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!

firstman

First Man

First Man

Damien Chazelle (2018)

So the last time that director Damien Chazelle and lead actor Ryan Gosling got together they gave us La La Land, an interesting and imaginative new take on the Hollywood musical that was entertaining though hardly deserving of all the critical hype it engendered. Their newest effort, the story of Neil Armstrong, first man to set foot on the moon, is a horse of a different color. On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film gets an 88 percent approval rating from critics, but only a 62 percent rating from audience members. I’m always interested in such discrepancies, but it isn’t difficult to guess the source of the negative audience reactions.

When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, it was first reported that the iconic image of Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s planting the American flag on the lunar surface was not recreated in the film, and this immediately set off a political controversy that had certain elements of the moviegoing public up in arms. Thus a good number of the negative reviews by “audience members” were posted by people who had not seen the film and were boycotting it and deeming it anti-American because it failed to include the scene. The fact that Gosling is a Canadian was even given as a reason for the scene’s omission, although of course he was not the director, writer or editor of the film. Buzz Aldrin himself expressed his displeasure with the omission, and Armstrong’s family, who actually had seen the film, was unhappy about it, though they did release a statement saying “We do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest. Quite the opposite.”

The family is, of course, correct. And the flag is clearly seen in several shots of the lunar surface. It’s just the actual planting of it that is not there. And most people actually watching the entire film will understand that the film’s focus on Armstrong’s inner emotional turmoil in those moments would have made that scene aesthetically a distraction at the time.

But there are also knocks on the film from the other direction. The New Yorker review said the film was “worthy of enduring as a right-wing fetish object.” From beginning to end there is no doubt that the United States is in a space race with the Soviet Union, and that the USSR is leading the race for the majority of the ’60s. The sole purpose of NASA is to beat the Soviets to the moon, thereby demonstrating the superior will, ingenuity, political system and moral fiber of Americans. After one American success, an astronaut at mission control shouts out “Call the Soviets—tell them to go fuck themselves!” That flag flies on the moon in the end, and as the news of the moon landing is trumpeted around the world, a French woman in a TV interview proclaims that she never doubted the Americans’ success: “I knew they wouldn’t fail.” Thus some moviegoers, particularly foreign ones, have viewed the film as a Trumpesque “America first” propaganda vehicle.

But it is hardly that. If it were, Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy of television’s The Crown) would probably not have a scene in which she scolds NASA personnel, telling them that they don’t know what they are doing, and that they are nothing but boys playing with balsa wood. And the movie would, like Armstrong himself, completely ignore the changes in society that are taking place in the 1960s—advocates for civil rights and protestors against the Vietnam War, who tend to see the billions of tax dollars spent on the space race as money that could be better spent elsewhere are portrayed in news clips in the film, but essentially ignored by the astronauts. When Armstrong is asked in a news conference why the space program is worth the money, he doesn’t mention the myriad technological advances that it ultimately inspired; rather his answer is detached and cerebral, satisfying to his own mind but probably not to those protestors that nobody in NASA is listening to outside the door. Chazelle does not seem to have any particular axe to grind here—he does not present the protestors as naïve or insincere—he simply seems to be presenting the divided aspects of American life in 1969.

But there is a third and more legitimate complaint that appears in several of the negative audience reviews for the film, and that is that Armstrong himself is not a sympathetic hero, because Gosling portrays him as impenetrably detached, so emotionally enigmatic that viewers found him difficult or impossible to relate to. And there is certainly something to this complaint.

One wonders why it took nearly 50 years for Hollywood to make a film about what many people have regarded as the single most impressive accomplishment of human endeavor and ingenuity. Of course, unlike some of humankind’s other achievements—exciting discoveries, scientific achievements, physical or artistic accomplishments—which were the achievements of a single person, the moon landing was the culmination of well over a decade of concerted effort by a large team of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, pilots, and others. You need drama for a film, and a single hero gives you that kind of drama. And the single hero here had to be the one man who finally first stepped on the moon. And that man was an extremely private, extremely reserved individual who is extremely difficult to dramatize.

It is 13 years since the publication of James R. Hansen’s authorized biography of Armstrong, and it is six years since Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82. And finally, with a script by Josh Singer (who wrote Spotlight and The Post) that turns Armstrong’s stoicism into a major plot point, the film was made. As his story develops, Armstrong’s cool unflappability serves him well from the beginning of the film, when he is shown dealing with a crisis while piloting an X-15 to extreme heights, bouncing off the atmosphere, and nearly crashing with the plane, through his flight on Gemini 8 when his craft goes into a deathly spin after a docking maneuver in space, to his ability to pilot the Eagle lunar landing vehicle through a scary ride to the lunar surface. His unemotional response when he is informed by flight crew director Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler of Manchester by the Sea) that he’s been tapped to pilot the moon landing mission is almost comic.

But while his detached demeanor proves an advantage in his professional career, the film depicts Armstrong’s lack of emotion as a truly significant barrier in the most important relationships of his life. Early in the film, his 2-year-old daughter Karen dies of a brain tumor. It is a devastating loss but one that Armstrong is unable to grieve in any healthy way. It’s one of many things he keeps walled up inside, and one of his wife Jan’s great frustrations is his inability to communicate about this loss. Later in the film, when astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham of American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook)—NASA’s favored candidate for the first moon landing)—and Armstrong’s close friend Ed White (Jason Clarke of Chappaquiddick) are burned to death in the infamous launch-pad fire on the first Apollo mission, Armstrong is equally incapable of showing his feelings. This area of Armstrong’s life culminates the day before the moon launch, when, in the most dramatic scene of the film, Jan confronts him and forces him to talk with his two sons about the very real possibility that he will not return from this mission. There is a kind of resolution to this in Armstrong’s own mind in a private scene on the moon, which I will not go into here because of enormous spoiler difficulties, but it is a scene that Singer seems to have imagined for the script, rather than one that anyone but Armstrong himself could have actually known about.

Gosling’s challenge is to create a character out of the stoic responses of the First Man. Chazelle chooses to use extreme closeups on him through most of the film, creating the feeling that we are trying to peer into his soul, to pierce through that wall that he keeps perennially raised. But the man is still a mystery by the end of the film, and that is what some viewers seem to have reacted to. He is surrounded by characters with more life and verve who can never quite bring Armstrong out of his invisible fortress. Foy as Mrs. Armstrong is relatable and often frustrated, and Clarke as White is a more human foil to Gosling. Most memorable is probably Corey Stoll (from TV’’s House of Cards) as Aldrin, who is brash, outspoken and arrogant, with a tendency to say the wrong thing and hence for clashing with Armstrong—it’s a dynamic that much more could have been done with before the two of them are cramped together in that lunar module.

But the film’s most impressive aspect is Chazelle’s recreation of what it is like to be in a space capsule, riding a Saturn rocket off a launch pad, tumbling uncontrollably through space, or dying on a fiery launchpad. The shaky camera and extreme closeups contribute to this feeling. Nor is the awed, silent walk on the moon’s surface a feeling that you will soon forget.

The movie is well-made and memorable, though somewhat overlong and difficult to relate to on a personal or emotional level. I’m saying three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order 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.

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

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

asib-1280-1536608446625_400w

A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born

Bradley Cooper (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Why, I ask myself, has this well-worn story of an up-and-coming star married to a crashing-and-burning one been so popular (for more than eighty years) that Hollywood has turned it into a popular movie on four separate occasions—and nobody’s complaining? I suppose the simplest answer is that it’s what my Mom would have called a “tearjerker.” Yes, it’s a story designed to play on your heartstrings, and in that way it’s melodramatic, and in this cynical day and age nobody wants to be accused of that, but the fact is, people have emotions and sometimes honest emotion appeals to them.

The other reason the story has been around so long is that each time it is remade, it’s remade in a way that updates it and makes it “relevant” to the decade it’s speaking to. The original film, made in 1937, starred Frederic March (a native of my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin) in the role of Norman Maine, a famous film actor at the height of his popularity but who has a bit of a drinking problem, and Janet Gaynor in the role of Esther Victoria Blodgett, a girl from North Dakota who comes to California (like many young women during the Great Depression) with the naïve hope of getting into films. With Maine’s help, she gets her chance, changes her name to Vicki Lester, and ultimately eclipses her husband and benefactor, whose alcoholism torpedoes his career. Vicki Lester wins an Academy Award in the film, and Norman Maine drowns himself in the end—in the ocean, not the bottle. March had won an Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1932, and Gaynor had won the very first Oscar for Best Actress for 1927/28, so there were some heavy hitters involved in the making of the movie. Director William Wellman won the Oscar for best screenplay, and Gaynor and March were both nominated for their roles.

In 1954, Warner Brothers released the musical remake of A Star Is Born as their first film in CinemaScope. George Cukor had been tagged to direct the film by Sid Luft, who was trying to put together a deal for his wife Judy Garland to make the film as her comeback role. Cukor was hesitant, knowing Garland’s reputation for instability on the set, but agreed because he wanted to work with Moss Hart, who was revising the screenplay. They wanted Cary Grant for the part of Norman Maine, but Grant turned them down, Humphrey Bogart and then Frank Sinatra were considered, then Stewart Granger seemed to be the choice, but finally the role fell to James Mason, who was then just reaching the height of his career, having starred as Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox and as Brutus in Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando. Ironically, Garland’s substance abuse issues plagued the film, but it was Mason whose alcoholic character kills himself at the end, when he overhears his Vicki Lester telling her manager she is giving up her career to take care of her drunken husband. The film was a marathon three hours long, and was nominated for six academy awards, including best actor and actress, but won none as Brando’s On the Waterfront swept the awards, and Grace Kelly surprised everyone by beating Garland, the favorite, for the best actress Oscar.

The third iteration of the story appeared in 1976, and was something of a vanity project for Barbra Streisand, who wanted to make the film as a kind of comeback of her own. After starring in a series of lightweight comedies following her Oscar for Funny Girl, she wanted to remake A Star is Born and play the serious role as the Judy Garland-Janet Gaynor character. But she wanted to reimagine the movie as a statement about the rock music industry rather than Hollywood, and had the initial idea of casting Elvis Presley in the Norman Maine part. Elvis apparently was interested—he, too, could have used a comeback film role—but he wanted too much money and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, didn’t like the idea of Elvis playing a character who was on his way down in the music industry. Streisand’s old school chum Neil Diamond (who went on himself to remake The Jazz Singer) was also a possibility, but he couldn’t fit it in, so Kris Kristofferson took the role. Kristofferson begins the film as a self-destructive rock star named John Norman Howard (the “Norman” in homage to the original character) drunkenly stumbling through a concert, who meets Esther (Streisand) singing at a bar later and ultimately gets her to sing onstage with him, launching her own career, which skyrockets as his goes south. There is an embarrassing scene at the Grammys, when Esther wins the Grammy and John makes a drunken spectacle of himself. But in this mildly feminist version Streisand is a more independent Esther, not quite so much of the sacrificing little woman who in the previous films declares in the end “This is Mrs. Norman Maine!” Also in this version of the story, Howard does not kill himself deliberately but rather dies in a car accident. But the film ends with Esther singing one of John’s new songs at a concert.

All of this Chaucer would call a long preamble of a tale. But it’s hard for me to say anything about this remounting of the old war horse without seeing it in context. Bradley Cooper, who has made this project his personal Citizen Kane by directing, co-writing, and starring in the current remake, has taken bits from each of his predecessors in his remaking of the story in his own image. Like the Streisand musical he’s made the male character (now renamed Maine as in the first two films but Jackson Maine to make him more contemporary) a self-destructive country-rock star, who also meets the female character singing in a bar (now Ally, no Esther or Vicki here), and has cast in that role the contemporary equivalent of a Barbra Streisand or a Judy Garland: the remarkable Lady Gaga. The fact that she is singing in a gay bar on a program with drag performers is one nod to the contemporary concerns of the current film.

While other details of the new film recall the Streisand-Kristofferson version, including Jackson’s bringing Ally onstage to sing during his concert and the revisiting of the Grammys debacle, in other ways the current version skips back to return to the spirit of the older films. There are two significant differences that make this version of the story more palatable for 2018: One of these is the depiction of Jackson and his addictions. There is a much more sophisticated understanding of alcoholism and drug addiction that comes through in this film, with Jackson’s demons more clearly motivated, laid out and portrayed. He is probably a more sympathetic Maine than we have seen before, because we understand him better and because his motivations are more complex. He does not sink lower into his darkness simply because of depression over his diminishing career and envy of his wife’s successes. He has earlier griefs involving his father and his much older brother Bobby, played by the remarkable Sam Elliott, and he also has legitimate professional reasons to dislike the slick pop version of Ally that her manager Rez (Rafi Gavron of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) creates, which he thinks betrays her sincere originality. And aside from all of that, this Maine checks himself into rehab and really tries to overcome his addictions.

The other major difference is Ally’s independence. As Gaga portrays the character, Ally doesn’t coddle Jackson’s bad habits. She’s never going to climb on the back of his motorcycle when he’s been drinking, she tells him almost immediately. She does stay with him, but she doesn’t condone or overlook his behavior. She also finds her success largely independent of him, though Rez does first see her perform at one of Jackson’s concerts. But she does one thing that Streisand didn’t do: She celebrates her marriage as well as her independence when she identifies herself as  “Ally Maine” as she sings Jackson’s song at the end.

Gaga has surprised some people with her performance in the film, which is convincing, bold, and sympathetic. But surely we should have expected this: She has always played a character as “Lady Gaga,” someone quite different from  Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a name she originally said she would use in the movie’s credits (but that didn’t happen). She is scarcely recognizable in the early scenes, without the usual trappings of her stage persona, though she becomes much more Gaga-like by the end.

Cooper’s performance is less surprising. As a three-time Oscar nominee, he could be expected to give the kind of performance he does here—charming, self-destructive, sympathetic, enraging and engaging. Nor will it be surprising if, as in 1937 and in 1954, the 2018 version of A Star Is Born nets Oscar nominations for both its principals. Maybe one will win this time.

Bradley Cooper’s direction is more surprising. For a first time director, he seems to have a sure hand as the story progresses. He doesn’t milk the concert scenes but keeps the story moving forward with confidence, and shoots a lot of that raw emotion this tearjerker story engenders in unforgiving close-ups of himself and his unmade-up co-star. And aside from all that, he even cast his own dog in the film.

Like many Hollywood projects, including its predecessors, this one had a convoluted journey getting to this point. Plans were made originally in 2011 for Clint Eastwood to direct a new Staris Bornstarring Beyonce. Possible male stars considered were Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, and Will Smith. Obviously, none of that panned out. Cooper signed on and also got the director’s chair in 2016, when Beyonce finally backed out, to be replaced by Gaga later in 2016. It certainly would have been an interesting film with Beyonce and Tom Cruise, directed by Eastwood. But it’s hard to imagine it would have been better. This version of the film is worthy of its long history. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

COMING REALLY 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

the-wife-2018-glenn-close2-770x470

The Wife

The Wife

Björn Runge (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Swedish director Björn Runge’s current film The Wife was adapted from a novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, but as you watch the movie you’ll be surprised it wasn’t adapted from a play. It has all the earmarks of such an adaptation, relying pretty exclusively on dialogue rather than action or scenery or special effects to push the story along. Jane Anderson, who wrote the screenplay, is also a playwright, which may explain the format.

This may be one reason why the book, released in 2003, has taken fifteen years to get to the screen, though Anderson composed the screenplay shortly after the novel’s publication. But a more likely reason for the delay is that the protagonist of the story is a woman in her mid-sixties. And not one that even sings any Abba songs or boasts any superpowers. Even after Glenn Close agreed to do the part, and after Anderson received an Emmy for writing the acclaimed television production of Olive Kittredge, there was trouble getting financial backing for the film. And it certainly has not been a huge box office draw: Though released on August 17 to enthusiastic critical responses, it has come to only one screen in central Arkansas, and that is Riverdale.

But perhaps that delay has been fortuitous, because the film, a close and powerful study of the frustrating (and enraging) suppression of one woman’s great talent in favor of a man’s ego in a patriarchal profession, appears now in the midst of a national upheaval as women across the United States have been coming forward to break the seal of silence that has bolstered an oppressive patriarchy in many areas of American life, including, quite famously, the film industry which for years had blocked the production of this very film.

The film opens with a phone call that awakens a later middle-aged couple, bringing them news that the husband, novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), has just won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. Joe’s wife Joan (Glenn Close) celebrates with him, jumping up and down on the conjugal bed while Joe chants, “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!”

This is pretty much the high point of the couple’s relationship in the film. We begin to see a few cracks in the family unit even before Joe and Joan jet off to Stockholm. First there is their son, David (Max Irons of TV’s The White Queen), himself a budding writer, who craves his father’s approval and pleads with Joe to give him feedback on a short story he’s given his father to read. Joan is quick to tell David that she thought the story was beautiful, but Joe just doesn’t have time to give his son any feedback—he’s too busy and important—and David doesn’t seem to put much store in his Mom’s opinion.

Joe’s character as a vain, privileged, egotist is augmented on the Concorde flight to Stockholm, on which another writer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who is angling to get a chance to write Joe Castleman’s biography, approaches the couple to congratulate Joe on his award. Joe rudely dismisses him, though Joan is more polite and warns Joe after Nathaniel has left that “There’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt.” The truth of this is borne out as the movie progresses.

At this point, we get the first of many flashbacks, as the film takes us back to 1958, when Joan is a student at Smith and Joe is her creative writing professor. He recognizes her as a talented young writer and encourages her, while she is attracted to the married Joe and looks to him as the Great Man at whose feet she has come to learn. The young privileged WASP Joan, played with uncanny aptness by Close’s real-life daughter Anne Starke (We Don’t Belong Here), ultimately marries her Brooklyn-born Jewish professor (the young Joe played by Harry Lloyd from TheTheory of Everything) after he splits with his wife. The relationship the two keep up over the thirty-odd years between the flashback and the present is established in these scenes: He is still the somewhat narcissistic Author, she the little woman who takes care of him behind the scenes and makes sure he gets where he needs to be on time and dressed in the right clothes.

But these flashbacks show us something else as well: They show us Elizabeth McGovern in a memorable cameo as a successful novelist telling Joan not to try to become a writer because everything in the publishing business is geared to ignoring the female voice. “But a writer has to write,” Joan says, echoing the words of her professor-idol Joe. “A writer has to be read,” McGovern’s character responds, effectively clipping Joan’s wings. These scenes also show us how Joan, working at a publishing house after graduation and listening to the editors (all middle-aged white men) dismiss a talented woman writer (because, well, who besides other women would want to read her?) and lament the fact that “everybody else has got a Jewish writer, where can we find a Jew?” Joan, of course, has one at home, and it is here we learn that it is only through her efforts that Joe’s first book was published.

Back in the present, in the film’s pivotal scene, Joan has a drink with Nathaniel one afternoon in Stockholm before the award ceremony. Bone reveals that in fact he already is under contract to write an unauthorized biography of Joe Castleman, and one that promises to paint a portrait of him warts and all, including his many extramarital affairs. He is pumping Joan to see what he can get out of her to use in the book, but his attitude toward her is complex: He clearly admires her and wants to know what makes her tick. More significantly, he hints at an even greater scandal that would reveal a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of Joe’s work. Joan shows no cracks in her mask of “faithful wife,” and leaves Nathaniel somewhat frustrated. But she does ask him one thing: “Please don’t paint me as a victim,” she says. “I am much more interesting than that.”

And she is, too. When she returns to her hotel and witnesses his near seduction of the young photographer charged by his publisher with documenting his Nobel experience on film—and using some of the same tricks he used on her back at Smith—it is clear that there’s going to be an explosion at some point. But to say anything more than that is spoiler territory.

Because this film depends so much on the actors, it is their performances that make or break it. Pryce is always reliable, and manages to make the husband a believable balance of ego and insecurity, so that we pity him somewhat rather than hate him completely. Slater plays the smarmy journalist like the serpent in the Garden he has depicted so convincingly as far back as Heathers. As David, Irons is sympathetic but one-dimensional because he doesn’t have a lot to do.

But this is Glenn Close’s film from beginning to end. In the book, the title character is the narrator, so the reader gets a constant commentary from her point of view as events unfold, and knows her emotions and ultimately becomes aware of how deep those feelings are and why she has them. The genre of film does not allow for that, though the filmmakers might have opted to approximate that sense by a voiceover, but that would have been awkward and, in the end, most likely ineffective. Instead, Runge and cinematographer Ulf Brantas have chosen to shoot the film largely through close-ups, especially of Close (I guess that would make them “Close-ups”), so that every twitch, every eye-widening or lip-pursing or eyebrow-lifting registers as a strong emotion. Though Joan is, on the surface, the dutiful wife, we know from the very beginning that something is going on beneath the placid, repressed surface of her controlled face—something that by the end manifests itself as long-suppressed rage, and for good reason.

There is already talk of an Oscar-nomination for Close, who has been nominated six times before and never took home the statue. This very well could be her best work on the big screen, and an Academy Award would be well deserved. This is a film that sinks or swims based on its performances, and this one is a gem. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this film.

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

White-Boy-Rick-Movie-Review-Matthew-Mcconaughey

White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick

Yann Demange (2018)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Rick Wershe, Jr., the protagonist of the new film White Boy Rick, was a Detroit drug dealer and FBI informant who as a minor (aged 17) was sent to prison on a life sentence for the possession of eight kilograms of cocaine. The sentencing took place in 1988 under a controversial Michigan law, and as of 2018 Wershe is the longest-serving nonviolent offender in Michigan prisons. This film, directed by Yann Demange (known previously mainly as a television director on such programs as Dead Set and Criminal Justice), seems intent on making us feel some sympathy for the boy. Unfortunately, it fails to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: The way that crooked police officers and crooked FBI agents and crooked politicians and even more crooked skilled and hardened criminals than Rick get away scot free or get lighter sentences than he does is certainly enough to make you angry. For that matter the absurdity of Michigan’s “650-lifer law” is quite clear by the end of the film: This is a law dating from 1978 that requires a life sentence without the possibility of parole for anyone found guilty of the possession, sale, or manufacture of at least 650 grams of cocaine or other specified opiate. The law, later imitated in New York State’s Rockefeller laws, was the product of America’s obsession with drug crimes, to the point of ignoring, the film suggests, far worse.

One of the reasons the film doesn’t quite hit its target is the script. Andy Weiss (TV’s Scrappers), Logan Miller and Noah Miller (both of Sweetwater) weave together a tapestry of poverty and drudgery of the Detroit underworld of the mid-1980s that feels not unlike the world of The Wire, but with much dumber people. Rick Jr. and his family seem to be going nowhere, and so does the script. For the sake of realism, it seems to wander about, with a number of small subplots that really don’t end up going anywhere, and a protagonist whose relationships are not really explained. He apparently feels strong friendship with “Boo” (RJ Cyler of TV’s Vice Principals), one of the gang that he ends up working with, but I have no idea why, since I was never shown any scene that made me think they were bonding. He has a brief relationship with a girl he knows from school named Brenda Moore (Kyanna Simone Simpson of TV’s Black Lightning), but since we see very little of it it’s hard to tell how he feels about her. Rick also seems particularly close to his sister Dawn (Bel Powley of Diary of a Teenage Girl) but it’s hard to see why since we seldom see her as anything but high or complaining (not unreasonably) about what a lousy father they have. As for newcomer Richie Merritt, who plays Rick Jr., yes, he kind of looks the part of a very average lower-class teenage delinquent, and maybe it would have been a mistake to put some pretty-boy Hollywood type in the part, but Merritt has little charisma and his lack of acting experience is evident at times. Much of the time he is expressionless and the rest of the time he acts like a white kid trying to act like a black kid, but there’s not a deep reservoir of character here that we can relate to in order to sympathize with.

But the chief reason we lack sympathy for Rick even after his excessive sentence is that he never once betrays any regret for his crimes or any remorse for harm that his crimes may have caused. At one point, when he sees a television report that a young boy in his neighborhood has been killed by a gun that he almost certainly sold to the killers, he nearly blinks. But that is it. He never makes any connection between his profession as a drug dealer and his sister’s nearly fatal drug habit. And when he is arrested and brought up on drug charges, he accepts no culpability or responsibility for any of his actions. Everything is somebody else’s fault.

The plot begins in 1984 focused on Rick’s father, Rick Sr. (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey), a licensed firearms dealer who scrapes a living together by manufacturing his own illegal silencers for the AK 47s he sells to drug dealers in a Detroit that looks like a bombed-out Beirut (the movie was shot in Cleveland). Rick Jr. has left high school and works as a kind of errand boy for his dad, which brings him into contact with local drug lord Johnny “Lil Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors of TV’s When We Rise). When a pair of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) threaten to run Rick Sr. in for those illegal silencers, Rick Jr. ends up working for them, and for the Detroit police department in the person of detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry of TV’s Atlanta). As part of his cover, Rick begins to sell cocaine himself, at the behest of his handlers, the drug supplied by the Detroit police.

Things go terribly wrong for Rick when, after he has contributed to the arrests of the gang members he had partied with (and is shocked, shocked that the FBI has arrested Boo, whom he says “didn’t do nothing!”), he convinces his father that the family would be a lot better off if he continued to sell drugs, since they can’t seem to get out of the poverty pit through Rick Sr.’s gun dealing. What could possibly go wrong? The FBI couldn’t possibly arrest him, could they?

I have to say that Matthew McConaughey almost saves this movie. His portrayal of Rick Sr., with a greasy mullet and an optimism that his family is going to be all right and that someday he’s going to put aside enough money to open a video store, and then the money would come rolling in, is as pathetically believable as it is intense. It’s even darkly humorous at times, such as when he is debating with his son about how bad drugs are while justifying his own illegal gun dealing because hey, it’s protected by the Constitution! Rick Sr. is also the only person in this film who even suggests the possibility that a person might have an actual job—i.e., owner of a video store—by which he might make a living.

Although many of the other characters don’t rise above one-dimensionality, a few of the other actors on the screen do turn in creditable performances. Leigh, Cochrane, and Tyree are worth watching as the unscrupulous, mendacious, and occasionally incompetent law enforcement agents. Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie appear unexpectedly as the grandparents of White Boy Rick, who live next door to Rick Sr. and his family (we’re never quite sure what happened to Mom). Dern and Laurie are a bit of a distraction, fun to watch but completely tangential to the plot. They seem to be here merely to provide the gravitas of their distinguished careers to the comic “old codger” roles. They have almost nothing to do and add nothing to the story. Perhaps the idea is to show that this family’s inability to rise above their poverty is a generational problem. Or that Rick Jr. really has no healthy adult role models. If that’s the intent, I’m not sure it works. Ultimately, what we feel at the end of the film is a kind of raw anger at the injustice—or perhaps we should say the absurd imbalance of justice, caused largely by a stupid law (the “650-lifer” law) that allows the bigger criminals to go free and punishes the smaller criminals. But in the end, they are still criminals. Two Jacqueline Susanns 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

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

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.