Catch-22

Catch-22

Hulu (2019)

Southey

Okay, I know this is my week to review a book, but I’m putting a bit of a twist on it and reviewing a currently streaming miniseries made from a book. And not just a book: the novel that in my own humble (well, not all that humble) opinion is the greatest American novel since World War II. This is a book that, despite its difficulty as a kind of quintessential post-modern novel, has sold well over ten million copies worldwide. It was Heller’s first novel, and when, after several subsequent books, people would still comment that he’d never written anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller would shrug and say, “Who has?” And indeed he was justified in doing so.

And yet right now, after the airing of the recent six-part dramatization of the novel on Hulu, I’m virtually certain that Joseph Heller is rolling over in his grave.

It had begun with so much promise. George Clooney, who has never concerned himself with productions of mediocre quality, and never one to pull his punches in productions with political implications, was behind the production. And it looked great: The recreation of the period clothing and weaponry, the Italian landscape and the feel of flying through flak bursting around your plane on bombing missions over Italy are all top notch.

But none of that really matters. The ultimate product that reaches the screen is so far removed from the intent and tone of Heller’s novel as to be very nearly a travesty. My high expectations for the series were dampened after the very first episode. Here, two serious problems began to emerge: First, the writers (Luke Davies and David Michôd) and directors (Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras) of the series had clearly made the disastrous decision to present the story of the novel chronologically. I can only guess that they assumed it would be too difficult for the viewers to follow if they imitated the structure of the book, but it’s a serious mistake to underestimate your audience. Heller’s novel is structured something like a spiral, the devastating event at the center of the structure is the death of Snowden. Early in the novel, Yossarian asks the confusing question “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” at a military briefing, thereby introducing the motif. The novel circles back to the Snowden incident again and again, until finally, toward the end, the entire story of Snowden’s pathetic death on his first mission, and Yossarian’s futile attempts to comfort him, are revealed. But in the meantime, the scene is played over and over, as if on a loop. In this pale imitation of the novel, Snowden is never mentioned until the final episode. It’s worth noting that Mike Nichols’ 1970 film version of the book, this recursive structure is embraced, as Yossarian keeps returning to the scene that begins “Help him! Help the bombardier!”—a scene repeated several times until the final horrifying death of Snowden. So, it could have been done.

The second serious problem evident from the start is that the creators of this series apparently forgot that the book is comedy. Oh, it’s definitely a very dark comedy—bitter, satiric and condemnatory—but hilariously so. I could not figure out where the somber tone of this rendition was coming from. All I could think of is that maybe the creators hadn’t actually read the book. Clooney as Lieutenant Scheisskopf was the only actor who seemed to realize he was in a comedy. The protagonist Yossarian, played by Christopher Abbott (of It Comes at Night) walks around in a constant state of depression and worry, which is appropriate, but without the frantic energy, and therefore without the humor, that the Yossarian of the novel exudes. Again, in Nichols’ film, Yossarian is played by a frenetic Alan Arkin, whose manic attempts to get out of flying more life-threatening missions imposed on him by his clueless and incompetent commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, form the main action of the story. Cathcart and his second-in-command Colonel Korn, played here by Kyle Chandler and Kevin J. O’Connor, are definitely dangerous but far less comic than they are in Heller’s book. Their deal to let Yossarian go home if he tells people he “likes them” is not in this version—though again, in the Nichols movie the two of them, played hilariously by Martin Balsam and Buck Henry, strike a tone that perfectly reflects the novel (perhaps the fact that Henry, a comic writer who had earlier penned Nichols’ The Graduate, wrote the adapted screenplay for this film explains its appropriate tone).

And that’s just the first episode. For the sake of brevity let me focus on just three more of the myriad problems with this adaptation. First, there is the conclusion. I suppose this is technically a spoiler, but if you’ve read the book you deserve to know this, and if you haven’t, well, you deserve to know just how far the conclusion of this series deviates from Heller’s novel. In the novel, Yossarian’s tent-mate, the pilot Orr, has to ditch his plane and bail out on every mission, yet he still repeatedly asks Yossarian to fly with him on his next mission. Finally he goes down and isn’t heard from again, and everyone thinks he is lost, until word comes that Orr has turned up in neutral Sweden, having rowed there after going down, and has thus escaped from the officers (Cathcart and Korn) who have been doing their best to kill him. (The enemy, Yossarian has already made clear, is anybody who is trying to kill you, including your own incompetent and rapacious officers). When Yossarian learns of Orr’s escape he is emboldened to make his own getaway, and is last seen bolting in an attempt to make it to Sweden and safety. In the current rendering of the story, Orr doesn’t pester Yossarian to fly with him (he asks him once), and when he makes it to Sweden, Yossarian is glad to know he’s alive, but takes no inspiration from his escape, and is last seen…flying more missions, with a kind of dazed look on his face. Good lord, what is going on here?

Then there’s the whole business of Nately’s whore. Yossarian’s naïve young friend Nately (played here by Austin Stowell from TV’s The Secret Life of an American Teenager) is in love with an Italian sex worker (who treats him shabbily) and wants to marry her. But Nately is killed on a bombing mission, and the woman inexplicably blames Yossarian for Nately’s death, and waits for him time and again to try to kill him in revenge. The very last image in the book is of Yossarian jumping to avoid the lunging knife of Nately’s whore coming down at him like the inexorable hand of fate. Her murderous schemes against Yossarian are completely absent from this tepid adaptation. Clearly Heller thought the motif of her sudden unforeseen attacks important—as a metaphor of everything in life that’s out to get you, or perhaps as a representation of an existential guilt that we share in with regard to all innocent deaths that we did nothing to prevent. In any case, it ain’t there in this version.

But the absolute worst betrayal of Heller’s novel is the whitewashing of Milo Minderbinder that takes place in this adaptation. Heller’s 1961 novel was published very shortly after President Eisenhower’s warning to the nation in his farewell address to beware of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower left citizens with a dire warning about “the immense military establishment” that had joined together with “a large arms industry” in a mutually beneficial relationship that he called a threat to democratic government. Heller’s Catch-22 depicts just such an unholy alliance in which Milo, the pure capitalist, gets rich, and helps Cathcart and Korn to get rich as well, by using the unquestioned demands of the military to line their own pockets while making the perpetual military an end in itself and finding every means possible to make a profit from it. In the book, Milo steals the officers’ parachutes because he found a way to make a profit selling the silk. He tries to get Yossarian to eat chocolate covered cotton balls because he doesn’t want to take a loss on the Egyptian cotton crop he’s bought. And he makes a deal that allows German planes to strafe his own base in exchange for profits for himself and his commanding officers. In Hulu’s production, Milo (played by Daniel David Stewart) is presented as a rather likeable go-getter, just a smart young businessman on the rise, who is Yossarian’s good friend who wants Yossarian to come and work for him, assuming he survives the war. The producers have kept only the strafing incident, but present it in such a way that Milo has been very careful to make sure that nobody gets hurt. Essentially, this series whitewashes the military-industrial complex—and this in the wake of America’s twenty-first century wars that have made huge profits for companies like Haliburton. Why on earth would they do this? I think maybe Ike himself is joining Heller in rolling over in his grave.

It seems as if the creators of this Catch-22 have sought to make a version of Heller’s book that didn’t offend anybody—an idea more absurd than anything in the novel. Accordingly, the character of Chaplain Tappman, for example, is all but written out of the story: In the novel, the Chaplain, though ineffectual, does his best to convince Colonel Cathcart that raising the number of missions the men have to fly, risking their lives merely for the colonel’s own glorification, is morally wrong. In this version, he’s merely somebody for Yossarian to open up to occasionally. The idea that a Christian pastor would call the U.S. Army morally culpable was apparently too much for the producers. It might upset Christians! It might upset colonels! Perhaps the single most obvious sellout occurs during Yossarian’s nightmarish exploration of Rome, the Eternal City, at night. In the book, Yossarian hears a cry of “Help! Police!” and runs to try to rescue the victim. When he arrives at the scene, he finds the police beating someone up: The cry was not a call to the police for help, but a cry of police brutality. The series’ producers seem to have chosen to avoid what could have been a controversial scene in the wake of “Black Lives Matter.” But for Heller, it was just another example of those in power using their position to deliberately harm the powerless—and to pretend, like Milo, that it’s for their own good. The only answer in Heller’s nightmare world is escape, to follow Orr to Sweden. That’s what Heller wants Yossarian to do. And that’s what the producers of this toothless series will not let him do.

The novel, which you should read, is worth four Shakespeares. This series, which you should miss, gets one Southey.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

 

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far from Home

Jon Watts (2019)

Jake Gyllenhaal was at one time tapped to replace Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 because Maguire’s health problems threatened to scuttle the film, and Raimi wanted someone who resembled Maguire to take over the part. But Maguire recovered to star in that blockbuster and Raimi’s third installment as well, so Gyllenhaal was out. Of course, his turn in Brokeback Mountain a few years later solidified his star status, and he has often joked about being mistaken for Maguire by cab drivers who call him “Spider-Man” ever since. Gyllenhaal’s casting 15 years later as Quentin Beck, a.k.a. new superhero “Mysterio,” in John Watts’ sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming in this third film iteration of Marvel’s most popular hero in the past two decades, is ironic at the very least, partly as an in-joke and almost certainly also as an aspect of this film’s post-modern self-referentiality.

Another more significant example of that self-referentiality is the film’s surprising twist—and I’m trying my best to limit the “spoiler” aspects of this revelation—that what seems to be a huge threat to human civilization (what the movie labels an “Avengers-level” threat) is in fact an illusion generated by…wait for it…technologically projected computer-generated special effects. Just like in the movie itself. Get it? So, the characters in the film are reacting in the same way that the audience in the theater is reacting, and to the same CGI effects. Except that the characters in the film believe that what they are seeing is real, while the members of the audience are just willingly suspending their disbelief. It’s an interesting comment about the trustworthiness of cinematic truth. At the same time it’s a bold representation of the ability of powerful elements in society to foist falsehoods on the public through other media, and a cautionary tale regarding how much we ought to believe.

In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man: Far From Home is the “reset” button after the climactic events of Avengers: Endgame, a button pressed by Marvel even while Avengers is still in theaters. There is an elegiac feel to the opening of Spider-Man: Far From Home, as the strains of Whitney Huston’s “I Will Always Love You” stream over a montage of images of Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and Vision, all characters lost at the end of Endgame. One can’t help but feel that the montage is also a farewell to Stan Lee, Spider-Man’s creator, who died late last year. The overwhelming impression is that this is a turning point for the Marvel franchise. While Black Widow and Vision have been relatively minor stars in that universe, the elimination of Iron Man and Captain America leaves a huge void at the top of the Avengers food chain.

That opening montage ultimately turns out to be a video production created for a student news broadcast at Peter Parker’s high school, during which we are also given the necessary exposition on exactly how the folks at the school were affected by that inconvenient five-year “blip” that occurred between Thanos’s infamous finger-snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War that snuffed out half of all life in the universe, and Tony Stark’s sacrificial finger-snap at the end of Endgame, which restored those lost lives. At least at this high school, things are back to normal, though the blipped generation are back in school with kids who used to be five years behind them. One of those, of course is Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man.

Sure, this pretty much epically downplays the disastrous effects such a five-year blip must have had on human society, but we’re turning that page here and starting fresh, so let’s put it behind us. And in a way it does all fit: With this film we’ve left the lofty galactic “Avengers-level” apocalypses for the adolescent angst of a high-school kid, Peter Parker (played again by British 20-something Tom Holland, who plays a pretty convincing 16-year old).

And all Peter Parker wants to be is a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man—he’s got no interest in cosmic-level heroism. What he really wants to do is just put his suit away for a while and join his classmates on their school trip to Europe over the summer and to try to get the opportunity to tell his sardonic friend M.J. (former Disney-channel star Zendaya) what a big crush he has on her—and wants to do it on the top of the Eifel Tower.

Accordingly, Peter refuses to respond to attempts by ex-S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to contact him, ghosting the irascible Fury and ignoring, as well, his former mentor Tony Stark’s best friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), both of whom are trying to convince him to step into Iron Man’s shoes and assume a leadership role in the new post-Avenger superhero world. Of course, Peter is also creeped out by Hogan’s fairly obvious attraction to his Aunt May (played by Marissa Tomei—so who can blame Hogan? But I digress…), and he just wants to be a normal kid and hang with his classmates, especially M.J. and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). He deliberately fails to pack his Spider-Man uniform—but May packs it for him anyway.

Turns out his talents are needed, and he can’t really escape Fury, or Hogan either, because giant interdimensional monsters called Elementals (because they are basically embodiments of the four original “elements”—earth, air, fire, and water—which is bad science but, as we know, there are a lot of gullible people nowadays who believe in bad science. Anyway, it’s suspicious, which ought to be a clue…but I digress again). Nick Fury recruits Peter Parker and is seconded by Hogan, who gives Peter a scientifically super-advanced pair of glasses that connect him to all of Iron Man’s technology, a symbol of Tony Stark’s deliberate choice of Peter to succeed him as leader of the superhero lineup. As such, Peter is dragged into the fight against the Elementals, teaming up with new superhero Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Gyllenhaal), who, Fury tells him, has followed the Elementals into this world from a parallel earth in another dimension. Fans of the Spider-Man comic world will already know what to expect from Mysterio. For all others, it will be a surprise as I eschew the spoiler urge.

The real conflict in Spider-Man: Far From Home is the one within Peter himself, between his desire to be a normal teenager and the pressure to take on the hero’s mantle—a mantle he feels inadequately prepared to don. And like any 16-year-old, he makes some bad choices as he suffers the age-appropriate angst. But this is a moment he was made for: For Marvel, Spider-Man has always been the standard bearer for the franchise—the most popular and most relatable of all the heroes on their roster. Despite the more formidable powers of a Captain Marvel, a Black Panther or a Dr. Strange, it’s the more modest and more sympathetic Spidey whom readers have always gravitated toward most strongly. It makes sense for the webslinger to be the cornerstone of the new Marvel world order.

In this film, things work themselves out against a great backdrop of scenes from Venice, Prague and London, all of which sustain Elemental damage and none of which is explored beyond a surface taste (there is a hilarious scene, for anyone who’s been to Prague, of Peter and M.J. walking on a romantic Charles Bridge, which they have completely to themselves in a bit of absurd fantasy, rather than more realistically sharing it with 10,000 other summer tourists). Holland, Zendaya and Batalon are relatable as teenaged characters, and Gyllenhaal is likably avuncular in his relationship with Peter, at least at first. Jackson and Tomei are delightfully Jacksonish and Tomei-like. And yes, there is still hope for that romantic connection between Peter and M.J.

You may remember that Avengers: Endgame gave you no reward when you waited like a fool until the end of the credits. Well, this time you really do have to wait, and you’ll get a surprise. It is, by the way, another self-reflexive surprise, and another throwback to the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man era, so you’re not going to want to miss it. Overall, this film is an all-around good time. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

 

Mr. Catherine

Mr. Catherine

Stacey Margaret Jones (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Mr. Catherine is a contemporary thriller about a woman who has gone missing from a jogging path in Little Rock, written in the vein of Gone Girl or Girl on a Train, and there is no denying that the plot surges forward at a pace that seems to pick up speed exponentially the closer it gets to its inevitable conclusion. At the same time, another plot unfolds in alternating chapters, exploring the broken relationship between a husband and a wife in excruciating detail, as filtered through the mind of the missing woman’s husband. Narrator and protagonist, “Mr. Catherine” never does have a name of his own. His identity is submerged in his relationship with his wife. It’s a motif that recalls the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s classic mystery-crime novel Rebecca, and in part the nameless narrator is a deliberate tribute to a novel that in many ways is the archetype of this sort of contemporary thriller.

I won’t talk much about the thriller/mystery plot itself because I certainly don’t want to give out any spoilers—let me just say it’s an everywoman’s nightmare: Catherine goes jogging early one morning near Little Rock’s Big Dam Bridge and disappears. Was it foul play? Did she just want to leave her husband? Did he kill her (indeed it’s hard to know precisely how much you can trust the narrator)? Did her extramarital affair have anything to do with her disappearance? Was organized crime behind this somehow? Is there organized crime in Little Rock? Many threads of story are woven together here, leading to a heart-thumping denouement.

But what raises this book above the run-of-the-mill crime novel is the incredibly rich inner life of the narrator, rendered in precise and spot-on detail by Jones’ deep-delving prose. The depiction of extramarital affairs in fiction, whether in written or dramatized context, is almost invariably oversimplified. If the husband is unfaithful, it is because he lusts after some sweet young thing, either because he’s a classic fool or because he’s a toxically masculine misogynist, but mainly because he’s a man and that’s what men do. If it’s the woman who is unfaithful, it’s because her husband is a jerk and/or a toxically masculine misogynist. Or she’s just bored and needs an outlet. It’s almost unheard of to see in fiction the complex motivations that far more often lie behind actual affairs. Nor does one see in fiction typically how a marriage might go on after such a trauma, what happens in people’s psyches if and when they decide to continue in the marriage. This book delves into both of those rare, thorny issues.

The fact that the novel’s narrator and protagonist happens to be a psychotherapist certainly makes his relentless analysis of his and others’ motivations and relationships not only believable but absolutely essential to his character. The narrator’s background in psychology also mitigates any surprise we might feel at the strongly Jungian overtones the story takes when Mr. Catherine’s Shadow and his Anima appear at certain points in the story. But those things do makes us wonder a bit at his reliability. Even the book’s cover art—a pattern of Rorschach inkblots that resolve themselves, at least to my mind, into a human, almost certainly male, face—underscores this theme. So…what do you think that says about me?

But frankly, the most impressive thing about this debut novel is the sparkling style, in which every sentence seems crafted to express precisely the right image. From the cynical truth of one character’s observation that “We’re all dead. We’re just walking around until they knock us down,” to the narrator’s suspicion of his own self-deception, “the sensation that I was telling myself something that the rest of me knew wasn’t true at all, like my thoughts were waves on the surface of an ocean, whose deep currents moved in the opposite direction,” to his ex-wife’s truism that “You can’t know if someone loves you….You can only know if you feel loved,” to the book’s haunting opening sentence: “There are things I didn’t want to know, things I wanted to know but didn’t ask, and there is the thing I didn’t know was coming that I wish I could have known most of all,” reading this book is a journey from one glittering gem to the next.

This is a book that you won’t be able to put down, but also one that will stay with you for a long time. I recommend you get your copy ASAP. Four Shakespeares in my book.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4

Josh Cooley (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” Albert Camus began his book The Myth of Sisyphus. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” It’s not a quotation that often comes to mind while viewing a phenomenally popular animated film aimed chiefly at children and their families, particularly one whose protagonists are all inexplicably sentient and conscious toys. But it’s one that sprang unbidden into my mind as one of the new characters in this fourth (and almost certainly final) chapter of the Toy Story story persistently tries to hurl himself into the trash. “Forky,” a spork retrieved from a waste basket by the franchise’s eponymous Woody (Tom Hanks), is turned into a hand-made toy by Woody’s new owner, the kindergartener Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw of Ant-Man and the Wasp), who gives him red pipe-cleaner arms, broken popsicle stick feet, mismatched eyes and a silly-putty mouth, and proclaims Forky her favorite toy. Only Forky has no desire to be anybody’s toy, finds no meaning in such an existence, and repeatedly attempts to end it all by throwing himself back in the garbage, where he believes that, as “trash,” he belongs. Voiced by Tony Hale (of TV’s Veep and Arrested Development) Forky displays an existential crisis that is funny but at the same time profoundly meaningful, as Woody does his best to convince him that there is a meaning to Forky’s existence and that it involves his meaning something to Bonnie.

But this is just one of the provoking situations that will challenge the grown up children who attend this film. In another segment, a 1950s style talking doll (voiced by Christina Hendricks from TV’s Good Girls) named “Gabby Gabby” (a play, I suppose, on the “Chatty Cathy” so popular in my youth) sits alone and unloved in an antique store. Her world has no meaning, her existence no purpose, and she believes strongly that her empty existence is caused by the fact that she has no voice—her mechanical voice box is damaged and nothing but gibberish comes from her mouth. If she can somehow commandeer Woody’s perfectly intact voice box and use it herself, then, she feels, some child will love her, buy her, and give her life meaning. In another profound metaphor, first-time director Josh Cooley (Oscar-nominated writer of Inside Out) and co-writers Andrew Stanton (who worked on the original Toy Story and Toy Story 3) and Stephany Folsom (who worked on the Star Wars Resistance TV series) present the human condition: It is through language that we give our world meaning and that we establish meaningful relationships with others.

Or do we? It may be we are simply fooling ourselves. At one point in this film, Woody tells his pal Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) that sometimes, to know what is the right thing to do, he has to listen to his conscience, his “inner voice.” Buzz, who has never been the brightest bulb in the chandelier, understands “inner voice” to refer to his own voice box, which shouts out random tags, like “To infinity and beyond,” whenever he presses his button. For the rest of the film, he makes decisions based on his interpretation of whatever nonsense spews from his “inner voice.” So, upon reflection, is Buzz showing us that our actions are performed in response to our own attempts to articulate the meaning of the world, and that these articulations are simply random ideas that have no real connection to any preexisting significance in the perceived world? Or, to use the litany of futility used by the absurdists: The universe is meaningless. If the universe has a meaning, it cannot be known. If we can know the meaning of the universe, it cannot be expressed in language.

That would be a dire takeaway indeed from what passes for a children’s cartoon. But wait: We still haven’t considered the true hero of this film, and that is Bo Peep (Annie Potts of Ghostbusters and TV’s Young Sheldon). Bo Peep, Woody’s love interest in the first two Toy Story films, was summarily given away in Toy Story 3. But she reappears here with a vengeance. Given away by her original child-owner, discarded by her second, she had ended up in the same dead-end antique store as Gabby. But Bo Peep was not about to sit around in the limbo of childlessness, hoping for some young girl to come along and give her life meaning. She decided, radical as it may seem, that she did not need some child to belong to in order to give her life purpose. She escaped from the antique store and spends her time riding around in a skunk-mobile, a “lost toy” who embraces her independence. A toy, she reasons, can give meaning to her own life, independent of the need to cling to the painful cycle of a child’s approval or indifference. If, as Sartre said, “existence precedes essence,” if there is no meaning to our lives other than the meaning we give to them ourselves, then it is the most courageous of individuals who dictate the meaning of their own lives, without relying on others—children—to legitimize their own existence. Bo Peep is what toys (metaphorically human beings) become when they grow up.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. If this is what Toy Story 4 is all about, how can I possibly take my 6-year-old to see it? Fear not! This movie is as beautifully animated as Pixar can make it, full of Randy Newman’s entertaining music (including Forky’s theme, the multi-leveled “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”), an abundance of humor, and the beloved characters we’ve come to know in the previous three movies in this franchise. It made $118 million domestically in its opening weekend—outdistancing its nearest competitor by more than $100 million. And on Rottentomatoes.com, it has a 95 percent audience-approval rating to go along with its 98 percent critics rating. The 6-year-olds are loving it.

The plot begins in typical Toy Story territory: A toy is feeling unloved. Woody’s new owner, Bonnie, much prefers to play with other toys, including cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack), while leaving Woody in the closet. He tries to take this in stride: Whatever pleases his child pleases him, because that’s why he exists. When Bonnie sets off to her orientation day at kindergarten, she is not allowed to bring a toy, but Woody, as usual, takes matters into his own hands, sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack, and when she sits alone in her kindergarten class, it’s Woody who tosses the plastic spork, popsicle sticks, and other detritus onto Bonnie’s desk to allow her to construct her own toy—the insecure Forky—and have a successful day. When Bonnie’s family go on a weeklong Winnebago vacation, Woody comes along in order to buoy up the ineffectual Forky, to make him worthy of Bonnie’s love.

The rest of the story includes many motifs familiar from previous Toy Story installments: Woody must go on a quest to rescue a missing toy; Buzz, Jesse, and others try to lend a hand; new toys are met, some of whom become allies—including Duke Caboom (a hilarious Keanu Reeves), a toy motorcycle stunt rider in the Evel Knievel mold, and two fluffy carnival prizes called Ducky and Bunny (voiced by Emmy-Award winning Key and Peele: Keegan-Michael Key of TV’s Friends from College and Jordan Peele, director and writer of Get Out!), who spend much of their time imagining alternate realities, but that’s another story; and some new characters become antagonists, including Gabby Gabby and her stooges, four eerily empty ventriloquist dummies (who, like her, lack the ability to talk because they have no human master). And of course there are reunions and tears at the end, as in all Toy Story movies. Do not worry, there is plenty here for children to love. And plenty for you to think about. Four Shakespeares for this classic in the making.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

 

Odes, by Sharon Olds

Odes

Sharon Olds (2016)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

In 2010, the poet, critic, and blogger Anis Shivani wrote on the Huffington Post of Sharon Olds:

she writes about the female body in a deterministic, shamanistic, medieval manner. Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession is her specialty… Her poetry defines feminism turned upon itself, chewing up its own hot and bothered cadaver, exposed since the 1970s. Female poets in workshops around the country idolize her, collaborate in the masochism, because they say she freed them to talk about taboo subjects, she “empowered” them… [Olds] Has given confessionalism such a bad name it can’t possibly recover.

There was certainly a large segment of the [mostly male] literary establishment who felt similarly about Olds, at least at that time. But Olds did go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for her book Stag’s Leap, her chronicle of the myriad emotions involved in the breakup of her thirty-year marriage, finally published some 15 years after the divorce. Stag’s Leap also made her the first American woman to receive the T.S. Eliot Prize, and she has since won the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry (2014) as well as the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets (2016). It could be said with some confidence that at last, after a good deal of controversy about her work prior to Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds had finally reached a level of unassailable stature as an American poet of significance.

And then came Odes. Odes is a collection of sixty-four poems that seem at times to border on self-parody as they focus on and celebrate the body—the body as aging, the body as personal and intimate, and especially the body as sexual—in ways that don’t so much push the envelope of acceptable poetic subject matter as rip it apart altogether. The poet who previously shocked readers with poems on such topics as “The Pope’s Penis” and “Diaphragm Aria” here lets it all hang out in poem after poem, ranging from “Ode to the Hymen” and “Ode to the Clitoris” to “Ode to the Tampon” and “Ode to the Condom,” as well as the amusingly contemporary “Douche-Bag Ode” and the aptly named “Blow Job Ode.”

If to us these themes seem, perhaps, unexpected in a book of poetry from a revered and acclaimed woman of letters, consider what her current partner is quoted as saying in the book: “‘You’re sixty / something years old,’ he exclaims, ‘and still / writing about the first time you got laid!’” (“Second Ode to the Hymen,”p. 91). So I guess it’s not just us.

Hence the irony of the use of the term “Odes” to describe the form of this collection of poems. An Ode, traditionally, is a long lyric form that is written in an elevated style, serious in tone, dignified in manner, and using an elaborate stanzaic structure. It deals with a single purpose or theme, and often is written to eulogize some person (for Pindar it was an Olympic athlete), or praise for some work of art (like Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast” or Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), or a consideration of some emotional problem or human condition (like Coleridge’s “Dejection An Ode” or Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” ode).

Such a  poetic form seems incongruous with Sharon Olds at her most intimately personal, as in these poems. Olds has always been more in the tradition of Walt Whitman, with his open forms and personal subject matter, or even Baudelaire with his disregard for traditional boundaries. For her Odes, though, Olds has another source altogether: In a recent interview, Olds describes the inspiration she took from Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda:

I had read a book by Pablo Neruda called Odes to Common Things and while I was reading it I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I could do this as well,” but I was thinking, “This is cool, this is so cool.” When something then came into my head and I started writing, it was one of these odes, to my common things — a lot of them, it turned out, were things that were common to girls when I was 15, that were not common to boys, or to poetry, or to culture. They would have been outside of poetry — over in hygiene or something. ….[T]he politeness and the prudity of the world I grew up in meant that there were things that were important to me and interesting to me, [but] I had never read a poem about. And then those subjects started to come into me in a burst of girl feelings — girl feelings is definitely one way to put it, and also womanly happiness. And then there’s a side of me that’s just so excited thinking about things that haven’t necessarily been talked about. They are the things I’ve always been interested in. (https://wwd.com/fashion-news/street-style/gallery/street-style-milan-fashion-week-mens-ss20-mfw-photos-1203179433/)

Hence Olds’ very own Odes to common things, which include her breasts, her clitoris, and her hymen. And far from being addressed in heightened language or complex verse forms, they are addressed in amused colloquialism and Whitmanesque free verse.

I suppose it is because I am not a woman myself that, though amused, I’ve never felt personally moved by Olds’ more intimate poems that could have been written only by a woman. My favorite Olds poems have always been those that put her outside of herself (like “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” from The Dead and the Living, or “The Signal” from One Secret Thing), or those that portray the turmoil of human relationships (like “I Go Back to May, 1937” from The Gold Cell, or “Stag’s Leap” itself). Thus in reading this book I was most taken by poems like her “Ode of Broken Loyalty,” in which Olds recalls the moment she felt free from loyalty to her family and therefore open to any poetic subject, when she declares “Once torn / away, once shunned and shunning, it seemed there was / little I could not write about” (p. 10). And one of the shortest poems in the collection, her “Ode to Dirt”—the least elevated of all possible subjects—in which she finally perceives a family relationship: “but now I can see us all, made of the / same basic materials—/ cousins of that first exploding from nothing—/ in our intricate equation together” (p. 94). And a poem about burgeoning social awareness, the “Secondary Boycott Ode,” about a political act that, Olds-like, she sees largely in terms of the body: “I had never seen anyone / saying no with their body, with their feet” (p. 35).

Of the more personal poems, the ones I related to most were those that dealt with aging, most surely because of my own aging body. Olds has often been called a “confessional” poet, a term that puts her in a box with the Anne Sextons or the Sylvia Plaths. But when Olds looks into a mirror, it is not to see with a kind of horror, like Plath (speaking not from experience, since she of course never reached that age herself), “an old woman / Ris[ing] toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.” What Olds sees amuses her, and she embraces it. In her “Ode to Wattles,” she proclaims “I love to be a little / disgusting, to go as far as I can / into the thrilling unloveliness / of an elderwoman’s aging” (p. 78). In her “Ode of Withered Cleavage,” she confesses “I want to live to an age when I look / hardly human, I want to love them / equally, birth and its daughter and /mother, death” (p. 27).

This is a remarkable collection of poems, in which Olds mixes a kind of girlish wonder and curiosity with the wisdom of age, and the linguistic adeptness and confidence of a master craftswoman. If you like your poetry with a dash of spice and a glass of well- matured wine, you shouldn’t miss this book. And look forward, with me, to Olds’ next collection, called Arias, coming out later this year.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

 

The Secret Life of Pets 2

The Secret Life of Pets 2

(Chris Renaud and Jonathan del Val, 2019)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Babysitting our 4-year-old grandkids this weekend opened up the possibility of watching an animated movie that my wife couldn’t refuse, so we were off to the cinema on Saturday afternoon to take in the new Secret Lives of Pets sequel, which turned out to be the top-grossing movie of the past weekend. From the 4-year-old perspective, I can say that one was attentive through the entire film, while the other lost interest somewhere around three-quarters of the way through the 86-minute movie, possibly because the film’s three separate plots unfolding in an interwoven fashion could have been somewhat difficult for particularly young children to keep up with. So according to my highly scientific survey, 50 percent of 4-year-olds give the movie a thumbs-up rating.

Chris Renaud, who directed the original Secret Life of Pets in 2016, directed this sequel as well, sharing co-director status with Jonathan del Val, who was animation director on the first Secret Life. Most of the original cast is back, including Eric Stonestreet (of TV’s Modern Family) as the big shaggy Newfoundland mix Duke; Kevin Hart as Snowball, the white rabbit with delusions of superhero grandeur; Jenny Slate (of TV’s Parks and Rec) as the perky white Pomeranian Gidget; Lake Bell (of TV’s Children’s Hospital) as the aristocratic and obese gray cat Chloe; and Dana Carvey as the old Basset Hound Pops. Louis C.K. (after his self-destruction) has been replaced by Patton Oswalt (of TV’s King of Queens) as the voice of the Jack Russell terrier protagonist Max. Two important new characters appear in this film: Daisy the Shih Tzu, a sort-of love interest for Snowball, voiced by Tiffany Haddish (of Girls ’Trip); and Rooster, a tough and confident Welsh Sheepdog voiced by Harrison Ford. Brian Lynch, who was one of the four credited writers on the original film, returns to pen the screenplay of this sequel.

The first film was a surprise hit, raking in nearly $900 million worldwide. And what that says to Hollywood producers is “There must be a sequel to make more money again! And that sequel must come out as soon as possible, whether there is really anything more to do with these characters or not!” It could be that several storylines were brainstormed for a sequel, none of which seemed as if it would carry a full-length movie on its own, so I suppose it is Lynch who was ultimately made responsible for weaving together what are essentially three independent shorts into one loosely connected movie.

What should probably be considered the main plot involves Max and Duke, whose owner Katie (Ellie Klemper of TV’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) has married and given birth to a child named Liam (Henry Lynch). Max becomes obsessively protective of Liam, and from the stress develops a nervous condition that makes him scratch at himself constantly until his vet requires him to wear a cone. Max, Duke and the family head for an uncle’s farm for a relaxing vacation where, in an animal version of City Slickers, Ford’s gruff head dog Rooster channels Jack Palance’s Curly as he teaches Max how to find his inner courage. “There,” says Rooster, ripping off Max’s cone of shame. “You’re cured.”

Meanwhile Snowball, who has decided to become a masked superhero, despite his unfortunate lack of any super powers, advertises his availability for any hero-requiring jobs. It’s newcomer Daisy who wants to hire him, to rescue a mistreated tiger cub being tormented by a ruthless and sadistic circus owner named Sergei (Nick Kroll from I Love You, Man), who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West. Sergei has a pack of black wolves that Snowball and Daisy will have to evade in order to rescue the hapless tiger cub.

The weakest plot is the one involving Gidget, with whom Max leaves his favorite toy and who almost immediately loses the treasured object. It bounces into the apartment of a crazy cat lady, whose dozens of cats present a huge obstacle to Gidget’s recovering the toy. This leads to what may be the funniest part of the movie as Gidget seeks help from the haughty Chloe, who gives her lessons on how to impersonate a cat.

The film is pleasant and amusing enough, and does have a kind of overriding message that unifies the somewhat disparate plots: each of the main characters—Max, Snowball and Gidget—dig deep in themselves and end up finding the courage to do what they thought wasn’t possible. And there really are some genuinely funny moments. Add to that the animated film debut of Harrison Ford, whose Rooster is particularly memorable, and you’ve got a formula for success.

But that’s just it. The film seems a little too formulaic. It feels like a movie that was put together not because somebody had a great new idea for a story or a remarkable new concept for a movie’s subject matter (which, one might say, was the case with the original Secret Life of Pets, though some thought the idea for that movie was a rip-off of Toy Story). Rather, this film seems cobbled together as a sequel to a successful film in the expectation of drawing people in who had liked the first movie and wanted to see the characters again, even though it was a stretch to find something to get them to do for an hour and a half. The formula seems to have worked, since Pets 2 topped this week’s box office, handily beating out the latest X-Men movie starring Sansa Stark, and since according to Rotten Tomatoes.com audience reviews of the film are more than 90 percent positive. But success doesn’t mean it’s a great film. From my point of view, The Secret Life of Pets 2 gets a 50 percent rating on the 4-Year-Old-Twin-O-Meter. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

Rocketman

Rocketman

Dexter Fletcher (2019)

Rocketman, the jukebox musical biopic of Elton John, begins with Taron Egerton (Kingsman), dressed in an orange-and-maroon outfit of feathers, plumes, wings, and demonic horns, walking purposely down a long hallway, and my mind immediately flashed back to last year’s biopic about another gay British rock star of the ’70s, Bohemian Rhapsody, which opened with Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, suited for the stage and walking through a long passageway until he emerges onto the Live Aid stage for Queen’s most memorable set. Knowing that Rocketman’s director Dexter Fletcher was the man responsible for taking over the last few weeks of Rhapsody’s filming and steering it to its successful conclusion when original director Bryan Singer self-destructed, it might be natural to assume that Elton is about to open a door and walk out on stage. Instead, he opens a door and walks into a group therapy session, announcing that his name is Elton Hercules John and he’s “an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, a sex addict, and a shopaholic.” It’s a bit of a surprising twist, and illustrates the slightly lighter touch behind this film as compared with Rhapsody. But yes, like Freddy Mercury’s bio, it’s the same old story of how musical stars with all the money in the world end up crashing into personal disaster when faced with the allure of drugs, pills, and alcohol. The story is as old as the original 1930s’ A Star is Born, and as timely as…well…the 2018 version of A Star is Born. Look forward to seeing it again in the upcoming biopic of Judy Garland—speaking of A Star is Born.

So the general arc of the movie is awfully familiar. But the details are fascinating and Fletcher does have a number of tricks that keep the movie from being the same old same old. The therapy session, which Elton, as one would think, takes over as he fills the room, acts as a frame for the story as Elton gives a roughly chronological view of his life story, removing more and more of his costume as he goes along—stripping away his façade and stage persona to find the Reginald Kenneth Dwight beneath the Elton John disguise. In many ways the film is structured more like Jersey Boys than Bohemian Rhapsody, since the performances in the latter film are all on stage, but in Rocketman many of John’s songs are presented as in a classic musical, as part of the dialogue or as illustration of character points. In a poignant moment early in the film, Reggie is singing “I Want Love,” and the rest of his family take up the song as the camera wanders about the house to the musical stylings of his self-centered mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard of The Help), his unbending father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh of TV’s Wanderlust), and his sympathetic grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones of the Harry Potter and Bridget Jones films). That song, as it turns out, dramatically underscores the ultimate theme of the film: Elton does what he does because he’s searching for love, something he never gets from Mom and Dad. When he comes out to his mother and tells her he’s “a poofter, a fairy, a queer,” she’s not surprised, but tells him that no one will ever love him “properly.” And nobody ever does, at least in the film.

So if you’re expecting to hear the original Elton John songs, you’ll be disappointed, since it’s the cast members’ versions you’re going to get. Egerton, however, has a perfectly entertaining pop singing voice, and in the 2016 film Sing he performed one of Elton John’s songs, “I’m Still Standing.” So although Elton’s first pick to play him in a biopic was Justin Timberlake, Egerton gives notable renditions of several numbers, including the title song—performed as a kind of voice-over as Elton plunges into a swimming pool in a half-hearted drug-induced suicide attempt in the middle of a huge blowout party at his house—or of “Crocodile Rock,” which the film depicts him introducing at his 1970 American debut performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, which  Fletcher presents as so uplifting that Elton and the entire audience end up floating in the air.

Yes, there are moments of fantasy in the film. There is no actual record of any audience members literally leaving the ground during that number—which, to be totally accurate, did not actually occur at all, since “Crocodile Rock” was not written until 1972. This is just one of several places where screenwriter Lee Hall (who had previously teamed up with real-life Elton on Billy Elliot the Musical) takes some liberties with the story. Hall and Fletcher had unprecedented access to Elton John for purposes of the film, and John is listed an Executive Producer in the credits, so it’s unlikely there is anything in the film that Elton John did not approve. But it’s also true that the film is officially billed as a “musical fantasy” about Elton’s “fantastical human story.” Plausible deniability there when it comes to getting the facts straight.

One of those facts, as the film makes clear, is that  while the music is Elton’s, the lyrics of all Elton’s hits were written by his collaborator Bernie Taupin (played here with warm sympathy by Jamie Bell—who, in a great piece of trivia, played the title role in the 2000 film Billy Elliot, written by Rocketman screenwriter Hall). So the film’s application of all those song lyrics to Elton’s own life is ingenious but somewhat ironic, since the lyrics are really coming from Taupin’s life experiences. But that’s just part of the overall fantasy.

But aside from Taupin and John’s classic songs dazzling our ears, and Julian Day’s recreations of Elton John’s spectacular costumes dazzling our eyes, Egerton’s dazzling performance as the man who at one time was responsible for 5 percent of all record sales worldwide is what holds the film together. It is very much on a par with Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning turn as Freddy Mercury last year. Fletcher, who directed Egerton in 2015’s Eddie the Eagle, seems to have known just how to get a remarkable performance from him as Elton.

The younger portrayers of Elton—or Elton when he was still Reggie—also turn in commendable performances. Matthew Illesley, 9, does a surprisingly lively rendition of “The Bitch is Back,” aimed at his mother. And one of the most memorable scenes in the film involves 14-year-old Kit Connor as Reggie who, neglecting to bring any music for his piano audition at the Royal Academy of Music, sits down and plays exactly what the interviewer had been playing when he came in, purely by ear after hearing it once.

Other members of the cast give creditable performances as well. Howard does so well playing someone you love to hate that she’s perfect as Elton’s narcissistic mother, and Mackintosh is heartlessly cold as his distant father. The other real villain in the film, Elton’s music manager John Reid (played here by Richard Madden, best known as Rob Stark in Game of Thrones), who becomes Elton’s lover but cares only for the money he can make off him, is smoothly diabolical. But each of these roles is little more than a caricature, and together they form a bevy of unrequited loves in Elton’s life. More memorable, and less one-dimensional, are the two characters—Granny Ivy and writing partner Taupin—who actually do show Elton some love, but whom he hardly seems to notice.

Thus “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places,” though hardly an Elton John song, might well be the theme song of this film. Ultimately, the endnotes of the film inform us that Elton has been sober for decades and has finally found David Furnish, someone to love him properly and to whom he has been married for some time, and, by the way, someone who also produceD this film. Bohemian Rhapsody ultimately won four Academy Awards and grossed more than $900 million worldwide. Rocket man tells a similar story in a more creative way. It remains to be seen whether it and capture the same kind of success. But I’d recommend that you see it. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

 

 

Booksmart

Booksmart

Olivia Wilde (2019)

Here’s a little coming-of-age movie that garnered some $7 million during its opening weekend—not exactly a summer blockbuster, but if anybody was anticipating that, they shouldn’t have released it opposite Disney’s live-action Aladdin, which was primed to dominate the Memorial Day weekend box office. But the film by first-time director Olivia Wilde is the most critically acclaimed movie currently in theaters, with a 98% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.com. It is notable that audience ratings for the film are somewhat lower than those of critics, with only 76% positive ratings. I’m always curious about such discrepancies, so I took a look at some of those audience reviews.

What was immediately clear is that viewers either loved Booksmartor hated it, with most of the reviews being either five stars or one star, with very little in between. Most of the haters who actually gave a reason for their evaluation (rather than simply saying the film was terrible) complained about two things: Many condemned the film for vulgar language and raunchiness. I was a bit confused by this complaint, since the film is clearly rated R, and clearly states that this rating is given “for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking—all involving teens.” To get this warning and then be shocked, shocked, that the “F” word is used throughout the film, and that sexual activities are implied (though not depicted) seems somewhat disingenuous. It is possible that these negative reactions are a response to the fact that in this particular end-of-high-school party movie, it’s a pair of young women out to party (one of whom is “out” as a lesbian), rather than Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. In any case, I didn’t find these criticisms convincing.

More legitimate are the complaints that the movie is essentially plotless, or that there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. It’s quite true that the film is episodic, that it moves from one set piece to another, with only the slightest thread connecting all the scenes. It is true that plot is not the movie’s strongest asset. It seems likely that one of the reasons for this is that there are no fewer than four writers listed as responsible for the screenplay: Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), Emily Halpern (TV’s Good Girls and Black-ish), Sarah Haskins (also of TV’s Good Girls and Black-ish) and Katy Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic). The reason for this eclectic pedigree is apparently that the screenplay bounced around Hollywood for several years, and was tweaked along the way several times, before finally seeing the light of day in Wilde’s breakout film.

The fact is that Booksmart belongs to a genre of film not widely admired for careful plotting. It’s an epic-night high school party movie that has its roots in films from AmericanGraffitithrough Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused to Superbad.Tropes common to this particular film genre abound in Wilde’s film as well: protagonists who don’t quite seem to belong with the rest of their high school crowd; a huge blowout end-of-the year/end of high school party; an obligatory drug experiment; awkward romantic/sexual situations; a blow-up fight between best friends; high school weirdo who turns out to be misunderstood; clueless parents; a climactic graduation day speech—yes, all the elements are there. But Wilde gives these tropes new life with a bit of a twist.

The episodic nature of the plot is also characteristic of an even older, archetypal form of story to which Booksmart belongs: it’s a quest story, with the protagonists searching for the site of the party that they believe will complete them as human beings and fulfill their wishes by uniting them with the people they’ve had crushes on throughout their high school careers. And, like the medieval questing knight, the ultimate reward of the quest turns out to be self-knowledge.

The story follows the adventures of Molly (Beanie Feldstein of Ladybird), the alpha female and class president of the school, and her BFF Amy (Kaitlyn Dever from TV’s Last ManStanding), who spends much of her time in Molly’s shadow but is just as smart and focused as her friend. The two of them have devoted the last four years to study and ensuring they graduate at the top of their class so they can get into Ivy League colleges and secure a golden future. Things seem to have worked out for them, since Molly is heading for Yale while Amy will be going to Columbia after graduation.

And so they take a smug view of their classmates who have wasted so much of their high school careers in partying and carrying on. In a scene that sets the tone of the movie early on, Molly overhears three of what she considers her class’s losers talking about her in a critical way, and responds with the classic nerd comeback to the “cool kids,” that she’ll be at Yale next year achieving her dream while they will be stuck with the dead-end futures they deserve. But the scene doesn’t end as Molly—and the audience—might expect. Turns out one of these kids is also going to Yale, another to Stanford, and the third has already been recruited to write code for Google. In disbelief, Molly stammers “But, you guys don’t care about school…” and gets the answer: “No, we just don’t only care about school.”

It’s a life-changing revelation for Molly. She confronts Amy with the news: all this time she had believed she had to choose between schoolwork or fun. Now she realizes it was not an either/or proposition. “They did both,” she tells Amy. “We’re the only assholes who did one.” The two of them do the only thing they can: They are going to fit four years of partying into one giant blowout party thrown by Molly’s vice-president Nick (Mason Gooding  from TV’s Ballers), whom she’s had a secret crush on for years). Amy’s secret crush, a skateboarding chick named Ryan (played by Victoria Ruesga, and actual skateboarder from North Hollywood) will also be there, and even asks Amy if she’s coming to the party. There’s only one problem: the party is at Nick’s aunt’s house, and they don’t know where that is.

Thus the movie becomes the quest for the great party. Molly and Amy travel through the night, crashing lesser parties (a pathetic champagne party on a yacht, a mystery-game party hosted by the school’s drama geeks) and finding unanticipated complications at Nick’s party when they finally get there, all the time finding out more about themselves than they may have bargained for.

Feldstein and Dever make a believable and sympathetic buddy team, but the film’s unusual twist is that there are really no villains in the story: the other students that Molly and Amy saw as adversaries are just as sympathetic—the two had simply never really known them. In this the film is probably more like American Graffiti than any other coming-of-age, last-night-of-high-school movie. Some of the supporting characters in the film turn in memorable performances as well, most notably Skyler Gisondo (from The Amazing Spiderman) as Jared, a rich kid nobody likes, and Billie Lourd  (daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, a strange party girl who seems to turn up everywhere.

The movie is a clever and surprisingly fresh comedy. It’s been heralded as thecoming-of-age movie for Generation Z. I’m not sure I’d go that far. This is, after all, basically an all-white high school in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb with a student body all of whom seem wealthy enough to attend Ivy League colleges. Not exactly working-class heroes. And with the recent bruhaha about wealthy parents bribing their kids’ ways into elite colleges, the “party all you want and still get into Yale” theme might be a bit tone deaf. But it’s a pleasant enough comedy if you don’t think about it too hard. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum

John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum

Chad Stahelski (2019)

It’s another week before the scheduled release of Disney’s new live-action version of Aladdin, in which Will Smith plays the genie that Robin Williams made famous in the original 1992 animated film. And it was probably a sure thing that this latest live-action cartoon was going to finally knock the juggernaut that is Avengers: Endgameout of the number one slot at the box office. So it may be a bit of a surprise that the latest chapter of the John Wick franchise was this week’s box office champ. But when you think about it, it’s not that much of a difference: John Wick: Chapter 3is nothing if not a live-action cartoon.

How else does one explain the gratuitous violence presented in a way that evokes absolutely no more empathetic response from the audience than Wile E. Coyote’s falling off a cliff or being blown up by a stick of dynamite? We know that Wile E. is not real—he’s just a drawing—just as we know that the dozens and dozens of would-be assassins chasing John Wick are cyphers—most of the time you can’t see their faces because it’s dark or raining or they are wearing helmets of some kind. It’s essentially a video game in which you rack up points by snuffing out the lives of imaginary foes. It’s no surprise, either, that there isa John Wick video game in which you, too, can kill or be killed. In a cyber-sense of course.

The thing that makes cartoonish violence undisturbing is the objectivity with which we view it: We know it’s not real, so we react differently than we would if it were, or if we could imagine it were. With Wile E. Coyote, we laugh. With John Wick, we may at times be tempted to laugh—I burst out laughing at one point when John dispatches an adversary with a library book. But the more likely response is a kind of awed hypnotic attraction to the choreographed and artistically set dances of death delivered by the film. It’s no accident that in one scene a group of ballerinas—albeit ballerinas apparently in training as potential assassins—perform their graceful movements onstage, choreographed by the New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck, before being elegantly infiltrated by a group of real assassins. It’s director Chad Stahelski’s emblem of what he is doing with the violence in the film, inviting the viewer to see it as quite literally a ballet of brutality. (I should note that a spinoff film, tentatively entitled The Ballerina, is in the works, and is being given a pretty good launching point in this film).

Stahelski, who also directed the first two John Wick movies, was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrixfilms and is a martial arts expert himself, so the primary interest of his direction is the meticulously choreographed combat scenes. These are enhanced in the film by the camera work of Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who did the Oscar-nominated work in The Shape ofWater)as well as the impressive work of production designer Kevin Kavanaugh (who did TheDark Knight Rising) and art director Chris Shriver (who won an Oscar for Birdman). These artists created John Wick’s incredibly quirky battle in the aisles of a military museum—in which all kinds of historical weapons are displayed in glass cases, which Wick and his adversaries rhythmically, and with incredible precision, break into in order to get the next weapon with which to attack their opponents. Even more impressively, they framed his final epic battle in what amounts to a hall of mirrors, with colorful fluorescent-lit walls of glass.

As in the previous installments in this series, screenwriter Derek Kolstad has created a story without a whole lot of plot or dialogue: It’s the action scenes that are the meat of the film, as in an Asian martial arts movie (the final battle, in fact, is something of an homage to the hall of mirrors scene in Enter the Dragon) and, practically speaking, a good deal of John Wick 3’s gross receipts will be from foreign markets, particularly in Asia, and there is no necessity to dub or provide subtitles for action scenes, so…marketability!

But the plot that is here begins immediately after John Wick’s second chapter ends: Wick (Reeves) is, you might recall, a “retired” assassin who has worked for a large international conglomerate of assassins, ruled by a board of directors called the High Table. Goaded out of retirement by an enemy who steals his car and kills his dog, he takes vengeance on the perpetrator (basically that’s chapter one). Chapter two, which begins four days after chapter one ends, has John recruited by a criminal named Santino to kill his sister, so that he can take her place as one of the directors of the High Table. When John completes this task, Santino puts out a $7 million contract on him as the murderer of his sister, in order to deflect suspicion from himself, but John ends up killing Santino in the Continental in New York—which is, according to the rules of the High Table, a safe house. For breaking these rules, the Continental’s manager Winston (Ian McShane from TV’s Deadwood) declares him “excommunicato” puts a $14 million price on John’s head, but gives him a one-hour head start before he announces the global bounty on John’s head.

And that’s where chapter three begins. Basically, Wick plans to find “The Elder” (Saïd Taghmaoui from Wonder Woman), mysterious head of the High Table, somewhere in Morocco, and beg him for a chance to make right his defiance of the rules, and so get  the $14 million bounty taken off his head. To get there, of course, he has to fight off assassins galore, and he also needs help in getting passage out of New York. For this he turns to The Director (Anjelica Huston), who runs the ballet-assassin school under the High Table’s auspices. She helps him get to Casablanca, where he tracks down another former associate who owes him a favor, the assassin Sofia (Halle Berry), who owns a pair of killerMalinois attack dogs who have a great time in another great fight scene. Casablanca, by the way, has never looked so good—maybe because this scene isn’t being filmed in Casablanca but in the beautiful Atlantic port city of Essaouira, as anyone who has visited either Casablanca or Essaouira will immediately recognize.

Meantime a robot-like High Table administrator called “The Adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon from TVs Billions) has been sent to the Continental to impose further penance for the Wick affair on Wick’s former allies, Winston and the quirkily independent Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, Reeves’ and Stahelski’s old Matrixbuddy). To track down and finish the job on Wick, she also dispenses her own handpicked assassin named Zero (martial artist Mark Dacascos from TV’s Hawaii Five-O), a sushi chef who uses his skill with knives to work as a contract killer.

Some of the performances here are exceptional. Huston and Barre are memorable as usual, as are McShane and Fishbourne. Reeves has a type—tight-lipped and surly—that is the essence of John Wick and that he pulls off precisely. Dacascos’s is perhaps the standout performance here—his fan-boy adoration of the person he’s been sent to kill is a real hoot. In the end, though, there isn’t much meat in the film—it looks really good and has a few quirky plot twists, but beyond the technical virtuosity it doesn’t leave you anything more to think about than does a Road Runner cartoon. Sometimes, of course, that may be all you’re looking for. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

Tolkien

Tolkien

Dome Karukoski (2019)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not am not an average moviegoer who may have decided to come see Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s new biopic Tolkien, about the formative years of the creator of the modern fantasy genre, because of a fondness for J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels TheLord of the Rings and The Hobbit, or of the films that helped re-popularize them for the 21st century. If I were, I might have found this film a cozy and entertaining rendition of the author’s life, as a good percentage of its audience seem to have done: At latest count, the movie has an 86 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. This, of course, reflects an audience predisposed to like the film, since they already like Tolkien himself. Critics, by the way, have been less kind to the film: Rotten Tomatoes finds only 49 percent of critics giving the movie a favorable rating. This 37 point gap is quite unusual, and I’m not sure I can explain it. Most of the critics dislike the film for rather vague reasons—it’s not imaginative enough, many say, considering the fact that its subject is one of the greatest imaginative minds of the 20th century. It’s fairly generic, they say. It’s slow-moving at times. But these are trifles.

As for me, as I said, I am not the average moviegoer in this case, having published a 700-page Critical Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien back in 2011. Perhaps it put me at a disadvantage to come to the movie with so many preconceptions about the author’s life, since one must, in the case of all biopics, allow for the fact that movies will take some license and will fictionalize part of the story in order to create something more dramatic than the bare facts, and so perhaps arrive at a certain truth about the subject that transcends the facts. I understand this. But allow me to say: That is not the case here. In fact, the most egregious alterations of fact in this film actually made for a less dramatic and interesting story than sticking to the actual facts could have.

The film focuses on the years from 1908 (when Tolkien was 16), which is when the orphaned Tolkien and his brother Hillary moved into a boarding house in Birmingham, run by Mrs. Faulkner, and when Tolkien met and fell in love with 19-year old fellow boarder and orphan Edith Bratt; and December 1916, when the (nearly) 25-year-old Lieutenant Tolkien, suffering from the ravages of trench fever, was invalided home from the battle of the Somme in the First World War to recover his health and, ultimately, to settle down with Edith. Aside from an early montage of life with his dying mother and a final montage of life with Edith and his children years later, the film focuses on his relationship with Edith and with his friendships with three close friends from King Edward’s School in Birmingham, with whom he formed a club called the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barovian Society)—named for Barrows, the tea room in which the group would meet.

All of this makes perfect sense: These years were for Tolkien the most emotionally tumultuous, and the most formative in his life. They are the perfect subject for a movie about him. And Nicholas Hoult (best-known as the Beast from the X-Men movies) and Lily Collins (who was Snow White in Mirror, Mirror) manage to come off as likeable and believable as Tolkien and Edith (Collins bears a striking resemblance to pictures of the young Edith). But screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford manage to distort, omit and puzzlingly add so many important details, and for no apparent reason, that the film actually becomes hard to watch. Let me count the ways:

  • Tolkien’s mother Mabel died when John Ronald was 12. She died of diabetes. Yet Gleeson and Beresford have him tell Edith at one point that he doesn’t know how his mother died. What?
  • Father Francis Morgan, played here by Colm Meaney (best known from his years on Star Trek: the Next Generation), was appointed by Mabel as the boys’ guardian when she died. She did so because he was a kind and loving man. Meaney portrays him here as, well, something of a meany. But in fact Tolkien and his brother Hillary were very close to him, and he provided a needed parental figure during their formative years. It is true he forbade Tolkien to see Edith, but chiefly because he had promised to do his best to raise the boys and it seemed that Tolkien would not get into Oxford if he was distracted by his infatuation with her. Tolkien agreed out of his deep respect for Father Francis.
  • And because Tolkien was a devout Catholic all his life. A detail that the screenwriters seem not to have deemed especially important, but which underlay Tolkien’s entire philosophy of “secondary creation,” which is what he called his creation of Middle Earth, deemed as a pious imitation of God’s own primary creation of the world. In part Tolkien’s faith was formed by his close relationship with Father Francis, and was crowned by his eldest son John’s own ordination as a Catholic priest. All of this, of course, also played into the difficult relationship with Edith, who agreed to convert to Tolkien’s faith before they were married—an act that cost her nearly all her closest friends. Such things were far more significant a hundred years ago than the film acknowledges.
  • The actual story of Tolkien’s proposal to Edith is farmore dramatic than the film portrays. Forbidden to contact Edith while under Father Francis’s guardianship, Tolkien waited three years until the day he turned 21 (January 3, 1913), at which point he wrote to her and expressed his love. She wrote back to tell him she was engaged to another man, at which point he hopped on the first train to where she was living in Cheltingham and swept her off her feet, convincing her to break her engagement and agree to marry him. Ultimately he married her shortly before he left for the war in France. For no reason that I could tell, this film ignores that dramatic encounter and has him simply meet her by accident as he’s going off to war. Why on earth?
  • The T.C.B.S. was vital to Tolkien’s growth and his commitment to become a writer. Formed with the son of King Edwards’ School’s headmaster, Rob Gilson (Patrick Gibson of TV’s The OA), the young poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle of TV’s Ordealby Innocence), and the young musician Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney of Dunkirk), it is quite true that the group, in their naïve innocence, did vow to change the world through art, and encouraged one another in their artistic efforts. It’s true that Gilson died on the first day of the Somme, and that Smith died later in the year, though Tolkien heard of Smith’s death via a letter from Wiseman after his return to England. But the film makes the completely unfounded suggestion that Smith was gay and was sexually attracted to Tolkien. ScreenwriterStephen Beresford was apparently behind this depiction, reading between the lines in some of Smith’s letters to Tolkien, which do express a close friendship—a fact that apparently can only be interpreted in today’s world as sexual. In his last letter to Tolkien, expressing his sorrow at Gilson’s death, Smith wrote:

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight there will still be left a member of the TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. … May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

So, that means “I’m in love with you”? What the hey? It’s likely this kind of distortion that convinced the Tolkien estate to distance itself from the film, issuing a statement that “they did not approve of, authorize or participate in” the project.

  • There’s this little thing called The Silmarillion? Sure, most moviegoers don’t know about it, but Tolkien had not conceived of The Hobbitor, much less, Lord of the Ringsduring the period this movie covers. It’s his earlier mythology that he was putting together at this point. The film flirts with an image of Edith dancing under the trees, an image that reappears several times in the film, that recreates one of the profoundest moments in Tolkien’s entire life: It occurred after he returned from France and, during his recuperation, when she danced for him under a tree, and he was inspired to create the legend of Beren and Luthien—the mortal man who falls in love with an elven princess. Through their lives, Tolkien always thought of Edith as his Luthien, and himself as Beren, and had those named inscribed on their tombstone. The film never explains the image, and refers to the names on the tombstone in a last note with no explanation, which makes it more confusing than edifying. Why should the filmmakers include this motif if they weren’t going to make anything of it?
  • Last and most heinous, the film, which alternates between scenes of Tolkien on the Somme battlefield andflashbacks of his earlier days, spends a long, climactic scene with the fevered and halucinatory Tolkien stumbling around on the Somme battlefield looking for Smith, but seeing shadows that look like dragons, ents, or creatures out of Mordor. That never happened, of course, but sometimes such scenes can encapsulate something important to the film’s overall theme. That’s not what happens here. The scene is so absurd, since Tolkien comes out of the experience alive—apparently all one had to do to survive the single bloodiest battle in European history was to wander aimlessly around the battlefield looking for your dead friend. It’s a scene that bends audience incredulity to the breaking point.

Oh to be sure there are scenes in the film worth watching, most notably a scene between the student Tolkien and Oxford Professor Joseph Wright (a delightful Derek Jacobi), who inspires the young scholar to focus on Philology after he fails to thrive in Classics, but these are few and far between, and they don’t make up for the gaffes. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one. Apparently there are two other Tolkien biopics in development right now. We can only hope they will be better than this one.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127