Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

I can’t say I was dying to see this movie, which as far as I could tell was just another teen angst movie about a high school senior coming of age. Seems like I’ve seen something like that before—like in every other movie that gets made these days, unless it’s a superhero movie intended to appeal mainly to those adolescents that all the other movies are about. But Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird turns out to be the year’s best-reviewed movie, judging by the 100 percent rating it had on Rottentomatoes.com, at least up until this morning, when some curmudgeon seems to have finally taken aim at it after waking up on the wrong side of bed or something. And it was just nominated for three Golden Globes, including one for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy. But with reviews like that, I figured I really needed to see it, and have been waiting patiently for three weeks for Cinemark to bring it to Conway. And of course, I’d still be waiting if I hadn’t decided to see it in Little Rock. Cinemark hasn’t seen fit to bring a single new movie (aside from the abominably reviewed Just Getting Started—9 percent on Rotten tomatoes) to Conway for those three weeks. So for Lady Bird—or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or The Man Who Invented Christmas—you’ll have to go to Little Rock. I suspect it will be the same with the Golden Globes’ darling The Shape of Water when it finally arrives in this flyover state. Hey Cinemark, we’ve got 60,000 people and three colleges here, one of which has a graduate degree in film. I think there must might be an audience for actual decent movies here!

But I digress. This is Gerwig’s first time alone in the director’s seat, (she is credited with co-directing the indie Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanbeg in 2008). She’s appeared in front of the camera in several films, including Noah Baumbach’s Francis Ha and Mistress America, and she is credited with co-authoring the screenplays for those two films with Baumbach, but Lady Bird is her first solo credit as author of the screenplay. It’s a screenplay based largely on Gerwig’s own life: Gerwig was born in Sacramento, California, and attended an all-girl Catholic school. Her mother was a nurse and her father a loan officer in a credit union and a computer programmer. She came to New York to attend Barnard College upon graduation from high school. This film’s protagonist, Christine McPherson, is a senior at Immaculate Heart high school in Sacramento in 2002, and she wants to make her friends and family call her “Lady Bird.” When asked if “Lady Bird” is her given name, she declares, “It is my given name! It’s a name I’ve given to myself.” Oh, by the way, Christine also wants to shake the dust of Sacramento from her sandals and head for college in New York, or at least somewhere on the east coast.

Lady Bird is played with remarkable genuineness and dexterity by the very compelling Saoirse Ronan, who, at 23, is not far removed from the high school senior she plays, but she comes to the role with two Oscar nominations already in her back pocket (one for playing the Irish immigrant protagonist in 2015’s Brooklyn and one for playing the young sister in Atonement), and this role may garner her another, as it has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination.

The film’s plot is somewhat episodic, taking us through the ups and downs of Lady Bird’s final year of high school: her audition for the fall musical, in which her best friend, the brilliant and witty Julie (Beanie Feldstein of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) gets the lead opposite her new crush Danny (a very sympathetic Lucas Hedges of Manchester by the Sea); her attempts to get into a private east coast college despite her mediocre performance in high school; her breakup with Danny and fling with the Howard Zinn-reading too-cool-for-school guitarist of a local rock band, played to smarmy perfection by Timothée Chalamet (who is nominated for his own golden Globe for Best Actor in this year’s Call Me by Your Name); her subsequent dropping of the somewhat dowdy Julie in order to join the “cool kids” clique of which Kyle is a member, and her taking up with the school’s reigning popularity queen, Jenna (Odeya Rush of Goosebumps), who’s nice enough but shallow and dumb as a rock. And of course we wait to find out who Lady Bird is going to prom with and whether she gets in to that highly valued east coast school.

But what actually raises this film above the level of the genre is not the plot, which is pretty typical, nor the acting, which is not, but rather the treatment of the adult characters—those creatures from the other side of the Great Divide whose main purpose in films like this is usually to act as straight man to the jokes, or obstacles to the achievement of the New Society that the kids are striving for, or to act as impotent bystanders while the we-know-better kids save their world. But here the adults are real people who have lives and feelings of their own that do not simply revolve around the teenagers as the center of the universe. Veteran actress Lois Smith, whose film career dates back to East of Eden with James Dean in 1955, is wonderful as Sister Sarah Joan, the school’s guidance counsellor, who thinks it’s hilarious when Lady Bird puts a sign on her car saying “Just Married to Jesus.” Stephen McKinley Henderson (Fences, Manchester by the Sea) plays Father Leviatch, the troubled director of the fall musical, leaves us aching to know what is troubling him, but it’s not his story so we are not privileged to follow that thread. To some extent this is also true of Lady Bird’s father, Larry (Tracy Letts of The Big Short and Elvis and Nixon), who is wildly sympathetic as Lady Bird’s calm, philosophical, and indulgent parent, who helps her with her college applications behind her mother’s back. Larry is unemployed and depressed and the family is struggling, and that backstory is, again, not up front in Lady Bird’s consciousness, and therefore not something that the film delves deeply into. One of the movie’s themes, apparently, is that every individual is the hero of his or her own story, and how unaware we are of those stories when we are caught up in our own egos—a condition particularly characteristic of, though not exclusive to, adolescence.

Most significantly, there is Lady Bird’s mother Marion. Played by another veteran actress, Laurie Metcalf. Best known for her television work, particularly for her ten years as the sister on Roseanne, for which she won three Emmy awards, Metcalf has been nominated for a Golden Globe for this film, for playing a demanding, loving, frustrated and passive-aggressive mother to perfection. Like the other adult, she has a life of her own, a life troubled by overwork and financial worries. Marion’s relationship with Lady Bird is truly the core of the film, providing the glue that holds the episodic school year together. Gerwig knows exactly what kind of power mothers can exert over daughters with passive-aggressive comments that prick at their psyches  and get them worked up like spurs in a horse’s side, and Metcalf delivers the perfect tone and expression. This is the relationship that has to work itself out in the film, and I won’t provide any spoilers about exactly how that happens.

Like another of this year’s best movies, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this film recognizes that life does not contain great moments of closure when all questions are answered and the participants’ fates are settled. So don’t expect a compete resolution. This is a film that rises to transcend its genre. I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh (2017)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Some movies are hard to pigeonhole. Pretty much all of Martin McDonagh’s work falls into this category. The toast of the London and New York stages while still in his twenties, the author of  such darkly comic plays as The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman, McDonagh won an Academy Award for his first film, the short Six Shooter in 2006. He went on to stun audiences with In Bruges, the violent, tragic, yet often hilarious and bizarrely quirky story of a hit man vacationing in the Belgian city of Bruges with a companion assigned to terminate him. McDonagh went on to write and direct Seven Psychopaths, violent and comic in the same vein. Now he brings us Frances McDormand in her most memorable role since Fargo, as the bereaved mother of a teenaged daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton, currently also seen in Lady Bird), who was raped and murdered but whose case the local police have not been able to solve in seven months. It’s not the most promising basis for a comedy. But this is one you will remember.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose frustration over the lack of progress in her daughter’s case leads her to rent three billboards near her home outside of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The first reads “Raped While Dying”; the second “And Still No Arrests”; and the third “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The bold protest is noted almost immediately by Ebbing police officer Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell, who worked with McDonagh previously in Seven Psychopaths as well as in his play A Behanding in Spokane), riding by in his squad car. Dixon informs the police chief, William Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson, another veteran of Seven Psychopaths), who is just sitting down to Easter dinner with his family. At this point you are almost certain to be making assumptions about how this film is going to progress. Willoughby, you are likely assuming, is an incompetent good ol’ boy running a corrupt police force, and Mildred’s billboards are going to either shame him into solving the case or anger him into stonewalling and carrying out a police vendetta against Mildred and against poor Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones of Get Out and American Made), the local advertising representative who has provided the billboards.

But one thing this film teaches you quickly is that any assumptions you make are almost certainly destined to be wrong. Turns out Willoughby is as decent a cop as you’re likely to find, in real life or the movies, and he’s well-respected in the town. He also happens to be dying of pancreatic cancer, and there’s a good deal of backlash against Mildred for kicking the poor man when he’s down. And he does ask for the file on Angela’s case to review right away. But he explains to Mildred that the DNA evidence taken from the crime scene matches no one in any database. In the absence of any witnesses or other evidence there seems nothing the department can do.

If Willoughby has a fault as police chief, it is his apparently indulgent attitude toward Dixon, who is about as inept and thuggish a cop as you’re likely to find, in real life or the movies. When Mildred makes an angry taunt that the Ebbing police are “too busy torturing black folks” to solve her daughter’s murder, the remark is directed toward Dixon, and Willoughby’s answer to that is the rather unconvincing “there was no real evidence of that.” Still, Dixon, fiercely loyal to Willoughby, is the embodiment of the racism and homophobia that a number of people see as riddling Ebbing’s police force, undermining public trust in the department particularly among African Americans in the community. And it is from Dixon that we do see some of the backlash we may have anticipated coming at Mildred from the town police.

But if you’re hoping to see Dixon get his comeuppance, once again you may be only partly satisfied, but then you may also be surprised. And if you’re expecting this film to be a whodunit and anticipate the kind of closure that a solved mystery gives you in the end, expect to be frustrated. This just isn’t the kind of film that wraps things up neatly, or gives you that warm and comfy sense of closure. More than almost any film you can name, this is closer to real life than a narrative. And in real life there are no neat denouements.

Just as in real life there are no pure heroes or villains. As Willoughby turns out to be no kind of demon, so Mildred turns out to be no kind of angel. Her anger sometimes crosses over into rage, in part because she feels some culpability in her daughter’s death. She puts up the billboards out of desperation, knowing Willoughby isn’t personally to blame but believing that putting his name up in giant letters will keep her daughter’s case in the public spotlight, where it will have a better chance of being solved. But mostly she is trying to battle the dark cloud that says to her “there ain’t no God and the world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other.”

So the film is not so much about solving the crime as it is about Mildred’s redemption. This comes about through her interactions with Willoughby, who continues to surprise her even after you’d expect; with her son Robby (Lucas Hedges of Manchester by the Sea), who wishes she would stop her crusade since it won’t bring her sister back; with her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes of Everest and Lincoln), who feels the same and who also surprises her in a less positive way; and from James, the “town dwarf” (Peter Dinklage, on a break from Game of Thrones), whose budding romance with her—you guessed it—doesn’t turn out the way you might anticipate.

But unlooked for as it may seem, this film turns out to be even more significantly about the unlikely redemption of Officer Dixon—brought about again in part by Willoughby’s influence, and contributing again in part to Mildred’s character arc. Sam Rockwell has always been an excellent actor but his performance in this film is every bit as masterful as McDormand’s. I’ve seen no better performances on film this year, and would be surprised if Oscar nominations did not wait for both of them—and perhaps for Harrelson as well. In a year when he starred in six films (including the major critical and popular hit War for the Planet of the Apes), this is far and away Harrelson’s most memorable performance, and one that may garner him his third Oscar nomination. As for McDonagh, he may be looking at another nomination for the screenplay as well as, perhaps, one for best picture. The film has already won this year’s People’s Choice Award in Toronto, and is nominated for 11 British Independent Film awards. Look for more success in awards season here. Four Shakespeares for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Wonder

Wonder

Stephen Chbosky (2017)

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It’s getting into that holiday season when Hollywood feeds the craving for sugary sweet fare by feeding us often mindless sentimental claptrap that melts like cotton candy at the first substantial thought cast in it direction. And you have perhaps noticed that, judging by its trailers, Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder looks to be exactly that kind of transient bon-bon. It tells the story, after all, of a ten-year old boy, Auggie Pullman, born with a cranio-facial deformity that has required seventeen separate surgeries to amend, but who still wears a toy space helmet to prevent other children—and adults—from being startled or put off by his appearance. You know from the start, as the previously home-schooled Auggie is about to start fifth grade in a private middle school, that he’s going to get bullied in the worst way and we are going to be devastated along with him. Is it possible to find a story more likely to manipulate your tears?

But wait: there are reasons for hope. Chbosky is the author of an insightful YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he subsequently was able to make into a popular and critically appreciated film in 2012, and direct it himself. He directs this film and also wrote the script, along with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. And who better to take on the challenge of filming R. J. Palacio’s popular novel in a sensitive way that does not mangle the story, which has already sparked the anti-bullying “Choose Kind” campaign. That effort is based on Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s precept “If you have a choice between being right and being kind, choose kind,” which Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne writes on the board the first day of school.

 There is also hope in the actors. Auggie is played with great subtlety and understanding beyond his years by Jacob Tremblay (Room), unrecognizable under heavy prosthetic makeup. He makes for a sympathetic protagonist in what is essentially an initiation story with a painful twist. As his mother Isabel, Julia Roberts is intense and self-sacrificing, having put her potential college teaching career on hold to home school Auggie through elementary school. She is at times heart-wrenchingly conscious of her own inability to help him in the new world outside her home (“Dear God, please make them be nice to him” she murmurs to herself as she sends him off on his first day), and at times almost hopeless attempt to go back and find a way to renew the interrupted work on her dissertation on its floppy disc. Meanwhile Owen Wilson as Augie’s dad Nate is believable and appealing playing the peacemaking dad who still wants to exude coolness while at the same time practicing dadness. The other adults—Auggie’s teacher, Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs, Hamilton’s Thomas Jefferson on Broadway) and the principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin)—manage to be memorable in limited roles.

But its Auggie’s older sister Via, played by a remarkable Izabela Vidovic (chiefly known from TV roles in the series About a Boy and The Fosters) who first moves this film up from a Lifetime-type film into something more substantial. As the “normal” sister who has long since realized that she will never be the center of her parents’ attention, she narrates the second section of the film, saying “Auggie is the sun, and my dad and mom and me are the planets orbiting the sun.” Turns out that Via has her own problems, though of a more everyday variety than her brother’s, and for that reason doesn’t discuss the matter with her parents—who are probably too wound up in Auggie’s difficulties to pay much attention. But Via’s best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell of TV’s The Originals and The Last Tycoon) has come back from her summer vacation and suddenly doesn’t want to have anything to do with her.

Auggie, of course, is inevitably bullied by Julian (Bryce Gheisar) the local fifth grade BMOC, and shunned by pretty much everybody else, until one incredibly brave classmate, Jack Will (Noah Jupe, recently seen in Suburbicon), partly motivated by Auggie’s ability to help him with his science homework but mostly by his just being a good kid, sits with him at lunch, and goes to his house after school to play video games. But when Auggie overhears Jack make a derogatory comment about him, succumbing to peer pressure instigated by the aforementioned Julian, it looks like the friendship is over.

But again, this film takes a step beyond what you would expect, and moves into additional chapters told from the points of view of Jack and of Miranda. Ultimately, we become disengaged from the typical us vs. them worldview and are drawn into the us and them worldview of the film, which suggests that we’re all doing the best we can, and would do better if we could understand one another. Who knows? Could bully Julian himself have a story?

Thus, what in lesser hands might have become a clichéd story of a brave young kid overcoming severe adversity to triumph in the end, becomes in fact a film that’s more about sharing than overcoming, that’s more collaborative than competitive, that essentially says “We’re all in this together.” Sure, there are some pretty predictable aspects of the movie—of course Auggie’s going to be accepted at the end. Of course Via is going to find her way. And yes, there are some manipulative aspects as well. I mean, the part involving the family dog is just a little too much. But overall, the film avoids a lot of that by varying the perspective and forcing us to look at things from angles we normally would not have done.

This is a movie that you really can take your kids to and talk about with the afterwards. It’s what family films ought to be. I’ll give it three Tennysons.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Justice League

Justice League

Zack Snyder (2017)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Here’s the thing: it’s probably not really fair to do so, but with DC’s Justice League coming so closely on the heels of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, it’s virtually impossible not to make a direct comparison of the two films, and to note why one franchise has been ultra-successful while the other has essentially been fighting a losing cause for the past several years. Thor was fun, witty and likable, not the least because it never really took itself too seriously. It understood that, you know what? It was an action movie based on a comic book, and even though it was about saving the world, the movie was not going to save the world. Justice League is essentially a slog, with ultra-serious characters bent on convincing us that what they are doing is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT, and though it’s often hard to figure out what exactly that is, we know in general that it’s saving the world. Pretty much everybody is brooding except the Flash (Ezra Miller of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who tries to get Batman (Ben Affleck) to believe that he has a “Silicon-based quartz sand fabric – abrasion-resistant, heat-resistant” costume because he does competitive ice-dancing.

But Miller is essentially the exception that proves the rule in this ponderous film. Most people are assuming that those little touches are the result of Avengers director Joss Whedon’s taking over the completion of the film when a family emergency forced director Zack Snyder to leave the production. Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, this film’s immediate forerunner, had ended with the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). Don’t worry if you didn’t remember that part of what was a supremely forgettable movie. You get reminded of it pretty much right away, and that Batman feels responsible for that death. In this film, Batman is trying to put together a super-team to combat a (ho-hum) evil alien super-villain bent on (oh no!) conquering the world. The villain in this highly original plot is a giant horned beast named Steppenwolf, voiced by born-to-be-wild Ciaran Hinds, who has a lot of snappy lines, such as “This world will fall like all the others.” (I’m being ironic here, just in case you can’t tell).

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, the only bright star in the D.C. universe, is an old pal of Batman’s (that’s the one part of Batman v. Superman that you might actually remember), and is the first one to join forces with him. She then goes off to recruit the damaged young son of a high-tech scientist, presumed dead but in fact restored to life by bio-mechanical augmentation, a cyborg who goes by the name of “Cyborg,” who had a cameo in Batman v. Superman but here is a full-fledged superhero capable of intimate relationships with computerized devices. Former Shakespearean actor Ray Fisher, finding there’s a lot more money on this end of the pool, plays a character who will get his own film in 2020 but who here, like fellow newcomers the Flash and Aquaman, doesn’t get enough screen time to be more than just another superhero presence in the mix.

Speaking of Aquaman (a.k.a. Arthur Curry), played by Jason Momoa, best known as Khal Drogo from T.V.’s Game of Thrones, he gets his own movie next year, so maybe we’ll get to know a little more about why he’s such an annoying blowhard in this film. Or maybe those cutting comments he makes to Batman are an Atlantean version of male bonding. At any rate, we can hope that in that Aquaman movie, the underwater scenes are better than they are in this film: Having doubtlessly spent myriads of millions on CGI effects for this film, the filmmakers have produced a scene where it’s virtually impossible to tell what the devil is going on underwater—things are just murky and shadowy—but the laws of physics do not seem to apply either, as people get thrown around as if there is no such thing as water resistance. There’s also a confusing confrontation between Aquaman and some little mermaid played by Amber Heard that leaves us scratching our heads. No doubt all will be made clear in next year’s Aquaman movie. But here it’s just irritating. I can’t help but think these movies have been released in the wrong order—maybe we should know something about Cyborg and Aquaman before throwing them into this mix where they become just another face we don’t know enough about to care, thrown up against a villain we don’t care enough about to want to know.

Well I won’t say any more about the plot, although it’s as predictable as it can possibly be. (I mean, you didn’t think Superman was going to stay dead did you?) But suffice it to say that there are enough superhero battles and crashes and explosions to make you happy if that’s all you want, or to make you tell your spouse “wake me when it’s over” if you’ve seen it all before. Which you have. At one point in the film, Wonder Woman ironically says “Technology is like any other power. Without reason, without heart, it destroys us.” Somebody should have told these filmmakers that CGI is one of those technologies. By the way, in this film you also get to gaze at Gal Gadot’s leather-clad backside in one gratuitous shot that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins would assuredly not have taken, particularly in the current atmosphere surrounding Hollywood. Maybe the D.C. universe ought to simply be handed over to Jenkins now, if they really want to rival Marvel).

Justice League really isn’t a very good movie. Don’t just take my word for it. It has a 41 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet it grossed some $96 million its opening weekend—nearly four times as much as its nearest competitor, the highly praised Wonder. And interestingly, Justice League has an 84 percent positive rating from those huge crowds of actual moviegoers. Whenever I see a huge gap like that, I’m intrigued. Part of the explanation, of course, is that the audience of the film is already self-selected: they know what kind of movie this is and they have certain expectations which this film met. But there’s more to it than that, particularly since that self-selected audience was so huge.

The full answer, I think, is implied in the last scene of the film, in which the superhero league stand in a vast hall which, presumably, Bruce Wayne is fixing to buy for them. It’s a fixer-upper, but it’s large enough to put a big round table in, at which members of the league can sit to discuss business (world-saving business, that is). That’s a round table, get it? There is a significant reason why the legends of King Arthur and his Round Table have remained popular and have continued to entertain readers for, literally, a millennium. The literary scholar Northrop Frye called the form of these stories an “archetypal literary pattern,” one that appeals to all human beings in all places and times. It’s the pattern of “Romance,” in the sense that early Arthurian legends were called “romances”: A knight or hero sets off on a quest to right some wrong, to save some maiden in mistress, to solve some mystery. The hero is young and attractive, fights for the cause of right against the forces of evil or darkness, and ultimately is successful, winning great acclaim and, perhaps, the hand of the king’s daughter. This is the stuff of myth and reams. And this is the vein that comic book heroes, and subsequently superhero movies, have tapped into for decades. Even a bad movie that follows this formula can move an audience because (if we can believe psychologist Karl Jung) our psyche is constructed in such a way as to see these kinds of stories as wish or dream fulfillment. So I have no issue with you if you like Justice League. I’d just advise you, given the choice, to go see Thor instead. Or get the DVD of Wonder Woman and save some money.

Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one. And that’s kind of a gift, but hey. Flash is funny. And it’s got Gal Gadot.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh (2017)

Kenneth Branagh’s new film is a throwback in a lot of ways, being a remake of a 1974 film that was based on a 1934 novel that has no superheroes, no zombies, no explosions, no gunfights or fistfights, not even any sex. It’s just an old-fashioned whodunit in which a rather eccentric detective mainly talks to people and solves a mystery. In that way, it’s not unlike one of the most popular feature films of 1934—the year of Agatha Christie’s novel: The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

No doubt part of the success of The Thin Man was due to the star power of the team of Powell and Loy. Just as Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of the story owed much of its success to the fact that Lumet (a five-time Oscar nominee for films like Network, Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict) was able to employ a veritable who’s who of Hollywood stars to ride his train, including Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark as the murder victim, Albert Finney as the detective, and Ingrid Bergman in her third Oscar-winning role.

Branagh has sought to some extent to replicate that kind of star power with his casting of the remake. He’s cast himself in the lead role as Christie’s OCD Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and put Johnny Depp in the role of the gangster-antiques dealer Edward Ratchett, Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, a wealthy widow looking for her next husband, and Penelope Cruz as a holier-than-thou missionary named Pilar Estravados, essentially the part for which Bergman won the Academy Award in the original film. Star Wars heroine Daisy Ridley appears as the young governess Mary Debenham, and Willem Dafoe as a fascist Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman. Branagh, whose early success as a Shakespearean stage actor  cemented his career, has also tapped several products of the stage for parts in this film: Branagh’s oft-selected co-star Derek Jacobi plays Ratchett’s valet Edward Masterman; Josh Gad, whose first big success came with his Tony-nominated role of Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, plays Ratchett’s personal assistant Hector MacQueen; and Leslie Odom, Jr., who won a Tony for playing Aaron Burr (“the damn fool that shot him”) in Hamilton, plays the congenial Dr. Arbuthnot, who seems to be having a clandestine affair with Miss Debenham. And then of course there is the grand dame of British stage and screen, Judi Dench, playing the aristocratic Russian princess Natalia Dragomiroff.

And the list goes on. This is one of the flaws in the film, actually. This great assembly of talent does little more than wait around on a snowbound train in the Balkans while Branagh as Poirot works on solving the crime, interviewing them one by one. Which makes every one of them woefully underused. Dench, Dafoe, Jacobi and Cruz are barely there at all. Gad gets a little more to do as the person most familiar with the victim’s nefarious business doings. Ridley and Odom have a little more screen time, partly because of their ongoing liaison, and partly because Poirot’s suspicions about them are aroused early. Pfeiffer stands out in her role, partly because she is playing a flamboyant woman who rather likes to be the center of attention, and partly because she turns into a kind of spokeswoman at the film’s climax.

Depp, of course, has to get killed off fairly quickly, and so he hasn’t got a lot of screen time either. What he has, though, he makes the most of. Wearing scars and talking like a thug from a ’30s gangster flick—homage to James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) or Paul Muni in Scarface (1932)—Depp as Ratchett sits down with Poirot and offers the detective a job. He wants someone to watch his back on the train, claiming to have received notes with death threats, and vaguely alluding to certain Italian gentlemen who are demanding restitution for counterfeit goods he has sold them. After Ratchett secretly pulls a gun on him, Poirot turns down the job. Ratchett wants to know if the gun put him off. Poirot replies in the negative, telling the gangster “I don’t like your face.” But of course, Ratchett turns up dead in his compartment, the victim of a dozen stab wounds.

This is the cue for the plot to kick into high gear. Or at least as high as it gets—it’s not terribly fast moving. But Poirot, the self-proclaimed “greatest detective in the world,” needs to solve the murder on this storied train as it makes its three-day journey from Istanbul to Calais. The fact that the train is delayed by an avalanche, keeping it precariously parked atop a tall trestle in the mountains, actually buys the detective some time. He soon discovers that Ratchett was not the gangster’s real name, and that in fact he had been involved in a notorious kidnapping and murder involving the baby of a famous aviator named Armstrong in 1932 (a thinly disguised appropriation of the Lindberg kidnapping, slightly fictionalized for purposes of the story), and that several of the suspects on the train have some connection to that case as well.

Considering the nature and subject matter of this film, it seems likely that it will be attracting an older audience than, say, Thor: Rgbarok. That older audience is more likely to have seen the earlier Lumet film, or even to have read Christie’s book, so many viewers will not be surprised by the solution to Poirot’s quest for the killer. There aren’t that many clues and it’s not that deep a mystery, to tell you the truth. Branagh the director does a number of things to spice up his filming of the story. He (with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukis)  uses overhead shots at some points—in the murdered man’s compartment, for example, when the body is found, we get an aerial view of the wounds in his chest. His camera also follows characters as they bob and weave hither and yon. Particularly memorable is a long one-take tracking shot (reminiscent of Emmanuel Lubezki’s similar virtuoso shots in Birdman and Gravity) in which Poirot enters and walks along the corridor of the moving train, during which he either passes or bumps into all of the main characters, including the victim and all the suspects. I should mention, too, some of the gorgeous vistas in the snow-covered mountains that we are treated to, none of which were really available for that 1974 film, especially since many of them are probably done on a green screen.

But the biggest innovation by Branagh and by screenwriter Michael Green (who also worked on this year’s Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049) is in their handling of Poirot’s eccentric character. This is a man who sports an absurdly elaborate mustache that has the appearance of two squirrels tangling over an acorn in the middle of his face, and yet which is perfectly balanced on each side; a man who insists on perfectly cooked four-minute eggs for breakfast and won’t eat them unless they are precisely the same size; a man who can’t talk to anyone whose tie is not perfectly straight. This neurotic aversion to disorder, which has caused other actors to portray Poirot basically as a caricature, becomes for Branagh not an eccentricity but a curse. It has kept him from healthy relationships with others and made his daily life nothing but stress and anxiety, though this same rage for order has been invaluable in his ability to solve crimes. This is a Poirot seen through the lens of Tony Shaloub’s Monk. And the outcome of this particular case proves a huge challenge to Poirot’s creed, stated early in the film, “There is right and there is wrong.” He will be faced with a decision that pits his personal obsession against whatever humanity he has walled off inside himself.

Branagh clearly has great fun playing this character, and the film ends with what is essentially the promise of a sequel in a remake of Death on the Nile. There is much to like in this remake: Branagh’s portrayal, the cinematography, some memorable exchanges with Depp, with Pfeifer, and with Ridley and Odom. But there are also some flaws: the film is slow moving, the major stars are not allowed to do much beyond making an appearance. I’m giving it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennnyson.

 

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Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok

Taiki Waititi (2017)

If you hire Taiki Waititi, New Zealand’s reigning master of quirky comedy (who brought you What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), to direct your new superhero movie, you shouldn’t be surprised when Thor: Ragnarok comes out the other end.

Not that it should be a surprise that Marvel, which includes Iron Man, Spiderman, Ant Man and for heaven’s sake Deadpool among its creations, should turn the heretofore stolidly grim Norse god of thunder into a character who seems to spring from the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, we’re not dealing with the super sober likes of D.C.’s Batman and Superman here. Marvel comics heroes have never forgotten the “comics” aspect of their existence.

Chris Hemsworth returns as a revamped, wittier Thor, and Tom Hiddleston as his cynical, mischief-making slippery-as-an-eel brother Loki, who no longer has to hold up the entire movie with the tongue he has wedged stiffly in his cheek. Anthony Hopkins returns as Father Odin briefly, but long enough to introduce the two boys to their long-lost sister Hela, the goddess of death—played by a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, all very Goth and decked out in raven-colored hair and antler accessories. Dreadlocked and orange-contact-lensed Idris Elba returns as Heimdal, guardian of the rainbow bridge Bifrost, and Mark Ruffalo guest stars as Bruce Banner, along with his alter-ego, Thor’s fellow avenger, the Incredible Hulk. Jeff Goldblum plays the Grandmaster, a quirky (it is Jeff Goldblum) but sadistic ruler of a planet that is apparently the galaxy’s trash dump. Oh, and there are also surprise cameos by, for example, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, who pops in for a short scene that is purely unnecessary to the plot. Oh, and an uncredited Matt Damon appearance, which ditto. Except for a quick laugh.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with traditional Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the inevitable last battle between the gods of Asgard and the forces of evil, which, in contrast to the Christian Armageddon, the gods are fated to lose, bringing about the destruction of the world. This fate is inevitable, but it has always been Odin’s task to do whatever he can to postpone Ragnarok as long as possible. In the Marvel universe, it is only the destruction of Asgard, conceived here as a separate planet, that is at stake. As the film opens, Thor is imprisoned in a suspended cage, and immediately seems to address the audience: “Oh no, Thor’s in a cage! How did this happen?” Turns out he’s actually talking to the skeleton with whom he shares the cage, and whom he goes on to ask, “How much longer do you think they’ll keep us here?”

This pretty much sets the tone for the whole movie. Thor does get dumped out of his cage immediately following, to face his jailer, a very creepy fire giant called Surtur, who is fated to lead the forces of evil against Asgard and bring about Ragnarok, and who lets Thor in on the news that he has just reclaimed his magic battle helmet that will give him the power to do this—a piece of headgear that Odin was supposed to be keeping tucked away in safety in a vault in Asgard. Well, apparently Surtur didn’t reckon on Thor’s ability to summon his great hammer from anywhere in the universe, and the hammer arrives—though not quite on cue, which is cause for another moment of levity. Well bang, bang. Thor’s silver hammer comes down upon Surtur’s head, and the thunder god gets back the magic helmet and escapes. But he knows something is amiss in Asgard for this to have happened, so homeward he treks.

Asgard turns out to be in turmoil, mainly because Loki has usurped Odin’s place, and when Thor forces Loki to come with him to find their exiled dad, they are met by sister Hela as well, who easily defeats them and sends them off to a trash planet called Sakaar. Here Thor is immediately captured by a renegade, stumbling-drunk Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson (from TV’s Westworld), who immediately turns him over to Goldblum’s camp Grandmaster, who nicknames him “sparkles” because of the anemic lightning bolts he manages to squirt from his fingertips, and can never quite get his “god of thunder” title right. The Grandmaster imprisons Thor to use him as a gladiator in his Roman-style games, and Thor meets fellow prisoner Korg (a rock-monster played by Waititi himself), who is imprisoned for trying to lead a rebellion against the Grandmaster, which failed, he says, because “I didn’t print enough pamphlets.” But Thor learns that he might gain freedom by defeating the Grandmaster’s current champion, who turns out to be a certain very large green guy. This would have been a wonderful surprise, and I wish it was a spoiler, but since every trailer for the film had this scene in it, unfortunately I’m just telling you what you already know.

Loki, of course, has already insinuated his way into the Grandmaster’s trust, and doesn’t want Thor messing up his cushy life here. But in the meantime, in what has essentially become a subplot, Hela has taken over Asgard, obliterating anyone who opposes her without much more than a blink of her evil eye, and raising up a huge CGI army of the dead with which she plans to, oh I don’t know, conquer the universe or whatever. Meanwhile Heimdal is protecting all the innocent citizens of the planet in an underground hideaway, just hoping for some kind of deliverance.

So naturally Thor needs to convince Loki, the Hulk, and the Valkyrie to join him, get away from Sakaar and save Asgard and, by extension, the universe, from his freak of a sister. I won’t throw in any spoilers about the ending, but it will probably surprise no one to learn that many long and nap-inducing battles and explosions ensue, as in every other superhero movie ever made, so even this film that tries to break the mold falls right back into it before the credits roll.

And that is the film’s main flaw. There’s a kind of schizoid quality to it where much of the film tries to undercut the superhero conventions that the rest of the film is trying to get us to buy into. Hiddleston is his usual smarmy self, and Hemsworth is refreshingly mortal, while Goldblum is a hoot, and Thompson is amusing and very likeable. Ruffalo doesn’t get a whole lot to do when he isn’t actually the Hulk, but he does have one hilarious stunt that’s worth waiting for. Blanchett and Elba, though, seem as if they are in a completely different movie, with a pretty standard superhero plot that takes over everything else in the end, which is some time in coming: The film runs for 130 minutes, and there at least another 20 minutes of fight scenes that could have been cut and never missed.

Don’t get me wrong, Thor: Ragnarok is certainly worth seeing. It’s not your run-of-the-mill superhero movie, and so is highly entertaining until it falls into the same-old-same-old trap. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Thank You For Your Service

Thank You For Your Service

Jason Hall (2017)

Jason Hall, first-time director of the new film Thank You For Your Service, is perhaps best known for his script for the film American Sniper, a movie that followed the career of Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle, deadliest marksman in U.S. history. In that film, Hall’s script explored Kyle’s difficulties in leaving the Iraq war behind after four tours of duty, and looked as if it was going to be a significant exploration of the struggles of returning veterans, before abruptly brushing off Kyle’s trauma by showing him apparently “cured” after interacting for five minutes with patients at a VA hospital and then degenerating into mindless flag-waving. It was a monumental blown opportunity.

With Hall’s new release, which he also wrote, based loosely on a book of the same title by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist David Finkel, it appears that he has decided to go back and grab that opportunity by the horns. Still, though the film has had positive reviews, it had a disappointing opening weekend, grossing less than a quarter of the week’s top opener, the poorly reviewed slasher film Jigsaw. Part of the reason for this may be the confusing previews, which make it difficult to see just what the film is about, portraying it as some vaguely patriotic mishmash. Part of the reason may be the complaints heard from veterans’ groups who charge that the film suggests that all veterans are suffering from emotional disorders.

But the film is neither pro-military propaganda nor a denigration of all veterans. It is rather a courageous look at the kinds of problems returning veterans can have rejoining civilian society, the difficulties they may have in readjusting and, most importantly, the difficulties they have getting help from the woefully inadequate services available to them once they have returned.

My father, a veteran of four years in the South Pacific theater in World War II, once told me that the only film he had ever seen that brought him to tears was William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. That classic 1946 film dealt with the return of three veterans from the war and their sometimes rocky reintegration into civilian life. Most memorable was the readjustment of the veteran played by Harold Russell, himself a veteran who had lost both arms in the war. In 1978, Hal Ashby’s film Coming Home focused on two returning Vietnam War veterans, played by Jon Voight and Bruce Dern, one of whom is paralyzed in a wheelchair and the other suffers from severe post-traumatic stress. Thank You For Your Service aims to be that kind of film for the post-Iraq war generation. It doesn’t quite reach that level, but it deserves credit for trying.

The film concentrates on three returning soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, who fought in Iraq in 2007 and took part in some of the fiercest combat of the war. (Therefore, in response to veterans’ groups it only claims to depict the experiences of those troops. Others may or may not have similar experiences.) Chiefly it concentrates on Sgt. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller from Whiplash) and two buddies from his platoon, the American Samoan Tausolo “Solo” Aieti (Beulah Koale, mainly known for TV roles in series like Hawaii Five-0), and Will Waller (Joe Cole of TV’s Peaky Blinders) who does not appear in Finkel’s book.

The film begins with a combat situation shortly before Schumann and his buddies are due to fly home. A routine patrol goes south as one of their group, Emory (played by Scott Haze, currently also appearing in Only the Brave), is shot in the head on a rooftop. Schumann, his sergeant, picks up the body and races down the stairs until, choked by Emory’s blood, he drops the body, causing more damage to Emory’s brain.

The scene lasts only about two minutes. We do return to it later in a flashback that includes a subsequent combat engagement, a scene that lasts perhaps five minutes. These are the only such scenes in the film, but they are included in the trailers for the film, adding to the confusion in the film’s marketing, making it hard for potential audiences to tell what this film is about.

We cut to Schumann, Aieti and Waller on a plane bound for home. Oddly reminiscent of Russell, Frederick March and Dana Andrews flying home at the beginning of The Best Years of Our Lives, this scene like that one involves the characters talking about their plans for coming home. Waller is the most certain: He is going to marry his girlfriend and start a life together. Schumann, a veteran of three tours of duty, has had enough and wants to settle down with his wife and young children. Aieti, who has found himself in the Army, which he says “saved my life,” is leaning toward re-upping, though his wife has other ideas.

When the group arrives home in Kansas, a crowd is waiting to meet them on the tarmac, including Schumann’s wife Saskia (Haley Bennett from The Girl on the Train) and his two small children. She wants the meeting to go perfectly, but before Schumann can get to her he is accosted by Amanda, the wife of First Sergeant Doster (played somewhat surprisingly by a brown-haired Amy Schumer, who after the initial disorientation you realize acquits herself well in this serious role). She wants to know if Schumann knows anything about how her husband died. Momentarily taken aback, Schumann responds quickly that he “wasn’t there.” But the question of what happened to Doser comes up again and again, and it forms a kind of connecting thread that holds together the loose ends of the plot, which otherwise is fairly episodic.

The first life to unravel is Waller’s, who gets home to find that his girlfriend has left him, taken his furniture, and cleaned out his bank accounts. It is every GI’s nightmare. Schumann, the platoon’s sergeant in Iraq, still feels the need to look out for his boys at home, and brings Waller home to sleep on his couch. But there’s only so much he can do to protect Waller from his own destructive impulses.

Aieti is having nightmares—and waking visions—of what happened to Doser. He also has some brain damage from being too close to explosions more than once. He only wants to re-enlist, but his damage will likely prevent him from doing so. In a movingly revealing moment, he sees a the VA a soldier who has lost a limb, and wishes that his own psychic wounds were that obvious, so that people would better understand his condition.

Schumann seems the least affected by his service, but we soon come to realize he is better at hiding his wounds, which chiefly involve survivor’s guilt over his dropping of Emory and, of course, over what happened to Doser (which we do, eventually, find out). He cannot open up to his wife, despite all her efforts, and when he and Solo attempt to get help at the VA, they are stymied by bureaucracy, woefully understaffed and underfunded programs, and senior officers who are either unconcerned (like the officer who’s more interested in buying steaks on the Internet than in helping get Solo his benefits) or hostile (like the one who tells Schumann he shouldn’t be applying for mental health benefits because it makes the Army look bad). It may take up to nine months, they are old, before they can get any real help.

This is the point at which the irony of the film’s title becomes clear: “Thank you for your service” has become a standard greeting to servicemen and women as a token of respect for what they do. It is, literally, the least that we can do. But the same politicians who are so vocal about such statements, those who, for example, make histrionic speeches about how football players kneeling during the national anthem are somehow “disrespecting the troops,” are precisely the same ones who vote down any increases or improvements to veterans’ benefits when the time comes to put their money where their mouths are.

Unfortunately this potentially scathing indictment of our government’s shameful neglect of veterans goes off the rails in the last reel. Veering away from Finkel’s book, the plot suddenly focuses on Solo becoming involved with a criminal named Dante (Omar Dorsey of Selma), who supplies him with drugs in exchange for making a dangerous delivery for him. It’s as if the film suddenly forgot what it was and decided it needed to make a nod toward Hollywood. Ultimately Schumann steps in and gives Solo a shot at a place in a live-in care facility. For himself, he finds a way to begin confronting his issues with both Emory and Doser. But as a doctor tells Schumann at one point, “There is no cure for trauma, you just have to learn to manage it.” This will be the challenge for both him and Solo.

Teller gives a very powerful performance here, as does Koale. They are best when they are together. One of the finest touches in the film involves a pit bull that Solo has rescued from a dogfight. He brings the dog to Schumann, who stitches up his wounds, and though his wife object to having the dog in the house, the wounded warrior is house pet by the end. It’s a touching and hopeful metaphor for the wounded human warriors that are the film’s focus.

Three Tennysons for this one—the rating lower than it might have been because of that ill-conceived venture into the Hollywood-land of crooks and car-chases.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Marshall

Marshall

Reginald Hudlin (2017)

Since Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner showed us, in the successful and acclaimed Lincoln in 2012, that a biopic does not have to be an unwieldy womb-to-tomb conglomeration of scenes in something like, for example, Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic The Last Emperor (1987), in which an entire life is put on display for a few hours and a common thread is sought to give the story unity. Instead, the new biopic tends to pick one significant event from the subject’s life that in some way epitomizes what that person means or what that person stood for, and to explore that particular incident as fully as possible. In the case of Marshall, director Reginald Hudlin (House Party) and his writers, Jacob and Michael Koskoff, choose to focus on a single case early in the career of Thurgood Marshall, a quarter of a century before Lyndon Johnson appointed him the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

The film focuses not on what might have been the obvious choice—Marshall’s victory in “Brown v. the Board of Education,” the Supreme Court case that made school segregation illegal in the United States—but on Marshall’s work in the little-known “State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell,” a case the 32-year old Marshall took on early in his career as the NAACP’s top lawyer. Politically, it was important at the time—January 1941—to show that cases involving bias in the courts were not limited to the South, and to elicit contributions to the NAACP from some wealthier supporters in the North. These motives are not always clear in the film, but for the most part the filmed depiction of the trial follows the actual case fairly closely, except for one particular revelation that causes a dramatic turn in the movie, but which in reality was clear from the beginning of the case.

Chadwick Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall. This marks the third time in five years that Boseman has been tapped to play a trailblazing African American icon (He was Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up). But I wouldn’t worry about these parts limiting his choices of roles down the road. He appears next year as Marvel’s Black Panther, which I’m pretty sure will determine the course of his future career. His foil and co-counsel in the film is Josh Gad playing local Connecticut lawyer Sam Friedman. Gad, who earned a Tony nomination for his starring role in Broadway’s Book of Mormon, may be best known for voicing Olaf in Disney’s Frozen. As the Jewish lawyer pushed into the Spell case against his own better judgment, Gad’s character here is really the most interesting one in the film, the one that goes through a dynamic change. Marshall is compelling for his intrinsic identity and focus, and Friedman provokes empathy through his evolution. (Or something like that. I want you to be careful not to seem to favor the white character.)

The film opens with Marshall in Oklahoma, defending a young black man in danger of execution after the police had beaten a false confession from him. This is immediately contrasted by a scene in which Friedman successfully defends an insurance company when they refuse to pay off a claim from a claimant in a wheelchair. Though he seems conflicted by his victory for his reprehensible client, this is not the guy you assume will turn out to be a powerful advocate for civil rights. His partner and brother Irvin, however, has promised the local NAACP rep that Friedman will plead with the court to have Marshall (who is not a member of the Connecticut bar) admitted as counsel for the defense in the Spell case. Supposedly, that’s all Friedman will be asked to do.

The case is hardly one that Friedman would ever have taken on his own: A To Kill a Mockingbird-type case in which Spell, a black chauffeur with a spotty record (Sterling K. Brown from T.V.’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson and This Is Us), is accused of rape by his white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, last seen in Deepwater Horizon), who claims he also tried to kill her by throwing her off of a bridge. But Friedman is forced to conduct the defense himself—though he has never been a trial lawyer before—because Judge Colin Foster (James Cromwell), who happens to be a family friend of the prosecutor, Loren Willis (Dan Stevens of T.V.’s Downton Abbey), rules that while Marshall can advise Friedman as co-counsel, he is barred from speaking a single word in the courtroom.

Gad is remarkable here, and we are allowed to see something of his family and social life. The background of his family in Europe and their oppression under the Nazi regime form a mute but powerful background to the racial injustices in the film, and begin to provide a motivation for Friedman’s conversion. Hudson manages to be sympathetic in her role as Potiphar’s wife to this new Joseph, and Brown comes across as a complex and layered character rather than simply a sympathetic potential martyr. Cromwell has less opportunity in this script to go beyond his role as a biased and bigoted judge, and the same is really true of Stevens as the prosecutor. But a look at the accounts of the trial itself that lies behind the film suggests that the depiction of the prosecutor is in fact fairly accurate.

The characterization of Marshall himself, though, must be at the center of this film. The task is difficult for Bozeman, as we are given what is essentially a traditional courtroom drama in which our protagonist is forced to remain silent: Think A Few Good Men with a mute Tom Cruise. Or what turns into a buddy movie in which the straight man has no lines: Think Rainman with…well, a mute Tom Cruise. In any case, Marshall is seen directing the trial from behind the scenes with Friedman as essentially his marionette. We also witness him chafing at the collar put on him by the judge, and exploding into high rhetoric with the reporters outside the courthouse when he is unmuzzled. He comes across as an articulate and savvy crusader for racial justice, confident at times to the point of arrogance in his public life. His private life is hinted at with a few obligatory scenes with his wife regarding their difficulties in having children, but one flaw in the movie is the scarcity of these private moments and the failure to integrate them into the overall depiction of the man, whose inner life remains something of a mystery to us.

More of a hole in the film is, I think, its failure to address the concern that Friedman brings up about the motivations of Marshall and the NAACP in the specific case of Joseph Spell. Early in the film, Friedman refuses to give the case to the communist party lawyers, because he believes they will use Spell as a kind of martyr for political capital. Later he wants to know if Marshall and the NAACP are doing the same thing. He never gets an answer. Perhaps the filmmakers have left the question open to allow the audience to decide for themselves. If so, the answer is ambiguous. Or perhaps they forgot they raised the question at all. If so, they really should have answered it.

Still, this is a thought-provoking and well-acted film on limited screens in a week where the three big, multiple-screen and heavily hyped films had Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 7 percent, 10 percent, and 8 percent. I think of it as a gift horse whose mouth I’m not looking in too deeply, and I’m giving it three solid Tennysons.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Angela Robinson (2017)

Turns out the real-life origin story of Wonder Woman is just as interesting as the fictional one. But it’s definitely R rated, so you might be less inclined to bring your kids to see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the new film out this week from writer/director Angela Robinson.

Obviously, with the recent Wonder Woman epic passing $800 million in global gross income, the time seems right for the release of this film, though it is showing at only one screen in central Arkansas—at Riverdale. This limited release seems to have been the rule nationwide, since, though this was the film’s opening weekend, it did not crack the top ten films in ticket sales—even with extremely weak competition.

The film’s very unconventional subject matter very likely has something to do with those weak numbers, I would guess. The film, “based on a true story” as they say, explores the lives of Harvard-educated psychology professor William Moulton Marston and his wife and research partner Elizabeth, and their lab-assistant turned threesome-partner Olive Byrne. William and Elizabeth are the inventors of the modern lie-detector, while Olive is the niece of feminist activist Margaret Sanger, and their polyamorous relationship, underscored by Marston’s radical DISC theory of human psychology, inspired Marston ultimately to create the character of Wonder Woman in 1941 as what he saw as an alternative to the violent, masculine justice imposed by characters like Superman. When a controversy erupts over the sexually suggestive bondage scenes so prevalent in the early Wonder Woman comics, Marston is called on to defend his creation.

This film opens with Marston being interviewed by a woman leading a crusade for decency in comics, wanting to know what all the bondage is about in Wonder Woman. The story, then is told essentially in flashback, as Marston contemplates what got him to this point. It begins at Harvard, or more precisely Radcliffe College, in 1928, where we meet Marston (Luke Evans of Beauty and the Beast) and wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall of The BFG and, way back, Vicki Christina Barcelona). At this point, Marston is trying to explain to students his newly formed DISC theory of human behavior, which involves Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. In the decades since, followers of Marston have seen these as personality types, and developed measurements, not unlike the Meyers-Briggs test, to categorize people in the workplace. Marston himself, however, seems to have seen these as the key to human relationships, particularly sexual ones. People find their greatest happiness, he argues, when they submit to a “loving authority.”

At the same time, he and Elizabeth are still trying to get their lie detector to work, and Elizabeth is complaining that the patriarchal establishment at Harvard will not grant her a Ph.D. because of the blatant sexism of the times. Enter Olive (Bella Heathcote from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and TV’s Man in the High Castle), a woman from a family of feminist royalty who was raised by nuns, and who becomes the Marstons’ graduate assistant. There are some mutual sparks flying between both Marstons and Olive, and in a somewhat contrived scene with their lie detector, Olive reveals she in love with both of the Marstons, and William that he loves both women. After some initial resistance, especially by Elizabeth, William pushes for the trio to act upon their feelings, and to hell with what society thinks.

Part of the new relationship involves games of bondage and submission. In one rather silly scene, the Marstons, under the guise of “research,” voyeuristically witness a “spanking” ritual in Olive’s sorority, a ritual that Olive and William, at least, are aroused by. William also begins to visit a local fetishist, where he learns all about tying up his partners. The fetishist delivers the fairly awful line “love is pain,” and while William believes that these bondage and S and M fetishes are illustrations of his psychological theories about dominance and submission, he also is convincing himself and his lovers that these desires are “normal.” The title of his 1928 book on DISC theory was, after all, Emotions of Normal People.

The Marstons’ living arrangement apparently leads to their dismissal from Harvard. We aren’t told definitively why, but when Elizabeth cries “we’ve been fired,” that is the implication. But the trio stays together, though neither of the Marstons will ever be hired in academia again. Eventually Marston comes up with the brainstorm that creates Wonder Woman, whom he models on both women in his life, and in whom he embodies his ideals of dominance and submission to a loving authority. Her “lasso of truth” even adds the whole lie detector motif—as well as the bondage theme—to her creation.

Anything more would be spoiling the ending, though the movie is less about plot than theme. Chiefly the film seems to be a bold statement that, although relationships like the one depicted here are always portrayed in the media or in popular consciousness as flawed, abnormal, and exploitive, there really are people who are perfectly happy in such relationships and remain so. The film challenges us to expand our ideas of the “normal.” Those who oppose the Marstons are portrayed as almost cartoonish in their bigotry. Though the script at times seems a little heavy-handed (love is pain!), the three principal actors manage to create characters with whom we sympathize, and so make it very difficult to regard them as “others.”

The surviving members of the Marston family, including his direct grandchildren, have condemned the film as “lies.” There are certainly a lot of demonstrable inaccuracies in it. The Marston’s lie detector was actually invented in 1915, and William published an article on it in 1917. Thus the dramatic “confessions” made while hooked to the lie detector would not have actually occurred. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1921, but was never a professor there. He taught at American University in Washington, D.C. and at Tufts University in Massachusetts until moving to California in 1929. Elizabeth had a law degree from Boston University and received an M.A. from Radcliffe in 1921, but there is no indication she ever took courses toward a Ph.D. Olive was Marston’s research assistant at Tufts University in 1925, and apparently did allow Marston to attend Baby Parties at her sorority, where he did research on his DISC theory. This is the meaning of “based on” a true story.

One likely source for the film’s story is the recent book The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (though I did not see the book credited in the film). The book suggests that there may be a bit of whitewashing of Marston going on in the film. Whereas the film strongly implies that the lesbian attachment between Elizabeth and Olive was a major motivation behind the initial three-way affair, the book in contrast asserts that Marston’s desire for Olive was the reason the affair started, and that he actually threatened to leave Elizabeth if she did not get on board.

Be that as it may, Marston’s creation of Wonder Woman really was motivated by an attempt to empower women by influencing young girls. Marston’s relationship with Elizabeth and Olive may have been less empowering than the film makes it appear, but he truly seems to have believed that dominance was better in the hands of women, who were more likely to act with “loving authority” and thereby bring about true happiness. And it does seem as if the unconventional relationship these three enjoyed was functional and supportive. Kudos to the film for tackling a difficult subject and doing so tastefully. I wish fewer liberties had been taken with the facts, and that the script had been stronger. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (2017)

What I remember about the much-hyped tennis match between the remarkable Billie Jean King, then the top women’s player in the world, and the 55-year-old former men’s Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs, was that we all thought it was a joke. Riggs had won Wimbledon in 1939—34  years before. How could that old man possibly think he could even stay on the court with the young, healthy and dominant King at the top of her game? I mean, sure, if King had been matched against, say, Jimmy Connors, then in his prime, it would have been a different story, with the man’s strength being perhaps insurmountable even if other skills were essentially equal. But Riggs? Come on.

But apparently I, and the people in my circle of friends and acquaintances at the time (basically graduate students in literature), were not exactly in the mainstream of public opinion (go figure). Even if the film was going to some lengths to underscore the secondary status of women’s tennis—and, by extension, women’s rights—at the time (1973), it was something of a rude shock to see the actual historical commentary by Howard Cosell at the match in the Astrodome, so condescending and misogynistic as it seems today, yet apparently absolutely typical at the time. So apparently, the vast majority of folks thought Riggs was going to dominate Billie Jean.

What I also believed at the time was that Riggs wasn’t at all serious about the outrageous things he said about women—how they belonged in the bedroom and the kitchen and nowhere else. He was essentially a clown, I figured, who was making himself into a caricature, even a parody, of the “male chauvinist pig” stereotype flourishing at the time. He was just trying to stir up interest in an event that ultimately drew 30,000 fans to the Astrodome, and reached a television audience of 90 million. And about that, if the accuracy of the film can be trusted, I was completely correct. What I wasn’t quite prepared for is how many people actually held such beliefs seriously. That was disheartening, but at least Riggs wasn’t running for president.

The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who gave us the irresistibly upbeat Little Miss Sunshine, take on this material, which in the script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) is less about one specific sporting event as it is about a particular moment in history and the lives of two particularly colorful characters who came together at that moment and played an entertaining tennis match.

The film opens in 1972, just after King (Emma Stone, coming straight off her La La Land Oscar) has just won the U.S. Open and become the first woman in tennis to top $100,000 in income. Immediately we cut to a meeting between King and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and several male members of the tennis establishment, led by former pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), in which King and Heldman are bringing up the huge discrepancy in pay between winners of men’s and women’s tournaments. “Men are more of a draw; the men are simply more exciting to watch,” Kramer mansplains. “Eight times more exciting?” King wants to know.

When the sport’s organizers refuse to address the issue, King withdraws from the establishment and founds her own women’s tennis circuit with eight other pros and with the sponsorship of Virginia Slims cigarettes (“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”), obtained by Heldman, who keeps trying to get the women to light up occasionally on camera to keep the sponsor happy.

When former pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) hears about the new women’s circuit intended to protest the small purses in women’s tennis, he makes a comment about players in tennis’s “senior circuit” being shortchanged as well, a bare hint of a motivation beneath the hustle, but that’s the last we hear of any such concerns. Riggs is presented as a hustler, a promoter, a lover of the spotlight stifled by a 9 to 5 office job in his father-in-law’s business, and a compulsive gambler. His frustration at being a “has been” when he was once one of the top players in the world meets his huckster’s recognition of a golden opportunity to cash in on Billie Jean’s defiance of the tennis establishment. But when he calls her with the idea of a “Battle of the Sexes” match, she dismisses the idea as the publicity stunt that it is, and turns him down.

Not to worry. Riggs has always got a backup. When Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), former women’s grand slam winner, wins the 1973 U.S Open, Riggs turns to her as likely substitute, and Court, lured by the $35,000 purse, agrees to meet him. To her it’s also a meaningless exhibition, and when Riggs defeats her handily she  is disappointed but doesn’t seem to see it as a major setback for women in general. Unfortunately, the rest of the sports world, particularly the tennis media, begins to make noise as if Riggs was right: Any man can beat any woman at any time. And the implication is, at anything. There’s no way Billie Jean can let that go, and the match is on.

A large part of the movie is about the hype, and that’s mostly Riggs’ job. He clowns through all kinds of public appearances and doesn’t do much training, apparently overconfident after the ease of his victory over Court, and putting his faith in a regimen of vitamin supplements his trainer swears by. But in private, Riggs’ personal life is going through a very rocky period, as his long-suffering wife Priscilla (a welcome Elisabeth Shue) finally throws him out of the house when he continues to break his vows to stop gambling (he even has an ongoing card game with his therapist during sessions). At the same time, he is trying to restore a relationship with his estranged son, to whom he claims to have all kinds of plans, only to get the response, “I’ve heard them all before.”

But Billie Jean’s private life is going through its own twists and turns in the lead up to the much-hyped match. On the long tennis tour, King, who travels without her spouse, like the rest of the women (except Court), becomes romantically involved with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough of Birdman). The two begin to room together on the road, and Billie Jean tries to keep the affair secret, not only because of her husband, but also because of what that kind of scandal might do to the budding women’s tennis renaissance she is spearheading. Court, who is aware of the relationship, is highly offended by it, but the tour’s gay clothing designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) gives her support and a confidante. Ultimately, Billie Jean’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell of Bridge of Spies) becomes aware of the affair after all. His response is memorable for its humanity. No small roles.

By the time the match occurs, it is actually anti-climactic, since the movie has really been about human relationships, about justice and tolerance, about dealing with our personal demons and about how our partners live with those things. Or don’t. Carell has the flashier role here as the flamboyant Riggs, though his Riggs is mainly surface, with only very rare descents into the psyche. And perhaps that was the way Riggs himself was. Stone is far more understated as the introverted King, who has many balls in the air, only one of which is tennis. King’s two blocking figures, Jack Kramer (Pullman)—the personification of anti-feminist discrimination in tennis—and Margaret Court (McNamee)—the personification of society’s non-acceptance of same-sex couples—are presented pretty two-dimensionally. This is particularly unfair to Kramer, who was executive director and founder, in 1972, of the Association of Tennis Professionals. Kramer actually led a boycott of Wimbledon in 1973 when a Croatian player was denied the right to play in the tournament, so his history of advocacy for the underdog against the system is fairly strong. As for Court, she definitely is an opponent of LGBTQ rights, having just recently claimed that a Marriage Equality law, if passed, would destroy Christmas in Australia. So while her role in the film is two-dimensional, it is probably not inconsistent with the facts.

I did think that Cummings’ role might have been worth beefing up. As it is, it’s little more than a cameo. But his character, Ted Tinling, had started out as a tennis player himself, then became a fashion designer for women players, whose designs were so controversial that he was banned from Wimbledon for 33 years. The openly gay Tinling designed tennis wear for King, Martina NavratilovaChris EvertEvonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1986. I wonder if Cummings’ role was bigger in the original script, but got edited in a move to cut back on the social commentary of the film. Which would be strange, since the film seems bent on making the tennis match a more significant event sociologically than it really was. I’d like to rate it higher, but this little bit of uncertainty about what the movie wants to be when it grows up makes me give it three Tennysons.

 

And by the way, if you like reading these reviews, you might be interested in Jay Ruud’s new “Merlin Mystery” novel, the third in the series, which will be released on November 10 and now available for pre-ordering on Amazon and on Barnes and Noble:

Jay Rudd

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

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

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