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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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Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

Rob Marshall (2018)

And now for the sequel 54 years in the making. Disney’s new Mary Poppins Returns strives to capture, and sometimes succeeds in replicating, the charm and wonder of the original production, after generations of children have been raised and tickled by the original production. It’s not that Disney set the film aside for half a century and then suddenly decided maybe there ought to be a follow-up after all. Disney wanted to create a sequel a year after the original film’s release, but P.L. Travers, author of the series of children’s novels on which the film was based, rejected the proposal. As the film approached its silver anniversary in the late 1980s, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg contacted the elderly Travers again, proposing a new film to be set a generation later than the original, with the Banks children now grown and an older Mary Poppins, played by an older Julie Andrews, returning. Travers once more boycotted the idea, disliking everything except the promise of Julie Andrews reprising the role. The idea of a sequel was swept away into oblivion for another 25 years. Then in 2015, at about the time of the film’s golden anniversary, Disney approached Rob Marshall (the Oscar-nominated director of Chicago), who had just directed Into the Woods for the company, with the idea of a new Poppins. This time with the go-ahead from Travers’ estate, the company began work on the new film, hiring David Magee (author of such fantasy screenplays as Life of Pi and Finding Neverland) to do the script, to be based on the remaining seven novels in Travers’ book series. And thus the whirligig of time brings his sequels.

Just how much of the new film is based on the subsequent Mary Poppins novels is hard to see, even for those familiar with the books. This film is set a quarter of a century after the events of the Julie Andrews film, in 1935, in the depths of what the film calls the “Great Slump”—i.e., the Great Depression. None of Travers’ novels jump ahead a generation like this. Grown up Michael Banks has three children, two of whom—John and Annabel—have the names of the two younger Banks children in the novels. In the second book in the series, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary reappears holding on to a paper kite, a little trick recreated in the new film. The children have an upside-down tea party with Mary’s cousin Topsy, who appears in the new film played by Meryl Streep, and they meet a balloon lady in the park selling magical balloons—a character who also comes into the film in the person of Angela Lansbury. This second book also contains a scene in which Mary and the children have an adventure inside of a Royal Daulton bowl, which provides a long animated sequence in the new film. From the third book in the series, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the new film takes Mary’s ominous warning—that she will “stay until the door opens.” That book also includes a scene in which the children attend an underwater garden party—a scene that inspires an early sequence in the movie. As for the other five Poppins novels, there is really nothing in particular in them that seems to have influenced the plot of Mary Poppins Returns.

The central conflict of the new film seems inspired more by the movie’s historical setting than by anything in Travers’ series. For the Banks children from the first film, Michael (Ben Winshaw of TV’s The Hollow Crown and A Very English Scandal)  and Jane (a charming Emily Mortimer of TV’s The Newsroom), are now grown up, and they face a Great Depression both financial and emotional. Michael’s wife has recently died, leaving him with three small children and a heartache hangover that render him ill-prepared to take on the financial burdens of the current hard times. He’s abandoned his budding artistic career and taken a job as a teller in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where his father used to work, while Jane, who works as a labor organizer in Depression-era London, helps to take care of the three kids, George (Joel Dawson), Anabel (Pixie Davis) and John (Nathanael Saleh). The potential crisis is revealed early in the movie: Michael has taken out a loan from the bank, but after his wife’s death he’s forgotten to make payments on the loan, and now the ruthless bank, manager William Weatherall Wilkins (Oscar winner Colin Firth of The King’s Speech), demands payment in full or the bank will repossess the Banks family home, where Michael still lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The only hope is to produce the certificate proving ownership of the shares their father owned in the bank, but nobody remembers what might have happened to it.

Into this mishegas drops Mary Poppins (the practically perfect Emily Blunt, who, like Streep, worked with Marshall in Into the Woods), holding on to the tail of George’s kite. She doesn’t seem to concern herself with Michael’s immediate financial problems, but at least she takes he kids off his hands, leading them about on various adventures with the assistance of her old friend, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the phenomenal Broadway smash Hamilton). Jack is a London lamplighter, and his role is essentially to echo Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweeper Bert from the original film.

That original film, in fact, provides the arc of the story of Mary Poppins Returns far more obviously than do the plots of any of Travers’ subsequent books. Virtually every scene of the new film recalls or echoes some scene from the old. The visit with Meryl Streep’s character channels Mary and Bert’s visit to Ed Wynn in the earlier movie. Angela Lansbury’s balloon lady scene is essentially a recreation of the kite-flying scene at the end of the first film. Jack has a song-and-dance number with his fellow lamplighters that emulates Van Dyke’s “Step In Time” number from the original story. And there’s a Supercalifragilisticexpialidociousnumber in which Blunt and Miranda cavort with Cockney-speaking animated characters that is a clear tribute to Andrews and Van Dyke’s jolly holiday in the previous film. And on and on. Though the stakes in this new film are higher than in the first, you can rest assured that in the end, Mary Poppins will prevail, and prove to her charges, both current and former, that everything is possible, even the impossible.

In two particular aspects the current film transcends and improves upon the original. The portrayal of Bert and his fellow chimney sweeps as happy, dancing chaps, as if the profession was one that inspired in its practitioners a lot of carefree, fun larks, has always been a serious misrepresentation of a class of men and boys who had the worst job in society, and one that ruined their health and led to an early grave—a fact William Blake recognized two hundred years ago when he wrote of “How the chimney sweeper’s cry/Every blackening church appalls.” Presenting them this way was like depicting happy, contented slaves in Gone With the Wind. Scrapping the chimney sweepers and replacing them with lamplighters is certainly an improvement. The other unacceptable cultural depiction in the original film was the way Mrs. Banks’ zealous support of the cause of women’s suffrage was ridiculed and made to seem a silly interest which she abandons—tossing her “Votes for Women” banner into the trash—when she realizes she should be more devoted to her husband and children at the end of the movie. In the current film, her daughter Jane has inherited her zeal for social causes, but her work as a labor organizer in the Depression is never denigrated as frivolous.

The film’s admirable qualities go much farther than this: It is hard to imagine anyone currently on the scene who could have been a better choice than Emily Blunt to play Mary Poppins. She has just the right combination of primness and sass to pull it off. And as for Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is the current paragon of Broadway-style song and dance excellence, and he brings those qualities to each of his numbers in this film. And yes, it’s no spoiler (since the word has been spreading everywhere) to mention that the 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke does make a cameo appearance in the film in which he dazzles the audience with his own still considerable song-and-dance moves. That scene is well worth the price of admission.

But once the film was over, I personally felt a bit of a letdown. The music, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is appealing and reminiscent of sound tracks of the ’60s, but the fact is there isn’t a truly memorable song in the film. Even the best numbers in the show—Miranda’s “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” or the music-hall number “A Cover Is Not the Book”—are really mere pale imitations of the Sherman brothers’ Oscar-winning music from the first film. The musical numbers, and to a largeextent the entire film, are derivative, and the movie in the end stands as a kind of tribute to, more than an expansion of, the originalMary Poppins. Three Tennysons for this one.

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The Favourite

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

The Favourite, one of the very few films on limited release in December in order to be considered for Oscar nominations that has actually made it to central Arkansas (albeit on but a single screen) is one of those interesting anomalies that has critics cheering (it has a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has only one negative review from “top critics”) and audiences far less enthusiastic (only 60 percent of audience members like the film, according to the same review aggregator site). A glance through audience responses suggests three chief reasons for negative reactions (and those who do not like the film reallydon’t like it): First, the film’s trailer, they say, makes it seem to be an uproarious comedy, but they found nothing funny in it. Second, they found the film to have little plot. Third, they found the film to be offensive or repugnant, presumably because of its language and the sexual nature of a number of scenes.

To consider the last of these objections first, the film isafter all rated R, and it has the nudity, language, and sex to earn it that rating honestly. To object that the film is exactly as advertised in this area seems a bit unfair. Perhaps the problem is that it is generally lesbian sex that is depicted, and some portion of the audience found that particularly objectionable, though there is nothing graphic depicted in that way, only suggested. In any case, I don’t find this third complaint legitimate, or quite fair.

That first objection is a lot fairer, it seems to me. If you’ve seen any of the trailers for this film, you probably came away with the impression that it’s a light hearted romp of a costume-rich period-piece, with Queen Anne’s ladies in waiting frolicking through her reign. Well, the costume-rich period-piece part of that is accurate. But there’s nothing lighthearted about this drama of devious and dangerous backstabbing court intrigue. There are occasional flashes of humor, but it’s awfully, awfully dark. You’re not going to leave the theater chuckling to yourself about the zany adventures of the Duchess of Marlborough and her whacky queen.

That leaves us with objection number two. I confess that I cannot see how anyone can call this film plotless or directionless, or any other such label. Perhaps those saying such things are confusing The Favouritewith the season’s other widely anticipated historical drama, MaryQueen of Scots—another film featuring rival historical women of power, but one in which the stakes are life-and-death and the survival and fall of kingdoms. Or perhaps, in a kind of violence=plot confusion, they are expecting Marlborough’s battle against the French in the War of Spanish Succession to give the film a good deal of action. Neither of these is the case, and if you are expecting this kind of movie you might be bored with The Favourite. But there is certainly plenty of plot and plenty of underhanded action in the script by executive producers Tony McNamara (TV’s Doctor Doctor) and Deborah Davis (who with McNamara is nominated for a Golden Globe for this, her first screenplay), but the plot involves the connivings and manipulations of three women in a royal court.

The film is set during the early eighteenth-century reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, perhaps best known from TV’s Broadchurch, who will be playing another queen, Elizabeth II, in next year’s season of TV’s The Crown). Anne is last of the Stuart monarchs of England (she’s the daughter of James II and the sister of the Mary of William and Mary fame). She reigns from 1702 until her death in 1714, and she will die without an heir—the film makes it clear that she has had no fewer than 17 pregnancies, all of which ended in miscarriage, still birth, or children who died in infancy—and therefore will be succeeded by the four Georges of the house of Hanover. The chief concern of Anne’s reign as this film depicts it is the long and expensive War of Spanish Succession, which Britain is fighting against Spain and France, and the hero of which is the Duke of Marlborough (ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill). Marlborough’s duchess, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is the queen’s oldest and dearest friend, and serves in Anne’s court as her closest adviser (as well as her lover). In fact, as this film depicts it, Lady Churchill runs the country, making all of Anne’s important decisions for her, while the queen is something of a pampered, overindulged woman-child, grown monstrous by power checked only by Sarah’s bullying and cajoling. The queen is crippled by gout and other ailments, and is brought low by many griefs, including her seventeen lost children whom she has replaced by pet rabbits given her children’s names. Sarah is an adept politician, capable of running the country while keeping the incompetent head of state happily thinking she’s really the one in charge. Feel free to draw your own contemporary parallels here.

Into this situation drops Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a streetwise cousin of Lady Churchill’s whose family has fallen from their formerly wealthy status and who has come to Sarah to sue for some kind of job at court. Sarah is not exactly welcoming to her poor relation, but does take her on as a scullery maid. When Abigail, having witnessed Queen Anne’s painful gout, borrows a horse and rides out into the countryside to gather herbs for a certain anti-gout remedy she happens to know, and then lies her way into the queen’s chamber to try it out on the royal legs, Sarah swoops in and orders her to be given a beating. At this point our sympathies are pretty securely on the side of the poor young cousin (and it isEmma Stone after all, who’s alwayssympathetic) rather than with the cold, steely Sarah. But as things develop, we come to realize that Sarah is chiefly interested in furthering the political aims of her husband and his party for the good of the nation as she sees it, while Abigail’s agenda is the attainment of power like that of her cousin, and it seems she’ll do anything to get it (including satisfying the queen’s appetites)—basically, it’s All AboutEvebut with more venom, and more lesbianism.

In her meteoric rise, Abigail is assisted by the unscrupulous and absurdly bewigged and berouged Whig politician Harley (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men’s Beast), whose chief political goals seem to be holding the line on spending, ending the war, reducing taxes on country landholders, and getting rid of Lady Churchill. One might fear that the poor, naïve Abigail will be eaten alive by the savvy politician, but fear not. Turns out Abigail can hold her own. And yours too, if need be.

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) is not known for creating films designed to be crowd pleasers: His films have been described as “cruel” and even “sadistic,” assaulting the audience with a kind of scornful objectivity about spiteful human nature. This works in TheFavouritebecause it’s an attitude that fits so well with a story about political intrigue, no matter when that story takes place. Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, England, where the movie was filmed, provides a gorgeous period background for the story, and the occasional bizarre fish-eye lens wide camera shots create a kind of surreal house-of-mirrors atmosphere, made more grotesque by a sometimes strangely irritating score. There are deliberate occasional anachronisms in language and even in the costumes, which on the whole are a scrumptious feast for the eyes, but in which I’m told you can even see zippers in some of the “period” gownss, though I didn’t notice any myself. Such anachronisms serve to give the story a more contemporary application.

But the performances of the trio of leading women provide the truly memorable aspect of the film. Whatever else it is, The Favouriteis a showcase for the remarkable talents of Weisz, who is chillingly cold and unflappable as Lady Churchill; of Stone, disarmingly “innocent” and maliciously calculating as Abigail; and of Colman, narcissistic, infantile and wallowing in self-pity as Queen Anne herself. All three women have already been nominated for Golden Globes as well as for Screen Actors’ Guild Awards for their performances, Colman for lead actress and the others for supporting roles, though the distinction here is a matter of semantics, since all three roles are essentially leads. It’s definitely worth coming to see them perform. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one and don’t listen to the haters.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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

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

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Boy Erased

Boy Erased

Joel Edgerton (2018)

Lucas Hedges, as this film’s protagonist Jared Eamons, is rapidly putting together a remarkable portfolio of memorable film performances, from his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea, through his sympathetic turns in Ladybird and in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, to his Golden-Globe nominated performance in his current film, Boy Erased, Hedges is fast proving himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. In the latest film, he is joined by veteran actors Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, whose combined acting credits include two Oscars and seven nominations, and who both give intelligent, nuanced, and sympathetic portrayals of Jared’s parents, who in other hands could come across as caricatures or villains.

To a large extent our sympathy for the whole family is a product of Joe Edgerton’s direction, as well as his screenplay, which he based on Gerrard Conley’s 2016 memoir based on his own experiences in small-town Arkansas and in the conversion therapy program his parents put him in when they found that he was gay. Edgerton (who previously wrote and directed The Gift with Jason Bateman) also plays the film’s chief antagonist Victor Sykes, the unaccredited “therapist” who runs the expensive conversion therapy program called “Love In Action,” in which Jared finds himself enrolled and where he and his parents hope he can “pray away the gay.”

Jared, the product of an Evangelical Christian upbringing with a father, Marshall (Crowe) who, while the owner of a large Ford dealership, is also a Baptist minister, and mother, Nancy (Kidman) who embraces her role as the supportive wife who goes along with and accepts her husband’s decisions. Jared, who in flashbacks is shown not to be physically attracted to his longtime girlfriend, has been struggling with his sexuality in his first semester of college. After an incident with another male student (Joe Alwyn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) who subsequently outs him anonymously to his parents, Marshall seeks the guidance of two senior Baptist ecclesiasts, and on their recommendation enrolls Jared in Sykes’ program.

Before that is to happen, though, Marshall takes the precaution of sending Jared to their family doctor—not to actually get the doctor’s scientific opinion of the “Love In Action” program, but to test the boy’s testosterone level. The doctor, played by veteran actress Cherry Jones (TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale) does tell Jared that he is a perfectly normal teenaged boy, and that as an 18-year-old, he does not have to go to into this program that his parents are insisting on. As an actual representative of medical science, the doctor is a foil to the pseudo-therapist Sykes, but at this point Jared just wants to be what his parents raised him to be.

Of course Nancy is the one that has to take Jared to the program, and stay in a nearby hotel for the twelve weeks he must be enrolled, dropping him off in the morning and picking him up in the late afternoon. Clearly this adventure is costing the Eamonses a bundle, but they must feel it is worth any price to purge what they perceive as Jared’s sin, and to restore him to a right relationship with his Savior. And at first Jared accepts what is going on in his treatment, though he is a bit put off when his cell phone and personal belongings are taken away from him and he is told not to share anything that happens in the program with anyone else, including his parents.

The treatment is modeled somewhat on addiction recovery programs, and from the beginning Jared is told that his sexual orientation is a choice and, in his case, a sin. His first assignment is to create a family tree, and to identify members of his family whose sins may have contributed to his own sinful choices. He’s assigned to do a “Moral Inventory,” in which he is to reflect on his past choices and show how he now realizes how wrong those choices were. As Jared works on this homework assignment, we are given flashbacks of the incidents that have brought him to this place. But unlike the other “clients” who share their inventories with the class, Jared does not seem to be feeling “cured” by the activities he engages in here in the program.

These activities consist of group discussions, sharing, role playing and the like, and as the weeks progress, these come more and more, as Jared observes them, to border on psychological and at one point physical abuse, particularly in the case of one fellow inmate, Cameron (Britton Sear from TV’s Vice Principals), a football player whom Sykes bullies and even allows others to beat with Bibles at one point. And Jared is also put off when Sykes tries to tell him that he should drop out of college and spend the next year in a “Love In Action” group home, because that’s what he really needs at this point in his life. This is where Sykes begins to reveal himself as little more than a charlatan and huckster. When Sykes begins to bully Jared the way he bullied Cameron, and tries to do a roleplaying exercise in which Jared confronts his father and tells him how much he hates him, Jared has had enough, and his decision to leave this “treatment” immediately leads to the film’s tensest moments as Sykes and his whole organization rally to try to stop him.

Several of the minor characters in the film deserve mentioning. One of Sykes’ minions (played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea) is a former convict who claims to have found Jesus but bullies Jared and calls him “fag.” He’s a menacing presence throughout, while the Australian pop singer Troye Sivan as Gary is excellent as a fellow inmate who coaches Jared on how to fake his way through the program (Sivan contributed the song “Revelation” to the film’s soundtrack). And Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan (Mommy) is memorable as Jon, an emotional wreck who salutes people because he’s afraid of any kind of physical contact, and who is in the program for a second time.

But the best scenes of the film are not in the “Love In Action” facility. They are the quieter, more intimate scenes between Jared and his parents. Kidman is phenomenal when her role as loving mother wins out over her role as obedient wife and she “rescues” her son from what in effect is his imprisonment. But the true emotional center of the film is a climactic scene between Jared and his father. The scene is honest and raw, and Crowe earns our sympathy as a loving father trying but failing to reach out to and understand the person his son has become, without denying his entire belief system. Boy Erasedcould have easily been a simple morality play, with angels and devils and black and white. But it’s not. Even Sykes, shyster that he is, gives the impression that something is in there that he’s suppressing—a suspicion that is clarified in the ending credits.

Earlier this year, in August, another film dealing with ha fictional “conversion therapy” story based on the Young Adult novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, had its U.S. premiere in North Little Rock, at the Kalaidescope LGBT Film Festival, though it never returned nor was it picked up by any of the conventional movie houses. The fact that two major movies with this theme have been released this year is remarkable. One might ask why—particularly since young people, who are the chief movie going public, are simply no longer bothered about such things, but are far more accepting of LGBT issues than any other generation has been. But the fact is that to date, only 14 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed conversion therapy, which means that in 36 states, including Arkansas, young people—and their concerned parents—are still subject to the abuse and chicanery of the ineffective, psychologically dangerous and expensive “therapy” of the unqualified and unprincipled con-men who run such places. And it doesn’t help that the Vice President of the United States vocally supports the hate groups that defend and applaud such programs.

Thus endeth this week’s rant. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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

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

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The Front Runner

The Front Runner

Jason Reitman (2018)

You pretty much have to be my age (and that’s one helluva lot older than today’s average moviegoer) to remember Gary Hart’s aborted campaign for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president, a campaign that began with high hopes and big ideas, and polls that showed him well ahead of the presumptive Republican nominee, the late lamented George H.W. Bush. But in just three weeks, the Hart campaign had flamed out, extinguished by revelations about Hart’s affair with campaign worker Donna Rice, revelations that were magnified by rabid news reporting and the public’s insatiable appetite for scandal, and no less by Hart’s own refusal to distinguish the accusations by any response, and his stubborn insistence that his personal life was not the business of the public.

Jason Reitman (Juno) directs the film, and cowrote it with Jay Carson (of TV’s House of Cards) and Matt Bai, on whose 2014 book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, the film is based. The film, like the book, focuses on the moment when Hart’s affair with Rice became the focus of media coverage of his campaign, suggesting that it was that moment in the history of American politics that the private lives of politicians stopped being private, and when elections stopped being about policies and proposals and started being about scandals. Of course, it could be argued that gossip, innuendo, mudslinging and personal attacks have been part of the American political process from the beginning—one need only think about Alexander Hamilton’s scandalous affair, or Grover Cleveland’s out-of-wedlock child, or the adventures of Wilbur Mills or Nelson Rockefeller. But at least as far as the modern press goes, it is certainly true that news reporters adhered to a “gentleman’s agreement” and looked the other way when it came to the extramarital exploits of an FDR, an Ike, or a JFK. None of that seemed to have any relevance to presidential matters like foreign policy or the unemployment rate.

And so perhaps it is understandable that Gary Hart thought he might have been extended a similar pass by the press covering his campaign. But he was not living in the same world as that of his predecessors. For one thing, the Watergate scandal had brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1973-74, and it had been news reporters from the Washington Post—Woodward and Bernstein—who had broken the story of political corruption that ultimately brought down a sitting president. The news media, as a result, knew they had power and were hyper-vigilant concerning corruption. Never mind that a private extramarital affair is a far cry from endemic political corruption and blatant misuse of power, it could still be turned into a scandal. For another thing, the religious right, identifying as the “Moral Majority,” had become a force in American politics in 1980, and a sexual scandal was something that could be used to rouse that segment of the population to vocal disapproval: the moral character of a candidate was now as important an issue as his stated policies, for moral character is a predictor of the kind of judgment a candidate might display in office. Hart’s naivete about the new world he was living in comes through loud and clear in this film.

The movie begins with a kind of prologue, presented in the form of a long opening shot set at the Democratic National convention in 1984, a shot that opens in a TV news van and then moves to Hart (Hugh Jackman), then to some of Hart’s campaign workers, to Hart again as he concedes the nomination to Walter Mondale. Mondale, of course, would go on to lose big to Ronald Reagan, which would leave Hart, the surprising runner-up for the Democrats in ’84, as the presumptive front runner moving toward 1988.

We move directly to the beginning of the ’88 Hart campaign, where in rapid-fire succession we hear from Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, a veteran of Reitman’s Juno), giving a pep-talk to his new campaign workers, who for virtually no money will be spending the coming year devoting everything to the cause of electing someone they believe in. We also meet Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (an incredibly underused Albert Molina), talking to his young hot-shot reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie from TV’s The Detour), who will be covering the Hart campaign. Tangentially we also meet Hart’s wife Lee (played by another Reitman alumna, Vera Farmiga of Up in the Air) and his teenaged daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever of TV’s Last Man Standing). We also see a bit of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissus of TV’s Togetherness), desperate to get some kind of scoop concerning Hart.

Hart, portrayed by Jackman as a serious, idealistic, and cerebral politician with a good deal of charisma, announces his bid for the presidency from Red Rocks in Colorado, the state he had represented in the Senate for two terms. From the start, his campaign has momentum, and he is polling well ahead of Bush, the likely Republican candidate. But rumors of marital problems begin to dog his campaign, and reporters begin to ask him questions. Parker, whom he grants a private interview—because, after all, he’s from the Post—cautiously brings up a question about his marriage, at which Hart goes ballistic, insisting that nobody asked such questions of Reagan or Carter. He ends with a frustrated (and clearly hyperbolic) comment that if reporters are so interested in his private life, they can “Follow me around! If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”

Well, you know that can’t end well. Fiedler, of the Herald (motivated, the film suggests, by a kind of pique at being denied a private interview with Hart when the guy from the Post got one) hears rumors about a woman from Miami, then follows Donna Rice (Sara Paxton from TV’s Murder in the First) to Washington and, with a fellow Herald reporter (Bill Burr from TV’s F is for Family) stakes out Hart’s Washington townhouse and sees Rice enter and not come out. They end up confronting Hart in the alleyway behind his house, asking him for a comment while he derides them as scandal mongers. It’s ain’t Woodward and Bernstein—it’s more Abbott and Costello. But it’s the beginning of the end for Hart.

There is an obligatory confessional with Lee, who bears up valiantly with her daughter as they are besieged in their house by reporters, and Hart steadfastly refuses to admit the media have any right to know anything about his private life, refusing even to talk to his campaign staffers about it, so that by the end even Dixon is disillusioned with him. The reporters continue to barrage Hart, with Parker in an ethical quandary about the whole thing while his boss Bradlee says that now the story is out, it has to be pursued, and even Fiedler showing some shame at what he’s unleashed. In the end the film suggests it’s the harassing of his daughter Andrea that compels Hart to quit the campaign, just three weeks after he announced his candidacy.

Overall, Jackman does a competent job, but the film fails to make us sympathetic to Hart, the way we are to the incredulous Lee and even to naïve Donna. We feel more of a frustration with a man who seemed to throw away the chance to be a great force for positive change in the country, through his own bad judgments and stubbornness. This is probably Reitman’s intent. But truth be told, the film begins to go off the rails at about the point where Hart’s campaign does, because it becomes unfocused and degenerates into a series of Statements from all the major players explaining their position on things. There’s less of a plot in the last half hour than there is a collage of Points of View. It is to Reitman’s credit that he does not want to give us a one-sided simplification of a complicated series of issues, but what we get is likely to leave much of the audience confused rather than enlightened. Part of this confusion, too, comes from the myriad characters in the ensemble cast—I have completely left out any mention of the numerous secondary characters because there just wasn’t space here, but again, audiences can only juggle so many separate characters at a time, and it’s hard to get a lot of development for most of them in the film’s 113-minute running time.

There’s also the sense that Reitman wants the film to be relevant somehow, or applicable to politics today, although it’s a little hard to see a connection between a competent, intelligent politician forced out of the presidential race by news of an affair, and a president who publicly boasts about sexually molesting women on Access Hollywood and loses no support at all from the Evangelical Christians who supposedly would have objected to Hart. Maybe the ultimate takeaway is that no matter what anybody says, it’s never really about ethics or character, but only what you can get away with and what you can’t, whether you’re a candidate or the press, and this time the muckrakers scored the biggest goal. Two Jaqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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

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

green-book-poster-slice-600x200

Green Book

Green Book

Peter Farrelly (2018)

The new film Green Book opened this past weekend to generally very positive reviews and very positive audience reactions, and this after the film won the Audience Favorite Award at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year. It’s not difficult to see why audiences react favorably to this film: It is squarely in a very comfortable and recognizable popular Hollywood genre—the “buddy” film—in which two mismatched personalities are thrown together for some reason and end up in a relationship of mutual respect and admiration, each learning from the other. Quite often such films have involved a pair from very different social, class or intellectual backgrounds (think Rainman), different sides of the law (think Midnight Run), different genders (think His Girl Friday) or, maybe most often, different races (think The Defiant Ones, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon).

But director Peter Farrelly (creator of such popular successes as There’s Something About Mary) has yoked the buddy film with another favorite Hollywood genre, the road movie—a film in which, typically the character’s outward journey reflects an internal transformation, as the characters undergo changes in responses to their experiences on the road. It’s a narrative structure that goes back as far as The Odyssey (and, in America, to Huckleberry Finn), and the buddy-road hybrid genre has been a part of cinema almost since its beginning, whether in the form of pure comedy (like the Hope and Crosby “Road to…” pictures, or Farrelly’s own Dumb and Dumber), or romance (like It Happened One Night) or even tragedy (like Thelma and Louise).Green Bookhits all the right notes for a conventional buddy-road movie, pairing white lowbrow racist bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings) with black highbrow gay musician Don Shirley (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali of Moonlight) on a road trip through the deep south in 1962.

The film, which was co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, was based on stories his father told him about this particular road trip, and which Nick recorded before his father’s death in 2013. So it should be clear from the start that the story is seen through the eyes of Vallelonga, and therefore it is his character who proves more dynamic, and experiences the more significant change.

The other important piece of background information concerns the film’s title. The Negro Motorist Green Book, generally shortened to The Green Book, was a popular travel guide for African Americans that listed businesses (especially restaurants, motels and other establishments important for anyone on a road trip) throughout the United States that were friendly to or accepting of black patrons. The book, published annually between 1936 and 1967, was necessary particularly in the Jim Crow south, when African American travelers might be subject to discrimination, intimidation or harassment, or may even inadvertently enter a “sundown town,” where African Americans were not allowed to be after dark. In the film, Tony and Dr. Shirley are guided by the Green Book in finding food and lodging as they journey through the south.

As the film opens, Tony is working as a bouncer at the Copacabana, but when the nightclub closes for two months for renovations, he finds himself temporarily out of a job. He turns down an offer to work for some obvious mob types, and although he’s able to win a $50 bet by eating twenty-six hot dogs at one sitting, he admits he can’t do that every day. So when he learns that a certain Doctor Shirley is looking for a temporary driver, he decides to interview for the job. Turns out the address is Carnegie Hall, and it’s no medical doctor he’ll be driving, but a popular jazz musician and composer whose record company is funding a tour across the Midwest and into the South. And oh, yeah, Doctor Shirley turns out to be black, which means that Tony’s bouncer skills may very well be of some use on that southbound odyssey.

That Tony is an unapologetic racist from a whole family of racists is clear from an early scene, in which he walks into his living room to find his whole extended family watching the Yankees play the Giants in the ’62 World Series. They have come over to be with Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini of A Simple Favor nd TV’s Mad Men) so that she doesn’t have to be alone with two African American workmen in the house. She offers the two workers glasses of water, and when the black workers have left Tony throws the “contaminated” glasses into the garbage. It’s quite clear how far he has to go, and in what direction.

So it’s also clear that Tony is going to have some difficulty in working for the African American pianist. Dr. Shirley, for his part, is reputed to have three doctoral degrees (in music, psychology, and liturgical arts) and to be able to speak eight languages (he demonstrates his Italian and his Russian in the film). He was a musical prodigy who at the age of nine was invited to study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He lives in an apartment above Carnegie Hall that is richly decorated with valuable items from abroad including a pair of great elephant tusks, and he dresses in elegant and showy robes when he’s at home, and tuxedos when he is not. These things give him a kind of autocratic air as if he looks down on everyone and everything from a great height, and his opinion of Tony’s ungrammatical Bronx-accented chatter is about what you’d expect it to be.

As a buddy/road trip picture, you know that Green Book will manifest certain predetermined expectations. This makes the film very predictable and, of course, we get a kick out of things as they develop according to our expectations. Tony grows to respect Doctor Shirley for his intellect, then begins to admire him as a genius at the piano, and finally grows to like him as a human being and as a friend. And presto, he is no longer a racist.

Doctor Shirley’s transformation is more complicated because his problems are less black and white. His intellectual isolation is the result, to a large extent, of his feeling of not fitting in, and of finding no true home in either the black or the white world. Tony chides him for not liking fried chicken, or for not recognizing Little Richard on the radio, and while these things merely underscore Tony’s racism, since he believes all black people must be a certain way, they also suggest Dr. Shirley’s discomfort among his fellow African Americans: He has a brother with whom he never communicates; we see him at one of the hotels recommended in the Green Book unable to socialize with the other residents; and, finally, he appears to have no real friends. In part, his sexual orientation seems to contribute to his isolation. But in the end, of course, this being the kind of movie it is, he is able to let loose a bit, and he does end up with a friend, albeit  a white one. And so we have a feel-good movie for the Christmas season, with a peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-men theme and wrapped up with a bow.

The film has sparked some negative responses, particularly from African American critics who complain that it’s just another “white savior” movie—which it is in a way, but of course that’s precisely why Tony was hired, to protect the Doc as he makes his way across the south at a time of heightened racism the year after the first “freedom riders” ramped up the civil rights movement. Some have also complained that it’s really just the story of a white racist who becomes woke by making one African American friend. So it’s a movie that presents the old “I’m not a racist. I have a black friend” philosophy. And truly, that is pretty much what the movie suggests.

I think a bigger danger with this film, though, is the kind of nostalgic mood it invokes as a successful period piece. What are we being asked to be nostalgic for? Jim Crow? Surely that was not Farrelly’s intent. He works hard to show how dangerous it could be for a black man to travel through an openly racist south at a time when bigots and acts of senseless and unprovoked racial violence were accepted and even condoned by law enforcement. The danger is that, in the era of Black Lives Matter, viewers of the film may convince themselves that those days are gone. Farrelly may be trying to suggest that the wheel has come full circle, and that we are back to a time when hatred of people like Doctor Shirley is once again condoned by persons in power, and so has become more prevalent once more. But if that is the takeaway here, it’s one that the viewer must come to on his or her own.

It should be mentioned, too, that Doctor Shirley’s family has criticized the film for its inaccurate portrayal of the character. He was not, they insist, out of touch with his African American roots. But that kind of fictionalization was probably needed to balance the film, in order to give both characters a direction to grow. Both actors are excellent in their roles, by the way. Mortenson in particular had to work hard to develop a believable Bronx accent and mannerisms, and had to put on a lot of weight to become the somewhat flabby tough guy (the real Tony Lip, by the way, went on to enter show business himself, landing a small part in TheGodfatherand ending his career as Carmine Lupertazzi in The Sopranos. Who knew?)

Despite some flaws, the film as a buddy movie-road movie is enjoyable. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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

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

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Marielle Heller (2018)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Melissa McCarthy is, of course, well-known for her comic talents, and she was brilliant in her premiere screen role in 2011’s Bridesmaids. She has gone on to create other memorable comic performances, notably in films created by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig—The Heat and Spy. Feig and McCarthy clearly have a working relationship that brings out the best in her. But her career has not really taken off as might have been predicted largely because her choices of roles in non-Feig films has been, shall we say, unwise. Thus The Boss, Identity Thief, Tammy, and this year’s Life of the Party have been, to put it kindly, largely forgettable movies. But in her current film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy takes a serious turn, and turns in the best work of her career, a performance so moving that it is generating Oscar buzz.

Of course, those earlier terrible films were screened at every theater in Little Rock and its environs when they were first released, while you have to search diligently to find the one screen in Central Arkansas where you can see Can You Ever Forgive Me? (and that, by the way, is at Riverdale 10). This seems to be a particularly frustrating marketing plan coming out of Hollywood, one that ensures that a universally maligned movie like, say, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, panned by critics and audiences alike (with a below-40 percent rating in both categories on the review aggregator rottentomatoes.com), remains on several screens at every theater complex in the region, while a universally praised one, like this one, can only be found on one screen after a thorough and rigorous search. I suppose the idea is that if you put garbage on enough screens, people may wander into the film by chance, while (in a cynical appraisal of their own audience) Hollywood marketers assume a serious film that critics praise is not going to be for a mass audience, who might be driven away by the impression that it must be boring if there are no superheroes or special effects.

This film’s screenplay, by Jeff Whitty (Tony Award-winning playwright of Avenue Q) and Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said)—who was originally intended to direct the film—is adapted from Lee Israel’s confessional memoir of the same name, published in 2008. Israel, a successful magazine journalist, had some success in the 1970s and ’80s writing biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and of Dorothy Kilgallen (which had been on the New York Times Bestseller List), but then had published an unsuccessful and critically derided unauthorized biography of Estee Lauder in 1985 that eventually led, by the early ’90s, to her inability to find publishers interested in her work, and, ultimately, to her turning to the idea of forging celebrity letters to sell to collectors in order to make ends meet. In the course of her illegal pursuits, she made thousands of dollars, selling some 400 letters over three years before she was ultimately apprehended by the FBI.

The film, deftly directed by Marcielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), wastes no time with exposition, as we are introduced to Israel (McCarthy) just as she is being fired from a minor copyediting job in a large cubicled office area for drinking on the job and cursing at her fellow employees. This is precisely the reason that her prospects as an author have all but dried up: She’s working on a new biography of Fanny Brice that nobody seems to want and that her agent (a terrifically bitchy Jane Curtin) can’t get an advance for, largely because Lee’s prickly personality and uncooperative attitude make her somebody nobody, including her agent, wants to help. Turns out she’s a lonely lesbian who has not been in a relationship with anybody but her cat for years, and lives in a gritty apartment on Manhattan’s west side for which she’s behind on her rent and which is fly-infested because she hasn’t cleaned up after herself—or her cat—in recent memory. But she’s got to live, right? So she tries selling off some of her personal books at used bookstores, though she can’t get much for them, even the ones bookstores are willing to buy. She does have a framed letter from Katharine Hepburn which she is able to sell to a neighborhood bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells of TVs Portlandia) for more than any of her books, and this inadvertently is the spark that sets her on her career of crime.

While researching her Fanny Brice biography, she comes across two genuine Brice letters tucked into a book, and makes off with them. When she tries to sell them, she learns that if there is some sort of unique personal touch to the letter, it will fetch a higher price, so she composes a P.S. to one of the letters, takes it to a different collector, and cashes in. Now she’s into her forgery business full time, and learns to imitate the style, as well as the signatures, of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Marlene Dietrich, Fanny Brice and Fred Astaire. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she is able to say at the height of her success.

Financial security doesn’t lift Lee from the loneliness of her personal life, which she spends knocking back Scotch at a low-end Manhattan bar. It’s here that she meets another lonely, and possibly homeless, barfly, the charmingly gay and British Jack Hock, played by veteran actor Richard E. Grant, who’s been around long enough to have been in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, but this is the best role and the best performance of his career. When buyers become suspicious of Lee’s wares, she drafts Jack to peddle her later creations, and he turns out to be a pretty good salesman. “Do not underestimate sparkling blue eyes and a little bit of street smarts,” he tells Lee. When they are handing out Oscar nominations for this film, let’s hope they don’t forget Grant.

Since the film is based on Israel’s best-selling confessional, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Lee ultimately does get caught, but I won’t reveal exactly how or any of the rest of it. But let me just say that this little unpretentious film, the story of an unimportant character engaged in a rather petty form of crime, turns out to be one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. McCarthy’s understated range of emotion is remarkable, and the depth of her characterization of this obnoxious, unpleasant and lonely woman may be surprising given her previous exclusive work in comedy (though you know what they say: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.). McCarthy makes it look easy here, and is able, against all odds, to make us feel sympathy for the largely unsympathetic—and unrepentant—Israel. Her last scene with Clark, in which they meet at a bar and she tells him she’s escaped her court-ordered house arrest by saying she was going to an AA meeting, is brilliantly and subtly touching, as she tells him she’s writing a book about her adventures and asks him for permission to write about him.

The film also boasts a moody visual landscape of the grungier side of Manhattan in the early ’90s, kind of the darker side of Woody Allen films of the time, as well as a bluesy score that underscores the film’s blue mood, with music by the likes of Chet Baker, Peggy Lee, Jeri Southern and Blossom Dearie. But the film belongs to McCarthy. Kudos to her and four Shakespeares for the movie.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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

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

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

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bryan Singer (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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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.