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

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Jay Ruud’s Reviews

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

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: ENDGAME..Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Joe and Anthony Russo (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

A glance at the scheduled showings of Avengers: Endgame will reveal that there are 35 separate showings of the film that you can go to. And that, my friends is just in Conway. You can multiply that by about seven if you’re planning to attend the film in Little Rock. And theater-owners are probably cursing the fact that the movie runs for some 182 minutes—just over three hours—because if it had been a typical two-hour film, they could have increased the number of showings by another 50 percent. This plethora of opportunities to view Endgame is the natural consequence of the fact that, in twenty-one previous films over the past eleven years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been counting down to this particular moment in time: the climax of everything that has gone before. It was Marvel’s perfect design to create the single most anticipated, and therefore the single highest grossing, film project of all time. The film’s $350 million domestic opening weekend—the highest in history—is a good indication that particular goal will be achieved, as is the world-wide gross of $1.2 billion, and that’s in just three days, folks.

So the questions arises, is this a film that’s worthy of all the hype? Certainly most of the rabid Marvel fans are going to be satisfied with what filmmakers have done with their favorite characters in this final episode, the series finale as it were. But if Endgame is going to be the record-setting blockbuster being anticipated, it really needs to appeal to more viewers than just the ones who remember the difference between Iron Man II and Iron Man III. And rest assured, dear readers, it will.

You may not recall, though I certainly do, that in my unenthusiastic review of this film’s prequel, Infinity War, I complained that the filmmakers’ insistence on putting every Marvel hero and their mother into the film made it impossible for the audience to relate closely to any particular character, so that even the shocking ending, in which the Behemoth Malthusian villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped his six-Infinity-Stoned fingers and wiped out half of the sentient life in the universe, didn’t make us mourn all that much the loss of characters we’d only seen say one or two lines in the course of the film.

Ironically, it’s exactly that act of super-genocide that makes Endgame a much superior film: With the likes of Black Panther, Dr. Strange  and Spiderman turned to dust, we’re left with Avengers keystones Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) holding up their respective cynical and optimistic views of humanity, supported by the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and her apparently Platonic boyfriend Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They are joined by Guardians of the Galaxy Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose own relationship to Thanos (she happens to be his daughter, if you don’t remember) is a crucial plot point of the movie. This slimmed-down cast makes things a little more manageable for directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and for their audience as well.

Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), as someone whom we were led to believe by promotional advertising would have a major part in this picture, is in fact very much a side character. Oh, she does have a couple of important things to do in the beginning of the film: As the one superhero who had nothing to do with the Avengers’ defeat by Thanos in the previous installment, she’s the one who can most easily rally them to take the fight back to Thanos, recover those infinity stones, and bring back the dead. Turns out, though, that the big guy destroyed the stones and has retired to cultivate his garden. So Captain Marvel peace-outs and says she’s got other planets to take care of, and the other surviving Avengers spend five years thinking they’ve failed and mostly moping around.

Iron Man has foresworn superherodom and retired to the country. Hulk has learned how to combine his Green Monster and Bruce Banner selves into a giant green intellectual. Thor has sunk into a depression that leaves him a beer-guzzling overweight couch-potato. And Black Widow is trying to hold the fort at Avengers headquarters. But when Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)—who everyone thought was dead but who happened to be trapped in quantum space the whole time (Don’t ask. Just watch Ant-Man and the Wasp)—turns up five years after the disaster that killed half the earth (for him it’s been only ten minutes, quantum time), he brings with him an idea that might just be what everybody needs to turn this defeat around.

Of course, the idea involves the only thing it possibly could: time travel. If the stones are the only thing that can reanimate the valley of dry bones that is the post-Thanos universe, and if the stones are no more, then the only solution is to go back in time to when and where the stones were, bring them back, and use them now. Since one or more of the living Avengers know when it was they first encountered at least one of the stones, all they need to do is figure out how to make a time machine. And Ant-Man’s got an idea of how to do it—but without a Delorean handy, they need the super-scientific mind of Tony Stark to bring the idea to fruition, and so they’ve got to go find him in his retirement and convince him to come back into the fold.

If I tell you any more, I’ll be accused of dropping in spoilers, and there must be a handful of people in the known universe who have not already seen the movie last weekend, and one or two of them might actually be reading this review. I will say that the idea of dividing the surviving group into three teams increases the advantage already achieved by the ranks being thinned: We actually get real scenes of character development and relationship building among the characters, whereas in previous installments we got little other than one-line sound bites that were supposed to indicate camaraderie or some such thing. For this reason the film is much more intimate than superhero movies tend to be, and it is much more interesting, because the conversations raise important questions, like how we deal with loss, how we face mortality, and ultimately, what is a life well lived? One important character has a surprising personal answer to that last question by the end of the film.

Finally, yes, the fanatic Marvel groupies will have their satisfactory jolts: In going back in time, our heroes revisit several previous films in scenarios that series devotees will recognize and exult over. And there is an obligatory apocalyptic battle scene that goes on for a good chunk of the film, one where Captain Marvel gets to make another notable appearance in the role of an almost-but-not-quite deus ex machina, and one in which—to thunderous audience applause in the screening I attended—some of the dead rise again.

But it really isn’t this epic climactic battle that makes Avengers: Endgame a worthwhile film. It’s those quieter moments, particularly from Paul Rudd and Chris Hemsworth in the comic vein, and from Robert Downey, Jr., in a more tragic one. This is a film worth seeing, and you can probably get a ticket in a couple of months.

And by the way, when you do see the movie, don’t sit around waiting for a teaser after the credits. For the first time in 22 movies, there isn’t one. That’s as much as to say, this time the end of the movie really is the end. At least of this particular story arc. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. 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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Top 15 Medieval-themed Films of All Time

The Top 15 Medieval-themed Films of All Time

I tried, but I really couldn’t bring myself to spend money on any of the movies that leached into central Arkansas this past weekend. Of course, I really wanted to see Terry Gilliam’s  The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but we didn’t get a chance at that one. Maybe I’ll be able to see it on some streaming channel some time.

So since the biggest screening event of the past week and a half has been the return of the last season of Game of Thrones, I thought I’d honor the final season of my favorite television show with a completely accurate and indisputable list of the best medieval and pseudo-medieval movies ever made.

To be clear, in order to qualify for this list, the movie has to be: 1) Actually set in the Middle Ages, so that it is based on historical figures from the Middle Ages or deals with fictional characters living in the Middle Ages, or 2) A fantasy tale whose setting draws clearly from actual medieval settings, or 3) A fictional film set in more modern times but relying heavily on obvious medieval motifs. So without further ado, here are the top 15:

  1. The Fisher King (1991)

Buoyed by stellar performances by Jeff Bridges as a shock jock whose comments incite a mass shooting, and Robin Williams whose wife is a victim of the shooter, director and Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam uses the archetypal Arthurian motif of the Grail legend, the Waste Land, and the Fisher King to turn Bridges into the Grail knight searching for the means of healing Williams’ Fisher King and to restore life to the Waste Land of Williams’ shattered psyche. One of the most moving uses of medieval myth to speak to modern crises.

  1. The Name of the Rose (1986)

Sean Connery gives one of his first memorable post-Bond performances in this dark rendition of Umberto Eco’s debut novel, a medieval murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327. Eco’s novel was full of semiotic post-modernism, an intellectual exercise that doesn’t necessarily play so well on screen, so director Jean-Jacques Annaud concentrates solely on the novel’s plot, which involves an intellectual Franciscan, William von Baskerville (Connery, with a nod toward Sherlock Holmes) investigating the mysterious death of a Benedictine monk, an investigation involving Aristotle’s lost treatise on Comedy. The film features a chilling performance by F. Murray Abraham (fresh from his Oscar-triumph in Amadeus) as the cruel inquisitor Bernardo Gui, and a very young Christian Slater in what was only his second big screen appearance.

  1. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s epic fictionalized biography of 13th-century Scottish hero William Wallace won five Academy Awards, including the Best Picture Oscar. It was certainly the high point of Gibson’s career. Wallace, leader of the first Scottish war of independence against British King Edward I, was the hero of a long epic poem by the Scottish bard Blind Harry. That text provided the inspiration for the film, the title of which comes from the name of Wallace’s famous sword, which figures in the last shot of the movie, lying upon the bloody field of Bannockburn. Nobody should mistake the film as actual history, but the action scenes, particularly the depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, are the best in any medieval film. In the pre-CGI days, Gibson directed up to 1,600 extras, shooting in Ireland with members of the Irish Army Reserve as extras. To save money, he had the same soldiers play both armies in different shots. A well-deserved directorial Oscar went to Gibson for his efforts.

  1. Ran (1985)

Akiri Kurosawa’s epic reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear is set in medieval Japan. The title Ran translates as “chaos” or “turmoil,” and the film is fittingly set during the period of Japanese history known as the Sengoku period, or the “Age of the Warring States,” a period of social and political upheaval and constant internal warfare. The Lear character of the film, Hidetora Ichimonji, is an aging warlord who has decided to step down and to divide his realm among his three sons. As one might suspect, this does not turn out so well. With spectacular and colorful battle scenes, the film was the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time. But it has been universally acclaimed, and is often considered among the greatest films ever made. Kurosawa saw the story of irrational destruction as a metaphor for the anxiety of post-nuclear Japan, and of the rest of the world in the last days of the Cold War’s “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

  1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The benchmark against which all other Robin Hood films are measured and found wanting, this 1938 Errol Flynn technicolor gem, directed by Michael Curtiz (who had previously directed Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade and was to go on to win an Oscar for directing Casablanca) and William Keighley (who had directed flynn in The Prince and the Paupera year earlier) features Flynn as the most swashbuckling Robin Hood ever conceived. It also starred de Havilland (a year before her iconic Gone with the Wind role) as Maid Marion, Claude Rains as Prince John, and a deliciously villainous Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. And may I say that the climactic swordfight between Flynn and Rathbone on the staircase in the film’s most exciting scene, with their long shadows playing on the wall, is one of the most spectacular in movie history. Alan Hale Sr. plays Little John—a role he played in three different Robin Hood films. FUN FACT: Cowboy star Roy Rogers liked the look of Maid Marion’s horse so much in this film that he bought the horse and renamed him Trigger. And the rest is history.

  1. The Natural (1984)

Barry Levinson’s classic baseball movie may seem an odd choice for a list of films concerning the Middle Ages, but the story of the “middle aged rookie” (Robert Redford) who comes from nowhere to become the phenom who sparks the hapless Knights team into pennant contention is clearly inspired by that same Grail myth underlying The Fisher King. The Bernard Malamud novel on which the film was based makes heavy use of the motifs of the traditional Grail legend, and the movie is even more obvious in its symbols: Roy (the name means “King”) Hobbs is the Grail knight, bearing his own special weapon, “Wonderboy,” like Wallace’s “Braveheart” or Aragorn’s “Anduril” or, of course, King Arthur’s “Excalibur.” The manager of the Knights (I assume I don’t need to mention the significance of the team name) is “Pop Fisher”—i.e., the fisher king, whose team is mired in last place and has been for some time. Their field is a veritable Waste Land—Fisher cannot even get a drink of fresh water. Hobbs has come to restore the team to life. He has his own beloved lady (Glenn Close) who acts as his inspiration, and another witch-like siren (Kim Bassinger) who tries to lead him astray. And unlike its source, the film ends like a true medieval romance, with the knight winning the Grail and his love at the same time.

 

  1. Seven Samurai (1954)

Another Akira Kurosawa epic set in the Japanese Sengoku period, Seven Samurai has been even more widely praised and acclaimed than his later Ran. In 2018 it was voted the greatest ever foreign language film in the BBC’s international critics’ poll. It’s the story of a remote farming village that hires seven ronin, or masterless samurai, to protect it from a group of bandits who threaten to come back to them at harvest time to steal their crops. It’s considered Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and boasts a perfect 100 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It is consistently praised for its engrossing plot, memorable characters and vivid action scenes. Kurosawa was also innovative in his use of telephoto lenses and multiple cameras, seldom used before, which put the audience in the midst of the action in a way not experienced previously. Such techniques were to profoundly influence subsequent filmmakers. The story idea of putting together a team of warriors or specialists in order to achieve a particular objective was adopted in numerous films—from The Guns of Navarone to Ocean’s Eleven to The Avengers and Widows. More specifically, the plot of the film was adopted by American director John Sturges in 1960 into the classic western The Magnificent Seven, changing the samurai into gunslingers in the old west.

 

  1. Henry V (1989)

Kenneth Branagh created what seemed to be a no-win situation for himself by committing to refilm the play that had been a huge success for Lawrence Olivier. Olivier’s’s wartime version of Shakespeare’s most patriotic play, the story of young King Henry’s startling victory over vastly superior French forces at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, seemed an unapproachable masterpiece. But Branagh’s film surpassed Olivier’s in critical acclaim, as Branagh deliberately chose to film in a style in stark contrast to Olivier’s bright romanticism. In short, Branagh does with Olivier what George R.R. Martin does with Tolkien: he shows the dark and gritty Middle Ages rather than the optimistic and romanticized. The Battle of Agincourt is fought in a grungy October rain in the midst of a field of mud in stark realism. Branagh’s film also sports an all-star British cast, featuring Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield and Emma Thompson. Branagh’s film is another movie with a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and, in addition, is ranked No. 1 on Rotten Tomatoes’  list of “best Shakespeare Movies of all time.”

  1. The Princess Bride (1987)

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Need I say more? Rob Reiner’s film adaptation of William Goldman’s novel was not a huge success at the box office upon its initial release, though it did garner critical acclaim as a kind of “post-modern fairy tale,” and eventually, with later video releases, became a major cult classic. Set in a fantasy fairy tale Middle Ages, the film takes traditional adventure motifs like the lady in distress, the long-lost lover who reappears, or the lifelong quest for revenge, and gives them all a new comic twist as the farmhand Westley (Cary Elwes) sets off to rescue his beloved Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) from the villainous Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), and supporting characters like Manny Patinkin, Christopher Guest (“Stop saying that!”), Wallace Shawn (“Inconceivable!”) and Peter Cook (“Mawage is what bwings us togethew today”) providing much of the comedy and making this film one of the most quotable in recent memory. FUN FACT: One of the people auditioning for the role of the giant Fezzik, eventually played by André the giant, was NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

  1. The Lion in Winter (1968)

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, this brilliant adaptation of James Goldman’s rather unsuccessful Broadway play exploring the dysfunctional British royal family at their Christmas get-together in 1183 eventually won three Oscars: one for Goldman’s adapted screenplay, one for John Barry’s original score and one for Katharine Hepburn’s spirited portrayal of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, chief antagonist of her husband Henry II, played here by Peter O’Toole, who was Oscar-nominated a second time for his portrayal of the same character (see the immediately following entry). Anthony Harvey directed, and received his only Oscar nomination, though he was better known as a film editor, having previously edited Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In Goldman’s story, the main question is, Who will Henry name as his successor? All three of his sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John) are vying for the throne, and Eleanor is scheming to have her own favorite named as heir, but Henry is playing everybody off against each other. Besides Hepburn’s and O’Toole’s brilliant performances, a young Anthony Hopkins shines as eldest son and ultimate successor, Richard the Lionheart.

 

  1. Beckett (1964)

This film version of acclaimed French playwright Jean Anouilh’s Beckett, or The Honor of God, starred Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Beckett (Chaucer’s “holy blissful martyr”), both at the height of their careers, and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning only in the category of Adapted Screenplay for Edward Anhalt (who had previously won one in 1950 for Panic in the Streets). Peter Glenville directed the film, shot in glorious 70 mm color, which tells the story of politically savvy Henry II’s ongoing conflicts with the Church, and his appointment of his longtime lackey and partner in debauchery Thomas Beckett as his Chancellor and his Archbishop of Canterbury, counting on Beckett to be an easily manipulated puppet. Imagine his surprise when Beckett develops a conscience and a backbone. O’Toole and Burton were both nominated and so canceled each other out in the Best Actor category, losing to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. FUN FACT: O’Toole was ultimately nominated for the Best Actor Oscar eight times, and Richard Burton six times plus one more for Supporting Actor. That’s 15 Oscar nominations. Neither of them ever won. Perhaps Beckett was their chance, if they hadn’t canceled one another out.

  1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

Recognized almost since its release as a classic of world cinema, The Seventh Seal is the film that established Swedish director Ingmar Bergman as one of the great directors of his time. In the film a knight (Max von Sydow) returns from fighting in the Crusades to find Sweden in the midst of the Black Death. Soon the knight meets a hooded figure who turns out to be Death himself. Ultimately the knight challenges Death to a game of chess, to be played for the knight’s soul. Eerily filmed in glorious black and white, the movie is as dark as its title, which refers to the apocalypse in the book of Revelation. Admirers of the film have dwindled somewhat in more recent decades, given that the film’s allegorical approach seems more suited to the time period of its setting rather than contemporary times, and the earnest existential questions about God and the meaning of life the film poses seem out of place with our contemporary ironic world view. But as Roger Ebert (who gave the film four out of four stars and placed it among his “Great Movies”) wrote: “Films are no longer concerned with the silence of God but with the chattering of men.…But the directness of The Seventh Seal is its strength: This is an uncompromising film, regarding good and evil with the same simplicity and faith as its hero.”

3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

There have been several films made concerning the life and career of the Maid of Orleans, but none have ever equaled the depth and pathos of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic, produced shortly after Saint Joan’s canonization and widely considered one of the greatest silent films ever made. Filmed almost entirely in closeup, sometimes in extreme closeup, the film uses a script based quite closely on transcripts of 19-year-old Joan’s actual trial before the inquisition in British-occupied Rouen. In her one-and-only screen appearance, actress Renee Falconetti gives one of the most acclaimed screen performances ever as she plays the accused Maid as a Christ-like martyr (hence the “Passion” of the title). This may be the film on the list that you are least likely to have seen, but I assure you it is worth your while.

  1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!” Some jokes just never get old. And here’s a film that, 44 years after its release, remains as popular as ever. Medievalists as a rule consider this the best film ever made about King Arthur, mainly because the Pythons, particularly directors Terry Gilliam (yes, him again) and Terry Jones (the author of two scholarly books about Chaucer) actually know something about the Arthurian legend and about medieval history, so their jokes are coming from the perspective of a real knowledge of what they are spoofing. The film also spoofs previous film versions of the King Arthur story, most notably 1967’s Camelot, the lavish film made from the smash Broadway musical. With Pythonesque irony, the script of the film eventually came full circle and became a smash Broadway musical itself under the name of Spamalot.

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003)

Peter Jackson’s elaborate, spectacular, epic trilogy of films, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of novels, brought Middle Earth to life in a way that regenerated interest in the classic story of hobbits who save the world. Jackson’s CGI techniques changed the way epic films were made, and the cinematography made New Zealand a Mecca for the film business, but it was the human element that made these films beloved. The relationship of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), the power and inspiration of the fallen-and-risen Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the William Wallace-like heroism of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the swashbuckling elf-skills of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who out-Robin Hoods Errol Flynn, the Black Riders who throw a darkness deeper than the Seventh Seal, etc., etc., etc., make this trilogy the culmination of medieval-themed filmmaking. And unlike the later and much inferior Hobbit trilogy, these films were true to the books and satisfying for Tolkien fans, while telling the story so effectively that those who hadn’t read Tolkien were enchanted as well. If I hadn’t lumped them together, Jackson’s films would have taken up three of the top 15 slots. But in fact, the three films were conceived and developed as a single project, as Tolkien’s books were. Altogether, these films were nominated for an astounding 41 Academy Awards, ultimately receiving 17 Oscars—11 of those, including those for Best Picture and Best Director, went to the final chapter, The Return of the King, but I think almost everyone recognized that those Oscars were a celebration of the entire trilogy’s brilliant achievement.

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. 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

Matthias Schoenaerts appears in The Mustang by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. 

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The Mustang

The Mustang

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

This is a little gem of a film that might not be on your radar, since it has had virtually no promotion and is in very limited release. But it’s one that is well worth your chasing down if you can. The one screen it’s playing on right now in Central Arkansas is at Riverdale 10, but I’d hurry if you want to see it there, since it’s not likely to be there long.

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre is a French actress, and American audiences might possibly remember her from 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. As a director, this is her first feature-length film, though it is loosely based on her 2014 short Rabbit, a film that made the rounds and won several awards at film festivals. Based in part on the success of that film, de Clermont-Tonnerre received an “emerging talent” grant from Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute film lab to develop her script for The Mustang into a feature film. Redford is listed as executive producer for the project.

The opening scenes of the film present us with gorgeous vistas of public land in the west, where a large herd of mustangs roam wild. But their glorious freedom is interrupted by the grating roar of helicopters that are used to round up the horses and frighten them into holding pens. We are told that the government has removed hundreds of thousands of wild horses over the past few decades from public lands. What the film does not mention specifically is the fact that such roundups kill or maim many horses, and that the horses are removed from public lands and put into small pens because the Bureau of Land Management is acting under pressure from large ranchers who want their cattle to graze on public lands, and from oil companies interested in fracking. This political background is missing from the film, but the images of the penned up wild horses do speak for themselves.

What happens to a handful of these magnificent animals forms the subject matter for this film. Up to 2,000 wild mustangs  may be held after these roundups in a holding facility jointly supervised by the Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Department of Correction-Silver State Industries, and of these some 50 to 75 each year are part of a training program that utilizes prison inmates who spend time—in the film it is five weeks—with the animals, training them and at the end of the process making them available for public adoption, often by law enforcement agencies, particularly officers patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. The process, of course, is also a rehabilitation exercise for the inmates, who not only feel they are doing something useful, but also form an empathetic bond with the animals they train.

The film, then, becomes a story of redemption for violent inmate Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts fromFar from the Madding Crowd). Coleman has already served a dozen years for a violent attack on his domestic partner that left her helplessly brain damaged. We learn this by degrees as the movie progresses: At first, we only see Roman with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton from TV’s Dirty John), who is trying to get him to respond to something—anything—that might reveal a preference he would have for a work assignment in what seems to be a new prison for him. She ends up assigning him to “outdoor maintenance,” which at this place consists of disposing of horse manure.

But the crusty, hard-bitten old cowpoke Myles (screen veteran Bruce Dern), who is in charge of the training program, sees something in Roman, and decides to give him a chance to train a particularly cantankerous new mustang arrival who Roman names “Marcus.” Helped along by an infectiously good-humored fellow inmate and experienced trainer named Henry (Jason Mitchell from Straight Outta Compton), Roman makes some halting progress before completely losing his temper and channeling all his frustrations out on the horse, physically attacking Marcus with savage blows to his ribs.

The no-nonsense Myles will have none of this and has Roman thrown into solitary confinement. Roman also goes through anger management classes. Despite his explosion, Myles eventually does let Roman come back to resume training Marcus, and with Henry’s help he actually begins to make some progress. In the meantime, Roman gets a surprise visit from his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon from Blockers). While he is not exactly welcoming to her, she is the only person he responds to with more than a grunt for the entire first half of the movie. The pregnant Martha, though still a minor, wants his signature on a form that will “emancipate” her so that she can go and live with her boyfriend and have the baby.

As the film progresses and Roman comes to respect the horse, take pride in his own work and form marginally better relationships with Henry, Myles and ultimately Martha as well, we can sense that this human life has value, even if he is never reintegrated into normal human society. And although there are other twists in the story, and an ending we might not have seen coming, nothing is really more important than what we’ve learned to this point. The rest is just plot.

One flaw in that plot is another violent incident Roman is involved in later for which he seems to incur no punishment, a development that left me scratching my head. But overall the script is impressive, and manages to get us to appreciate Roman’s difficult journey and his ongoing redemption without resorting to clichés or sentiment. That in itself is a wondrous achievement.

So is Schoenaerts’ understated performance as he brings to life a character with little redeeming social value, but one who recognizes his crimes and finds something to live for after all. As for Bruce Dern, nobody can play a crusty old hardened tough guy like he can. Most of the other prisoners are actually played by inmates who have themselves been part of this rehabilitation program, and their presence augments the realism of the scenes with the horses and within the prison complex as well.

But another major star of the film is cinematographer Ruben Impens (who recently shot Beautiful Boy). Impens’ images of galloping horses or of sunrise over the desert are often so beautiful it is a shame that the film is in such limited release (it was actually released in mid-March and took a month to get here at all), because that means most of you will only get to see it on streaming video rather than on the big screen, where you can fully enjoy those images.

Kudos to Redford and his Sundance lab that made it possible for this movie to be made. I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare, and urging you to go see it on a movie screen while you still can.

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. 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

Shazam-Movie-Post-Credit-Scenes

Shazam

Shazam!

David F. Sandberg (2019)

Think Penny Marshal’s Big meets a PG-rated Deadpool. That’s basically what you get in the comic but not-so-sardonic-as-Deadpoolnew film from the DC expanded universe, directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and written by Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo), in which a teenager magically transforms himself into an adult body while remaining an adolescent in his mind—with the additional twist that the adult he transforms himself into is, by the way, a superhero. And just in case you missed the connection to Marshall’s 1988 Tom Hanks vehicle, there’s a wink at that film’s most famous scene in a brief shot midway through the film as the main character runs through a toy store.

But this movie’s connection with ’80s movies goes deeper than its blatant variation on the theme of Big. The film does more than focus on a particular lone and tormented crimefighter, a la DC’s caped and gloomy crusader Batman. In fact it bears little resemblance at all to the plethora of ultra-dark super-serious save-the-universe-from-Armageddon superhero flicks that have become the rule (which we’ll see enough of in a couple of weeks with Marvell’s Avengers: Endgame). Instead, this film focuses on the importance of family and of relationships, and on a group of teenagers teamed up to solve a problem. The tone is a real throwback to Spielbergesque ’80s films like Goonies or Back to the Future.

There is another sense in which the character of Shazam could be described as a cross between Superman and Captain Marvell. It’s well known that when Superman burst upon the scene in 1938, he revolutionized the comic book genre. Everybody wanted their own superhero to compete with the Man of Steel. Superman’s most successful competitor first appeared in issue #2 of Fawcett Comics’ “Whiz Comics” in 1939: a character named—wait for it—Captain Marvel. But hold on, this Captain Marvel was a 12-year-old newsboy named Billy Batson who was able to morph into an adult sized superhero by calling out a single word: Shazam!

This Captain Marvel went on to actually sell more comics than Superman himself until Superman’s parent company, then called National Comics, sued Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel was just a plagiarized version of Superman. Of course, there was some truth in this, but the stealing did go both ways: Superman, for instance, could never fly until Captain Marvel revealed that particular power in the early 1940s. And for that matter, Superman’s bald-headed arch-nemesis and super-villain Lex Luthor pretty clearly owed something to Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, the original Captain Marvel’s bald-headed arch nemesis and super-villain. The suit went on for more than a dozen years, but National finally won its case in the early 1950s, and won the rights to the character of Captain Marvel. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that National, now DC Comics, decided to reintroduce the character in their own line—but by then another rival company had introduced its own character with the name Captain Marvel, and had actually named their entire line after that hero. So DC had to simply call the recycled character Shazam. And now, more than 45 years later, we have the irony of two movies both concerning different characters originally named “Captain Marvel,” appearing within two weeks of each other. As Gomer Pyle would have said, “Shazam!”

In this film version, we first go back in time more than four decades to encounter a boy, belittled and verbally abused by his father and older brother, who, in what might be simply an imagined escape, finds himself in a cavernous room lined with monstrous statues of the seven deadly sins, and confronted by an aged wizard (Djimon Hounsou, last seen two weeks ago in Captain Marvel)  The wizard is looking for someone pure of heart to whom he can pass on his magic powers, which he uses to keep the seven sins at bay. The boy fails the test, but the wizard vows to keep looking.

Flash forward to the present, and we meet 14-year old runaway Billy Batson (Asher Angel of TV’s Andi Mack). Billy seems an unlikely candidate for the “pure of heart” label: Abandoned as a youngster, he has spent some ten years bouncing from one Philadelphia foster home to another, all the time trying to find his real mother. But Billy’s latest brush with the law lands him in a foster home with caring foster parents (Marta Milans of TV’s The Pier and Cooper Andrews from TV’s The Walking Dead) and a winning group of foster siblings (including Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Grace Fulton and Jovan Armand) whom he mostly ignores at first. But ultimately Billy forms a grudging bond with his younger roommate Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer from Beautiful Boy), who has a walking disability, a warped sense of humor and an obsession with superheroes. In other words, Freddie is the personification of the core intended audience for the film and, like a Greek chorus, responds in ways the audience is meant to.

When Billy, like his unnamed predecessor, is brought to the secret magic room with its by now desperately debilitated wizard, the wizard has to pretty much take it on faith that he’s got somebody who can carry on his protective crusade, since Billy seems like his only hope. And with one word, Billy turns into the ripped adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi from TV’s Chuck). But the thing is, he’s still a 14-year-old adolescent in a 30-year-old superhero body, so he acts pretty immature for a superhero—something Freddie is the first to call him on. What follows the transformation is the most entertaining part of the movie, as Freddie, with his checklist, runs grownup Billy through a series of tests, trying to figure out precisely what his powers are. Super strength? Check. Bullet proof? Check. Laser vision? Not so much. Flying? Well, maybe, but it’s something we need to work on. Taking a cue from the actual history of the disputed character, Freddie and Billy also try to come up with a name for the new superhero, and some of these are pretty crazy: My personal favorite is “Captain Sparklefingers.”

The film takes a darker turn when Billy/Shazam is faced with the aforementioned super-villain Dr. Sivana (played with Bond-villainesque menace by working actor Mark Strong, who previously played another DC supervillain, Sinestro, in the eminently forgettable Green Lantern). Sivana, fueled by the embodiments of those dreaded seven deadly sins, has powers equal to Shazam’s own, and can only be defeated by an unlooked for stroke on Billy’s part that gives the film a more uplifting ending than most superhero flicks.

The film is highly entertaining, with Glazer and Levi forming a very watchable comic buddy team. Its light touch and boyish charm are refreshing in the morass of heavy-themed superhero movies. Like most of these kinds of films, it does have a severely overlong CGI-enhanced battle scene at the end (Why do they do this every time?) that will give you sufficient nap-time if you need it, but don’t sleep through all of it or you’ll miss Billy’s clever twist. All things considered, this is a superhero movie that you might very well like even if you don’t like superhero movies. Three Tennysons for this one.

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. 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

Dumbo-age-rating-How-old-watch-dumbo-Tim-Burton-disney-remake-1108198

Dumbo

Dumbo

Tim Burton (2019)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

One of the most vivid memories of my life is the first time I saw a family of elephants in the wild in Zambia. I was on a river cruise on the Great Zambezi and saw three elephants—a large male, a smaller female, and a small baby elephant—emerge from the surrounding jungle to enjoy a cool drink at sunset from the mighty river. Seeing the great beasts free in their natural habitat, obviously a content and loving family unit, made my heart swell with awe and wonder. Lest you think I’m anthropomorphizing the animals by calling them a loving family unit, I would draw your attention to recent research that shows that elephants not only feel empathy but also mourn their own dead. The largest of all land animals, elephants have much larger brains than any other land animals, and have three times more neurons in their brains than do human beings.

Thus the portrayal of filial love between a mother elephant and her baby, as depicted in Tim Burton’s latest film from Disney, the live-action Dumbo, is not simply the recreation of the same relationship in the original animated film. It is also a reflection of reality.

In the original film, as in many animated films, Disneyesque or otherwise, talking animals are essentially figurative representations of human beings, speaking through animals for comic and sometimes satiric, even didactic, purposes. Dumbo and his mother are reflecting human values and attitudes, so there are gossiping lady elephants and helpful cheerleading mice, as well as jesting, scornful crows, but it’s all a kind of allegory to convince us we should accept those who might be different—who might, for example, be born with gigantic ears. In Burton’s new film, however, all the speaking parts are given to humans, and Dumbo and his mom are reduced to secondary roles as animals in which the humans have an interest. As such, the film becomes in part a moral fable about the treatment of animals, in particular animals as intelligent and empathetic as elephants, and a caution against the exploitation and abuse of such magnificent creatures.

And that is the most impressive and successful aspect of the new Dumboremake. It’s really difficult to find a legitimately artistic reason for this recent remaking trend—one might even say “epidemic,” noting that two more such remakes (of Aladdin and The Lion King) are due to come out in the next two months. None of the live-action remakes (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast) has been anything more than a pale and limpid imitation of the original animated classics. One is forced to conclude that Disney’s only motive in this program is greed. Let’s see how many seats we can fill with this new recycled crap. And it does seem to be working: In its opening weekend just past, the newly dusted off Dumbo, despite less-than-glowing reviews from critics and theatergoers alike, took in $46 million domestically, easily topping the weekend box office over previous champions Us and Captain Marvel. While it seems unlikely to maintain that position with the new Shazam coming out this weekend, it’s still a decent showing, though one that’s not likely to justify the $170 million price tag for the picture’s production.

Still, one could argue that if any Disney classic animated film could use a remake, it wasDumbo. At only 64 minutes, Dumbo was the shortest of Disney’s classics, and could certainly use some fleshing out of its story. More importantly, Dumbo was never going to get rereleased in its original form, or to get much airplay on TV, because of the blatantly racist portrayal of the minstrel-like crow band—you might as well call them the “Jim Crow” band—who sing the movie’s biggest song, “When I See an Elephant Fly.” They might as well be wearing blackface. Cutting this number was necessary in the remake, though unfortunately the song itself has some hilarious lyrics: “Well, I’ve seen a horse fly. And I’ve seen a dragon fly. I’ve even seen a house fly. But I ‘be done seen about everything’ [see what I mean about the blackface?] when I see an elephant fly.” Burton can’t use the song in its original form, but he can’t stand to lose the lyrics, so he gives them to his circus MC in spoken form. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that well.

Nor does the film as a whole. The screenplay, by Ehren Kruger (whose previous efforts include The Brothers Grimm and three Transformers movies), takes the general outline of the original film and uses it as a framework for a wholly human story of family togetherness, greed and acceptance of differences—themes that are to some extent drawn from the original. But there’s a workmanlike quality to this that makes it seem far less magical than a flying elephant ought to be. The story begins exactly a century ago, in the “Medici Brothers’ Circus” as they begin their 1919 season. Former trick rider and circus star Holt Farrier (a subdued Colin Farrell) returns from service in World War I missing his left arm, and is reunited with his children Milly and Joe (played by newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). The children’s mother, Holt’s partner and wife, has died (along with a number of other circus performers) in the flu epidemic and Holt learns that his horses have since been sold by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito, veteran of several Burton films including Batman Returns) to help make ends meet for the struggling troupe. With no wife and no more act, but a pair of kids to support, Holt stays with the circus to work as the elephant tender. And one of those elephants is pregnant: Imagine everyone’s surprise when she gives birth to a CGI baby with cute eyes and giant ears. Poor Dumbo becomes a laughingstock and Max sells his Mom down the river, so of course the two kids bond with the poor motherless pachyderm: Who can understand him better than they do?

And it’s the kids, of course, who essentially teach, or at least encourage, Dumbo to fly, and it’s the kids to whom the adults don’t listen when they are being presented with the act that’s going to solve all their problems. Ultimately, though, Dumbo soars around the Big Top and the Medici Circus is on its way to fame and fortune. Enter entertainment entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, a veteran of Burton’s Beetlejuice and Batman movies), who merges with Max’s circus in order to make Dumbo the star attraction of his gigantic theme park

Dreamland, where the elephant will fly with Dreamland’s current spectacular aerial star, Colette Marchant (Eva Green of Burton’s recent Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Meantime Vandevere is trying to impress his chief financier J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin, who pops in from Burton’s Edward Scissorhands), who’s not going to be impressed until he sees Vandevere’s elephant soaring.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out the direction this film is heading. And that’s quite a surprise in a Tim Burton film. Burton here seems to put all his creative energy into biting the hand that is feeding him: Isn’t there something a little bit strange about this giant theme park Dreamland, which is trying to cash in on the poor little elephant’s talent? The fact that this film about an entertainment giant merging with a smaller company in order to exploit its potential—especially in a film released (coincidentally) just a week after Disney finalized its merger with Fox—is nothing if not a curious turn for the movie to take.

So perhaps that’s what Burton was focusing his creativity on; it certainly wasn’t the film’s main story. He seems to have hired actors he was familiar with so that he wouldn’t have to direct them much. DeVito is unusually sympathetic as Max, and Keaton is over the top in an almost Beetlejuice manner as the film’s heavy. Arkin is the crotchety Arkin, and Green is very watchable. Farrell doesn’t seem to have his full heart in it here, and as for the kids…. Well, I don’t want to be accused of churlishness by attacking these poor children, but good lord! I assume that little Ms. Parker was hired because she is photogenic, but somebody needed to tell her that she ought to show an occasional emotion, and that she should deliver lines as if they meant something and were not simply shopping lists. And that somebody should have been her director. Young Master Hobbins is a bit better, but only by comparison. And these kids’ roles are crucial to the film.

In the end, Dumbo has a few interesting points, and it looks good, but it turns out there’s no there there. The elephant is just too heavy to lift off. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. 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

gloriabell-f

Gloria Bell

Gloria Bell

Sebastian Lelio (2018)

Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his 2017 film A Fantastic Woman, has gone back in time for his latest project, essentially reshooting his acclaimed 2013 film Gloria, but this time with an all-American cast. The result is a picture that revolves around its star, Julianne Moore (whose idea it was to remake the film and who also acted as executive producer), who shines in a constellation of big name actors, many of whom have what amount to cameo roles.

How this sits with the all-American audiences is a curious case study. On review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com, the film has a 94 percent approval rating from professional critics, placing it among the best-reviewed films of the year so far. Audience reactions to the film, however, are far less sanguine. In fact, they are currently at only 45 percent. This huge, nearly 50-point difference in reactions may be the largest such gap in Rotten Tomatoes history. Such a strange discrepancy can usually be attributed to some troll campaign powered by political (or sexist) motives, as recently occurred with Captain America, and the influx of negative reviews comes from people who have not seen the film. That is not the case here. The negative reviews were all posted by people who went to the movie expecting to like it. Wow, were they disappointed. Naturally, my curiosity was roused, and I had to check this film out and see for myself what was going on.

The film opened in wide release this past Friday, playing on only one screen in central Arkansas, at Colonel Glenn. The appeal of the film is reputedly its depiction of a middle-aged, fifty-something divorced woman’s adventures in dating—particularly the fact that it approaches this situation realistically and with sympathy, rather than as the occasion for hyperbolic hilarity or save-me-from-this killer-rapist horror. And what promotion there is of the movie suggests that it’s a comedy.

It’s this last point that probably causes some of the disappointment among viewers, who might enter the theater thinking they’re going to see a light entertaining little family flick. If that’s what you’re looking for this ain’t gonna be it. There is certainly some wry humor here, but you’re not going to find laugh-out-loud moments of raucous humor.

The first act of the film moves leisurely through a detailed exposition of Gloria’s life and relationship. Gloria (Moore) has been divorced for twelve years. She lives in Los Angeles (relocated from the Santiago of 2013’s Gloria), where she spends her days sitting at a desk in an insurance company, doing work that apparently is not interesting enough for us to learn anything about it. She has two grown children, Peter (Michael Cera) and Anne (Caren Pistorius) who seem to have their own lives and seem less than enthusiastic about getting her phone calls. Peter has his own problems, being a new father and having a wife who seems to have gone AWOL. And Anne is dating a Swedish surfer with whom she seems to be enthralled. At home, Gloria is kept up at nights by a shouting, mentally unstable neighbor, and greeted daily by a hairless cat who keeps sneaking into her apartment with the intent, apparently, of adopting her. Meanwhile she spends a good deal of time in her car singing along to ’80s music, and seems to spend most of her nights going to dance clubs by herself and dancing with superannuated men doing the white-man lip-bite dance to more ’80s tunes. If you like ’80s music, you’ll love this film’s sound track.

If this sounds like a sad or even a meaningless life, hold on. Don’t jump to conclusions. Turns out that singing in the car is symptomatic of what Gloria’s dancing with abandon demonstrates even more vividly: This socially awkward lady with the giant owl-like glasses loves life and is pretty much game for anything. “When the world blows up,” she says during one particularly depressing conversation, “I hope I go down dancing.”

The plot kicks into gear when Gloria meets the equally awkward Arnold (John Turturro) at one of her dance clubs. Arnold is a divorced ex-marine and owner of a paintball theme park. The two of them hit it off. Seeing that spark of life in her that we’ve already observed, his first words to her are, “Are you always this happy?” Gloria has a glimmer of hope that her life may be about to turn around, and Arnold seem equally smitten with her. But of course he comes with baggage: Only a year divorced himself, he has still not cut the chords to his ex-wife, who constantly makes demands on him, along with his two grown daughters (who still live with their mother). More tears in the fabric of Gloria and Arnold’s relationship are exposed when she takes him—perhaps ill advisedly—to her son Peter’s birthday party, where we all meet Gloria’s ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett), and his new wife Fiona (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and where Arnold reacts in a bizarre manner to the family’s reminiscences.

The film reaches its denoument after some perhaps inevitable humiliation for Gloria, as well as ultimate vindication, and does end with an unvanquished and unrepentant Gloria moving in a kind of wild abandon on the dance floor. So the ultimate effect of the film is not the inconsequential tedium of the opening scenes, but a sort of limited triumph.

Moore, who is in pretty much every frame of this movie, carries it off with intelligence and aplomb. Through her we understand this character and sympathize with her, but not in any sentimental or unthinking way. Turturro also creates the character of Arnold—a spineless, hypersensitive, unpredictable neurotic—in a way that allows us to understand and not despise him, though we do, like Gloria, become pretty frustrated with him. Rita Wilson makes a welcome appearance as Gloria’s closest friend, and Holland Taylor appears as Gloria’s mother, helping to underscore the theme, already reinforced by Gloria’s and Arthur’s relationships with their families, that no matter how old your kids get, you never stop being their parent. And Sean Astin makes a cameo appearance toward the end of the film, in a role that is memorable even though he never actually has a single line. Believe me, he’s no Samwise Gamgee here.

Some of the negative reader-reviews of this film called writer-director Lelio’s depiction of Gloria “condescending”—the kind of attitude a younger person may have toward someone older, saying “Look at her, isn’t it great that she still has hopes at her age?”—the sort of condescension I’ve heard from people who call me “Young man” when they meet me. But I don’t get that feel here at all. What I get is, “here’s what she’s really like. And it ain’t Jane Fonda in Book Club.”

The other knock from readers is that the film is “boring” or “plotless.” OK, it’s definitely not CaptainMarvel. It’s talky, almost like a play, and there’s not a lot of suspense, just a life-like plot that moves, at times, a little more slowly than we are used to from Hollywood films. But there is a story here, made interesting by the characters it studies, and it’s a story worth telling. Three Tennysons for this one.

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. 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

merlin_150223929_340732f2-bd8f-42f1-81da-cc57361b8666-articleLarge

Everybody Knows

Everybody Knows

Asghar Farhadi (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

We’re certainly in the doldrums of the Hollywood film cycle, with no new films in wide release this week that received anything like a positive critical consensus among reviewers nationwide. It’s a good week for central Arkansas film devotees to try a little something different, and this is possible through the auspices of the Riverdale 10 VIP Cinema, which offers up the new film by Asghar Farhadi, a limited release film in Spanish called EverybodyKnows(Todos lo saben).

Unless you follow films fairly closely, you may, like most of central Arkansas, be unfamiliar with the Iranian director Farhadi. But this film seems in part to be a bid for a wider audience: It was a joint Italian-French-and-Spanish production, and Farhadi has secured in Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem two international stars well-known in Hollywood; and in Ricardo Darin an Argentinian star popular in Latin America. And he has made the film in Spain with Spanish-speaking actors, ensuring a potentially wide European and Latin American audience. It premiered at Cannes on May 8, 2018, and at the Toronto Film Festival on September 8. It had its release in Spain on September 14, and finally got a limited release in the United States on February 8.

You may actually know more about Farhadi than you think you do. In 2012, his film A Separationwon the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, the first Iranian film to win that award. And in 2017, he joined Akira Kurosawa and René Clément as one of the few directors to win that award more than once when his film The Salesmanwas also honored with the Oscar. You might even remember that Farhadi was prevented from attending the Oscar ceremony that year because of Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Farhadi is a true auteur, writing his own screenplays and taking a close interest in all aspects of his films’ construction. With a background in theater that shows in his dramatic interpersonal scenes and heavy use of dialogue so unusual in contemporary movies, Farhadi apparently takes a good deal of time rehearsing scenes with his actors for many days and running them through improvisational exercises that develop their relationships with each other as characters. It’s a process that pays off in the natural and wholly convincing relationships between his characters onscreen. The performances are the great strength of this particular film.

The film begins as Laura (Cruz) arrives from her current home in Buenos Aires back to her small hometown outside of Madrid, where she has brought her two children to attend her sister’s wedding. The opening scenes of the film fly by in a rush of wedding preparations and arriving guests, and we are well into the film before we have figured out just who is related to whom, and how they are connected. The bride is Ana (Inma Cuesta), who is marrying Joan (Roger Camajor), a man apparently from a nearby town. His parents arrive and are staying in the hotel at which the wedding reception will take place, a hotel owned by other members of Laura’s family. The most significant nonmember of the family is Paco (Bardem), who is an old friend of the family and owns a small vineyard outside of town, along with his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie).

The first part of the film is fast moving, raucous and comic in atmosphere, as befits a big family wedding. Laura’s 16-year-old daughter Irene (Carla Campra) shows herself to be a typically rambunctious teenager, pushing the boundaries along with her mother’s buttons, and makes quick friends with Paco’s teenage nephew Felipe (Sergio Castellanos). During the wedding ceremony the two of them climb the church’s bell tower and ring the bells, to the amusement of the guests and the annoyance of the priest, who nevertheless takes the opportunity to make a pitch for charitable donations to help fix up the old building. In an aside it is revealed that Laura’s husband Alejandro donated money a few years earlier to restore the church’s façade. Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), by the way, we’ve been told was not able to make the trip from Argentina because of some obligation for his work. Meanwhile, in the tower, Felipe has told Irene that Paco used to be Laura’s lover. It’s one of those things that everybody knows.

The tone changes and the plot kicks in when, after dancing, flirting and drinking at the wedding party, Irene becomes suddenly tired and sick and goes upstairs to rest in her room. When Laura goes upstairs to check on her sometime later, Irene is nowhere to be seen—she has disappeared, and in her place on her bed are scattered newspaper clippings of a previous kidnapping that had occurred in the area. There is a panicked search for the girl before Laura receives a text message, threatening to kill the girl if Laura goes to the police.

But Farhadi’s script does not simply follow a conventional kidnapping-thriller storyline. As the family tries to navigate the dangerous waters of Irene’s disappearance, it becomes apparent that somebody close to the family must have masterminded the night’s events, and as the suspense mounts, relationships seem to unravel and family secrets from years before, glossed over for years, begin to emerge. They are things that everybody knew but had agreed not to talk about. Did Irene run away herself, and stage the kidnapping, as might be inferred by her conversation with Felipe in the tower? Why are the kidnappers sending the same messages Laura is getting to Bea, Paco’s wife? Does it have something to do with the fact that Paco, the son of their servants, purchased his estate for a song from Laura’s family sixteen years ago? Why is Paco so inordinately interested in finding the kidnappers when he is not part of the family?  Why did Alejandro not come to the wedding? When he finally shows up in the wake of Irene’s abduction, are we to see what kept him in Argentina as a motive for kidnapping his own daughter and asking for a ransom?

Throughout his career, Farhadi has shown an interest in how the past—our past actions involving love or money or family honor—is never truly past but resurfaces in ways that we do not expect. Our past actions always have consequences, no matter how deeply we may have tried to bury them. That theme is ultimately the main takeaway from EverybodyKnows. That and the stellar performances. Cruz and Bardem, the real-life husband and wife, have an undeniable chemistry in the film and give flawless performances as the ex-lovers brought together and ultimately divided by a family crisis. Darín as the frustrated father is surprisingly sympathetic and maddeningly naïve by turns, and in the end gives as memorable a performance as the others, and perhaps even more complex. The end of the film is quite ambiguous, and gave my wife and me no small fodder for debate that continued long after the film was done.

Everybody Knowsis a great cure for the movie doldrums. I hope it sticks around at Riverdale long enough for you to get a chance to see it. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. 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

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.