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!

Sicario

Movie Review: Sicario by Denis Villeneuve

Ruud Rating
SICARO
4 Shakespeares

Not far into Denis Villeneuve’s new film Sicario, a military officer asks Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) if she wants to see some “fireworks,” and takes her up on a wall where she can look across the border from El Paso to Juarez and watch the bursting shells of warring cartels and police firing across the skies of Mexico’s border city. As she stares with wide, innocent eyes, I am reminded of the Do Long Bridge scene in Apocalypse Now, when Willard and an LSD-tripping Lance watch shells bursting in the dark, and Willard asks a soldier “Who’s in command here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?” The moral ambiguity of that film, in which—as in the story that inspired it, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—the only way to deal with evil or savagery or lawlessness is to become evil, savage and lawless yourself, is the same ambiguity with which this film deals.

Sicario covers some of the same territory as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic did fifteen years ago, but demonstrates how much the situation has deteriorated over the years. In Traffic, we at least had an uplifting feeling at the end that Don Cheadle on the American side and Benicio Del Toro on the Mexican side might be scoring small victories in what is most certainly a complex situation. Well, Benicio Del Toro is back in Villeneuve’s film, but playing Alejandro Gillick, a character who, if he ever had any hope, lost it long ago.

The word “Sicario,” we are told in an opening headnote to the film, was a word for a zealot in ancient Israel. The contemporary term refers, though, to a “hitman” in Mexico. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that it is Alejandro to whom the title refers.

But Kate is the film’s protagonist. She is the leader of an FBI SWAT team operating out of Phoenix. In the movie’s first scene she and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) lead a team into a suburban house where they find dozens of bodies stuffed behind dry wall. While they investigate the rest of the premises, two of Kate’s team members are killed when they inadvertently trigger a booby-trap bomb.

Kate is recruited by a cross-agency team led by the shadowy Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who may be CIA but we never actually know, and Alejandro, who may be a former Mexican prosecutor, or a representative of the Colombian cartel, or something completely different. In any case, the goal of this task force, they tell Kate, is to bring down the kingpin of the Sonora cartel, who they tell Kate is responsible for the corpses she has just found, and the bomb that killed her team members. She is more than willing to join. She believes she will be bringing these drug kingpins to justice. Matt is less interested in Kate’s partner, though, because he learns that Reggie has been to law school, and, he says, he doesn’t want any lawyers along on this mission. We quickly see why—this group engages in activities that are not strictly speaking legal. Let’s just admit it: Everything they do is completely illegal, not to mention unethical and immoral.

But no one will tell Kate any details about what the group is doing, whom they represent, or what their objectives are. Kate is still idealistic enough to believe in the rule of law, and is appalled by the first mission she goes on, which is marred by an extremely tense border crossing in bumper-to-bumper traffic surrounded by cars any of which might be carrying cartel members ready to blow her and everyone else away. Or maybe they are just citizens of Juarez carrying guns for protection against the rampant violence. It seems everyone is armed and no one is innocent.

Brolin as Matt is a loose, sandals-wearing jokester for whom everything seems to be a game and who ultimately you come to realize must be lying because his lips are moving. He does convince Reggie and Kate that their objective is the drug lord himself, but just how true that is and what the details of that mission are Kate will never know. Still trying to follow legal procedure, Kate and Reggie at one point believe they have enough evidence against the cartel’s representative in Arizona that they are ready to arrest him and bring him to trial, but no one wants that: Kate’s FBI boss, played by Victor Garber, points out to her how arrests in her jurisdiction have more than doubled in the last year, but when he asks her what difference it has made on the street, she has to admit it has been none at all. Units like Matt’s and Alejandro’s, apparently, are the new normal.

And why is this? Matt brings the facts home forcefully to Kate when he justifies the existence of his task force: As long as 20 percent of Americans are going to keep providing a market for drugs, the supply is going to be there, and the only thing that can be done is to try to give that supply side—the warring cartels—some sort of order. That seems to be Alejandro’s purpose.

Kate does provide a focal point for the audience. Nearly every scene in the film is through her eyes—sometimes even literally, like the scene filmed through her night goggles in an underground passageway that crosses the border between Mexico and the United States. Like Kate, we begin perhaps idealistically, only to have our clear vision of right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, stripped away layer by layer until we find in the end, as Alejandro says at one point, nothing but packs of wolves on both sides.

There are only three sequences that do not involve Kate’s point of view. They are about Alejandro’s brutality and the selling-out of a Sonoran policeman. They serve, even more than the scenes Kate witnesses, to underscore the moral ambiguity of what might be jokingly referred to as “law enforcement,” but what is in fact just another wolf pack. Perhaps that is what really lies behind Matt’s sometimes disturbingly ironic view of the game: He sees the absurdity of it all.

As does the audience—along, finally, with Kate—by the end of the film. Somewhat like Soderbergh’s Traffic, this film doesn’t really provide any answers, but tries to present a starkly realistic picture of the current situation. In doing so, it forces the viewer to ask hard questions. We don’t know what kinds of questions Kate will be asking herself, but one that comes to mind is the obvious: If you become as bad as what you are trying to fight, then what have you gained? Another might be this: If control is the only thing that can be hoped for, why doesn’t the United States legalize narcotics and control them, and cut out the cartels and the attendant violence they bring with them?

This is a thoughtful movie that definitely deserves its R rating (I would pay attention to that if I were you). But it is definitely one of the best movies to come out this year, though its complexity and non-Hollywood, non-audience-pleasing ending may cut down on its box-office gross. I’m going to give it four Shakespeares.

martian

Movie Review: The Martian by Ridley Scott

RUUD RATING
The Martian
3 TENNYSONS

Think Castaway meets Apollo 13, with special 3D effects from Gravity, and you will have a pretty good idea of what you’ll get if you go to see Ridley Scott’s epic new film The Martian, based on the novel of the same name by Scott Weir. In Drew Goddard’s screenplay, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a 21st-century Robinson Crusoe, assumed dead and inadvertently stranded by his crewmates on a manned mission to Mars when they lose him in a storm. They believe him dead after learning that his pressure suit has been punctured by flying debris and he is losing oxygen.

So what do you do when you’re alone on Mars with enough food for say, a year if you ration it carefully, and you have no way of communicating with your mission control 50 million miles away on Earth, but you know the next manned mission to Mars won’t be coming for another four years, and it’s going to land someplace 3,200 kilometers from where you are now?

For most people, the answer would be to throw up your hands, and either eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die, or end it quickly by stepping out onto the Martian landscape without the protection of a pressurized suit, to burst apart in the hostile climate, or alternatively curl up into a self-pitying ball and despair until you succumb to hunger or thirst, and perish not with a bang but a whimper.

But not Mark Watney. After groping his way into the small enclosed sleeping quarters he and his crewmates had established, he pulls from his abdomen the communications antenna that pierced him in the storm and nearly killed him, then staples his wound shut and records a message on a computer to the effect that he has been left by his crew and can see no other fate but death by starvation or dehydration. Watney spends a day in shock and gloom, but he picks himself up and gets to work. Watney, it turns out, is a can-do kind of guy, an optimist who seems convinced there isn’t a problem he can’t solve. So things seem impossible? Well, as he says, he’s just going to have to “science the s__t out of it.”

Crusoe-style, Watney (a trained botanist) sets out to use his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to survive. He creates an indoor farm with Martian soil and fertilizer created from, yes, his own waste, and plants potatoes, using a small stash of spuds intended for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner to create a crop, manufacturing water by burning rocket fuel. Meanwhile, a NASA engineer (played by Mackenzie Davis) notices that things have been moved on the Martian surface, and realizes that Watney must still be alive. Thus begins a scramble at NASA to figure out how Watney might be rescued.

NASA in this film is peopled by a host of A-list actors taking minor roles in Scott’s epic: Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA, trying to protect NASA’s reputation and standing while, secondarily, trying to save Watney. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is Vincent Kapoor, the director of the Mars missions, and has different ideas about rescuing Watney by adding another earlier mission. Kristen Wiig is the PR director at NASA, who gives advice that the director ignores and doesn’t have much else to do except look worried a lot. Then there’s Sean Bean, who plays Mitch Henderson, the crew director, whose only actual concern is with saving Watney. Benedict Wong (whom Scott had used in his 2012 Prometheus) is noteworthy as director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, which must work double-time to try to get some kind of rescue mounted.

As for Watney’s crew, on their way home from Mars on a journey that will take months, Sanders makes the decision not to inform them that Watney is alive, thinking the situation will distract them from their mission home. Jessica Chastain is Melissa Lewis, commander of Watney’s Mars mission, feels some regret over the loss of Watney, and when she and her crew, played by Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan, finally learn of Watney’s survival, they feel a huge responsibility. But no spoilers here.

The point is that all of these actors, in supporting roles, are there holding up the earth-end of the movie, but from beginning to end it is Damon’s film. The movie succeeds only if Damon succeeds in putting his part over. Furthermore, unlike Apollo 13, which makes NASA the real star of the film and shows the ingenuity of the team at NASA in finding creative solutions to a nearly impossible situation, The Martian shows the infighting at NASA nearly scuttling the rescue effort, and it’s really Watney himself who is chiefly responsible for his own salvation. And it’s really Damon’s performance that makes this movie worth seeing. His Watney has enormous charm and a sense of humor that comes out in the video log he keeps, which is also, of course, the movie’s way of letting us into his thoughts and plans even though he is the only person on the planet—the log is for Watney what Wilson the soccer-ball is for Tom Hanks in Castaway. Watney solves one problem after another, ultimately finding a way to communicate with NASA and help in his own rescue effort. And though setbacks occur, he bounces back from despair each time and maintains his positive attitude.

This unflappable nature might be seen as a flaw in the film, in Watney’s character or Damon’s performance. But Watney does show weakness after each setback. He’s simply able to bounce back. He worries about his parents, and tells Lewis to carry a message to them if he doesn’t survive. He breaks down completely at the point of his rescue. His survival depends on his positive attitude and on his science, and if he does not focus on these things he will not live.

Another weakness that some might see in the film is its very nuts and bolts approach to space travel. This is not Star Wars—it’s no romanticized space opera. Nor is it 2001: A Space Odyssey, filled with mystical wonder. Space travel is a problem to solve in this film, as it was in Apollo 13, as it was to some extent in Gravity. It’s a “realistic” space movie, set in the near future, based on the assumption that human beings could solve the problem of getting to Mars and, if necessary, might solve the problem of surviving on Mars.

More than anything it is a movie about the human spirit, about human ingenuity, about the horizons of science, at a time when there may be a lack of faith in human achievement. If Matt Damon can survive on a world completely hostile to human habitation through the effective use of science, ingenuity, and a positive attitude, is it not possible that our own world, threatened by environmental damage and human industry run amok, can become a place where all of us humans, marooned here by necessity, can find ways to survive, if we just have some faith in science and our own ingenuity?

Mars looks appropriately red and barren in the film, the cinematography of which is sometimes beautiful, but like most 3D movies, there isn’t much point in your seeing it in 3D. But I’d definitely recommend seeing the movie—in 2D if you can. Damon’s performance is worth watching, the ingenuity of the problem-solving is entertaining, and the last twenty minutes or so will have you on the edge of your seat. I’m giving this one three Tennysons.

psycho

Movie Review: Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock

“Mother isn’t herself today.”

The iconic lines, images, and incidents in Hitchcock’s classic thriller have become clichés of the modern cinema. Every slasher film from Halloween on essentially re-enacted Hitchcock’s notorious shower scene, and Norman Bates has become the prototype of the psychotic serial killer. The haunted Victorian mansion, the corpse in the cellar, and the glorious black and white with its menacing shadows link Hitchcock’s film to previous classics of the horror genre, but places those motifs in rural America. And thus gives birth to what might be called the post-modern cinematic thriller.

But it was not always thus. Some of the initial reviews of Psycho were as confused and unappreciative as many in the initial audiences. It’s well-known that, despite Hitchcock’s long string of critical successes in the 1950s, from Rear Window and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much through To Catch a Thief to Vertigo and North by Northwest, Paramount had so little faith in the project that it would not put up the money to make the film. After all, Vertigo had not been a big box office success, and the subject matter of Psycho—Joseph Stefano’s screenplay was based on a 1959 book by Robert Bloch about Wisconsin’s favorite psychotic serial killer/cannibal/necrophiliac Edward Gein—did not promise to be particularly palatable to moviegoers of 1960. Hitchcock raised and invested $800,000 of his own money (a bargain- basement low budget even for 1960). He claimed that the film was made in black and white because the audience could not take seeing all the crimson blood if the film were in color, but let’s face it, it was a good deal cheaper to shoot in black and white. Of course, Hitchcock ended up making a lot of money on the movie, as it reportedly became the highest grossing black and white film since Birth of a Nation, but it was still quite a gamble.

And some initial reviewers were as unenthusiastic as Paramount about the film. A movie critic for the London Observer observed that the shower scene was “one of the most disgusting murders in all screen history….It might be described with fairness as plug ugly. Psycho is not a long film but it feels long. Perhaps because the director dawdles over technical effects; perhaps because it is difficult, if not impossible, to care about any of the characters.” This same critic didn’t have much to say about the shocking twist at the end of the film: as he writes, “I couldn’t give away the ending if I wanted to, for the simple reason that I grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business that I didn’t stop to see it.” Thus this particular critic could be forgiven for commenting that the disgusting Norman Bates has an even more disgusting mother.

With an objection that might be taken somewhat more seriously, a writer for the Nation worried over the way the film delved into the psychology of a depraved mind, something he considered unfit for the screen:

“Psycho puts you in the position of rubbernecking at the horrors of the diseased mind; it makes you feel unclean. I am sorry to lecture so, but on all sides I see statements to the effect that good old “Hitch” has done it again. If that means that he has repeated the happy thrills and mystifications of The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps, it is nonsense. In, Psycho, Hitchcock is not an entertainer, but a pander of vicarious perversion.”

There is no denying that the film acts as a window on private lives, and places its audience quite deliberately into voyeuristic positions, as with Norman (Anthony Perkins) we gaze through his peephole into the room of Marion Crane (nominal star Janet Leigh), who in only 45 minutes of screen time spends most of it parading around in variously colored brassieres and, ultimately, gets naked for the shower. Of course, she’s doing all this in her private room (though John Gavin is there part of the time), and we’re just peeping in.

One early critic who did give Psycho a rave review was a part-time, fill-in film critic for the New York Village Voice named Andrew Sarris. In his now famous review, Sarris wrote that Hitchcock’s film made all “previous horror films look like variations of ‘Pollyanna’,” and that the movie was “overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as public swamp.” As for the famous ending, Sarris said “the solution of ‘Psycho’ is more ghoulish than the antecedent horror which includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed….Such divergent American institutions as motherhood and motels, will never seem quite the same again.”

With all this baggage, it’s very difficult to attend a screening of Psycho today and try to imagine seeing the film for the first time. But that is what I tried to do in watching the TCM-sponsored 55th anniversary screening of Hitchcock’s movie this week at a local theater. And it was only partly an act of imagination, because in fact it was the first time I had seen the movie on the big screen.

The movie does suck you in with a Phoenix hotel-room scene between Marion and her lover Sam Loomis (Gavin) in which, while you’re watching Marion in her lingerie, the two discuss their problems—Sam cannot marry her because his alimony payments to his ex-wife make it financially impossible for him, and so they must continue to meet in secret. Of course, 55 years later, that premise is not so believable, since no one would blink at their extra-marital affair (particularly since they are unmarried and well over 21) and no one would expect that Marion would be quitting her job to get married, so Sam’s financial problems aren’t so compelling. But we understand Marion’s motivations when, seeing the opportunity to take $40,000 in cash from a rather sleazy customer in her real-estate office, she grabs the money and leaves town, planning to drive to Sam’s home in Fairvale, California. As an audience, we are with Marion all the way—we want her to make her love life work, we don’t care about the obnoxious character she robbed, and we are as nervous as she is when she is stopped by a menacing California state trooper who seems suspicious of her. When, after an exhausting drive, she stops outside of Fairvale at the deserted Bates Motel, she spends some time talking to the odd, nervous, but pleasant manager Norman Bates, we see him as an interesting development—a socially awkward young man with the odd hobby of taxidermy, a mama’s boy who seems to be interested in helping her (he makes her a sandwich) but is browbeaten by his mother. Marion sympathizes with him and suggests he should leave his mother and go off on his own. And it appears that answering his questions has made her rethink her own actions, since she bids him goodnight saying that she plans to rise early in the morning to head back where she came from. We begin to think that maybe she’s going to give the money back and face the consequences. Even when we see Norman watching her through his peephole, we remain convinced that this story is all about Marion.

And then she gets into that shower. It soon becomes clear that Hitchcock has been misleading us from the beginning: the $40,000 is just what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin: a gimmick that propels the plot of the story until we get into what the story is really about. It’s really about brutal murder, apparently serial murder, by that same mother who mercilessly nags poor hapless Norman. We see the shadow of the old woman on the shower curtain, we see the knife in her hand rise and fall, we see Marion screaming, trying desperately to protect herself as she stands literally naked, with nothing but her bare hands and arms to protect her. We see the blood swirling down the drain, and we see the drain morph into the open, lifeless eye of Marion as she lies in the bathtub, the lifeblood draining out of her body and down that black-and-white drain.

What we never see is the knife enter Marion’s body. And this is where Hitchcock differs from his cheaper imitators in the slasher genre: Hitchcock uses his own technical expertise (that same expertise that the Observer reviewer pooh-poohed in his short-sighted review), including the shrieking violins of Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, which are more effective in terrifying the audience than more “realistic” sound effects would have been. And so as the $40,000 sinks with Marion’s car and her body into the swamp, Hitchcock has successfully shifted our attention, and our sympathy, to Norman. Turns out the movie is really about Norman, with his pitiable subjection to his invalid mother, and his understandable motivation to shield her from the consequences of her psychotic actions: “Mother just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes.”

We do have conflicting loyalties, I think, as we hope that Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), aided by Martin Balsam as the private investigator Arbogast, will find out the truth, but we still sympathize with the essentially likeable, shy, awkward Norman, who hopes they don’t. The murder of Arbogast comes as another shock, but it is certainly less effective for today’s audience than it would have been in 1960. Playing with his technical toys again, Hitchcock shows Arbogast in close up as he falls down the stairs after being stabbed, utilizing a back-projection technique that makes it seem as if the floor is coming up to meet us. In our age of post-Star Wars and computer-generated special effects, the shot appears clumsy to modern eyes—it’s a shot that has not aged well.

But just as effective as ever is the climactic scene of the film, when Vera Miles finds “Mrs. Bates” in the basement of the spooky house, and discovers she is a corpse preserved by her son’s taxidermy, just before the knife-wielding Norman enters, dressed in mother’s clothes, hoping to add a third corpse to his recent binge. When Aristotle, the world’s first drama critic, talked about “reversal” as the most important part of the dramatic plot, he particularly had in mind the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, where Oedipus finds that the killer he has been looking for is himself. By instinct or design, Hitchcock creates in Psycho a similar reversal, wherein we as the audience discover that the murderer we’ve been looking for is, in fact, the character we may have been identifying with. No wonder Hitchcock’s publicity for the film begged viewers not to reveal the ending.

Psycho is not a perfect film. The last several minutes, in which Simon Oakland as a psychiatrist who has examined Norman rambles on and on about what precisely has caused Norman to act in this way, is frankly absurd. A few remarks would have sufficed. Just why Hitchcock would have chosen to do this at the end of such an intense film is a mystery. In his much later review, Roger Ebert wrote “I have never encountered a single convincing defense of the psychiatric blather.” My own theory is that Hitchcock, anticipating reviews like the earlier quoted ones from the Observer and from the Nation, took this opportunity to demonstrate without ambiguity that he was not making this film simply for the sake of sensationalism, but was seriously exploring the human psyche. He may even have had the motion picture Production Code in mind, proving that the film had “redeeming social value.”

Much of the film’s effect depends on Anthony Perkins’ tour de force performance. I assume it was his previous depiction of the emotionally troubled ballplayer Jimmy Pearsall in the 1957 film Fear Strikes Out that led Hitchcock to cast Perkins in the role that defined his career, but the film’s chilling last shot of Perkins as the “mother” who “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” looking straight at the audience with what is almost a smirk from beneath lowered brows makes an unforgettable impression, and finally includes with a wink—and implicates—the voyeuristic audience. Like Sophocles’ Oedipus, Psycho examines our pity and fears in a way no prior American movies—and precious few since—have been able to do. This is why Psycho is still a classic, and, despite its flaws and some of its dated aspects, still deserves four Shakespeares.

BlackMassJD

Movie Review: Black Mass by Scott Cooper

RUUD RATING
Black Mass
3 TENNYSONS

In his new gangster drama Black Mass, Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) doesn’t bring anything particularly new or innovative to the American crime drama. You’ll find yourself mentally comparing it to Goodfellas and especially The Departed, and it doesn’t have as much to offer as last year’s A Most Violent Year, but it does give Johnny Depp a good chance to remind us why he has been seen at times as a candidate for the outstanding actor of his generation. After a series of somewhat awful roles (Mortdecai? Dark Shadows?) and some just plain inexplicable ones (Alice in Wonderland? Into the Woods?) Depp returns to form playing Jimmy (don’t you dare call him “Whitey”) Bulger, mob king of South Boston and No. 2 on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for a dozen years (after Osama bin Laden).

With a pasty white face, receding hairline, lightened hair, a darkened front tooth and eerie blue contacts lenses, Depp inhabits the role of this real-life gangster (a figure Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed was loosely based on) and brings him to life as the embodiment of a sociopath. Though there are a few attempts to arouse some audience sympathy in scenes where Bulger displays affection for his small son, his elderly mother, and his (apparently honest) politician brother, it never quite does the trick. His advice to his son about dealing with another boy at school—“Hit him when nobody’s around. If nobody saw it, it didn’t happen”—is the code of the sociopath. And his private interactions with others, most memorably a feigned sympathetic visit to his partner’s wife, played by an excellent Julianne Nicholson (August Osage County), in which he terrifies her and essentially eliminates any chance of audience sympathy, demonstrate how he lives by that code.

Depp is riveting in the role, but what the audience does not get from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s script is a real motive. Why was James “Whitey” Bulger the person he was? There are scraps of evidence: apparently he has always liked being a “big man”—we’re told more than once how everybody looked up to him as a kid. Greed? Sure, there’s no lack of that. And maybe his decade of imprisonment at Leavenworth and Alcatraz served to harden him. But essentially it’s the pathology that gets the biggest play, and when you play a person who lacks normal human empathy, it’s virtually impossible to make an audience sympathize with you—or in fact to relate to you on any level.

The story of the film begins in 1975, when a former neighborhood kid and now FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns to South Boston with a plan to enlist his boyhood idol Jimmy Bulger, leader of the Irish Winter Hill Gang, to help him bring down the Italian mafia, the Angiulo Brothers, who run North Boston. Connolly first approaches Jimmy’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a state senator and the most powerful politician on the south side. Billy cuts Connolly off, but does deliver the message to Jimmy, who is reluctant to turn FBI informant but, when one of his Winter Hill gang is killed by the Angiulos, agrees to work with Connolly.

Connolly’s FBI boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) is uncomfortable with the arrangement to say the least, and insists on a “no murder, no drugs” policy on Bulger if he is going to remain an FBI informant. On his side, Bulger’s second in command, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), dislikes the deal from the start, but when Jimmy tells him “It’s a business opportunity: to get the FBI to fight our wars against our enemies, while they protect us and we do whatever the f— we want,” reluctantly agrees to soldier on. Under FBI protection, Jimmy has a free rein to run numbers, drugs, fix horseraces, get involved in jai alai scams in Florida and IRA gun running in Northern Ireland. And commit plenty of murders, all in violation of his FBI agreement, which has given him carte blanche to build himself into one of the most ruthless gangsters in American history.

With Depp as the monster, the human interest in the movie really gravitates toward Edgerton as Connolly. Edgerton, who directed and acted in The Gift, in theaters earlier this summer, is compelling as Connolly, who has the real character arc in the story. He begins as an apparently well-meaning officer of the law, back home in South Boston with a plan to bring down the mob. Of course he wants to show off in front of his old neighborhood crowd, and he particularly wants to impress Jimmy, whom he seems to have idolized growing up. But he wants to show off his hometown to his wife Marianne (Nicholson), and it is through her eyes that we see the changes in Connolly most vividly. He rises in the bureau, gaining praise and respect as the man who brought down the mafia boss of Boston, while at the same time he is enjoying the fruits of Jimmy’s nefarious activities—expensive suits, jewelry, parties. He insists that honor, friendship, and loyalty mean more than any of his wife’s abstract ethical schemes, but Marianne sees more clearly what he has become, one small compromise at a time, until he has lost his moral compass completely. Even her leaving him does not seem to clarify his moral vision.

The film is graced by a host of terrific performances by characters in smaller roles. Cochrane (Argo) is gut-wrenching as Jimmy’s lieutenant, ordered to clean things up whenever Jimmy goes berserk and kills an informant, or even a small time prostitute (a memorable but brief appearance by Juno Temple) who could conceivably become an informant. Cochrane’s restrained disgust, like a devil grown sick of hell, is haunting as the film moves toward its climax. David Harbour (Quantum of Solace) as Connolly’s partner John Morris is nearly as moving as a foil to Connolly, going along unquestioningly with the scheme until the enormity of what they have been doing comes home to him and he realizes they are about to go down. Peter Sarsgaard (Jarhead) is memorable in a small role as a drug addicted hitman who makes the mistake of informing on Jimmy to the wrong FBI agent. And Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) is impressive as a tough new prosecutor who refuses to fall for Connolly’s glad-handing and makes it his business to bring down Jimmy.

But it is Benedict Cumberbatch who makes the biggest impression, and remains the biggest wasted opportunity, among the smaller roles in the film. It’s puzzling at first to see Cumberbatch, after the great critical success of last year’s The Imitation Game, in this small but important role, but he was actually cast in the spring of 2014, well before the success of that film. As Billy Bulger, president of the Massachusetts State Senate for 18 years and later president of the University of Massachusetts, Cumberbatch plays a tough but honest politician who manages, at the same time, to remain loyal to his criminal brother. The story of their relationship would have been at least as fascinating as the FBI connection. But it seems that neither Billy nor Jimmy Bulger has ever been willing to discuss that relationship with anybody outside the family.

This is not a great film, but the performances make it a very watchable one. Three solid Tennysons for this one.

Wilson

Movie Review: No Escape by John Erick Dowdle

RUUD RATING

No Escape
2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Not far into John Erick Dowdle’s international thriller “No Escape,” American businessman Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is trapped on the roof of his hotel along with his family and dozens of other refugees from a popular revolution that has rebels combing the hotel killing anyone they can find. A helicopter is heard, and Jack and the others heave sighs of relief, believing it must be a rescue coming from…somewhere. Perhaps the central government that they believe might actually still be in power somewhere. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Turns out it’s just more of the rebels, and they take to gunning down everyone on the roof from the helicopter. When that fizzles, a horde of the rebels break through the door onto the roof and begin systematically murdering everyone in sight. Jack shows some initiative and realizes that if they can get to the roof of the building next door, they may stand a chance. His wife Annie (Lake Bell) jumps first, and then Jack must toss his two daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), across a frightening chasm between buildings. In this they are assisted by an anonymous stranger, an Asian man who helps the family survive. After Jack leaps to safety the anonymous Asian tries to make the jump himself, but is gunned down by the rebels instead. Jack and his family race off without a backward glance. Not another thought is spared for the dead Asian man.

We are meant to feel relief—the Americans have escaped with their lives. The only thought the audience is meant to have—and I suppose the only thought the director and the writers (Dowdle and his bother Drew) seem to want us to have—is relief, and oh boy, did you see how that other guy got blasted? Good thing it wasn’t one of us. And that’s why the rooftop scene is in fact a microcosm of the entire movie. Nobody matters but us—or our surrogates, the American Dwyer family.

Don’t get me wrong, though, the rooftop scene is harrowing, intense, and powerful. It is also the last worthwhile part of the movie. From this point, the family simply bounces from one perilous scene to another. There really isn’t a plot in this movie, just a series of more and more improbable escapes, until the movie has gotten long enough, and then the improbable escapes come to an end.

What passes for a plot is a particular situation: Jack is an American engineer whose own business has failed and who is now employed by a new company. His new employer has sent him to a dirty city somewhere in Southeast Asia. We never know quite where, and I suppose it doesn’t matter, since as far as the script goes, Asians are interchangeable and disposable. Just before Jack arrives with his family, a revolution has begun, the main purpose of which seems to be to slaughter all Westerners and anyone who does business with them. Some three quarters of the way through the film, Pierce Brosnan, playing a British (or Australian?) undercover agent, explains that the rebels are angry that the previous government made a deal with Jack’s company that will allow them to monopolize the water treatment facilities in the country—and will maximize profits on this goodwill gesture, on the backs of the common people.

Nothing else happens with this information. It is a one-time bit of exposition that gives the rebels a motive, and explains why they are so tenacious in coming after Jack. It doesn’t permeate the film or lead to any insights among the audience or among the characters—Jack’s only response is, “I thought we were the good guys.” How do we read that? It never comes up again. It’s just background for the interminable escapes that follow.

Owen Wilson deserves little of the blame for this mess. He plays against type in a serious role as a “regular” guy with a wife and kids, whom circumstances turn into something of an action hero. The same might be said for Lake Bell, and together they make a sympathetic couple. We have to root for the family, because they do have a chemistry.

But chemistry isn’t enough to save this film. It needs a plot. It needs a theme. It needs something more than a series of episodes in which we are meant to say “Oh no! How are they going to get out of this one?” It needs a more detailed setting—Where are we? It seems like it ought to be Thailand. Or Burma. But apparently, we learn at the end, it is a country bordering on Vietnam—and so must be Cambodia or Laos? It’s a curious path of rescue for western capitalists. One wonders if there may be some kind of deliberate irony there. But given the simple-minded approach taken in the rest of the film, it may be simply that Vietnam was the only Southeast Asian country the writers knew the name of.

I’m giving this one two Jacqueline Susanns, but only because of the first half hour, and because of the admirable acting done by Wilson and Bell, who must know they are in an absurd film, but give it their all anyway.

phoenix

Movie Review: Phoenix by Christian Petzold

Ruud Rating
PHOENIX
4 Shakespeares

If you’re in the mood to read a movie this summer, you could do a lot worse than catching Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” now showing in Central Arkansas after its wide U.S. release in mid-August. In German with English subtitles, Petzold’s film is set in post-Holocaust Berlin, and is filmed in the noir style characteristic of the late-40s era that it recreates. You feel while watching it that maybe it should have been made in black and white.

“Phoenix” follows Auschwitz survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a former cabaret singer, who is brought back to Berlin by her friend and protector, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), to have reconstructive surgery on her devastated face, which was ravaged by a gunshot just before the camp was liberated. Nelly is a shattered survivor, who learns from Lene (who has been vigilantly searching records of the death camps) that she is her family’s only survivor and that she has a substantial inheritance coming from Swiss bank accounts. Lene wants to move with Nelly to Palestine, to settle along the beach in Haifa, there to help build a Jewish homeland. Nelly wants only to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the love of whom, she feels, helped her survive the death camps. But Lene insists that it was in fact Johnny who turned Nelly in to the Nazis.

Undeterred, Nelly searches the nightclubs still scattered among the rubble of the city, and at one, named the Phoenix, she finds her pianist husband. But Johnny (now called Johannes) does not recognize her, the surgery having so changed her face. Still, he thinks she bears a resemblance to his wife, and hatches a plot to use the false Nelly to claim his dead wife’s inheritance. So begins a bizarre game of Pygmalion, in which Johnny tries to transform the traumatized post-Auschwitz Nelly into the real Nelly, as he knew her before the war.

The film keeps you guessing throughout: Is Lene justified in her suspicion of Johnny’s complicity in Nelly’s arrest? Can Nelly trust Johnny’s apparently sincere loving memories of his wife? If Lene is correct, will Nelly’s love of Johnny blind her to his betrayal? Does Lene have her own agenda that keeps her from understanding Nelly’s need to find and assess her husband? And at the bottom of it all, as my wife put it, do you really have a self if the one who loves you does not recognize you?

The film is suspenseful, and it builds to a stunning climax that will make you want to talk about it for some time after you see it—my wife and I smiled as we left the theater listening to the people around us burst out with their opinions of what had happened—then having left the crowd we burst out with our own. As my wife, a fiction writer herself, pointed out, the film has the quality of a finely wrought short story—self-contained, possessing a tight unity of action, with an ending that is suspenseful, surprising, yet inevitable.

Sure, the film is melodramatic in a way that seems out of step with contemporary films, though is completely appropriate for films of the late 1940s. And yes, there are parts of the plot that seem to stretch the limits of our willing suspension of disbelief. How could you not recognize your own wife, even if you had been convinced of her death? Why would a woman want to reunite with the person who in all likelihood had betrayed her to what he thought was certain death? But if you accept these things, thy do not detract from the story. And (despite my wife’s description of the story as self-contained), it is possible that we are not necessarily meant to take the story literally—or at least, not only literally.

Petzold’s films tend to be about Germany itself as much as they are about the individuals portrayed in their plots. His previous film, the acclaimed “Barbara” (2012), also starring Nina Hoss, was set in East Germany in the 1980s, and explored the limits of freedom under an oppressive government. This story, very loosely adapted by Petzold and Harun Farocki from a French novel Le Retour des cendres (Return from the Ashes) by Hubert Monteilhet (previously adapted as a 1965 British film starring Maximillian Schell), is very deliberately set in Berlin, and Petzold purposefully makes the characters German rather than French. It is no accident that Nelly tells Lene that she was not Jewish, or that when the surgeon asks her why in 1938 she, a Jew, would actually return to Germany from London, she has no answer. There is a kind of allegory going on here, in which Nelly represents those non-observant Jews who had so assimilated into German culture that they were shocked with disbelief when their own friends and neighbors, their own beloved countrymen, turned on them and gave them up to the Nazis. Johnny, who represents those very Germans (a point underscored by his insistence that she now call him “Johannes”), refuses to face his own guilt, wants to think of his former partner, the Jew, as dead and gone, and (like Nelly herself) wants to pretend things can go back to normal. Is he Petzold’s embodiment of post-war Germany? And Nelly, who desires to return to the past, saying she no longer has an identity, with Lene, who cannot live in the present, feels a greater bond with the dead, and now hates the land she grew up in, do they represent two Jewish reactions to the end of the war?

The film, released in Germany last year, has already received a number of international awards, including accolades for Kunzendorf as Lene as “Best Supporting Actress” from the German Film Awards. Hoss is mesmerizing as Nelly, dragging the ruined shell of her body around the ruined shell of Berlin, and gradually transforming into her earlier self, but with a new albeit wavering inner strength. Zehrfeld is excellent as well, a con-man but one who may well have loved his wife, not a complete villain but someone who, when push comes to shove, cannot be relied upon. He can subtly betray a hundred emotions at once with the expression on his face, as he does at the film’s conclusion.

The mood of the film—reminiscent, at times, of Orson Welles’ “The Third Man” with its world-weary and despondent atmosphere—is captured by the 1943 Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash song “Speak Low,” a Billie Holiday song sung by Nelly during the film. The lyrics

Time is so old and love so brief
Love is pure gold and time a thief
We’re late, darling, we’re late
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
too soon, too soon

encapsulate the fate of Nelly’s love: The curtain has come down. Time has stolen her brief love. The rising Phoenix must be born anew and leave the past behind. Here’s a film that deserves four Shakespeares. Catch it if you can.

tour

Movie Review: The End of the Tour by James Ponsoldt

Ruud Rating
The End of the Tour
4 Shakespeares

Up to now, Jason Segel has been known for relatively lightweight roles in romantic comedies, like “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Not surprisingly, fans of acclaimed author David Foster Wallace were skeptical at the thought of Segel being taken seriously in his portrayal of Wallace in this summer’s “The End of the Tour.” The skeptics are eating their words now, as Segel has hit it out of the park with his brilliant embodiment of Wallace in this astonishingly fine movie. It isn’t simply that Segel brings Wallace to life in his performance, it’s that you actually forget he’s acting and ultimately truly believe he is who he pretends to be.

Segel’s success could not have happened without the equally compelling performance of Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) as fellow novelist and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. The film follows the two writers on a five-day interview, during which Lipsky, having convinced Rolling Stone editors that they need to do a story on Wallace, whose 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” has made him the hottest, most talked about writer in America. Lipsky stays with Wallace and his two black labs in his country home outside Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace teaches creative writing at Illinois State University (inexplicitly called in the film “a small state university in Illinois”), and accompanies him on the last stop of his book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a trip to Minneapolis (where a bubbly Joan Cusack points out the Mary Tyler Moore statue). Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a nervous interviewer who admires, even idolizes Foster and wants his approval (he even brings his own novel along to try to get Foster’s mutual admiration, but at the same time seethes with a barely concealed envy and competitiveness. In the Twin Cities, the interview begins to take some nasty turns, as mutual jealousies come to the forefront between interviewer and interviewee. The two create a kind of chemistry that makes it hard to take your eyes off them.

If the premise—an entire film that consists almost solely of a conversation between two writers—sounds rather ho-hum and doesn’t tempt you away from exploding bombs and superhero action, then maybe you should watch a few minutes of a trailer showing Eisenberg and Segel conversing together. The film, which is virtually all dialogue, seems very much like a play (though Jakob Irhe’s cinematography is a treat for the eyes, mixing the stark but beautiful Illinois winter landscapes juxtaposed with the fast-food outskirts of small-town middle America). This is not surprising since it is written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Donald Marguilies—someone who, like the characters in the film, is a writer himself and therefore comes with all of the insecurities and ambitions of the film’s two main characters. This is Marguilies’ first script written for the big screen (he did a screenplay of his play “dinner with Friends” for an HBO movie previously), and the writing is so compelling, the nuances in the interactions of two competitive writers so subtly presented in the dialogue, that an Oscar nomination for Margulies would not come as a surprise to me.

For that matter, the two principal actors are certainly worth an Oscar look, particularly Segel, who nails the brilliant, depressive, reclusive, self-doubting and self-promoting Wallace at every point. And director James Ponsoldt (previously known mainly for “The Spectacular Now”) has achieved something rare and moving in this film.

The film leaves a few things hanging. Though it is never clearly revealed, Lipsky never published that Rolling Stone article. The film opens in 2008, 12 years after the interview, when news of Wallace’s suicide is revealed to the world. We immediately see Lipsky digging through his things in a closet where he has kept the interview tapes. The film is based on the book Lipsky wrote from those tapes—the acclaimed 2010 memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. A question that Wallace asks Lipsky several times during the interview, as he wonders what Lipsky will decide to write or how he will slant the piece, is “Are you a good man?” The memoir is probably the answer to that question. And the film is, I suppose, Margulies’ interpretation of how Lipsky answered the question. The biggest question, of course, is raised at the beginning of the film: Why did Wallace take his own life? We are constantly listening for clues during the interview, having been set up to do so at the outset. Questions that emerge during the course of the interview involve Wallace’s depression, his earlier suicide attempt, his addiction to alcohol and what he describes as his addiction to television, and how these things play into his depression.

I’m going to go out on a limb and call The End of the Tour the best film of 2015 so far. It has been in limited release, but is finally now released nationwide. You really ought to see this movie. It deserves four Shakespeares.

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.