Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
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.
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.
If you’re in the mood to read a movie this summer, you could do a lot worse than catching Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” now showing in Central Arkansas after its wide U.S. release in mid-August. In German with English subtitles, Petzold’s film is set in post-Holocaust Berlin, and is filmed in the noir style characteristic of the late-40s era that it recreates. You feel while watching it that maybe it should have been made in black and white.
“Phoenix” follows Auschwitz survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a former cabaret singer, who is brought back to Berlin by her friend and protector, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), to have reconstructive surgery on her devastated face, which was ravaged by a gunshot just before the camp was liberated. Nelly is a shattered survivor, who learns from Lene (who has been vigilantly searching records of the death camps) that she is her family’s only survivor and that she has a substantial inheritance coming from Swiss bank accounts. Lene wants to move with Nelly to Palestine, to settle along the beach in Haifa, there to help build a Jewish homeland. Nelly wants only to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the love of whom, she feels, helped her survive the death camps. But Lene insists that it was in fact Johnny who turned Nelly in to the Nazis.
Undeterred, Nelly searches the nightclubs still scattered among the rubble of the city, and at one, named the Phoenix, she finds her pianist husband. But Johnny (now called Johannes) does not recognize her, the surgery having so changed her face. Still, he thinks she bears a resemblance to his wife, and hatches a plot to use the false Nelly to claim his dead wife’s inheritance. So begins a bizarre game of Pygmalion, in which Johnny tries to transform the traumatized post-Auschwitz Nelly into the real Nelly, as he knew her before the war.
The film keeps you guessing throughout: Is Lene justified in her suspicion of Johnny’s complicity in Nelly’s arrest? Can Nelly trust Johnny’s apparently sincere loving memories of his wife? If Lene is correct, will Nelly’s love of Johnny blind her to his betrayal? Does Lene have her own agenda that keeps her from understanding Nelly’s need to find and assess her husband? And at the bottom of it all, as my wife put it, do you really have a self if the one who loves you does not recognize you?
The film is suspenseful, and it builds to a stunning climax that will make you want to talk about it for some time after you see it—my wife and I smiled as we left the theater listening to the people around us burst out with their opinions of what had happened—then having left the crowd we burst out with our own. As my wife, a fiction writer herself, pointed out, the film has the quality of a finely wrought short story—self-contained, possessing a tight unity of action, with an ending that is suspenseful, surprising, yet inevitable.
Sure, the film is melodramatic in a way that seems out of step with contemporary films, though is completely appropriate for films of the late 1940s. And yes, there are parts of the plot that seem to stretch the limits of our willing suspension of disbelief. How could you not recognize your own wife, even if you had been convinced of her death? Why would a woman want to reunite with the person who in all likelihood had betrayed her to what he thought was certain death? But if you accept these things, thy do not detract from the story. And (despite my wife’s description of the story as self-contained), it is possible that we are not necessarily meant to take the story literally—or at least, not only literally.
Petzold’s films tend to be about Germany itself as much as they are about the individuals portrayed in their plots. His previous film, the acclaimed “Barbara” (2012), also starring Nina Hoss, was set in East Germany in the 1980s, and explored the limits of freedom under an oppressive government. This story, very loosely adapted by Petzold and Harun Farocki from a French novel Le Retour des cendres (Return from the Ashes) by Hubert Monteilhet (previously adapted as a 1965 British film starring Maximillian Schell), is very deliberately set in Berlin, and Petzold purposefully makes the characters German rather than French. It is no accident that Nelly tells Lene that she was not Jewish, or that when the surgeon asks her why in 1938 she, a Jew, would actually return to Germany from London, she has no answer. There is a kind of allegory going on here, in which Nelly represents those non-observant Jews who had so assimilated into German culture that they were shocked with disbelief when their own friends and neighbors, their own beloved countrymen, turned on them and gave them up to the Nazis. Johnny, who represents those very Germans (a point underscored by his insistence that she now call him “Johannes”), refuses to face his own guilt, wants to think of his former partner, the Jew, as dead and gone, and (like Nelly herself) wants to pretend things can go back to normal. Is he Petzold’s embodiment of post-war Germany? And Nelly, who desires to return to the past, saying she no longer has an identity, with Lene, who cannot live in the present, feels a greater bond with the dead, and now hates the land she grew up in, do they represent two Jewish reactions to the end of the war?
The film, released in Germany last year, has already received a number of international awards, including accolades for Kunzendorf as Lene as “Best Supporting Actress” from the German Film Awards. Hoss is mesmerizing as Nelly, dragging the ruined shell of her body around the ruined shell of Berlin, and gradually transforming into her earlier self, but with a new albeit wavering inner strength. Zehrfeld is excellent as well, a con-man but one who may well have loved his wife, not a complete villain but someone who, when push comes to shove, cannot be relied upon. He can subtly betray a hundred emotions at once with the expression on his face, as he does at the film’s conclusion.
The mood of the film—reminiscent, at times, of Orson Welles’ “The Third Man” with its world-weary and despondent atmosphere—is captured by the 1943 Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash song “Speak Low,” a Billie Holiday song sung by Nelly during the film. The lyrics
Time is so old and love so brief
Love is pure gold and time a thief
We’re late, darling, we’re late
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
too soon, too soon
encapsulate the fate of Nelly’s love: The curtain has come down. Time has stolen her brief love. The rising Phoenix must be born anew and leave the past behind. Here’s a film that deserves four Shakespeares. Catch it if you can.
Up to now, Jason Segel has been known for relatively lightweight roles in romantic comedies, like “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Not surprisingly, fans of acclaimed author David Foster Wallace were skeptical at the thought of Segel being taken seriously in his portrayal of Wallace in this summer’s “The End of the Tour.” The skeptics are eating their words now, as Segel has hit it out of the park with his brilliant embodiment of Wallace in this astonishingly fine movie. It isn’t simply that Segel brings Wallace to life in his performance, it’s that you actually forget he’s acting and ultimately truly believe he is who he pretends to be.
Segel’s success could not have happened without the equally compelling performance of Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) as fellow novelist and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. The film follows the two writers on a five-day interview, during which Lipsky, having convinced Rolling Stone editors that they need to do a story on Wallace, whose 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” has made him the hottest, most talked about writer in America. Lipsky stays with Wallace and his two black labs in his country home outside Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace teaches creative writing at Illinois State University (inexplicitly called in the film “a small state university in Illinois”), and accompanies him on the last stop of his book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a trip to Minneapolis (where a bubbly Joan Cusack points out the Mary Tyler Moore statue). Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a nervous interviewer who admires, even idolizes Foster and wants his approval (he even brings his own novel along to try to get Foster’s mutual admiration, but at the same time seethes with a barely concealed envy and competitiveness. In the Twin Cities, the interview begins to take some nasty turns, as mutual jealousies come to the forefront between interviewer and interviewee. The two create a kind of chemistry that makes it hard to take your eyes off them.
If the premise—an entire film that consists almost solely of a conversation between two writers—sounds rather ho-hum and doesn’t tempt you away from exploding bombs and superhero action, then maybe you should watch a few minutes of a trailer showing Eisenberg and Segel conversing together. The film, which is virtually all dialogue, seems very much like a play (though Jakob Irhe’s cinematography is a treat for the eyes, mixing the stark but beautiful Illinois winter landscapes juxtaposed with the fast-food outskirts of small-town middle America). This is not surprising since it is written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Donald Marguilies—someone who, like the characters in the film, is a writer himself and therefore comes with all of the insecurities and ambitions of the film’s two main characters. This is Marguilies’ first script written for the big screen (he did a screenplay of his play “dinner with Friends” for an HBO movie previously), and the writing is so compelling, the nuances in the interactions of two competitive writers so subtly presented in the dialogue, that an Oscar nomination for Margulies would not come as a surprise to me.
For that matter, the two principal actors are certainly worth an Oscar look, particularly Segel, who nails the brilliant, depressive, reclusive, self-doubting and self-promoting Wallace at every point. And director James Ponsoldt (previously known mainly for “The Spectacular Now”) has achieved something rare and moving in this film.
The film leaves a few things hanging. Though it is never clearly revealed, Lipsky never published that Rolling Stone article. The film opens in 2008, 12 years after the interview, when news of Wallace’s suicide is revealed to the world. We immediately see Lipsky digging through his things in a closet where he has kept the interview tapes. The film is based on the book Lipsky wrote from those tapes—the acclaimed 2010 memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. A question that Wallace asks Lipsky several times during the interview, as he wonders what Lipsky will decide to write or how he will slant the piece, is “Are you a good man?” The memoir is probably the answer to that question. And the film is, I suppose, Margulies’ interpretation of how Lipsky answered the question. The biggest question, of course, is raised at the beginning of the film: Why did Wallace take his own life? We are constantly listening for clues during the interview, having been set up to do so at the outset. Questions that emerge during the course of the interview involve Wallace’s depression, his earlier suicide attempt, his addiction to alcohol and what he describes as his addiction to television, and how these things play into his depression.
I’m going to go out on a limb and call The End of the Tour the best film of 2015 so far. It has been in limited release, but is finally now released nationwide. You really ought to see this movie. It deserves four Shakespeares.
Turner Classic Movies and Paramount Pictures brought back the musical “Grease” to the big screen in a singalong version this past week. Considering the rash of bombs recently coming out of Hollywood (Vacation? Fantastic Four? Hitman: Agent 47?), “Grease” may have been your best bet this week anyway. The 1970s-style homage to a nostalgic and never-neverland ’50s is by now a bona fide classic after 37—yes, 37—years.
When the film was re-released on its 20th anniversary in 1998, Roger Ebert wrote that “no revival, however joyously promoted, can conceal the fact that this is just an average musical, pleasant and upbeat and plastic.” Ebert was certainly right that this is not a perfect movie, but one thing that a critic really can’t argue with is the fact that “Grease” remains the number one grossing movie musical of all time. Why do you suppose that is?
If you sat in the theater this weekend singing those songs everybody knows and loves—“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lighting,” “You’re the One that I Want”—you’d know the first and most obvious answer to that question: The film is just plain fun. So much fun that hundreds of high schools and community theaters, in the wake of the film, decided to have their own little Dannys and Sandys play those roles made famous by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, and so ordered scripts of the stage musical on which the film was based. And boy, were they disappointed.
First, at least two of the film’s most popular songs (“Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One that I Want”) are not in the stage version, and the school version completely leaves out Rizzo’s false pregnancy and her “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” number. Of course, neither has the title track from the movie, written by Barry Gibb (that icon of the ’70s) and sung by Frankie Valli (that idol of the ’60s), paying homage to their roots in the pop culture of the ’50s. Perhaps even worse, the plot itself is completely episodic: a set of very loosely connected vignettes that ultimately do end up with Sandy and Danny getting together, as it pretty much had to.
So one remarkable thing that this film does is take an incredibly mediocre script and turn it into a smart, coherent story that appeals to our sense of comedy—youth, as always, triumphs over age and boy and girl get together. Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard get chief credit for this transformation of Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s original Broadway script.
But the other thing about the film that makes it a true classic is Travolta’s performance. “Saturday Night Fever” had made Travolta a star, but “Grease” made him a pop icon, and even Ebert admitted that “Travolta is an important and enduring movie star whose presence can redeem even a compromised ‘Grease.’’” In the film he is Elvis, Marlin Brando, and James Dean rolled into one—the hip swinging musical numbers channel Elvis, and the drag race with Annette Charles (Cha Cha DiGregorio) playing a superannuated Natalie Wood turns Travolta into James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause”—or, with the enemy gang’s “beaked chariot” with whirling blades attached to their car’s wheel hubs, Travolta becomes Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur” as well.
But of course, it’s all camp. The film doesn’t take any of the teen angst seriously. It’s light and funny and part of the comedy is that all problems must melt away in the end. And this is what Ebert objected to most in the film: “Romance and breaking up are matters of life and death for teenagers, and a crisis of self-esteem can be a crushing burden,” he wrote. “‘Grease’ doesn’t seem to remember that.” This may be true, but it was the teenagers who loved the film at the time and there were a lot of ’80s teenagers singing along with “Grease” at the theater last Wednesday. Sure, they took themselves seriously at the time, as we all do and as today’s teenagers continue to do, but the ability to laugh at yourself (and, to be honest, to laugh at the way your parents acted when they were teenagers) is a valuable aspect of comedy in general. It was something “Grease” did in spades—especially when the parents also went to the film and saw themselves—and remembered sitting and watching Eve Arden in “Our Miss Brooks,” Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows,” and Edd Byrnes in “77 Sunset Strip”—not to mention watching Frankie Avalon on the big screen in such campy films as “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” “Grease” captures that campiness brilliantly.
One of the knocks on the movie has always been that the principal actors were all too old to play high school students. This is certainly a legitimate gripe: at 24, Travolta was the youngest of the group. Olivia Newton-John, who had been a pop star for the better part of the preceding decade, was a 30-year-old high school senior. Jeff Conaway (Kinickie) was 28, and fellow T-Bird Sonny (Michael Tucci) was actually 32. Didi Conn (Frenchy) played a beauty school dropout whose guardian angel told to go back to high school at the age of 27. The aforementioned Annette “Cha Cha” Charles was 30. And Stockard Channing as bad-girl Rizzo was actually 34 years old—twice the age of the average high school senior. So yes, these kids are definitely not kids. But this is Hollywood. And even the ages of the actors may be a nod to the 50s: James Dean was 24 when he made “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Brando was 30 in “The Wild One.” So why not cast Stockard Channing?
Which brings me to one significant truth that I learned when watching “Grease” for the umpteenth time, this time on a big screen with singalong words at the bottom: of course, the characters in the film are nearly all one-dimensional caricatures: the “nice girl,” the “ultra-cool tough guy,” and yes, there’s a “jock,” a “cheerleader,” and a “nerd.” But I did see this time that the intended “bad girl,” Betty Rizzo (with a first name she has to remind Kenickie of in the throes of passion) is significantly more than one-dimensional. She is by far the most interesting and best-developed character in the film, the one character who rises above the campiness and the shallowness of the film’s chief plot. Stockard Channing’s portrayal of Rizzo is nuanced and sympathetic despite her “mean girl” façade, and her brilliant rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” has a range and depth of emotion that is the poignant high point of the movie.
Of course, Rizzo’s pregnancy cannot be allowed to bring the overall tone of the film down, and it is dealt with in a quick ten-second exchange at the end of the film, when she announces she is not pregnant after all and Kenickie offers to made an “honest woman” out of her, just before Danny and Sandy fly off into the sunset in Greased Lighting, just like Fred MacMurray at the end of Disney’s “Absent Minded Professor,” appropriately ending this Disneyfied representation of the 1950s.
So is “Grease” a classic? What makes a classic? Is it a human creation that holds up over time? Is it something a lot of people enjoy? Is it something that continues to move people—like Travolta’s memorable swaggering or Channing’s brilliant turn? If so, maybe “Grease” fits the bill. What it undeniably is, is a lot of fun. And that’s why it deserves three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
Woody Allen cut his scriptwriting teeth on plays like “Don’t Drink the Water” and “Play it Again, Sam,” and the fifty movies he has made over the past half-century very often seem like plays on film. Sometimes the fact that his characters talk so much reads to contemporary audiences as dull or slow-paced, particularly when the films come out in the summer and when most other movies out have virtually no dialog and a whole lot of chases, explosions, and occasional one-liners that are the only tiny clues we get of character.
For a number of viewers, Allen’s tumultuous personal life (for what now amounts to some two decades) is inseparable from his films, and there is a tendency to see each succeeding film as another attempt to justify or at least to rationalize his own life choices and obsessions. The fact that his films so often revolve around young women in relationships with older men lends credence to these critics.
Thirdly, inevitably, Allen is going to be compared to himself, and yes, like most artists, he tends to repeat particular motifs. One of these, of course, is the unorthodox older man who is probably a misunderstood genius, and the young ingénue who is attracted to him—a motif that is at the center of Allen’s newest film, “Irrational Man.” The film also explores another of Allen’s favorite themes: the abstract idea of the perfect murder that becomes very, very concrete.
“Irrational Man” was released a month ago, and plenty reviews of the film have already been published, some of which have been very positive, but more of which have found the film unsuccessful, generally for one of the previous three reasons: the film is slow paced and nothing happens for the first half hour; the film is just Allen trying to rationalize his own sleazy situation; or the film is just a mishmash of favorite Allen motifs that he explored more successfully in previous movies. Opinions of the actors vary wildly: many critics praise the three principal characters (Joachim Phoenix, Parker Posey, and Emma Stone) for their performances, many particularly singling out Phoenix as a convincingly disheveled, suicidal professor. But other critics have complained that the actors are unconvincing and that the script is confused and the dialog stilted, one significant critic—Lou Lumenick of the New York Post—calling the film “the nadir of the 79-year-old director’s career” (one wonders whether Lumenick has seen 2012’s “To Rome with Love”).
But seriously folks, go to this movie and pretend that it was written and directed by somebody you’ve never heard of—let’s call him Allan Stewart Konigsberg—and watch it without preconceptions. You’ll find the characters sad but interesting, the plot twists surprising, and the tone of the film sardonic—darkly humorous in some places, horrifying at others until, like Emma Stone in the end, you may pull back from the abyss before it’s too late.
In a nutshell, the story focuses on a brilliant but erratic philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Phoenix), who is well-known in his field but mysteriously takes a job at a small liberal arts college in Newport, Rhode Island—the fictitious Braylin College. Rumors abound on campus among both faculty and students before he ever appears, and when he does show up, he is clearly burnt out, alcoholic, and disillusioned about the entire educational endeavor, and about his discipline in particular. In the snippets we get from his classroom, we see him debunking Kant and Kierkegaard, though he does insist at one point, tellingly, that he thinks Dostoevsky “got it.” Our lessons should come from life, he insists, and not from textbooks.
Somehow Abe, in his morose, pot-bellied, scruffy embodiment of existential angst, proves irresistible to chemistry professor Rita Richards (Posey), as well as to his eager, promising young student Jill Pollard (Stone). As the film goes on, though, we learn, as does Rita, that Abe’s despair has not made him simply intellectually impotent. And, with Jill, we also learn he is suicidal. He needs something to bring him back to life. By sheer chance, he overhears a conversation about a terrible wrong he believes he can right through a radical existential act—the perfect murder of a complete stranger. An act that completely turns him around intellectually, emotionally, and physically. In the end, things turn out differently from what he, or any of the other characters, expect, and the role of chance in our lives (as opposed to philosophical speculation) is underscored. The film is thought-provoking and well-acted, and stands on its own merits.
Yes, Martin Landau had a similar experience in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as did Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in “Match Point.” But the motives are quite different, Abe’s being completely intellectual. And the results are quite different. And yes, Juliet Lewis came on to her professor just as irresistibly in “Husbands and Wives,” but she is a completely different character. Some things in the film are a bit fantastic—Allen’s experience of university life was certainly at no school I’ve ever been associated with, since faculty offices here are more lavish than those of most university presidents, and faculty homes suggest salaries far beyond those of any real university employees except perhaps for football coaches. Add to this the fact that Abe walks around campus sucking on a flask of single-malt Scotch, and that he and his student Jill engage in PDAs all over campus without any figure in authority even commenting.
On the other hand, there are brilliant little touches in the film that bear close scrutiny. Pay attention to Abe’s back story: we learn about it only through rumors, and through his own occasional comments, but his comments never mesh with one another. His best friend seems to have died, apparently in Iraq—or is it Afghanistan? And was he blown up, or beheaded, or did he in fact run off with Abe’s ex-wife? Can you really trust anything he says? Or does he simply think that his past, like his ethics, is all about words, and what he can convince people to believe?
Watch the clothes. Other movies you ever see use a change of scenes as a new opportunity to add new wardrobe items. But in this film, people wear a lot of the same clothes in different scenes—like real people, who can’t afford new clothes every day (though these people CAN afford really expensive houses). And then there is Jill and her long-suffering boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), who get each other sweaters for their birthdays. It’s completely practical—but Jill at one point is appalled that Abe might think her “practical.” Roy seems dull, of course, compared with Abe, but it may turn out dull is actually a good thing.
And, of course, music is always interesting in an Allen movie. Jazz tends to be his go-to genre, and here, the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s ’60’s classic “The In Crowd” plays over many of the film’s scenes. What’s THAT about? Is it part of the film’s sardonic humor? Is being with Abe like being with the “cool kids” for Jill? Is that why she is so infatuated with him?
Food for thought. As much of “Irrational Man” is. I do recommend that you give this movie a chance. I’ll give it three Tennysons. See what YOU think.
Simon (Jason Bateman) is a sales representative for a network security company that has just moved him from Chicago to California with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), an interior designer who has left her old job behind and hopes to start a family with Simon—a new start after a miscarriage and a subsequent period of self-medicated drug dependency. The couple has a chance encounter with an old high school classmate of Simon’s, a socially awkward character named Gordo. Played by Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Great Gatsby,” et al.), who also wrote and directed the film, Gordo begins to bring the couple unwanted gifts, intrudes on their space, and wheedles his way into their lives to what ultimately becomes an unwelcome, then even a harrowing, extent.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. 1987’s Fatal Attraction ushered in a whole genre of films about tormenting stalkers terrorizing young couples or defenseless women. Films like Single White Female, The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Pacific Heights and Sleeping with the Enemy followed in rapid succession. The popularity of the genre waned after the mid-nineties, but Edgerton brings back a film with the same basic structure. So is there any reason you should go to this movie, or have you seen it all before?
Edgerton’s script plays with the conventions of the genre, but takes a number of unexpected turns, just when you’re getting comfortable. The chief clue that things are going to get real is Gordo’s comment that he was willing to let “bygones be bygones.” What on earth does he mean by that? You are supposed to wonder at that, just as Robyn does. But Robyn is back on drugs, so how much can she trust her own instincts? On the other hand, Simon is defensive and clearly hiding something. What on earth is it?
Obviously this is the sort of film where I can’t say much of anything beyond setting up the basic situation, since it’s a thriller and a mystery. Suffice to say that one of the themes of the film seems to be that no one is innocent—that things happen to us that are the results of our own prior deeds, and that taking responsibility for those deeds is the wisest course of action. But another theme of the film seems to be that people do not really change. These are characters who knew one another in high school, and their relationship twenty years later is predetermined by their relationship at that time. Somebody who was a complete jerk in high school is still going to be a complete jerk in later life despite any façade he may have put on to mask that core self.
Bateman is brilliant as the outwardly charming Simon, who wants to give the impression of being completely in control of everything, including himself, though it is clear that he pretty much always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, and cannot always control his impatience. Bateman, as usual, makes everything look easy, and his complex performance seems so effortless that he just seems to be playing himself. But he’s not.
Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Iron Man III) is convincing as the fragile, damaged wife, sympathetic to the awkward Gordo but submissive to her husband even when we can see that he’s stepping on her freedom to think for herself—or is he simply protecting her from her weaknesses? And what about Gordo? Edgerton takes on the challenging role himself, gives himself a bad haircut and unflattering goatee, and is skittish and needy enough to make most people want to find something else to do two minutes after meeting him. But Gordo the Weirdo, as Simon calls him, is not a simple psychotic stalker. His motives are more subtle, and his actions more ambiguous, than the Glenn Closes and Michael Keatons of those thrillers of the eighties and nineties.
“You think you’re done with the past,” Gordo says. “But the past isn’t done with you”—a sound bite that encapsulates the film. It’s one that will surprise you at a number of turns, and leave you guessing at the end. Three solid Tennysons for this one.
Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale
This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.
This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.
2 Jacqueline Susanns
If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.
1 Robert Southey
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.