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

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Reviews

I go to a lot of movies. I also read a lot of books. So I figure, why not talk about them here? Which I do. A lot.

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Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

In his much anticipated follow-up to his Pulitzer-Prize winning Underground Railroad, Whitehead tells the story of life in a Florida reform “school” for boys, returning to the genre of historical fiction, but without the fantastical elements present in Underground Railroad. Nickel Boys is a relatively short book—a quick read but far from a pleasant one.

The Nickel Boys is a fictionalized version of the story of Florida’s infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, in reality more of a penal institution than a school, which had opened in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna in 1900and remained open until 2011. Run as a reform school by Florida’s state government, The Dozier school had for years been the subject of allegations that boys sent to the academy were systematically subjected to molestation, beatings, torture and even murder by employees and by guards with the knowledge of—and even under the direct supervision of—the “school’s” administrators. When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement finally began an investigation into these allegations in 2010, it was clear that the charges were true, and the U.S. Department of Justice initiated additional investigations in 2011. The University of South Florida began forensic studies of bodies found in scores of burial sites on the campus, revealing the broken bodies of boys who had been beaten to death. The university has determined that at least 81 boys died at the site.

For purposes of his novel, Whitehead has renamed the Dozier School the “Nickel Academy,” though he has kept its location in the Florida panhandle. His protagonist is a fictional boy named Elwood Curtis, an African-American teenager sent to the segregated school in 1964. Elwood is not a typical resident. Most of his fellow inmates, or I suppose I should say “students,” have been sent here for some petty crime or other, or because they’ve been deemed “incorrigible,” or they are indigent and have nowhere else to go, like orphans or wards of the state. Elwood is a model student, who is inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King that he listens to repeatedly from a record his grandmother gave him, and whom his fellow students regard as a “goody-goody.” He lives with his grandmother, has always sought to be a “good citizen,” has a steady and responsible job, makes excellent grades in school so that his inspiring history teacher, Mr. Hill (a civil rights activist who recognizes Elwood’s standout mind and character) has recommended that he take college classes during his senior year of high school. When Elwood is walking to college one morning, excited for his first class in English literature, he accepts a ride from a black man in a Plymouth. But they are pulled over by the police, who arrest them for grand theft auto. Neither the fact that he was only a passenger nor his previous record prevents the judge from sentencing him to time at the Nickel Academy.

Elwood sees the world as a meritocracy, in which people get what they earn and what they deserve, and so has always striven to do what is necessary to earn and merit life’s rewards. And that belief, along with Dr. King’s ringing rhetoric that he is as good as anyone else and that he lives in a just universe, governs, as well, his life at Nickel, at least at first. “He just had to keep doing what he’d always done: act right,” Elwood believes.

Those ideas are put to the test and found severely wanting in the meat grinder that is Nickel Academy. The system of merits and demerits by which Elwood believes he can work his way out of the school turns out to be a sham rendered subjectively and capriciously by the school’s house wardens. But more importantly, when Elwood instinctively tries to step in to prevent a group of bullies from beating up a young boy, he is taken from his bed in the middle of the night into what is essentially the school’s torture chamber, what the boys refer to as the White House, and is beaten into unconsciousness by the brutal superintendent Maynard Spencer. The beating lands Elwood in the infirmary for weeks, and tears his legs up in such a way that they will never heal. The beating not only harms him physically, but psychologically as well: Whitehead asserts it “had scarred him all over, not just his legs….It had weeviled deep into his personality.”

One close friend Elwood makes at the academy is a boy named Turner, who is far more skeptical about the system, and the world itself, than Elwood. Turner knows that in order to survive the brutalities of Nickel, one needs to keep one’s head down and “go along to get along.” Turner has figured out how to work the system, and survives by understanding what the white people in charge want. He is able to get Elwood an assignment with him to regularly leave the school along with a white guard for “social service” duties: These involve delivering groceries intended for the boys to local stores where shopkeepers will sell them for large profits, and doing chores like painting an old white woman’s gazebo free of charge. Thus the entire establishment profits off of the school, while the boys in the school are exploited and served barely edible food, and nobody wants to ask any questions about the school because it’s in everyone’s interest—or at least everyone’s who matters—to leave it alone.

As Elwood becomes more and more like Turner, he chides himself, lying awake at night and thinking that “In keeping his head down, … he fooled himself that he had prevailed. … In fact he had been ruined. He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.” And accordingly he comes up with a plan to try to obtain justice one more time. Revealing what that is would be spoiler territory I won’t enter.

The last section of the book alternates between scenes from Nickel Academy in 1964 and later scenes from New York City ranging in time from 1968 to 2012. Among other things, we learn how impossible it is to transcend traumatic memories at Nickel, and how those experiences affected the boys’ subsequent lives. The Nickel boys, Whitehead writes, “could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, … [S]ure not all of them were geniuses … but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.” The book ends with a jarring twist that that makes the book even more excruciating than it had seemed.

In an NPR interview, Whitehead said when he first read of the Dozier school in 2014, “It dawned on me, if there’s one place like this, there’s dozens and dozens. And where are those places? And what happens to the kids afterward? And immediately, I felt like I wanted to write about it.” Indeed, there were such schools all over the South, and in his acknowledgements he includes books about institutions in Arkansas as well as other states. This is a historical novel with a good deal of contemporary relevance. Whitehead had wanted to begin another book, but felt compelled, after the Trump election encouraged the resurgence of America’s racist underbelly, to deal with this story: The “concentration camps on the border,” according to NPR, led Whitehead to conclude about the Dozier story, “This speaks to a larger culture of impunity.”

The Nickel Boys won 2019’s Kirkus Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And, deservedly, it was named one of Time magazine’s “Ten Best Books of the Decade.” Four Shakespeares for this must-read novel.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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Rabbit is Rich

Rabbit Is Rich

John Updike (1981)

RabbitRun, John Updike’s classic 1960 novel introducing the antiheroic everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom into American literature, was listed on Timemagazine’s famous 2010 list of the “100 greatest English-language novels published since 1923” (the year Timewas born) I’d never read the novel, and resolved last year to correct that oversight, and so read it and its sequel, Rabbit Redux, set, and published, ten years later. Now, having lost myself completely down the rabbit hole, I’ve completed the third novel in Updike’s tetralogy, Rabbit is Rich. This is a book that won Updike his first Pulitzer Prize in 1982, as well as the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. That is a significant achievement, and one cannot help approaching the novel with some trepidation, wondering if it can possibly live up to its reputation.

You have to remember, coming to this book after meeting the Rabbit of 1960 and the Rabbit of 1970 (which you really need to do before tackling this book), that Harry Angstrom is just not that likeable a guy, and you’re not really likely to find the Rabbit of 1980 any more palatable. After all, the name “Angstrom” fits him pretty well: That mind of his quivers with angst like a rabbit’s nose. And here more than in the previous books it is hard to ignore the similarity of the name “Rabbit” to Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbit”—a character whose name has entered the English language to mean “a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.”

In Updike’s first two Rabbit books. Harry chafed—with much angst—against the conventions of the middle-class society to which he aspired, leaving his wife and son out of the blue and ultimately taking up with another woman, Ruth, living with her in defiance of popular opinion, before returning to Janice, his wife. In Rabbit Redux, Janice has left him ten years later to live with Charlie, a salesman at her father’s car dealership, and Harry takes in a wayward young girl and a prickly black revolutionary named Skeeter, who educates him in black history—a living arrangement much to the chagrin of his white neighbors, who ultimately burn down his house, killing the girl and driving Skeeter into hiding. But by this third book, Rabbit, now back and solidly married to Janice, is living in her parents’ house after the death of Janice’s father, and is now running her dad’s old Toyota dealership. It’s 1979, and the fuel crisis is driving gas prices through the roof and prompting people to buy small foreign cars with excellent gas mileage—so the Toyota dealership is cleaning up, and Rabbit is rich.

Now in his paunchy mid-forties, Rabbit has settled down in his fictional down at-the-heel hometown of Brewer, Pennsylvania, into a comfortable upper-middle-class Babbit-like existence: He and Janice, now married 22 years, belong to the country club and spend most of their free time there, mainly drinking with three other couples, investing in gold and silver in the face of economic uncertainty, finally buying a house to replace the one that burned down in the previous book and worrying about their son Nelson, who’s grown into a feckless kid who’s dropped out of college at Kent State after having impregnated a girl who really doesn’t seem all that into him. The fact that Rabbit’s new house and lifestyle would have embarrassed his own working-class parents seems to be fine with him, though the fact that Nelson is looking at a shotgun wedding disturbs him since it is too much like a replay of Rabbit’s own past trials. And then there’s Janice’s drinking: This seems to be a perpetual problem, and in fact caused the death of their infant daughter in the first novel when Janice drowned her in the bathtub. Interestingly, Rabbit is the one everyone blames for that. Harry’s libido is another perpetual problem, or character trait as I suppose he would call it. He mentally undresses pretty much every woman he sees and evaluates her as a potential sex partner, including his son’s girlfriend, and including (obsessively) the young trophy wife of one of his country club buddies.

The latter plot point reaches a climax, no pun intended, when Harry and Janice take a Caribbean vacation with two of their country club crowd, and the three couples decide to engage in a night of wife-swapping—something that had become a daring fad in the “Swinging ’70s”—but Harry ends up not with the woman after whom he’s been lusting for months, but with the other wife, Thelma, a woman he’s never been interested in at all but who, it turns out, has been lusting after him for years.

You have to face it that Harry is really not an admirable character, in fact is something of a boor. But there is something about him, buried beneath the surface—sometimes very deep beneath the surface—that is a core of goodness and basic humanity. He’s something of a casual bigot, yet in RabbitReduxhe became friendly with a number of black characters and listened to Skeeter’s radical speeches with interest. In this book he seems genuinely moved when he hears of Skeeter’s death. He’s not a misogynist but he’s certainly a male chauvinist who sees women mainly as pieces of meat, but he’s actually interested in them as people once he gets to know them. So while his night with Thelma is not exactly his finest hour, he actually talks intimately with her about herself and her illness. He even has a oft spot for his wife’s old lover Charlie, whom he fights to keep on at the car dealership when Janice and her mother want to fire him and hire Nelson. And while he walked out on his pregnant lover Ruth to go back to his wife in Rabbit Run, he has never forgotten her and, in this book, meets a young woman who comes into his dealership with her boyfriend who is the right age and is from the right place in the country and who looks something like Ruth—and himself—so that he becomes obsessed with finding out if she is in fact his daughter. (Of course, he does this only after he’s ogled her and thought about what sex would be like with her, as he does with every other woman). Partly it is disappointment with his son, and the old grief of having lost his legitimate daughter, but Harry seems to truly want to help this girl the only way he can think of—with money, that he thinks might help her get to college.

Ruth tells Harry that he is all “me, me and gimme, gimme.” Thelma, on the other hand, tells Harry that she thinks he is “radiant,” particularly in “the way you never sit down anywhere without making sure there’s a way out.” The truth is not, as you might suspect, somewhere in between. The truth is that both things are true. Rabbit Angstrom is both a greedy egotist and a person who can rise to surprising if not heroic empathy. All the while he is haunted by the deeper questions of existence—age and death and God—but he’s at a point when his material possessions can stop his ears to those kinds of things. And even with these he can be an egotist. Considering all those he has lost in his life, he opines. “Maybe the dead are gods, there’s certainly something kind about them, the way they give you room. What you lose as you age is witnesses, the ones who watched from early on and cared, like your own little grandstand.”

No, Harry’s not just reprehensible. It wouldn’t be worth reading, or writing, four books about him if he were. He’s an average American—maybe a little below average, like a C minus—who seems redeemable. We just have to see if he turns out redeemed. Overall, this is a good book—maybe not as great as its list of awards might indicate, but certainly worth reading.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

oscars_2020_predictions_and_analysis

Top Ten Films of 2019

Ruud’s Top 10 Films of 2019

Since the Oscars are scheduled to be presented this coming Sunday, the time has come for my annual Top Ten movie list for the past year. I did make an honest effort to see as many movies as I could that seemed promising, and so what follows is my considered opinion as to which films deserve praise for their contribution to our collective consciousness over the past twelve months. So here they are, counting down to the best of the year.

10. The Irishman

While I was frankly not nearly as impressed as most critics by Martin Scorsese’s latest organized crime thriller, I’ll admit it was a well-made film, and that Al Pacino and Joe Pesci were stellar in their supporting roles in the film, though I think it likely that they will cancel each other out in the voting for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy show, and leave the path open for Brad Pitt to take home the Oscar. But I digress. Robert De Niro, as the truck driver Frank Sheeran who ultimately becomes a hit man (i.e., a “house painter”) for the mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and a kind of mobster-liaison with teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), is remarkably restrained and emotionless throughout the story, which he narrates from a nursing home. This bland affect is part of Scorsese’s attempt to show what he calls “the banality of violence.” And he succeeds. But while worthy of its accolades, I did find the film to be overlong and not a film that added anything really new to our experience. Is it really much different from what Scorsese gives us in Goodfellas or The Departed, and with many of the same actors? There’s a kind of irony here: Scorsese met with some backlash when earlier in the year he remarked that he didn’t consider Marvel films as “cinema” because cinema was an art form that is supposed to bring you the unexpected, and they tended to be all the same. Um…how unexpected is this film? But see #9.

9. Avengers: Endgame

As has been the case with every movie year for the past couple of decades, and as will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, there were a plethora of CGI-enhanced action movies based for the most part on comic book-superheroes from the Marvel or DC universe. For those viewers who do not happen to be devoted fans of the genre, these are often pleasant but forgettable movies that follow a predictable set of conventions. Indeed, Scorsese perhaps had a point when he said of these films that “The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes” (unlike gangster films? But let that go). But there are always some that stand out from the run-of-the mill genre films in this vein (and I’m not talking about Joker, which I’ll give an honorable mention to). In 2019, this final film in the Avengers saga set a new standard, bringing the long and interconnected overall arch of the 22-film Marvel universe to a fitting and admirable climax. Part of the strength of this film is that, in fact, it allows important characters to die, and so breaks one of the cardinal rules of the genre’s template. Another is that, the villain Thanos having killed half of the known universe in the previous installment, there were fewer characters to focus on in this one. As I wrote in my review: “We actually get real scenes of character development and relationship building among the characters, whereas in previous installments we got little other than one-line sound bites that were supposed to indicate camaraderie or some such thing. For this reason the film is much more intimate than superhero movies tend to be, and it is much more interesting, because the conversations raise important questions, like how we deal with loss, how we face mortality, and ultimately, what is a life well lived? One important character has a surprising personal answer to that last question by the end of the film.”

8. Knives Out!

Rian Johnson comes from last year’s triumphant direction of the huge-budget Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi(which turned out to be much better received than the series finale this year) to a smaller quirky genre film that pays homage to, and in some ways parodies, an Agatha Christie novel. Daniel Craig, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, plays the Poirot-like detective in a murder case in a Gothic mansion that belonged to millionaire author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who’s been found murdered, and every one of his family (from Chris Evans to Jamie Lee Curtis to Michael Shannon) is a suspect. The film is a hoot, but is more than that: As I wrote in my review of the movie, “Beyond the fun, the film manages to wander unobtrusively into the area of social commentary on the question of inherited wealth, as we witness the behavior of a whole group of figures who, born on third base, are glad to pat themselves on the back when they score, and feel justified in their superiority over those losers who have to struggle. Harlan himself knew this about his family and was about to pull the plug on the lot of them before his untimely demise. Is that what got him killed? And what about Marta, the immigrant who really has made something of herself through her own efforts and retained her good humor and her empathy for other human beings in the process? Is her example what has influenced Harlan to let his progeny sink or swim on their own? This is a film that goes beyond its genre nostalgia to make a statement about the contemporary world.”

7. Parasite

From South Korean director Bong Joon Ho (who also wrote the screenplay), this is a film that you’re going to have to read. And you’re probably going to have to read it on your computer. It did finally come to Central Arkansas last week, but only on one screen. Maybe two? Showing at very limited times. But it is now streaming. And it’s nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. It should probably be considered the favorite to win the Best International Film award, having already won in this category at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes. It’s also an outside threat to take the Best Picture award itself, having won the best ensemble acting award at the Screen Actors’ Guild ceremony. This very quirky story about an unemployed family that schemes its way into tutoring, housekeeping, and chauffeuring jobs with an incredibly wealthy family has something significant to say about the huge income gap in First World countries in the 21st century, but it also takes a couple of whiplash-inducing plot turns that will leave your jaws agape. For its humor, its audacity and its shock value, this is a film that deserves to be in the top ten.

6, Jojo Rabbit

This quirky and controversial film started its climb toward an Oscar nomination when it surprisingly took home the “People’s Choice” award at last September’s Toronto Film Festival. Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director who was responsible for last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, adapted his fellow New Zealander Christine Leunens’ novel, Caging Skies, into this remarkable little film about a 10-year-old Hitler youth (Roman Griffin Davis)whose imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler, played as a ridiculous buffoon by Waititi himself. The little Nazi has to confront his own absurd beliefs when he discovers that his mother (an excellent Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a teenaged Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. I saw the film as a kind of modern Morality Play, with Jojo as the Everyman figure torn between the ideas of the demonic Hitler on one hand and the angelic mother on the other over what to do about Elsa. But the film has a more contemporary relevance a well. As I wrote in my review: “The current resurgence of right-wing politics worldwide is a danger that Waikiti’s film recognizes as well, and 10-year-old Jojo, brainwashed and consistently fed lies by the media to which he is exposed, is a perfect emblem of the 21st-century true-believing fascist. As one of the characters tells Jojo late in the film: ‘You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.’ Aren’t they all?”

5. Toy Story 4

I don’t go to many animated movies (you’ll have to ask my wife why that is) but the whole Toy Story franchise has been of such consistent high quality that this final installment (at least we must assume it will be the final installment) is a must-see for movie lovers. It has the same great Pixar animation, the same beloved characters, some catchy Randy Newman music, and the same essential narrative pattern—it’s a quest story in which Woody must save a runaway toy—but it introduces some new characters, like the suicidal Forky and the sinister Gabby-Gabby doll, that give it a great deal of freshness. But what makes this one of the best films of the year is its serious consideration of a number of deep existential questions that will be haunting for adults looking beneath the consistently funny veneer. But a more positive spin is put on the movie by its true hero, Bo Peep (Annie Potts): As I said in my original review, “Bo Peep was not about to sit around in the limbo of childlessness, hoping for some young girl to come along and give her life meaning. She decided, radical as it may seem, that she did not need some child to belong to in order to give her life purpose. She escaped from the antique store and spends her time riding around in a skunk-mobile, a ‘lost toy’ who embraces her independence. A toy, she reasons, can give meaning to her own life, independent of the need to cling to the painful cycle of a child’s approval or indifference. If, as Sartre said, ‘existence precedes essence’ if there is no meaning to our lives other than the meaning we give to them ourselves, then it is the most courageous of individuals who dictate the meaning of their own lives, without relying on others—children—to legitimize their own existence. Bo Peep is what toys (metaphorically human beings) become when they grow up.”

4. Marriage Story

Like The Irishman, this film could only be seen by viewers outside of New York and Los Angeles on streaming video. Unlike The Irishman, Marriage Story did not attempt an epic sweep of American history, but tries only to be a record of a relationship—a sad but all-too-real account of a marriage falling apart and all the attendant consequences that involves. Although the film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, director Noah Baumbach did not get a nomination. Perhaps that is understandable because this is a small and intimate film that plays well on the small screen (better, arguably, than Scorsese’s more expansive drama), it is the actors we are focused on, and Scarlet Johansson as wife Nicole and Adam Driver as husband Charlie are both up for Oscars for leading rolls. Laura Dern as Johansson’s divorce attorney is also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and having already won the BAFTA award as well as the Golden Globe, she seems the favorite to take home the well-deserved Oscar in this category. Johansson and Driver do terrible things to each other, but both manage to retain our sympathy, as the film shows the agonizing death by a thousand cuts that constitutes a messy divorce. It’s hard to think of a more wrenching scene in any film this year than when Driver pounds the wall and tells Johansson he wishes she were dead. Driver probably made a lot more money this year out of Star Wars, but he’s never given a better performance. As for Johansson, she seems to be having a true annus mirabilis, with a best Actress nomination here, and a Supporting Actress nomination for Jojo Rabbit. Watching this film is a lot like watching a play, and the intense interpersonal drama makes it one of the best films of the year.

3. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

A few months ago I probably would have ranked Tarantino’s latest effort somewhat lower on my list, but the longer I’ve had to think about it the more I like it. Unlike most of the others on this list, it’s a film that keeps popping into my mind at odd times, like a tune you can’t get out of our head. I remember that very spooky scene of Brad Pitt at the Spahn Ranch where “Pussycat” has brought him to meet the “family.” I remember the scene on the set of The Green Hornet when combat veteran Brad Pitt beats up Mike Moh, playing the young Bruce Lee. I remember Leonardo DiCaprio getting a valuable acting lesson from precocious eight-year old co-star Trudi (a scene-stealing Julia Butters) on the set of TV’s Tanner. But mostly I remember the fairy-tale ending that rewrites history, a la Inglorious Basterds, and reverses the Manson family murders. Maybe I just like the music, the retro film techniques, and the other reminders of 1969, a year that looms large in my psyche. But as I wrote in my original review of the movie, “Overall, this film is highly enjoyable. Brad and Leo have a great chemistry—like a new Newman and Redford (Butch Cassidy was a 1969 film, remember). The plot points do all come together at the end, but to tell you how would be a spoiler. And ultimately this is a Tarantino film that ends with hope and optimism, and that’s something we all need these days. Even if it’s only a fairy tale.”

2. 1917

Last year’s best film, whatever foolishness happened at the Oscars, was Peter Jackson’s brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, with its brilliantly restored World War I footage that made us feel as if those images were alive and present people. This year’s World War I film, Sam Mendes’s 1917, made us feel as if we were actually in the war itself, with long takes that allowed us to follow two soldiers through the trenches and across No Man’s Land to prevent an ill-considered offensive that would bring British soldiers into a German trap. The most remarkable thing about the film is that Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have edited the entire film to make it appear that it is all shot as two long takes (with an unexpected nap in between). While some critics thought this approach gimmicky, the fact is it made audiences feel they were in Flanders Fields themselves. As I mentioned in my review,  “I think if you watch it you’ll find, as I do, that the technique enhances and showcases the film, not the other way around.” Is it going to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year? Probably. Is it the Best Picture of the Year? See below.

  1. Little Women

When I reviewed this film, I made the observation that no women were nominated for the “Best Director” Oscar last year, but that “it would be a full-fledged travesty if Gerwig is not nominated this year for this film. And it’s really about time a woman won this award, and none has deserved it more than Greta Gerwig for Little Women.” Well, it comes as no surprise that the tragedy has occurred, and the old boys’ director club failed to recognize Gerwig, despite Little Women’s six Oscar nominations. But as I asserted in that same review, Gerwig’s film is “quite simply the best film version yet made of Alcott’s classic novel,” better than Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Winona Ryder version, better even than George Cukor’s classic 1933 Katherine Hepburn version. The screenplay makes brilliant use of the autobiographical elements of the book, and expands certain aspects of the story (the Amy/Laurie marriage, for instance) in ways that brilliantly complement the original novel. Add the impressive score and the beautiful costumes and cinematography, and cap it off with memorable performances by Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Florence Pugh (Amy) and you have a film that will delight for as long as the classic novel it adapts lives. And that promises to be a long time.

Honorable Mention: Joker, Judy, Ford v. Ferrari, The Mustang, Everybody Knows

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

026_JR_03406_CC

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit 

Taika Waititi (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

In Mel Brooks’ The Producers, as many readers will surely recall, the two protagonists, Broadway producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, hit upon a scheme by which they can make more money on a flop than on a hit, and they put together a show that they figure is a surefire disaster: a pro-Nazi musical called Springtime for Hitler. To their amazement, the show, viewed ironically by audiences, becomes a smash Broadway hit.

There is more than a passing similarity between that plot and Taika Waititi’s Oscar-nominated film Jojo Rabbit, which, finally, months after its wide release in the United States on November 8, has made it to central Arkansas, where you can see very limited showings of it on two screens. The protagonist of the film is a 10-year-old Hitler Youth who makes up for being something of a misfit by fanatically supporting Nazism and by talking to his imaginary friend, a ridiculously puerile Adolph Hitler (played with clownish relish by Waititi himself). The film surprisingly took home the top “People’s Choice” Award at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and currently has a 95 percent positive audience rating on the Rotten Tomatoes—much higher than the more mixed reviews of critics, especially among those listed as “top” critics (many of whom complained that the film was too upbeat in the face of the unmitigated horror of the Holocaust, and that the film suggested there were some Nazis who were “good”).

Such criticism suggests that Waititi’s film belongs in the same category as the current occupant of the White House’s infamous “Very good people on both sides” remark. Nothing could be further from the truth. Joao Rabbit is closer in spirit to those medieval Morality Plays that depicted the devil as an incompetent, clownish buffoon. There is some comfort in knowing that the devil is an ass. Nor is it really true that the laughable depiction of Nazis in the film has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, as some critics are saying. Waititi is not trying to make Schindler’s List. Somebody already did that. We are seeing through the eyes of a 10-year-old German boy who does not see the death camps but does see people from his own town hanged in the street as traitors to the German nation—and who meets a Jewish girl in hiding, facing death if she’s caught. Nazism is not all that soft-pedaled here.

Nor, it seems to me, is Waititi’s screenplay (adapted from New Zealand writer Christine Leunens’ novel, Caging Skies) intended solely as historical fiction reflecting the realities of Nazi Germany. The current resurgence of right-wing politics worldwide is a danger that Waikiti’s film recognizes as well, and 10-year-old Jojo, brainwashed and consistently fed lies by the media to which he is exposed, is a perfect emblem of the 21st-century true-believing fascist. As one of the characters tells Jojo late in the film: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” Aren’t they all?

I suppose the critics who claim that the film suggests “some Nazis were good” are thinking of Sam Rockwell’s character, Captain Klenzendorf, a one-eyed veteran who has actually seen battle and who knows that Germany will lose this war, and who is Jojo’s skeptical and often inebriated Camp Counselor for his Hitler Youth group. All Kenzendorf can do is look forward to a glorious defeat dressed in a beautiful uniform he is designing for himself, admire Jojo’s mother and surreptitiously do what he can to help a few people. But it seems quite clear that Klenzendorf, with those unusual motivations, is the exception that proves the rule in this town, and that the fanatically clownish Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) and the slimily insidious Gestapo officer Deetz (Stephen Merchant of TV’s The Good Place) are far more typical. As are the senior Hitler Youth, who find it entertaining to wring the neck of a defenseless rabbit that Jojo has been too decent to kill when they tried to goad him into it.

That happens quite early in the movie, and it’s where Jojo gets his nickname, intended from the first as a slur. But it’s not the first scene: The film opens with Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) worrying about his upcoming camp experience, and his imaginary buddy Adolf giving him a pep talk and telling him to “Heil me, man!” before the film moves into its opening credits, shot over black and white vintage World War II footage showing hordes of Germans giving the Nazi salute, over which is playing the Beatles’ German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”: “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”—i.e., ironically, “Come Give Me Your Hand.”

Ultimately Jojo’s unthinking fanaticism is challenged by his own natural revulsion at the idea of killing an innocent creature (the rabbit), and later by seeing several of his fellow citizens hanged in a public square for crimes against the state—an awful exhibition his mother Rosie (Oscar-nominated Scarlet Johansson) forces him to take in as if to get him to look directly at the real-life implications of the cause he is mindlessly following. When Jojo asks what these people did to deserve hanging, she only answers “What they could.” Finally, Jojo must face the fact of a 16-year-old Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies), whom his mother is hiding in their attic. At first, Jojo decides to question Elsa about the secret lives of Jews, intending to put all the facts he wrings from her into a book that he dreams will make him popular with the Nazi leaders. He asks her a series of ludicrous questions about where Jews hide their horns and whether they sleep upside down, hanging from the ceiling like bats. Elsa’s deadpan serious responses form the perfect reductio ad absurdum to Jojo’s preposterous ethnic slurs, though he is too naïve to realize it, at least at first. Ultimately, and predictably, his feelings toward her grow from conditioned revulsion to attraction and infatuation, though he keeps up the façade of questioning, and in a jealous mood composes phony letters from Elsa’s boyfriend (whom she says is fighting with the resistance) breaking up with her.

Elsa, of course, is in real danger—as is Jojo’s mother. And then there’s Jojo’s imaginary friend, who more and more aggressively pours in his ear his distrust of the Jew Elsa, who is, after all, vermin. The film is itself essentially a Morality play with Jojo as the Everyman figure being drawn in one direction by the demonic Hitler and in the other by his angelic mother Rosie over the question of what to do with Elsa.

There would be spoilers galore if I went any further. But this is a memorable film because of its unique premise and its striking execution. Waititi, most widely known for directing the blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, began with independent films often descried as “quirky,” and in Jojo Rabbit he revisits that genre. But it’s a quirkiness that resonates. Filmed mainly in the Czech Republic, the film is beautiful to look at, with its old European settings, and Ra Vincent and Nora Sopková copped one of the film’s six Oscar nominations for their production design. The score is sometimes nostalgic, sometimes surprising, though nothing is quite as jarring as that Beatles intro. Jojo and Elsa are fascinating to watch as their relationship grows from antagonists, to big sister/bratty little brother, to schoolboy romance/tolerant older girl, to real friendship. And Johansson (who I used to think wasn’t much of an actress and was only cast so directors could give us closeups of her beautiful but expressionless face) turns in an Oscar-worthy performance here that’s enough to make me eat my words. The idea of depicting the arch-villain Hitler as a buffoon is not original: Chaplin did it in The Great Dictator and, really, the concept goes back to the devils of the fifteenth century. But it seems fresh in 2020, and results in a film that both instructs and entertains. I’m going to go ahead and give this one four Shakespeares.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Summerland-by-Michael-Chabon

Summerland

Summerland

Michael Chabon (2002)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

I freely admit that it took me way too long to get around to reading Michael Chabon’s brilliant Pulitzer-Prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clayand don’t mind declaring myself on the road to being a Chabon Completist (i.e., my goal is to read everything he’s written). But coming across Summerland was a bit unexpected. It’s Chabon’s first and only venture into YA fantasy, and so may come as something of a surprise. It was certainly a surprise to a number of readers and critics when it came out in 2002—for some an unpleasant surprise. For this is the Chabon novel that received the most mixed reviews on its publication. The New York Times, for example, described it as “bewilderingly busy,” while a British reviewer said that Chabon’s “story is chiefly informed by the type of whimsical drollery which, like a watched kettle, never quite manages to get to boiling point.” Chabon himself has written, in his 2009 book Manhood for Amateurs, that “anyone who has ever received a bad review knows how it outlasts, by decades, the memory of a favorable word,” and therefore it is just conceivable that, despite numerous positive reviews of Summerland, those other reviews have kept him from returning to YA fiction.

Which is too bad, because I found Summerland to be a delightful fantasy that ranks with some of the finest of post-Tolkienesque fiction. Certainly Chabon hasn’t given up on fantasy, since his swashbuckling Gentlemen of the Road and his entertaining Yiddish Policeman’s Union make liberal use of that genre. But coming when it did, Summerlands was subjected to inevitable comparisons with Harry Potter: Harry had a male and female companion, while Ethan Feld, hero of Summerland, had a male friend (Thor, a boy who thinks he is an android) and a female friend (Jennifer T., a girl who turns out to be a star pitcher); Harry had a wand that chose him, Ethan has a bat made especially for him from a piece of the World Tree; Harry battles the personification of evil in Voldemort, Ethan battles an archetypal nemesis in Coyote, who is trying to bring about the end of the world; Harry is obsessed by the national sport of wizardry, Quidditch; Ethan by America’s national pastime, baseball (that same British critic complained that the baseball terms in the novel are bewildering and that the completely imaginary Quidditch is more comprehensible, but can anybody take a comment like that seriously from somebody in a country that supports the thoroughly Byzantine sport of Cricket?).

But these similarities do not make the book derivative. At least no more than any other modern fantasy, Rowling’s included. Chabon includes a fairly lengthy introduction in the 2011 paperback reprint of the book in which he describes his own childhood fascination with the idea of fairies, or the concept of what Tolkien more accurately described as “Faerie,” that mythical realm of the supernatural and what Tolkien called “secondary creation”—the author’s god-like imaginative invention of another world. Thus Summerland has roots not only in Rowling but in Tolkien (a lengthy quest ending in a battle for the end of the world), C.S. Lewis (a plethora of mythical and animal helping figures), Philip Pullman and Madeleine L’Engle (the quest includes a rescue of an endangered father figure). Like Tolkien, he has also plumbed the depths of ancient mythologies that first formed our notion of Faerie, especially Native American traditions of the Coyote Trickster who is the chief antagonist of the novel, and Old Norse traditions that picture the universe as centered in a great tree (Yggdrasil), fed by a well (the well of Urd), which will fall and the end of time, at Ragnarok, when the gods will be defeated by the powers of darkness. In Summertime, the end of the world is called “Ragged Rock,” the time that Ethan and his friends must try to prevent, as the Norse gods strove to put off Ragnarok for as long as they could.

Of course, the other important aspect of the novel is baseball, a sport with which Chabon, as he describes in his introduction, has always been obsessed with himself. And why not? Baseball is the sport most congenial for writers, its archetypal romance qualities made manifest by such mythic narratives as The Natural and Field of Dreams, as well as by real-life heroes in the form of Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig,  Satchell Paige, Sandy Koufax, Henry Aaron, Mike Trout, et al., or legendary events like Dimaggio’s hitting streak, Babe Ruth’s called shot, Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard round the world,” or the ending of the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year title drought. But I digress. Sure there was the Black Sox scandal, Pete Rose’s betting scandal, the darkness of the steroid scandals, and the recent sign-stealing bruhaha, but that’s life. And Chabon is very clear that baseball is in many ways a metaphor for life. In what other sport can you fail 70 per cent of the time and still be a hero? In what other sport does the best team lose almost as many games as it wins, or the worst team lose only a few more games than it wins over a 162-game season? Will you be so boorish as to imply that baseball is a slow-moving game? Chabon tells you here in no uncertain terms that “A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.”

Thus the epic journey of Chabon’s novel involves Ethan, Thor, Jennifer T., and their friends barnstorming through supernatural realms where they engage in baseball games with higher and higher stakes, until the ultimate game against Coyote’s team that will decide the fate of the universe. To put it into a scarcely comprehensible nutshell, 11-hear-old Ethan is the worst baseball player on the worst Little League team on Calm Island (off the coast of Washington). But he meets a werefox named Cutbelly, who tells him about the Lodgepole (i.e., the World Tree) that connects the four worlds, between which one can scamper if one knows how. He is also recruited by the ancient scout Chiron “Ringfinger” Brown, one-time pitching great (an allusion to Hall of Fame Cubs’ pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown) and now recruiter of heroes (an allusion to Chron, the Centaur of Greek mythology who trained such heroes as Achilles, Ajax, Perseus and Theseus). Brown recruits Ethan to come to Summerland, the land of the fairy folk called ferishers, to help shore up their baseball team and thereby to help defeat Coyote, who is determined to destroy the Lodgepole and bring about Ragged Rock. At the same time, Ethan must track down his father, an engineer whom Coyote has captured and is forcing to produce a batch of his invention, the virtually indestructible “picofiber.” Coyote intends to use this substance to create a container for the toxic poison with which he plans to foul Murmury Well, the water source for the World Tree. Ethan, Jennifer T., and Thor put together a “fellowship” of nine representatives of various races of Summerland (sound vaguely familiar?) to form a baseball team: These include a ferisher chief named Cinquefoil, a dwarf-sized giant, a depressed female Sasquatch, a talking rat, and a “ringer” in the form of an over-the-hill Cuban defector-ballplayer from their own world, who play their way across Summerland to the final Armageddon-like ballgame against Coyote.

I won’t give away anything with spoilers here about the outcome of the game, or the book. But the above synopsis is a pretty good indication of the complexity of the novel. So even though its alleged audience is the YA range of 10- to 15-year-olds, Chabon’s adult fans will want to read it if they haven’t already. It’s definitely not a children’s-level book in terms of its theology or world view. Coyote is a case in point: Most reviewers of the book refer to him as a demonic character, an embodiment of evil, like the Christian Satan. But Chabon is careful to name him Coyote—the Trickster figure of Native American cosmology. He also is clearly drawn from the Old Norse Loki, another Trickster who, like the Old Testament Satan of the book of Job, is part of the heavenly court. Coyote is not pure evil. As Prometheus, he brought fire to human beings. He separated the world of men from the word of gods, making human beings responsible for their own actions. And, in Chabon’s book, he also invented baseball. How can that be bad? Of course, he is also responsible for the invention of the Designated Hitter rule, which Chabon correctly attests has all but ruined the game.

The point is that Coyote, or Loki, or any mythological Trickster, is not evil incarnate but rather that figure who violates the principles of social or natural order, embodies that ungovernable and unpredictable element of the universe or of life present in every endeavor, that element which must be anticipated and dealt with in any true picture of life: it’s the error, the grounder that takes a bad hop, the bloop single, the Steve Bartman, that unpredictably changes the outcome of the game, of life, or of the universe.

Chabon’s book is a boisterous, rollicking, freewheeling, adventurous, epically wild turmoil of a novel that, if you like fantasy and baseball in equal measure, you will love. I loved this book.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

2020_01_film

1917

1917

Sam Mendes (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Just out in wide release this week, Sam Mendes’s new World War I drama 1917 rounded off a triumphant weekend in which it led all rivals in box office receipts by garnering ten Oscar nominations on Monday. In addition to nominations in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, the film also garnered nods for Original Score, Original Screenplay, and technical awards like Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (I don’t really know the difference either) and Makeup and Hairstyling (?). And trust me folks, this is a film that really deserves most of those nominations. I’m not so sure about the hairstyling.

Actually I’m not all that sold on the nomination for original screenplay either. It’s not that the script, co-authored by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (a staff writer for TV’s Penny Dreadful, a show Mendes produced), is bad, it’s just that it’s a pretty simple story: It’s April 6, 1917, on the Western Front in northern France, where two young British soldiers—Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of TV’s Game of Thrones) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay of TV’s 11.22.63)—are given a strange but crucial mission: It seems the German army has withdrawn from their position to a new location several miles to the rear, and there are British commanders convinced that “the Hun” is on the run, and that the Brits must follow up their advantage now to force the Germans to surrender. Among these is a certain gung-ho colonel named MacKenzie, who is preparing to send two battalions, his entire command of 1,600 men, against the German forces the following morning.

Trouble is, it’s a trap. The British command now has photographic evidence that the Germans have fortified their new position with reinforcements and vastly superior firepower, and all 1,600 of MacKenzie’s men are likely to be slaughtered if they are committed as he intends. But the Germans have cut the British telephone lines, so that they have no way of relaying the new information to the bellicose colonel. Enter Corporals Blake and Schofield. They are charged with carrying orders from the British commander, General Erinmore, to call off the attack. To get there they have to cross no-man’s-land and go through the French village of Écoust, to MacKenzie’s encamped forces on the river beyond, a distance of some nine miles through a dangerous, war-torn landscape. Why them? Well, turns out Corporal Blake’s brother, Lieutenant Blake, is under MacKenzie’s command and likely to be in the first wave of the assault on the German position. This gives Blake, who seems to love his family above all else, a burning motivation to get this job done. Schofield, on the other hand, is simply chosen by Blake because they are friends, and when he is ordered to come to headquarters to receive orders from the general, he is told to pick another man to come along. As the danger of their task becomes more and more formidable, Schofield legitimately wonders why he had to be the one Blake picked. Schofield, however, though his baby face belies it, is a veteran of this campaign, having earned a medal for bravery at the Somme. Though Schofield has thrown away his decoration—”Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow”—there is this strong indication from the start that he may have the grit and courage to finish this quest.

For that is essentially what the story is: an archetypal quest narrative that draws on the oldest epic traditions of western narrative. It’s a story that combines the epic martial conflict of Homer’s Iliad with the epic arduous journey motif of Homer’s Odyssey. But it isn’t Achilles or Ulysses who are the heroes of 1917: it is the common soldier, the everyman figure who is the hero of modern warfare.

And World War I is the prototypical modern war: It is the first war fought on a global scale. It is the first war fought with the aid of technologically enhanced barbarism in the form of planes, tanks, and poison gas. It is the first war in which casualties mounted into the millions. And it is the first war that caused participants and observers to question, even to lampoon, politicians’ dreams of military glory and the beauty and fitness of dying for the fatherland. No doubt this is why the centennial of the war in the past few years has caused such a rekindling of interest in its details. Last year’s most highly acclaimed film, Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, made up of hundred-year-old footage remastered and colorized, made the war shockingly contemporary for us.

Jackson’s film was inspired by his grandfather, who fought in the war. It was Mendes’s own grandfather’s stories about his experiences in the trenches that inspired 1917. There have been a number of classic World War I movies, from the very first Best Picture Oscar winner Wings through the Oscar winner two years later, All Quiet on the Western Front, through Jean Renoir’s  French masterpiece Grand Illusion, through the Stanley Kubrick classic Paths of Glory and more recently Spielberg’s War Horse. But Mendes’s movie does one thing better than any of these other films, and that is make us experience to an extraordinary degree just what it was like for common soldiers moment by moment in a World War I combat zone.

Mendes does this not through fancy CGI effects or 3D projections, but through  the well-tested but difficult use of the single shot or “oner” technique, first foregrounded by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 tour de force, Rope, and later by Orson Welles in the first scene of Touch of Evil,  but brought back to prominence more recently by Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity and Alejandro Iñárritu in Birdman. Here, a la Hitchcock, the entire film is edited to give the impression that it is all shot as one long take. Mendes here relies on the expertise of cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has garnered his 14th Oscar nomination for 1917—he won the award for last year’s Blade Runner 2049) and of editor Lee Smith (last year’s Oscar winner for Dunkirk) to achieve this effect. The result draws us into the film as if we, too, are rushing through the landscape with Blake and Schofield in real time, darting frenetically through the crowded, intricate maze of trenches, finally heaving ourselves over the top and onto the barbed-wire jungle of the rat-and-body-infested no-man’s-land, and through the deserted German trenches  It’s an intense roller-coaster seen from within and not from afar, so that the scene of a bi-plane crashing straight toward us (reminiscent of another Hitchcock film—North by Northwest) seems perilously close. The mood becomes surreal in a lurid, flare-lit scene of dashing through the ruins of Écoust while dodging enemy soldiers in the shadows: It’s a Kafkaesque sequence reminiscent of the night battle in Apocalypse Now, made more nerve-wracking as Thomas Newman’s score, relentless but understated until this point, swells to a crescendo in the nightmarish darkness.

All the elements combine to make this one of the best films of the year. The relatively unknown Chapman and, especially, MacKay, are vulnerable, determined, believable everyman heroes. Mendes also sprinkles in a handful of A-list actors in memorable cameos: Colin Firth as gruffly detached General Erinmore, Benedict Cumberbatch as the determined Colonel MacKenzie, Mark Strong as Captain Smith, commanding a convoy of soldiers heading toward Écoust, and Andrew Scott (Cumberbatch’s psychotic nemesis Moriarty from Sherlock), playing a cynical, possibly shell-shocked Lieutenant Leslie, who apprehensively sends the corporals over the top.

The movie is not perfect. Some critics have complained that it’s just a gimmick movie, just a vehicle to showcase the one-shot technique. I think if you watch it you’ll find, as I do, that the technique enhances and showcases the film, not the other way around. There are some holes in the plot, I suppose: Why entrust the lives of 1,600 men to a couple of soldiers on foot who have small chance of getting where they need to be? It’s Frodo and Sam in Mordor. You would need a backup plan. And why, if Mark Strong is leading a convoy to the village, do you not have your two messengers hitch a ride with him from the beginning? But these are quibbles. 1917  does for World War I what Saving Private Ryan did for D-Day. And it is probably destined to be Mendes’s masterpiece, far more than his Oscar-winning but flawed American Beauty. Four Shakespeares for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

JudeObscure1__76722.1554219266

Jude the Obscure

Jude the Obscure

Thomas Hardy (1895)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

The latest figures from the U.S. Census bureau show that the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans is the widest it has been in fifty years. Putting it in perspective, an estimated 43.5 per cent of the total U.S. population (that is, 140 million Americans) are considered either poor or low-income. Meanwhile, the average earnings of Americans whose income is in the top one per cent are 39 times more than the average of the bottom 90 per cent of American earners.

This extends, of course, to privilege and power. Theoretically, higher education is the route that raises one out of the working class, but the facts remain that education at an Ivy League school, or private universities like Duke or Stanford, automatically create access—even for those whose grades were subpar—that degrees from public institutions do not. Just ask Felicity Huffman if you don’t believe me. And even poor students whose grades qualify them for acceptance to Harvard or Yale have almost no chance of being able to afford to go there, and will graduate even from a public university with crippling student loan debt.

Thomas Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure125 years ago: In view of the above realities, the novel, which deals with the dreams of a working-class man in Victorian England to break out of his class through higher education at one of Britain’s great universities, is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. And probably not much less controversial.

Samuel Smiles had written in his book Self Help (1859) that through aptitude and hard work anyone could be successful, and in this he was expressing an accepted conviction of Victorian society—a conviction held mostly by people born into the wealthier classes. It’s essentially the equivalent of the “American Dream,” which posits the belief that anyone, regardless of class or national origin, has the opportunity in America to prosper and advance through their own labor and abilities. The fact that occasionally someone from the lower classes is successful reinforced the conviction in both Victorian England and contemporary America that these beliefs were valid. And that if someone was poor, it was their own fault.

Hardy saw the insidious mendacity of such platitudes. He was himself a man born into the working class, who, despite showing great promise as a student, was forced by circumstances to apprentice himself at 16 and had no chance for a university education. The fact that he was himself successful as a novelist did not blind him to the fact that these barriers existed for people of his class.

Jude Fawley, the novel’s protagonist, grows up in a small village in rural Wessex, Hardy’s fictional county in southwestern England. Inspired by the village schoolmaster Mr. Phillotson, Jude conceives a burning desire to obtain a traditional education, attend university, and secure himself a place among the ruling classes, preferably in the Anglican Church. When Phillotson himself takes off with the intention to seek acceptance at the university in Christminster (Hardy’s fictional name for Oxford), Jude dreams of following in turn and spends his evenings teaching himself Latin and Greek, spending his days laboring in his great aunt’s bakery.

Jude’s ambitions are thwarted by his own natural impulses, as he is seduced by a local working girl named Arabella Donn, whose own ambitions are more down to earth: She wants to get herself a husband who will support her. She tricks Jude into marrying her by pretending to be pregnant, and Jude, now saddled with the responsibility of a wife, lets his dreams stagnate.

When Arabella grows tired of the marriage and dissatisfied by Jude’s modest income, she leaves him and emigrates to Australia, where she finds a new husband whom she marries without benefit of a divorce from Jude. Jude moves to Christminster and begins working as a stonemason, and resumes his evening self-study, hoping to gain admission to the university at some point in the future. Of course, Hardy knows, and his readers know, that self-taught students are never going to be admitted to the university, where a knowledge of the classics that can only be obtained from a school like Eton or Harrow is a prerequisite for admission. He writes to the master of each of the Christminster colleges, seeking their advice and help in gaining acceptance, but only one master deigns to answer him: The Master of Biblioll College advises him that, since he describes himself as a working class man, “I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course.” Know your place, boy, is his answer.

It is in Christminster, however, that Jude meets the true love of his life, his own cousin Sue Bridehead. In some ways, Sue is Jude’s opposite: Where he longs for success within the ruling social paradigm, Sue rejects the social frame set up by the wealthy classes and the Church. She has no desire to accept the narrow role that Victorian society has declared acceptable for a woman, and has no desire at all to confine herself to a marriage for life in a world of constant change:“It is foreign to a man’s nature,” she declares at one point,  “to go on loving a person when he is told that he must and shall be a person’s lover.” By every measure, Sue Bridehead is one of the first wholly feminist characters in fiction. And as such she makes herself a pariah in late nineteenth-century England.

Confined by the conventions he still accepts, Jude cannot declare his love to Sue, since despite her bigamy and desertion he is still married to Arabella in the eyes of the law and of the Church. But he befriends his cousin, and introduces her to his old schoolmaster Phillotson, with whom he has become reconnected. Phillotson has also failed to be admitted to the university, but works as a schoolmaster still. He takes a more lucrative position in Shaston (Hardy’s fictional name for Shaftsbury), and gives Sue a job as teacher for the girls in the school. Eventually, Sue succumbs to society’s expectations and Phillotson’s entreaties and marries him, despite his being twice her age and despite her physical aversion to him. Within this marriage, though, Sue maintains some form of independence and the marriage is never consummated. Ultimately, Phillotson agrees to Sue’s desire to separate and, ultimately, to divorce, because of his own sympathetic sense that women should have freedom to determine their own destinies. This allows Sue and Jude to live together, but for his compassionate attitude Phillotson is ostracized by Church and society, and loses his position. Meanwhile Jude and Sue, living together without benefit of clergy, are shunned and ostracized as well, particularly after Sue has given birth to two children. Jude also finds it difficult to secure steady work, and the family declines into poverty. The novel ends tragically after a number of reverses, but I won’t spoil the ending by revealing any of them.

Clearly women’s rights, the hypocritical and illogical views of prevailing religion, and society’s unrealistic attitudes about marriage are also targets of Hardy’s righteous indignation in the novel. And while society has progressed somewhat on this front in the past 125 years, there is no denying that a significant number of religious groups even today hold attitudes toward divorce, women’s rights, and couples cohabiting outside of marriage have changed little if at all since Hardy’s day. Once again, this novel remains relevant.

This is a book that was years ahead of its time. One critic called it “Jude the Obscene.” The Pall Mall Gazette called it a story of  “naked squalor and ugliness.” Edmund Gosse, who had previously defended Hardy’s novels, asked  “What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his creator?” Although H.G. Wells, himself a notorious free-thinker, wrote that “There is no other novelist alive with the breadth of sympathy, the knowledge or the power for the creation of Jude,” the fury of negative criticism drove Hardy to give up fiction altogether. Jude was his last completed novel, and he devoted the rest of his long life—the next 33 years—to poetry and the occasional drama.

But Jude is a great achievement. It might be justly criticized for its unconvincing characterization of children, but even from the creator of such classics as Tess of the d’Urbervilles,Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd, this novel is a masterpiece. I finally read it. I recommend you do too!

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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.