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!

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Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh (2017)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Wonder

Wonder

Stephen Chbosky (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Justice League

Justice League

Zack Snyder (2017)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok

Taiki Waititi (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Thank You For Your Service

Thank You For Your Service

Jason Hall (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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.