Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews

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

5e32adf0-e487-497b-8b14-30b7487d2fe4-Bohemian_Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bryan Singer (2018)

Queen’s epic six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody” first topped the UK singles charts for nine weeks in 1975, but most Americans these days, if they remember the song fondly, remember it from the classic scene in Mike Myers’ film Wayne’s World in which Wayne and his friend Garth (Dana Carvey) bang their heads to Brian May’sawesome guitar riffs. The use of the song in that film impelled its re-release in the United States, where it peaked at number two on the charts, 17 years after its original release. Apparently the studio had been pushing a Guns N’ Roses number for the scene, but Myers insisted on the Queen classic, which had been re-released the previous year in the United Kingdom after Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS, where it had soared once again to the number one slot. Mercury had reportedly watched the head-banging scene before his death, and had approved the song for use in the film. In a good-humored nod to that background, Myers himself appears in the film unrecognizably as Ray Foster, an EMI record executive who insists that the song cannot be released as a single because it is “too bloody long,” and declares, with outrageous irony, that “no one is going to be head-banging in the car to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’!”

For more serious Queen fans, though, the pinnacle of the band’s success came at their reunion appearance at the Live Aid benefit concert at Wembley Stadium outside of London on July 13, 1985. There,before 72,000 fans at Wembley and a satellite TV hookup that reached more than a billion people worldwide (making it the largest rock concert in history), in a venue that included performances by Paul MCartney, The Who, David Bowie, U2, Elvis Costello, and other giants of the industry, Queen’s 21-minute set famously stole the show. The set, which began with the ballad section and guitar solo from “Bohemian Rhapsody” and moved on to “Radio Ga Ga,” “Hammer to Fall,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and the first verse of “We Will Rock You,” and ended with the anthem “We Are the Champions,” is not only reputed to be Queen’s finest hour, but in a 2005 BBC poll was voted, by a panel including more than 60 performers, journalists and music industry officials, as the greatest live performance in rock history.

This performance is also the high point of the film, where it is recreated in exquisite detail, even down to the scattered Pepsi cups on Freddie’s piano—although the filmmakers did choose to leave out “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” a personal favorite, I suppose in the interest of time—which by that point they must have been conscious of in this 134-minute movie. But the film begins and ends with the Live Aid concert: everything else is framed by that climactic performance. The film opens with a long tracking shot that follows just behind Freddie as he makes his way from the dressing room through a maze of backstage environs and finally out onto the stage where 72,000 fans await. Then we move into what is essentially two hours of flashback.

The film is less an exploration of Queen’s career as a band than it is a biopic of the band’s charismatic lead singer. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzabar, Freddie Mercury had moved with his Parsi family to India and then immigrated to the Middlesex, England, in his late teens. The movie begins in 1970, when Freddie (Rami Malek of TV’s Mr. Robot) is working as a baggage handler at Heathrow, where his coworkers call him a “Paki.” We get early scenes of the youthful Freddie clashing with his parents, especially his father, over his lack of direction and his growing away from traditional Parsi (i.e., Zoroastrian) ethical values, particularly since he likes to go out at night to clubs and listen to local rock bands (dreaming himself of being a rock entertainer one day).

Here, of course, is where fate takes a hand. When a local group he’s been following called “Smile” loses their lead singer, Freddie approaches the two remaining members of the band—lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee from TV’s Jamestown and Midsomer Murders) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy of X-Men Apocalypse). The two are students who don’t really expect to make it big in music: May is studying to be an astrophysicist and Taylor a dentist. Freddie says he’d like to be their new lead singer, and May’s response is “Not with those teeth, mate.” Indeed, Malek is wearing weird-looking prosthetic choppers that do only a halfway decent job of simulating Mercury’s famous overbite—he actually did have four extra teeth in his upper jaw that pushed his front teeth forward, but he never got them fixed because he believed the unusual form of his mouth gave his voice its special quality. Anyway, Freddie does an impromptu audition for May and Taylor, showing off his remarkable four-octave range, and he’s in the band. “Can you play bass?” they ask him.

He can’t, but shortly the trio is joined by bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello of The Social Network), and they are on their way. As the movie tells it, it is Freddie who decides to rename the band “Queen” because the name is “outrageous” and, as Freddie says, “I can’t think of anyone more outrageous than me.” And it is Freddie, too, who convinces the band to sell their old van to get enough money to record an album. And this, as the film tells it, gives them their big break, because they are “discovered” in the recording studio by record promoter John Reid (Aidan Gillen of TV’s Game of Thrones) who talks to them, asking them “What makes Queen any different from all of the other wannabe rockstars I meet?” To which Freddie answers: “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together; we’re playing for the other misfits. They’re the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.”

Taylor adds that they are essentially a family, and there are scenes in the film that try to emphasize this idea: We see May showing the rest of the band the idea he has for a song that encourages the audience to participate with both bodies and voices, and becomes “We Will Rock You.” We see Deacon showing off the new bass riff that he’s come up with, which turns into “Another One Bites the Dust.” And we see Taylor, comically overdubbing “Galileo” again and again, trying to get his voice higher and higher for the recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

But these kinds of scenes are rare. Mainly we see Freddie, and follow his private life, from his engagement to his muse Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton of Murder on the Orient Express) to his obsession with hanger-on Paul Prenter (the appropriately named Allen Leech from TV’s Downton Abbey) who, if the film can be believed, Freddie chose over John Reid in a kind of morality-play devil-angel debate, and who ultimately leads Freddie, or at least enables him, on his long descent into the morass of alcohol, drugs, and sex so commonly associated with the decline of rock stars.

I’ll try to avoid actual spoilers, but that’s hard to do in a biopic. Ultimately, the film suffers from the typical flaws of biopics—it is disjointed and episodic, though held together by the Live Aid frame and by a kind of Mary vs. Paul dichotomy. Malek’s performance is electrifying—he manages to make you think you’re actually seeing Freddie Mercury alive and onstage again. Some things are added or out of place for the sake of the story: Myers’ character is completely fictitious, but seems included just to embody the resistance to the release of the highly unusual and overlong “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Also, the film depicts Freddie revealing to the band that he has AIDS before the Live Aid performance in 1985, when in fact he did not reveal his condition to the band until 1987. Further if we are to believe the film, Freddie did not realize he was gay until well-after his hooking up with Mary Austin, which seems hard to believe. Nor does the film do much with the details of Freddie’s sordid sex life, except in a televised revelation by the untrustworthy Paul after their breakup.

It’s possible that some of these defects in the film were the result of director Bryan Singer (known for his X-Men films) being fired from the film and replaced by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) with just two weeks remaining in production. This must have caused some confusion and contributed to a lack of unity in the film. But in the end, the Live Aid set is worth the price of admission, and Malek’s performance is a thing of beauty. Despite some flaws, I think this film deserves three Tennysons. I wouldn’t miss it if you’re a Queen fan. Or just a Rock fan. Or, I suppose, a Wayne’s World fan.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. 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

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robert-redford-old-man-and-the-gun

The Old Man and the Gun

The Old Man and the Gun

David Lowery (2018)

Imagine for a moment that Butch and Sundance survived that deadly shootout in Bolivia in 1908, and went to prison instead. Then imagine that Sundance escapes from prison 73 years later and ends up in Texas, where he continues to make a living the only way he knows how—robbing banks—now at the age of 114.

Okay, so maybe that’s not quite the plot of director David Lowery’s (A Ghost Story) new Robert Redford vehicle The Old Man and the Gun, but it’s not that far off. Redford, of course, is only 82, so he still has a while to go before he hits his eleventy-fourth birthday. But he is essentially a geriatric Sundance in this film—exceedingly affable, exuding grace under pressure, and charming as ever, this time with 68-year-old Sissy Spacek rather than 29-year-old Katherine Ross. Redford said originally that this film would be his last work in front of the camera (he wasn’t ruling out directing in the future), though he has since hinted that he might be considering reneging on that pledge.

Lowery, who also wrote the screenplay, based his script on a 2003 David Grann article published in The New Yorkerdetailing the career of bank-robber Forrest Tucker, who spent his long life breaking the law and getting tossed in jail, and subsequently breaking out of jail—something he did apparently 16 times over his long career. The real-life Tucker broke out of San Quentin prison at the age of 59 by secretly building a boat, and subsequently went on a crime spree with fellow senior citizens over the next decade. This is the part of Tucker’s career that the film focuses on.

We first see Tucker from behind, standing in front of a bank teller. It doesn’t take us long to realize he is robbing the place. But he’s so polite and courteous to the poor teller that he clearly comes across as a different kind of thief. While making his escape and being chased by police, he sees a pick-up pulled over on the side of the road, and a forlorn woman unable to get her truck moving again. Tucker stops to offer the lady a hand and, as he has his head under the hood with her, the police cars drive on by in pursuit of the quarry that has pretty clearly escaped them.

The woman with the car is Jewel (Spacek), to whom Tucker chivalrously gives a ride and whom he takes out for lunch at the nearest diner. Needless to say, they hit it off. She owns a ranch with a few horses, and could clearly use some help running it and paying the mortgage. He tells her he’s a salesman. When this doesn’t fly, he writes the truth on a slip of paper that he hands to her. By the end of lunch the viewer is pretty sure these two are going to meet again.

Tucker’s next caper is in an Austin bank, which he robs unobtrusively while a local law enforcement officer, John Hunt (Casey Affleck) happens to be standing in line waiting to talk to a teller. His professional dignity somewhat bruised, Hunt makes capturing Tucker a personal fixation. Tucker is now joined by his accomplices Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), and the media dub them the “Over the Hill Gang” (does anybody else hear an echo of “Hole in the Wall Gang” in this?). They go on a rollicking crime spree through the south and southwest, and Tucker’s reputation as a “gentlemanly” robber (who shows his gun, but never fires it) makes him something of a folk hero. When police from a number of towns they have hit get together to compare notes, the event makes the TV news, and Tucker sees Hunt being interviewed, noting his determination to bring these senior citizens to justice. Tucker, who never seems to see his crime spree as anything but a game, leaves a playful taunt for Hunt at his next crime scene.

But that television appearance also brings Hunt a letter from a surprise source, who turns out to be Tucker’s daughter Dorothy (Elizabeth Moss in what is essentially not much more than a cameo), and through her Hunt is able to put together a profile on just who Forrest Tucker is.

More than this would drift into spoiler territory but suffice it to say that there are not a lot of surprises as the film progresses toward its conclusion. Critics have been pretty generous in their assessment of the film, and audiences—who, not surprisingly, have likely been mostly on the older side (there was more gray hair in the Conway theater when my wife and I saw the film than one usually finds outside a 4:30 dinner buffet line)—have looked on the film kindly as well. And it certainly is an incredibly gentle, nonviolent crime-and-pursuit movie, giving us a chance to see national treasures like Redford and Spacek on the big screen again. But for myself, I hope this doesn’t turn out to be Redford’s last film. I’d like to see him chew on something with a little more edge to it (his solo virtuoso performance in 2013’s All Is Lostwould have been a much more memorable swan song). While the adage that it takes a great deal of skill to make a performance seem effortless is no doubt true in many cases, I felt here that Redford was mainly just being charming.

As for Affleck, I’ve seen the kind of astounding work that he can do (for example in the unforgettable Manchester by the Sea), and there were flashes of that in this film, but most of the time I actually couldn’t understand what he was mumbling. And while I always enjoy seeing Danny Glover (who can forget his Lethal Weaponcharacter, or him and that Henry rifle—“Now I don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to be dead”—in Silverado), I have to say that of the very few lines he had in this film, I understood less than half. I know I’m getting old, but my hearing is still fine, and I get tired of contemporary directors and actors who think that mumbling is great acting. If you think that’s more “realistic,” then you need to get more articulate friends. Several critics have noted that this film is shot in the style of Redford’s films from the 1970s, like The Stingand Three Days of the Condor. The film’s style may be reminiscent of those times, but you know what? Nobody in those films mumbled. You could understand the characters, because they realized at the time that the audience actually needed to understand what the characters were saying if they were supposed to follow the plot.

But I digress. Anyway, Glover and Tom Waits are woefully underused, and if it weren’t for a very memorable “Why I Hate Christmas” speech that Waits is given at one point, you would hardly notice they were there. But in spite of all these things, I could be more excited about this movie if it weren’t for one more significant problem: Throughout the film, which presents Tucker’s crime spree as a kind of lark, and presents him as a bank-robber with a heart of gold, the courteous, gentleman thief, the human cost of his life of crime is never really given serious consideration. Even Hunt ends up more or less sympathizing with the guy. But there is one point, the interview with Elizabeth Moss as his abandoned daughter, who makes very clear the effect Tucker’s lifestyle had on her and her mother, when this light touch falls away. The scene, and the change of mood, is clearly deliberate, but one wonders why it is here at all. It serves as a corrective to the lighthearted nature of the rest of the film, but it’s a brief reminder that never raises its head again. The fact that it stands out like this seems a flaw—it’s as if Moss is in an entirely different movie. My impression was that either more should have been made of this, or less. As it is, Dorothy, the daughter Tucker doesn’t seem to even know he has, just comes off as a kind of killjoy.

I’ll give this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and half a Tennyson for what might have been.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. 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

680E1E03E6E-C3C1-F24E-0EE2BC67A37C1D36

Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale

Drew Goddard (2018)

You can be excused if, a few minutes into Bad Times at the El Royale, you start having flashbacks and think you’ve wandered into a 1960s version of The Hateful Eight as you see seven strangers coming together apparently at random at a once-ritzy lodge on the California-Nevada border. And if the title of the film reminds you unexpectantly of John Travolta’s rant to Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction about how the French call the Quarter Pounder the “Royale,” that’s no coincidence either. First and foremost, this is a film inspired by, and paying tribute to, Quentin Tarantino’s neo-noir style with its sudden, shocking violent scenes and its twisted connections between characters that come to light in the course of the film’s narrative starts and stops.

This is a movie that takes its inspiration mainly from other movies, especially Tarantino films but also, of necessity, the noir films that inspired Tarantino. Goddard, best known as a writer for TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost, and as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for The Martian, made his directing debut in 2012’s Cabin in the Woods, a clever take on horror films that played with the conventional tropes and structured them around shocking plot twists much the way this film does with crime thriller conventions.

The film begins with a prelude that takes place in 1959, a scene set in a motel room in which a guest is seen tearing up the floor of the room and stashing bags of what we assume is money under the floor. Shortly after he gets the room put back together someone comes to his door and blows him away when he opens it. Sorry if that sounds like a spoiler, but it is the first scene of the picture. The odd thing about this scene is that it’s all filmed in one lengthy shot, and from a single angle, as if we are watching the events take place through a window. This viewer-as-voyeur sense lies behind the entire movie, and we find out why that is soon enough.

The narrative proper begins ten years later, with several people checking in to the El Royale, a once glamorous but now down-on-its-heels hotel near Lake Tahoe. Half the hotel is in California and half is in Nevada, and the state line runs directly through the building—rooms in the California half cost a dollar more a night because, hey, they’re in California. The joint was hopping in the late ’50s and early ’60s, with rooms at capacity every night as it hosted celebrities visiting from Hollywood and the like, but then it lost its gambling license, and now the place is on the skids.

Enter our small group of players for the night. Vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), whose voice and suit are loud and obnoxious, arrives early, followed by kindly, gentle old Catholic priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges)—who is told by the hotel’s lone employee, timid desk clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman from Battle of the Sexes), that this hotel is no place for a priest. Also checking in are second-string Motown singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, Tony- and Grammy-award winner for The Color Purple, in her first film role) and non-communicative, foul-mouthed, sarcastic hippie-chick Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades fame). Turns out nobody checking in to this hotel is quite who they appear to be, a fact that becomes painfully obvious as Goddard takes us, one room at a time, into each character’s backstory.

It’s Sullivan (Hamm) whose story we see first, and we learn that whatever he is, it’s not a vacuum-cleaner salesman. He’s at the hotel to deal with some sort of secret surveillance, and he finds to his surprise and dismay that, like its guests, the hotel itself is not what it appears to be: In fact, there is a hidden hallway that runs between all the rooms, each of which is supplied with a two-way mirror through which occupants of the rooms can be observed from that hallway. And here is where the meta-voyeuristic aspect of this meta-movie gets serious. Like Sullivan, and anybody else (i.e. our desk clerk friend Milo) moving through this hallway, we see inside everybody’s private rooms and into their private lives.

I do have to say that this early scene in which Hamm discovers the surveillance setup of the hotel goes on so long and monotonously that I actually fell asleep. Surely with the film’s 144 -minute running time, this scene in particular could have been accomplished in half the time, and still seem too long. To tell the truth, several of the scenes could have used some editing. Pace is not the film’s strong suit.

One thing that Sullivan (along with us) sees through the two-way mirror is an apparent kidnapping in progress: Hippie-chick Emily secretly carries an unknown and unconscious girl into her room and ties her to a chair. This poor kidnapped soul turns out to be Rose (Cailee Spaeny of Pacific Rim: Uprising), and we soon find out that, again, all is not as it seems. The same turns out to be true, essentially, of every character in the hotel, including Miles the night clerk, who is soon pleading with the priest for absolution for the many terrible things he claims to have done. It also becomes clear that one of the guests, anyway, is there precisely because of that pile of money hidden under the floorboards in that opening scene ten years earlier. We just don’t know (because the character doesn’t know) which room it’s in.

Of course, just when you think you’ve got things figured out and you know where this whole thing is going, Goddard brings on the ultimate threat in the third act: Chris Hemsworth (yes, I mean Thor) appears, playing a charismatic cult-leader, effectively a Charles Manson clone (it is, after all, 1969), looking for his own runaway Squeaky Fromme (ask your parents if you don’t follow), who has called him from the hotel. What with the false prophet and the false priest, there’s something being suggested here about the spiritual Waste Land of late 20th century America, but it never seems to go beyond being just a suggestion.

The Manson-esque Billy Lee has got his own gun-slinging stooges with him, and is here to foment some mayhem and to cash in on whatever he can. And everybody at the hotel is stuck there as prisoners because, for his own purposes, Sullivan has earlier disabled everybody’s vehicle in the parking lot.

You may think there’s no way out of this for anybody, but you might be wrong. I will tell you that people die, with shocking suddenness and severity, a la Tarantino. The film really is a kind of triumph of style and of surprising plot twists, as well as of production design: Martin Whist’s recreation of the mid-century hotel is quite impressive. The music in the film is also memorable, not only the ’60s soundtrack but Erivo’s own stirring a capella renditions of Motown classics.

And Erivo turns in an admirable screen debut. She is in many ways the moral center of the film, if it can be said to have one, and the character with whom the audience relates most closely. She’s the one you end up caring most what happens to. Bridges is, of course, brilliant as always, particularly in his frustration with the early onset dementia his character must deal with in the film. Hemsworth’s godlike charm that serves him so well in Asgard is eerily frightening when attached to the all-too-human cult leader Billy Lee. The performances in the film are certainly worth seeing. I’m going to give it three Tennysons: You’ll feel how long the film is, and you may not experience any spiritual regeneration, but you’ll probably have a good deal of fun here too.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. 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

firstman

First Man

First Man

Damien Chazelle (2018)

So the last time that director Damien Chazelle and lead actor Ryan Gosling got together they gave us La La Land, an interesting and imaginative new take on the Hollywood musical that was entertaining though hardly deserving of all the critical hype it engendered. Their newest effort, the story of Neil Armstrong, first man to set foot on the moon, is a horse of a different color. On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film gets an 88 percent approval rating from critics, but only a 62 percent rating from audience members. I’m always interested in such discrepancies, but it isn’t difficult to guess the source of the negative audience reactions.

When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, it was first reported that the iconic image of Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s planting the American flag on the lunar surface was not recreated in the film, and this immediately set off a political controversy that had certain elements of the moviegoing public up in arms. Thus a good number of the negative reviews by “audience members” were posted by people who had not seen the film and were boycotting it and deeming it anti-American because it failed to include the scene. The fact that Gosling is a Canadian was even given as a reason for the scene’s omission, although of course he was not the director, writer or editor of the film. Buzz Aldrin himself expressed his displeasure with the omission, and Armstrong’s family, who actually had seen the film, was unhappy about it, though they did release a statement saying “We do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest. Quite the opposite.”

The family is, of course, correct. And the flag is clearly seen in several shots of the lunar surface. It’s just the actual planting of it that is not there. And most people actually watching the entire film will understand that the film’s focus on Armstrong’s inner emotional turmoil in those moments would have made that scene aesthetically a distraction at the time.

But there are also knocks on the film from the other direction. The New Yorker review said the film was “worthy of enduring as a right-wing fetish object.” From beginning to end there is no doubt that the United States is in a space race with the Soviet Union, and that the USSR is leading the race for the majority of the ’60s. The sole purpose of NASA is to beat the Soviets to the moon, thereby demonstrating the superior will, ingenuity, political system and moral fiber of Americans. After one American success, an astronaut at mission control shouts out “Call the Soviets—tell them to go fuck themselves!” That flag flies on the moon in the end, and as the news of the moon landing is trumpeted around the world, a French woman in a TV interview proclaims that she never doubted the Americans’ success: “I knew they wouldn’t fail.” Thus some moviegoers, particularly foreign ones, have viewed the film as a Trumpesque “America first” propaganda vehicle.

But it is hardly that. If it were, Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy of television’s The Crown) would probably not have a scene in which she scolds NASA personnel, telling them that they don’t know what they are doing, and that they are nothing but boys playing with balsa wood. And the movie would, like Armstrong himself, completely ignore the changes in society that are taking place in the 1960s—advocates for civil rights and protestors against the Vietnam War, who tend to see the billions of tax dollars spent on the space race as money that could be better spent elsewhere are portrayed in news clips in the film, but essentially ignored by the astronauts. When Armstrong is asked in a news conference why the space program is worth the money, he doesn’t mention the myriad technological advances that it ultimately inspired; rather his answer is detached and cerebral, satisfying to his own mind but probably not to those protestors that nobody in NASA is listening to outside the door. Chazelle does not seem to have any particular axe to grind here—he does not present the protestors as naïve or insincere—he simply seems to be presenting the divided aspects of American life in 1969.

But there is a third and more legitimate complaint that appears in several of the negative audience reviews for the film, and that is that Armstrong himself is not a sympathetic hero, because Gosling portrays him as impenetrably detached, so emotionally enigmatic that viewers found him difficult or impossible to relate to. And there is certainly something to this complaint.

One wonders why it took nearly 50 years for Hollywood to make a film about what many people have regarded as the single most impressive accomplishment of human endeavor and ingenuity. Of course, unlike some of humankind’s other achievements—exciting discoveries, scientific achievements, physical or artistic accomplishments—which were the achievements of a single person, the moon landing was the culmination of well over a decade of concerted effort by a large team of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, pilots, and others. You need drama for a film, and a single hero gives you that kind of drama. And the single hero here had to be the one man who finally first stepped on the moon. And that man was an extremely private, extremely reserved individual who is extremely difficult to dramatize.

It is 13 years since the publication of James R. Hansen’s authorized biography of Armstrong, and it is six years since Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82. And finally, with a script by Josh Singer (who wrote Spotlight and The Post) that turns Armstrong’s stoicism into a major plot point, the film was made. As his story develops, Armstrong’s cool unflappability serves him well from the beginning of the film, when he is shown dealing with a crisis while piloting an X-15 to extreme heights, bouncing off the atmosphere, and nearly crashing with the plane, through his flight on Gemini 8 when his craft goes into a deathly spin after a docking maneuver in space, to his ability to pilot the Eagle lunar landing vehicle through a scary ride to the lunar surface. His unemotional response when he is informed by flight crew director Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler of Manchester by the Sea) that he’s been tapped to pilot the moon landing mission is almost comic.

But while his detached demeanor proves an advantage in his professional career, the film depicts Armstrong’s lack of emotion as a truly significant barrier in the most important relationships of his life. Early in the film, his 2-year-old daughter Karen dies of a brain tumor. It is a devastating loss but one that Armstrong is unable to grieve in any healthy way. It’s one of many things he keeps walled up inside, and one of his wife Jan’s great frustrations is his inability to communicate about this loss. Later in the film, when astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham of American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook)—NASA’s favored candidate for the first moon landing)—and Armstrong’s close friend Ed White (Jason Clarke of Chappaquiddick) are burned to death in the infamous launch-pad fire on the first Apollo mission, Armstrong is equally incapable of showing his feelings. This area of Armstrong’s life culminates the day before the moon launch, when, in the most dramatic scene of the film, Jan confronts him and forces him to talk with his two sons about the very real possibility that he will not return from this mission. There is a kind of resolution to this in Armstrong’s own mind in a private scene on the moon, which I will not go into here because of enormous spoiler difficulties, but it is a scene that Singer seems to have imagined for the script, rather than one that anyone but Armstrong himself could have actually known about.

Gosling’s challenge is to create a character out of the stoic responses of the First Man. Chazelle chooses to use extreme closeups on him through most of the film, creating the feeling that we are trying to peer into his soul, to pierce through that wall that he keeps perennially raised. But the man is still a mystery by the end of the film, and that is what some viewers seem to have reacted to. He is surrounded by characters with more life and verve who can never quite bring Armstrong out of his invisible fortress. Foy as Mrs. Armstrong is relatable and often frustrated, and Clarke as White is a more human foil to Gosling. Most memorable is probably Corey Stoll (from TV’’s House of Cards) as Aldrin, who is brash, outspoken and arrogant, with a tendency to say the wrong thing and hence for clashing with Armstrong—it’s a dynamic that much more could have been done with before the two of them are cramped together in that lunar module.

But the film’s most impressive aspect is Chazelle’s recreation of what it is like to be in a space capsule, riding a Saturn rocket off a launch pad, tumbling uncontrollably through space, or dying on a fiery launchpad. The shaky camera and extreme closeups contribute to this feeling. Nor is the awed, silent walk on the moon’s surface a feeling that you will soon forget.

The movie is well-made and memorable, though somewhat overlong and difficult to relate to on a personal or emotional level. I’m saying three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. 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

asib-1280-1536608446625_400w

A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born

Bradley Cooper (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Why, I ask myself, has this well-worn story of an up-and-coming star married to a crashing-and-burning one been so popular (for more than eighty years) that Hollywood has turned it into a popular movie on four separate occasions—and nobody’s complaining? I suppose the simplest answer is that it’s what my Mom would have called a “tearjerker.” Yes, it’s a story designed to play on your heartstrings, and in that way it’s melodramatic, and in this cynical day and age nobody wants to be accused of that, but the fact is, people have emotions and sometimes honest emotion appeals to them.

The other reason the story has been around so long is that each time it is remade, it’s remade in a way that updates it and makes it “relevant” to the decade it’s speaking to. The original film, made in 1937, starred Frederic March (a native of my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin) in the role of Norman Maine, a famous film actor at the height of his popularity but who has a bit of a drinking problem, and Janet Gaynor in the role of Esther Victoria Blodgett, a girl from North Dakota who comes to California (like many young women during the Great Depression) with the naïve hope of getting into films. With Maine’s help, she gets her chance, changes her name to Vicki Lester, and ultimately eclipses her husband and benefactor, whose alcoholism torpedoes his career. Vicki Lester wins an Academy Award in the film, and Norman Maine drowns himself in the end—in the ocean, not the bottle. March had won an Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1932, and Gaynor had won the very first Oscar for Best Actress for 1927/28, so there were some heavy hitters involved in the making of the movie. Director William Wellman won the Oscar for best screenplay, and Gaynor and March were both nominated for their roles.

In 1954, Warner Brothers released the musical remake of A Star Is Born as their first film in CinemaScope. George Cukor had been tagged to direct the film by Sid Luft, who was trying to put together a deal for his wife Judy Garland to make the film as her comeback role. Cukor was hesitant, knowing Garland’s reputation for instability on the set, but agreed because he wanted to work with Moss Hart, who was revising the screenplay. They wanted Cary Grant for the part of Norman Maine, but Grant turned them down, Humphrey Bogart and then Frank Sinatra were considered, then Stewart Granger seemed to be the choice, but finally the role fell to James Mason, who was then just reaching the height of his career, having starred as Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox and as Brutus in Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando. Ironically, Garland’s substance abuse issues plagued the film, but it was Mason whose alcoholic character kills himself at the end, when he overhears his Vicki Lester telling her manager she is giving up her career to take care of her drunken husband. The film was a marathon three hours long, and was nominated for six academy awards, including best actor and actress, but won none as Brando’s On the Waterfront swept the awards, and Grace Kelly surprised everyone by beating Garland, the favorite, for the best actress Oscar.

The third iteration of the story appeared in 1976, and was something of a vanity project for Barbra Streisand, who wanted to make the film as a kind of comeback of her own. After starring in a series of lightweight comedies following her Oscar for Funny Girl, she wanted to remake A Star is Born and play the serious role as the Judy Garland-Janet Gaynor character. But she wanted to reimagine the movie as a statement about the rock music industry rather than Hollywood, and had the initial idea of casting Elvis Presley in the Norman Maine part. Elvis apparently was interested—he, too, could have used a comeback film role—but he wanted too much money and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, didn’t like the idea of Elvis playing a character who was on his way down in the music industry. Streisand’s old school chum Neil Diamond (who went on himself to remake The Jazz Singer) was also a possibility, but he couldn’t fit it in, so Kris Kristofferson took the role. Kristofferson begins the film as a self-destructive rock star named John Norman Howard (the “Norman” in homage to the original character) drunkenly stumbling through a concert, who meets Esther (Streisand) singing at a bar later and ultimately gets her to sing onstage with him, launching her own career, which skyrockets as his goes south. There is an embarrassing scene at the Grammys, when Esther wins the Grammy and John makes a drunken spectacle of himself. But in this mildly feminist version Streisand is a more independent Esther, not quite so much of the sacrificing little woman who in the previous films declares in the end “This is Mrs. Norman Maine!” Also in this version of the story, Howard does not kill himself deliberately but rather dies in a car accident. But the film ends with Esther singing one of John’s new songs at a concert.

All of this Chaucer would call a long preamble of a tale. But it’s hard for me to say anything about this remounting of the old war horse without seeing it in context. Bradley Cooper, who has made this project his personal Citizen Kane by directing, co-writing, and starring in the current remake, has taken bits from each of his predecessors in his remaking of the story in his own image. Like the Streisand musical he’s made the male character (now renamed Maine as in the first two films but Jackson Maine to make him more contemporary) a self-destructive country-rock star, who also meets the female character singing in a bar (now Ally, no Esther or Vicki here), and has cast in that role the contemporary equivalent of a Barbra Streisand or a Judy Garland: the remarkable Lady Gaga. The fact that she is singing in a gay bar on a program with drag performers is one nod to the contemporary concerns of the current film.

While other details of the new film recall the Streisand-Kristofferson version, including Jackson’s bringing Ally onstage to sing during his concert and the revisiting of the Grammys debacle, in other ways the current version skips back to return to the spirit of the older films. There are two significant differences that make this version of the story more palatable for 2018: One of these is the depiction of Jackson and his addictions. There is a much more sophisticated understanding of alcoholism and drug addiction that comes through in this film, with Jackson’s demons more clearly motivated, laid out and portrayed. He is probably a more sympathetic Maine than we have seen before, because we understand him better and because his motivations are more complex. He does not sink lower into his darkness simply because of depression over his diminishing career and envy of his wife’s successes. He has earlier griefs involving his father and his much older brother Bobby, played by the remarkable Sam Elliott, and he also has legitimate professional reasons to dislike the slick pop version of Ally that her manager Rez (Rafi Gavron of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) creates, which he thinks betrays her sincere originality. And aside from all of that, this Maine checks himself into rehab and really tries to overcome his addictions.

The other major difference is Ally’s independence. As Gaga portrays the character, Ally doesn’t coddle Jackson’s bad habits. She’s never going to climb on the back of his motorcycle when he’s been drinking, she tells him almost immediately. She does stay with him, but she doesn’t condone or overlook his behavior. She also finds her success largely independent of him, though Rez does first see her perform at one of Jackson’s concerts. But she does one thing that Streisand didn’t do: She celebrates her marriage as well as her independence when she identifies herself as  “Ally Maine” as she sings Jackson’s song at the end.

Gaga has surprised some people with her performance in the film, which is convincing, bold, and sympathetic. But surely we should have expected this: She has always played a character as “Lady Gaga,” someone quite different from  Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a name she originally said she would use in the movie’s credits (but that didn’t happen). She is scarcely recognizable in the early scenes, without the usual trappings of her stage persona, though she becomes much more Gaga-like by the end.

Cooper’s performance is less surprising. As a three-time Oscar nominee, he could be expected to give the kind of performance he does here—charming, self-destructive, sympathetic, enraging and engaging. Nor will it be surprising if, as in 1937 and in 1954, the 2018 version of A Star Is Born nets Oscar nominations for both its principals. Maybe one will win this time.

Bradley Cooper’s direction is more surprising. For a first time director, he seems to have a sure hand as the story progresses. He doesn’t milk the concert scenes but keeps the story moving forward with confidence, and shoots a lot of that raw emotion this tearjerker story engenders in unforgiving close-ups of himself and his unmade-up co-star. And aside from all that, he even cast his own dog in the film.

Like many Hollywood projects, including its predecessors, this one had a convoluted journey getting to this point. Plans were made originally in 2011 for Clint Eastwood to direct a new Staris Bornstarring Beyonce. Possible male stars considered were Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, and Will Smith. Obviously, none of that panned out. Cooper signed on and also got the director’s chair in 2016, when Beyonce finally backed out, to be replaced by Gaga later in 2016. It certainly would have been an interesting film with Beyonce and Tom Cruise, directed by Eastwood. But it’s hard to imagine it would have been better. This version of the film is worthy of its long history. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

COMING REALLY SOON!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder 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.

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

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

the-wife-2018-glenn-close2-770x470

The Wife

The Wife

Björn Runge (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Swedish director Björn Runge’s current film The Wife was adapted from a novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, but as you watch the movie you’ll be surprised it wasn’t adapted from a play. It has all the earmarks of such an adaptation, relying pretty exclusively on dialogue rather than action or scenery or special effects to push the story along. Jane Anderson, who wrote the screenplay, is also a playwright, which may explain the format.

This may be one reason why the book, released in 2003, has taken fifteen years to get to the screen, though Anderson composed the screenplay shortly after the novel’s publication. But a more likely reason for the delay is that the protagonist of the story is a woman in her mid-sixties. And not one that even sings any Abba songs or boasts any superpowers. Even after Glenn Close agreed to do the part, and after Anderson received an Emmy for writing the acclaimed television production of Olive Kittredge, there was trouble getting financial backing for the film. And it certainly has not been a huge box office draw: Though released on August 17 to enthusiastic critical responses, it has come to only one screen in central Arkansas, and that is Riverdale.

But perhaps that delay has been fortuitous, because the film, a close and powerful study of the frustrating (and enraging) suppression of one woman’s great talent in favor of a man’s ego in a patriarchal profession, appears now in the midst of a national upheaval as women across the United States have been coming forward to break the seal of silence that has bolstered an oppressive patriarchy in many areas of American life, including, quite famously, the film industry which for years had blocked the production of this very film.

The film opens with a phone call that awakens a later middle-aged couple, bringing them news that the husband, novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), has just won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. Joe’s wife Joan (Glenn Close) celebrates with him, jumping up and down on the conjugal bed while Joe chants, “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!”

This is pretty much the high point of the couple’s relationship in the film. We begin to see a few cracks in the family unit even before Joe and Joan jet off to Stockholm. First there is their son, David (Max Irons of TV’s The White Queen), himself a budding writer, who craves his father’s approval and pleads with Joe to give him feedback on a short story he’s given his father to read. Joan is quick to tell David that she thought the story was beautiful, but Joe just doesn’t have time to give his son any feedback—he’s too busy and important—and David doesn’t seem to put much store in his Mom’s opinion.

Joe’s character as a vain, privileged, egotist is augmented on the Concorde flight to Stockholm, on which another writer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who is angling to get a chance to write Joe Castleman’s biography, approaches the couple to congratulate Joe on his award. Joe rudely dismisses him, though Joan is more polite and warns Joe after Nathaniel has left that “There’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt.” The truth of this is borne out as the movie progresses.

At this point, we get the first of many flashbacks, as the film takes us back to 1958, when Joan is a student at Smith and Joe is her creative writing professor. He recognizes her as a talented young writer and encourages her, while she is attracted to the married Joe and looks to him as the Great Man at whose feet she has come to learn. The young privileged WASP Joan, played with uncanny aptness by Close’s real-life daughter Anne Starke (We Don’t Belong Here), ultimately marries her Brooklyn-born Jewish professor (the young Joe played by Harry Lloyd from TheTheory of Everything) after he splits with his wife. The relationship the two keep up over the thirty-odd years between the flashback and the present is established in these scenes: He is still the somewhat narcissistic Author, she the little woman who takes care of him behind the scenes and makes sure he gets where he needs to be on time and dressed in the right clothes.

But these flashbacks show us something else as well: They show us Elizabeth McGovern in a memorable cameo as a successful novelist telling Joan not to try to become a writer because everything in the publishing business is geared to ignoring the female voice. “But a writer has to write,” Joan says, echoing the words of her professor-idol Joe. “A writer has to be read,” McGovern’s character responds, effectively clipping Joan’s wings. These scenes also show us how Joan, working at a publishing house after graduation and listening to the editors (all middle-aged white men) dismiss a talented woman writer (because, well, who besides other women would want to read her?) and lament the fact that “everybody else has got a Jewish writer, where can we find a Jew?” Joan, of course, has one at home, and it is here we learn that it is only through her efforts that Joe’s first book was published.

Back in the present, in the film’s pivotal scene, Joan has a drink with Nathaniel one afternoon in Stockholm before the award ceremony. Bone reveals that in fact he already is under contract to write an unauthorized biography of Joe Castleman, and one that promises to paint a portrait of him warts and all, including his many extramarital affairs. He is pumping Joan to see what he can get out of her to use in the book, but his attitude toward her is complex: He clearly admires her and wants to know what makes her tick. More significantly, he hints at an even greater scandal that would reveal a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of Joe’s work. Joan shows no cracks in her mask of “faithful wife,” and leaves Nathaniel somewhat frustrated. But she does ask him one thing: “Please don’t paint me as a victim,” she says. “I am much more interesting than that.”

And she is, too. When she returns to her hotel and witnesses his near seduction of the young photographer charged by his publisher with documenting his Nobel experience on film—and using some of the same tricks he used on her back at Smith—it is clear that there’s going to be an explosion at some point. But to say anything more than that is spoiler territory.

Because this film depends so much on the actors, it is their performances that make or break it. Pryce is always reliable, and manages to make the husband a believable balance of ego and insecurity, so that we pity him somewhat rather than hate him completely. Slater plays the smarmy journalist like the serpent in the Garden he has depicted so convincingly as far back as Heathers. As David, Irons is sympathetic but one-dimensional because he doesn’t have a lot to do.

But this is Glenn Close’s film from beginning to end. In the book, the title character is the narrator, so the reader gets a constant commentary from her point of view as events unfold, and knows her emotions and ultimately becomes aware of how deep those feelings are and why she has them. The genre of film does not allow for that, though the filmmakers might have opted to approximate that sense by a voiceover, but that would have been awkward and, in the end, most likely ineffective. Instead, Runge and cinematographer Ulf Brantas have chosen to shoot the film largely through close-ups, especially of Close (I guess that would make them “Close-ups”), so that every twitch, every eye-widening or lip-pursing or eyebrow-lifting registers as a strong emotion. Though Joan is, on the surface, the dutiful wife, we know from the very beginning that something is going on beneath the placid, repressed surface of her controlled face—something that by the end manifests itself as long-suppressed rage, and for good reason.

There is already talk of an Oscar-nomination for Close, who has been nominated six times before and never took home the statue. This very well could be her best work on the big screen, and an Academy Award would be well deserved. This is a film that sinks or swims based on its performances, and this one is a gem. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this film.

COMING SOON!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder 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.

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

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

White-Boy-Rick-Movie-Review-Matthew-Mcconaughey

White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick

Yann Demange (2018)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Rick Wershe, Jr., the protagonist of the new film White Boy Rick, was a Detroit drug dealer and FBI informant who as a minor (aged 17) was sent to prison on a life sentence for the possession of eight kilograms of cocaine. The sentencing took place in 1988 under a controversial Michigan law, and as of 2018 Wershe is the longest-serving nonviolent offender in Michigan prisons. This film, directed by Yann Demange (known previously mainly as a television director on such programs as Dead Set and Criminal Justice), seems intent on making us feel some sympathy for the boy. Unfortunately, it fails to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: The way that crooked police officers and crooked FBI agents and crooked politicians and even more crooked skilled and hardened criminals than Rick get away scot free or get lighter sentences than he does is certainly enough to make you angry. For that matter the absurdity of Michigan’s “650-lifer law” is quite clear by the end of the film: This is a law dating from 1978 that requires a life sentence without the possibility of parole for anyone found guilty of the possession, sale, or manufacture of at least 650 grams of cocaine or other specified opiate. The law, later imitated in New York State’s Rockefeller laws, was the product of America’s obsession with drug crimes, to the point of ignoring, the film suggests, far worse.

One of the reasons the film doesn’t quite hit its target is the script. Andy Weiss (TV’s Scrappers), Logan Miller and Noah Miller (both of Sweetwater) weave together a tapestry of poverty and drudgery of the Detroit underworld of the mid-1980s that feels not unlike the world of The Wire, but with much dumber people. Rick Jr. and his family seem to be going nowhere, and so does the script. For the sake of realism, it seems to wander about, with a number of small subplots that really don’t end up going anywhere, and a protagonist whose relationships are not really explained. He apparently feels strong friendship with “Boo” (RJ Cyler of TV’s Vice Principals), one of the gang that he ends up working with, but I have no idea why, since I was never shown any scene that made me think they were bonding. He has a brief relationship with a girl he knows from school named Brenda Moore (Kyanna Simone Simpson of TV’s Black Lightning), but since we see very little of it it’s hard to tell how he feels about her. Rick also seems particularly close to his sister Dawn (Bel Powley of Diary of a Teenage Girl) but it’s hard to see why since we seldom see her as anything but high or complaining (not unreasonably) about what a lousy father they have. As for newcomer Richie Merritt, who plays Rick Jr., yes, he kind of looks the part of a very average lower-class teenage delinquent, and maybe it would have been a mistake to put some pretty-boy Hollywood type in the part, but Merritt has little charisma and his lack of acting experience is evident at times. Much of the time he is expressionless and the rest of the time he acts like a white kid trying to act like a black kid, but there’s not a deep reservoir of character here that we can relate to in order to sympathize with.

But the chief reason we lack sympathy for Rick even after his excessive sentence is that he never once betrays any regret for his crimes or any remorse for harm that his crimes may have caused. At one point, when he sees a television report that a young boy in his neighborhood has been killed by a gun that he almost certainly sold to the killers, he nearly blinks. But that is it. He never makes any connection between his profession as a drug dealer and his sister’s nearly fatal drug habit. And when he is arrested and brought up on drug charges, he accepts no culpability or responsibility for any of his actions. Everything is somebody else’s fault.

The plot begins in 1984 focused on Rick’s father, Rick Sr. (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey), a licensed firearms dealer who scrapes a living together by manufacturing his own illegal silencers for the AK 47s he sells to drug dealers in a Detroit that looks like a bombed-out Beirut (the movie was shot in Cleveland). Rick Jr. has left high school and works as a kind of errand boy for his dad, which brings him into contact with local drug lord Johnny “Lil Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors of TV’s When We Rise). When a pair of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) threaten to run Rick Sr. in for those illegal silencers, Rick Jr. ends up working for them, and for the Detroit police department in the person of detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry of TV’s Atlanta). As part of his cover, Rick begins to sell cocaine himself, at the behest of his handlers, the drug supplied by the Detroit police.

Things go terribly wrong for Rick when, after he has contributed to the arrests of the gang members he had partied with (and is shocked, shocked that the FBI has arrested Boo, whom he says “didn’t do nothing!”), he convinces his father that the family would be a lot better off if he continued to sell drugs, since they can’t seem to get out of the poverty pit through Rick Sr.’s gun dealing. What could possibly go wrong? The FBI couldn’t possibly arrest him, could they?

I have to say that Matthew McConaughey almost saves this movie. His portrayal of Rick Sr., with a greasy mullet and an optimism that his family is going to be all right and that someday he’s going to put aside enough money to open a video store, and then the money would come rolling in, is as pathetically believable as it is intense. It’s even darkly humorous at times, such as when he is debating with his son about how bad drugs are while justifying his own illegal gun dealing because hey, it’s protected by the Constitution! Rick Sr. is also the only person in this film who even suggests the possibility that a person might have an actual job—i.e., owner of a video store—by which he might make a living.

Although many of the other characters don’t rise above one-dimensionality, a few of the other actors on the screen do turn in creditable performances. Leigh, Cochrane, and Tyree are worth watching as the unscrupulous, mendacious, and occasionally incompetent law enforcement agents. Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie appear unexpectedly as the grandparents of White Boy Rick, who live next door to Rick Sr. and his family (we’re never quite sure what happened to Mom). Dern and Laurie are a bit of a distraction, fun to watch but completely tangential to the plot. They seem to be here merely to provide the gravitas of their distinguished careers to the comic “old codger” roles. They have almost nothing to do and add nothing to the story. Perhaps the idea is to show that this family’s inability to rise above their poverty is a generational problem. Or that Rick Jr. really has no healthy adult role models. If that’s the intent, I’m not sure it works. Ultimately, what we feel at the end of the film is a kind of raw anger at the injustice—or perhaps we should say the absurd imbalance of justice, caused largely by a stupid law (the “650-lifer” law) that allows the bigger criminals to go free and punishes the smaller criminals. But in the end, they are still criminals. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

COMING SOON!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder 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.

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

Pre-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.