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

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews

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

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Marshall

Marshall

Reginald Hudlin (2017)

Since Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner showed us, in the successful and acclaimed Lincoln in 2012, that a biopic does not have to be an unwieldy womb-to-tomb conglomeration of scenes in something like, for example, Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic The Last Emperor (1987), in which an entire life is put on display for a few hours and a common thread is sought to give the story unity. Instead, the new biopic tends to pick one significant event from the subject’s life that in some way epitomizes what that person means or what that person stood for, and to explore that particular incident as fully as possible. In the case of Marshall, director Reginald Hudlin (House Party) and his writers, Jacob and Michael Koskoff, choose to focus on a single case early in the career of Thurgood Marshall, a quarter of a century before Lyndon Johnson appointed him the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

The film focuses not on what might have been the obvious choice—Marshall’s victory in “Brown v. the Board of Education,” the Supreme Court case that made school segregation illegal in the United States—but on Marshall’s work in the little-known “State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell,” a case the 32-year old Marshall took on early in his career as the NAACP’s top lawyer. Politically, it was important at the time—January 1941—to show that cases involving bias in the courts were not limited to the South, and to elicit contributions to the NAACP from some wealthier supporters in the North. These motives are not always clear in the film, but for the most part the filmed depiction of the trial follows the actual case fairly closely, except for one particular revelation that causes a dramatic turn in the movie, but which in reality was clear from the beginning of the case.

Chadwick Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall. This marks the third time in five years that Boseman has been tapped to play a trailblazing African American icon (He was Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up). But I wouldn’t worry about these parts limiting his choices of roles down the road. He appears next year as Marvel’s Black Panther, which I’m pretty sure will determine the course of his future career. His foil and co-counsel in the film is Josh Gad playing local Connecticut lawyer Sam Friedman. Gad, who earned a Tony nomination for his starring role in Broadway’s Book of Mormon, may be best known for voicing Olaf in Disney’s Frozen. As the Jewish lawyer pushed into the Spell case against his own better judgment, Gad’s character here is really the most interesting one in the film, the one that goes through a dynamic change. Marshall is compelling for his intrinsic identity and focus, and Friedman provokes empathy through his evolution. (Or something like that. I want you to be careful not to seem to favor the white character.)

The film opens with Marshall in Oklahoma, defending a young black man in danger of execution after the police had beaten a false confession from him. This is immediately contrasted by a scene in which Friedman successfully defends an insurance company when they refuse to pay off a claim from a claimant in a wheelchair. Though he seems conflicted by his victory for his reprehensible client, this is not the guy you assume will turn out to be a powerful advocate for civil rights. His partner and brother Irvin, however, has promised the local NAACP rep that Friedman will plead with the court to have Marshall (who is not a member of the Connecticut bar) admitted as counsel for the defense in the Spell case. Supposedly, that’s all Friedman will be asked to do.

The case is hardly one that Friedman would ever have taken on his own: A To Kill a Mockingbird-type case in which Spell, a black chauffeur with a spotty record (Sterling K. Brown from T.V.’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson and This Is Us), is accused of rape by his white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, last seen in Deepwater Horizon), who claims he also tried to kill her by throwing her off of a bridge. But Friedman is forced to conduct the defense himself—though he has never been a trial lawyer before—because Judge Colin Foster (James Cromwell), who happens to be a family friend of the prosecutor, Loren Willis (Dan Stevens of T.V.’s Downton Abbey), rules that while Marshall can advise Friedman as co-counsel, he is barred from speaking a single word in the courtroom.

Gad is remarkable here, and we are allowed to see something of his family and social life. The background of his family in Europe and their oppression under the Nazi regime form a mute but powerful background to the racial injustices in the film, and begin to provide a motivation for Friedman’s conversion. Hudson manages to be sympathetic in her role as Potiphar’s wife to this new Joseph, and Brown comes across as a complex and layered character rather than simply a sympathetic potential martyr. Cromwell has less opportunity in this script to go beyond his role as a biased and bigoted judge, and the same is really true of Stevens as the prosecutor. But a look at the accounts of the trial itself that lies behind the film suggests that the depiction of the prosecutor is in fact fairly accurate.

The characterization of Marshall himself, though, must be at the center of this film. The task is difficult for Bozeman, as we are given what is essentially a traditional courtroom drama in which our protagonist is forced to remain silent: Think A Few Good Men with a mute Tom Cruise. Or what turns into a buddy movie in which the straight man has no lines: Think Rainman with…well, a mute Tom Cruise. In any case, Marshall is seen directing the trial from behind the scenes with Friedman as essentially his marionette. We also witness him chafing at the collar put on him by the judge, and exploding into high rhetoric with the reporters outside the courthouse when he is unmuzzled. He comes across as an articulate and savvy crusader for racial justice, confident at times to the point of arrogance in his public life. His private life is hinted at with a few obligatory scenes with his wife regarding their difficulties in having children, but one flaw in the movie is the scarcity of these private moments and the failure to integrate them into the overall depiction of the man, whose inner life remains something of a mystery to us.

More of a hole in the film is, I think, its failure to address the concern that Friedman brings up about the motivations of Marshall and the NAACP in the specific case of Joseph Spell. Early in the film, Friedman refuses to give the case to the communist party lawyers, because he believes they will use Spell as a kind of martyr for political capital. Later he wants to know if Marshall and the NAACP are doing the same thing. He never gets an answer. Perhaps the filmmakers have left the question open to allow the audience to decide for themselves. If so, the answer is ambiguous. Or perhaps they forgot they raised the question at all. If so, they really should have answered it.

Still, this is a thought-provoking and well-acted film on limited screens in a week where the three big, multiple-screen and heavily hyped films had Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 7 percent, 10 percent, and 8 percent. I think of it as a gift horse whose mouth I’m not looking in too deeply, and I’m giving it three solid Tennysons.

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Angela Robinson (2017)

Turns out the real-life origin story of Wonder Woman is just as interesting as the fictional one. But it’s definitely R rated, so you might be less inclined to bring your kids to see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the new film out this week from writer/director Angela Robinson.

Obviously, with the recent Wonder Woman epic passing $800 million in global gross income, the time seems right for the release of this film, though it is showing at only one screen in central Arkansas—at Riverdale. This limited release seems to have been the rule nationwide, since, though this was the film’s opening weekend, it did not crack the top ten films in ticket sales—even with extremely weak competition.

The film’s very unconventional subject matter very likely has something to do with those weak numbers, I would guess. The film, “based on a true story” as they say, explores the lives of Harvard-educated psychology professor William Moulton Marston and his wife and research partner Elizabeth, and their lab-assistant turned threesome-partner Olive Byrne. William and Elizabeth are the inventors of the modern lie-detector, while Olive is the niece of feminist activist Margaret Sanger, and their polyamorous relationship, underscored by Marston’s radical DISC theory of human psychology, inspired Marston ultimately to create the character of Wonder Woman in 1941 as what he saw as an alternative to the violent, masculine justice imposed by characters like Superman. When a controversy erupts over the sexually suggestive bondage scenes so prevalent in the early Wonder Woman comics, Marston is called on to defend his creation.

This film opens with Marston being interviewed by a woman leading a crusade for decency in comics, wanting to know what all the bondage is about in Wonder Woman. The story, then is told essentially in flashback, as Marston contemplates what got him to this point. It begins at Harvard, or more precisely Radcliffe College, in 1928, where we meet Marston (Luke Evans of Beauty and the Beast) and wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall of The BFG and, way back, Vicki Christina Barcelona). At this point, Marston is trying to explain to students his newly formed DISC theory of human behavior, which involves Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. In the decades since, followers of Marston have seen these as personality types, and developed measurements, not unlike the Meyers-Briggs test, to categorize people in the workplace. Marston himself, however, seems to have seen these as the key to human relationships, particularly sexual ones. People find their greatest happiness, he argues, when they submit to a “loving authority.”

At the same time, he and Elizabeth are still trying to get their lie detector to work, and Elizabeth is complaining that the patriarchal establishment at Harvard will not grant her a Ph.D. because of the blatant sexism of the times. Enter Olive (Bella Heathcote from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and TV’s Man in the High Castle), a woman from a family of feminist royalty who was raised by nuns, and who becomes the Marstons’ graduate assistant. There are some mutual sparks flying between both Marstons and Olive, and in a somewhat contrived scene with their lie detector, Olive reveals she in love with both of the Marstons, and William that he loves both women. After some initial resistance, especially by Elizabeth, William pushes for the trio to act upon their feelings, and to hell with what society thinks.

Part of the new relationship involves games of bondage and submission. In one rather silly scene, the Marstons, under the guise of “research,” voyeuristically witness a “spanking” ritual in Olive’s sorority, a ritual that Olive and William, at least, are aroused by. William also begins to visit a local fetishist, where he learns all about tying up his partners. The fetishist delivers the fairly awful line “love is pain,” and while William believes that these bondage and S and M fetishes are illustrations of his psychological theories about dominance and submission, he also is convincing himself and his lovers that these desires are “normal.” The title of his 1928 book on DISC theory was, after all, Emotions of Normal People.

The Marstons’ living arrangement apparently leads to their dismissal from Harvard. We aren’t told definitively why, but when Elizabeth cries “we’ve been fired,” that is the implication. But the trio stays together, though neither of the Marstons will ever be hired in academia again. Eventually Marston comes up with the brainstorm that creates Wonder Woman, whom he models on both women in his life, and in whom he embodies his ideals of dominance and submission to a loving authority. Her “lasso of truth” even adds the whole lie detector motif—as well as the bondage theme—to her creation.

Anything more would be spoiling the ending, though the movie is less about plot than theme. Chiefly the film seems to be a bold statement that, although relationships like the one depicted here are always portrayed in the media or in popular consciousness as flawed, abnormal, and exploitive, there really are people who are perfectly happy in such relationships and remain so. The film challenges us to expand our ideas of the “normal.” Those who oppose the Marstons are portrayed as almost cartoonish in their bigotry. Though the script at times seems a little heavy-handed (love is pain!), the three principal actors manage to create characters with whom we sympathize, and so make it very difficult to regard them as “others.”

The surviving members of the Marston family, including his direct grandchildren, have condemned the film as “lies.” There are certainly a lot of demonstrable inaccuracies in it. The Marston’s lie detector was actually invented in 1915, and William published an article on it in 1917. Thus the dramatic “confessions” made while hooked to the lie detector would not have actually occurred. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1921, but was never a professor there. He taught at American University in Washington, D.C. and at Tufts University in Massachusetts until moving to California in 1929. Elizabeth had a law degree from Boston University and received an M.A. from Radcliffe in 1921, but there is no indication she ever took courses toward a Ph.D. Olive was Marston’s research assistant at Tufts University in 1925, and apparently did allow Marston to attend Baby Parties at her sorority, where he did research on his DISC theory. This is the meaning of “based on” a true story.

One likely source for the film’s story is the recent book The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (though I did not see the book credited in the film). The book suggests that there may be a bit of whitewashing of Marston going on in the film. Whereas the film strongly implies that the lesbian attachment between Elizabeth and Olive was a major motivation behind the initial three-way affair, the book in contrast asserts that Marston’s desire for Olive was the reason the affair started, and that he actually threatened to leave Elizabeth if she did not get on board.

Be that as it may, Marston’s creation of Wonder Woman really was motivated by an attempt to empower women by influencing young girls. Marston’s relationship with Elizabeth and Olive may have been less empowering than the film makes it appear, but he truly seems to have believed that dominance was better in the hands of women, who were more likely to act with “loving authority” and thereby bring about true happiness. And it does seem as if the unconventional relationship these three enjoyed was functional and supportive. Kudos to the film for tackling a difficult subject and doing so tastefully. I wish fewer liberties had been taken with the facts, and that the script had been stronger. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (2017)

What I remember about the much-hyped tennis match between the remarkable Billie Jean King, then the top women’s player in the world, and the 55-year-old former men’s Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs, was that we all thought it was a joke. Riggs had won Wimbledon in 1939—34  years before. How could that old man possibly think he could even stay on the court with the young, healthy and dominant King at the top of her game? I mean, sure, if King had been matched against, say, Jimmy Connors, then in his prime, it would have been a different story, with the man’s strength being perhaps insurmountable even if other skills were essentially equal. But Riggs? Come on.

But apparently I, and the people in my circle of friends and acquaintances at the time (basically graduate students in literature), were not exactly in the mainstream of public opinion (go figure). Even if the film was going to some lengths to underscore the secondary status of women’s tennis—and, by extension, women’s rights—at the time (1973), it was something of a rude shock to see the actual historical commentary by Howard Cosell at the match in the Astrodome, so condescending and misogynistic as it seems today, yet apparently absolutely typical at the time. So apparently, the vast majority of folks thought Riggs was going to dominate Billie Jean.

What I also believed at the time was that Riggs wasn’t at all serious about the outrageous things he said about women—how they belonged in the bedroom and the kitchen and nowhere else. He was essentially a clown, I figured, who was making himself into a caricature, even a parody, of the “male chauvinist pig” stereotype flourishing at the time. He was just trying to stir up interest in an event that ultimately drew 30,000 fans to the Astrodome, and reached a television audience of 90 million. And about that, if the accuracy of the film can be trusted, I was completely correct. What I wasn’t quite prepared for is how many people actually held such beliefs seriously. That was disheartening, but at least Riggs wasn’t running for president.

The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who gave us the irresistibly upbeat Little Miss Sunshine, take on this material, which in the script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) is less about one specific sporting event as it is about a particular moment in history and the lives of two particularly colorful characters who came together at that moment and played an entertaining tennis match.

The film opens in 1972, just after King (Emma Stone, coming straight off her La La Land Oscar) has just won the U.S. Open and become the first woman in tennis to top $100,000 in income. Immediately we cut to a meeting between King and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and several male members of the tennis establishment, led by former pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), in which King and Heldman are bringing up the huge discrepancy in pay between winners of men’s and women’s tournaments. “Men are more of a draw; the men are simply more exciting to watch,” Kramer mansplains. “Eight times more exciting?” King wants to know.

When the sport’s organizers refuse to address the issue, King withdraws from the establishment and founds her own women’s tennis circuit with eight other pros and with the sponsorship of Virginia Slims cigarettes (“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”), obtained by Heldman, who keeps trying to get the women to light up occasionally on camera to keep the sponsor happy.

When former pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) hears about the new women’s circuit intended to protest the small purses in women’s tennis, he makes a comment about players in tennis’s “senior circuit” being shortchanged as well, a bare hint of a motivation beneath the hustle, but that’s the last we hear of any such concerns. Riggs is presented as a hustler, a promoter, a lover of the spotlight stifled by a 9 to 5 office job in his father-in-law’s business, and a compulsive gambler. His frustration at being a “has been” when he was once one of the top players in the world meets his huckster’s recognition of a golden opportunity to cash in on Billie Jean’s defiance of the tennis establishment. But when he calls her with the idea of a “Battle of the Sexes” match, she dismisses the idea as the publicity stunt that it is, and turns him down.

Not to worry. Riggs has always got a backup. When Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), former women’s grand slam winner, wins the 1973 U.S Open, Riggs turns to her as likely substitute, and Court, lured by the $35,000 purse, agrees to meet him. To her it’s also a meaningless exhibition, and when Riggs defeats her handily she  is disappointed but doesn’t seem to see it as a major setback for women in general. Unfortunately, the rest of the sports world, particularly the tennis media, begins to make noise as if Riggs was right: Any man can beat any woman at any time. And the implication is, at anything. There’s no way Billie Jean can let that go, and the match is on.

A large part of the movie is about the hype, and that’s mostly Riggs’ job. He clowns through all kinds of public appearances and doesn’t do much training, apparently overconfident after the ease of his victory over Court, and putting his faith in a regimen of vitamin supplements his trainer swears by. But in private, Riggs’ personal life is going through a very rocky period, as his long-suffering wife Priscilla (a welcome Elisabeth Shue) finally throws him out of the house when he continues to break his vows to stop gambling (he even has an ongoing card game with his therapist during sessions). At the same time, he is trying to restore a relationship with his estranged son, to whom he claims to have all kinds of plans, only to get the response, “I’ve heard them all before.”

But Billie Jean’s private life is going through its own twists and turns in the lead up to the much-hyped match. On the long tennis tour, King, who travels without her spouse, like the rest of the women (except Court), becomes romantically involved with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough of Birdman). The two begin to room together on the road, and Billie Jean tries to keep the affair secret, not only because of her husband, but also because of what that kind of scandal might do to the budding women’s tennis renaissance she is spearheading. Court, who is aware of the relationship, is highly offended by it, but the tour’s gay clothing designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) gives her support and a confidante. Ultimately, Billie Jean’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell of Bridge of Spies) becomes aware of the affair after all. His response is memorable for its humanity. No small roles.

By the time the match occurs, it is actually anti-climactic, since the movie has really been about human relationships, about justice and tolerance, about dealing with our personal demons and about how our partners live with those things. Or don’t. Carell has the flashier role here as the flamboyant Riggs, though his Riggs is mainly surface, with only very rare descents into the psyche. And perhaps that was the way Riggs himself was. Stone is far more understated as the introverted King, who has many balls in the air, only one of which is tennis. King’s two blocking figures, Jack Kramer (Pullman)—the personification of anti-feminist discrimination in tennis—and Margaret Court (McNamee)—the personification of society’s non-acceptance of same-sex couples—are presented pretty two-dimensionally. This is particularly unfair to Kramer, who was executive director and founder, in 1972, of the Association of Tennis Professionals. Kramer actually led a boycott of Wimbledon in 1973 when a Croatian player was denied the right to play in the tournament, so his history of advocacy for the underdog against the system is fairly strong. As for Court, she definitely is an opponent of LGBTQ rights, having just recently claimed that a Marriage Equality law, if passed, would destroy Christmas in Australia. So while her role in the film is two-dimensional, it is probably not inconsistent with the facts.

I did think that Cummings’ role might have been worth beefing up. As it is, it’s little more than a cameo. But his character, Ted Tinling, had started out as a tennis player himself, then became a fashion designer for women players, whose designs were so controversial that he was banned from Wimbledon for 33 years. The openly gay Tinling designed tennis wear for King, Martina NavratilovaChris EvertEvonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1986. I wonder if Cummings’ role was bigger in the original script, but got edited in a move to cut back on the social commentary of the film. Which would be strange, since the film seems bent on making the tennis match a more significant event sociologically than it really was. I’d like to rate it higher, but this little bit of uncertainty about what the movie wants to be when it grows up makes me give it three Tennysons.

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

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American Made

American Made

Doug Liman (2017)

In real life, Barry Seal was a drug smuggler turned DEA informant and, ultimately, a CIA tool (on one assignment) involved in the Reagan White House’s obsession with ridding Nicaragua of the communist Sandinistas by any means necessary. So when Doug Liman’s new film American Made says that it is “based on a true story,” it does have this kernel of truth. And in fact the last twenty minutes of the film contain more actual historical facts than the first ninety minutes, which are largely the product of the fertile imagination of screenwriter Gary Spinelli (Stash House). Spinelli was certainly inspired by Seal’s improbable real life and the geopolitics of the early ’80s, as well as by the style of Martin Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas, which this film resembles in its mood and narrative technique.

In American Made, it’s Tom Cruise who takes on the Henry Hill role of Seal, who narrates his own story in motel rooms night after night in 1986, looking back at events. It’s unclear what he plans to do with the tapes—use them as evidence, or as leverage if someone comes after him? In any case, the tone he adopts in these narrative recordings is light, amoral and even boastful, despite the questionable legality—and morality—of the events he’s recapping. It’s this tone more than anything else that calls Scorsese to mind. Liman and Cruise worked together previously in the hit sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow, but Cruise’s character in this one is far more like his Maverick way back in Top Gun—cocky, swaggering, irreverent—but far more sleazy and, ultimately, far less honorable.

The film opens in 1978, when Barry Seal is a young T.W.A. pilot who amuses himself on long overseas flights by turning off his autopilot and putting the plane into a lurch until the oxygen masks fall, just to scare the passengers before he comes on the PA system and apologizes for that “little bit of turbulence.” We see that Barry is a something of a loose cannon and bored enough with the mundane day-to-day aspects of his job to do something a bit dangerous for an adrenaline rush. So we are not surprised when, approached by a CIA operative named “Schafer” (the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson of mother!, Harry Potter, Star Wars), who wants him to photograph guerilla camps in Central America in a twin-prop Aerostar 600, Barry says yes.

Of course, he can’t tell his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright, best known for TV work in series like Parks and Recreation and Marry Me) that he’s quit his TWA job. And unfortunately, though he risks life and limb to bring back great pictures of communist guerilla camps in Guatemala and El Salvador, and he makes secret deliveries and pickups in Panama for the CIA with a guy named Norriega, he does not seem to be bringing home enough money to support Lucy and his growing family. So when he is approached by three Columbian businessmen with a proposition involving his carrying a few packages back to the United States for them—since he has to fly back and forth anyway—he says yes again.

Thus Barry becomes a drug runner for the Medellin cartel, working for Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia). And he makes a lot of money doing it. At one point, forewarned that his Baton Rouge home is going to be raided at 6 a.m., he convinces his family they must move immediately, and they throw everything into a few bags and take off. “Do you trust me?” he asks his frustrated wife. “No.” she tells him. Turns out the CIA has relocated them to—wait for it—Mena, Arkansas, where Barry now owns his very own airport and a few thousand acres around it. From here he builds an empire: The CIA now wants him to fly guns to the Contras, whom they are funding and supplying—illegally, of course—believing that this rag-tag group of would-be soldiers can overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Contras are more interested in stealing his sunglasses and girlie magazines than they are in the guns he’s delivering, but it turns out Escobar and his group are very happy to take some of these guns off Barry’s hands.

And now things get really crazy, since of course, at the same time he’s still running drugs. And he is ferrying Contra recruits to his land in Arkansas where the CIA wants to train them. Of course, half of them run off, glad to be let loose in America. And Barry has to hire several pilots to help him with all this business. Of course, it’s a cash business, so he has suitcases full of cash stashed everywhere he can find a spot, and he opens several new businesses in Mena as fronts to launder his money, and he has millions stashed in every bank in town. Things begin to unwind for Barry, especially after (as a favor to his wife) he hires his hapless brother-in-law J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones from this year’s hit Get Out), a luckless loser whose character arc proves to be no surprise. While the D.E.A., the F.B.I., the A.F.T., the state police, and the Attorney General of Arkansas are all on Barry’s tail, in step Colonel Oliver North and President Ronald Reagan with a new plan to sink the Sandinistas.

Jones is just weird enough to make his part memorable. Wright is a good foil to Cruise, but one wonders why she stays with him. I guess it must be the suitcases full of money. Gleeson is slippery, amoral and incompetent enough to make you believe he really is CIA, especially when he finally comes up with this great idea about using Iran to funnel arms money to the Contras. But of course it’s Cruise who must carry the movie. Cruise is always better when he is not playing the earnest good-guy saving his family or his country or the world, but the hustler, the shyster, the guy with a felonious streak under that charming smile. So it’s Vincent from Collateral, it’s Frank T.J. Mackey from Magnolia, it’s Charlie Babbit from Rainman that stand out in his film repertoire. Here, he not only has that nefarious undercurrent, he’s also just not very bright. He just thinks the entire project is a lark, and has a blast flying into danger and making tons of money. He never has a single qualm nor does he ever take one second to ponder the right or wrong of what he’s doing. Besides, he has “Schafer” there to tell him that as long as what he’s doing is for “the good guys,” it can’t be illegal, right?

In a sense, Cruise is even a parody of himself, or at least his film persona. Yes, he’s a crack pilot who thinks he can get by on his charm and winning smile. But unlike Top Gun’s Maverick, he can’t—the mob wants him dead, his wife doesn’t trust him and at one point he even gets some teeth knocked out of that famous smile. The charm only goes so far. At another point he has a Jack Reacher moment when, as he predicts, he is plucked out of a situation where the law is about to nail him—but the reprieve comes from a source he never expected.

There is something disturbing about Barry’s cavalier attitude about his drug-smuggling, gun-running, shoot-from-the-hip derring-do. Mainly it’s the audience reaction: We are manipulated into rooting for this guy, or at least the intent of the film seems to be that we be so manipulated, and certainly the audience when I saw the film was moved to laughter at the comic tone surrounding the dangerous situations Barry ends up in. But this seems to be Liman’s intent: In a kind of homage to Scorsese, who has us rooting for Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill until we find ourselves culpable in winking at his atrocities and are horrified that he might be living next door in witness protection, Liman has us hoping somehow that Barry will get out of this mess. But it seems that Liman’s chief aim all along has been to expose the mess. In this regard, it is worth noting that it is probably no coincidence that Liman’s father, Arthur L. Liman, a prominent attorney famous for his report on the Attica prison massacre, was also the chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation into the Iran-Contra affair. Perhaps the constitutional violations of that debacle have gnawed at Liman all these years, and he’s taken this opportunity to expose the absurdity and chicanery of that enterprise. But I’m not sure that’s what audiences are getting out of the picture. I got more of a feeling that the impression was “Ah, good old Ronnie. Those were the days when geopolitics was fun!”

The film is well done, though I’m not sure it hits the public where it’s aiming. I’ll give it three Tennysons.

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Stronger-2

Stronger

Stronger

David Gordon Green (2017)

Well, you won’t find this movie in Conway, and you’ll have to look pretty closely to find it anywhere in central Arkansas, I suppose because movie houses around here were committed for reasons known only to them to provide as many screens as possible for the less-than-favorably reviewed Kingsman 2 and The Lego Ninjango Movie and the abysmally reviewed Friend Request, so they didn’t have room for Stronger, which has a 95 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. But at least Stronger found one screen in central Arkansas, at Colonel Glenn 18. That was more than the 86 percent positive Battle of the Sexes got. To see that I guess you have to move to Chicago, which seems to be the closest place it’s playing. Oh well, maybe next week.

The “official” description of Stronger on its IMDB page calls it “the inspiring real-life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.” Thank God that’s not what it is. Yes, the basic story outline is reminiscent of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, and to some extent Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, so it may seem like you’ve seen this before. But director David Gordon Green (Our Brand Is Crisis) and first time screenwriter John Pollono (whose script was based on Bauman’s own autobiography, co-written with Bret Witter) are committed to giving a warts-and-all picture of Bauman’s character, including his reluctance to take on any kind of “hero” role, his depression and PTSD, his aversion to public appearances in the wake of his trauma, and his personality flaws, including his immaturity, lack of responsibility and drunken carousing.

The film opens by giving us a pretty clear picture of Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a screw-up. He’s just messed up the chicken-roaster at his job at Costco but begs off having to work overtime to fix it because he has to go watch the Red Sox with his friends at his local bar holding his “lucky beer.” We also get to meet his one-time girlfriend Erin Hurley, movingly portrayed by Emmy-winner Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), who has broken up with him because he is so unreliable, and who keeps trying to convince him that they are never, ever getting back together. Erin, however, is about to run in the 2013 Boston Marathon, and Jeff works on a large sign to hold up for her as she crosses the finish line the next day. As it happens, though, he is standing directly next to one of the bombers near the finish, and when the bomb explodes, it destroys both of his legs.

In the hospital, where Jeff becomes a double-amputee, he lies unconscious while his family and friends, including Erin, crowd the waiting room, where we make the acquaintance of his loud, vulgar, aggressive family, including his protective but somewhat hapless mother Patty—a superb and almost unrecognizable Miranda Richardson (Churchill), whom we have already seen getting drunk at Jeff’s bar the night before, and her estranged ex-husband, Jeff’s father “Big Jeff” (Clancy Brown), who bullies everyone in sight and even abuses Jeff’s boss Kevin (Danny McCarthy), who it turns out has come to assure everyone that Jeff will remain on Costco’s payroll and to obtain signatures to get the insurance claims going to pay for Jeff’s medical bills. This film may be the best advertisement for Costco ever made, though I assume that was not its main intent. Aside from Kevin and Erin, however, everybody else in that room is to some degree boorish or even vile, and it becomes clear just why Jeff may be as undependable as he appears to be.

Upon waking up, Jeff reveals that he saw the bomber, and when from his hospital bed he gives his evidence to the FBI his family and others begin to talk about him as a “hero.” As he leaves the hospital in a wheelchair, giving a very tentative thumbs-up sign to a cheering crowd waiting for him outside, the pained, bewildered, stressed-out and near-panicked expression on his face reveals just how awkward he is in the “hero” role. But he discovers he has become a very unlikely symbol of “Boston Strong” for his city and for the nation in general. The rest of the film explores how very uncomfortably that mantel sits on his wary shoulders.

In the first place, his personality hasn’t really changed. He hasn’t suddenly become more mature because of his handicap. Maybe it even gives him an excuse to screw up. But he fails to attend his physical therapy sessions, either because he doesn’t get out of bed or his mother, whom he lives with, is too hung-over to take him. Out of lingering feelings for him and perhaps the realization that he really needs her because no one else in his life is reliable, Erin moves in with him, and it appears that without her he would never get anywhere. In the second place, he is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, which makes him fear a number of things, including the events that he is asked to attend, such as opening a Bruins hockey game waving a huge flag. Yet still his family, particularly his mother, urges him to make public appearances. Patty is obsessed with his being a hero, and her heart is set on his being interviewed by Oprah.

But third, and most importantly, Jeff is well aware that his injuries have nothing to do with heroism, and that he falls far short of being anything like the icon people have made of him. When first told he is being touted as a hero, his unbelieving response is, “What? For being blown up?” When a couple comes up to him in a bar to ask for his autograph, they tell him that they admire him so much because his strength in coming back from his injuries means that “the terrorists didn’t win.” Jeff finds this attitude strange. “Well,” he says, gesturing to his amputated legs, “at least they got one on the scoreboard.” The great gulf between the public’s perception of Jeff as heroic icon and the real-life Jeff is made especially clear one night when Jeff, on a drunken binge with two of his buddies, ends up driving home because the other two are too wasted to get behind the wheel. One of them lies on the floor and works the pedals while Jeff drives. But it seems even this can’t get him into trouble, since the police see him as a hero as well.

Jeff’s self-awareness, and his self-effacing humor in the wake of personal tragedy, are what keep us from losing all sympathy for him. That plus the fact that Erin stays with him, which makes us believe there is something there worth saving. But he can’t hold on to her forever being the person he was before, and it seems inevitable that she will leave him.

There is one other tsk that Jeff is unwilling to perform, and that is to meet the man who saved his life on the day of the bombing. This is Carlos Arendondo, portrayed with a quiet but unforgettable intensity by Carlos Sanz (from TV’s NCIS: Los Angeles), whose meeting, when Jeff finally consents to it, proves to be a major turning point for Bauman.

The film itself, focusing on the human detritus left by the marathon bombing, proves far superior to last year’s Patriots’ Day, which focused on the manhunt for the bombers. Richardson and Maslany give notable performances in supporting roles, But the film really belongs to Gyllenhaal, whose history of taking on unusual roles that compel him to explore extraordinary extremes of emotional depths and angst (Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, The Nightcrawler) is capped by Jeff Bauman. He makes us feel all the trauma, all the humiliation, all the inadequacy, all the fear and the bewilderment that his character experiences. This is the sort of role that gets noticed at Oscar-time, and Gyllenhaal may be the first real contender of the season. Nothing in this film is easy or cliché. I’ll give it three solid Tennysons.

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

landscape-1502930704-mother1

mother!

mother!

Darren Aronofsky (2017)

Many people—I would venture to say most people—will not like Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! When you take a look at the movie site RottenTomatoes.com and note that 68 percent of the critics have given it a favorable review, while only 42 percent of the audience liked it, you have to wonder what could explain that large a divide. A general explanation may be that critics will often reward something bold and new with a positive rating, while the typical moviegoer is looking for something that will captivate and move him emotionally or, less often, intellectually. Mother! does spark some intellectual interest, but is so off-putting emotionally and so deliberately provocative that the majority of viewers may be disenchanted long before they are tempted to put in the effort to figure it out.

Because the movie is so bold and unusual, one difficulty that even critics who like the film have is in deciding what category of film mother! belongs to. Several critics have labeled it a horror film. While it does use certain elements of the horror genre—there’s a bit of a Rosemary’s Baby feel to it—it’s certainly not a horror movie. It is much closer to a novel by Kafka: The protagonist is put into a situation that seems to make sense at first, but then is confronted with inexplicable obstacles that suggest a world metaphysically opposed to the character’s wishes, in a plot that has the structure and coherence of a dream. In fact, even more than in Kafka, this film suggests fairly clear religious parallels to aspects of the movie’s plot. What the film is, in fact, is an allegory, not exactly a familiar genre in post-modern America. In fact, there hasn’t been a successful religious allegory in English since Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in the 17th century.

To give you an idea of the plot, or at least the situation, of the movie, it opens with Jennifer Lawrence (yes, The Hunger Games woman) awakening alone in bed in a large, beautiful Victorian mansion, which sits in a clearing surrounded by woods. There is no visible road or driveway giving access to the house She looks around the house, searching, apparently for her husband, who seems absent. While she stands in the doorway looking out into the surrounding wood, he suddenly appears behind her, startling her. It is Javier Badem (yes, the guy from No Country for Old Men). The cast list identifies her only as “mother,” and identifies him as, well, “Him.” We never learn whether they have other names. Their isolated life seems rather lonely. She spends all her time restoring the house, which we learn was earlier burned in a fire. He spends his time brooding and staring at a blank piece of paper. He was a famous writer at one time, we learn, but has been unable to write anything for some time.

One night someone comes to their door. It is Ed Harris (billed simply as “Man”), who claims to be a doctor looking for a place to spend the night, who has been told that the couple run a bed and breakfast. The couple give him a drink, though “Him” is far more welcoming than “mother” is, and she is therefore appalled when her husband invites the strange man to stay the night. This causes some tension between the two, a tension that is only exacerbated when the following morning Michelle Pfeifer shows up (so nice to see her in a film again!). Billed as “Woman,” she turns out to be “Man’s” wife, and has come looking for him. And of course, Javier Bardem invites her to stay as well. Turns out Harris’s character is a big fan of his, and had only come there to meet him because his words “changed my life.” Well now it seems the two will be moving in indefinitely, and when “Him” and “Man” go out for a hike, “Woman” becomes incredibly inappropriate in her conversation with “mother,” prying into all kinds of personal aspects of her life with her much older husband. Lawrence’s character becomes more and more uncomfortable as “Man” and “Woman” seem oblivious and indifferent to the damage they keep causing to the perfectly ordered house she has restored.

The house is suddenly invaded by two brothers, aptly named in the cast list Older Son (Harry Potter’s—and the new Star Wars’—Domhnall Gleeson) and Younger Brother (real-life brother Brian Gleeson, recently seen in Logan Lucky). These charming boys turn out to be the offspring of “Man” and “Woman,” and immediately get into a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred brawl over their inheritance and over which one mom and dad loves best. I won’t go into too much detail for fear of creating spoilers, but Javier Bardem ends up taking the group to the hospital. When he returns to the house, which “mother” has taken pains to try to put right again, her husband now tells her he has offered to hold a wake in their house. A wake that turns more and more violent as more and more guests show up, until some of them actually break a sink by bouncing up and down on it, and flood the building.

Now Aronofsky, who directed Noah, is well aware of the significance of a flood. And if you haven’t recognized it by now, it will become clear by the end of the film (which is only half over at this point) that we are dealing with an allegory of the creation stories of the Old Testament. The second half of the film gives us an allegory of the New. Where Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the flood unfold in the first part of the film, the birth and death of Christ and Armageddon occur in the second half. Allegorically, of course, since it is still all narrated through the metaphor of the house, the marriage, a new baby, and thousands of uninvited guests, enamored with Javier Bardem’s new poems—his new creation. The “Him” character lives to be admired—he is so obsessed with people loving him that he overlooks the great harm they are doing to his house, his wife, his marriage, even his child. As he film ended, my wife said to me, “Well, that’s what it’s like to live with a narcissist.”

Of course, considering the film allegorically, she was just calling God a narcissist. But given the event of the film, it’s hard to deny the assessment. Why did God create human beings? Because he wanted to be loved, though in this film he doesn’t really return that love, to the people or even to “mother.” He is absent much of the time, leaving the world—the house—to fend for itself. He looks the other way when humans engage in harmful actions against themselves or others or his son (Son?), or the house (world?) itself. It is the humans who bring the flood upon themselves, and ultimately it is humans who are destroying the house in the second half of the film. As long as he is being loved, this God metes out no punishments and makes very few demands. He is self-centered and weak. The film thus underscores a problem that theologians and philosophers of religion have recognized for centuries: to describe God in human terms is to limit him, to make him into something less than he is. God is not a human. He wants humans to love him, and he forgives them their sins. He can create beautiful things to inspire human beings to love him. He will sacrifice everything for the love of the human race. But this is what that looks like when we think of God as “human” himself. Weak. Needy. Narcissistic.

But human sin is allegorized brilliantly in the film by the uncontrolled crowds of people who ruin the beautiful house, and that underscores an even more crucial theme of the film. And that is where Jennifer Lawrence comes in. The film is not called “Him,” it is called “mother.” Hers is the first face we see, and it is a face that fills the screen in extreme close-up for a huge segment of the screen time. Her face registers every emotion that the audience feels at the absurdities, the inconveniences, and ultimately the horrors that multiply in the film until its crescendo near the end. She becomes an actual mother by the film’s end, but from the beginning she is the personification of another mother—mother earth. She makes the house livable, as, allegorically, nature presents humans and other living creatures a beautiful home. As God’s first creation, the film seems to suggest, she is mindful of the world he made. The unrestrained, undisciplined destruction of the house highlights what Aronofsky has said is one of the main themes of the movie: the global warming that threatens to destroy that home because of short-sighted exploitation by those who assume the house will never collapse. Nor, the film suggests, will God ultimately step in and save us. Humans must bear the responsibility and suffer the consequences for their own willful destruction.

When the credits roll, the old Skeeter Davis song from the 60s, “The End of the World,” plays you out of the theater. It’s something of a shock with its gentle, pop ballad tone, but it truly tells us what the movie was about.

Nothing in this film would work without Lawrence, with whom our sympathies lie throughout, so that Aronofsky compels us to see the destruction through the eyes of Nature herself. It’s a huge burden that Lawrence is able to carry. Bardem is fairly unlikeable as Him, though never overtly tyrannical, vengeful, or judgmental. He’s just passive-aggressively narcissistic, needy, and he never pays any regard to his wife’s feelings. Some have suggested he is the image of the self-involved artist, and hence an ironic self-portrait of Aronofsky himself. But again, if he’s the omnipotent God, he reminds us how unsatisfactory it may be to imagine God in human terms. Bardem plays these contradictory aspects brilliantly.

In the end, mother! is a powerful, thought-provoking movie-allegory, but one that fails to communicate its message to a large segment of its audience, who are put off by what seems incoherence, by scenes of what seem gratuitous violence and disgust, and by the use of a genre little understood by today’s audiences. I’m giving it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. But be warned. It’s not rated R for “religious.”

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

The-Little-Hours-review-700x300

The Little Hours

The Little Hours

Dan Baena (2017)

The closest thing to Jeff Baena’s film of The Little Hours that you’re likely to have seen is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both films set their stories in the Middle Ages, both burlesque the period with some fairly contemporary jokes and sensibilities, and both provide not so much a unified story arc as a series of comedy sketches reminiscent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live. This is not surprising considering the fact that Holy Grail featured the creators of Flying Circus, and Little Hours stars a number of veterans of TV sitcoms like Parks and Recreation, Community, The Big Bang Theory, and yes, Saturday Night Live. But actually, the similarity stops there, in that Python’s Terry Jones, codirector and, of course, cowriter of Holy Grail, is a serious (if iconoclastic) scholar of medieval history, while Baena (Life After Beth) and his collaborators seem to have little actual knowledge of the period (as a bizarre witch’s coven scene late in the film makes clear) or of nuns in general (as the fact that one of the nuns in the film, presumably one who has taken her vows since she’s not presented as a postulant but as a full member of her order, is waiting for her father to arrange a marriage for her so she can leave the convent and get married, clearly indicate).

It’s wild gaffes like these that keep the film from being a reasonably faithful dramatization of its chief source, Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Decameron, or the hundred stories, is a collection of tales within a frame tale in which ten young Florentine aristocrats flee the Black Death in Florence, spending ten days at a country estate where they take turns telling stories to one another, each of the ten telling one story a day. Hence, a hundred stories. For the outline of his plot, Baena has taken the first and second stories of the third day from Boccaccio’s text. In the original, the first story of the third day tells of a young man who, in order to get a job as a gardener at a convent somewhere in the Tuscan countryside, pretends to be a deaf mute. The sexually frustrated nuns, believing that the young gardener can never tell anyone, all end up coming to be sexually serviced by him regularly. When the abbess herself begins to monopolize his services, it is too much for him and he has to tell her to stop, claiming that he’s been miraculously cured of his inability to speak.

The second story of the third day involves a groom who works for a certain king, and who slips into the queen’s bed pretending to be her husband. When the king discovers what has happened, he visits the grooms’ quarters, where they all sleep in the same room, and feels the heartbeat of each sleeping figure, knowing that the guilty party’s heart will still be beating fast from his recent exertions. He finds the culprit by his heartbeat and, in order to keep his cuckolding a secret, resolves to deal with the guilty groom later, and cuts a forelock from the guilty man’s hair before leaving the chamber. But once the king has left, the clever culprit goes around and similarly cuts a forelock from the head of every groom in the place, so that in the morning the king is not able to tell who the guilty party is.

Baena takes these two tales and mashes them together, so that the groom who cuckolded his lord becomes the young man who poses as a deaf mute in the convent, which he does in order to hide from his master who has finally discovered who cuckolded him. Boccaccio’s tales are a form of story called a fabliau, popular in the later Middle Ages in France and later in Italy and in England. Students of English literature may be most familiar with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, the most famous and celebrated fabliau in English. But Chaucer himself was inspired by Boccaccio, and while the Decameron (like the Canterbury Tales) contains tales of every genre popular in the Middle Ages—romances, saints’ lives, tragic stories, folk legends—it also contains a significant number of these fabliaux. Fabliaux are characterized typically by a few basic criteria: First, there is almost always some illicit sexual encounter, most often one that involves a member of the clergy or someone in holy orders. Second, the world of the fabliau is a world in which characters’ motivations tend to be far from noble: Innocence and gullibility are the greatest sins of the fabliau world, and are usually punished severely in the course of the action, while cleverness, aggression and self-interest tend to thrive. Third, the action of the fabliau is usually set in motion by some trickster who, ultimately, is tricked himself, so that the plot of the fabliau is the “trickster tricked.” What goes around comes around is the basic structure of a fabliau. This is not so much the way that Baena structures the story.

In The Little Hours, the nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie of Community and Mad Men), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation) and Ginerva (Kat Micucci of The Big Bang Theory) are all pretty uncomfortable in their vocation, and spend their time gossiping and complaining about each other and about the convent’s hired laborer, who ultimately quits because of their abuse. Meanwhile, Massetto (Dave Franco of Scrubs), groom to the grumbling tyrant Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman, Plaza’s co-star from Parks and Recreation), is having a vigorous affair with Bruno’s far-from-unwilling wife Francesca (a hilarious Lauren Weedman from TV’s Looking). When Bruno finds out, Massetto is forced to flee, and after he helps the nun’s confessor, a drunken Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), the good father invites him to become the new laborer at the convent. They agree, however, that Tommasso should pretend to be a deaf mute, to prevent the nuns abusing him as they did their previous laborer. Well, needless to say, the deaf-mute thing doesn’t exactly discourage the sexually repressed sisters from abusing Tommasso one way or another. Meantime Father Tommasso seems to be having his own way with the abbess, Sister Marea (Molly Shannon from Saturday Night Live). When the convent gets a surprise visit from the bishop (Fred Armisen, another SNL alumnus), everything comes crashing down.

The film has a casual air to it, a feeling that this is a kind of lark that a bunch of pals got together and decided to make. The fact that Baena and Plaza (credited as the film’s producer) are married, as are Brie and Franco, and that several of the actors have worked together before on TV or in Baena’s previous film Life After Beth, adds to this perception. In particular, the fact that there was no script for the film, just a twenty-page plot outline, which meant that all of the dialogue essentially had to be improvised, underscores that casual “let’s put on a show” feel. This latter fact explains the initial jarring discrepancy between the period-costume setting and the characters’ contemporary language and vocabulary. But once we get over the anachronistic humor of medieval Italian nuns dropping the F-bomb so casually, the linguistic humor fades, and we are left with the fact that the improvised dialogue is not particularly snappy or clever.

Some of the changes Baena makes from Boccaccio work, and some don’t. The whole pagan witch’s midnight Sabbath scene lacks humor or any particular point as far as the film’s plot is concerned, but seems only a gratuitous opportunity in which to have the women leap about in the dark stark naked. The story of Massetto and the nuns is actually funnier in Boccaccio than it is here, but the relationship between the priest and the abbess introduces a tender element, foreign to the rough and tumble fabliau world of Boccaccio, that makes for a more meaningful film after all. When Father Tommasso tells Sister Marea “that monastery is so boring, all we do is pray! I mean, it is important, but …,” the film takes a turn into some sort of actual thematic commentary about the need to find the sacred in the secular world.

Shot on location in Tuscany, the film is pretty to look at, and Dan Romer’s score may be the best thing about the movie: Its lively choral arrangements and ancient-sounding tunes do as much to create a late medieval atmosphere as the costumes and scenery do.

There have been a number of Catholic-affiliated protests of this film, mainly online, but these seem to me to be unnecessary. Any harm The Little Hours may do to the Church is negligible compared to what films like 2015’s Spotlight have already done. The Little Hours does no more than Boccaccio or Chaucer did more than 600 years ago: point out that for whatever reason, there are various people in religious vocations who should never have entered them. But the onus is on those people, not the Church itself. It’s actually Father Tommasso’s implication that prayer is important, but there are other important things in life, that does the most in this film to undercut the Church’s ideal of cloistered religiosity, but that mild comment is the least likely thing about the film that folks will find objectionable.

In the end, there may be more positives than negatives about this movie, but just barely. I’ll give it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.

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

Jay Rudd

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

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

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

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

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

 

Tennysons

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

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

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

 

1 Robert Southey

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