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Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews

My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!

tolkienfilm

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

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Long Shot

Long Shot

Jonathan Levine (2019)

So there’s a clown in the White House who used to be a TV star and has no real interest in governing, but only in using the presidency to further his own interests. And there’s a competent woman who happens to be Secretary of State who wants to run for president but finds that it doesn’t matter what her positions are on issues, only whether the electorate finds her likeable, while at the same time having to maneuver a minefield of judgments and expectations she would never have to consider if she were a man. Yes, I’m describing, of course, the new romantic comedy by Jonathan Levine (50/50) starring Seth Rogan and Charlize Theron—a film that, like most RomComs, has little in common with the real world.

But seriously folks, the film’s political milieu doesn’t really go beyond being an environment in which the comedy takes place. Long Shot is not the incisive political commentary that 1995’s Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin vehicle The American President was, or even Ivan Reitman’s 1993 Dave. Rack makes clear. But it recalls those films, which were popular when the protagonists of this story were in high school, as the nostalgic ’90s-music soundtrack reminds us. The political world in this film is simply what romantic comedies have always included as the “old society,” destined to be replaced by the “new society” represented by the lovers. The RomCom formula, dating all the way back to the Greek playwright Menander in the 4th century B.C.E., has always involved a pair of young lovers (in this film, “young” is a relative term) who want to get together but are blocked from doing so by certain figures and/or situations that make their hooking up difficult—this complication needn’t be especially serious (say the girl’s father has vowed not to marry his attractive younger daughter off until he can find a husband for his shrewish older daughter) or even plausible (the girl herself has vowed never to marry anyone whose name is not “Earnest”), but it must be overcome before the pair can get together. In this case, the “girl” is running for president, and her image is going to take a really big hit if it’s known she is getting it on with a schlumpy, uncouth unemployed journalist who doesn’t know how to behave at a state dinner.

I mean, let’s face it. Do you really see Rogan and Theron as a natural couple? Theron’s advisers try to tell her it’s not a good idea: Would the public accept Kate Middleton having a romance with Danny DeVito? they ask at one point. But I suppose it’s believable enough. One often sees apparently wildly mismatched couples who seem to be happy enough together. I mean, I could never figure out what a hot babe like Betty Rubble could possibly have seen in a short, dumpy dimwit like Barney but hey, who am I to judge?

As the film opens, we see Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a journalist having infiltrated a White Supremacist group, ready to endure a swastika tattoo in order to get his story. But his identity is blown by someone recognizing him from one of his online left-wing articles, and he escapes by jumping through a window, falling two stories and smashing into a parked car before getting up and taking it on the lamb, shouting a few choice verbal provocations as he flees. When he gets to his office, he learns that the independent liberal weekly publication he works for has just been bought by a right wing media mogul named Parker Wembley (played by an almost unrecognizably made-up Andy Serkis doing a scathing caricature of Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch). In disgust, Flarsky quits his job.

Meanwhile Charlotte Field (Theron) is Secretary of State to a dufus, President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk of TV’s Better Call Saul), who spends his time in the Oval Office watching streaming episodes of himself playing the president on his old TV show. Chambers calls Field into his office to tell her that he has decided not to run for re-election in 2020 because he wants to use the presidency as a boost into a film career. This leaves things open for Field to make a run at the presidency herself, and she can count on Chambers’ endorsement if she doesn’t ruffle his feathers between now and the election. In anticipation of her run, she’s put together a team that includes hard-bitten Maggie Milliken (June Diane Raphael of TV’s Grace and Frankie) and the more high-strung Tom (Ravi Patel of TV’s Master of None) whose job it is to mold her into a candidate people will vote for. They get advice from an image consultant (a wonderful Lisa Kudrow in what amounts to a cameo that you will wish were longer) who reports, among other things, that the public sees Field as lacking a sense of humor.

So what we’ve got, as the film finishes its exposition, is a contrast between one character (Fred) who will cut off his nose to spite his face before he compromises one iota on any of his deeply held opinions, and another (Field) who seems willing to bend in any direction to appease her president and to charm the electorate in order to obtain the ultimate goal, the presidency, in the end.

Moving toward that required RomCom convergence, Fred seeks out his longtime best bud Lance (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., of Straight Outa Compton), who unlike Fred seems to have his act completely together as a prosperous business owner, but in required best-friend fashion takes Fred out to drown his sorrows with liquid and pharmaceutical assistance. Their night ends when Lance takes the seriously underdressed Fred to a formal fundraiser at which they can engage in wistful nostalgia over the vocal stylings of the favorite group of their youth, Boyz II Men, who are performing at the gala. But here, like Romeo spotting the love of his life at the Capulets’ wing ding, Fred sees Secretary of State Charlotte Field—and recognizes her as his childhood babysitter. What are the odds?

After an awkward reunion in which Charlotte learns that Fred is currently unemployed, mogul Wembley tries to corner the Secretary and Fred gives the smarmy Machiavel a piece of his mind, a gutsy move undercut by the faceplant down the steps that follows it. But Charlotte, looking for a new speechwriter to punch up her speeches with some humor, hires the unemployed Fred (over her staff’s objections), and he agrees to take the job as long as he can trust her not to water down her principles in order to curry favor with political power brokers. The rest you can probably guess from the expectations of the RomCom genre.

There is some movement in both protagonists from their initial differences: Fred does ultimately recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and that perfect, after all, is the enemy of good; and Charlotte finds that there are some principles that cannot be sacrificed. We might take some comfort in this message, but mainly we just like these two actors, who have a strangely workable chemistry in this film, and whom we’re glad to see get together. There are other standout performances in the film as well: Jackson is likeable and genuine as Fred’s old buddy. Raphael is icily protective as Charlotte’s right hand woman. Serkis is obnoxiously unlikeable as the media magnate, and Odenkirk’s clueless incompetence is scarily real as the lame duck president. In smaller roles, Alexander Skarsgård is excellent as a Trudeau-like Canadian Prime Minister who’s totally sculpted into a media image but is pretty much of a dork in real life, and Kurt Braunohler, Claudia O’Doherty and Paul Scheer do a hilarious lampoon of a Fox & Friends trio spewing an endless ooze of inane and inappropriate drivel.

Sure there are a lot of things in the film that are a real stretch for our willing suspension of disbelief. There are a few plot holes as well. But this is a romantic comedy, after all. Isn’t it a stretch to think that a set of twins, separated many years earlier, would show up in the same city at the same time and interact with the same people, causing much confusion? In fact, why not make it two sets of twins, and double the confusion? But wait—why not make the local Abbess their long lost mother? Long Shot may not be Shakespeare, but it’s probably more believable. 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

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: ENDGAME..Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Joe and Anthony Russo (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

A glance at the scheduled showings of Avengers: Endgame will reveal that there are 35 separate showings of the film that you can go to. And that, my friends is just in Conway. You can multiply that by about seven if you’re planning to attend the film in Little Rock. And theater-owners are probably cursing the fact that the movie runs for some 182 minutes—just over three hours—because if it had been a typical two-hour film, they could have increased the number of showings by another 50 percent. This plethora of opportunities to view Endgame is the natural consequence of the fact that, in twenty-one previous films over the past eleven years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been counting down to this particular moment in time: the climax of everything that has gone before. It was Marvel’s perfect design to create the single most anticipated, and therefore the single highest grossing, film project of all time. The film’s $350 million domestic opening weekend—the highest in history—is a good indication that particular goal will be achieved, as is the world-wide gross of $1.2 billion, and that’s in just three days, folks.

So the questions arises, is this a film that’s worthy of all the hype? Certainly most of the rabid Marvel fans are going to be satisfied with what filmmakers have done with their favorite characters in this final episode, the series finale as it were. But if Endgame is going to be the record-setting blockbuster being anticipated, it really needs to appeal to more viewers than just the ones who remember the difference between Iron Man II and Iron Man III. And rest assured, dear readers, it will.

You may not recall, though I certainly do, that in my unenthusiastic review of this film’s prequel, Infinity War, I complained that the filmmakers’ insistence on putting every Marvel hero and their mother into the film made it impossible for the audience to relate closely to any particular character, so that even the shocking ending, in which the Behemoth Malthusian villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped his six-Infinity-Stoned fingers and wiped out half of the sentient life in the universe, didn’t make us mourn all that much the loss of characters we’d only seen say one or two lines in the course of the film.

Ironically, it’s exactly that act of super-genocide that makes Endgame a much superior film: With the likes of Black Panther, Dr. Strange  and Spiderman turned to dust, we’re left with Avengers keystones Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) holding up their respective cynical and optimistic views of humanity, supported by the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and her apparently Platonic boyfriend Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They are joined by Guardians of the Galaxy Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose own relationship to Thanos (she happens to be his daughter, if you don’t remember) is a crucial plot point of the movie. This slimmed-down cast makes things a little more manageable for directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and for their audience as well.

Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), as someone whom we were led to believe by promotional advertising would have a major part in this picture, is in fact very much a side character. Oh, she does have a couple of important things to do in the beginning of the film: As the one superhero who had nothing to do with the Avengers’ defeat by Thanos in the previous installment, she’s the one who can most easily rally them to take the fight back to Thanos, recover those infinity stones, and bring back the dead. Turns out, though, that the big guy destroyed the stones and has retired to cultivate his garden. So Captain Marvel peace-outs and says she’s got other planets to take care of, and the other surviving Avengers spend five years thinking they’ve failed and mostly moping around.

Iron Man has foresworn superherodom and retired to the country. Hulk has learned how to combine his Green Monster and Bruce Banner selves into a giant green intellectual. Thor has sunk into a depression that leaves him a beer-guzzling overweight couch-potato. And Black Widow is trying to hold the fort at Avengers headquarters. But when Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)—who everyone thought was dead but who happened to be trapped in quantum space the whole time (Don’t ask. Just watch Ant-Man and the Wasp)—turns up five years after the disaster that killed half the earth (for him it’s been only ten minutes, quantum time), he brings with him an idea that might just be what everybody needs to turn this defeat around.

Of course, the idea involves the only thing it possibly could: time travel. If the stones are the only thing that can reanimate the valley of dry bones that is the post-Thanos universe, and if the stones are no more, then the only solution is to go back in time to when and where the stones were, bring them back, and use them now. Since one or more of the living Avengers know when it was they first encountered at least one of the stones, all they need to do is figure out how to make a time machine. And Ant-Man’s got an idea of how to do it—but without a Delorean handy, they need the super-scientific mind of Tony Stark to bring the idea to fruition, and so they’ve got to go find him in his retirement and convince him to come back into the fold.

If I tell you any more, I’ll be accused of dropping in spoilers, and there must be a handful of people in the known universe who have not already seen the movie last weekend, and one or two of them might actually be reading this review. I will say that the idea of dividing the surviving group into three teams increases the advantage already achieved by the ranks being thinned: We actually get real scenes of character development and relationship building among the characters, whereas in previous installments we got little other than one-line sound bites that were supposed to indicate camaraderie or some such thing. For this reason the film is much more intimate than superhero movies tend to be, and it is much more interesting, because the conversations raise important questions, like how we deal with loss, how we face mortality, and ultimately, what is a life well lived? One important character has a surprising personal answer to that last question by the end of the film.

Finally, yes, the fanatic Marvel groupies will have their satisfactory jolts: In going back in time, our heroes revisit several previous films in scenarios that series devotees will recognize and exult over. And there is an obligatory apocalyptic battle scene that goes on for a good chunk of the film, one where Captain Marvel gets to make another notable appearance in the role of an almost-but-not-quite deus ex machina, and one in which—to thunderous audience applause in the screening I attended—some of the dead rise again.

But it really isn’t this epic climactic battle that makes Avengers: Endgame a worthwhile film. It’s those quieter moments, particularly from Paul Rudd and Chris Hemsworth in the comic vein, and from Robert Downey, Jr., in a more tragic one. This is a film worth seeing, and you can probably get a ticket in a couple of months.

And by the way, when you do see the movie, don’t sit around waiting for a teaser after the credits. For the first time in 22 movies, there isn’t one. That’s as much as to say, this time the end of the movie really is the end. At least of this particular story arc. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare 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

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Top 15 Medieval-themed Films of All Time

The Top 15 Medieval-themed Films of All Time

I tried, but I really couldn’t bring myself to spend money on any of the movies that leached into central Arkansas this past weekend. Of course, I really wanted to see Terry Gilliam’s  The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but we didn’t get a chance at that one. Maybe I’ll be able to see it on some streaming channel some time.

So since the biggest screening event of the past week and a half has been the return of the last season of Game of Thrones, I thought I’d honor the final season of my favorite television show with a completely accurate and indisputable list of the best medieval and pseudo-medieval movies ever made.

To be clear, in order to qualify for this list, the movie has to be: 1) Actually set in the Middle Ages, so that it is based on historical figures from the Middle Ages or deals with fictional characters living in the Middle Ages, or 2) A fantasy tale whose setting draws clearly from actual medieval settings, or 3) A fictional film set in more modern times but relying heavily on obvious medieval motifs. So without further ado, here are the top 15:

  1. The Fisher King (1991)

Buoyed by stellar performances by Jeff Bridges as a shock jock whose comments incite a mass shooting, and Robin Williams whose wife is a victim of the shooter, director and Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam uses the archetypal Arthurian motif of the Grail legend, the Waste Land, and the Fisher King to turn Bridges into the Grail knight searching for the means of healing Williams’ Fisher King and to restore life to the Waste Land of Williams’ shattered psyche. One of the most moving uses of medieval myth to speak to modern crises.

  1. The Name of the Rose (1986)

Sean Connery gives one of his first memorable post-Bond performances in this dark rendition of Umberto Eco’s debut novel, a medieval murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327. Eco’s novel was full of semiotic post-modernism, an intellectual exercise that doesn’t necessarily play so well on screen, so director Jean-Jacques Annaud concentrates solely on the novel’s plot, which involves an intellectual Franciscan, William von Baskerville (Connery, with a nod toward Sherlock Holmes) investigating the mysterious death of a Benedictine monk, an investigation involving Aristotle’s lost treatise on Comedy. The film features a chilling performance by F. Murray Abraham (fresh from his Oscar-triumph in Amadeus) as the cruel inquisitor Bernardo Gui, and a very young Christian Slater in what was only his second big screen appearance.

  1. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s epic fictionalized biography of 13th-century Scottish hero William Wallace won five Academy Awards, including the Best Picture Oscar. It was certainly the high point of Gibson’s career. Wallace, leader of the first Scottish war of independence against British King Edward I, was the hero of a long epic poem by the Scottish bard Blind Harry. That text provided the inspiration for the film, the title of which comes from the name of Wallace’s famous sword, which figures in the last shot of the movie, lying upon the bloody field of Bannockburn. Nobody should mistake the film as actual history, but the action scenes, particularly the depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, are the best in any medieval film. In the pre-CGI days, Gibson directed up to 1,600 extras, shooting in Ireland with members of the Irish Army Reserve as extras. To save money, he had the same soldiers play both armies in different shots. A well-deserved directorial Oscar went to Gibson for his efforts.

  1. Ran (1985)

Akiri Kurosawa’s epic reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear is set in medieval Japan. The title Ran translates as “chaos” or “turmoil,” and the film is fittingly set during the period of Japanese history known as the Sengoku period, or the “Age of the Warring States,” a period of social and political upheaval and constant internal warfare. The Lear character of the film, Hidetora Ichimonji, is an aging warlord who has decided to step down and to divide his realm among his three sons. As one might suspect, this does not turn out so well. With spectacular and colorful battle scenes, the film was the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time. But it has been universally acclaimed, and is often considered among the greatest films ever made. Kurosawa saw the story of irrational destruction as a metaphor for the anxiety of post-nuclear Japan, and of the rest of the world in the last days of the Cold War’s “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

  1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The benchmark against which all other Robin Hood films are measured and found wanting, this 1938 Errol Flynn technicolor gem, directed by Michael Curtiz (who had previously directed Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade and was to go on to win an Oscar for directing Casablanca) and William Keighley (who had directed flynn in The Prince and the Paupera year earlier) features Flynn as the most swashbuckling Robin Hood ever conceived. It also starred de Havilland (a year before her iconic Gone with the Wind role) as Maid Marion, Claude Rains as Prince John, and a deliciously villainous Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. And may I say that the climactic swordfight between Flynn and Rathbone on the staircase in the film’s most exciting scene, with their long shadows playing on the wall, is one of the most spectacular in movie history. Alan Hale Sr. plays Little John—a role he played in three different Robin Hood films. FUN FACT: Cowboy star Roy Rogers liked the look of Maid Marion’s horse so much in this film that he bought the horse and renamed him Trigger. And the rest is history.

  1. The Natural (1984)

Barry Levinson’s classic baseball movie may seem an odd choice for a list of films concerning the Middle Ages, but the story of the “middle aged rookie” (Robert Redford) who comes from nowhere to become the phenom who sparks the hapless Knights team into pennant contention is clearly inspired by that same Grail myth underlying The Fisher King. The Bernard Malamud novel on which the film was based makes heavy use of the motifs of the traditional Grail legend, and the movie is even more obvious in its symbols: Roy (the name means “King”) Hobbs is the Grail knight, bearing his own special weapon, “Wonderboy,” like Wallace’s “Braveheart” or Aragorn’s “Anduril” or, of course, King Arthur’s “Excalibur.” The manager of the Knights (I assume I don’t need to mention the significance of the team name) is “Pop Fisher”—i.e., the fisher king, whose team is mired in last place and has been for some time. Their field is a veritable Waste Land—Fisher cannot even get a drink of fresh water. Hobbs has come to restore the team to life. He has his own beloved lady (Glenn Close) who acts as his inspiration, and another witch-like siren (Kim Bassinger) who tries to lead him astray. And unlike its source, the film ends like a true medieval romance, with the knight winning the Grail and his love at the same time.

 

  1. Seven Samurai (1954)

Another Akira Kurosawa epic set in the Japanese Sengoku period, Seven Samurai has been even more widely praised and acclaimed than his later Ran. In 2018 it was voted the greatest ever foreign language film in the BBC’s international critics’ poll. It’s the story of a remote farming village that hires seven ronin, or masterless samurai, to protect it from a group of bandits who threaten to come back to them at harvest time to steal their crops. It’s considered Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and boasts a perfect 100 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It is consistently praised for its engrossing plot, memorable characters and vivid action scenes. Kurosawa was also innovative in his use of telephoto lenses and multiple cameras, seldom used before, which put the audience in the midst of the action in a way not experienced previously. Such techniques were to profoundly influence subsequent filmmakers. The story idea of putting together a team of warriors or specialists in order to achieve a particular objective was adopted in numerous films—from The Guns of Navarone to Ocean’s Eleven to The Avengers and Widows. More specifically, the plot of the film was adopted by American director John Sturges in 1960 into the classic western The Magnificent Seven, changing the samurai into gunslingers in the old west.

 

  1. Henry V (1989)

Kenneth Branagh created what seemed to be a no-win situation for himself by committing to refilm the play that had been a huge success for Lawrence Olivier. Olivier’s’s wartime version of Shakespeare’s most patriotic play, the story of young King Henry’s startling victory over vastly superior French forces at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, seemed an unapproachable masterpiece. But Branagh’s film surpassed Olivier’s in critical acclaim, as Branagh deliberately chose to film in a style in stark contrast to Olivier’s bright romanticism. In short, Branagh does with Olivier what George R.R. Martin does with Tolkien: he shows the dark and gritty Middle Ages rather than the optimistic and romanticized. The Battle of Agincourt is fought in a grungy October rain in the midst of a field of mud in stark realism. Branagh’s film also sports an all-star British cast, featuring Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield and Emma Thompson. Branagh’s film is another movie with a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and, in addition, is ranked No. 1 on Rotten Tomatoes’  list of “best Shakespeare Movies of all time.”

  1. The Princess Bride (1987)

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Need I say more? Rob Reiner’s film adaptation of William Goldman’s novel was not a huge success at the box office upon its initial release, though it did garner critical acclaim as a kind of “post-modern fairy tale,” and eventually, with later video releases, became a major cult classic. Set in a fantasy fairy tale Middle Ages, the film takes traditional adventure motifs like the lady in distress, the long-lost lover who reappears, or the lifelong quest for revenge, and gives them all a new comic twist as the farmhand Westley (Cary Elwes) sets off to rescue his beloved Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) from the villainous Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), and supporting characters like Manny Patinkin, Christopher Guest (“Stop saying that!”), Wallace Shawn (“Inconceivable!”) and Peter Cook (“Mawage is what bwings us togethew today”) providing much of the comedy and making this film one of the most quotable in recent memory. FUN FACT: One of the people auditioning for the role of the giant Fezzik, eventually played by André the giant, was NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

  1. The Lion in Winter (1968)

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, this brilliant adaptation of James Goldman’s rather unsuccessful Broadway play exploring the dysfunctional British royal family at their Christmas get-together in 1183 eventually won three Oscars: one for Goldman’s adapted screenplay, one for John Barry’s original score and one for Katharine Hepburn’s spirited portrayal of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, chief antagonist of her husband Henry II, played here by Peter O’Toole, who was Oscar-nominated a second time for his portrayal of the same character (see the immediately following entry). Anthony Harvey directed, and received his only Oscar nomination, though he was better known as a film editor, having previously edited Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In Goldman’s story, the main question is, Who will Henry name as his successor? All three of his sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John) are vying for the throne, and Eleanor is scheming to have her own favorite named as heir, but Henry is playing everybody off against each other. Besides Hepburn’s and O’Toole’s brilliant performances, a young Anthony Hopkins shines as eldest son and ultimate successor, Richard the Lionheart.

 

  1. Beckett (1964)

This film version of acclaimed French playwright Jean Anouilh’s Beckett, or The Honor of God, starred Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Beckett (Chaucer’s “holy blissful martyr”), both at the height of their careers, and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning only in the category of Adapted Screenplay for Edward Anhalt (who had previously won one in 1950 for Panic in the Streets). Peter Glenville directed the film, shot in glorious 70 mm color, which tells the story of politically savvy Henry II’s ongoing conflicts with the Church, and his appointment of his longtime lackey and partner in debauchery Thomas Beckett as his Chancellor and his Archbishop of Canterbury, counting on Beckett to be an easily manipulated puppet. Imagine his surprise when Beckett develops a conscience and a backbone. O’Toole and Burton were both nominated and so canceled each other out in the Best Actor category, losing to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. FUN FACT: O’Toole was ultimately nominated for the Best Actor Oscar eight times, and Richard Burton six times plus one more for Supporting Actor. That’s 15 Oscar nominations. Neither of them ever won. Perhaps Beckett was their chance, if they hadn’t canceled one another out.

  1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

Recognized almost since its release as a classic of world cinema, The Seventh Seal is the film that established Swedish director Ingmar Bergman as one of the great directors of his time. In the film a knight (Max von Sydow) returns from fighting in the Crusades to find Sweden in the midst of the Black Death. Soon the knight meets a hooded figure who turns out to be Death himself. Ultimately the knight challenges Death to a game of chess, to be played for the knight’s soul. Eerily filmed in glorious black and white, the movie is as dark as its title, which refers to the apocalypse in the book of Revelation. Admirers of the film have dwindled somewhat in more recent decades, given that the film’s allegorical approach seems more suited to the time period of its setting rather than contemporary times, and the earnest existential questions about God and the meaning of life the film poses seem out of place with our contemporary ironic world view. But as Roger Ebert (who gave the film four out of four stars and placed it among his “Great Movies”) wrote: “Films are no longer concerned with the silence of God but with the chattering of men.…But the directness of The Seventh Seal is its strength: This is an uncompromising film, regarding good and evil with the same simplicity and faith as its hero.”

3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

There have been several films made concerning the life and career of the Maid of Orleans, but none have ever equaled the depth and pathos of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic, produced shortly after Saint Joan’s canonization and widely considered one of the greatest silent films ever made. Filmed almost entirely in closeup, sometimes in extreme closeup, the film uses a script based quite closely on transcripts of 19-year-old Joan’s actual trial before the inquisition in British-occupied Rouen. In her one-and-only screen appearance, actress Renee Falconetti gives one of the most acclaimed screen performances ever as she plays the accused Maid as a Christ-like martyr (hence the “Passion” of the title). This may be the film on the list that you are least likely to have seen, but I assure you it is worth your while.

  1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!” Some jokes just never get old. And here’s a film that, 44 years after its release, remains as popular as ever. Medievalists as a rule consider this the best film ever made about King Arthur, mainly because the Pythons, particularly directors Terry Gilliam (yes, him again) and Terry Jones (the author of two scholarly books about Chaucer) actually know something about the Arthurian legend and about medieval history, so their jokes are coming from the perspective of a real knowledge of what they are spoofing. The film also spoofs previous film versions of the King Arthur story, most notably 1967’s Camelot, the lavish film made from the smash Broadway musical. With Pythonesque irony, the script of the film eventually came full circle and became a smash Broadway musical itself under the name of Spamalot.

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003)

Peter Jackson’s elaborate, spectacular, epic trilogy of films, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of novels, brought Middle Earth to life in a way that regenerated interest in the classic story of hobbits who save the world. Jackson’s CGI techniques changed the way epic films were made, and the cinematography made New Zealand a Mecca for the film business, but it was the human element that made these films beloved. The relationship of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), the power and inspiration of the fallen-and-risen Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the William Wallace-like heroism of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the swashbuckling elf-skills of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who out-Robin Hoods Errol Flynn, the Black Riders who throw a darkness deeper than the Seventh Seal, etc., etc., etc., make this trilogy the culmination of medieval-themed filmmaking. And unlike the later and much inferior Hobbit trilogy, these films were true to the books and satisfying for Tolkien fans, while telling the story so effectively that those who hadn’t read Tolkien were enchanted as well. If I hadn’t lumped them together, Jackson’s films would have taken up three of the top 15 slots. But in fact, the three films were conceived and developed as a single project, as Tolkien’s books were. Altogether, these films were nominated for an astounding 41 Academy Awards, ultimately receiving 17 Oscars—11 of those, including those for Best Picture and Best Director, went to the final chapter, The Return of the King, but I think almost everyone recognized that those Oscars were a celebration of the entire trilogy’s brilliant achievement.

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

Matthias Schoenaerts appears in The Mustang by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. 

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The Mustang

The Mustang

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

This is a little gem of a film that might not be on your radar, since it has had virtually no promotion and is in very limited release. But it’s one that is well worth your chasing down if you can. The one screen it’s playing on right now in Central Arkansas is at Riverdale 10, but I’d hurry if you want to see it there, since it’s not likely to be there long.

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre is a French actress, and American audiences might possibly remember her from 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. As a director, this is her first feature-length film, though it is loosely based on her 2014 short Rabbit, a film that made the rounds and won several awards at film festivals. Based in part on the success of that film, de Clermont-Tonnerre received an “emerging talent” grant from Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute film lab to develop her script for The Mustang into a feature film. Redford is listed as executive producer for the project.

The opening scenes of the film present us with gorgeous vistas of public land in the west, where a large herd of mustangs roam wild. But their glorious freedom is interrupted by the grating roar of helicopters that are used to round up the horses and frighten them into holding pens. We are told that the government has removed hundreds of thousands of wild horses over the past few decades from public lands. What the film does not mention specifically is the fact that such roundups kill or maim many horses, and that the horses are removed from public lands and put into small pens because the Bureau of Land Management is acting under pressure from large ranchers who want their cattle to graze on public lands, and from oil companies interested in fracking. This political background is missing from the film, but the images of the penned up wild horses do speak for themselves.

What happens to a handful of these magnificent animals forms the subject matter for this film. Up to 2,000 wild mustangs  may be held after these roundups in a holding facility jointly supervised by the Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Department of Correction-Silver State Industries, and of these some 50 to 75 each year are part of a training program that utilizes prison inmates who spend time—in the film it is five weeks—with the animals, training them and at the end of the process making them available for public adoption, often by law enforcement agencies, particularly officers patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. The process, of course, is also a rehabilitation exercise for the inmates, who not only feel they are doing something useful, but also form an empathetic bond with the animals they train.

The film, then, becomes a story of redemption for violent inmate Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts fromFar from the Madding Crowd). Coleman has already served a dozen years for a violent attack on his domestic partner that left her helplessly brain damaged. We learn this by degrees as the movie progresses: At first, we only see Roman with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton from TV’s Dirty John), who is trying to get him to respond to something—anything—that might reveal a preference he would have for a work assignment in what seems to be a new prison for him. She ends up assigning him to “outdoor maintenance,” which at this place consists of disposing of horse manure.

But the crusty, hard-bitten old cowpoke Myles (screen veteran Bruce Dern), who is in charge of the training program, sees something in Roman, and decides to give him a chance to train a particularly cantankerous new mustang arrival who Roman names “Marcus.” Helped along by an infectiously good-humored fellow inmate and experienced trainer named Henry (Jason Mitchell from Straight Outta Compton), Roman makes some halting progress before completely losing his temper and channeling all his frustrations out on the horse, physically attacking Marcus with savage blows to his ribs.

The no-nonsense Myles will have none of this and has Roman thrown into solitary confinement. Roman also goes through anger management classes. Despite his explosion, Myles eventually does let Roman come back to resume training Marcus, and with Henry’s help he actually begins to make some progress. In the meantime, Roman gets a surprise visit from his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon from Blockers). While he is not exactly welcoming to her, she is the only person he responds to with more than a grunt for the entire first half of the movie. The pregnant Martha, though still a minor, wants his signature on a form that will “emancipate” her so that she can go and live with her boyfriend and have the baby.

As the film progresses and Roman comes to respect the horse, take pride in his own work and form marginally better relationships with Henry, Myles and ultimately Martha as well, we can sense that this human life has value, even if he is never reintegrated into normal human society. And although there are other twists in the story, and an ending we might not have seen coming, nothing is really more important than what we’ve learned to this point. The rest is just plot.

One flaw in that plot is another violent incident Roman is involved in later for which he seems to incur no punishment, a development that left me scratching my head. But overall the script is impressive, and manages to get us to appreciate Roman’s difficult journey and his ongoing redemption without resorting to clichés or sentiment. That in itself is a wondrous achievement.

So is Schoenaerts’ understated performance as he brings to life a character with little redeeming social value, but one who recognizes his crimes and finds something to live for after all. As for Bruce Dern, nobody can play a crusty old hardened tough guy like he can. Most of the other prisoners are actually played by inmates who have themselves been part of this rehabilitation program, and their presence augments the realism of the scenes with the horses and within the prison complex as well.

But another major star of the film is cinematographer Ruben Impens (who recently shot Beautiful Boy). Impens’ images of galloping horses or of sunrise over the desert are often so beautiful it is a shame that the film is in such limited release (it was actually released in mid-March and took a month to get here at all), because that means most of you will only get to see it on streaming video rather than on the big screen, where you can fully enjoy those images.

Kudos to Redford and his Sundance lab that made it possible for this movie to be made. I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare, and urging you to go see it on a movie screen while you still can.

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

Shazam-Movie-Post-Credit-Scenes

Shazam

Shazam!

David F. Sandberg (2019)

Think Penny Marshal’s Big meets a PG-rated Deadpool. That’s basically what you get in the comic but not-so-sardonic-as-Deadpoolnew film from the DC expanded universe, directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and written by Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo), in which a teenager magically transforms himself into an adult body while remaining an adolescent in his mind—with the additional twist that the adult he transforms himself into is, by the way, a superhero. And just in case you missed the connection to Marshall’s 1988 Tom Hanks vehicle, there’s a wink at that film’s most famous scene in a brief shot midway through the film as the main character runs through a toy store.

But this movie’s connection with ’80s movies goes deeper than its blatant variation on the theme of Big. The film does more than focus on a particular lone and tormented crimefighter, a la DC’s caped and gloomy crusader Batman. In fact it bears little resemblance at all to the plethora of ultra-dark super-serious save-the-universe-from-Armageddon superhero flicks that have become the rule (which we’ll see enough of in a couple of weeks with Marvell’s Avengers: Endgame). Instead, this film focuses on the importance of family and of relationships, and on a group of teenagers teamed up to solve a problem. The tone is a real throwback to Spielbergesque ’80s films like Goonies or Back to the Future.

There is another sense in which the character of Shazam could be described as a cross between Superman and Captain Marvell. It’s well known that when Superman burst upon the scene in 1938, he revolutionized the comic book genre. Everybody wanted their own superhero to compete with the Man of Steel. Superman’s most successful competitor first appeared in issue #2 of Fawcett Comics’ “Whiz Comics” in 1939: a character named—wait for it—Captain Marvel. But hold on, this Captain Marvel was a 12-year-old newsboy named Billy Batson who was able to morph into an adult sized superhero by calling out a single word: Shazam!

This Captain Marvel went on to actually sell more comics than Superman himself until Superman’s parent company, then called National Comics, sued Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel was just a plagiarized version of Superman. Of course, there was some truth in this, but the stealing did go both ways: Superman, for instance, could never fly until Captain Marvel revealed that particular power in the early 1940s. And for that matter, Superman’s bald-headed arch-nemesis and super-villain Lex Luthor pretty clearly owed something to Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, the original Captain Marvel’s bald-headed arch nemesis and super-villain. The suit went on for more than a dozen years, but National finally won its case in the early 1950s, and won the rights to the character of Captain Marvel. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that National, now DC Comics, decided to reintroduce the character in their own line—but by then another rival company had introduced its own character with the name Captain Marvel, and had actually named their entire line after that hero. So DC had to simply call the recycled character Shazam. And now, more than 45 years later, we have the irony of two movies both concerning different characters originally named “Captain Marvel,” appearing within two weeks of each other. As Gomer Pyle would have said, “Shazam!”

In this film version, we first go back in time more than four decades to encounter a boy, belittled and verbally abused by his father and older brother, who, in what might be simply an imagined escape, finds himself in a cavernous room lined with monstrous statues of the seven deadly sins, and confronted by an aged wizard (Djimon Hounsou, last seen two weeks ago in Captain Marvel)  The wizard is looking for someone pure of heart to whom he can pass on his magic powers, which he uses to keep the seven sins at bay. The boy fails the test, but the wizard vows to keep looking.

Flash forward to the present, and we meet 14-year old runaway Billy Batson (Asher Angel of TV’s Andi Mack). Billy seems an unlikely candidate for the “pure of heart” label: Abandoned as a youngster, he has spent some ten years bouncing from one Philadelphia foster home to another, all the time trying to find his real mother. But Billy’s latest brush with the law lands him in a foster home with caring foster parents (Marta Milans of TV’s The Pier and Cooper Andrews from TV’s The Walking Dead) and a winning group of foster siblings (including Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Grace Fulton and Jovan Armand) whom he mostly ignores at first. But ultimately Billy forms a grudging bond with his younger roommate Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer from Beautiful Boy), who has a walking disability, a warped sense of humor and an obsession with superheroes. In other words, Freddie is the personification of the core intended audience for the film and, like a Greek chorus, responds in ways the audience is meant to.

When Billy, like his unnamed predecessor, is brought to the secret magic room with its by now desperately debilitated wizard, the wizard has to pretty much take it on faith that he’s got somebody who can carry on his protective crusade, since Billy seems like his only hope. And with one word, Billy turns into the ripped adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi from TV’s Chuck). But the thing is, he’s still a 14-year-old adolescent in a 30-year-old superhero body, so he acts pretty immature for a superhero—something Freddie is the first to call him on. What follows the transformation is the most entertaining part of the movie, as Freddie, with his checklist, runs grownup Billy through a series of tests, trying to figure out precisely what his powers are. Super strength? Check. Bullet proof? Check. Laser vision? Not so much. Flying? Well, maybe, but it’s something we need to work on. Taking a cue from the actual history of the disputed character, Freddie and Billy also try to come up with a name for the new superhero, and some of these are pretty crazy: My personal favorite is “Captain Sparklefingers.”

The film takes a darker turn when Billy/Shazam is faced with the aforementioned super-villain Dr. Sivana (played with Bond-villainesque menace by working actor Mark Strong, who previously played another DC supervillain, Sinestro, in the eminently forgettable Green Lantern). Sivana, fueled by the embodiments of those dreaded seven deadly sins, has powers equal to Shazam’s own, and can only be defeated by an unlooked for stroke on Billy’s part that gives the film a more uplifting ending than most superhero flicks.

The film is highly entertaining, with Glazer and Levi forming a very watchable comic buddy team. Its light touch and boyish charm are refreshing in the morass of heavy-themed superhero movies. Like most of these kinds of films, it does have a severely overlong CGI-enhanced battle scene at the end (Why do they do this every time?) that will give you sufficient nap-time if you need it, but don’t sleep through all of it or you’ll miss Billy’s clever twist. All things considered, this is a superhero movie that you might very well like even if you don’t like superhero movies. 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

Dumbo-age-rating-How-old-watch-dumbo-Tim-Burton-disney-remake-1108198

Dumbo

Dumbo

Tim Burton (2019)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

One of the most vivid memories of my life is the first time I saw a family of elephants in the wild in Zambia. I was on a river cruise on the Great Zambezi and saw three elephants—a large male, a smaller female, and a small baby elephant—emerge from the surrounding jungle to enjoy a cool drink at sunset from the mighty river. Seeing the great beasts free in their natural habitat, obviously a content and loving family unit, made my heart swell with awe and wonder. Lest you think I’m anthropomorphizing the animals by calling them a loving family unit, I would draw your attention to recent research that shows that elephants not only feel empathy but also mourn their own dead. The largest of all land animals, elephants have much larger brains than any other land animals, and have three times more neurons in their brains than do human beings.

Thus the portrayal of filial love between a mother elephant and her baby, as depicted in Tim Burton’s latest film from Disney, the live-action Dumbo, is not simply the recreation of the same relationship in the original animated film. It is also a reflection of reality.

In the original film, as in many animated films, Disneyesque or otherwise, talking animals are essentially figurative representations of human beings, speaking through animals for comic and sometimes satiric, even didactic, purposes. Dumbo and his mother are reflecting human values and attitudes, so there are gossiping lady elephants and helpful cheerleading mice, as well as jesting, scornful crows, but it’s all a kind of allegory to convince us we should accept those who might be different—who might, for example, be born with gigantic ears. In Burton’s new film, however, all the speaking parts are given to humans, and Dumbo and his mom are reduced to secondary roles as animals in which the humans have an interest. As such, the film becomes in part a moral fable about the treatment of animals, in particular animals as intelligent and empathetic as elephants, and a caution against the exploitation and abuse of such magnificent creatures.

And that is the most impressive and successful aspect of the new Dumboremake. It’s really difficult to find a legitimately artistic reason for this recent remaking trend—one might even say “epidemic,” noting that two more such remakes (of Aladdin and The Lion King) are due to come out in the next two months. None of the live-action remakes (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast) has been anything more than a pale and limpid imitation of the original animated classics. One is forced to conclude that Disney’s only motive in this program is greed. Let’s see how many seats we can fill with this new recycled crap. And it does seem to be working: In its opening weekend just past, the newly dusted off Dumbo, despite less-than-glowing reviews from critics and theatergoers alike, took in $46 million domestically, easily topping the weekend box office over previous champions Us and Captain Marvel. While it seems unlikely to maintain that position with the new Shazam coming out this weekend, it’s still a decent showing, though one that’s not likely to justify the $170 million price tag for the picture’s production.

Still, one could argue that if any Disney classic animated film could use a remake, it wasDumbo. At only 64 minutes, Dumbo was the shortest of Disney’s classics, and could certainly use some fleshing out of its story. More importantly, Dumbo was never going to get rereleased in its original form, or to get much airplay on TV, because of the blatantly racist portrayal of the minstrel-like crow band—you might as well call them the “Jim Crow” band—who sing the movie’s biggest song, “When I See an Elephant Fly.” They might as well be wearing blackface. Cutting this number was necessary in the remake, though unfortunately the song itself has some hilarious lyrics: “Well, I’ve seen a horse fly. And I’ve seen a dragon fly. I’ve even seen a house fly. But I ‘be done seen about everything’ [see what I mean about the blackface?] when I see an elephant fly.” Burton can’t use the song in its original form, but he can’t stand to lose the lyrics, so he gives them to his circus MC in spoken form. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that well.

Nor does the film as a whole. The screenplay, by Ehren Kruger (whose previous efforts include The Brothers Grimm and three Transformers movies), takes the general outline of the original film and uses it as a framework for a wholly human story of family togetherness, greed and acceptance of differences—themes that are to some extent drawn from the original. But there’s a workmanlike quality to this that makes it seem far less magical than a flying elephant ought to be. The story begins exactly a century ago, in the “Medici Brothers’ Circus” as they begin their 1919 season. Former trick rider and circus star Holt Farrier (a subdued Colin Farrell) returns from service in World War I missing his left arm, and is reunited with his children Milly and Joe (played by newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). The children’s mother, Holt’s partner and wife, has died (along with a number of other circus performers) in the flu epidemic and Holt learns that his horses have since been sold by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito, veteran of several Burton films including Batman Returns) to help make ends meet for the struggling troupe. With no wife and no more act, but a pair of kids to support, Holt stays with the circus to work as the elephant tender. And one of those elephants is pregnant: Imagine everyone’s surprise when she gives birth to a CGI baby with cute eyes and giant ears. Poor Dumbo becomes a laughingstock and Max sells his Mom down the river, so of course the two kids bond with the poor motherless pachyderm: Who can understand him better than they do?

And it’s the kids, of course, who essentially teach, or at least encourage, Dumbo to fly, and it’s the kids to whom the adults don’t listen when they are being presented with the act that’s going to solve all their problems. Ultimately, though, Dumbo soars around the Big Top and the Medici Circus is on its way to fame and fortune. Enter entertainment entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, a veteran of Burton’s Beetlejuice and Batman movies), who merges with Max’s circus in order to make Dumbo the star attraction of his gigantic theme park

Dreamland, where the elephant will fly with Dreamland’s current spectacular aerial star, Colette Marchant (Eva Green of Burton’s recent Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Meantime Vandevere is trying to impress his chief financier J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin, who pops in from Burton’s Edward Scissorhands), who’s not going to be impressed until he sees Vandevere’s elephant soaring.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out the direction this film is heading. And that’s quite a surprise in a Tim Burton film. Burton here seems to put all his creative energy into biting the hand that is feeding him: Isn’t there something a little bit strange about this giant theme park Dreamland, which is trying to cash in on the poor little elephant’s talent? The fact that this film about an entertainment giant merging with a smaller company in order to exploit its potential—especially in a film released (coincidentally) just a week after Disney finalized its merger with Fox—is nothing if not a curious turn for the movie to take.

So perhaps that’s what Burton was focusing his creativity on; it certainly wasn’t the film’s main story. He seems to have hired actors he was familiar with so that he wouldn’t have to direct them much. DeVito is unusually sympathetic as Max, and Keaton is over the top in an almost Beetlejuice manner as the film’s heavy. Arkin is the crotchety Arkin, and Green is very watchable. Farrell doesn’t seem to have his full heart in it here, and as for the kids…. Well, I don’t want to be accused of churlishness by attacking these poor children, but good lord! I assume that little Ms. Parker was hired because she is photogenic, but somebody needed to tell her that she ought to show an occasional emotion, and that she should deliver lines as if they meant something and were not simply shopping lists. And that somebody should have been her director. Young Master Hobbins is a bit better, but only by comparison. And these kids’ roles are crucial to the film.

In the end, Dumbo has a few interesting points, and it looks good, but it turns out there’s no there there. The elephant is just too heavy to lift off. 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

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.

 

Tennysons

This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.

 

1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.