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!
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!
If you’re in the mood to read a movie this summer, you could do a lot worse than catching Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” now showing in Central Arkansas after its wide U.S. release in mid-August. In German with English subtitles, Petzold’s film is set in post-Holocaust Berlin, and is filmed in the noir style characteristic of the late-40s era that it recreates. You feel while watching it that maybe it should have been made in black and white.
“Phoenix” follows Auschwitz survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a former cabaret singer, who is brought back to Berlin by her friend and protector, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), to have reconstructive surgery on her devastated face, which was ravaged by a gunshot just before the camp was liberated. Nelly is a shattered survivor, who learns from Lene (who has been vigilantly searching records of the death camps) that she is her family’s only survivor and that she has a substantial inheritance coming from Swiss bank accounts. Lene wants to move with Nelly to Palestine, to settle along the beach in Haifa, there to help build a Jewish homeland. Nelly wants only to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the love of whom, she feels, helped her survive the death camps. But Lene insists that it was in fact Johnny who turned Nelly in to the Nazis.
Undeterred, Nelly searches the nightclubs still scattered among the rubble of the city, and at one, named the Phoenix, she finds her pianist husband. But Johnny (now called Johannes) does not recognize her, the surgery having so changed her face. Still, he thinks she bears a resemblance to his wife, and hatches a plot to use the false Nelly to claim his dead wife’s inheritance. So begins a bizarre game of Pygmalion, in which Johnny tries to transform the traumatized post-Auschwitz Nelly into the real Nelly, as he knew her before the war.
The film keeps you guessing throughout: Is Lene justified in her suspicion of Johnny’s complicity in Nelly’s arrest? Can Nelly trust Johnny’s apparently sincere loving memories of his wife? If Lene is correct, will Nelly’s love of Johnny blind her to his betrayal? Does Lene have her own agenda that keeps her from understanding Nelly’s need to find and assess her husband? And at the bottom of it all, as my wife put it, do you really have a self if the one who loves you does not recognize you?
The film is suspenseful, and it builds to a stunning climax that will make you want to talk about it for some time after you see it—my wife and I smiled as we left the theater listening to the people around us burst out with their opinions of what had happened—then having left the crowd we burst out with our own. As my wife, a fiction writer herself, pointed out, the film has the quality of a finely wrought short story—self-contained, possessing a tight unity of action, with an ending that is suspenseful, surprising, yet inevitable.
Sure, the film is melodramatic in a way that seems out of step with contemporary films, though is completely appropriate for films of the late 1940s. And yes, there are parts of the plot that seem to stretch the limits of our willing suspension of disbelief. How could you not recognize your own wife, even if you had been convinced of her death? Why would a woman want to reunite with the person who in all likelihood had betrayed her to what he thought was certain death? But if you accept these things, thy do not detract from the story. And (despite my wife’s description of the story as self-contained), it is possible that we are not necessarily meant to take the story literally—or at least, not only literally.
Petzold’s films tend to be about Germany itself as much as they are about the individuals portrayed in their plots. His previous film, the acclaimed “Barbara” (2012), also starring Nina Hoss, was set in East Germany in the 1980s, and explored the limits of freedom under an oppressive government. This story, very loosely adapted by Petzold and Harun Farocki from a French novel Le Retour des cendres (Return from the Ashes) by Hubert Monteilhet (previously adapted as a 1965 British film starring Maximillian Schell), is very deliberately set in Berlin, and Petzold purposefully makes the characters German rather than French. It is no accident that Nelly tells Lene that she was not Jewish, or that when the surgeon asks her why in 1938 she, a Jew, would actually return to Germany from London, she has no answer. There is a kind of allegory going on here, in which Nelly represents those non-observant Jews who had so assimilated into German culture that they were shocked with disbelief when their own friends and neighbors, their own beloved countrymen, turned on them and gave them up to the Nazis. Johnny, who represents those very Germans (a point underscored by his insistence that she now call him “Johannes”), refuses to face his own guilt, wants to think of his former partner, the Jew, as dead and gone, and (like Nelly herself) wants to pretend things can go back to normal. Is he Petzold’s embodiment of post-war Germany? And Nelly, who desires to return to the past, saying she no longer has an identity, with Lene, who cannot live in the present, feels a greater bond with the dead, and now hates the land she grew up in, do they represent two Jewish reactions to the end of the war?
The film, released in Germany last year, has already received a number of international awards, including accolades for Kunzendorf as Lene as “Best Supporting Actress” from the German Film Awards. Hoss is mesmerizing as Nelly, dragging the ruined shell of her body around the ruined shell of Berlin, and gradually transforming into her earlier self, but with a new albeit wavering inner strength. Zehrfeld is excellent as well, a con-man but one who may well have loved his wife, not a complete villain but someone who, when push comes to shove, cannot be relied upon. He can subtly betray a hundred emotions at once with the expression on his face, as he does at the film’s conclusion.
The mood of the film—reminiscent, at times, of Orson Welles’ “The Third Man” with its world-weary and despondent atmosphere—is captured by the 1943 Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash song “Speak Low,” a Billie Holiday song sung by Nelly during the film. The lyrics
Time is so old and love so brief
Love is pure gold and time a thief
We’re late, darling, we’re late
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
too soon, too soon
encapsulate the fate of Nelly’s love: The curtain has come down. Time has stolen her brief love. The rising Phoenix must be born anew and leave the past behind. Here’s a film that deserves four Shakespeares. Catch it if you can.
Up to now, Jason Segel has been known for relatively lightweight roles in romantic comedies, like “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Not surprisingly, fans of acclaimed author David Foster Wallace were skeptical at the thought of Segel being taken seriously in his portrayal of Wallace in this summer’s “The End of the Tour.” The skeptics are eating their words now, as Segel has hit it out of the park with his brilliant embodiment of Wallace in this astonishingly fine movie. It isn’t simply that Segel brings Wallace to life in his performance, it’s that you actually forget he’s acting and ultimately truly believe he is who he pretends to be.
Segel’s success could not have happened without the equally compelling performance of Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) as fellow novelist and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. The film follows the two writers on a five-day interview, during which Lipsky, having convinced Rolling Stone editors that they need to do a story on Wallace, whose 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” has made him the hottest, most talked about writer in America. Lipsky stays with Wallace and his two black labs in his country home outside Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace teaches creative writing at Illinois State University (inexplicitly called in the film “a small state university in Illinois”), and accompanies him on the last stop of his book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a trip to Minneapolis (where a bubbly Joan Cusack points out the Mary Tyler Moore statue). Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a nervous interviewer who admires, even idolizes Foster and wants his approval (he even brings his own novel along to try to get Foster’s mutual admiration, but at the same time seethes with a barely concealed envy and competitiveness. In the Twin Cities, the interview begins to take some nasty turns, as mutual jealousies come to the forefront between interviewer and interviewee. The two create a kind of chemistry that makes it hard to take your eyes off them.
If the premise—an entire film that consists almost solely of a conversation between two writers—sounds rather ho-hum and doesn’t tempt you away from exploding bombs and superhero action, then maybe you should watch a few minutes of a trailer showing Eisenberg and Segel conversing together. The film, which is virtually all dialogue, seems very much like a play (though Jakob Irhe’s cinematography is a treat for the eyes, mixing the stark but beautiful Illinois winter landscapes juxtaposed with the fast-food outskirts of small-town middle America). This is not surprising since it is written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Donald Marguilies—someone who, like the characters in the film, is a writer himself and therefore comes with all of the insecurities and ambitions of the film’s two main characters. This is Marguilies’ first script written for the big screen (he did a screenplay of his play “dinner with Friends” for an HBO movie previously), and the writing is so compelling, the nuances in the interactions of two competitive writers so subtly presented in the dialogue, that an Oscar nomination for Margulies would not come as a surprise to me.
For that matter, the two principal actors are certainly worth an Oscar look, particularly Segel, who nails the brilliant, depressive, reclusive, self-doubting and self-promoting Wallace at every point. And director James Ponsoldt (previously known mainly for “The Spectacular Now”) has achieved something rare and moving in this film.
The film leaves a few things hanging. Though it is never clearly revealed, Lipsky never published that Rolling Stone article. The film opens in 2008, 12 years after the interview, when news of Wallace’s suicide is revealed to the world. We immediately see Lipsky digging through his things in a closet where he has kept the interview tapes. The film is based on the book Lipsky wrote from those tapes—the acclaimed 2010 memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. A question that Wallace asks Lipsky several times during the interview, as he wonders what Lipsky will decide to write or how he will slant the piece, is “Are you a good man?” The memoir is probably the answer to that question. And the film is, I suppose, Margulies’ interpretation of how Lipsky answered the question. The biggest question, of course, is raised at the beginning of the film: Why did Wallace take his own life? We are constantly listening for clues during the interview, having been set up to do so at the outset. Questions that emerge during the course of the interview involve Wallace’s depression, his earlier suicide attempt, his addiction to alcohol and what he describes as his addiction to television, and how these things play into his depression.
I’m going to go out on a limb and call The End of the Tour the best film of 2015 so far. It has been in limited release, but is finally now released nationwide. You really ought to see this movie. It deserves four Shakespeares.
Turner Classic Movies and Paramount Pictures brought back the musical “Grease” to the big screen in a singalong version this past week. Considering the rash of bombs recently coming out of Hollywood (Vacation? Fantastic Four? Hitman: Agent 47?), “Grease” may have been your best bet this week anyway. The 1970s-style homage to a nostalgic and never-neverland ’50s is by now a bona fide classic after 37—yes, 37—years.
When the film was re-released on its 20th anniversary in 1998, Roger Ebert wrote that “no revival, however joyously promoted, can conceal the fact that this is just an average musical, pleasant and upbeat and plastic.” Ebert was certainly right that this is not a perfect movie, but one thing that a critic really can’t argue with is the fact that “Grease” remains the number one grossing movie musical of all time. Why do you suppose that is?
If you sat in the theater this weekend singing those songs everybody knows and loves—“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lighting,” “You’re the One that I Want”—you’d know the first and most obvious answer to that question: The film is just plain fun. So much fun that hundreds of high schools and community theaters, in the wake of the film, decided to have their own little Dannys and Sandys play those roles made famous by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, and so ordered scripts of the stage musical on which the film was based. And boy, were they disappointed.
First, at least two of the film’s most popular songs (“Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One that I Want”) are not in the stage version, and the school version completely leaves out Rizzo’s false pregnancy and her “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” number. Of course, neither has the title track from the movie, written by Barry Gibb (that icon of the ’70s) and sung by Frankie Valli (that idol of the ’60s), paying homage to their roots in the pop culture of the ’50s. Perhaps even worse, the plot itself is completely episodic: a set of very loosely connected vignettes that ultimately do end up with Sandy and Danny getting together, as it pretty much had to.
So one remarkable thing that this film does is take an incredibly mediocre script and turn it into a smart, coherent story that appeals to our sense of comedy—youth, as always, triumphs over age and boy and girl get together. Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard get chief credit for this transformation of Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s original Broadway script.
But the other thing about the film that makes it a true classic is Travolta’s performance. “Saturday Night Fever” had made Travolta a star, but “Grease” made him a pop icon, and even Ebert admitted that “Travolta is an important and enduring movie star whose presence can redeem even a compromised ‘Grease.’’” In the film he is Elvis, Marlin Brando, and James Dean rolled into one—the hip swinging musical numbers channel Elvis, and the drag race with Annette Charles (Cha Cha DiGregorio) playing a superannuated Natalie Wood turns Travolta into James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause”—or, with the enemy gang’s “beaked chariot” with whirling blades attached to their car’s wheel hubs, Travolta becomes Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur” as well.
But of course, it’s all camp. The film doesn’t take any of the teen angst seriously. It’s light and funny and part of the comedy is that all problems must melt away in the end. And this is what Ebert objected to most in the film: “Romance and breaking up are matters of life and death for teenagers, and a crisis of self-esteem can be a crushing burden,” he wrote. “‘Grease’ doesn’t seem to remember that.” This may be true, but it was the teenagers who loved the film at the time and there were a lot of ’80s teenagers singing along with “Grease” at the theater last Wednesday. Sure, they took themselves seriously at the time, as we all do and as today’s teenagers continue to do, but the ability to laugh at yourself (and, to be honest, to laugh at the way your parents acted when they were teenagers) is a valuable aspect of comedy in general. It was something “Grease” did in spades—especially when the parents also went to the film and saw themselves—and remembered sitting and watching Eve Arden in “Our Miss Brooks,” Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows,” and Edd Byrnes in “77 Sunset Strip”—not to mention watching Frankie Avalon on the big screen in such campy films as “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” “Grease” captures that campiness brilliantly.
One of the knocks on the movie has always been that the principal actors were all too old to play high school students. This is certainly a legitimate gripe: at 24, Travolta was the youngest of the group. Olivia Newton-John, who had been a pop star for the better part of the preceding decade, was a 30-year-old high school senior. Jeff Conaway (Kinickie) was 28, and fellow T-Bird Sonny (Michael Tucci) was actually 32. Didi Conn (Frenchy) played a beauty school dropout whose guardian angel told to go back to high school at the age of 27. The aforementioned Annette “Cha Cha” Charles was 30. And Stockard Channing as bad-girl Rizzo was actually 34 years old—twice the age of the average high school senior. So yes, these kids are definitely not kids. But this is Hollywood. And even the ages of the actors may be a nod to the 50s: James Dean was 24 when he made “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Brando was 30 in “The Wild One.” So why not cast Stockard Channing?
Which brings me to one significant truth that I learned when watching “Grease” for the umpteenth time, this time on a big screen with singalong words at the bottom: of course, the characters in the film are nearly all one-dimensional caricatures: the “nice girl,” the “ultra-cool tough guy,” and yes, there’s a “jock,” a “cheerleader,” and a “nerd.” But I did see this time that the intended “bad girl,” Betty Rizzo (with a first name she has to remind Kenickie of in the throes of passion) is significantly more than one-dimensional. She is by far the most interesting and best-developed character in the film, the one character who rises above the campiness and the shallowness of the film’s chief plot. Stockard Channing’s portrayal of Rizzo is nuanced and sympathetic despite her “mean girl” façade, and her brilliant rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” has a range and depth of emotion that is the poignant high point of the movie.
Of course, Rizzo’s pregnancy cannot be allowed to bring the overall tone of the film down, and it is dealt with in a quick ten-second exchange at the end of the film, when she announces she is not pregnant after all and Kenickie offers to made an “honest woman” out of her, just before Danny and Sandy fly off into the sunset in Greased Lighting, just like Fred MacMurray at the end of Disney’s “Absent Minded Professor,” appropriately ending this Disneyfied representation of the 1950s.
So is “Grease” a classic? What makes a classic? Is it a human creation that holds up over time? Is it something a lot of people enjoy? Is it something that continues to move people—like Travolta’s memorable swaggering or Channing’s brilliant turn? If so, maybe “Grease” fits the bill. What it undeniably is, is a lot of fun. And that’s why it deserves three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
Woody Allen cut his scriptwriting teeth on plays like “Don’t Drink the Water” and “Play it Again, Sam,” and the fifty movies he has made over the past half-century very often seem like plays on film. Sometimes the fact that his characters talk so much reads to contemporary audiences as dull or slow-paced, particularly when the films come out in the summer and when most other movies out have virtually no dialog and a whole lot of chases, explosions, and occasional one-liners that are the only tiny clues we get of character.
For a number of viewers, Allen’s tumultuous personal life (for what now amounts to some two decades) is inseparable from his films, and there is a tendency to see each succeeding film as another attempt to justify or at least to rationalize his own life choices and obsessions. The fact that his films so often revolve around young women in relationships with older men lends credence to these critics.
Thirdly, inevitably, Allen is going to be compared to himself, and yes, like most artists, he tends to repeat particular motifs. One of these, of course, is the unorthodox older man who is probably a misunderstood genius, and the young ingénue who is attracted to him—a motif that is at the center of Allen’s newest film, “Irrational Man.” The film also explores another of Allen’s favorite themes: the abstract idea of the perfect murder that becomes very, very concrete.
“Irrational Man” was released a month ago, and plenty reviews of the film have already been published, some of which have been very positive, but more of which have found the film unsuccessful, generally for one of the previous three reasons: the film is slow paced and nothing happens for the first half hour; the film is just Allen trying to rationalize his own sleazy situation; or the film is just a mishmash of favorite Allen motifs that he explored more successfully in previous movies. Opinions of the actors vary wildly: many critics praise the three principal characters (Joachim Phoenix, Parker Posey, and Emma Stone) for their performances, many particularly singling out Phoenix as a convincingly disheveled, suicidal professor. But other critics have complained that the actors are unconvincing and that the script is confused and the dialog stilted, one significant critic—Lou Lumenick of the New York Post—calling the film “the nadir of the 79-year-old director’s career” (one wonders whether Lumenick has seen 2012’s “To Rome with Love”).
But seriously folks, go to this movie and pretend that it was written and directed by somebody you’ve never heard of—let’s call him Allan Stewart Konigsberg—and watch it without preconceptions. You’ll find the characters sad but interesting, the plot twists surprising, and the tone of the film sardonic—darkly humorous in some places, horrifying at others until, like Emma Stone in the end, you may pull back from the abyss before it’s too late.
In a nutshell, the story focuses on a brilliant but erratic philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Phoenix), who is well-known in his field but mysteriously takes a job at a small liberal arts college in Newport, Rhode Island—the fictitious Braylin College. Rumors abound on campus among both faculty and students before he ever appears, and when he does show up, he is clearly burnt out, alcoholic, and disillusioned about the entire educational endeavor, and about his discipline in particular. In the snippets we get from his classroom, we see him debunking Kant and Kierkegaard, though he does insist at one point, tellingly, that he thinks Dostoevsky “got it.” Our lessons should come from life, he insists, and not from textbooks.
Somehow Abe, in his morose, pot-bellied, scruffy embodiment of existential angst, proves irresistible to chemistry professor Rita Richards (Posey), as well as to his eager, promising young student Jill Pollard (Stone). As the film goes on, though, we learn, as does Rita, that Abe’s despair has not made him simply intellectually impotent. And, with Jill, we also learn he is suicidal. He needs something to bring him back to life. By sheer chance, he overhears a conversation about a terrible wrong he believes he can right through a radical existential act—the perfect murder of a complete stranger. An act that completely turns him around intellectually, emotionally, and physically. In the end, things turn out differently from what he, or any of the other characters, expect, and the role of chance in our lives (as opposed to philosophical speculation) is underscored. The film is thought-provoking and well-acted, and stands on its own merits.
Yes, Martin Landau had a similar experience in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as did Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in “Match Point.” But the motives are quite different, Abe’s being completely intellectual. And the results are quite different. And yes, Juliet Lewis came on to her professor just as irresistibly in “Husbands and Wives,” but she is a completely different character. Some things in the film are a bit fantastic—Allen’s experience of university life was certainly at no school I’ve ever been associated with, since faculty offices here are more lavish than those of most university presidents, and faculty homes suggest salaries far beyond those of any real university employees except perhaps for football coaches. Add to this the fact that Abe walks around campus sucking on a flask of single-malt Scotch, and that he and his student Jill engage in PDAs all over campus without any figure in authority even commenting.
On the other hand, there are brilliant little touches in the film that bear close scrutiny. Pay attention to Abe’s back story: we learn about it only through rumors, and through his own occasional comments, but his comments never mesh with one another. His best friend seems to have died, apparently in Iraq—or is it Afghanistan? And was he blown up, or beheaded, or did he in fact run off with Abe’s ex-wife? Can you really trust anything he says? Or does he simply think that his past, like his ethics, is all about words, and what he can convince people to believe?
Watch the clothes. Other movies you ever see use a change of scenes as a new opportunity to add new wardrobe items. But in this film, people wear a lot of the same clothes in different scenes—like real people, who can’t afford new clothes every day (though these people CAN afford really expensive houses). And then there is Jill and her long-suffering boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), who get each other sweaters for their birthdays. It’s completely practical—but Jill at one point is appalled that Abe might think her “practical.” Roy seems dull, of course, compared with Abe, but it may turn out dull is actually a good thing.
And, of course, music is always interesting in an Allen movie. Jazz tends to be his go-to genre, and here, the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s ’60’s classic “The In Crowd” plays over many of the film’s scenes. What’s THAT about? Is it part of the film’s sardonic humor? Is being with Abe like being with the “cool kids” for Jill? Is that why she is so infatuated with him?
Food for thought. As much of “Irrational Man” is. I do recommend that you give this movie a chance. I’ll give it three Tennysons. See what YOU think.
Simon (Jason Bateman) is a sales representative for a network security company that has just moved him from Chicago to California with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), an interior designer who has left her old job behind and hopes to start a family with Simon—a new start after a miscarriage and a subsequent period of self-medicated drug dependency. The couple has a chance encounter with an old high school classmate of Simon’s, a socially awkward character named Gordo. Played by Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Great Gatsby,” et al.), who also wrote and directed the film, Gordo begins to bring the couple unwanted gifts, intrudes on their space, and wheedles his way into their lives to what ultimately becomes an unwelcome, then even a harrowing, extent.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. 1987’s Fatal Attraction ushered in a whole genre of films about tormenting stalkers terrorizing young couples or defenseless women. Films like Single White Female, The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Pacific Heights and Sleeping with the Enemy followed in rapid succession. The popularity of the genre waned after the mid-nineties, but Edgerton brings back a film with the same basic structure. So is there any reason you should go to this movie, or have you seen it all before?
Edgerton’s script plays with the conventions of the genre, but takes a number of unexpected turns, just when you’re getting comfortable. The chief clue that things are going to get real is Gordo’s comment that he was willing to let “bygones be bygones.” What on earth does he mean by that? You are supposed to wonder at that, just as Robyn does. But Robyn is back on drugs, so how much can she trust her own instincts? On the other hand, Simon is defensive and clearly hiding something. What on earth is it?
Obviously this is the sort of film where I can’t say much of anything beyond setting up the basic situation, since it’s a thriller and a mystery. Suffice to say that one of the themes of the film seems to be that no one is innocent—that things happen to us that are the results of our own prior deeds, and that taking responsibility for those deeds is the wisest course of action. But another theme of the film seems to be that people do not really change. These are characters who knew one another in high school, and their relationship twenty years later is predetermined by their relationship at that time. Somebody who was a complete jerk in high school is still going to be a complete jerk in later life despite any façade he may have put on to mask that core self.
Bateman is brilliant as the outwardly charming Simon, who wants to give the impression of being completely in control of everything, including himself, though it is clear that he pretty much always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, and cannot always control his impatience. Bateman, as usual, makes everything look easy, and his complex performance seems so effortless that he just seems to be playing himself. But he’s not.
Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Iron Man III) is convincing as the fragile, damaged wife, sympathetic to the awkward Gordo but submissive to her husband even when we can see that he’s stepping on her freedom to think for herself—or is he simply protecting her from her weaknesses? And what about Gordo? Edgerton takes on the challenging role himself, gives himself a bad haircut and unflattering goatee, and is skittish and needy enough to make most people want to find something else to do two minutes after meeting him. But Gordo the Weirdo, as Simon calls him, is not a simple psychotic stalker. His motives are more subtle, and his actions more ambiguous, than the Glenn Closes and Michael Keatons of those thrillers of the eighties and nineties.
“You think you’re done with the past,” Gordo says. “But the past isn’t done with you”—a sound bite that encapsulates the film. It’s one that will surprise you at a number of turns, and leave you guessing at the end. Three solid Tennysons for this one.
If like me you are old enough to have been a fan of the original Mission: Impossible TV series in the late 1960s, you will remember that the suspense came from watching the MI team figure out how to pull off their mission by using elaborate deceptions and disguises (Martin Landau was a makeup expert and a “man of a thousand faces”) and technological wizardry (Greg Morris was something of a proto-computer geek), and then get away with it. They weren’t action heroes and didn’t engage in impossible chase scenes or blow things up. In the first Mission: Impossible film, director Brian de Palma added the exotic locale of Prague and a few heart-pumping action scenes, but also managed to keep a good deal of the elaborate schemes (Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt hanging from that wire while breaking into the CIA, and later using a lifelike mask to pass himself off as Jon Voigt), so that the film seemed to give us what the original series did but more. Subsequent installments in the Mission: Impossible film series have not understood that original concept and have gone mainly for the straight action-film genre.
Perhaps this is the result of Cruise’s involvement—the most reliable of “action” stars in terms of bringing the money in, he seems most interested these days in challenging himself physically and makes no secret of doing his own stunts in his films. In the opening sequence of this fifth MI movie, Rogue Nation, the 53-year-old Cruise leaps onto the wing of a cargo plane and clings to a door handle as the plane takes off—a stunt he repeated eight times to allow director Christopher McQuarrie (reteaming with Cruise after their earlier successful collaboration in Jack Reacher) to shoot the footage he wanted. In a later scene, Cruise swims underwater in a vault where he has a complex task to perform, switching one computer chip for another. Again, Cruise did multiple takes of this grueling scene, during one of which he was required to hold his breath for six minutes.
And, of course, there is a rollicking chase scene involving cars, guns, and motorcycles, and I’m pretty sure Cruise is riding his own cycle there. So yes, the MI series has been dominated by the action scenes because its star likes to be thought of as an action hero. But one good thing that can be said about Rogue Nation is that it is so much more than an action movie.
It turns out that the plane Hunt boards in that opening scene contains weapons that are evidence of the nefarious activities of a secret organization known as the Syndicate whose director Solomon Lane (played with cold malevolence by Sean Harris) sponsors major terrorist acts with the intent of toppling the global political and economic system. Meanwhile the Impossible Mission Force’s current head William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is appearing before a congressional committee to defend the tactics, and even the very existence, of the team from an attack by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who doesn’t believe that this Syndicate even exists. The hearing ends with the disbanding of the Impossible Mission Force and the absorbing of its members by the CIA.
Hunt essentially becomes a rogue agent as he tries to track down Lane with the CIA chasing him. Ultimately, of course, he is helped by Brandt and by his comic sidekick Benjy Dunn (Simon Pegg, like Renner reprising his role from the previous Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), as well as Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, returning in his role from earlier films). They are also joined by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an agent apparently working for the Syndicate who saves Hunt’s life and then proceeds to help or hinder him at various points of the plot, so that the audience, like Hunt himself, is kept guessing as to her ultimate loyalties.
The film does take s to some exotic venues, including Vienna, Casablanca and London, with pivotal scenes at the Vienna Opera House (where an assassination is planned during a performance of Turandot—from which motifs beautifully pervade the film’s soundtrack) and the Tower of London, where the climax of the film plays out. It also contains two fairly complicated schemes set up by the team: The first, which the audience is let in on, is an elaborate plan (involving Hunt’s underwater escape) to break into an impenetrable fortress (recalling the break into the CIA in the first MI film); the second, which the audience is kept in the dark about, involves the final plot to foil the bad guy’s evil plans for good—a plot that also satisfyingly recalls the first film of the franchise, but I won’t include any spoilers here.
There are lighter moments in the film—with Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames how could it avoid them? And although it focuses particularly on the heroics of the action star Cruise, the overall theme of the film has more to do with camaraderie and solidarity: the MI force as a team working together, and one that refuses to leave a brother behind. The lead actors work well as a team, and some of the supporting cast—notably Harris and Simon McBurney as the head of British MI6—are impressive in their roles. But the most memorable performance in the film is turned in by Rebecca Ferguson as Faust. Her character’s name, of course, suggests her selling her soul to the devil (Harris?), but her playing both sides, her true motives which are always kept just out of reach of the audience, and her own feats of martial prowess that rival those of the “action star”—though she is careful to remove her fashionable shoes before plunging into action—make her the antithesis of the 1960s “Bond girl” of earlier spy films, all of which make her the most interesting part of this movie.
In my view, Rogue Nation is the best action film of this summer. It’s smart, well-made, well-acted and well-paced—the action scenes don’t go on for twenty minutes of one explosion after another until the audience is numbed, but just long enough to remain intense and compel us into the next actual plot element. I’m recommending this one highly—three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
You may well, and with good reason, ask yourself why at this point we would need still another Sherlock Holmes. We have, to name only the most obvious, the wildly popular Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman series on Masterpiece, the Lucy Liu-Jonny Lee Miller series on CBS, and the Robert Downey, Jr.-Jude Law films that have been box office gold for Guy Ritchie. We seem to be in the midst of a Holmes renaissance, and one might assume that the current Bill Condon film Mr. Holmes is simply a low-budget, little-promoted attempt to jump on the Holmes bandwagon. It is not.
Featuring the brilliant Ian McKellen as a nonagenarian Mr. Holmes, Condon’s film is a quiet meditation upon the hyper-rationality of the great detective, as created by Arthur Conan Doyle. But based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay gives us a different kind of Holmes than we’ve become accustomed to. In a meta-fictional twist, in this film the “real” Sherlock Holmes is somewhat resentful of his old partner Dr. Watson’s published accounts of his escapades, because of Watson’s tendency to fictionalize things—the deerstalker hat, for instance, and the pipe are simply props created by Watson to round out Holmes’ “character.” In the film, Holmes is particularly annoyed with Watson’s account of his final case. He knows that the resolution of the case as Watson conveyed it in the published story is false, but at his advanced age he cannot remember precisely how that ending is false, and from his faltering memory he spends much of the film trying to piece together the true story of that case, which had for some reason led him to abandon his investigative career, and to leave Baker Street and retire to a small house on the coast near Dover, to raise bees.
The story opens in 1947, as the aging Holmes is returning to England from post-war Japan, where, at the invitation of a mysterious admirer there named Mr. Umezaki, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (Lost, The Wolverine) has lured him with the promise of a miracle herb he hopes may restore his failing memory. Growing only, apparently, in what is left of bomb-ravaged Hiroshima, the plant may be emblematic of new hope springing in the midst of devastation—like the desolation of Holmes’ own psyche. But there is something else going on in Japan, and one of Holmes’ challenges is to find the true reason for Mr. Umezaki’s invitation.
Another mystery, much more mundane, concerns what is killing Holmes’ bees. In his remote farmhouse, Holmes’ only company is his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her tween-aged son Roger. In a remarkable casting feat, Condon has here been able to call upon and unite the lead actors from his two most critically successful previous films—McKellan (Oscar-nominated from Condon’s Gods and Monsters) and Laura Linney (Oscar-nominated from Condon’s Kinsey), who plays Mrs. Munro. Linney is convincing as a disgruntled widow, trying to do what is best for a son whose remarkable intellect she cannot understand herself. A real surprise is young Milo Parker (Robot Overlords) as Roger. In a sympathetic and compelling performance he manages to arouse our affections as he does those of Holmes, who begins to rely on the boy as his helper with the bees, while at the same time becoming Roger’s mentor and surrogate grandfather.
The film flashes back regularly to 1917, thirty years before the film’s “present” of 1947—the date of that last maddeningly elusive final case, his own “true” version of which Holmes is striving to compose. It involves a despairing, grief-stricken young wife (Hattie Morahan) whose husband believes is being manipulated by a music instructor. The case is set up like a typical Holmes mystery, but in the end turns into something quite different. The film keeps returning to the past as aspects of that case return in snatches to what is left of Holmes’ memory, and with Holmes we learn the truth. McKellen’s shifting back and forth from the frail old man battling senility to the detective at the height of his rational powers is a tour-de-force for actors—though part of the “willing suspension of disbelief” required for the film is accepting that there is in fact a thirty-year difference in age between the 1947 Holmes and the 1917 Holmes.
Ultimately the film looks at the cold detachment and rationality with which Holmes regularly solves his cases and asks whether there may be something missing in a life so tightly contained. Holmes fans may well be disappointed in the film if they are expecting the sort of twist that brings together all the clues at the end, solving the puzzle. If so, they have missed the point, which in large part is that life holds out for us no such denouement.
Among the “action films” and the raunchy comedies of the summer movie season, there’s a good chance that Mr. Holmes might be lost in the shuffle. I’d advise you not to let that happen. Here’s a thinking viewer’s movie that will entertain and enlighten you, and still get you out of the sizzling summer heat. Three Tennysons for this one.
Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale
This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.
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
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.