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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!

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Unsane

Unsane

Steven Soderbergh (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

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

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Love, Simon

Love, Simon

Greg Berlanti (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

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

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A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

Ava DuVernay (2018)

Southey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

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

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The Top 10 Films of 2017

Ruud’s Rankings: The Top Ten Films of 2017

The Oscars, Hollywood’s annual self-congratulatory wing-ding, is ready to air this coming Sunday evening, so it’s time once again for the obligatory “top ten” list. Let me first issue a disclaimer: I did not see all of the movies that came out this year. First, I skipped a lot of films that looked pretty awful and were getting terrible reviews from just about everybody. I also skipped pretty much all animated movies, mainly because my wife refuses to go to them with me, the spoilsport. As a result I did not see Coco, nor did I see Loving Vincent, both of which may have had a chance to make my list. Though there may have been another reason I did not see Loving Vincent: I don’t remember it coming to Central Arkansas, or if it did, it wasn’t here long. So there is another large category of films I didn’t see: foreign films, small independent films, or films that some executive somewhere decided didn’t have a market here, and so did not come or stayed for such a short time that I couldn’t get to them. So, for example, I did not see the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name, which very likely may have made my list. Still, I suspect I saw more movies this year than about 99 per cent of you all, so I’m gonna go with that.

As I wrote last year, if you read my reviews with any regularity, you know that my criteria tend to be more literary and less technical than a lot of film critics, simply because of my background. But I value a well- structured plot, interesting and well-developed characters, well-written dialogue, great acting, and interesting ideas more highly than cinematograph, editing, and visual or sound effects, though I’m certainly not indifferent to such things. With that in mind, here is my offering of the ten movies that, in my opinion, were the cream of the crop for the past year:

  1. Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)

A film that in many ways suffers from comparison with the more memorable and innovative Dunkirk, Wright’s film, which centers on the same dark hours of World War II, when all of continental Europe had crumbled before the Nazi war machine and England was in danger of losing its entire army, is nevertheless a sound achievement. This is chiefly because of Gary Oldman’s phenomenal portrayal of Winston Churchill. Oldman has to be the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for lead actor for this role: it’s often easy to overlook Oldman’s performances because he is such a consummate actor that he disappears into his roles, so that you don’t even realize there’s an actor there. He does so here, so that I’ll always believe it was Churchill himself I heard saying “Will you please stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you?” Essentially a biopic in the vein of Spielberg’s Lincoln, providing a telescoped view of the protagonist’s character and personality through an examination of his actions during a single critical moment of his life, Darkest Hour focuses on Churchill’s appointment as Britain’s Prime Minister during the darkest moment of her history, when many in parliament were clamoring to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill steadfastly refuses to negotiate, though it takes the remarkable escape from annihilation at Dunkirk to give him the opportunity to rally the British people with his rousing “We will fight the on the beaches” speech. “What just happened?” asks one member of parliament after that speech. He receives a reply that sums up the film: “He mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle.”

  1. I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)

Speaking of Oscar-worthy performances, Allison Janney’s turn as the foul-mouthed, bullying mother of Olympic skater Tonya Harding is almost certain to bring home the gold statue this Sunday. Margot Robbie as Harding herself is brilliant as well playing the first American woman to land a triple-axel in competition who was to become the most hated woman in the world. The film is also interesting in its nonlinear narrative structure, designed around documentary-style interviews with Harding, her mother, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Harding’s “bodyguard,” Gillooly’s delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). From these we get a running commentary on events as we witness them, and at one point even have Harding breaking the fourth wall when, running Gillooly out of the house with a shotgun, she turns to the audience to say “I never did this.” The storytelling technique makes it difficult to decide what the truth actually is. Beyond this, as I commented in m recent review, the film has a lot to say about cable news: “the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle, just coming into its own in 1994, to over-report and oversimplify stories, to craft them into the kind of hero-villain fictions that entertain audiences, and thereby to irresponsibly try cases in the media.”

  1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

I wasn’t as enamored of this movie as the Academy was, and thought the thirteen Oscar nominations the movie garnered were a bit extreme, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be somewhere on this list of the best movies of the year. Del Toro weaves a magic realist horror-romance with this film, created a post-modern fairy tale combining, as I said in my review, “the paranoia of cold-war monster films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon with folk tale motifs familiar from Beauty and the Beast or The Frog Prince.” With a protagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely woman unable to speak, who is best friends with a lonely gay man Giles (Richard Jenkins) in 1962 America, the film follows Eliza’s friendship and ultimately her relationship with an amphibious fish-man. Yes, it’s as weird as it seems and yes, it’s probably a metaphor. But again, as I said in my review, “In the end, this is definitely a film worth seeing. In combining a fascination with horror and the monstrous with a tone of fairy tale romanticism, in addition to its beautiful visuals all tinged with a bluish-green hue, this is a quintessential Del Torian film. The ensemble cast is one of the most impressive of the year, with Hawkins’ memorable hauntingly waif-like Elisa (brought to life without her saying a single word) leading the way, and Jenkins’ repressed and lonely Giles painfully sympathetic as well. Both deserve their Oscar nominations…It is certainly a good looking, well-acted film. It is certainly not a run of the mill Hollywood production, but surprises, delights and even astounds by turns.

  1. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)

Like several other films on this list, this was a film that rose above the formulaic requirements of its genre. In this innocent-eye initiation story Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leaves her home among Amazons in quest of her arch enemy, the god of war Ares, who she believes is behind the horrors of the first world war. As I wrote in my review, The film’s greatest asset is its star: Gadot is beautiful and formidable, but passionate and sympathetic like no other DC protagonist before her. This Gadot was worth waiting for. [Chris] Pine is likeable and believable as the American spy—indeed, the lone American is ultimately the noblest of the film’s male characters (a rather forceful contradiction of Fox news’ contention that the film is anti-American)…. But perhaps the greatest triumph of this film is finally, that Hollywood rarity, a woman director—and Jenkins has not made a feature film since her acclaimed Monster in 2003—has successfully delivered a big-budget blockbuster action movie, and one that, unlike most superhero films, has a heart.”

  1. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

Gerwig wrote and directed this episodic semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a high school senior yearning to leave her hometown for the sire ca of college in New York City. In many ways it is a traditional “initiation story,” but it transcends its genre in a number of ways, notably with its brilliant mother-daughter acting team of Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. But it has even more going for it. As I wrote in my review: “But what actually raises this film above the level of the genre is not the plot, which is pretty typical, nor the acting, which is not, but rather the treatment of the adult characters—those creatures from the other side of the Great Divide whose main purpose in films like this is usually to act as straight man to the jokes, or obstacles to the achievement of the New Society that the kids are striving for, or to act as impotent bystanders while the we-know-better kids save their world. But here the adults are real people who have lives and feelings of their own that do not simply revolve around the teenagers as the center of the universe. …Most significantly, there is Lady Bird’s mother Marion…. Metcalf has been nominated for a Golden Globe for this film, for playing a demanding, loving, frustrated and passive-aggressive mother to perfection. Like the other adult, she has a life of her own, a life troubled by overwork and financial worries. Marion’s relationship with Lady Bird is truly the core of the film, providing the glue that holds the episodic school year together. Gerwig knows exactly what kind of power mothers can exert over daughters with passive-aggressive comments that prick at their psyches and get them worked up like spurs in a horse’s side, and Metcalf delivers the perfect tone and expression. This is the relationship that has to work itself out in the film, and I won’t provide any spoilers about exactly how that happens. Like another of this year’s best movies, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this film recognizes that life does not contain great moments of closure when all questions are answered, and the participants’ fates are settled. So don’t expect a compete resolution. This is a film that rises to transcend its genre.”

  1. The Post (Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg directing Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a journalistic political thriller? What’s not to like? Though there seems to be a direct correlation between the story of the Pentagon Papers and contemporary conflicts between the press and the president, here’s what I wrote about the film in my review: “Still, the film makes no obvious or blatant references to contemporary events. Essentially the movie is one of Spielberg’s recent historical political thrillers, like his Bridge of Spies or even Munich, but it also very consciously belongs to the genre of films about investigative journalism that stretches from The Front Page and His Girl Friday through Call Northside 777 to Zodiac and The Paper, ultimately to Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Oscar winning Spotlight. While Spielberg’s film does not rise to the level of the undisputed classic of this genre, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), The Post is a noble and notable addition to this hallowed list. The scenes that focus on the old time linotype machines and hard-copy print runs, especially at a time when printed newspapers are losing readership daily, give the film a nostalgic feel, as if we’re back with Charles Foster Kane—whose line “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper” is echoed in Hanks’ line as Ben Bradlee, ‘My god, the fun!’ as he glories in the midst of his working on the story of the Pentagon Papers.” So yes—see it for the fun!

  1. War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)

This may seem an odd choice to appear so high on this list, and the Academy saw fit to nominate the film for just one award, in visual effects. It is certainly deserving of such an award: as I said in my review, “Andy Serkis, who first introduced audiences to the astounding possibilities of motion-capture technology in his creation of Gollum for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is nothing short of amazing in creating Caesar—there is not a single moment during this film that you do not believe wholeheartedly that Caesar is real.” But the film has much more going for it than special effects. Again, as my review noted, “Some have called the film an allegory. It isn’t, by a strict definition of the term, for an allegory is a narrative in which abstract concepts are represented as physical objects or characters. But it is certainly true that the film’s story recalls other familiar narratives and invites comparisons through biblical, literary or historical allusions. One of these, perhaps the most obvious, is the narrative of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt under Moses. The apes flee war and slavery, led by their charismatic leader Caesar, the new Moses. There is no Sinai experience or handing down of a new Law, but there is a sort of “Red Sea miracle” late in the film, and the recreation or mirroring of those events does create a good deal of sympathy for the apes and for Caesar, just in case you were inclined to root for the humans. The “let my people go” inference all but forces us to think of the apes as those “people,” and to believe, like them, that all reasoning beings should be free. Nor is it a coincidence that the Exodus experience, as evinced in old spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” was used by slaves in the old South to parallel, even to represent in coded language, their own plight and drive toward freedom—for many Americans perhaps a stronger incentive to sympathize with the enslaved apes in the film. The humanizing of the apes is also a reverse parallel to the tendency of nations—or at least of their governments—to de-humanize other peoples whom they have decided to categorize as enemies. Such dehumanization—categorizing certain groups as “less civilized” or “more barbaric” than we are, justifies our actions when we oppress, enslave or annihilate them. There is no doubt that dehumanization of Jews, categorized as “vermin” by Nazi propaganda, ultimately made the Holocaust possible. Thus it is not surprising that the apes in the movie are locked up in a camp that bears a striking resemblance to Dachau or Auschwitz—all that’s missing is the “Arbeit macht frei” sign on the gate. Contemporary political rhetoric that suggests Muslims or Mexicans/Mexican Americans are somehow inferior, less civilized, more barbaric, than we are allows the denial of their civil rights to be seen as acceptable. It’s no accident that the Colonel in this film is using slave labor to build a wall.”

  1. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

While I liked this film when I saw it, I like it even more now, having spent months going back to it in my mind. I think it’s the kind of movie that gets better the more you think about it. Aside from the spectacular scenes of the thousands of soldiers on the beach, the most remarkable thing about the film is its innovative storytelling technique. In telling the story of the improbable rescue of 400,000 British and allied troops from massacre at the hands of the Nazi war machine in 1940, Nolan chose a nonlinear narrative, and as I wrote in my review, does so “from three different perspectives: One view is through the experiences of one lone, frightened British private named (what else?) Tommy (played by young newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who is just trying to get out of Dunkirk and go home by any means possible. A second focuses on Dawson (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), the civilian skipper of one of those small recreational craft (the “Moonstone”) commandeered in Dover to cross the channel and help ferry men from the beach. The third point of view is that of RAF pilot Farrier (played by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hardy, disguised in a helmet that covers his face for the entire film), who gives an aerial perspective of the whole situation, while blasting at German warplanes bent on sinking as many Allied vessels as possible. Nolan alternates between these three perspectives, but the narrative is more complicated than that. Each of the three perspectives is set in a different time frame as well. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film when the graphics identify each story. The first, Tommy’s story, is called “The Mole” …. This section is given the timeframe “one week.” …The second section, “The Sea,” follows Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who hops aboard on a whim, as the three of them cross the channel to ferry men home. … This part of the story, we are carefully told, has a timeframe of one day. The third timeline, “The Air,” lasts just one hour, and focuses on Farrier and two other spitfire pilots chasing German warplanes across the sky, Farrier trying to save as many soldiers as he can while fighting against time and a damaged fuel tank as well as the Luftwaffe.…This triple perspective has the effect of forcing us to see the overwhelming experience of Dunkirk not as a simple story with a single narrative arc, but as the complex event that it in fact was. It also forces the viewer to be more actively involved in the process of the story, not unlike a postmodern novel.”

  1. The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)

This film didn’t come out during Oscar season, and was largely forgotten in the nominations, but was without question the most original and affecting comedy of the year. The film was written by Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and his wife Emily V. Gordon (played in the film by Zoe Kazan) and tells the barely fictionalized story of their meeting, breakup, her life-threatening sickness, and Kumail’s forced intimacy with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) during her illness, and the film turns out to be just as much about their relationship as it is about Kumail and Emily’s. As I say in my review, this is a film that you go to “to get a glimpse of a very real relationship among characters with very real emotions and things to say, all of which is done with a comic tone that just makes you leave the theater feeling good, like, say, some classic screwball comedies. Except, of course, those classic comedies would have never had the girl in a coma. For that matter, they wouldn’t have had a Pakistani Muslim romancing a white American graduate student from North Carolina. The film does have the effect of making us see such a relationship as normal. Kumail is charming and funny playing himself. Kazan is charming and funny playing somebody else, and is a sparkling presence in the film even though she spends half of it in a coma. … Hunter is phenomenal as Emily’s mom, making you feel every bit of her terrified concern for her daughter, her anger at Kumail, her frustration with the medical professionals, her outstanding issues with her husband. And Romano is just as likeable as he was in Everybody Loves Raymond, but adds a depth to his character that he could never show in his TV personality. Together they put together that extreme rarity in current American cinema—a film in which people actually talk to each other, and talk in ways that real people actually do.”

  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

This is so obviously the best picture of the year that if it doesn’t win the Oscar there ought to be an investigation. With Frances McDormand turning in her most memorable performance since Fargo, and Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell turning in brilliant Oscar-nominated performances, the ensemble acting in this film is stellar. McDormand and Rockwell should win in their categories, for my money, though it’s possible Harrelson might syphon off some votes from Rockwell, who is absolutely astounding in this film. As I wrote in my review: “McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose frustration over the lack of progress in her daughter’s case leads her to rent three billboards near her home outside of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The first reads “Raped While Dying”; the second “And Still No Arrests”; and the third “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The bold protest is noted almost immediately by Ebbing police officer Dixon [Rockwell] riding by in his squad car. Dixon informs the police chief, William Willoughby [Woody Harrelson), who is just sitting down to Easter dinner with his family. At this point you are almost certain to be making assumptions about how this film is going to progress. Willoughby, you are likely assuming, is an incompetent good ol’ boy running a corrupt police force, and Mildred’s billboards are going to either shame him into solving the case or anger him into stonewalling and carrying out a police vendetta against Mildred and against poor Red Welby… the local advertising representative who has provided the billboards. But one thing this film teaches you quickly is that any assumptions you make are almost certainly destined to be wrong. Turns out Willoughby is as decent a cop as you’re likely to find, in real life or the movies, and he’s well-respected in the town. …And it is from Dixon that we do see some of the backlash we may have anticipated coming at Mildred from the town police. But if you’re hoping to see Dixon get his comeuppance, once again you may be only partly satisfied, but then you may also be surprised. And if you’re expecting this film to be a whodunit and anticipate the kind of closure that a solved mystery gives you in the end, expect to be frustrated. This just isn’t the kind of film that wraps things up neatly, or gives you that warm and comfy sense of closure. More than almost any film you can name, this is closer to real life than a narrative. And in real life there are no neat denouements.”

Honorable Mention: Get Out, All the Money in the World, Spiderman: Homecoming, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

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Black Panther

Black Panther

Ryan Coogler (2018)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Chadwick Boseman has so convincingly made a career out of playing iconic African American figures—Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall—that it should come as no surprise that in Black Panther he transcends the iconic and enters the realm of the mythic. Boseman’s T’Challa, king of the (fictional) central African nation of Wakanda, who as reigning monarch also possesses the superhuman strength and abilities of the Black Panther, is mythic in two senses of the word: He is an exaggerated and idealized representative figure of the black people of the African continent and its diaspora, and he is a figure whose story embodies archetypal tropes, symbols, and patterns drawn from Karl Jung called the collective unconscious of the entire human race. This film appeals to viewers on their deepest level.

It is no fluke, then, that this past weekend Ryan Coogler’s new film of the Marvel superhero grossed more than $200 million. It was the largest opening for a film ever on Presidents’ Day weekend, the largest ever for any film released between January and April, and the fifth largest opening for any film ever. But not only are audiences flocking to see the film at a rate that should push it over the half-billion mark in earnings before its domestic run ends sometime in April, critics are just as enthusiastic about the film, recommending it at a level of 97 percent on the Rotten tomatoes.com Website.

It’s interesting to note the parallels between Coogler’s film for Marvel and last year’s hugely successful Wonder Woman in the DC comics universe. As the Wonder Woman character (played by Gal Gadot) was first cautiously introduced in a supporting role in a film that featured the surefire box office draws of Batman and Superman in Dawn of Justice and then went on to prove that a female superhero with a woman director (Patty Jenkins) could bring home a huge blockbuster superhero action movie, so the Black Panther character first appeared in the guaranteed megahit Captain America: Civil War in 2016 before exploding on the scene with his own film and demonstrating conclusively that a black superhero with an African American director (Coogler, who was previously known for Fruitville Station and Creed), can do precisely the same kind of thing.

The film opens as T’Challa returns home to assume the mantle of king in the wake of his father’s assassination. His home nation of Wakanda is in fact the world’s most technologically advanced country (due to their great deposits of a miraculous metal called vibranium). But Wakanda’s wonders are hidden from the rest of the world, for whom they masquerade as an impoverished third-world country, keeping their wealth and power a secret for the protection and development of their own people, and so as not to lose their traditional way of life. T’Challa takes on the role of king and Black Panther and, in a traditional ceremony to assume the kingship, must do battle with a challenger of royal blood in order to prove his worthiness to assume the role. We feel that he is indeed worthy—he is dignified, decisive and wise. But we sense there may be difficulties ahead: In a kind of mystical conversation with his deceased father T’Chaka (played by veteran South African actor John Kani) in a mythic meeting recalling Virgil and Dante, dear old Dad tells him “You are a good man, with a good heart…And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”

In his new role, T’Challa is protected by a red-uniformed Praetorian guard of spear-wielding, shaved-headed women, led by the indomitable Okoye (Danai Gurira of TV’s The Walking Dead). His country also has an army headed by T’Challa’s close friend and Okoye’s romantic interest, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, currently Oscar nominated for his star-making role in last year’s Get Out!)

T’Challa is motivated by his father’s memory, but also by his love for Nakia (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave). Nakia is a spy whom we first see on an undercover mission to rescue a group of captive Nigerian girls, and therefore she has some differences with T’Challa about how much the Wakandians should be doing to help oppressed people in the rest of Africa, a view shared by W’Kabi. This difference of opinion is similar to a more serious conflict that T’Challa’s father had with his late uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown of TV’s This Is Us). T’Challa’s relationship is much better with his own sibling, his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, best known from TV’s Humans, in what for her could be a potentially star-making role). Shuri is a scientific genius who shows T’Challa a plethora of vibranium-based gadgets that put Q’s toys for James Bond to shame.

The conflict that sets the plot of the film going involves an old enemy of Wakanda, a South African smuggler and weapons dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes, in a rare non-CGI role). Klaue has resurfaced years after a terrorist-style theft of some Wakanda vibranium that happens to have killed W’Kabi’s father, and T’Challa leaves his throne to apprehend Klaue—a task that proves easier said than done as Klaue has weapons powered by stolen vibranium and is also assisted by a dangerous American black-ops veteran named Erik Killmonger (played by Coogler’s favorite actor, Michael B. Jordan, who starred in both Creed and Fruitville Station). It is Killmonger who becomes T’Challa’s chief antagonist, as he makes his way to Wakanda itself to challenge T’Challa for the throne.

His connections to the royal family surprise everyone in the capital, and his plans for Wakanda’s future are more in line with W’Kabi’s or Nakia’s, but with an added penchant for violence and thirst for personal power. With their closeness in age and kinship, T’Challa and Killmonger are literary doubles in this archetypal story, Killmonger serving as T’Challa’s other self, what he might become if he followed the paths that W’Kabi and Nakia would have him follow. After what becomes an archetypal descent and rebirth—similar to that other mythic character, Gandalf from Lord of the Rings—T’Challa returns, with greater resolve and self-understanding, to fight a final epic battle against Killmonger. That last might sound like a spoiler, but indeed this would not be a superhero movie without a final epic CGI enhanced battle of epic proportions.

What Black Panther does not do that other superhero movies do is pit the hero against some alien invaders or rival supervillains. Antagonists here are human, and the dangers not potential annihilation by invaders from outer space or another dimension, but human dangers of international conflicts and threatened race warfare, and this in itself ensures that the film is more immediately relevant than, say, Thor. Furthermore, this is a film in which black actors take center stage as both protagonists and antagonists, with the white actors relegated to the roles—of secondary villain (Serkis) or wisecracking sidekick (The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K. Ross)—traditionally given to African American actors in other superhero flicks.

Black Panther changes that dynamic. In doing so it becomes a showcase for a kind of who’s who of African and African diaspora actors, including the always welcome Forest Whitaker as the ceremonial elder Zuri (who has his own secrets) and veteran star Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s stately mother Ramonda. More importantly, Black Panther transcends the typical genre-movie by the characterization of Killmonger. Jordan’s swaggering presence nearly overshadows Boseman’s quieter, more earnest presence, and he also has legitimate grievances and understandable motivations that make him a fairly sympathetic villain—or would do so if we didn’t witness him performing a few unjustifiable acts.

Ultimately Black Panther is not just a rollicking good superhero adventure, it’s also an important movie in a number of ways. And it’s a well-made and well-acted film. I’m going to go ahead and give it four Shakespeares. Try and stop me!

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

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Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson (2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering, Phantom Thread, seems at first to be a strange choice for a Best Picture nominee. Though critics have been effusive about the film, actual audiences have been less than thrilled. With a 69 percent audience-approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com (in contrast with a 91 percent critics rating), this film has the lowest audience approval score of all the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar—and that rating is from people who went to the film knowing something about it and expecting to like it. One wonders, for instance, why Phantom Thread received the nod over, say, I, Tonya, or (from much earlier in the year) The Big Sick, both of which were well reviewed but also very popular with audiences.

Perhaps to some extent the Best Picture nomination was the result of looking at the film as the sum of its parts, since it was also nominated for five more Academy Awards. One of these, for Costume Design, it probably has a lock on winning. It’s a film about fashion design, and therefore is full of luxurious and colorful haute couture. If Mark Bridges wins this Oscar, it will be well deserved. Also nominated is Jonny Greenwood for his original score. Greenwood, who rose to prominence as guitarist for Radiohead, first worked with Anderson on his film There Will Be Blood in 2007, and has scored every Anderson film since. He mixes classical pieces with compositions of his own in the score to create an effective and haunting musical background for the film’s action. Such as it is.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be snide, but I did find the film quite slow moving and, frankly, pretty dull. Which may have something to do with the lower audience approval rating for the film. Film audiences like to see a story that moves along. Film critics are fascinated by visuals, and often think of plot and character as something secondary. It’s not such a mystery, then, that critics would love this film, which is gorgeous to look at, and ignore the parts that put me to sleep (I admit I’m old and go to sleep pretty easily). The Academy seemed to feel the same as the critics, rather than the audiences, and also nominated Anderson for a Best Director Oscar, while we moviegoers might be scratching our collective heads over a category that would nominate Anderson for this film, yet fail to nominate Martin McDonagh for the brilliant (and never dull) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, There Wil Be Blood, Lincoln) is nominated for another for his role as Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer for the rich and famous in 1950s London. By reputation as fastidiously devoted to his art as the character he is playing, Day-Lewis has proclaimed that this is his final role before retirement, having opted to partner once more with his director from There Will Be Blood. Woodcock, who might more accurately be named Peacock, is a spoiled, narcissistic, artistic “genius” whose world revolves around his entitled self and who expects it to remain that way. A confirmed bachelor, he spends his opening scene in the film berating his latest romantic interest for daring to bring sticky buns to the breakfast table and insisting quietly but petulantly that he “cannot have conflict” at breakfast. Having completely alienated the audience with barely three lines of dialogue, he assents to his sister Cyril’s offer to send the woman packing.

Cyril, played with perfectly restrained imperiousness by Lesley Manville (Another Year, Mum) is Reynold’s business partner and the person who actually seems to insulate him from the real world and the consequences of his self-centered, antisocial, insensitive and sometimes downright cruel behavior, and though she appears in the beginning to be just another person he runs roughshod over, we realize as the film progresses that she is in fact the dominant person in the relationship, and the only one that Reynolds cannot bully, and who can tell him to shut up in a way that he will actually listen to. Manville, too, has been nominated for an Academy Award for her skillfully underplayed portrayal of the power behind the throne.

Strangely, the actor who in many ways dominates the movie (but whom the Academy did not see fit to nominate) is Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps (The Colony, Hanna) who plays Alma, Reynolds’ new romantic interest, model and muse, and without whom, seriously, nothing in this movie would happen. Reynolds meets her in another breakfast scene: After he has left the mansion that doubles as his studio for one of the few times in the film, he stops at a seaside resort where Alma is the shy, rustic waitress who is fascinated and charmed by the (significantly) older man’s flirtatious breakfast order, which consists of tea, bacon, scones, Welsh rarebit, butter, jam, and oh yeah, a few sausages as an afterthought. Before long Alma has become his muse and model and new live-in lover.

Cyril assumes at first that Alma will be just like all the rest: a temporary port in the storm of Reynolds’ egomania. But he surprises her, and everyone else, when he in fact finally decides to marry the new girl. But Reynolds’ relationship with her is basic narcissist behavior: He showers her with apparently loving attention in the beginning of the relationship, only to withdraw that approval and consistently find fault with her tastes, her looks, her cooking, her behavior and everything else once he essentially has her in his clutches.

The twist in the film comes when we realize that Alma is not the naïve innocent she has appeared to be, and as events take a surprising turn or two, the mansion turns into a psychological battleground of sado-masochism that we didn’t really see coming.

The film had opened with a close-up of Alma, discussing her relationship with Reynolds. We think she’s talking directly to us at first, until the camera pans back and reveals a man who has, presumably, been questioning her. It is not until much later that se realize the man is a doctor. What she is saying to him, and us, is that Reynolds has made her dreams come true, and, she claims, “I’ve given him what he desires.” It’s not until he end of the film that we realize in full exactly what this means.

Despite skilled performances by all three principles, the lush costumes and moving score, this really doesn’t add up to a great film. For my own taste, I didn’t even find it a very good film. It wasn’t just that I found the film soporific, or that there’s virtually no plot as I’ve already mentioned, or that I didn’t find the characters at all likeable (though I didn’t). It’s also that I didn’t find anything in the film that explained why the characters were the way they were. There is a strange obsession that Reynolds has with his dead mother, which may explain his devotion to his sister and his desire perhaps for a dominating mother figure. This might explain his childishness, but not so much his cruel narcissism. As for Alma, she is a complete cypher. How did this young woman with the Luxembourgian accent find her way to rural Britain in the 1950s? What is it she wants out of this relationship? We know absolutely nothing about her background or her motivations. Perhaps this is deliberate, to make her turn in the end more of a surprise, but it certainly doesn’t make her more sympathetic.

I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. You might like it if you’re not too much into plot, character, or pace. I wasn’t so keen.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

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

i-tonya-1508426635

I, Tonya

I, Tonya

Craig Gillespie (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Just in time for the winter Olympics, Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) revisits the big story of the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer: the worldwide scandal featuring American figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. If you were alive and in any sense conscious in 1994, you will remember how Harding was implicated in a crude attack on Kerrigan that broke her kneecap at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships seven weeks before the Olympics and became, by virtue of that incident, the best-known and most hated woman on the planet.

The timing is also fortuitous in another way: During this Oscar season, I, Tonya is being shown in theaters (not many, as it turns out, in central Arkansas—you can only see this at Breckinridge) at the same time as another highly publicized film, The Post, which revisits another significant moment in recent history, the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Whereas The Post demonstrates the best that journalism can accomplish—the necessary role of a free press in keeping the government accountable to the people, I, Tonya portrays the opposite—the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle, just coming into its own in 1994, to over-report and oversimplify stories, to craft them into the kind of hero-villain fictions that entertain audiences, and thereby to irresponsibly try cases in the media.

Certainly Harding was no saint and the film does nothing to imply that that is the case. But in its complex depiction of the actual human being (from several points of view), and in the vigorous, athletic, and brash portrayal of her by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), we are introduced to a Harding that gains our grudging sympathy even as her life appalls and horrifies us.

This is more or less a biopic, though it is occasionally fictionalized, and it is structured around documentary style interviews (recreated from the ESPN documentary The Price of Gold from 2014, as well as some more recent interviews conducted with the principals by screenwriter Steven Rogers). The story is told by Harding, her vile, bullying and outspoken foul-mouthed mother (played with delicious obnoxiousness by Allison Janney), her dim-witted and abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan of Logan Lucky and the Captain America movies), and her deluded, self-aggrandizing bungler of a bodyguard, Gillooly’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser of TV’s Kingdom), and thus it follows a nonlinear narrative that is only generally chronological. The characters comment on the action as we witness it, through interviews, voiceover, and occasionally through the breaking of the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience, as when Harding, chasing Gillooly out of the house with a shotgun, turns to the camera and says, “I never did this.” The multiple perspectives combine with the occasional fictional elements to create a story that makes it difficult to know precisely what actually happened. What we can be fairly certain of, however, is that, surrounded by knaves and fools as she was her entire life, it would have been a miracle if Harding’s life had not turned out to be a disaster.

The story begins in Tonya’s childhood, when her mother, chain-smoking at an ice rink, effectively forces Tonya’s first coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson of TV’s The Red Road and Masters of Sex) to take the 3-year-old into her figure skating class. We witness the young Tonya, abandoned by her father and consistently abused both physically and emotionally by her mother—who refuses to allow her daughter to take a bathroom break from skating practice, forcing her to urinate on the ice, ultimately leave school at 15 to devote herself full-time to skating. She predictably leaves home to be with Gillooly, the first male to pay any attention to her, only, inevitably, to suffer more physical abuse from him.

Embattled at home, we see Harding at the same time fighting a disgusting form of class discrimination on the ice. The insidious snobbery becomes clear as we see Harding on the sidelines fuming at her scores, then charging the judges’ table demanding to know why, when she had clearly demonstrated an athleticism superior to the other skaters, the judges failed to give her the marks she was sure she deserved. When the female judge tells her condescendingly that there were flaws in her “presentation”—the go-to excuse in a totally subjective sport for a judge to give any sort of score in a whim—Harding tells her in a rage to “suck my dick” (something that actually did not happen, though the rumor is that when Harding saw the film herself, she said she wished she had said it). In a later scene, a somewhat more in-control Harding accosts a male judge in a parking lot after a competition and asks why she cannot get a fair score, he honestly tells her that, with her homemade costumes and her working-class background and tumultuous family life, she simply does not project the image of the idealized princess that the world of figure skating wants to embrace for the Olympic games: “You’re representing America, for Christ’s sake.” There is a heart-rending simplicity in Tonya’s response: “But why can’t it just be about the skating?”

The answer, of course, as the film makes clear, is that it was never just about the skating. If it were, Harding would have been far more respected than she was. The reason for this is her unprecedented performance in the 1991 Skate America competition. To understand this, you have to understand some of the technicalities of figure skating. First, the “axel” jump (named after the Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen, who was the first to perform the jump in 1882) is a jump that required a forward takeoff with an extra half a rotation, performed by a skater who takes off from the left forward outside edge and lands on the right back outside edge after a rotation. A double axel (not performed in competition until 1948) required two and a half rotations before landing, and a triple axel three and a half. Before 1991, no American woman had ever performed a triple axel in competition, and Tonya Harding did it twice during that 1991 Skate America. Only eight women in history have ever performed this jump in competition, and until 2017 Harding had remained the only American woman ever to do it. When this triumphant moment occurs during the film, Robbie-as-Tonya during the faux interview tears up, and says “nobody ever asks me about that anymore.”

When the film does get to this point it sets the stage for what everyone involved refers to as “the incident.” Harding is put on a collision course with her chief competitor in American women’s skating, Nancy Kerrigan, the embodiment of wholesome and privileged social in-group the judges are looking for to represent America. As competition becomes keener, Harding receives a death threat (yes, this is one of the verifiably true parts of the plot), and in retaliation, Gillooly decides they should send a similar threat to Kerrigan, which a distracted Harding apparently consents to, and Gillooly makes the monumental mistake of turning the project over to the inept and delusional Eckhardt What begins as a kind of retaliatory prank turns into a “hit,” for which Eckhardt hires two comically bungling thugs who manage to cripple Kerrigan with a retractable police baton, breaking her kneecap after a practice session in Detroit.

What follows most of you will remember, but I won’t talk about it in case some of it falls into the “spoiler” category. But the media explosion is well documented, as tabloids and new “news” channels leaped on the story, since it gave them the sympathetic princess in Kerrigan and the obviously guilty white-trash villain in Harding, who goes, as she says, from being the most admired woman in America to being the most hated, to ultimately being a punch line—an arc punctuated in the film by David Letterman’s “Top 10 Things Tonya Harding said to Connie Chung…” that plays in the background as Tonya eats a TV dinner alone. The ultimate question of Tonya’s guilt is never absolutely clear, since we can’t necessarily believe what she says—or, for that matter, what anybody in the film says. This is a darkly comic movie in which the characters are so bizarre they cross over into comedy, but it’s a laughter in the face of darkness, since it distances us from child abuse, spousal abuse, class bias, and criminal assault. Perhaps that distance allows us to see things more clearly.

The film contains memorable performance by Robbie and Janney, both of whom are deserving of their Oscar nominations announced last week. Janney already has a Golden Globe for her work. These portrayals of mother and daughter, and the effective retelling of a story we only thought we knew, are enough to make this film one of the year’s must-see pictures. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Bleak-Empty-Sea-Tristram-Mystery/dp/1893035735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503328086&sr=1-1&keywords=Bleak+and+Empty+Sea

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

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.