Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews

My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!

ASF_D17_PI_04344.ARW

A Simple Favor

A Simple Favor

Paul Feig (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

I suspect that A Simple Favor is a movie you will either love or hate. It’s a movie that portrays some fairly awful crimes and behaviors in what you might call a “neo-noir” manner, but which is also unflaggingly humorous from beginning to end, a kind of black-humor crime story with a tone reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut or more recently Christopher Moore (especially in his latest novel Noir). At the same time, it smacks of Gone Girl, with its surprising twists and death-that-may-not-be-a-death plot. But then, it’s also just a film about two women who are not much alike but who bond as unlikely friends, in a way that maximizes the incongruity of their relationship, with a story not unlike that of director Paul Feig’s earlier Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock mash-up, The Heat.

Mostly, of course, the film plays on the current obsession with “true crime” so prevalent nowadays, particularly among women, and it’s that audience that the movie is chiefly aiming at. But that juxtaposition of horror and humor just might not be to everyone’s taste. I haven’t read the book so I can’t say whether the tone is the product of Darcey Bell’s original novel or of Jessica Sharzer’s adapted screenplay (Sharzer is best known as writer and producer for TV’s American Horror Story), but Feig certainly makes the best of it, as do his actors, particularly the two leads, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect)) and Blake Lively (The Town, TV’s Gossip Girl).

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a stay-at-home single mom (turns out she’s single because her husband and brother were both killed in a terrible car accident) with a mommy vlog through which she gives advice on crafts, cookies, and useful advice like “Secrets are like margarine: easy to spread, but bad for the heart.” Her son is Miles (Joshua Satine), and she volunteers for everything she can at his school, a tendency that makes her subject to ridicule by the other mothers, and generally gives off the vibe of being a goody-goody suburban mom who wears printed socks from Target, but she has a graduate degree in literature and can quote Chaucer off the cuff (frankly, her Middle English pronunciation isn’t that great, but I was glad to hear it in a popular movie in any case).

Lively, the “bad mom” whose son Nicky (Ian Ho) is in the same class as Miles, is Emily Nelson, a high-powered public relations executive for an important Manhattan fashion company, and dresses the part. She curses like a sailor whether the kids are around or not, drinks after-school martinis and complains about her husband Sean Townsend (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians), a writer who had a best-seller ten years ago but hasn’t written anything since, and teaches at a local college (he can quote Chaucer as well!), which is making it really hard for her to keep up the lifestyle she’s accustomed to, and to keep the zillion dollar house she lives in.

The two women get together one day when Miles and Nicky beg for a “play date” and Emily reluctantly agrees, so long as it occurs at her house and Stephanie will drink with her. So Stephanie comes over for martinis, sitting in the very fashionable living room in front of a gigantic painting of Emily’s vagina that serves as the focal point of the room. Emily is having a great time mocking Stephanie with her language, her morals, and her couldn’t-care-less-what-you-think attitude while Stephanie, who cares very much what everyone else thinks, is in awe of her. And to be honest, Emily’s unapologetic individualism is refreshingly liberating: “Baby,” she tells Stephanie (who like many women, is in the habit of saying “sorry” a lot), “if you apologize again, I’m going to have to slap the sorry out of you.”

Of course Stephanie, who clearly has never been one of the cool kids, seems to want to get Emily to like her (and to not think of her as an uptight prude), and while well into her cups reveals that she actually had sex with her brother after their father’s funeral. Yes, it goes there.

The “simple favor” of the title is Emily’s request that Stephanie pick Nicky up after school and take him home until his mother finishes the little job she has to do. But Emily never does show up to pick up her son. A worried Stephanie tries to find out where Emily has disappeared to, but gets no satisfaction from Sean, or from Emily’s fashion-designer employer Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend from TV’s Homeland), and she ends up announcing on her vlog that her best friend is missing and that she will try to find out what’s happened to her. Her vlog goes viral.

The rest of the film is dedicated to Stephanie’s quest to find the answers. The questions keep changing as the film takes one strange turn after another. Did Emily just run off? Was there foul play involved? Did the husband have something to do with it? Is Emily dead? Is Emily in fact still alive? I can’t tell you any of these things because they would be spoilers.

I can tell you this, though. Some people may fault the movie’s plot, particularly the ending which strains credulity to the point that you may suspect the film is a satire of mystery-thriller films with unforeseen plot twists. What you can’t fault is the acting. Kendrick and Lively are absolutely brilliant in their respective roles, and are brilliant together—the most believable thing about the film is their relationship. Some of the supporting players are worth noting as well: Friend is delightful as the narcissistic designer, delivering lines like “Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you’d know that.” Also impressive is the tongue-in-cheek comic lines from Detective Summerville (played with wry humor by Bashir Salahuddin (TV’s GLOW), who is investigating Emily’s disappearance. There is also a trio of “other parents,” played by Kelly McCormack, Andrew Rannells, and Aparna Nancherla, who provide a chorus-like commentary on the action of the too-perfect and the too-terrible mothers who become best friends in the course of the movie.

That Greek chorus function of the other school parents suggests one other aspect of the film which is not particularly noticeable but is almost certainly intended: this highly literate film, which has characters blithely quoting the Canterbury Tales as if it expects its audience to get the references, is also a film that deliberately employs the forms and techniques of Greek tragedy. The parents are, as other reviewers have noted, essentially a Greek chorus. Stephanie herself is an Oedipus-like character who has broken the sexual taboos involving close family members and whose own close family members, like Oedipus’s father, are killed on the road. Again like Oedipus, publicly announces her intention of solving the mystery at the core of the plot. As in classical Greek drama, that plot involves the use of perepetia—reversal—several times in the case of A Simple Favor. The resolution of the plot also involves (as in many of Euripedes’ plays) a deus ex machina, a surprise ending that seems to come out of nowhere. The only thing I wonder about is the anagnorisis, the tragic knowledge that is supposed to come from the experience of the tragedy, but perhaps the film’s ending, which shows us what the surviving characters are doing now, demonstrates that each character has learned something, and their lives have changed in some ways for the better because of the experience. As I say, I’m not quite sure of the reasons for these apparent allusions to Greek tragedy: perhaps they are there to make an ironic comment on the action (“this is really a spoof, folks, these characters aren’t of tragic stature”); or perhaps, as my awesome wife suggests, they are just there to provide a structure to these wild events.

In any case, there are a lot of clever things in the movie, and the actors are superb. I’m going to give it three Tennysons and then I’m going to go crazy and add a half a Shakespeare, if for no other reason than the Chaucer quotes.

COMING SOON!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Pre-Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Pre-Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

movies_puzzle

Puzzle

Puzzle

Marc Turtletaub (2018)

How does this sound? An unhappy, unfulfilled, and unappreciated middle-aged housewife finds a refuge and escape from her humdrum life by putting together jigsaw puzzles. So…in a summer that featured Tom Cruise hanging from helicopters, Chris Pratt rescuing dinosaurs gone wild, and Josh Brolin killing off half of all life in the galaxy, you might be thinking that watching a woman (and it’s not even Gal Gadot!) solving jigsaw puzzles would not exactly be scintillating drama.

But you might want to think again.

Marc Turtletaub, producer of such films as Little Miss Sunshine, Everything is Illuminated, and Safety Not Guaranteed, makes his directorial debut in this modest and quiet film, and has created a movie that’s not going to wow anybody with its special effects or action scenes, or the surprising twists of its plot, but that delivers a well-written and well-acted character study of people to care about rather than to fear for their lives. As a movie-goer, you do have to turn off your usual sensors and give some of your little-used empathetic skills a chance to work with Turtletaub’s creation.

The script, co-written by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (The Messenger), is an adaptation of Natalia Smirnoff’s screenplay for the Argentine film Rompecabezas.The story focuses on Agnes (Kelly Macdonald of No Country for Old Men and TV’s Boardwalk Empire), an overworked and underappreciated suburban Connecticut housewife who in the opening scene is bustling about, picking up after people at a house party, including a broken dish which she tries to put back together, discovering there is a missing piece. She’s told not to “spoil things” by searching for the piece, then is shown getting a cake ready, putting candles on it, and walking out with the candles lit, at which everyone sings happy birthday—to her.

The birthday event encapsulates Agnes’s life: Life revolves around her husband and two grown sons and her occasional church meetings. Her husband Louie is an auto mechanic (David Denman from Logan Lucky and TV’s The Office), who expects her to do everything around the house, including the cleaning and shopping, and to have his dinner on the table when he comes home—and to be satisfied with all this. Why shouldn’t she be? And no, the movie is not set in 1958.

Her younger son, Gabe (Austin Abrams of TV’s The Americans), is about to graduate from high school and is trying to write an essay for his college apps about why he wants to go to college. Gabe has a girlfriend Nicky (Liv Hewson from TV’s Ashley Piper), who is a vegan and a Buddhist, or at least is affecting to be so, and provides Gabe the opportunity to belittle his mother for her lack of knowledge about the world beyond the confines of her home.

Her other son, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler of TV’s The Good Fight), is the one who takes after Agnes. With grades that prevented him from obtaining a college scholarship, Ziggy has been bullied into taking a job he detests working in his father’s garage, though he secretly longs for another career.

Agnes, hammered into a kind of submissive blandness in the film’s opening scenes, receives two significant gifts on her birthday: one is a cell phone, a gift she is completely indifferent to, seeing no particular use for it. If she never leaves the house, why does she need a phone when she has one at home? What decade did you say this was again? The other gift is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that forms a map of the world. This she actually takes down one day and manages to put together in record time (noting, as she looks at it, where the city of Montréal is located—a place she’s always wanted to go).

Assembling the map of the world has the effect of opening the world up to Agnes. She calls the woman who sent her the gift to ask where she bought it, hoping to get another puzzle for herself now that she’s become interested in such things. She learns that she has to actually go into New York City to find the store. She hasn’t visited the city in many years, even though she lives in a suburb. But she takes the train in, finds the puzzle shop, buys two more large puzzles, and then is intrigued by a “partner wanted” sign, requested by a jigsaw puzzle “champion.”

Of course she follows up on this ad, and meets the champion puzzler at his home. His name is Robert (Irrfan Khan of Life of Pi), and he is in many ways Agnes’s polar opposite: He is wealthy and idle, having secured a patent that made him rich, a state that gives him plenty of time for puzzles. He previously won the national singles championships, and this year has entered the doubles, but his partner, his wife, has left him. He has no family and seemingly no obligations. He is often freaking out over news of disasters on TV, while Agnes never watches the news or pays any attention to world events. And while Agnes is a devout Roman Catholic, Robert believes that “Life’s just random.”

The relationship has plenty of time to develop over the course of several weeks of practice sessions during which Agnes visits Robert’s house every Monday and Wednesday. The two reveal a good deal about themselves as they get to know one another during these sessions, and Robert seems to understand Agnes far better than her husband or any of her family. This becomes clear in a scene in which he analyzes her attraction to puzzling, suggesting that her mind is quicker than those around her (something neither her husband or sons would ever guess or admit) and that her busy mind is quieted by the task of fitting the puzzle pieces into a pattern.

The story continues to develop from here, but probably not to a conclusion that you are likely to anticipate. By now, however, you are probably keenly aware of the metaphorical nature of the film’s title and its main activity of puzzling. Fitting the pieces of her life together is what Agnes’s journey is all about. The film even ultimately takes you back to the broken plate in the first scene, which Agnes tried to reassemble: When she finds he last piece, it is painful, literally and metaphorically.

The film is subtle, understated, and quiet. It relies on dialogue more than on action or CGI effects. As such it is something of an anomaly, especially in the summer months. But Macdonald turns in a winning performance, believably progressing from a downtrodden lump of clay at the beginning to an independent thinking force to be reckoned with by the end. Khan is fascinatingly attractive and enticing as the serpent figure in this modern Garden of Eden story, in which the paradise of Agnes’s home is a prison that is much better lost. As the unsuspecting Adam/Louie, Denman manages to come off as sympathetic in the end, a husband whose faults were the result of ignorance rather than malevolence.

Despite these fine performances, the film does have some flaws. In the first place, it is hard to reconcile Agnes’s home situation with contemporary American life: Her husband seems like a serious version of Ralph Kramden of the Honeymooners, and her own aversion to her new iPhone is something one might expect from a 90-year-old, but hardly from anyone younger. It’s quite possible that some of these things are the result of adapting an older Argentinian film, but still, if that is the case, the adaptation should have been smoother. There is also at least one glaring chronological error: Agnes and Robert are scheduled to meet on Monday and Wednesday, but in a climactic scene, she is shown at his house in a rendezvous that makes her late for an Easter Sunday celebration at her home. Nobody caught that?

Ultimately these flaws don’t sink the film, and it is still worth your time, especially to see MacDonald’s outstanding performance. Three Tennysons for this one.

COMING SOON!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Pre-Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Pre-Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

Search-movie

Searching

Searching

Aneesh Chaganty (2018)

Unless you are a teenager, the new cyber-thriller Searchingnow in wide-release (though you won’t find it in Conway) will be novel to you when you realize that the entire film is presented through the media of screen technology—mostly laptops but also cell phones, television screens, and surveillance cameras. If in fact you are a teenager, you may well have seen something like this before in the horror films Unfriended(2014) and Unfriended: Dark Web(2018), which have used a similar laptop-based shooting format. Those films, as well as Searchingitself, were produced by the Russian-Kazakh producer Timur Bekmambetov, who has said that he is planning a series of more than twenty computer-screen movies in the fashion of Unfriendedthat he claims will reflect “a new reality.” Personally, I was engaged by the novelty of a conventional film unfolding as if it were on a computer screen—a kind of reversal of the current trend in everyday life which allows us to watch a film originally made for the big screen on our own home computers. But I’m pretty sure the novelty will wear off long before I’ve seen twenty such productions. I’m thinking maybe more like two.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t go see this one. Searchingis truly a tour de force. Partly I’m fascinated by the process that first-time director Aneesh Chaganty went through to bring this to the screen. Chaganty’s story is a kind of contemporary Horatio Alger narrative, with an Indian-American hero. Chaganty was a recent graduate of the USC film school when his short film Seeds, a commercial he had shot using Google Glass software, reached more than a million views within 24 hours of its posting. Chaganty was ultimately offered a job in the Google Creative Lab when Google management became aware of Seeds’ phenomenal success. His initial idea for Searchingwas to make it a short film of about eight minutes or so, but the Hollywood film folks he pitched it to convinced him to rethink it as a full-length feature film. This led Chaganty to leave his well-paid dream job at Google in 2015 and spend two years with four other film-school grads and a couple of IMacs putting together a radical new kind of film. The first signs of success were the positive reviews and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize that Searchingreceived at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The movie has continued to pick up audience support and critical acclaim in the two weeks since its wide release.

While the way in which the story is told is fascinating and innovative, the story itself, as written by Chaganty and fellow USC film graduate Sev Ohanian, is not especially original, though it does contain some twists and turns that will surprise you. It begins with the introduction of a widowed single father, David Kim (John Cho of Star Trek), who is a fairly well off Silicon Valley engineer, and his sixteen-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La in her first film). We get a montage of computer files showing the history of Michele and her mother, Pamela Nam Kim (Sara Sohn of Furious 7), who encouraged Michele in her piano study but who has some three years past succumbed to cancer.

The night on which the film’s plot kicks in Michele tells her father via face time that she has gone to a study session for an upcoming biology final and that she may be gone quite late. When the next morning David finds she apparently has not returned home at all, he begins to worry, and when he cannot contact her by phone or online, he realizes that he needs to report her to the police as a missing person. The investigating police officer, Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing of TV’s Will and Grace) is sympathetic—she has a teenaged son of her own—and tells David that he can help with the investigation if he can give the police the names of all Michelle’s friends and schoolmates. At that point David realizes he really does not know the names of any of Michelle’s friends or how to contact them, and he does the 21stcentury equivalent of looking into her private diary: he breaks into her laptop and begins to search all of her files, e-mails, and social media sites.

This is the point at which the double-meaning of the film’s title becomes apparent: not only are her father and the police both “searching” for Michelle, but the computer is doing its usual “searching” of the internet with each new search David performs. And as he delves deeper and deeper into Michelle’s private life, David finds what virtually any parent of a teenaged child is likely to find: that there are a whole lot of secrets there. “I didn’t know my daughter,” David laments at one point. It’s a lament that could be a large chorus joined by the parents in the audience. But when Detective Vick tells him, more than once, that these kinds of cases are never the parents’ fault, I think that we, along with David, tend to doubt her words. It’s hard to exonerate David completely in this affair.

Somewhere in the midst of his online searching, it becomes clear that Michelle has been depressed and isolated since her mother’s death, and that David has been unable or unwilling to talk about that loss with her. This is the point at which the film’s unusual narrative technique becomes a metaphor for David’s actual relationship with his daughter. She is always on the other end of a text message, a facetime video, an e-mail. When in one video, he is captured actually talking to Michelle in person, he is awkward, barely communicative. David has built a wall around himself through his gadgetry, and has little or no human contact with Michelle. If she has run away, is it really such a surprise?

Chaganty takes us around a number of twists and turns, and the ending does come as a bit of a surprise, though there are certainly clues enough throughout the film that make that end appropriate. Cho is believable as a concerned, at times panicked parent, going through all the highs and lows such an experience is likely to evoke. Messing is solid and believable as detective Vick. The actors have a particular and unusual challenge in this film, turning in essentially performances of the sort posted on Facebook or You tube. These two principals end up meeting the challenge admirably

On the negative side, the film does seem a little gimmicky at times, as if, having set for themselves certain ground rules, the filmmakers occasionally had to go to great lengths to ensure that those rules were not broken, no matter where the action was taking place. Sometimes we admire their cleverness in solving the problem, but at the same time might wish for a more traditional delivery of certain scenes. Another negative is Michelle: because she is almost never seen in real time, we know her only through bits and pieces of digital memory and what others say about her. Of course, in that we are in the same position as her father, who like us is trying to find out the truth of who she was. I’m not sure at the end whether we know her very well.

On the positive side, though, the film is taut and tense, the delivery clever, the main performances sound, and in a side note it’s the first major Hollywood thriller with an Asian in the lead role (more impressively, this is a fact no one in the film comments upon)—coming, interestingly enough, a week after the groundbreaking Asian rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. Furthermore, the movie raises a number of disturbing questions about teens and the internet. Do we know what they are involved in online? Are there dangers to them from stalkers with false identities? Do we leave so much of ourselves in digital footprints that nothing we do is private? Do we use the internet to keep from truly interacting with others on a personal level? All of these questions emerge, but not in any sort of preachy way in what is an intense and entertaining movie. Three Tennysons for this one.

COMING SOON!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Pre-Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Pre-Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

crazy-rich-asians

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians

Jon M. Chu (2018)

It’s a phenomenon worth remarking upon, as movie critics nationwide have already done, that Crazy Rich Asians, the box office champion for two straight weeks, is not a blockbuster superhero or action film but is, in fact, the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. This is certainly a remarkable and surprising development, and one that has not been lost on Chinese-Americans, who reportedly see the movie as “empowering,” no less than African Americans saw Black Panther’s Wakanda as the Promised Land. At this point in history it’s a shame to have to say so, but there is no denying that this is a significant step in Hollywood’s social development. Who knew there were talented Asian actors out there somewhere? Who knew you could make a movie about Asians falling in love just like other people?

Okay, so I’m being just a little bit sarcastic, but it’s been within my lifetime that Hollywood decided Yul Brynner should play a Siamese king and Marlon Brando a Japanese houseboy—and that Mickey Rooney should give perhaps the most racist portrayal ever caught on film of an Asian neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But then, admittedly, I am pretty old.

Speaking of Audrey Hepburn reminds me that there is yet another significant aspect to this new box-office champ: It’s the first highly successful Hollywood-produced romantic comedy in ages. Last year’s The Big Sick, a popular and critical success in no small degree, was an independent film (which, coincidentally, also featured Asians in significant comic roles). Where are the When Harry Met Sally’s and the Sleepless in Seattle’s of the 2010’s? Where, for that matter, the It Happened One Night’s and the Bringing Up Baby’s? Romantic comedies, for decades the bread and butter of the American film industry, are few and far between these days. The last really successful Hollywood rom-com that I can recall is 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, which had the detail of the main characters’ bipolar issues to give it a unique twist. Crazy Rich Asians is actually a return to the more traditional rom-com formula—except, I guess, with Asians as the twist.

Just why Hollywood has all but given up on the rom-com genre is a complex question with, I am sure, highly complex answers. But since the bottom line governs all in the industry, it must be surmised that they have not found the genre lucrative. In part this may be because the typical audience for such films, assumed to be adult women, perhaps of middle age, just don’t go to the movies as much as they used to. This explains a film like this year’s Book Club, which featured four quite mature women still interested in a love life. That movie found an audience, but to tell the truth was really not very well written. It’s as if Hollywood can’t remember how to make such films any more, so when they do produce a badly-done rom com and it isn’t successful, they assume it’s the genre’s fault, not the writing or directing or acting. But the success of the remarkably well-written Big Sick proves that thinking wrong. And the surprising success of Crazy Rich Asians should be a good excuse to revitalize what has always been a very viable Hollywood genre.

The plot of the current film, based onKevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel of the same name,follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu of TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) who is a young professor of economics at New York University as she accepts an invitation from her boyfriend (do they still call them that?) to accompany him to his best friend’s wedding back home in Singapore. The boyfriend is Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding), who unbeknownst to Rachel happens to be the son and “crown prince” of the most outrageously wealthy Chinese family in Singapore.

Rachel may not know who Nick is, but others certainly do, and as the couple sit in a New York diner, they are recognized by a pair of Chinese American millennials and before you can blink twice, their picture is all over social media and friends of friends of friends have been contacted all over the globe, and the news even ends up in the feed of Nick’s redoubtable mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh of CrouchingTiger, Hidden Dragon). Mom takes an immediate dim view of this upstart American nobody trying to sink her claws into the family’s golden boy, and is prepared to be as unwelcoming as possible when Rachel arrives.

Rachel gets a hint of her boyfriend’s actual wealth when she gets super-first-class treatment (a private bedroom on an airplane?) on the flight overseas. “Your family is, like, rich?” she asks him at this point. Duh. “We’re…comfortable…” he says ingenuously, which is of course exactly what he would say if he were Bill Gates’ son, or one of the Arkansas Waltons.

Since the warm-hearted Eleanor has told Nick that the house is being redone so there’s no room for Rachel to stay there,Rachel and Nick stay in a hotel. Meanwhile, Rachel reconnects with a college friend of hers who also lives in Singapore. This friend Peik Lin (played with comic abandon by Awkwafina, most recently seen in Ocean’s Eight) and her a nouveau-riche manic family, headed by a most manic Ken Jeong (TheHangover), clue Rachel in on just who it is she is dating—after they’ve picked their jaws up off the floor.

The film is essentially a Cinderella fairy tale story, with Peik Lin acting the part of the fairy godmother, who finds Rachel’s clothes for her to make sure she doesn’t look like a pumpkin when she goes to the ball, or the party at the Young family mansion and museum. And there are certainly wicked stepsisters in the form of Singapore socialites connected to the Young family for whom Nick is the Holy Grail of eligible bachelors, and who make it quite clear that they’d like Rachel gone. Most formidable, though, is Eleanor, who fills the role of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and insists that Rachel is “not enough” for her son.

I won’t give away more of the plot, but you can probably guess how it’s going to turn out. It’s a rom-com, after all. Director Jon M. Chu (mainly known for directing Justin Bieber movies) does raise some interesting social issues, though: Eleanor is not simply a motivelessly wicked stepmother. Her problem with Rachel is that she, as the American-born child of a single mother who had to work hard to achieve the distinction of being the youngest professor at NYU, is more concerned with pursuing her own individual happiness than sacrificing for the sake of the family—the traditional Chinese way. At least that’s what Eleanor says. It often seems as if she is just using that as an excuse for being a snob.

Wu is charming and sympathetic as Rachel. Golding comes off a bit bland as Nick. Eleanor is the deepest and most dynamic character in the film, and Yeoh is memorable in the role Awkwafina is a standout in the “supportive friend” role, as is Nico Santos, who plays Nick’s gay cousin, “the rainbow sheep of the family.” The most sympathetic of all Nick’s family is the glamorous Astrid (Gemma Chan of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), whose story forms a kind of parallel to Nick and Rachel’s since her own marriage to a “commoner” is failing.

One thing that did bother me about the movie was the nearly obscene depiction of conspicuous consumption. I suppose it’s there to show how Rachel might be tempted to go after Nick for his money and give up her own values. But the film does seem to present this wealth and its excesses as something one might consider as a perfectly desirable and legitimate way of life for its own sake, one that Rachel never actually rejects. And that seemed problematic to me.

In the end, Crazy Rich Asians is not It Happened One Night. It’s not When Harry Met Sally either. It isn’t even The Big Sick. But it’s a serviceable and entertaining romantic comedy that at times even makes you think a little. Three Tennysons for this one.

COMING SOON!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Pre-Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Pre-Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

1525136254_first-look-at-adam-driver-in-spike-lees-blackkklansman

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

On one level, Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansmanis a buddy-cop movie, in the vein of Tango and Cash or, in its evocation of the world of the ’70s, Freebie and the Bean, although the teaming up of a black and a white officer might call to mind 48 Hours or the immensely popular Lethal Weapon series. Like other films in this genre, the plot forces two people from very different backgrounds to work together to solve a crime or to investigate suspected criminals. The two officers are contrasted often in terms of rookie vs. veteran, by-the-book vs. seat of the pants or wildly unconventional, and/or often come from different ethnic groups. Typically they also learn something from one another and develop some sort of grudging mutual respect in the process. BlacKkKlansman, which features, from TV’s Ballers, John David Washington (son of Denzel. No pressure there) as Ron Stallworth, the rookie cop, and Adam Driver (Silence, StarWars: The Last Jedi) as veteran cop Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, hits every one of these defining points.

But the buddy film plot is only a convenient structure on which Lee hangs a number of other concerns. In the first place, Lee uses the medium of film to explore—and to censure—the role that film and other popular media have played in perpetuating black stereotypes and, to their deeper shame, normalizing racist or white supremacist attitudes by romanticizing them. Lee’s film actually opens with the immensely powerful scene from Gone With the Wind, Hollywood’s biggest ever blockbuster, showing Scarlett O’Hara among thousands of wounded southern soldiers as the camera pans out in a long crane shot to show the entire railway station grounds spread out beneath a tattered Confederate flag still bravely waving in the breeze. Our rebel boys may be losing, but their cause was just! It was about states’ rights, not slavery! Ashley Wilkes would have freed his slaves eventually anyway! The nostalgia for that way of life, now gone with the wind, is merely a dressed-up nostalgia for white supremacy.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the next scene in this prelude that frames the main action of the film is a polemical parody of a ranting white supremacist called by the fictional name of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) putting together a far less polished propaganda film using black and white news footage from the 1960s (indicating when the film is supposedly being made). Beauregard’s voiceover rants about the evils of integration and miscegenation and the “mongrel nation” the United States is becoming, blaming the miscarriage of justice ushered in by the “Jewish-puppets on the Supreme Court” and their damnable decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education. The juxtaposition of these two film clips suggests a clear connection between the romanticizing of these racist ideas in the mainstream media, and the survival of those ideas at their most dangerous in peripheral media like the Beauregard propaganda film, and other more contemporary outlets in newer media.

This critical assessment of the media continues throughout the film, first in another, more serious political speech, this time by Kwame Ture, a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins of Straight Outta Compton), former Black Panther activist who remembers his boyhood obsession with films of Tarzan, king of the jungle, and confesses how he rooted for Tarzan to kill the black Africans that got in his way. Ture further criticizes media-created standards of beauty, which privilege typical white features to the detriment of African-American noses, lips and hair. “Black is beautiful” is Ture’s rival message.

In a somewhat lighter scene, Stallworth and girlfriend Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier of Spiderman:Homecoming), take a nature stroll while they discuss, over the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” current films with black protagonists: Shaft vs. Superfly, Cleopatra Jones vs. Coffy. Patrice’s voluminous Afro seems to channel Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra, while with his pointy-shirt-collared leisure suits and his own impressive Afro Stallworth looks like he could have stepped straight off the set of Shaft. Stallworth argues that some of these films depict positive images of blacks in law enforcement, but Patrice, who thinks all cops are “pigs,” calls these depictions “blaxploitation fantasy.”

The climax of these Hollywood critiques occurs at a private banquet featuring David Duke—played, in a brilliant piece of casting, by Topher Grace of That Seventies Show, here portraying with chilling aplomb a different kind of ’70s figure. Duke, head of the KKK, is in town to initiate new members, and he presides over a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The 1915 silent feature was Hollywood’s first huge blockbuster and held all box office records for 24 years—until finally surpassed by Gone With the Wind. Griffith’s film, a technical masterpiece that set the standard for cinematic form for a generation, was a glorification of the most vicious kind of racism that romanticized the Ku Klux Klan and had the result of reinvigorating Klan membership nationwide and, as Lee argues, provoking violence against African Americans as the natural result.

As a framework to all of this, there is of course a plot in this film, based on the real Stallworth’s 2014 book Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime. A number of separate incidents in the book have been put together to make a single narrative for the film, that goes like this: Stallworth applies to become the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. At first, he is stuck in the evidence room, but he longs to work undercover. He gets his chance when the local college’s Black Student Union brings in Ture as a guest speaker, and the local police decide to infiltrate the rally in case Kure incites the crowd. Stallworth wears a wire and is monitored by Zimmerman, who proves to be an unexpected ally when the two of them report to the chief that Kure’s words were “just rhetoric” and not intended to incite the crowd to violence. But at the rally, Stallworth has met Patrice, president of the Black Student organization, and, without telling her he is a police officer, begins a relationship with her.

Back at the station, Stallworth notices an advertisement in the local paper recruiting members for the local branch of the KKK. He calls the number, poses as a white racist, and is invited to come and get acquainted with the group. Since he can hardly go himself, he enlists Zimmerman to pose as “Ron” and infiltrate the group, wearing a wire at all times. While the real Ron communicates by phone with the local leaders and with David Duke himself—asking why his membership card has been delayed—events ensue that put Zimmerman into some difficult situations but that also allow the police to uncover specific acts of planned violence.

More would probably be spoiler territory, but let me just say that the plot itself follows a fairly typical buddy-cop scenario. But in addition to its frank examination (and indictment) of the media and Hollywood in particular, the film has other things to recommend it. Driver, as a secular Jewish cop who has never given much thought to his ethnic heritage, but who is forced to confront it when faced with the vicious antisemitism of his KKK associates, has never been better. A scene in which Harry Belafonte, as the elderly Mr. Turner, describes the brutal murder of a friend in 1916 in scenes intercut with that screening of Birth of a Nation, is a masterpiece of editing. While I thought that the relationship and political differences between Ron and Patrice were underdeveloped and could have been better utilized, the film as a whole was particularly effective. In case we haven’t gotten the message, Lee’s concluding scenes return to a frame of media images, this time contemporary images of the white supremicists’ Charlottesville rally and President Trump’s defense of their actions—an indictment of an American society that, 40 years after the events of this film, has allowed those same racist attitudes to re-emerge more powerful than ever.

This may not be Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X, but it’s probably Lee’s best film since. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare 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

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

christopher-robin-trailer

Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin

Marc Foster (2018)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

If you go to see Disney’s live-action Christopher Robin, you’ll see some interesting “coming attractions,” one of which is for the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel 55 years in the making, that looks quite promising with the practically perfect Emily Blunt in the lead and Broadway’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind the juggernaut that is Hamilton, in the equivalent of a Dick Van Dyke type role. The odds are pretty good that that film, like its original, will stress the theme of rejecting the daily grind of striving for more in favor of the childlike appreciation for simple joys, for taking time to smell the flowers and such like. This is also the theme of Christopher Robin, whose title character used to cavort about in the Hundred Acre Wood with Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore, but has now grown up and forgotten everything that once made him happy. He’s become a kind of Mr. Banks and, like Banks, needs to reconnect with those things that make life worth living. It’s not a bad theme, I suppose, but you’d probably do better to watch the original Mary Poppins on Netflix or Hulu, or perhaps take your chances on the sequel when it comes out at Christmas. You might be disappointed in the current fare.

Another coming attraction you’ll see at this movie is for Disney’s new live-action Dumbo, the next big reimagining of a favorite animated classic. What with the significant advances in CGI effects, some of those crazy cartoon incidents, like flying elephants, can now be turned into live-action scenes, giving more of a sense of realism to the fantasy of animation. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing, but it seems to have worked pretty well with The Jungle Book. Beauty and the Beast, however, suffered in the translation, to my way of thinking, losing much of its magic in the conversion to flesh-and-blood Beauty, Beast, and household appliances. How Dumbowill fare remains to be seen, but in the case of Winnie the Pooh, I think it can be said that just because you can turn an animated movie into live action doesn’t mean you always should.

When the animated bear and tiger and donkey turn into actual stuffed animals that get dragged around through the woods and the water and get their paws and feet dipped in sticky honey, it’s really more disturbing than cute, because you’re not really going to have your kid play with a honey-drenched stuffed bear, are you? Really? And there’s no magical phenomenon going on in the Pooh stories that can be better presented through CGI than through animation. It’s just the quiet interactions of a kid and his toys. I have a feeling that if Disney decided to turn Toy Story into a live action feature, it would just be creepy, not enchanting.

Speaking of the quiet interaction of a kid and his toys, I will admit that, in the furor and noise of the summer action blockbuster season, a small, quiet movie that has nothing to do with saving the world from destruction or from evil or from bombs or from intergalactic villains can be a refreshing change of pace, and the quiet humor of the original Winnie the Pooh films can be a kind of haven against the encroaching sound and fury of the rest of the world. I remembered, sitting in the audience of this film, taking my daughter to Disney’s first Winnie the Pooh film forty years ago, the first movie I took her to as a special entertainment while her mother stayed home with her new baby brother. It delighted the 3-year-old’s imagination in a way I don’t think the current live-action film would be able to duplicate. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to reveal that I fell asleep in the film, finding little to delight or excite me in the “real-world” relationships portrayed.

The story of Christopher Robin begins with a prologue in which the young Christopher (a strangely emotionless Orton O’Brien) solemnly has a last adventure with all of his childhood animal friends before he is packed off to a solemn boarding school on his way to a solemn adulthood. As he enters adolescence, his father apparently dies, and eventually he marries Evelyn (Hayley Atwell from The Duchess and Captain America: The First Avenger), the love of his life, and has a daughter with her, Madeline (ultimately played by a charming Bronte Carmichael from Darkest Hour). Christopher fights in the second World War with the rest of Britain, and comes home to Evelyn and Madeline.

That is all exposition and is shown us in quick vignettes before the main action of the film begins. This is set in post-war Britain, and the adult Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is employed in middle management at the Winslow Luggage company in London, which is losing money daily because, what with the shortages in post-war Britain, nobody can afford to take vacations any more. As a result, Christopher is in a constant state of anxiety and works long hours trying to cut costs and increase profits in the business. Of course, he neglects his marriage and his daughter, and when he does pay any attention to Madeline, reading her a bedtime story, he ignores her request for an actual story and reads to her from a school text on Victorian society. No frippery for her!

Even when the family has planned to take a short holiday in the country, Christopher is forced to cancel because his overbearing boss Giles (Mark Gatiss, Mycroft of television’s Sherlock) insists that Christopher work all weekend to decide which twenty employees to let go, or to find an alternative solution to the company’s financial woes. Wife and daughter go off without him, and it is into the midst of this morose state of affairs that Christopher’s old chum Winnie the Pooh drops—awakened from his long hibernation in Christopher’s imagination, apparently, by Madeline’s finding one of his old drawings and asking him about them. Pooh, who has awakened in the Hundred Acre Wood and failed to find any of his old friends there, has come to get Christopher Robin to help him find them (they are, like Pooh, apparently dormant in Christopher’s imagination, and Christopher’s return to the wood is a psychological return. That’s for the adults in the audience. For the kids, it’s just regular magic).

I can’t say any more about the plot, since anything further might be considered a “spoiler,” but the truth is I probably don’t have to, since you can likely see where this is all leading. Believe me, there are no surprises. Unless I slept through them. We might have expected a little less cliché of a script from writers Alex Ross Perry (Nostalgia), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures)—based on a story by Mark Steven Johnson (Grumpy Old Men) and Greg Brooker (Stuart Little)—but then, this could simply be a case of too many cooks. And the solemn, brooding tone of the film, which seems so inappropriate for a movie probably intended for children like my 3-year old daughter (or maybe her 4-year-old twins), may be the result of Marc Forster’s direction, whose films (Monster’s Ball,Quantum of Solace, World War Z), are not known for their light and airy touch.

Sure, McGregor is fine in his role, and shows a believable arc moving from dull workaholic to delighted friend of talking animals. And Carmichael is quite watchable as the constricted heir of Christopher’s imagination but they don’t really save the film. The voices, particularly of Jim Cummings as Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, and Brad Garrett as Eeyore, are often quite entertaining as well, and there are even moments of high humor, as when Christopher, in response to Pooh’s explanation of how he got to London, says “That’s a silly explanation,” and Pooh answers, “Why, thank you!”

But in the end, the film does not deliver on its promise. It needs more joy and less funk. It needs less live action and more animation. I’m giving this one two Jacqueline Susanns.

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

shdm-curtain

The Spy Who Dumped Me

The Spy Who Dumped Me

Susanna Fogel (2018)

Whether it was planned or not, the opening of director Susanna Fogel’s new comedy/spy-thriller The Spy Who Dumped Me just one week following the opening of the latest Mission: Impossible flick seems like a brilliant marketing move. One week you thrill to the nonstop action and kicks of the traditional spy-thriller, and the following week you go to see a parody of the genre that makes you see, and laugh at, the holes that have always existed in the men-only macho club that spy films have always been, dating back to the beginning of the Bond era in 1961. The title’s allusion to the classic 1977 Roger Moore Bond classic The Spy Who Loved Me seems to trumpet the film’s intent, 41 years later, to undercut the patriarchy’s stranglehold on the genre. But Fogel’s script, cowritten with David Iserson (best known as a Saturday Night Live writer), does little to send up the genre itself, pairing Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon as comically amateur secret agents. Mainly it makes them look out of place and overmatched in this mysterious and dangerous world. In this sense Paul Feig’s 2015 Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy did a better job of putting a woman—albeit one who also had a pretty steep learning curve—into the driver’s seat of that Aston Martin DB5.

The hybrid nature of the movie causes some problems, as the two genres don’t always mesh well, as if the film doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. There are times, for instance when the violence becomes intense but still seems as if it’s being played for laughs, as when a cab driver on meth tries to drive the two women away from their deadly pursuers: The ensuing violence was supposed to be funny, as far as I could tell, but it wasn’t, since we had been amused by, and were therefore sympathetic with, the cabbie’s character. On the other hand, why is it simply assumed that any joke about diarrhea must be funny? It’s not.

There is, however, plenty in this movie that is funny. Some of it is pure slapstick, like McKinnon’s forced trapeze act late in the film. Some is sheer absurdity, like the scene in which the fleeing Kunis and McKinnon try to escape their pursuers by confiscating an older couple’s car, which it turns out has a stick shift that neither knows what to do with, and which they end up driving very slowly into a newsstand. And some involves verbal wit and plays on words, a la Groucho Marx, as in the scene in which a slimy and pretentious host who seems to be hitting on McKinnon asks her “Are you a lover of Balzac?” and she answers, “Less and less with every experience.”

The plot begins in a neighborhood bar at a birthday party for Audrey (Kunis), which is being thrown for her by Morgan (McKinnon). Audrey isn’t having a particularly good time because, as you might have guessed, her boyfriend, an NPR podcaster named Drew, has just dumped her—and in a text message no less, adding insult to injury. What a sleaze-ball, right?

We also see Drew (Justin Theroux of Star Wars: The Last Jedi), dashing across an unpleasant- looking neighborhood of Vilnius, Lithuania, dodging bullets and killing anybody who gets in his way. Turns out he’s actually in the CIA. This might explain why he hasn’t been answering her texts.

At her birthday party, though. Morgan has convinced Audrey that she needs to stop brooding over this guy and that they need to burn everything the loser has left back in her apartment—including his second-place fantasy football league trophy. This text message somehow gets Drew’s immediate attention.

Turns out there’s something really important in that trophy, something that many people are ready, willing and eager to kill over. What it is doesn’t really matter—this is a McGuffin in the classic Hitchcockian sense: basically a device that is simply used to trigger the plot and has little or no importance of its own. But Drew returns in order to save his second-place trophy from the bonfire of the vanities (why if he’d left something so important with Audrey would he have broken up with her so cavalierly, you may well ask. But more on that later). Unfortunately, Drew brings a lot of baggage with him in the form of people wanting to kill him. So he’s shot and killed almost immediately after showing back up in Audrey’s place, and with his dying breath he entrusts to her his precious second-place trophy, telling her she needs to bring it to a certain restaurant in Vienna where apparently thousands of innocent lives depend on her being able to deliver it to Drew’s contact, Vern. “Trust no one!” he tells her with his last gasp.

And so Audrey and Morgan are off for Vienna, on the run from a variety of pursuers, including CIA agents Sebastian (Sam Heughan of TV’s Outlander)—who may or may not be Drew’s contact—and his pretentious partner Duffer (Hasan Minhaj of TV’s The Daily Show)—who has a tough time getting through a conversation without mentioning his time at Harvard. More scary is Nadedja (Ukrainian actress Ivanna Sakhno of Pacific Rim: Uprising), a former Olympic gymnast turned fashion model/assassin, who comes after them like some Terminator-style robot of destruction, but one whose monomaniacally lethal quest is nearly derailed by the way Audrey and Morgan reveal one another’s most intimate secrets as only best friends can. Less successful is the inclusion of Gillian Anderson in the cast, promoted from the X-Files to a managerial post in the CIA. She has almost nothing to do other than look bemusedly at McKinnon, which seems a waste of her talents.

As in the typical Bond-Bourne-Ethan Hunt film, the two fledgling spies continue to run, chase, and kill through a plethora of exotic European venues—Berlin, Paris, and in a clever twist, Prague, site of the first Mission: Impossible film, to which it alludes with a noteworthy aerial shot of the Charles Bridge, site of the first major plot twist of that franchise-launching movie. But the film’s greatest weakness is the fact that all these different venues are essentially just backdrops for discrete scenes that play like Saturday Night Live skits intent on maximizing the laughs within the set piece itself, but unconcerned with connecting coherently with the rest of the scenes. And like Saturday Night Live itself, the writers seem to be determined to fill the time slot (in two hours here instead of SNL’s 90 minutes), and so they just keep filling in with more set pieces even when all their best jokes are spent. The film is overlong and the plot is disconnected. As set pieces, the scenes work fine. As a coherent story, the film falls short.

There have been terrific comedies that had incoherent plots. The Marx Brothers come to mind, particularly the classic Duck Soup, which is no more than vaguely-connected set pieces. But of course you were watching the Marx Brothers. McKinnon and Kunis may not be in that category, at least not yet, but their performances, especially the frenetic McKinnon’s, are the strongest part of the movie, and in the end they do manage to prove that women can be just as competent as men in the spy business. Just think what they could have done with a better script. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson 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

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

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.

 

Tennysons

This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.

 

1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.