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Jay Ruud Blog

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!

Beirut-Movie-Trailer-2018-Jon-Hamm

Beirut

Beirut

Brad Anderson (2018)

Let’s deal first with the elephant in the room: Brad Anderson’s new film Beirut has received a good deal of negative advance publicity, including a condemnation from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which called the portrayal of Arabs in the film “racist” and the movie’s depiction of Middle Eastern politics “simplistic.” They also labeled the film’s protagonist Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm of TVs Mad Men) a stereotyped “white savior” figure. The film has also faced criticism for being filmed in Morocco rather than Beirut itself, for using no ethnic Lebanese actors and for failing to portray the Lebanese as fully rounded or complex characters. The film is being boycotted in Lebanon itself. If one looks at the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.com, one sees that the critical response to the film has been generally favorable (78 percent), but that audience responses have been less than stellar (53 percent), with many of the negative audience evaluations influenced by the negative publicity (it seems clear that a number of the negative reviews were from people who did not actually see the film).

The fact is that much of the criticism of the film derived from its trailer. In particular the trailer’s tagline—“2,000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder…welcome to Beirut”—was decried as an offensive and inaccurate representation of the nation’s history. The film itself, while it can hardly be called a sensitive and nuanced record of Lebanese history and politics or a complex examination of the Lebanese people, is less guilty of these offenses than the trailer may suggest. And some of the complaints about the film concern things that were likely out of director Anderson’s control. Shooting such a film in Beirut itself, for example, would be difficult for a story set in 1982. The modern stylish and sleek city of Beirut (“the Paris of the Middle East”) would provide an incongruous background for a film set in the war-torn city of 36 years ago. Furthermore, Beirut was filmed with a relatively small budget, and, as the film’s producers argued, it was much easier—and cheaper—to get insurance to film in Morocco than to film in Lebanon.

As for the charge that the film employs the hackneyed “white savior” motif—a story that focuses on a white hero who saves people of color from some danger or difficulty (a la, say, Lawrence of Arabia), nothing could be further from the truth. Hamm’s character is no Lawrence, nor is he a Robert Gould Shaw in Glory or a John Quincy Adams in Amistad. He’s not the heroic Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom or the principled Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s a sad drunk bemoaning his murdered wife who doesn’t ever want to see Beirut again, but he has some negotiating skills that may help to rescue another white American from a particular group of terrorists. He’s not there to save anybody of color. And he doesn’t.

The criticisms of the casting may be less easy to dodge. It is true, for example, that Leïla Bekhti, who plays Skiles’ Lebanese wife Nadia, is a French actress of Algerian descent; Idir Chender, who plays Skiles’ chief antagonist Karim Abou Rajal (a Palestinian, by the way, not a Lebanese) is also French, with a vaguely Islamic name and appearance. None of the other characters are played by Lebanese actors, or Palestinians either for that matter. They were mainly Moroccan. It was probably easier and cheaper, again, to cast actors who lived in or near Tangiers, where the film was headquartered, but it is hard to believe that a few Lebanese actors couldn’t have been secured for the major parts in the film. After all, the American characters weren’t played by French actors, were they?

Such considerations aside, the question I want to address here is whether the film succeeds at what it is trying to do. It is not a documentary or a sociological study. It is intended to be a political thriller in the John Le Carre style, so the question is, as my wife likes to say, is it good at what it’s good for?

The screenplay for Beirut was actually written back in 1991. Tony Gilroy, Oscar-nominated writer of Michael Clayton and the four Bourne films, wrote the script before his first film, The Cutting Edge, was released, but was not able to find anyone to make the movie at that time. As co-producer, he’s finally brought it to the screen with Brad Anderson (The Machinist) as director. In a way the film seems a bit of a throwback to films of that era (think The Finest Hour, Courage Under Fire, Three Kings—or even Not Without My Daughter) and thus perhaps shows little of the sensitivity Hollywood is beginning to become conscious of. But when it comes down to it, this is a film about Americans in Beirut, more specifically about hidden agendas of particular American politicians and operatives in Beirut, at a particular point in history: just prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and the subsequent terrorist attack on the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut in April 1983.

This story actually begins in the title city in 1972, when Skiles (Hamm) is a U.S. diplomat hosting a party for visiting American dignitaries, including a congressman. As the film opens he is trying to describe in a nutshell the complexities of politics in the city—the conflicting interests of Lebanese Muslims, Lebanese Christians, Palestinian refugees and Jews. He and Nadia (Bekhti) have taken in a 13-year old Palestinian orphan named Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg) whom they are talking about adopting. The party is interrupted by Skiles’ friend Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino from TV’s Lost and Being Human), a CIA agent who tells Skiles that Karim needs to come in for questioning: It turns out his older brother Abu Rajal was involved in the recent murders of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. While Skiles objects that Karim is “one of the family,” the party is plunged into chaos when disguised terrorists invade the home, Karim is abducted and Nadia, held by one of the gunmen, is caught in the gunfire when Cal attempts to rescue her.

Ten years later, Skiles is drinking his way through Boston, where he is using his diplomatic skills to mediate labor disputes and trying to forget what happened to his family a decade earlier. Out of nowhere, a summons comes to him from the State Department: It seems his talents are needed back in Beirut (“the last place in the world I want to go”), where his old friend Cal has been seized by some splinter militant group that is demanding Skiles and only Skiles to negotiate Cal’s release.

At the embassy in Beirut, Skiles must maneuver the conflicting agendas of three rival State Department and CIA figures: Gaines (Dean Norris of TV’s Scandal), Ruzak (Shea Whigham of TV’s Boardwalk Empire and Fargo), and Ambassador Shalen (Larry Pine of TV’s House of Cards), all of whom seem far more concerned about the secrets Cal might be forced to reveal and the possible reaction from Israel than with getting Cal back alive. Only cultural attaché Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pyke of Gone Girl) seems to have Cal’s best interests at heart. She and Skiles don’t get along at first, but end up, predictably, as allies in this mess.

To say any more would need a lot of spoiler alerts, but that point about predictability is a significant one. Much of this film is predictable—it seems like we’ve seen this or something like it fairly often in other films. There is one surprise at the end of the movie, but even that might have been foreseen by cagey viewers familiar with history. The film, while not “based on a true story,” does suggest possible reasons for the Israeli invasion and the Marine barracks bombing, footage of which we see as the credits begin to roll. The best thing about the film is the performances of Hamm and Pyke (sounds a little like a Surf ‘n Turf dinner). He proves that he can carry a feature film just as smoothly as he carried a TV series for years. This is certainly Hamm’s best work on the big screen. And Pyke is as impressive as ever, though her role is certainly second fiddle to Hamm’s.

But it is still true that the film could have been more culturally sensitive. It also might have been less predictable. To fans of Tony Gilroy, it is interesting to see as an early work, a precursor of the more impressive Bourne films and the brilliant Michael Clayton (also about a negotiator). All things considered I’ll give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski (2018)

John Krasinski’s new film A Quiet Paceis making a lot of noise at the box office this week, and scoring a big buzz among critics, who are nearly unanimous in their admiration of the movie. Krasinski, probably best known to most viewers for his seasons on TV’s The Office, has used this film as his Citizen Kaneproject, directing, writing and starring in the film. He was also executive producer (a role he earlier performed for the acclaimed 2016 film Manchester by the Sea). Krasinski’s one earlier big-screen directing foray, 2016’s The Hollars, was not particularly well reviewed, but this recent effort is bringing him accolades.

Think about all the noise there is in our everyday lives. The sounds of television, radios, podcasts, iTunes, audible and countless other devices bombard us everywhere we go; the white noise of traffic, other people’s conversations, elevator music, sirens, animal noises, lawnmowers, leaf-blowers, workers doing their jobs, people talking on bluetooths (blueteeth?) is inescapable and ultimately our brains tune it out. To experience absolute silence is rare and, perhaps, even a shock to the senses. Krasinski asking us to sit in the dark in a movie theater with no sound is awkward, even nerve-wracking, for the first several minutes, and causes a good deal of tension in itself, without the need for the monsters.

But monsters there are. For A Quiet Placeis a horror movie, and not a horror movie in the sense of slasher flick with a whole bunch of blood and dismemberment, but a science-fiction horror movie in the classic sense of, say, Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s first two Alienmovies.It keeps you on the edge of your seat watching for these initially hidden monsters who, like Scott’s creatures, race across the screen to kill people before you even have a chance to catch a glimpse.

As the film opens, we see a family in a drug store. But it’s a post-apocalyptic drug store that they are scavenging in, as it turns out. It’s “Day 79” of, apparently, the fall of civilization, and the family is looking for medicine for one of the children, who is sick. They communicate with one another only in sign language, though, which probably makes us wonder—or at least it would in an ideal world in which we haven’t already read or heard about the premise of this movie far in advance. As they leave the store, we see the front page of a tabloid newspaper with the banner headline “It’s Sound!” the import of which will become all too clear to us just a bit later. The film will focus on the story of this family, Lee (Krasinsky) and Evelyn Abbott (played by Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt), and their three children: Regan (Millicent Simmonds, previously seen inWonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe of Wonder), and the baby of the family, Beau (Cade Woodward in his first film role).

A tense scene ensues in which the boy, barely out of toddlerhood,forgets or ignores the rules and turns on a loud toy.Why? Because he has picked up a model Space Shuttle toy in the store and, against his parents’ stern prohibition, has put batteries in the thing so that, as they walk away from the drug store on railroad tracks a la The Walking Dead, the kid presses a button that makes the toy ding and whistle. And at the moment that sound is emitted, and his parents turn back in horror. We learn in early scenes how the creatures work, responding to sound with a swoop that means the death of the person making the noise.

Essentially, the plot of the film revolves around this situation: The world has apparently been overrun by these creatures, who seem to be blind and covered with an armor-like exoskeleton, but they have incredibly sensitive ears and attack anything that makes a sound. The Abbot family live in a house that they’ve tried to make creature-proof. Regan is deaf (which helps explain how the family has survived so long, being already proficient in sign language that helps them communicate while keeping silent),but she’s also intrepid, though she feels a rift with her father, blaming herself for an earlier family tragedy. The younger brother, Marcus, is more fearful, balking as his father takes him away from home to try to teach him survival skills that will help him stay alive amidst the monstrous threat.

Ninety minutes of this film is enough—it keeps you so tense that you’d explode if you had to endure much more. Krasinsky chooses to shoot the film largely in close-up; since the characters can’t express themselves in spoken words, they communicate most of their thoughts and emotions through their facial expressions. This makes the film very intimate—you are as close as you can be to these characters, and you are with them in their closed fortress. Traveling beyond that fortress feels dangerous, but it is also in a sense liberating: When Lee and Marcus reach a loud running stream, you feel a great relief that for once they are able to talk without fear of immediate violent death, their voices masked by the sound of rushing water.

The strangest aspect of this whole situation is the fact that Evelyn is, yes, pregnant. Logically, this seems crazy. What rational couple would have the cajonesto bring a child into this dystopian world? Never mind the dangers and likely suffering this child will be subject to. Just in about the fact that babies, hello, cry. You can’t stop them. But the new life is here a physical manifestation of the family’s determination to survive, to ensure that human life goes on despite the inhospitable waste land this world has become.

What we don’t really know is what things are like elsewhere in this world. Are these monsters fairly local, or have they ravaged the entire continent, or the whole planet? How many other humans are still alive, trying to survive? It seems as if all infrastructure has broken down (which makes me wonder why the electricity and plumbing still work in their house. Perhaps they have a private well and generator). But there are other logical problems with the film. How many of these monsters are there? Where did they come from? Are we supposed to believe that all the firepower of the U.S. military could not defeat these things? Sure they are covered with a kind of armor, but could they really stand up against a tank?

But clearly we’re not supposed to ask those kinds of questions. This is a genre movie, so the question to ask, as my wife is always quick to remind me, is whether this film is good for what it’s good for. As a horror movie, it does its job, keeping you on edge from beginning to end, and does it without grossing you out with blood and guts. Further, it transcends its genre to some extent, with memorable performances by Krasinski, Simmonds, and especially Blunt, who makes us believe a woman can deliver a baby without making a sound; and more importantly by effectively illustrating, through a kind of parable, the importance of family and of human life even in the bleakest of circumstances. I’ll give this one three Tennysons.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg (2018)

The box office champion of this past weekend by a wide margin was Steven Spielberg’s newest effort, Ready Player One, a slick CGI extravaganza bringing to the screen Ernest Cline’s 2011 best-selling novel of the same name. Now let me just say that my awesome wife doesn’t much like young-adult novels in general, really hates dystopian fiction in particular, and has never understood why anyone would waste his time playing video games. So, we can safely say that she is not the intended audience for this film—and, if you feel the same way, then neither are you. After a bit of cajoling, however, I was able to get her to agree to come with me to a local screening of the movie (hey, it’s Steven Spielberg after all. And maybe some of the nostalgic ’80s references would strike her fancy). Let me just say, though, that expectations were not high as we entered the cinema.

Turns out that, despite all the bells and whistles, Ready Player Oneis essentially an archetypal quest narrative: The hero must pass through many challenges and overcome many dangers in order to reach the goal: conquer the dragon, destroy the One Ring, defeat the Death Star, find the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, or, in this case, the vast treasure.

The story begins in 2045—years, we are told, after the “corn syrup droughts” and “bandwidth riots.” In Columbus, Ohio, the fastest growing city on earth, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of X-Men:Apocalypseand Mud), an orphaned teenager, lives with his Aunt Alice in “The Stacks”—a Columbus slum consisting of endless piles of trailer houses stacked one upon another (I couldn’t help thinking that one tornado would destroy everything in that area). Whether Wade ever goes to school or not, or whether most people have any kind of job, is anybody’s guess—you can’t tell from the movie. It’s a world in which human life has become so onerous, devoid of meaning or joy, that all anybody in Columbus seems to want to do is don a headset and enter a virtual world called the Oasis. Here you can be anything you want, do anything you want, in a world that seems a combination of every kind of video game ever conceived. Who needs drugs when everyone is addicted to virtual reality? Who needs reality?

The Oasis was the brainchild of a socially challenged geek-genius named James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance, an Academy-Award winner for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies). Halliday has been dead for seven years, but upon his death he announced that he had created a game within Oasis that challenged any player to find three keys (what gamers would refer to as “Easter Eggs”—perhaps that’s why the film premiered on Easter weekend?) within his virtual world that, when found, would unlock his fortune—that is, the first person to find the keys and unlock the secret would inherit ownership of the Oasis, a fortune with the estimated value of half a trillion dollars. After seven years, no one has found even the first key, though nearly everyone is looking, including a whole army of minions of an evil capitalistic giant called IOI (Innovative Online Industries).

Wade, of course, is deeply into the game himself through his avatar Parzival. So is his muscular online Avatar friend Aech (Lena Waithe, best known from TV’s Master of None, for which she also won a Writing Emmy) and Aech’s warrior sidekick Avatars Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Phiip Zhao). But his chief competition is actually the Avatar Art3mis (Olivia Cooke from TV’s BatesMotel). Art3mis, named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, is avidly on the hunt in this game. But when Wade’s superior knowledge of Halliday’s biography and habits enables him to figure out how to solve the puzzle of the first key, he becomes a target for the head of the real-world corporate giant IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn of Darkest Hourand RogueOne) in the realworld, since IOI needs to control the Oasis in order to control the real-world economy. So the film develops into a quest on two fronts: Parzival’s virtual quest to find the keys and unlock the treasure, and Wade’s real-world quest to escape the IOI killers and prevent Sorrento’s push for world domination—a quest that requires him to seek out the real-world versions of his Avatar friends. He has, of course, fallen in love with the Avatar Art3mis by this time, but has been sharply warned by Aech that Avatars can be completely different from their real-world counterparts, and that Art3mis might be a 300-pound fan-boy couch potato.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot of this film, though from what I’ve already told you, you can probably figure the major stuff out for yourself, because it is pretty predictable. For me a lot of the interest in the film comes from its reworking of the traditional grail-quest narrative. The features of the grail legend are all here: There is, first a vast Waste Land that is the contemporary real world of Columbus and the stacks. In the grail legend, the grail knight (whose name in the early versions of the legend is Perceval or, in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s—and Richard Wagner’s—German versions, Parzival) has the task of finding the grail (in this version the keys), which will restore the health of the wounded Fisher King, and consequently also restore fertility to the Waste Land (an Oasisis a fertile spot in a desert or Waste Land, suggesting the water that might be associated with a “fisher king.”). In the original version of the grail story, Perceval is confronted unwittingly with a test, which he fails to pass and so fails in the quest. Halliday is the Fisher King in this instance, and his wounds were psychological. It is Wade/Parzival who figures out the great regret of Halliday’s life, his psychic wound, and uses his knowledge to pass a final test.

So that was my biggest take-away from the film. But I suspect for most people it will be the pop-culture allusions with which Halliday, and Spielberg, have filled the Oasis, stemming mainly from the ’80s or the late ’70s: Parzival rides around in a Delorean that seems straight out of Back to theFuture, and there is a major tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s TheShining, but those are only the most prominent references in what amounts to a visual phantasmagoria of pop-cultural trivia that includes The Iron Giant, Saturday Night Fever, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Star Wars, The A-Team, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, King Kong, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Nightmare on Elm Streetand on and on, while the soundtrack blasts the Bee Gees, Duran Duran, Van Halen, Michael Jackson, etc. etc. etc. If you grew up in the ’80s you will almost certainly watch this movie with a rush of nostalgia.

That’s actually both a blessing and a curse for the movie. If the film is in part a warning about the tendency in contemporary society to allow our online lives to interfere with or even transcend our real lives, not unlike a drug addiction, and what that tendency might look like if it continued to expand for another 25 to 30 years, Spielberg has made the Oasis so attractive in this film that we really don’t care all that much about the real lives of the characters, and there’s something of a let-down when the action returns to mundane reality. He’s made the addiction so much more enticing than the sober life that nobody would want to be sober. Or if the film is a warning against corporate America (represented by IOI) running our lives, it seems perversely to push us into the arms of Google, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

Still, it’s an entertaining film that most people will probably like. Even my skeptical wife admitted it was much better than she had expected—though since her expectations were pretty low to begin with, that wasn’t saying a whole lot. Rylance is painfully effective in his role as the unsociable genius. Sheridan and Cooke are sympathetic enough as the young lovers, and Mendelsohn hits all the right notes as the corporate baddie. A welcome Simon Pegg is likeable in a small but important role as Halliday’s original partner from whom the inventor had split in mid-career. But the fact is that nobody in this film is able to do much with a character in the real world because everybody is too busy being an Avatar. It’s definitely not a film about character.

So…this isn’t Schindler’s List, folks. Nor is it Jaws or E.T. It’s more of a Jurassic Park, relying pretty heavily on visuals and on a predictable but archetypal story. I’m giving it three Tennysons. You’re probably going to like it if you see it.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Unsane

Unsane

Steven Soderbergh (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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love-simon-trailer-1024x425

Love, Simon

Love, Simon

Greg Berlanti (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

a-wrinkle-in-time-trailer1

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

Ava DuVernay (2018)

Southey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

oscars-2018

The Top 10 Films of 2017

Ruud’s Rankings: The Top Ten Films of 2017

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

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

  1. Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)

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

  1. I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)

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

  1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

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

  1. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)

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

  1. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

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

  1. The Post (Steven Spielberg)

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

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

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

  1. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

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

  1. The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)

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

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

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

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

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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.