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

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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!

jlaw

Movie Review: Mockingjay by Francis Lawrence

Ruud Rating

MOCKINGJAY
Two Susanns/Half Tenneyson

The cynicism and manifestly crass commercialism of the new Hollywood trend of splitting the final books of a series into two movies instead of one, in order to double the profits on what they assume will be a blockbuster—a tactic first used to the great detriment of quality and the even greater success of the bottom line in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—is carried on with an even more blatant disregard for narrative integrity in Mockingjay, a novel only a third the length of Deathly Hallows. Of course, the culmination of all this disingenuousness is yet to come with the third part of The Hobbit—a 280-page novel that needed three films to complete, the second of which was padded with a thirty-minute dragon battle that was not in the book and was completely unnecessary for the plot. But I digress. And besides, I should have plenty of time to rant about that film when it’s released. Let me return to Mockingjay, Part One.

As the third book in Suzanne Collins’ Young Adult dystopian fantasy, Mockingjay was the weakest of the three to begin with. Lacking the unifying device of the games themselves to structure its action, it is something of a rambling narrative that is not particularly original (a rebel alliance uniting against the apparently invincible power of an evil empire? Where have I seen that before?) and often leaves the series’ charismatic protagonist, Katnisss Everdeen, outside the main action looking in, or suffering teenage angst about her boyfriends while far more important things are going on. So I guess the Hollywood reasoning was, hey, this is weak material…let’s make two movies out of it!

Still, director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, I Am Legend) and a stellar cast—led by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence in her iconic role as Katnisss Everdeen and including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee and Julianne Moore as rebel leader President Alma Coin—all make a valiant effort to bring this mutilated creature of a film to life.

The story begins where Catching Fire left off: Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) have been rescued from the brutal competition of the Quarter Qwell, the latest “games,” by the rebels, but have been forced to leave Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) behind. The rebels are based in a huge underground bunker in the supposedly deserted ruins of District 13. With Katniss in the bunker are her mother and sister as well as her “other” boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and refugees from District 12—the grudgingly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the reluctantly drab and wigless Effie (Elizabeth Banks).Here Coin and Plutarch attempt to persuade Katniss to adapt the persona of “the Mockingjay,” the symbol of the rebellion, and be filmed in a series of propaganda pieces. Katniss, however, is suffering from a kind of PTSD from the games, and some sort of survivor’s guilt after leaving Peeta behind. She ultimately agrees to accept the Mockingjay role if President Coin will promise to rescue Peeta from the Capitol and from the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Having seen for herself the smoking, corpse-strewn devastation wrought by President Snow’s bombers on her own District 12, and heard Gale’s pained description of his evacuation of the district’s few survivors, and having visited a hospital in District 8 and seen what her symbolic presence means to the wounded there, Katniss has witnessed enough of Snow’s atrocities to make her first promotional piece, challenging the Capitol to open warfare. In the meantime, though, the Capitol begins using Peeta for its own propaganda purposes, and in interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) Peeta pleads with the districts to stop the rebellion, and with Katniss to stop letting herself be used by the rebels.

Thus the two story arcs of Mockingjay Part One are intertwined. For Katniss, the story is the quest for Peeta: she wants him extracted from the Capitol and safe with her again. For the rest of Panem, the story is the propaganda war between President Snow with his Capitol advisers and President Coin and Plutarch. As for the first, through much of the movie you are looking forward to a reunion between Katniss and Peeta by the film’s end. If it does occur, will that reunion be what you and Katniss hoped for? In any case that plotline gives the filmmakers a good spot to end part one and leave viewers in a cliffhanger until next year at this time, when part two of Mockingjay is due out. It’s a frustrating, but effective, place to end.

But as for the propaganda war, this is the one aspect of the film that has a claim to originality and that makes what amounts to a social commentary. Indeed it is the first dystopian novel since Orwell’s 1984 to explore the true manipulative power of the media in controlling the population. Released as it has been shortly after an American election characterized by some of the most brutally negative, misleading, disingenuous, and mendacious advertising ever seen in a midterm election, the topic of the manipulation of public opinion in order to convince people to act—and vote—against their own clear self-interests is a serious and vitally important one. It is clear (at least to Katniss, though not at all to Gale) that Peeta is being forced—or brainwashed?—to say things to dissuade citizens from joining the rebel alliance. Katniss is suspicious from the beginning about the motives of president Coin and of Plutarch, who after all had been Snow’s trusted architect of the Quarter Qwell games just one movie ago. Besides, even Peeta warns Katniss to consider the true goals of those she is serving. Of course, he says this in a propaganda appearance so how should she take it? This complex ambiguity of motive and counter motive is fascinating and compelling, though it isn’t much to hang an entire movie on.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerful performance, with a range of emotions that go from devastated to furious to terrified to thrilled to appalled (sorry, happiness is not an option in this film). Hoffman is a delight to see again in what—except for Mockingjay, Part Two—may be our last chance to see him. Moore is stiff and official, a mirror image of Sutherland in many ways, and keeps us wondering how good the good guys really are. Hutcherson, though filmed almost completely in shots of a television screen, is memorable in his gradual decline from a subdued but still vigorous Hunger Games survivor to a crushed and deflated shell by the film’s end. Whatever disappoints about this movie, it isn’t the cast.

But it must be said that Effie isn’t all that’s drab in this movie. The outrageously flamboyant style and color of the Capitol and its fashions never brighten this film. Even the scenes with Tucci, so colorfully and spectacularly staged in the first two films, are completely subdued, as is Tucci’s Caesar, now playing the role on camera of the concerned and sympathetic ear that Peeta can whisper his deepest troubles into. The grey military bunker of District 13 spreads its shadow everywhere. District 12 is grey rubble. District 8 turns into grey rubble. Occasional scenes where a bit of action actually occurs are filmed at night, so there is no color here either. The film might have been shot in black and white, and nothing would have been lost. This is not a complaint: certainly the color scheme of the film fits the darkness of its theme and mood. It is a dark, cold film into which, unlike the first two movies in the series, no beam of light ever enters.

I’d really like to tell you to skip this movie altogether and just wait for part two to come out in a year. If enough people did that, studios would stop making us pay twice to see one story. So little actually happens in this one that you will be able to catch up pretty easily, and there is little that is memorable in it, so you’ll just have to watch it at home again anyway to remember what went on before seeing part two. Why not just wait and watch it that way to begin with?

But I know that’s futile. Mockingjay is already the top grossing movie of the year in its first weekend. And there are interesting things in the film: the propaganda war, for one, and the performances for another. Heck, it may be worth buying a ticket just to see Philip Seymour Hoffman again. So I’ll be a bit generous and give the movie two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. But if you’re disappointed in the movie, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

interstellar

Movie Review: Interstellar by Christopher Nolan

RUUD RATING

Interstellar
2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

This week the United States and China signed a landmark agreement to curb carbon emissions in an effort to get global warming under control. Though for years the warnings of scientists have fallen on the deaf ears of politicians, reason has finally broken though. We can only hope it is not too late, and that the anti-intellectualism of popular media news outlets who believe that ignorance deserves “equal time” does not derail the process. If we have waited too long, the scenario that begins Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar may prove all too prescient.

Unfortunately, the disaster that precipitated this blighted earth on which the former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is forced to attempt to scratch out a living for himself and his family—a world we are introduced to through an opening series of interviews with elderly folks who sound as if they are describing the dust bowl of the 1930s—is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Cooper must defend his daughter Murph (named for “Murphy’s Law”) against officials from her school who complain that she is discrediting the section in her history textbook that claims the Apollo moon landings were faked by the U.S. in order to drive the Soviet Union to collapse in trying to keep up in the “space race.” While the scene likely parodies the kind of rewriting of history demanded by school boards in certain benighted U.S. states, where books that don’t conform to the party line cannot be used in public schools, the implication that citizens of the U.S. blame scientists for the climate debacle is ludicrous: it is the debunkers of science, not the scientists, who have brought climate change upon us. So in this way the film is politically disingenuous.

To be fair, or at least a little bit more fair, the focus of the film is not on the cause of the disaster. It is focused on the desperate solution: Cooper and Murph are able to interpret a cryptic communication from what the girl thinks at first is a Poltergeist in her bedroom, which leads them to the secret underground headquarters of what remains of NASA, still covertly (and insufficiently) funded by the government despite the popular resentment of scientists. Here Cooper meets his former mentor, Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine, Nolan’s Dark Knight Alfred), who explains that years earlier NASA sent three individual astronauts through a wormhole discovered near Saturn into a planetary system in a galaxy millions of light years away, and is about to send a full crew on a larger mission to explore each of the previously earmarked planets in that system to find which is most suitable for human habitation. Finding the right world, Brand asserts, will allow NASA (if Brand himself can figure out the right formula that takes into account the “problem of gravity”) to launch a kind of spaceship ark to carry surviving earthlings to that planet and save them from the earth’s imminent demise (Plan A), or at least deliver a collection of human embryos to be born on the new planet and perpetuate the species (Plan B). Thus the implicit point of the movie is that space exploration is not only a worthwhile but possibly even a necessary investment for our future. The suggestion that the government’s downsizing of the NASA budget when public opinion saw no need for space travel any more once the practical political objective of whipping the Russkies was achieved was a mistake may well be accurate, and Cooper’s assertion that human beings have always been explorers appeals to an undeniable aspect of human nature: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down at our place in the dirt,” he argues convincingly at one point. But Nolan takes what seems to me an unsuccessful approach in having what apparently is the entire scientific community left in American working on a hugely expensive and almost certainly futile project of transporting huge populations over trillions of miles, while apparently no one at all is trying to figure out how to make things better on earth and save the planet. “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it,” says Brand at one point. Well, I have to reject his frame. How does he know what we are “meant” to do? And which course seems likelier to achieve some kind of success?

Former astronaut Cooper, who left NASA as a result of some debacle hinted at early in the movie but never clarified, is urged by Brand to pilot the Endurance, a large spinning vessel built to take a crew through the wormhole to the other galaxy. On board will be Brand’s own daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway), who it turns out has her own agenda, which I can’t say much about without spoiling the plot, and two other scientists, Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), who, if you’ve watched enough episodes of Star Trek, you must recognize as cannon fodder. And so Cooper must choose: he knows that a trip of this sort, in which at times he must be traveling close to the speed of light, time will pass more slowly for him than for his children, and that by the time he returns (if he returns) he may be the same age as his daughter. Brand must realize that he is not likely to live long enough to see his own daughter’s return. Cooper must make a parallel choice: to save the human race, he must sacrifice his relationship with his family. He makes the only choice he can, for the greater good, and the Endurance sets off for its interstellar journey.

Indeed at one point in the journey, the astronauts are compelled to make a landing on a world circling the edge of a black hole, and the extreme gravitational effects of the back hole (causing what physicists call “gravitational time dilation”) create a situation whereby a single hour on the planet’s surface is equal to seven years’ time on earth—ensuring that if Cooper does return to Murph, it will be far later than he had hoped. The science of the film is complex and some viewers may find it a bit of a slog, but it is legitimate science—respected theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked with Nolan as consultant and executive producer. But on the human level, the wrenching misery of Cooper’s desire to make it back to Murph is one of the true and powerful aspects of the film.

For there are two poles around which this movie revolves. One of them is the repeated motto “Anything that can happen will happen,” which the film incorrectly identifies as “Murphy’s Law,” after which Cooper’s daughter Murph is named. In fact, of course, Murphy’s Law says that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”—a much different assertion, since it suggests the near-impossibility of anything turning out as planned. While in some ways that maxim may apply to the voyage of the Endurance, it is not the direction of Nolan’s plot. The film’s motto, “Anything that can happen will happen,” is in fact a truism of quantum physics, and underscores the surprising possibilities made manifest by quantum mechanics—possibilities that boggle the ordinary imagination. Such a maxim makes us believe that, far-fetched as it may be, the voyage of the Endurance is at least possible, and the success of that mission not inconceivable. But no one in the film has yet mtnioned an important qualifier of that maxim as usually expressed by physicists: given an infinite amount of time, anything that can happen will happen. The crew of the Endurance more than aware, however, that they so not have an infinite amount of time. For them time, like fuel, is a limited resource. And that severely limits the likelihood of their success.

The film’s other pole is the sentiment, first expressed by Amelia, that sometimes important decisions can’t be made based solely on logic alone, but we must listen to our heart as well as our head, and there are times when the heart must triumph. Apparently this applies particularly to making a determination, between two possible courses of action, as to which is more likely to save the human race. In her case, she is discussing romantic love, but the same principle must apply to Cooper’s love for Murph. It may seem as if the pole of scientific fact is irreconcilable with the pole of love conquering all, but in fact, if it is true that anything that can happen will happen, then the mysterious force of love may act as a force as powerful as gravity in determining the outcome of a situation, and the two poles may come together like the two ends of a wormhole.

There are laudable things going on in this movie. The science is fascinating and far more challenging than the run-of-the-mill science-fiction flick. The emphasis on the power of human love may seem a bit hokey but is actually welcome in this otherwise grim technological world. And the cinematography and special effects are generally up to the standard an audience has a right to expect with an epic science-fiction extravaganza like Interstellar: alien planetary landscapes are remarkably realistic, especially a tidal wave mistaken for a mountain range at one point. Performances are noteworthy: McConaughey is sympathetic as the reluctant and divided hero. Mackenzie Foy is very believable as the ten-year old Murph, and Jessica Chastain is remarkable playing the grown-up Murph, a chip off the old block who has in some ways replaced Amelia in Professor Brand’s life (not really a spoiler, since it’s easy to see coming). Michael Caine as Brand has sufficient gravity for the part (sorry about that pun), and in a small part as Cooper’s father-in-law, John Lithgow is suitably wise and cranky. In a surprise pivotal role that is nearly a cameo, Matt Damon manages to win our sympathy and our disdain at the same time.

But the talented Casey Affleck seems wasted in the role of Cooper’s embittered son. He’s given little to do. Anne Hathaway seems somewhat miscast, perhaps too vulnerable to be the super-rational, determined trailblazer off to save the world. At the same time her character makes some disastrous emotional decisions, so maybe it’s not Hathaway but the character who’s hard to believe.

I found some other aspects of the film unappealing and occasionally downright annoying. In a few spots, particularly toward the end of this nearly three-hour epic, the visuals were quite unremarkable. In scenes where characters are traveling through a black hole or spending time in another dimension, the cinematography seemed to lack imagination. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is filled with swelling crescendos at several points, sometimes at moments that are not particularly climactic, and sometimes, annoyingly, so loud that I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying. But maybe that’s just my age talking.

Interstellar is also a highly allusive film: Nolan is constantly channeling previous cinematic works, particularly in the sci-fi genre, but likes to reference literature as well. It may be that the surname of chief NASA scientist Brand is an allusion to the title character of Henrik Ibsen’s poetic drama of the same name. Ibsen’s Brand is a fanatical clergyman who sacrifices everything, including his own child, to his uncompromising vision. More conspicuous but less successful are the repeated voice-over repetitions of Dylan Thomas’s classic “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” dropped in at various points in the movie. The trouble with this is, of course, that the poem has nothing to do with what’s going on on the screen. The speaker of Thomas’s poem addresses his father, and urges him not to passively slip into death but to “rage against the dying of the light.” Are we supposed to think of the Endurance mission as humankind’s “raging” against their own demise? In the first place, they are not raging, and in the second place, they’re trying to prevent the extinction of the race, not fighting an impossible battle against individual mortality. The poem is distractingly misapplied.

There are reminders, as well, of earlier films like Steven Spielberg’sClose Encounters of the Third Kind, Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, andM. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. But the strongest allusions are to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the wisecracking computer TARS, who turns out to be more helpful and less malevolent that 2001’s HAL (but who looks in fact like one of Kubrick’s monoliths), to the revolving spaceships that in both films set out for Saturn and which both contain hibernating crew members, to the overall thematic concern for the evolution of the human race, this film constantly alludes to Kubrick’s. Even the ending of Interstellar—dealing like Kubrick’s with a return to earth—is reminiscent of 2001, but here is where Interstellar essentially falls short. Though deliberately less confusing than Kubrick’s ending, Nolan’s lacks the beauty, the wonder, and the mythic transcendence of 2001. Instead, for me, it was the most disappointing aspect of the film: I found the last twenty minutes or so to be, well, silly. It may be true that in a quantum universe, anything that can happen will happen, but I’m pretty sure that what happens in the end of this film is not something that can happen. Nothing really makes sense, not because the science is too complicated but because it involves no actual science at all. Rather than referencing 2001, the movie’s denouement draws, instead, on Disney’s far-fetched and unmemorably ludicrous The Black Hole.

Ultimately, though the film features some fine performances and occasionally remarkable cinematography, I was finally put off by too many aspects of the film to have any desire to see it again. Nolan is a first-rate director, for me Interstellar lacked both the adroitness of the nonlinear narratives of Memento or Inception, or the compelling atmosphere of the Dark Knight films. I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and incur the wrath of my wife, who enjoyed the film much more than I did.

birdman

Movie Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Alejandro González Iñárritu

In the opening credits to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman appear these lines, which form the epitaph on Raymond Carver’s tombstone at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

RUUD RATING

Birdman
4 SHAKESPEARES

The quotation serves as well as anything to describe the motivation of the film’s protagonist, the aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who twenty years before, after becoming a worldwide sensation playing the superhero Birdman in three films, walked away from the franchise and into acting obscurity. In the movie, he is putting Hollywood behind him and trying to come back repackaged as a serious artist on Broadway, directing and starring in his own adaptation of one of Carver’s best-known short stories, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”

Unless you’re six years old or have been living your life under a rock, you will likely recognize the deliberate irony in Iñárritu’s choice of Keaton as his leading man. Not only did Keaton rise to the height of popularity in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, but he also famously turned down a $15 million paycheck to make a third film in the series. Thus Keaton is playing himself to some extent, as his character tries to rise once more into the spotlight, “to feel himself beloved on earth,” but this time for something more artistically respected than playing a comic book hero.

This self-referentiality continues to spin out as the film advances. Riggan Thomson’s co-star, whom he refers to as “the world’s worst actor,” is accidentally but fortuitously struck by a falling light during rehearsal, and Riggan and his lawyer and agent Jake (played by the surprisingly slim Zach Galifianakis) discuss several other possible actors to bring in at the last minute, but all are currently committed to other superhero movies. Finally, leading lady and nervous first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts, whose first Oscar nomination came for Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams) volunteers her live-in boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a popular but notoriously difficult, yet extremely talented Broadway star.

In case you need reminding, Norton’s biggest blockbuster role was as The Incredible Hulk in 2008. And Norton, of course, did not play the Hulk again in the Avengers follow-up. Norton told NPR that he declined the role because “I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that’s hard to take off, in other people’s eyes.” The sentiment could apply just as well to Keaton’ case, but for Norton, there were also rumors that his own well-known obsessive perfectionism made him too difficult to work with, a trait that the actor also shares with his character of Mike in the film.

And just in case that is not enough, Iñárritu has also included Emma Stone, fresh from her role in the new Spiderman blockbuster, as Riggan’s troubled daughter Sam, just out of rehab and working as Riggan’s less than enthusiastic assistant.

The film’s self-reflexive theme is underscored by its imagery: Riggan is photographed only from behind until he looks in the mirror in his dressing room, where we first see his face. In a later scene, he has a discussion with his ex-wife in which he can be seen only in a mirror, and as the film draws toward its bewildering conclusion, we see Riggan’s face again in a mirror as if for the first time. It is as if Riggan only exists in his own reflection: if art, whether film or theater, holds a mirror up to nature, Riggan exists only in that mirror, only in the art through which he longs to be, as the film’s headnote says, beloved on earth. The popularity he seeks is scoffed at by his foil Mike, who tells Sam at one point that he really doesn’t care what people think of him. His kind of art exists for its own sake, to be admired rather than loved. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” he tells Riggan at one point. At the other extreme is Sam, who in a long monologue midway through the film tells Riggan that his dream of theatrical prestige is pointless in today’s world—performing a thirty-year-old story by a dead white guy for a thousand “rich, old, white people” is meaningless in the face of today’s only real source of power, popularity, and prestige: social media, which can reach millions in the blink of an eye. His work just does not matter. As if to underscore Sam’s assessment, on the play’s second preview night, Riggan accidently locks himself out of the theater, catching his robe in the locked door, and has to dash through Times Square in his tidy whities to come into the theater’s front door and make his next entrance—a video of which is tweeted and reaches 300,000 people before the performance is over.

So the film questions the purposes and effects of art, creating a dichotomy of theater vs. film (and the more extreme case of social media), of popularity vs. prestige, of meaningfulness for the few vs. mattering to the millions. Against Sam’s lambasting of theater art at one end of the spectrum are balanced Mike’s Broadway snobbery against film acting, and the powerful New York critic Tabitha Duncan (played, in another self-referential casting decision, by the distinguished London and New York theater actress Lindsay Duncan), who plans to “kill” Riggan’s play before she has ever seen it because she resents popular, untrained film actors foisting their amateurish productions on legitimate theater.

But a major thrust of the self-reflexiveness of Birdman is to blur the distinctions between theater and film. First, of course, the film is about the production of a play, and in it we return to the same two scenes of the play on three consecutive nights, so that the recursive narrative form forces us as viewers to apply those scenes to new things we have learned about Riggan’s life in the interval.

Second, the film seems much like a play: filmed on location at Broadway’s historic St. James Theatre in just thirty days, the finite setting has the feel of a staged play, and—because the dialogue drives the plot from beginning to end in a way that reviewers of today’s visual-heavy movies are likely to call “talky”—Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo have created a script that seems much more like that of a theater drama than a film .

And most stunningly, Iñárritu’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose long shot that opened last year’s Gravity netted him an Oscar, has outdone even that tour de force in Birdman, creating a film that has the appearance of consisting of a single long continuous take, emulating Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Birdman does in fact contain some transitions and subtle cuts, but the overall effect is astounding in its breathless motion, and more than that, gives the film the continuous action of a play—forcing its actors to perform as they would in a stage production as well. Thus the film itself provides in its own form a reconciliation of the popular and the prestigious, of the high art of drama and the popular culture of cinema.

I realize I have made the film sound like an essay on critical theory and aesthetics. But it is also popular entertainment. There are moments of broad humor—as Riggan runs through Times Square in his underwear, for instance, he is stopped by fans who want his autograph, (which he gives them)—but also moments of high drama. Keaton is more than just convincing as a self-doubting actor worrying about his legacy. He is also a father worrying about his daughter and worrying that he was not there for her or for his ex-wife, and he seems unaware that he is repeating those same mistakes with his current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). But more disturbing than these things is the voice that he hears consistently inside his head: it is the voice of his former Birdman self (a hoarse croak reminiscent—in the film’s metafictional way—of one of Keaton’s successors, Christian Bale, in his turn as Batman) that speaks consistently to Riggan about his Broadway project’s likely failure and the past cinematic glories he wants him to return to. On top of that, Riggan seems to seriously believe that he has telekinetic powers, and that, for example, he caused the light to drop in his first co-star to eliminate him from the play. He also seems to believe that, like Birdman himself, he can fly.

As an audience, we are inclined to believe that these things are all within Riggan’s own mind—particularly since the rest of the movie, like Riggan’s play and Raymond Carver’s fiction, is starkly realistic. The opening shot of the film, however, showed a rear view of Riggan in a yoga pose, hovering in the air. So we need to remember that Iñárritu has stated his literary influences have been modern Latin American masters like Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter is particular known for his use of “magical realism”—a style that blends magical or fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic narrative in a way that suggests a broadening of normal western conceptions of reality. Do these magical things really happen to Riggan? The film leaves the question open to interpretation, but Iñárritu definitely allows you to believe in them. After all, if we are going to have a film that blurs the distinctions between serious and popular culture, between high and low art, between drama and film, we need to include a blending of the cinematic magic of Birdman with the realism of Carver.

You shouldn’t miss this movie. Come Academy Award nomination time, expect Iñárritu to receive a Best Director nod. Lubezki is a shoe-in for a cinematography nomination, if not for the Oscar itself. Keaton’s performance is generating buzz for Best Actor nomination, and Norton and Stone could easily garner supporting nominations for themselves. This is an entertaining and an intelligent movie, well-acted and technically brilliant. Four Shakespeares for this one for sure.

StVincent3

Movie Review: St. Vincent by Theodore Melfi

RUUD RATING

St. Vincent
3 TENNYSONS

“It is what it is,” a bank clerk tells Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray) early in Theodore Melfi’s new film St. Vincent. Vincent, who has been trying to get some kind of relief from the bank because of his severe financial problems, responds that everybody says that nowadays, and what it really means is “You’re screwed and you’re gonna stay screwed.” It’s a set up for a scene later in the film when a nursing home administrator repeats the “It is what it is” line and we can see in Murray’s eyes the feeling that, once again, he knows what the cliché really means.

In a sense, this is a microcosm of the entire film. For no one going to this movie will fail to recognize that to a large extent, the movie itself is one big cliché. In the grand tradition of Bad Santa and Gran Torino, the plot of St. Vincent revolves around a relationship between a curmudgeonly, profane, and unlikeable old man and a young, pre-teenaged boy who is in severe need of a father figure—in this case the boy is Oliver, played by the surprisingly genuine Jaeden Lieberher. The crotchety old man turns out, of course, to have a heart of gold and teaches the boy valuable lessons, in particular how to defend himself against the bullies who are making his life miserable since he has started at his new school after his suddenly-single mother (in this case Maggie, played with unlooked-for restraint by Melissa McCarthy) has moved him to this place (in this case, Brooklyn). Can anybody say Karate Kid?

But just as Vincent looks through the verbal clichés he is fed by authority figures in the film, so first-time writer-director Melfi takes us beyond the formulaic motifs in the plot to something much more real behind them. While some reviewers might complain that Vincent’s transformation from drunken, gambling lout to heart-of-gold “saint” at the end of the movie is banal and unrealistic, I’d suggest they look at his character again: the fact is there is no transformation at all. Vincent is precisely the same person at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. It is what it is. He was screwed at the beginning of the film, and he is similarly screwed at the end. In the beginning, he lives in a rundown house, is in deep financial trouble, drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, and owes a good deal of money to the bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard). Few people like him, except for two regulars at the bar he hangs out in, an attendant at the nursing home that he visits regularly, and Daka (Naomi Watts), the pregnant Russian immigrant stripper/hooker whom he sees once a week (and to whom he also owes money). At the end of the film, almost none of this has changed. We still don’t know how he’s going to pay his bills, and whether he will ever dig himself out of his situation with Zucko. He hasn’t quit drinking or smoking. He has had some losses that make his life even sadder than it was before. It’s true that he has gained two new friends in Maggie and Oliver, and Daka has moved in with her baby—at least for now. But Vincent is no different than he was. And his life has not really changed. He was screwed and he is going to stay screwed.

But the audience, by the end of the film, has learned a lot more about Vincent. Twice in the script—once in addressing Maggie and once Oliver—Vincent declares matter-of-factly “You don’t know me.” The line is also directed in part at the audience, as a kind of warning not to judge him until you know his whole story. Much of his story does come out in the movie—but not all of it. We are given enough, though, to see that his kindness toward Oliver is foreshadowed in his kind treatment of Daka as well as his nursing home visits, which I can’t get into without a spoiler alert. We know some of the things that have caused his downward spiral. We find out about his record in Vietnam. But these are all things that happened before the timeline of the film. They have made Vincent what he is at the beginning. They don’t change what he is at the end.

For ultimately, this is a movie about character, and the story is secondary. And so we can forgive some of the unrealistic plot elements: How believable is it that a mother, even one fairly desperate for childcare, would hire a fairly obvious derelict like Vincent to babysit? And how likely would Vincent be to think that babysitting for twelve dollars an hour would somehow help alleviate his money woes? And is it really likely that a hard-drinking retiree could drag a twelve-year old kid around to bars and to the racetrack without his mother’s knowledge and without raising the eyebrows of anyone in authority? Finally, how likely is it that Brooklyn would consistently enjoy southern California weather in the middle of Oliver’s school year?

But it is difficult not to care about the characters in this film. Bill Murray has become a remarkably nuanced actor in his roles of the past two decades, in films like Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and his Wes Anderson vehicles beginning with Rushmore, and his turn as Vincent McKenna is natural, believable, and manages to makes Vincent a character with whom we sympathize without drowning the role in sentiment or bathos. Newcomer Lieberher makes Oliver a regular nerdy kid, and manages to make the character uncannily perceptive without making him cloying, cute, or affected. McCarthy is refreshing playing against type in a “straight man” role, with none of the broad humor we are used to seeing in her performances. Like Vincent, her character is a cliché—the newly single mother battling to keep her child with her and working long hours because her cheating husband won’t pay her child support. But through the formula we do see her own mistakes and weaknesses: she is no saint, but she is also not in need of “rescuing” as so many single movie mothers are. As for Watts, she has less to work with and a role that is mainly caricature, but there are moments—sometimes only in a facial expression—when she becomes more multi-faceted than might be expected. I should also mention Chris O’Dowd (McCarthy’s co-star in Bridesmaids), who is likeable as ever playing a Catholic priest who is Oliver’s teacher.

The one exception is Howard as Zucko the bookie. He is given almost nothing to do, and nothing in the script allows us to see anything other than the one-dimensional heavy. One wonders why an actor of Howard’s caliber would have taken this role, unless of course a significant portion of his role was edited out of the film’s final cut.

Ultimately, though, this is Murray’s movie. Apparently Melfi, who has been peddling this script for years, was finally able to get a meeting with Murray and sell the notoriously reticent actor on taking a chance with this first-time filmmaker. Murray’s association with the film doubtlessly helped land other talent in the likes of McCarthy, Watts, Dowd and Howard. But Murray’s performance is a memorable one, and one that some are already touting for a possible second Oscar nomination for him. Though that seems unlikely, since such honors do not often go to comic roles like this one, the performance does make this movie worth watching, and convinces me to give it three Tennysons.

fury

Movie Review: Fury by David Ayer

RUUD RATING

Fury
3 TENNYSONS

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” the war-hardened Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) tells his tank crew’s young untested new forward gunner Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma) early in David Ayer’s new devastatingly brutal World War II combat film Fury. The film, which Ayer wrote as well as directed, goes on to illustrate that concept in scene after scene, until it is pretty convincingly driven home. History itself may not be exclusively violent, but war certainly is, and what Saving Private Ryan did to undercut the naïve pretensions of films like The Longest Day, Fury does while undermining chauvinistic Hollywood productions like 1949’s Sand of Iwo Jima. Indeed John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker is the spiritual forerunner of Pitt’s Sergeant Collier: the tough, no-nonsense veteran whose harsh tactics are resented by new recruits but who proves in the end to be right all along. But by the end of Fury, it’s hard for moviegoers to view Collier’s methods uncritically, and it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that these soldiers are motivated by the chance to make the world a better place.

They are motivated by two things: First, they have been given an assignment and they are going to complete it. “Do your job,” the crew members of the M4 Sherman tank (nicknamed “Fury”) tell Norman again and again. Second, they are fighting for each other—to stay alive and to keep one another alive—to make it through this war. These are realistic motivations, not the motivations of celluloid heroes in propaganda movies. Collier has been with three of his crew since northern Africa ca. 1943: Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña, who was in Ayer’s End of Watch), the blunt, hard-drinking, but sympathetic driver; Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal, The; Walking Dead), the vulgar, ill-tempered mechanic; and Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), the born-again, scripture-quoting gunner who moves through the film with moist eyes and a faith that God is directing him through all of this. Collier has sworn to get his crew through this war alive, and has managed to get them as far as April 1945, the final month of the war, as the allies pushing toward Berlin are fighting stubborn resistance from surviving SS troops, women, and Hitler youth who make American pay for every inch of the Fatherland they seek to gain. The Germans must eventually surrender, but when Collier’s commander asks rhetorically “Why don’t they just give up?” Pitt’s character answers, “Would you?”

Norman becomes the fifth member of the tank’s crew, pulled from a clerk-typist job after eight weeks in the army to replace a gunner who has just been annihilated in one of these vicious last battles, and Norman (the “Normal-man”) becomes the character with whom the audience identifies: like Charlie Sheen in Platoon, Norman knows nothing when he arrives, and like the audience must be taught about tank warfare, and more importantly must have his “normal” morality driven from him so that he, like the rest of his crew, can survive this war—and help them survive it. When he fails to machine-gun a pile of apparently dead Germans as he is ordered to do, Sergeant Collier wrestles him to the ground, forces a gun into his hand, and makes him execute a German prisoner who is begging for his life and displaying pictures of his wife and children. Collier and Norman’s relationship is not unlike that of Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Ayer’s earlier screenplay for Training Day, and has some of the moral ambiguity of that film.

As the somewhat episodic plot moves on, Norman develops a healthy hatred of the “damn Nazis” and has little compulsion in blowing them away. He has become one of the crew, and he is baptized into their fellowship when they give him the “war name” of “machine”—as if he has been transformed into a Nazi-killing automaton. This aspect of the film is somewhat clichéd, but unlike other war films, in this one that transformation does not seem an unquestionably positive thing. It is difficult not to like the earlier Norman better than this one.

For one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking film concerns the changes that must occur in a man with a conventional moral sense when he witnesses and takes part in the atrocities of war. Do those changes make him better somehow? Do they “make a man” out of him, as Norman sarcastically asks after his forced murder of the prisoner? Or by hardening him to endure war’s brutality do they change him into someone unfit for normal society? Pitt’s character seems to feel this dehumanizing effect more keenly than others, and he can be seen in contemplative moments breaking down in private, when his shell-like veneer is momentarily let down. In one of the film’s most inventive and original scenes, Collier and Norman enter the apartment of two German women in a town they have just “liberated.” It is a surprisingly domestic scene—though there is some tension as the women are terrified by these Americans with guns and Norman is unsure what Collier has in mind for these women. Collier produces half a dozen eggs, takes the opportunity to have a wash, and encourages Norman to have sex with the younger woman: that proves a tender scene, though the shadow over it is the fact that these men have entered the room with guns and the whole American army at their back. But a peaceful, homey breakfast is interrupted by Bible, Gordo and Coon-Ass, who drunkenly disrupt the humane idyll and bring the brutality of the war, and the brutality of what war has made of men, into the scene.

That brutality is palpable in this film. Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasyanov have created a barren landscape of grays and browns, in which mud-colored vehicles and mud-colored infantry move through a landscape that is essentially mud. It’s a landscape in which the seed of life can find no purchase, like the surface of the moon or hell itself.

This atmosphere all leads up to the final shot of the film: a gray scene, photographed from above as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape strewn with hundreds of dead and intertwined gray German soldiers, surrounding the tank.

A number of reviewers have criticized the film’s final thirty minutes as a machismo display inconsistent with the weighty pounding of the “war is hell” message in the rest of the film. It’s as if Ayers decided that he wanted to put something into the film for everyone in the audience, and elected to end it with a hackneyed “last stand” of five brave Americans against hordes of evil but faceless bad guys, sure to appeal to action-movie fans who might have been bored up to this point. But such a criticism is, I think, unfounded for two reasons: First, it has been set up well in advance by Collier’s “wouldn’t you?” answer to the question of why men keep fighting when they know they cannot win. And secondly, the fight sets up what may be the most important, and ironic, incident in the film, for which I must declare a spoiler alert: Norman, having escaped from the tank, is hiding beneath it covered with the ubiquitous mud. He is spared by an SS trooper who finds him but decides neither to kill nor arrest him, gives him a suppressed half smile, and moves on. It is ultimately not the conditioned toughness of Sergeant Collier that gets Norman through the war, but rather the humanity of a German “Norman” who, at least momentarily, refuses to allow the brutality of the war to destroy his fundamental moral code.

These final scenes create a morass of ambiguities and ironies surrounding the American “rescuers” who collect Norman and call him a hero right before that final shot of the field of the dead. One is reminded of nothing more vividly that Tacitus’s description of the Roman army: “They created a wasteland, and they called it peace.”

This is a difficult film to watch, and an even more difficult one to enjoy. Ayer has gone to unprecedented lengths to recreate meticulously the precise details of tank combat and of the situation in Germany that last month of the war. So much has gone into this that one wonders if that is the extent of what Ayers wanted to do with the movie: present combat more realistically than it has ever been produced on film. But that hardly seems enough to carry a two hour movie. And there are so many ambiguities that it is difficult to be sure where the filmmakers stand, or where they want the audience to stand. The audience-surrogate, Norman, seems unsure just how to feel at the end. That may be what Ayer intends. In view of that uncertainly, I’m going to give the film three Tennysons.

Gone Girl

Movie Review: Gone Girl by David Fincher

RUUD RATING

Gone Girl
3 TENNYSONS

Gone Girl, David Fincher’s dramatization of the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn (who adapted her book for the film’s screenplay) opened on October 3, so this review is coming late to the party. But as might have been expected of a novel that has sold more than eight million copies since its release two years ago, people have been flocking to theaters to see it—fans of the book and others who have simply heard of it—and it has been the top-grossing box office film for two consecutive weeks. The movie, featuring Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher, The World’s End) as his wife Amy, chronicles a murder mystery that becomes stranger and stranger as the plot unfolds. The story is so full of twists and turns that it is difficult to summarize it without cautioning you all about possible “spoiler alerts” to come, but I shall attempt to do so without the need for such warnings:

The morning of his fifth wedding anniversary Nick Dunne leaves his home in the town of North Carthage, Missouri, and stops at a bar that he manages with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). Over an early-morning whiskey (it must be five o’clock somewhere) he vents to Carrie about the difficulties he has been having with his marriage of late. When he returns home, he finds his living room trashed and his wife missing. He calls the police, and Detectives Boney and Gilpin (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) visit the scene of the crime, where they find traces of what is apparently Amy’s blood on the scene.

Nick, who does not seem to be sufficiently distraught over his wife’s disappearance, becomes suspicious to both the police and the intrusive media, who are interested in the case particularly because Amy is something of a celebrity, having been the inspiration for a series of children’s books about a character called “Amazing Amy.”

As the film progresses, we are given alternate views of the events of the couple’s marriage, drawn from Nick’s statements to the detectives and contrasting entries from Amy’s diaries. Both seem to agree that after their meeting at a New York party and their whirlwind courtship and ideal early days of wedded bliss, things began to get more difficult for them when they lost their jobs in the publishing industry due to the recession, and when they moved to Missouri to be with Nick’s dying mother—and decided (well, Nick decided) that they would stay.

The accounts become skewed, though, after that, for whereas Nick cultivates the impression that the two were happily married (an impression we know to be false because of his previous conversation with his sister), Amy’s diary suggests a much darker relationship, one that involved incidents that have made her afraid of her own husband. Ultimately—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, since it is easily predictable from the beginning of the movie—Nick is arrested for Amy’s murder.

The charge may be a bit hard to prove without a body, but evidence does seem to point toward Nick’s guilt, and the media are particularly virulent in their treatment of him, turning him into “the most hated man in America.” Nick is essentially forced to hire celebrity attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who has made a career out of defending husbands afflicted with legal problems like his.

But this bare-bones synopsis cannot communicate the multi-layered texture of the film, which raises issues of marital fidelity, honesty, and trust (under what circumstances would one, or should one, choose to stay in a loveless relationship?); media involvement in high profile legal situations (what is the press’s responsibility to justice, fairness, and truth?); public persona vs. private character (to what extent might we manipulate our public image and thereby gain supports or rewards we may not in fact be entitled to?). In this way the film engages us on many levels.

On the other hand, there is a great deal in the plot of the film, particularly in the last half hour or so, that is hard for the viewer to accept. It is not simply that neither Nick nor Amy is particularly likeable—more to the point, they are both rather revolting, and in the end the audience ends up having to choose between the lesser of two pains in the ass. That is acceptable, because it is quite believable. The final plot twists ae so bizarre, though, that they strain credibility and audience sympathy.

Final plot twists aside, though, it must be stressed that Affleck, with his laconic presence and occasionally bland expression, is perfect for the part of Nick, who is hard to read and seems to investigators somewhat emotionless. Pike is also excellent in what may be a star-making role as a woman whose mendacity might make your blood boil. The rest of the cast is also excellent, in particular Perry who charmingly underplays his big-shot character; and Dickens (best-known for television work on shows like Treme, Friday Night Lights, and Deadwood) is memorable and—unusual for this film—sympathetic as the thorough and thoughtful local cop devoted to truth rather than public image. And then there is Neal Patrick Harris, who is incredibly creepy in a small role as one of Amy’s former lovers.

Fincher, known for his ability to build suspense and manipulate audience reactions in thrillers like Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac, does that here, especially though the alternation of narrative perspectives, using a he said/she said approach to move the audience’s sympathies between one character and the other until, of course, you don’t know who to trust, and the suspense is all that’s left. That and the rather extreme violence.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I have not read the book, but I understand that Flynn’s script is very faithful to her novel, and fans of the book do not seem disappointed in the film. For myself, I found some of the plot twists to be fairly predictable, though a couple did catch me by surprise. The film is suspenseful and thought provoking, but in the end I can’t say I was fond of this movie because I simply did not like the characters and ultimately (as Gene Siskel used to say) I did not care about them. However, I must admit that the story was interesting, the cast impressive, and the film well made. I’ll give it three Tennysons, but I probably won’t be watching it again when it comes out on DVD.

TheJudge

Movie Review: The Judge by David Dobkin

RUUD RATING

Gone With The Wind
2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

As of the writing of this column (Saturday, October 11, after having seen The Judge at our local theater), the Rotten Tomatoes rating of this film was at 47%. In contrast, the percentage of viewers who liked the film was listed as 77%. That kind of discrepancy is remarkable, and my first thought is, why such a difference between critics’ responses to the film and the general moviegoers’ reactions? It’s easy to imagine each side’s answer to the other: Critics might say, and do say, that the movie is a simple crowd-pleaser, telling a clichéd story in a way that makes viewers have a good cry and end up feeling good about the characters, themselves, and the whole world by feeding them sentimental drivel without serious exploration of characters or issues; or that director David Dobkin, best known for relatively mindless comedies like The Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights, has not been able to transcend that broad model in trying to make his first truly serious film. General moviegoers, on the other hand, might counter by saying that smug movie critics put too little stock in the emotional punch of a film, the profound effect that certain archetypal situations (in this case, the “prodigal son” story) have on audiences, or the valuable function of drama (whether live or recorded) to provide catharsis for its viewers at all levels. The critics want sophisticated art. The audience wants entertainment. Shakespeare demonstrated that a script can provide both, but unfortunately, everybody is not Shakespeare. And while it may be true (as H.L. Mencken said) that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” there is still a wide gap between The Judge and Duck Dynasty or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

The story of the film is this: hot-shot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), who has made his reputation and his fortune defending sleazy rich clients (“Innocent people can’t afford me,” he tells his rival attorney at one point) is suddenly called away from his current case—as well as his failing marriage—to return to his small hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for the funeral of his mother. After twenty years’ absence, he reconnects with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a one-time athlete whose dreams of major league baseball were ended after a car accident decades earlier, forcing him to stay on in Carlinville and run a tire shop; and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), an 8 MM film buff who is clearly somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum but whose old films serve to give us some sense of Hank’s childhood in Carlinville. Most importantly, Hank must endure his long-estranged father, the severe, autocratic and demanding Judge Palmer, played with remarkable insight and deftness by the 83-year-old Robert Duvall.

Hank, whose plan had been to slip into town, attend the funeral, and rush back to Chicago as quickly as possible, has to make new plans when the Judge is arrested for murder, having apparently run down a bicyclist in his Cadillac. The victim, it turns out, is a recent parolee whom the Judge had sentenced to prison for murder years before, and, to make matters worse, the Judge claims not to remember anything about the night of the accident. Hank feels compelled to defend his father, despite their mutual antipathy, and although the Judge at first tries to employ a local attorney, scorning Hank’s unsavory methods (“I want a decent attorney—and by decent, I mean honest” he tells Hank), eventually he accepts Hank’s offer to represent him, especially since the state has brought in its toughest prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) to conduct the murder case.

Predictably, the drama revolves around the relationship of Downey and Duvall’s characters, exploring the events that caused their estrangement, so that the murder case is a side issue of somewhat less importance than the familial ones. In the course of the film’s events, we learn the secrets of the Judge’s past, of Hank’s past, of Glen’s past. And revelations about the Judge’s health are not particularly surprising in this kind of film either. Predictably, as well, Hank reconnects with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga), now the owner of a local bar and eatery, and we learn how their high-school romance fits into Hank’s family history. And on top of all that, we learn that Dickham has his own axe to grind. I won’t reveal the ultimate verdict in the murder case, but I probably don’t have to reveal whether or not Hank and his father are reconciled in the end. But it may not be much of a surprise because, predictably, in a “crowd-pleaser,” things tend to work out well, even if they do so in a melodramatic fashion.

But leaving it at that does not do justice to the movie. Duvall is compelling and remarkable and sympathetic as the domineering Judge whose physical and mental powers are slipping from him. Downey demonstrates some of the boundless talent he displayed in his early roles, like Chaplin, though the glib, fast-talking, arrogant, amoral Hank of the movie’s opening scenes is no great stretch from Tony Stark of the Ironman series. Still, it’s a Tony Stark with an actual heart beneath his iron armor, and it is indeed a joy to see Downey in a role that gives him something more to do that merely dispense wisecracks and act cynical. His relationship with his daughter, played by the talented young Emma Tremblay, is believable and provides an interesting contrast of parent-child connections with his scenes with his own father.

There are some problems with the script, of course. For one thing, it’s too long. There is not enough here to sustain a 141 minute film. Some of the plot elements seem gratuitous and lead nowhere: The relationship between Hank and Samantha’s daughter, for example, is pointless and it takes attention away from the central concerns of the film. Hank’s relationship with his wife is undeveloped and we completely forget about it as the film goes on (and on, and on). Strong is given very little to do with the part of Dale, who seems to be nothing more than a generalized “mentally challenged” person without any truly distinguishing characteristics, except to present a problem that will need to be dealt with if the Judge is convicted and sent to prison. Also a bit annoying is the clichéd depiction of the small town life as idyllic compared with the evils of the big city—the cinematography makes Carlinville look like a Norman Rockwell painting (as my wife called it), but it’s actually pretty difficult to imagine why anyone would actually want to live there.

The worst part of the film occurs in the last fifteen minutes or so, when a climactic scene in court turns into a confessional of all kinds of family secrets from the witness stand, which is not only unrealistic in itself, but ties up the difficulties of the main characters’ relationships into a neat little box that makes everybody understand and, ultimately, leads to mutual forgiveness and blah, blah, blah. Prior to that scene, I was prepared to give the film a much higher rating, because it seemed to avoid the trap of simple solutions to very difficult relational problems, and to resist the easy sentimental reconciliation that so seldom actually takes place in real life. It’s the opting for the easy answer, not the clichés or sentiment, that bothers me most about this film. There are, I freely admit, some very nice parts of this movie, and I really wanted to like it, but it doesn’t all come together in a real way in the end, and I’m afraid that has to be put on the director. Sorry judge, I find you guilty of oversimplification. I’m going to have to go with two Jacqueline Susanns on this one.

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.