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.

News of the World

News of the World

Paul Greengrass (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime

Length: 1 hour 58 minutes

Names You Might Know: Tom Hanks

She Said: Well, it’s happened: We’ve been home for the Pandemic long enough to get TWO Tom Hanks movies on streaming; the first was Greyhound, last year when streaming major studio releases felt very novel, and now we’ve got News of the World, when it feels more normal to fire up the Amazon movie machine and rent a movie at home for $20. 

This film comes right out of the gate as a quest, a journey with risk and rewards in the service of a goal or value. Our hero, a former Confederate officer, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, makes his living traveling from town to town in Texas in 1870 reading newspapers to the townsfolk. The evening is a kind of Chautauqua of the news, a performance of the headlines and human-interest stories that will engage and appeal to the audiences as well as edify. Kidd chooses topics beyond the main headlines to make the dime entry fee worth it for those who may not have much more than that to spare.

After the movie shows us what Kidd does, we find him traveling to his next “performance,” coming upon a lynched Black man, a crashed wagon and a lone little girl, unhurt but utterly alone. We quickly learn the little girl is Johanna Leonberger (German actress Helena Zengel), a child who was stolen from her German-immigrant family years before and raised by a Kiowa tribe in the area. With the settlers’ growing incursions of native lands, tensions are mounting and this little girl is being returned to her remaining family members (everyone else was brutally killed in the raid). The small blonde girl is dressed in Kiowa-style animal skins and speaks no English and very little German, as she has almost no memory of her birth family. She is hard to handle, resists the dress she’s put in as soon as Kidd gets her to a town, and insists on eating with her fingers, but she’s smart enough to know who she’s safe with and who she isn’t, and like the rest of America during a pandemic, she knows she’s safe with Tom Hanks. We know his near-term, quick solution isn’t going to work out, as we have a two-hour movie to go, and our quest takes shape in this particular time and place.

And so, we have our reluctant hero Captain Kidd, setting off to take the girl somewhere safe, while also healing his own wounds. Whilst predictable in the ways this storyline may be for those who’ve encountered this plot in literature and movies many times before, this movie is anything but cookie-cutter, insincere or heavy handed. For starters, Johanna’s plight given her trauma of the slaughter of her family, and then her removal from the people she considers her beloved family, the Kiowa, is profoundly pitiable, and Zengel plays it strong and straight, so that our emotions are our own, not demanded by the film. Hanks plays a role we know and love him for, the ethical, but flawed, man, doing his best to do his best. And while the structure and scenario are straightforward, my emotions ran a sizeable gamut because of the understated, honest portrayal of these characters. The movie loved them, and so did I. The white people are good and bad; the Kiowa are good and bad; the world is a dangerous place, making kindness matter all the more.

I’m not a big lover of westerns; there’s often a machismo and an ethic of violence I don’t relate to, but westerns are almost always good for one thing: beautiful scenery, and Greengrass makes the most of these opportunities. Texas looks real pretty, y’all, as well as austere and indifferent to the plight of a little Kiowa-raised German girl with nowhere to go.

My only quibble is the title. The movie is based on the novel of the same name, which I haven’t read, but I kept forgetting what this was called because the phrase doesn’t really attach itself to the meaning of the film as I experienced it. Yes, Kidd’s job is reading that news to people as his job, but it doesn’t connect as cleanly on screen to the central relationship of the film, the Captain and Johanna. What say you, Ruud?

He Said: Well, as a title, “The Captain and Johanna” sounds more like a ’90s pop duo than a movie, though you might say that love does keep them together in the end. Is that a spoiler? But I think “News of the World” is not a bad title, since it works on two levels—the literal level of Brother Kidd’s Traveling Show and the more suggestive level of how the news he brings from the outside world to some of these small towns (especially one town whose despotic leader forbids any news other than his own propaganda) enlightens people’s minds and changes their lives, as he changes Johanna’s. 

But going back to your point about not liking westerns, it’s interesting that this is Hanks’ first ever western, which at this stage of his long and varied career is hard to believe. Maybe he felt the same about them as you, but was talked into this by directorPaul Greengrass, who directed him in the intense Captain Phillips. But as a connoisseur of westerns myself, I couldn’t help seeing echoes of previous classic westerns in scene after scene of this film. There’s a True Grit vibe in Hanks’ road trip with the young girl. There’s a whiff of Red River as they make their way into a Texas town where the streets are crowded by a huge cattle herd. There’s a hint of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a gunfight in the mountains. And most of all there is the shadow of the John Ford classic The Searchers looming over the film, as Hanks searches for the girl’s lost family and tries to return her from her Kiowa captivity—the reverse of John Wayne’s search for his niece who has been taken captive by Indians. A camera shot from inside a deserted cabin looking through the front door out at Kidd and Johanna seems a deliberate echo of the final shot of The Searchers, that framed Wayne in the doorway, standing isolated outside the girl’s home. The film is a kind of taking back of The Searchers and of the conventional western’s glorification of violence, particularly violence against Indians.

But let me ask you this, Jones: Greengrass is best known for frenetic action movies, like the Bourne trilogy. In News of the World, we have a very episodic, fairly slow-moving story—intense at times, yes, but generally unhurried. Is it too ponderous?

She Said: One viewer’s ponderous might be another’s careful and intentional consideration of the ways in which we are invisibly scarred by the traumas the world and its politics can inflict upon adult and child alike. This movie thoughtfully and lovingly earns four Hitchcocks in my book because it could not be better at what it’s good for.

He Said: The movie is generally good at what it’s good for. The plot, though, is a bit cliché and definitely episodic, and its careful intentionality might not be what viewers are expecting from a Greengrass movie. The cinematography as you mentioned is noteworthy, and kudos to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski for those great vistas of New Mexico disguised to look like Texas. Hanks is flawless in the sincere humanitarianism he brings to the role, and the young girl, film newcomer Zengel, does a bang-up job with very few lines in English. I’m gonna go ahead and give this film three Soderberghs. It’s definitely worth a watch.

This Week’s We Watched It so You Don’t Have To:
He Said: 
Wonder Woman 1984

Hot Take: The new Wonder Woman that premiered on Christmas has the saving grace of retaining the glorious Gal Gadot in the title role, but has the misfortune of trying to be equal to one of the best superhero films ever made. It really doesn’t rise to the challenge and has a messy story that goes on for two and a half hours without really going anywhere.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

A Children’s Bible

A Children’s Bible

Lydia Millet (2020)

It’s not unusual for a literary text on any level to depict parents as complete idiots whom their children are forced to save through their superior savvy and common sense, and replace those in power with a “new society.” This is almost the universal plot of comedy, from Menander and Plautus through Shakespeare (Merchant ofVenice?) to Back to the Future. But when the older generation’s ignorance or blindness involves denial, self-delusion, and mendacity, we’re no longer in the realm of comedy. We’re beyond even tragedy, which charts the fall of the individual. We’re in the Waste Land.

Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible takes us to that land. Named one of the best books of 2020 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, NPR, and Time magazine, Millet’s novel begins like one of those comedies I mentioned: We’re in the environs of a large 19th century mansion, rented for the summer by several families with their children, ranging in age from seven or eight to seventeen. The parents spend most of their time drinking and lounging in the house, while the children form their own little world apart from the parents and trying not even to acknowledge them—they even engage in a game in which they try to determine which parents belong to which kid. The parents are a huge embarrassment: “As the evenings wore on, some parents got it into their heads to dance,” the narrator laments. It’s a “Sad spectacle . . . . They were a cautionary tale.”

The book begins with such simple language that it seems itself to be intended for children:

“Once we lived in a summer country. In the woods there were tree houses, and on the lake there were boats.”

But it quickly becomes obvious that this is no nursery tale, and we are led to expect that at least a few of the teenagers will be hooking up in this loose environment.

The narrator and protagonist of the novel, a teenaged girl named Evie, has a younger brother named Jack who is obsessed with studying animals and who receives from one of the less hedonistic mothers a Children’s Bible, which (unfamiliar with any organized religious tradition) he reads with some interest, trying to figure out the point of these stories. Meanwhile the children, eager to put some distance between themselves and the pointless fecklessness with which the parents squander their days, row some boats a few miles downstream to a beach where they intend to camp out for the night. On the beach they meet some fellow teenagers whose parents are parked offshore in yachts. These one-percenters bring in the first real hint of truly dark clouds on the horizon (at least metaphorically) when they discuss the well-stocked bunkers their parents have outfitted, just in case they need to survive a coming environmental apocalypse.

When actual dark clouds move toward shore from the ocean, the kids hurry back to their parents in the great house, which is battered by a violent hurricane. The electricity goes out, flood waters surround the property, but the parents, unconcerned that anything bad is really going to happen, spend the night doing drugs and swapping spouses. The kids, giving up on their parents completely, decide to take matters into their own hands. They take one of the roomier cars and set off in an attempt to reach the ten-room house one of their families owns in New York’s Westchester county. But the storm has wreaked havoc all the way to New York and Boston, and the children, unable to make it further, wind up on a farm in Pennsylvania, near Bethlehem.

If that particular detail isn’t enough to clue you in, let me belabor the obvious. This is a novel full of biblical allusions, including, of course, an Eve who is forced to leave her Eden; a Noah in the form of Jack, who traps animals in the woods to save them from the flood; a Moses figure who leads the children to a promised land, goes up a hill to use his cell phone to call the absentee owner of that promised land and comes down with a set of “rules”; a Cain and Abel pair; a birth in a barn; a crucifixion; and a host of other examples, not the least of which is the disaster itself, framed as the beginning of a climate-change-induced apocalypse. And it is Jack, reading his Children’s Bible, who sees a number of parallels. Jack, with no prior religious education, tries to make sense of what he is reading in the light of what he is experiencing, and puts forward a new interpretation of the scriptures: When the authors of the book talk about “God,” Jack decides, it’s actually a “code word” for nature. “Jesus,” moreover, is the authors’ code for science:

“’And the proof is, there’s lots the same with Jesus and science,’ Jack says. ‘Like, for science to save us we have to believe in it. And same with Jesus. If you believe in Jesus he can save you.’”

As for the Holy Spirit, Jack finally reveals in the last pages of the book that this refers to the things we make—technology, perhaps, or one might say art (this may owe something to Dante, who called Nature the child of God, and Art the child of Nature—but that’s a whole new essay). This may be Millet’s subtle condemnation of contemporary “literary” novelists (as opposed to science fiction writers, perhaps) who have failed to address the climate crisis—the most important problem of our age because of its existential implications—and have, like the parents in this novel, brushed it off as something human ingenuity would solve or, worse, been led politicians and their sycophantic religious followers who advise us not to “believe” in science.

No such charge could be made against Millet’s fiction. She holds a Master’s degree in environmental policy from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and spent two years working for the Natural Resources Defense Council before taking a job as editor and staff writer for the Center for Biological Diversity, where she has been since 1999. Much of her fiction has focused on human beings and their shaky relationship with their environment: Her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, a collection of comic vignettes featuring celebrities’ encounters with other species, was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Her 2012 novel Magnificence showcases a taxidermy museum uncomfortably comprising extinct animals. But nowhere before has she so blatantly featured the coming mass extinction, an extinction possibly including the species that caused it: humankind.

This is what the children in the book get and the parents do not. Early on Eve says of the definitively un-woke parents:

“They aimed their conversation like a dull gray beam . . . What they said was so boring it filled us with frustration, and after more minutes, rage. Didn’t they know there were urgent subjects? Questions that needed to be asked?”

Chief among those questions is what to do about the climate crisis, which the parents and their government representatives have ignored and still do nothing, even at this late date. But the children know. They are embodied in Greta Thunberg chastising the adult leaders of the world for ignoring the real problem. At one point two of the book’s yacht kids, talking about their end-of-the-world bunkers, mention what would have been the parents’ old bugaboo, nuclear holocaust:

“The nuclear threat. So quaint.”

“It’s like, if only. Right?”

“The climate deal makes nukes look kind of sweet. Like being scared of cannons.”

“Slingshots.”

The biblical allusions to Jack’s Children’s Bible are, like the sense of tragedy, meaningless here, since to have any meaning we must ultimately be in a world made meaningful by human beings’ acceptance of God’s biblical injunction to act as stewards of the world. To do that, as Jack insists, we would have to believe in science. Despite its title, the book is not intended for children. Like Lord of the Flies, to which it has been compared, it’s aimed at parents. The kids already know. Maybe, just maybe it’s not too late for the parents.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

George C. Wolfe (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Netflix

Length: 1 hour 34 minutes

Names You Might Know: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

He Said: August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” sometimes called the “American Cycle,” is one of the great achievements of American theater. A series of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, is intended to chronicle the African American experience over the course of the last century. All but one of these dramas was nominated for the Tony Award for “Best Play” the year it premiered on Broadway, and that neglected play, Jitney, ended up winning the Tony when it was revived in 2017. Fences, the other play to win the Best Play Tony, also received the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, and Wilson’s The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer as well in 1987. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the first of Wilson’s plays to be nominated for the Tony, and is the second of the Pittsburgh Cycle (after 2016’s Fences) to be made into a major film through the efforts of Denzel Washington, who has expressed his intent to see all of the cycle on film.

Ma Rainey is the cycle play set in the 1920s. Specifically, it takes place during a recording session in a Chicago studio in 1927 (the only play of the cycle not set in Pittsburgh), and focuses on Ma Rainey, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” and her thorny relationship with her white manager and producer. Determined to control her own music, the crotchety and domineering Rainey cows everyone and bends them to her will—everyone except the young cornet player in her band, Levee, who has his own ideas about how to perform “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and is composing his own songs, which he hopes to sell to Ma’s producer. Meanwhile, he has his eye on Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae, and the other three band members, grizzled veterans all, poke fun at Levee’s ambitions.

Viola Davis is glorious as the formidable Ma Rainey. An Oscar winner for her role in Wilson’s Fences, she’s probably a lock for another nomination with this performance. But the film really belongs to Chadwick Boseman as Levee. In his final role before his tragic premature death from cancer earlier this year, Boseman lights up the screen with brazen charisma, youthful charm, and raw talent. Having already given an iconic performance earlier in 2020 in Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, Boseman has to be the sentimental favorite for a posthumous Oscar this year.

She Said: I didn’t realize the Pittsburgh Cycle included a play for each decade. My sequential and structured psyche just LOVES that. 

While I respect and admire August Wilson and his work, I didn’t have a lot of affection for Fences when we saw it in the theater (remember movie theaters? Sigh…). I think it is because I found the style of discourse and dialogue distracting. Wilson has a definite style, and his characters “hold forth” a great deal, which for me creates distance between me and their individual humanity. That connection is what I love about movies, so it’s harder for me to engage with material that has such a strong stamp by its creator—which is why I often don’t love Aaron Sorkin’s work: Every character sounds like the same person, just with different viewpoints and biographical details. 

But I did find this movie engaging because the performances were so stellar, just as I did for Fences. I can’t remember anyone Viola Davis was even in a scene with because when she was on screen, my eyes were riveted on her. Wow! So much energy, perfectly unleashed and restrained in turn. Boseman also lit every shot he was in from within with the verve and ambition of his character. I did respond to the conflict in this movie between an older generation with its experience and accomplishments and the young crew with its confidence and accomplishments ahead. 

He Said: Do you think your negative reaction to the “holding forth” of the characters might have something to do with the difficulties of adapting for the screen a script intended for the stage? The film is certainly “talkier” than the conventional Hollywood film—and, though there are attempts to set a few scenes out on the streets of Chicago, the setting is essentially all in the recording studio, often in the band’s claustrophobic rehearsal space. The fact is that the director of the film, George C Wolfe, is a highly successful Broadway director, having won a Tony for directing the musical Jelly’s Last Jam (about jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton) and moving on the following year to direct Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Milennium Approaches, for which he won another Tony in 1993. He directed the second part of Kushner’s classic, then directed Patrick Stewart in his famous production of The Tempest, and won another Tony for directing Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk in 1996. This is an incredible resume, but doesn’t involve a lot of film work. 

Also, the screenplay adaptation was done by veteran stage and screen actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who appeared under Wolfe’s direction in Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway, and won a Tony for his role in Wilson’s Seven Guitars in 1996. Santiago-Hudson’s writing credits are limited to his own play, Lackawanna Blues, which he also adapted for the screen in 2006. The point is both the director and screenwriter for this movie are coming from background in the “legitimate theater.” Is the film more stagey than screeny?

She Said: I don’t know about it being the problem with stage-to-screen adaptations. I loved Carnage, which was based on the Yasmina Reza play. I thought Ma Rainey was filmed really beautifully; the sets were lush and enveloping, so it wasn’t that I felt I was watching a play that was filmed. I think the way Wilson has characters talk to each other in lengthier speeches isn’t personally super enjoyable to me, but beyond my own idiosyncrasies, I found nothing to fault in this film. Personally, I think I’d enjoy the cycle of plays more if I could view them in chronological order. And that’s another idiosyncrasy of being She Said.

He Said: Well, of course they weren’t written in chronological order, and each does stand by itself, but I see your point. Anyway, overall, I was strongly moved by his film, especially because of the power of the performances, and in that light I want to mention one more performance—that of venerable character actor Glynn Thurman as Toledo, the band’s oldest member. Recently seen as Doctor Senator in the 2020 iteration of TV’s Fargo, Thurman plays a similar role here as the voice of wisdom, experience, and gentle stoicism, a kind of foil or mocking counterpart to Boseman’s adrenalin-charged aggressiveness. The sudden and shocking climax of the film involving him and Boseman is foreshadowed but still manages to be stunning. In the end, I’m giving this film four Hitchcocks.

She Said: I won’t fight you on this. The movie is an excellent adaptation, I am sure, and it is very, very good at what it’s good for.

This Week’s We Watched It and You Should Too
She Said: Unforgotten (series)

Hot Take: I am gobbling up this British crime drama that I’m streaming on Prime via an add-on for British shows. The first season aired in 2015 on ITV and the series stars Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as London detectives solving cold cases when the bodies are suddenly found. The emotional pain is almost unbearable as the lives of the people involved in one way or another is explored as the police close in on the killer decades later. But it’s lovely to see police force in which the boss praises her staff and shows compassion for those around her. 

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Money: A Suicide Note

Money: A Suicide Note

Martin Amis (1985)

Martin Amis, son of another acclaimed British novelist, Kingsley Amis (LuckyJim), is, I’m quite certain, better known in England than in the United States, having been ranked as  No. 19 on the London Times’ famous 2008 list of the “50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945” (his dad came in at No. 9). But this particular novel, Money: A Suicide Note, made enough of a splash in the States to have been named to Time magazine’s 2005 list of the “100 Best English-language novels published since 1923.” Since I have a secret goal of reading through all of those novels before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I picked this one up, not quite sure what I was going to get.

Amis himself has said that the book “is essentially a plotless novel. It is what I would call a voice novel,” adding that “If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed.” I would take issue with his contention that the novel is plotless—episodic, yes, but there is a plot structure that I’ll get to later. As for the voice, the protagonist/narrator John Self, a director of commercials seeking to make his first feature film, has a voice as distinctive as Holden Caulfield, or Augie March, or Humbert Humbert, but a good deal less likeable—even than Humbert, and that’s going some. Nabokov and Bellow are two of Amis’s chief inspirations for the novel, along with Heller’s Catch-22 and that prototypical English novelist, Dickens. 

The names in the novel are Dickensian. If you want a protagonist who’s a fat egoist addicted to excess, how can you give him a better name than “Self”? His money-grubbing unfaithful live-in girlfriend, Selina Street, seems one step above streetwalking, while his slick-talking producer is named Fielding Goodney, and he’s all about feeling good. And then there’s the venerable American actor booked to star in Self’s film, Lorne Guyland, a name that, if you happen to be British, you can’t pronounce without it sounding like the way certain New Yorkers pronounce “Long Island,” which is where the guy lives. Even Self’s car has an appropriate name: He drives a purple Fiasco.

In a nutshell, the book is Self’s confession of the ups and downs of his attempt to put together a film based on a story idea he has involving a father and son both romancing—to use a euphemism—the same young woman. The projected title of the film is Good Money, though that evolves instead into Bad Money as the project progresses. Self is a highly successful 35-year-old director of TV commercials for “smoking, drinking, junk food and nude magazines,” who spends most of the book wallowing in his own addictions to smoking, drinking, junk food and nude magazines, not to mention other forms of pornography. He also fills up his nights with drugs, gambling, hitting women, and obsessing about the getting and spending of money. He already has a lot of money, and there are a number of people who owe him money (none of whom ever repays him), but essentially he is a fat, overindulgent degenerate wanker who skates relatively unscathed through life because he has, you know it: money.

This is, of course, the ’80s, that decade of Ronald Reagan, of Margaret Thatcher, and of unbridled corporate greed, of Gordon Gekko’s iconic “Greed is Good” speech in Wall Street. Reviewers of Amis’s book have called it representative of the overriding spirit of its age, the kind of time capsule, perhaps that Bellow’s Augie March was to the ’50s, or Heller’s Catch-22 to the ’60s (despite its setting two decades earlier).

It’s when Self meets the American producer Goodney by chance on an airplane, the producer convinces him to meet with potential “big money” people to get the film financed, and then the idea for the film takes off. Self, himself half-British and half-American, shuffles back and forth between his home in London and his hedonistic home away from home in New York, meeting with the four principle stars of the film, each of whom is a pampered celebrity with a long list of demands that conflict with each other and with the projected details of the film. There is ageing star Lorne Guyland (supposedly based loosely on Kirk Douglas, as the entire book is inspired by Amis’s experiences as script writer for the ill-fated Douglas vehicle Saturn 3): Guyland wants to be able to beat up the younger guy in the film’s fight scene, and wants lots of nude sex scenes with both women. The young female lead, Butch Beausoleil, is a bit of a “dumb blonde” but not nearly as dumb as her young romantic co-star with the regrettable name of “Spunk” Davis (a name he sees no reason to change), who believes that “halibut” rhymes with “Malibu,” and as a born-again Christian won’t have sex on screen or play the drug dealer he’s cast as. And then there is big-name veteran actress Caduta Massi, who refuses any love scene with Guyland and wants at least five children in the film.

Meantime Self has to deal with harassing phone calls from “Frank the Phone,” who seems to be jealous of Self’s success and blames him for his own failure, and threatens to beat him up; and if that’s not enough, Self learns that his own father, Barry Self (who also owes him money) has a contract out on him to be beaten up. Things are not improved when the screenplay for Good Money (penned by a woman he tried to Harvey Goldstein) comes in and makes none of the actors happy. Self gets a London writer named, self-referentially enough, Martin Amis, whom he met in a pub, to rewrite the script, ultimately making everybody happy with scenes that Self plans to cut in the editing room.

You may wonder why any reader should care at all what happens to this fat hedonistic slob. Well, the fact is that Self is self-aware enough to engage in a deal of self-loathing, and is continually vowing to clean up his act—to quit smoking, to quit drinking, to quit his fast food and pornography addictions, to quit beating up women, again and again backsliding on his vows, though to his credit he does keep the one about hitting women except for one lapse, but it must be said he was mightily provoked. So at least he knows what a scum bag he is. What he never considers is dropping that dependence on money, the love of which is the root of all his evil.

For it isn’t true that Money is plotless. I won’t say anything specific that might act as a spoiler to anyone reading the novel, but The New York Times, in its review of the book, stated:

“The plot of Money is in a basic, grand tradition. A guy gets totalled.”

That grand tradition is the tradition of tragedy. If you remember from your Aristotle, the tragic hero is someone in some way superior to the average person (usually in power, status, or virtue, but in the case of John Self, in the possession of disposable wealth). He falls from this high position into ruin and/or death through some hamartia, variously interpreted as an “error of judgment” (Self errs by placing his trust in the wrong people—Goodney, Selina, his father Barry) or as a “tragic flaw” (Self’s hedonistic lifestyle). The hero suffers a shocking reversal or peripeteia, in a twist I certainly will not reveal here, and loses everything, but the suffering ends up having some kind of meaning, anagnorisis. In this case, it is Self’s realization after his fall: “With money, double-dazzle New York is a crystal conservatory. Take money away, and you’re naked and shielding your Johnson in a cataract of breaking glass.”

What keeps Money from being a true tragedy is the darkly comic, sardonic tone, similar to that of Catch-22, that permeates the book. True tragedy, born of an impulse to explain the presence of suffering in a moral universe, must presuppose a universe with meaning. But this world? At one point Self asks the rhetorical question “What is the point of me?” and here, as in much postmodern fiction, the point may be that there isn’t any point. This world is governed not by a god but by the blind force of capitalism, whose sole purpose is to make money by exploiting people’s basest natural impulses, hence the focus on alcohol, drugs, fast food, pornography. In a world that has no meaning but this, tragedy can’t exist. Only a regrettable fall off the money train. And that has no real effect beyond the Self.

This is a major novel. Four Shakespeares.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Borgen

Borgen

Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram and Tobias Lindholm (2010-2013)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Netflix

Length: 3 seasons of 10 episodes each 

Names You Might Know: How well do you know Danish actors? 

Language: In Danish with subtitles

She Said: When Netflix serves me a foreign-language television series, I’m all ears and eyes because of how completely sucked in I have been all year to such series on any platform—TrappedBron/Broen, The Beforeigners, Tehran, etc. Somehow, the Netflix algorithm knows about my Covid-isolated psyche and how much I miss all the trips we were going to take this year, and so it gives to me these substitutes, which I cling to like my online-shopping-tracking apps at Christmas. 

But not many scenes into this show, I started to doubt myself and the algorithm (well, mostly the algorithm). Clearly it was an inside look at Danish parliamentary politics, and while the lead was an engaging character, well-acted by a believable and appealing Scandinavian actor, how much did I care about the intricacies of a system I don’t understand except in the broadest of strokes? I always like seeing European cities I’ve traveled to and hearing another language, but I was afraid much of the drama would escape me without more context. I was wrong.

Not long after the inklings of doubt sprouted in my mind between subtitle screens, the unexpected occurs in dramatic Copenhagen scenes that hooked me then and there for the rest of this episode and 29 more: The ripples of an incident in the (private) personal life of TV1 reporter Katrine Fønsmark, who seeks help from ex-boyfriend Kasper Juul, who just happens to be the current “spin doctor” for a minor centrist party leader, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, are immediately felt through the halls of power in Christiansborg Palace, or “Borgen,” how Danes refer to the political center of their nation. The series follows these three characters and those close to them throughout its three seasons, and I was so grateful to get to be led along.

First, I loved the focus on a woman leader. Nyborg, who is played by beloved and highly respected Danish actor Sidse Babett Knudsen, is idealistic, driven, ambitious, self-assured andself-doubting, charismatic at crucial times as well as unable to see the obvious when it matters most to her marriage and family. In the first episodes, she rises to the top of the political shuffle after a close general election partly by speaking plainly and truthfully in a television debate in which the leading male rivals are focused on taking each other out quite effectively. She goes home to her husband and children and worries about her clothes being too tight to look good on TV. She struggles with her obligations—when she’s at home, she works, and when she’s at work, she dodges personal commitments and pays the price for doing so—but not in a cliché or tired “this is probably how women feel as imagined by male show creators” kind of way. 

Also, I loved that Birgitte Nyborg and all the characters that fill any of the series’s regular roles are complex individuals, and the 30 episodes of Borgenfollow Nyborg’s complexities as well as the intersecting triumphs and tribulations of Fønsmark and Juul (played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Pilou Asbækas, respectively), the large and small stakes of national politics and the noisy and quiet battles of personal relationships, both in the halls of government and at home. By focusing on the individuals at the heart of a very singular, foreign situation, the show becomes less local to Denmark and much more exportable to our living rooms.

Finally, the people became very, very real to me. Maybe it was because I was listening to them speak while reading the subtitles that made their words feel so much more a part of my own experience, or the fact that much like a play, there is so much talkingas characters seek to justify, cajole, explain, negotiate and rationalize their desires, hopes and needs. I found myself dreaming of them—mostly Nyborg—hearing a kind of dream Danish, and yet knowing without dream subtitles exactly what she wanted and how she thought she might get it. I wish I could watch it all over again for the first time.

He Said: So I imagined while watching and reading this series (and sometimes you have to read pretty fast because those Danes just refuse to talk slow for us foreigners) that this experience must be something like the experience Danish or German or French viewers must have had watching episodes of The West Wing. How oddly antagonistic our two-party system must have seemed to them even at that time. I suppose that some may have wondered if their system might be improved if it were more like ours. 

Because I certainly had those thoughts about the Danish system. Factions within parties in the United States are often able to push parties in directions the majority of the party may be unhappy with. In Denmark, heck, you just start yourself a new party and see who salutes, and maybe you can get a handful of seats in Parliament. Since no one party has a majority, coalitions must be formed in order to form a government, and people from a variety of allied parties bargain for seats in the cabinet. And the shifting alliances make for pretty riveting TV.

I do want to point out that Kaspar Juul, like me, has a double “u” in his name, and that’s what happens in Scandinavia so stop spelling my name wrong, people.

But I digress. I am curious in getting your take, Jones, on the role played by the media in Borgen. Fønsmark and Juul switch positions halfway through the series, so that he works for the media and she becomes a political media relations consultant. As someone who’s worked in both fields yourself, what do you think of their portrayal here?

She Said: Thanks for reminding me of another aspect of the show I love, Ruud (with two u’s, one d)! I’ve worked for daily newspapers, and I’ve worked in public relations and marketing, though never as a “spin doctor” for a political candidate or office holder. I did go from working at a daily paper that reported on a university to running that university’s public relations and marketing, so I personally do understand that shift, and I really did enjoy the portrayals of both the ethics and goals on both sides in Borgen.

Personally, I love journalism movies and shows (The Paper is one of my all-time favorites), and the coverage of the government—the fourth estate—is portrayed as so integral to a working democracy here. I loved seeing the give and take between reporters and their subjects, as well as the complexity of their goals and masters. All media aren’t presented equally, either, in Borgen. TV1 is clearly of a higher standard than its rival sensationalist paper and channel, the Ekspres, run by a political foe of the Moderates and Nyborg specifically. Fønsmark’s media boss, Torben Friis (played by Søren Malling) is a particularly fascinating character given the forces that pressure him throughout the series, journalistically, professionally, ethically and personally. 

On a related note, one of the fun things about watching a show in another language is hearing what words and phrases from your own language make their way over in the original, and apparently, “spin doctor” is one such phrase, though the Danish definitely seem to use it as almost the formal job title. As someone with a master’s degree in communications management (PR) and formal accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America (APR), “spin doctor” is a term I hate: Ethical public relations is the strategic management of mutually beneficial relationships, not “spin,” which to my mind is akin to lying, or at least obfuscation. But that didn’t stop me from chiming “Look! I speak Danish!” every time Nyborg said “spin doctor” because I didn’t need the titles to tell me who she was talking about. 

He Said: Yes, the different levels of journalistic integrity were pretty interesting to watch. Obviously we have the same sort of thing in the United States, though most of the insidious and terribly unprincipled outlets here tend to be online—we don’t have quite as much of the tabloid craziness one sees in Europe and in this show. On another note, I was glad to see that the creators of the series and the principle actors have agreed to go ahead with a fourth season, to be aired in 2022.

Rating:

She Said: Obviously, I give this four Hitchcocks. It’s got all the goods, brilliant and believable writing, plot-driven verve and energy, engaging and lovable—despite their obvious flaws—characters in a beautiful setting. It’s both intimate and grandiose, as well as incredibly touching. 

He Said: I too found the series to be well-written and well-acted (especially on the part of Knudsen as Nyberg), and with excellent production values. It has a special kind of educational function for Americans, I think, in the way it presents European politics. And as with The WestWing, there’s something refreshing about seeing ethical politicians, even if they are fictional. It would be churlish of me to nitpick and give it a lower rating, so I’ll go with the four Hitchcocks as well.

This Week’s We Watched It and You Should Too:
He Said: Let Him Go
Hot Take: We did watch Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in this thriller/domestic drama last weekend. Mainly because as She Said told me, “Kevin Costner is not not hot.” It will certainly manipulate your emotions—what would you do if your dead son’s widow married a blatant scumbag who splits with her and your toddler grandson without leaving a forwarding address? Anyway, there’s enough intensity there to keep you glued to your seat for a couple of hours, so this is probably one of those things it would be worth watching. (It’s a $20 streaming rental on Amazon.)

NOW AVAILABLE:

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

How to Raise an Elephant

How to Raise an Elephant

Alexander McCall Smith (2020)

This latest installment in Smith’s enormously popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series—the 21st—is newly released (as of November 24), and if you are a fan of the series, you will find it a very comfortable read. Within a few paragraphs you are back in Botswana with Mma Ramotswe and her friends, where you can have some bush tea and a slice of Mma Potokwani’s fruit cake and discuss Charlie’s latest  misadventure. But if you aren’t already familiar with the series, you might want to save this book until you have read several of the previous volumes in the series. Otherwise, this will seem a strange “detective” book to you, since there are no clients in it and no real mysteries to be solved—just a few personal questions and problems that need a solution. And the very leisurely pace will puzzle you, until you realize that the meat of the book is actually in the discussions about life taking place between the characters and not in the action of solving crimes.

The questions/problems/mysteries to be solved in this installment of the series are, first, what’s going on with the couple who move in next to Mma Ramotswe and her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who seem to be at war with one another? Second, what is Mma Ramotswe to make of the request from her distant cousin, Blessing Mompati, who comes to the agency to ask for money to pay for a hip replacement for another relative, Tefo Kgomo? Tefo, a native of South Africa who has lived in Botswana for many years, cannot get the operation paid for by the Bostwana health care system because he was once convicted of stealing a goat. And finally, there is the issue of the elephant. 

It seems that Charlie—part-time mechanic in Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage and part time detective in Mma Ramotswe’s agency—has agreed to take care of an orphaned baby elephant in his uncle’s back yard, though how he can possibly care for the elephant long term, or stop it from causing damage or harm to others as it grows larger, is beyond the young man. This is a problem, especially since the friend who stuck Charlie with the elephant has been talking to butchers about how much they might pay for elephant meat.

The most trying of these difficulties for Mma Ramotsswe personally is the request for money from Blessing, a request that both Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and Mma Makutsi believe to be some kind of scam, a belief that for Mma Makutsi becomes a certainty when she begins to look into Tefo’s criminal conviction. As for her neighbors’ hostile relationship, Mma Ramotswe finds only a kind of intractable resentment for which she can see no solution.

The orphan elephant, however, may be a problem for which a solution might be found, if Mma Ramotswe can consult the local expert on orphans (though mainly of the human variety), Mma Potokwani. If Charlie, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and the young mechanic Fanwell can get the elephant to Mma Potokwani’s orphan farm secretly at night in Mma Ramotswe’s little white van, all may turn out all right. But can the old van—almost as much a character in the series as the rest—get the job done?

If you know this series, you won’t be surprised that by the end of the book, lessons have been learned about living charitably and with honor, about not prejudging people based on details you may not understand, and about living peacefully with our fellow beings, including individuals of the pachyderm persuasion. Mma Ramotswe’s neighbors demonstrate the noxious atmosphere that an unforgiving nature can create, and Mma Makutsi has a revelation that undercuts her tendency to judge others harshly.

But perhaps most memorably, we as readers learn something about elephants. It is difficult to imagine how anyone, after reading the later chapters of this novel, can ever think of elephants as dumb brutes who might be destroyed for their valuable ivory, especially after reading of how orphaned elephants who are raised by humans and let back into the wild will return to their benefactors to show off to them their own new calves.

The story is told at a leisurely pace, perhaps even more leisurely than usual, and as in the earlier novels, one is left with the impression that the little, everyday things in life are the things that life is truly made of. You may even learn something from the conversations between the characters—such as whether or not men are worth having around. That is why I say that if you haven’t read other books in this series, this is probably not the one you should start with. Much of the enjoyment here depends on your familiarity with these characters, and in term of plot not as much happens here as in some of the other books. It’s still worth reading if you’re a fan of Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. And McCall-Smith’s evocative prose always brings Bortswana’s capital city of Gabarone alive for me—which is a bonus during a pandemic when we can’t physically travel anywhere  So I’ll give How to Raise an Elephant three Tennysons.

NOW AVAILABLE:

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Mank

Mank

David Fincher (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Streaming on Netflix

Length:2 hours, 12 minutes

Rated: R for language

Names You Might Know: Gary Oldman,Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Lily Collins

He Said“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, you can only hope to leave the impression of one,” says Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), title character of David Fincher’s new self-consciously meta-film Mank: He is explaining the narrative structure of his screenplay for Citizen Kane—the glimpses we get of Kane’s life from multiple points of view.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of film knows the huge place that Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane holds in that history. It held the top spot on AFI’s original list of the “100 Greatest American Films,” and held that spot again on the revised AFI list ten years later. Fincher (an Oscar-nominee for both The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has very consciously emulated that nonlinear storytelling technique in Mank, which ostensibly takes place in 1940 in an isolated farmhouse rented by Welles (Tom Burke of TV’s C.B. Strike) where Mank, immobilized by a half-body cast after a car accident, has 60 days to write a script for Welles’ new film. But a series of flashbacks give us glimpses of Mank as MGM studio hack, and of his rocky relationships with studio head L.B. Mayer (Arliss Howard of Moneyball) and production head Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley of TV’s Victoria), and also with media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance of Game of Thrones) and his mistress, the comic actress Marion Davies (an absolutely brilliant Amanda Seyfried, of Mama Mia: Here WeGo Again). Among other things, these flashbacks demonstrate Mankiewicz’s motivations for his thinly-veiled skewering of Hearst in the character of his screenplay’s protagonist, Charles Foster Kane.

But the film, in glorious black and white, emulates Kane in so many other ways—its use of deep-focus photography (if you notice such things), its referencing of famous Kane scenes (such as the scene when Kane comes into the room in which Susan Alexander has tried to kill herself) which are only likely to make an impression on viewers fairly well acquainted with Kane—I wonder if non-Kane fans will take much away from this movie?

She Said: I agreed to watch this for my Kane-loving husband as what I figured would be a “good-for-you” movie. I would be edified, I would learn and grow, but I might be scrolling Instagram some throughout it as well. While I respect Citizen Kane and understand what an influential film it is, I don’t have affection for it. I’m not emotionally engaged by it, so I don’t feel the payoffs the film grants those who are. I figured I’d feel the same way about this movie as I do about its origins.

At the same time, I freaking love Gary Oldman. LOVE. It’s love. If you scanned my brain while showing me photos of various things, an orange, chocolate cake, Antarctica, etc., when you show me a photo of my iPhone or a photo of Gary Oldman, the love centers will light up. He absolutely disappears into a role, because every cell in his body shows up to work on set, ready to perform. I was pretty fresh off being displeased by Emily in Paris, so I had some negative emotions about Lily Collins (I won’t get too granular in naming those feelings), but she is good as Mank’s nurse, though her subplot as wife of an MIA British airman is manipulative and ineffective, she’s fine. I agree with He Said that Amanda Seyfried is luminous, even in black and white (which not all of us find glorious), as Marion Davies. When she’s on screen, even opposite my beloved Oldman, I only have eyes for her.

I enjoyed the Hollywood history aspects of this film, and I was right that I would learn and grow watching it. And I think the choice to shoot in black and white is fitting because it’s an origin story and also a big allusion to Kane that Kaneophiles (not me) will find lighting up their Kane-loving emotional brain centers. (Not mine, though.)

He Said: Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. There is yet another Kane-related aspect of this film that most certainly will escape non-Kaneites: The script, written by Fincher’s late father back in the ’90s, was based largely on a lengthy New Yorker article published back in 1971 by critic Pauline Kael called “Raising Kane,” in which she revived the original controversy over the authorship of the Oscar-winning screenplay, arguing that Mankiewiczshould get sole credit for the writing. The film does make it clear that Mank originally agreed to ghost-write the film for Welles (Welles’ contract with RKO required him to write, produce, direct and star in two films for the studio, so he had to be credited as writer of the movie). But that is not the main thrust of the film. It seems to me that the film is really about the writing process, and all the experiences and relationships that are transformed by the writer into art. Mank’s relationship with Davies is really the heart of this movie, and there is not a little shame in the film that Mank uses this relationship to create the character of Kane’s untalented and unappreciated second wife, Susan Alexander. Do you think that’s the real theme here? As a sidelight, I just want to add that I was tickled by the awesome cameo of Bill Nye the Science Guy as writer and gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair).

She Said: You bring up something I meant to address in my initial pass: I did really enjoy the writing-life aspects of the film very much. I don’t know if I experienced the Mank-Davies relationship as the heart of the film because, while I really enjoyed those scenes and could see there was something lovely between them, it wasn’t quite developed enough for me, BUT what was developed enough to engage me emotionally the most was the depiction of the writer’s life and what the writer processes into art. Thank you for reminding me of that, because it’s subtle, but to me that was the big payoff of the film.

He Said: Right. So, speaking of writing, the film implies (even directly states in a closing textual note) that Citizen Kane was Mankiewicz’s last hurrah, that he didn’t do much afterwards. So the film is kind of presented as the fading, alcoholic writer’s climactic final gasp, through which he attains immortality. The fact is, Mank was nominated for another Oscar the following year for his screenplay for Pride of the Yankees, the classic Lou Gehrig biography. And he wrote several more screenplays, including, ten years later, another baseball movie, Pride of St Louis (the Dizzy Dean story). But anyway, in the end, I loved the movie, loved the retro- and meta-qualities of it, loved the story and loved the performances, especially of Oldman and Seyfried, both of whom, I predict, will be nominated for Academy Awards, for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. (Hollywood, after all, loves to honor movies about Hollywood). I say we give this movie four Hitchcocks.

She Said: I’ll give it three Soderberghs; It’s pretty good at what it’s good for, but you helped me realize that a) the emotional heart of the Davies-Mank relationship could have been more pronounced and 2) the fact-skewing of the ending is annoying and unnecessary.

This Week’s We Watched It So You Don’t Have To:
She Said: Paranoidon Netflix.
Hot Take:Ridiculously written cliff-hangers in an interesting mystery featuring mostly unlikeable to detestable characters.

NOW AVAILABLE:

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

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.