticing than the sober life that nobody would want to be sober. Or if the film is a warning against corporate America (represented by IOI) running our lives, it seems perversely to push us into the arms of Google, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

Still, it’s an entertaining film that most people will probably like. Even my skeptical wife admitted it was much better than she had expected—though since her expectations were pretty low to begin with, that wasn’t saying a whole lot. Rylance is painfully effective in his role as the unsociable genius. Sheridan and Cooke are sympathetic enough as the young lovers, and Mendelsohn hits all the right notes as the corporate baddie. A welcome Simon Pegg is likeable in a small but important role as Halliday’s original partner from whom the inventor had split in mid-career. But the fact is that nobody in this film is able to do much with a character in the real world because everybody is too busy being an Avatar. It’s definitely not a film about character.

So…this isn’t Schindler’s List, folks. Nor is it Jaws or E.T. It’s more of a Jurassic Park, relying pretty heavily on visuals and on a predictable but archetypal story. I’m giving it three Tennysons. You’re probably going to like it if you see it.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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

Unsane

Unsane

Steven Soderbergh (2018)

Steven Soderbergh’s newest film is part One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, part Stephen King’s Misery. But make no mistake: in its heart of hearts the film it is most akin to is Sleeping with the Enemy—and the novelist it seems most in tune with is Kafka.

But Unsane is not likely to be remembered for the originality or well-plotted storyline, or for its vivid characterizations or the searing realism of the relationships depicted, but rather as a technical tour de force. The story has been all over entertainment news and social media since last July: Soderbergh, using primarily only iPhone technology, shot the film in secret himself (the “Peter Andrews” listed as cinematographer is a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself, as is the “Mary Ann Bernard” given credit as editor), and did so in slightly more than one week. Long known as a budget-conscious director, Soderbergh used an iPhone 7 plus 4K digital camera, with the app FiLMiC Pro. Using no name-actors (except for one cameo by a certain Soderbergh regular), Soderbergh had already recouped the entire film’s bare-bones $1.2 million budget on foreign revenues alone by the end of its opening weekend, so while the film’s domestic box office stalled at less than $4 million, it had already made a 300 percent profit.

Soderbergh isn’t the first director to make a feature film using an iPhone. In 2015 Sean Baker shot the critically acclaimed comedy Tangerine on an iPhone 5. But the director of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich is no stranger to innovation or experimentation—Mosaic, his HBO miniseries featuring Sharon Stone, also uses the latest technology, including a mobile app that allows viewers to switch perspectives from one character to another. The use of the iPhone here makes Unsane sometimes feel claustrophobic, using extreme close-ups that show some distortion, which is the ideal perspective for a film that is essentially a psychological thriller.

The film begins with what seems at first to be a conventional monologue expressing undying love in male voiceover, though there’s something a little bit off about it, just a wee bit over-the-top spooky. Then we switch to an office, where the protagonist with the musical name of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, on a break from portraying Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown) is working at what is apparently a new job as an analyst in a bank, having just moved to Pennsylvania from Boston. Her work impresses her new boss, who tries to get her to make a business trip with him to a conference where, it is implied, he can sleep with her. She declines rather deftly, but this instance of endemic harassment in the workplace is a harbinger of things to come in the film. When shortly thereafter we witness Sawyer giving a Tinder hookup a try, the liaison goes terribly wrong as she suffers a panic attack in the midst of the encounter, we come to realize there is something very wrong in Sawyer’s life, and we realize there’s more to her move to this new town than initially meets the eye.

Sawyer finds a therapist to drop in on and talk to, thinking to check in briefly over her lunch hour. Here’s where we begin to learn of her background: that she has left Boston to put behind her a stalker. Through flashbacks that occur over much of the film, we understand that she had volunteered in a hospice program, during which she had read to a dying man, often in the presence of the man’s son, who during the sessions became obsessed with her, and after the father’s death began to stalk her. She was able to get a judge to issue a restraining order on the stalker, whose name is David Strine (played by Joshua Leonard, known mainly for The Blair Witch Project and a number of TV shows, including Bates Motel), but she is suffering from PTSD because of the stalking. A well-meaning police officer goes over a list of safety precautions she needs to take: install cameras around her apartment, don’t drive anywhere herself and hire a car service to get to and from work, get off all social media, buy a gun and learn to use it. It’s all just a way of saying that she’s on her own—society is not going to do anything to protect her from the predator that is hunting her. And so she has decided to move to a new city and a new job.

In discussing things with a visibly unsympathetic counselor at a mental-health facility called Highland Creek, she happens to mention that she has occasionally thought about suicide because of the trauma she has been through. She is then asked to “fill out some routine paperwork,” which she does, thinking it’s for insurance purposes so that she can schedule a follow-up appointment with the therapist. But she’s in too big a hurry to read the fine print on what she is signing, and before she can do anything about it, she finds herself “voluntarily” committed to the facility. But it’s only for twenty-four hours, she’s told. Still, she protests so vigorously that her stay is extended to seven days since the people in charge of the facility deem her to be a danger to herself and others.

There is a grim, Kafkaesque feeling to these scenes in the facility, as no one will listen to Sawyer and everything she does inevitably gets her into more trouble, so that she is put in restraints, confined to her bed, drugged, and kept in place by a faceless bureaucracy. It’s no accident that Soderbergh’s second film, Kafka, told a Kafkaesque tale of dark conspiracy in which the title character, a fictionalized Kafka, worked at a Prague insurance company. Here, it seems that Highland Creek is running a kind of insurance scam, committing patients against their will and keeping them confined as long as their insurance company pays the bill. Even Sawyer’s mother (Amy Irving, who previously worked with Soderbergh on Traffic) gets nowhere with the police or the hospital administrators as she tries to get Sawyer released. Sawyer learns this from one of the few reasonable people she meets inside—another patient named Nate (Jay Pharoah of Saturday Night Live).

But the story of the profit-seeking mental facility that that seems unassailable is a secondary issue in the film. It parallels the nightmare power of the stalker, who likewise seems impossible to stop. And the nightmare in this film truly begins when Sawyer believes that she recognizes her stalker, Stine, among the staff of the hospital, acting as a nurse dispensing meds. She screams, accuses him, and of course is sedated. But we’ve seen her having a panic attack before, haven’t we? Is she hallucinating? We just don’t know.

Except that we do find out the truth pretty quickly. And that’s the one flaw that I found in the film. It would have been far more effective, it seems to me, if Soderburgh had played the uncertainty out a good deal longer. The nightmare effect of the Kafkaesque uncertainty would have made for a much tenser, much more riveting plot. Writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (Just My Luck, The Spy Next Door) opt instead to go for a much more generic and predictable Hollywood-style denouement for the film, which was a bit disappointing to me after so promising a beginning.

Unsane gets a 79 percent positive rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.com, but curiously only 57 percent of audience members liked it. This kind of discrepancy is always interesting to me. I suspect some of the audience was disappointed with the generic conclusion. But I suspect a number of people were also put off by the fact that this is a “woman-in-peril” genre film that seems tone deaf in the current #metoo milieu. In some ways the film underscores the frustration of women who are not listened to, who are imprisoned in a bureaucracy that will not grant them a voice, and while it also understands women’s greatest fears in a world where men can kill them on a whim, as my wife said when she saw the film. But there are some viewers who might see it, and probably rightly so, as just another example of the way Hollywood, particularly in its “horror” genre, treats the abuse of women as a marketable commodity. I’m not sure that flies so well with some contemporary moviegoers.

Still, I’ll give the film three Tennysons. It’s worth seeing for its innovative technical aspects, and for Foy’s sympathetic portrayal of justified paranoia.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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Love, Simon

Love, Simon

Greg Berlanti (2018)

In a number of ways, the new teenage coming-of-age movie Love, Simon is a traditional comic story. No, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny with crazy over-the-top high-jinks, which is what Hollywood generally thinks has to be in a comedy, but it is a story that conforms to the comic pattern in which a pair of young lovers are trying to get together but are blocked by some obstacle that stands in the way of their happiness. The “old society” in which the lovers live is governed by an older generation of figures intent on keeping the lovers apart. A reversal, often an unlooked for one, enables the lovers to overcome the obstacle and get together to form a new society, free from the constraints of the old one. The blocking figures can either be incorporated into the new society, like the Duke’s brother at the end of As You Like It (or Jennifer Grey in Ferris Buhler’s Day Off); or they can be expelled or rejected, like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night (or, well, Jeffrey Jones in Ferris Buhler’s Day Off). Love, Simon has all of these features. But it also has a twist. The lovers are gay high-school-aged boys, and the obstacle is whether to “come out” to their parents and friends.

That last bit doesn’t seem particularly new in the current climate—we’ve seen the topic in more serious recent indie films like Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, and it’s pretty commonplace to see such themes on television, so it may be something of a shock to learn that Love, Simon is actually the very first mainstream studio film to feature a closeted gay teenager as its protagonist. It took a veteran successful TV director, Greg Berlanti (Riverdale, Supergirl, The Flash) and TV screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (This Is Us) to bring Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda to the big screen for 20th Century Fox.

And Love, Simon has something of the feel of a modern TV romcom. Or perhaps of an updated John Hughes film from the ’80s. Protagonist Simon Spier (Nick Robinson of Jurassic World) lives in a very John Hughes-ish family. His mother Emily (Jennifer Garner, who made her name on TV’s Alias) is a therapist, and his father Jack (Josh Duhamel, a veteran of three different TV series plus the Stephen King based miniseries 11-22-63) live in an upscale Atlanta neighborhood with younger sister Nora (Talitha Bateman, another veteran of a number of TV movies and the series Hart of Dixie) who is close to her older brother and dreams of being a great chef sometimes to her family’s gustatorial dismay. Simon is a senior in high school, counting down the days to his graduation. He chauffeurs his friends to and from school: Leah (Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why), who has been his best friend since he was four years old; Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr. of Spiderman: Homecoming), a soccer aficionado whom Simon has known almost as long; and Abby (Alexandra Shipp of X-Men: Apocalypse), a new transfer from Washington, D.C., whom Nick is hot for but hasn’t had the nerve to ask out yet. Over all this white-bread exposition comes Simon’s voiceover confession: “I’m just like you,” he says, only “I have a huge-ass secret.

That secret, of course, is his sexual orientation. At first it doesn’t seem like it should be so difficult for Simon to come out: His therapist mother is certainly going to be understanding, and his friends are progressive and like him enough that it shouldn’t be a problem for them. But Simon is chiefly concerned with his life changing, afraid that people will begin treating him differently, that he won’t have the same identity as he did before he came out. He looks forward to college, when, along with all of the other changes in his life, he can come out with his new sexual identity. And certain things in his environment suggest that he may be correct in assuming that people will treat him differently: his own father casually refers to certain men as “fruity’ more than once. The one student in his high school who actually has come out, Ethan (Clark Moore of TV’s Glee), is subject to continual insulting cracks from some of his less evolved classmates. And so Simon keeps his mouth shut.

But Simon is finally able to come out anonymously in an online friendship with a classmate who calls himself “Blue” and who has the same “big-ass secret” that Simon does. The entire relationship develops through online exchanges between Simon, calling himself “Jacques,” and the unidentified “Blue” as they bond over their difficulties and their trepidations about expressing their true selves, encouraging one another and, in Simon’s case at least, developing a real human attachment. It’s essentially the plot line of You’ve Got Mail updated and less straight. Simon spends much of the movie trying to figure out the secret identity of his cyber-crush Blue: is it the popular Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale), the Waffle House waiter Lyle (Joey Pollari), or maybe the musician Cal (Miles Heizer)? One by one, Simon imagines himself with each of these candidates, only to be disappointed.

Things take a downward turn when a serious complication crops up. Simon’s fairly creepy fellow student Martin (Logan Miller, another television actor from The Walking Dead and the TV version of Guardians of the Galaxy), a sadly un-self-aware actor who inexplicably has the lead in the high-school’s production of Cabaret, comes into possession of Simon’s online conversations with Blue. Martin, who is secretly infatuated with Simon’s new friend Abby, threatens to publish Simon’s secrets to the whole school if Simon does set him up with Abby. His back against the wall, not ready to come out himself and unwilling to expose Blue to any sort of public humiliation, Simon helps Martin as best he can, effectively messing up his own friends’ love lives in the process.

Needless to say, things work out as they have a way of doing in a comedy. And as in most comedies, the problems encountered are relatively harmless. The obstacles in the story are the products of foolishness and vice, not pure evil. Even Martin, the chief blocking figure of the story, is ultimately absorbed by the New Society. A few critics have seen this light touch as a flaw in the movie, I suppose in the belief that as a groundbreaking film, it needed to be tackling very important questions in a very serious manner. Instead it makes a gay adolescent romance seem to be normal in a normal, typical romcom. Which, in fact, really is something very important.

Robinson is incredibly likeable and appropriately nonthreatening in the title role, kind of blandly nice and a bit oblivious to some of his peers’ struggles, like Ethan’s daily insults, or Nick’s crush on Abby, or most significantly Leah’s own secret. And as Leah, Langford is natural, convincing and notably sympathetic in a supporting role. Miller is appropriately smarmy as the villainous Martin and is even able to garner some sympathy from the audience despite his essential weaselness. Among the adults, Garner and Duhamel don’t have a lot to do, but they hold down the parental roles believably. More notable is Tony Hale (from TV’s Arrested Development), who is comically memorable as the school’s vice-principal who wants to be everyone’s pal, and Natasha Rothwell (of TV’s Insecure), who is hilarious and stands out as the frustrated drama teacher trying to pull off a production of Cabaret with the world’s worst Master of Ceremonies.

Setting aside the movie’s sociological importance, as a film it’s a pretty entertaining if unconventional conventional romantic comedy, earning it a solid three Tennysons. I’d go see it if I were you.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

Ava DuVernay (2018)

Southey

Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved young adult classic, winner of the Newberry Award upon its publication in 1962, was my wife’s favorite book as a child, so I knew very well that no matter what, we would be seeing Disney’s new film version of the novel this weekend. Besides, I’ll go anywhere to see Reese Witherspoon in action, so you could count on us being there, popcorn in hand, at the early show in Conway.

The science-fiction/fantasy novel still appeals to children today, and there were a good many of them in the theater. What’s not to like? It’s the story of a middle-school aged girl Meg Murry (played here by Storm Reid of Twelve Years a Slave) who, in addition to the conventional middle-school anxieties about self-worth and social acceptance also happens to have a father who disappeared four years ago. Her father (Chris Pine of Star Trek and Wonder Woman) and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of Belle and Beauty and the Beast) are physicists who have discovered a means of traveling across galaxies by bending time and space through a method called tessering, and her father has rashly tried this himself and disappeared. Meg’s little brother, the precocious genius Charles Wallace (Deric McCabre, previously seen in last year’s Stephanie), convinces Meg and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller of Pan and Jasper Jones) to follow three otherworldly guides—the quirky Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), the walking book of familiar quotations called Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling of TV’s The Office and The Mindy Project), and the imperious Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). The three Mrs. have traced a call for help from somewhere in space to its target—the Murrys’ house—and, since the call can only have come from Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, the children agree to follow the supernatural guides on a quest across the universe to find their lost father. Through the process of tessering, they travel to several planets, some magnificently colorful, some dark and full of evil, and it will be up to Meg to find within herself the qualities it will take to defeat a powerful evil and bring her father back to earth.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this story for young adults, especially girls; It follows the archetypal quest pattern, while at the same time presenting an initiation story in which the quest becomes not only a search for a prize—in this case the father—but also the protagonist’s search for identity, a quest for self, defined in part by actually finding the father, one of the poles of her own identity. It’s the kind of mythic story that formed the core of the appeal of the original Star Wars or of The Lord of the Rings. L’Engle provides the atypical twist of making the protagonist a 13-year old girl, and replacing the traditional “wise old man” figure, the Obi-wan or Gandalf, with those celestial female guides, creating a story of female agency that becomes perhaps even timelier today than when it was originally published in 1962. In adapting it for the screen, African-American director Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) made Meg a mixed-race child, and cast Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which as a white American, and Asian American, and an African American respectively, giving the film a subtext of inclusiveness and contemporary social relevance.

In adapting the film to current sensibilities, and thus perhaps hoping to ride some of the success of the wave coming out of Hollywood created by the success of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Teribithia) have generally relegated the male characters in the film to passive roles, even though L’Engle had not done so. Pine has nothing to do except wallow about saying how sorry he is. And although the character of Calvin is given a tiny hint of a backstory, that subplot isn’t allowed to go anywhere, and he mainly just watches as Meg solves her problems, occasionally telling her how great she is. Of course, this is usually the role of the woman in most quest adventures, but that doesn’t make Calvin any more interesting as a character here.

The one male character with a significant part to play in this script is Meg’s six-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, whom I’m afraid I found to be a great annoyance in the film. At the risk of making myself unpopular for picking on a little kid, I have to say that young Mr. McCabre made me feel like I was watching a grade-school play, where the point is giving the youngster a little experience on stage, not in producing a realistic performance. It seemed that Charles Wallace was coached in making all the right gestures and having all the right vocal intonations, but came short of actually making any of them seem natural. Charles Wallace is such an important part of this story that miscasting his part is enough in itself to sink the production. Unfortunately, there is more. A whole lot more.

Oprah herself, somewhat surprisingly, is not much better in her role as Mrs. Which, the chief among the intergalactic women. She comes across as essentially emotionless, and when she does speak, it is always with a consciousness that the words she is speaking are VERY IMPORTANT and carry a GREAT DEAL OF WEIGHT and therefore must be pronounced as SLOWLY AND PONDEROUSLY AS IT IS POSSIBLE FOR A HUMAN BEING TO SPEAK. For that matter, that is the tone of the entire movie—in stark contrast to the light touch of L’Engel’s novel: Everything about the film seems intended to be heavy with significance, which translates into heavy-handed, and all of the characters move and speak as if supremely conscious of that intent. The only exceptions are Witherspoon, who has a kind of fey wackiness in her portrayal of Mrs. Whatsit, and Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Birdman), who manages to put some life and a bit of humor into a small role as the “Happy Medium.” Otherwise, no one ever cracks a smile. And neither does the audience. The heavy mood affects the pace of the film, which is so slow that you think the actors are never. Going. To finish. A sentence. The film is 109 minutes long, which seem like 190. You’ll be looking at your watch by the end, thinking you need a new battery. That’s if you’re not sleeping. Did anybody bother to edit this movie?

If they did, they cut out the wrong things. I say this because the film’s last half hour or so is a muddle since the writers, or perhaps the editors, have left out things from the book that would explain some of what’s going on. As in the book, the children end up on the evil planet Camazotz, which looks like something out of The Stepford Wives, in which children and mothers all act like automatons. The novel explains why this is, and why Meg’s father is being held prisoner on this planet. The film simply leaves you to wonder, and never tells you why dear old Dad is here at all. SPOILER ALERT: In fact, Dad and Calvin are left out completely in the climactic scene of the film, only to reappear later in a kind of “oh yeah, we made it too, thanks for asking” moment.

A lot of the $100 million plus budget of this film went into the special CGI effects, and some of them are quite lovely, especially scenes on the colorful, flowery first planet visited by the children. But some of the effects just don’t work very well. Mrs. Which, for example, is supposed to be gigantic in the early scenes, but it’s impossible to tell how big she really is—sometimes she looks like she’s just very tall, maybe a few feet taller than the others, and in some other scenes she appears to be King Kong. Some consistency in that area would be nice. Worse are the depictions of the evil being IT, which appears to be simply a mass of gnarled tree branches ($100 million for tree branches? Really?), or the wavy flashes of purple light that apparently glow around you when you are tessering—and sometimes people tesser for a long, long time, apparently so that we can admire the purple flashes for a bit longer. Because no one would think of editing that down to a nifty couple of seconds.

It’s been a long time since I turned to my wife after a movie and said “Boy, did that suck.” I did after seeing this one, and she did not disagree. I’m going to have to give this movie one Robert Southey. Sorry, Reese.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or 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.

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

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