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Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Reviews

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

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The Wolf of Snow Hollow

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Jim Cummings (2020)

Director Jim Cummings made a splash in 2018 with his first full-length feature film, Thunder Road, an independent film that won the “best feature” prize at Austin’s prestigious South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival as well as other awards. In that film, which Cummings wrote, directed and starred in, he played a police officer melting down after a divorce and the death of his mother. In his latest film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings does his Citizen Kane thing again, this time shaking it up by playing a deputy sheriff who is melting down following separation from his wife and the impending death of his father. Cummings seems to be type-casting himself. But you can see his latest movie, this time a horror/comedy genre flick, if you buy it for $15 on Amazon Prime. It’s also in limited release at theaters, but who’s crazy enough to do that?

Set in a snowy ski-resort community in the mountains of Utah, this latest film follows the attempts by John Marshall (Cummings) and the rest of Snowy Hollow’s Sheriff’s Department to investigate a gruesome string of deaths of young women involving grisly dismemberment and bloody paw prints. Are the women victims of a deranged serial killer, or perhaps a large human-killing wolf? Or, given the fact that the murders take place only under a full moon, are they perhaps dealing with a rampaging werewolf?

Marshall’s ability to focus on the case is complicated by a number of major distractions that amp up his stress level. First, he has the health of his father, the actual sheriff, to worry about. Sheriff Hadley, played by Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Mulholland Drive, The Descendants) in his final role before his death last October (the film is dedicated to his memory), has a severe heart condition but refuses to get medical help, and John is beside himself with worry and frustration. To add to those, his estranged wife drops off their 17-year-old daughter Jenna (Chloe East of TV’s Kevin [Probably] Saves the World), who is as resentful as a teenaged child of a newly broken marriage can be, to stay with him before she leaves for college. These outside pressures are there to exacerbate John’s inner demons: He is a recovering alcoholic with anger-management issues.

As the son of the sheriff, whose aversion to violence prevents him from getting closely involved, John feels he must take over the investigation of the murders, but his potential to become unhinged and the complaints of the townsfolk over the rising body count and the apparent lack of progress on the investigation make it more and more difficult for him to find the killer. He is only held in check by his partner, the highly competent and unflappable officer Julie Robson (Riki Lindhome of Knives Out), without whom it looks like nothing will ever get done, since John has too much life going on to bear the burden of the toughest case of his career at this particular moment.

Thus it’s no great surprise that John goes off the rails. It starts with his snapping at his fellow officers, some of whom simply want to give out speeding tickets and wait for the FBI to handle the case and, as the investigation continues, forensic folks who tell him things he doesn’t want  to hear, like the fact that wolf hairs and teeth marks are being found on the corpses: He maintains his belief that there is a human perpetrator, and that there are no such things as werewolves—although, it must be revealed, the viewer is at one point granted sight of a huge wolf-like profile standing up on two legs.

And yes, John does go off the wagon, beginning with the guzzling of mouthwash and then graduating to harder stuff. As he enters this downward spiral, the film itself seems to spiral out of control. There are scenes that cut together in confusing juxtaposition, and it’s hard to be sure when some of these things are happening—was this scene before or after the last one? In one scene during this chaotic slide, John’s daughter Jenna is out in a car with her boyfriend during a full moon when the sheriff’s department has imposed a curfew, and the car is attacked. Jenna seems to have survived, but did her boyfriend? A body is found stuffed in a trash can  Was it his? And what on earth is going on in the scene where John seems to have broken into the boyfriend’s house and ends up pouring milk over his face? I still don’t know what happened in that sequence. I suspect John doesn’t either, and that is the point, but it certainly was a disorienting sequence. And when we see John up and around and seemingly coherent again, he talks about his father, whom we have seen him send to the hospital after an apparent heart attack, and says “The last thing I said to him was…” Are we supposed to assume that Sheriff Hadley has died? I still don’t know that either.

Still, despite confusing moments like these, there is much to recommend the film. Cummings himself seems a bit over the top as an actor. But Robert Forster gives a memorable last performance as a gentle, kind and loving father and sheriff. But it’s Riki Lindhome who steals the movie. Working with a room full of a bunch of incompetent males and one sheriff’s son going through a nervous breakdown, she quietly keeps things on track and does her job with only side-eyes and long-suffering looks—and the occasional sarcastic side comment. As the roomful of men laughs at some inane comment after the second gruesome murder, she says quietly “Yeah, everybody laughs till she lays out the crime-scene photos,” scattering on the table the bloody pictures that help earn this film its R rating.

It’s a beautiful film to look at, as well, apart from the gore. The gorgeous mountain scenery of this ski resort would have looked amazing on the wide screen, and it’s a shame to be denied that pleasure, but kudos to cinematographer Natalie Kingston (Lost Bayou) for making this film a treat for the eyes—when it’s not showing mutilated bodies.

Kudos also to Cummings for the film’s meta-analytical reading of the werewolf theme, and werewolf movies, as the product of toxic masculinity. Broken he may be, but John knows that there is enough that is monstrous in the human psyche to make it unnecessary to posit mythical monsters, and refuses to let his colleagues pursue the “werewolf” theory. In a moment of epiphany, while driving with Officer Robson, he muses that perhaps werewolves and other monsters ae simply the invention of men trying to explain the perpetual violence perpetrated by men themselves upon women. “Hmph,” he says to his partner. “Do you think women have had to face this kind of danger forever?” Her “Well, duh!” stare is worth a thousand words.

You’ll probably get a Fargofeel from the movie, set as it is in the snow and focusing as it does upon brutal murder with a woman cop being the only one who seems to know what’s going on. And Cummings has said that the Coen brothers have been one of his inspirations. But the tone here does not seem as perfectly controlled as that particular film, and is, as I’ve said, sometimes confused. Still, this is a movie that remains entertaining while still having a good deal to say. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

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

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

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Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather (1927)

If you’re a fan of Willa Cather, you most likely were introduced to her through her early novels that invoke pioneer life on the great plains of Nebraska where she grew up: O Pioneers (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918). Even her Pulitzer-Prize winning 1922 novel, One of Ours, is about a Nebraska farm boy who finally finds meaning in the war in France. So venturing into the book that is often considered her masterpiece, her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, may seem at first foreign territory: Here is a highly episodic book that tells the life (not just the death) of a French Catholic missionary in America’s newly acquired New Mexico territory beginning in the 1850s.

An unexpected book from a Baptist-raised Nebraska prairie girl, this novel, told in Cather’s realistic, journalist-trained style, is also unusual for its time: It was published the same year as Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness classic To the Lighthouse and Sinclair Lewis’s scathing social satire Elmer Gantry, the year before D.H Lawrence’s scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the year after Hemingway’s tale of the post-war waste land of the dissolute and damaged, The Sun Also Rises. In terms of style and subject matter, Cather’s hagiographic historical novel seems from this perspective to have been out of step with her time.

Yet Cather’s novel has been appreciated and acclaimed since its publication. It was reprinted in 1931 in the Modern Library series, and was named (as number 61) on Modern Library’s list of the “100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century” as well as Time magazine’s “100 Best English-Language Novels Since 1923.” Why?

Cather’s novel begins in the old world, where in a prologue, a French bishop working in America lobbies three cardinals in Rome to appoint his fellow countryman, the priest Jean-Marie Latour, to the newly created diocese of New Mexico, ceded to the United States when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848. The political realities necessarily demanded the redrawing of diocesan borders, and the French bishop is eager to have his own nominee appointed over the Spanish candidate proposed by the Bishop of Durango who held the see when it was in Mexican hands. And thus Latour is appointed.

Latour and his vicar and long-time friend Joseph Vaillant are Cather’s fictional names for Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the historical first bishop (and later archbishop) of the New Mexico territory, and his fellow Frenchman Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, who became the first Roman Catholic bishop of Denver. While the book follows the careers of the two priests fairly closely, it is somewhat fictionalized and, since she is not writing a strict biography, Cather chose to fictionalize the names as well. But the novel does follow the facts of their missionary work among the Native- and new Mexican-Americans in the southwest. Thus Lamy becomes “Latour,” i.e. “the tower”—implying that he stands as a tower of strength for the faith, while also perhaps suggesting something about his intellectual reserve, his “ivy tower” personality; while Machebeuf becomes “Vaillant,” or “the valiant,” suggesting the energetic courage with which he attacks all of his missionary assignments.

The narrative first follows Latour and Vaillant’s arduous journey from their previous mission in Sandusky, Ohio, where they were evangelizing among the Indians of the Great Lakes, to their new position in Santa Fe, at a time when the railroad reached only as far west as Cincinnati. They must journey by riverboat to New Orleans, are subsequently shipwrecked and lose most of their provisions at Galveston, and then travel west a thousand miles over land to Santa Fe, a journey that takes an entire year. And having reached his destination, Latour finds that the priests have been told by the Bishop in Durango not to submit to his authority. So he must make another thousand mile trip from Santa Fe to Durango to persuade the bishop there to recognize his credentials.

Even after these hardships, Latour still has an uphill battle to face in reforming or disciplining some of the established clergy in the territory. Father Gallegos, priest of Albuquerque, is a glutton enamored of the pleasures of life, whom Latour must ultimately remove from office and replace with his own vicar Vaillant. Father Martinez, the priest in Taos, believes that the rules of the old world must be revised for priests living in the new, and denies the necessity for celibacy, having fathered a number of children of his own. At the same time Martinez seizes a good deal of property for his own use from executed rebels. He is one whom Latour must ultimately excommunicate. Finally, there is the miserly Father Lucerno, priest of Arroyo, who also chafes at Latour’s authority but who repents on his deathbed and is given absolution by Vaillant.

Eventually the diocese is under control, and Latour is able to get enough monetary backing to build his dream: the Romanesque style Basilica Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe (before which a statue in honor of the real-life Archbishop Lamy stands today). But he also loses the companionship of his close friend Vaillant, whom he sends to Colorado to minister to the miners during the Pike’s Peak gold rush and who becomes the Bishop of Denver.

A number of striking and memorable scenes occur in this episodic narrative, including the story of how Latour and Vaillant narrowly escape being murdered by mass-killer Buck Scales and, in digressions, stories that they are told by others, such as the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the devastating story of the Long Walk of the Navajo when those people are forcibly removed from their native lands.

In the end this novel comes to no real climax, nor does it have a conventional plot or structural unity other than the stringing together of episodes that make up the biography of the novel’s protagonist. What, then, makes it worth reading, or indeed, what about it gives it a claim to be on these “Top 100” lists?

I would say there are three things: First, as is often the case with Cather, this story of American westward expansion is in part the story of human beings adapting themselves to their new natural environment, hence her books open up wide vistas of landscape to our imagination as we, too, adapt to the country along with the characters. Nowhere is this skill more on display than in the passage where the bishop, led by his young Indian guide, rides off to visit his Pueblo parishioners at Isleta, Laguna, and Ácoma for the first time: He sees wild pumpkin that appears “less like a plant than like a great colony of gray-green lizards, moving and suddenly arrested by fear.” He sees 700-foot mesas that look to him like “vast cathedrals” or the ruins of a great city. Moving among the huge rocks Latour sees each is “duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it.”

More significantly, Cather presents Bishop Latour’s relations with the Indian people of his diocese—the Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo Indians—as sympathetic and respectful. In addition to Latour’s scathing rebuke of the treatment of the Navajos on their “Long Walk,” which he calls an atrocity comparable to “black slavery” and his friend Kit Carson’s role in it “misguided,” Latour also displays a reverent view of Native American religion: When he says Mass at the Ácoma Pueblo, he feels an ancient spirituality there that he can scarcely touch:

“He felt as if he were celebrating Mass at the bottom of the sea, for antediluvian creatures; for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far. …When he blessed them and sent them away, it was with a sense of inadequacy and spiritual defeat.”

Cather’s expression of these kinds of attitudes in 1927, in a novel intended for her white American readers, was nothing short of groundbreaking, though it seems hardly to have been commented on at the time.

Finally, Cather herself would have probably seen the value of her story as its quiet depiction of an unostentatiously heroic life, of a man who accomplished great things through a long and persistent labor. It’s hardly the “grace under pressure” of her contemporary Hemingway’s fiction, but it is an ultimately successful spiritual heroism, as suggested in this passage late in the novel:

“But as he entered his study, he seemed to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him. The curtain of the arched doorway had scarcely fallen behind him when that feeling of personal loneliness was gone, and sense of loss was replaced by a sense of restoration. He sat down before his desk, deep in reflection. It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest’s life could be like his Master’s. It was not a solitude of atrophy, or negation, but of perpetual flowering.”

I’ll give this one three Tennysons.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

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

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

ENOLA HOLMES

Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes

Harry Bradbeer (2020)

A couple of years ago, Millie Bobby Brown, best known for her acclaimed portrayal of the character Eleven on the popular Netflix series Stranger Things, joined her older sister Paige in reading a six-book YA series of novels by Nancy Springer about Sherlock Holmes’ irrepressible teenaged sister Enola, and decided she really wanted to play that part in a film version of the first novel. And if you’re an acclaimed actress, even if you’re not yet 16, you can make things happen. And presto, just two years later, Enola Holmes appears on Brown’s favorite network, with Brown herself as one of the film’s producers, and in the starring role.

Springer, an Edgar-Award winning writer of YA and adult mystery and fantasy, was nominated for Edgar Awards for two of the Enola Holmes novels, written between 2006 and 2010. The popularity of those books is only part of a general resurgence of interest in the Sherlock Holmes character that also, of course, includes the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series (2010-17) as well as the Guy Ritchie films with Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. The tendency in recent films of putting powerful women into roles traditionally reserved for men, the Captain Marvels and the Wonder Womans (Women?) and yes, most recently the Mulans, is a background for this. And Lucy Liu’s female Dr. Watson in the CBS series Elementary (2012-19), or most relevantly the Japanese HBO series Miss Sherlock, all suggest that the time is right for a blockbuster Enola Holmes franchise.

And that is surely what this film’s makers expected when Enola Holmes was released on the widescreen—something that did not happen because: 2020. Instead, Netflix opted to bring it out on the small screen, and since its release on September 23, it has been the No.1 streaming film on Netflix. But both director Harry Bradbeer (who directed the groundbreaking feminist TV shows Killing Eve and Fleabag) and screenwriter Jack Thorne (who worked on the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and won the Tony for Best Play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) have been highly successful in small screen productions, so it is probably no great loss to them to see their work on Enola Holmespremier in the manner it has. Perhaps it won’t be the next Harry Potter franchise (as producers may have hoped with Thorne’s connections), but it’s off to a good start in streaming land.

The film, adapting the story of the first novel in Springer’s series, The Case of the Missing Marquess, opens on the morning of Enola’s 16th birthday. When she awakes, Enola expects to find her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) waiting to celebrate her day with her, but discovers instead that her mother has disappeared, leaving a few gifts but no explanation of where she’s gone. Her mother has been Enola’s chief companion, raising her herself and teaching her everything from Judo to cryptography in order to make her a smart, independent feminist in a Victorian England hostile to such women, and finding Mom suddenly vanished leaves Enola in something of a quandary—though in truth, it seems clear that Eudoria’s lessons have been preparing her for just this moment all along.

Enola contacts her significantly older brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, and goes to meet them at the train station, but they walk right by her, failing to recognize the younger sister whom, like their mother, they have not bothered to visit for more than a decade. Mycroft (Sam Claflin of The Hunger Games franchise), the fussy, priggish older brother who is Enola’s legal guardian, is particularly miffed that she wears no hat or gloves, and insists that her mother’s subversive training be reversed by Enola’s immediate enrollment in a prison-like finishing school, run by the loathsome Miss Harrison (from both Bradbeer’s Killing Eve and Fleabag), an uptight spinster heavily invested in the patriarchy. Her other brother, the famous Sherlock (Henry Cavill of Man of Steel), is more sympathetic but reluctant to actually take any sort of positive action.

But it turns out Eudoria has not left Enola completely without a clue, and the girl finds a secret message in one of Mom’s birthday presents that leads her to a stash of hidden money, allowing Enola to escape Mycroft’s grasp, disguised as a boy, to search for her missing mother. But on a train bound for London, she meets the young Viscount Tewkesbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge of TV’s Medici) stowed away in some luggage. Tewkesbury, it seems, is also running away from his family, who want to send him off to India so that he can’t take his place in the House of Lords. After Enola rescues Tewkesbury from a villainous assassin named Linthorn (Burn Gorman from Game of Thrones) by forcing him to jump from the train, she parts company with him once they reach London, considering him just a “useless boy.” Obviously, the two are destined for a YA romance, and very soon, when Enola realizes how many people are trying to track Tewkesbury down, she puts her search for her mother on hold and tries to find Tewkesbury again instead.

I don’t want to say too much more about the outcome of the plot to avoid spoilers. But when Mycroft convinces Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard (Adeel Akhtar, another Killing Eve veteran) to find Enola, we have Enola trying to track down both Tewksbury and her mother, Linthorn looking for Tewkesbury and Enola, Lestrade also looking for Tewkesbury and Enola, and Sherlock tracking Enola, Eudoria, and Tewkesbury as well. And when Sherlock comes to Lestrade’s office to tell him he’s solved the Tewkesbury case, Lestrade asks him first, how he solved the case, and second, how his sister was able to solve it first.

The fact is there isn’t much to solve. This isn’t the kind of plot you expect from a Sherlock Holmes story: There’s no great mystery with obscure clues that must be put together by a superior intellect. It’s just a matter of finding out where people have snuck off to, and in the case of Enola and her mother, reading some coded messages—an exercise which we as an audience are not invited to engage our own wits with. Enola is a daring, intrepid and engaging heroine, and Brown certainly carries the movie like a pro, but we don’t see her solving a mystery Sherlock-style. Nor do we ever see Sherlock himself solving a mystery Sherlock style. In fact, Cavill has remarkably little to do in this film, in which he is barely more than a cameo. He’s been upstaged by Wonder Woman before, so maybe the Man of Steel is used to this. But it seems a missed opportunity and a waste of the most recognizable face in the movie.

As an actual “mystery” the movie disappoints. It does deliver, however, as a kind of history lesson: The Third Reform Bill of 1884, which serves as background for the film until it turns out to be of particular importance in the plot against Tewkesbury, expanded the vote in England to give working men in rural England the same voting rights as men in the cities, as long as they were adult householders who paid a minimum of 10 pounds a year for lodgings. This did not ensure universal suffrage: Forty percent of English men could still not vote. Nor could 100 percent of women. And the bill failed the first time it was brought before the House of Lords. Thus the need for Tewkesbury’s single vote to ensure passage of the bill is not a fantasy.

Nor is Eudoria’s involvement with the most radical cells of the Women’s Suffrage movement. That movement had become a national one in the United Kingdom by the 1870s, and it is certainly true that the movement was more militant in England than it was in America, and did include the occasional arson, but it still may be a bit anachronistic to associate Eudoria with the making of bombs and incendiary devices as early as the 1880s. And while it’s true that British suffragettes were indeed taught martial arts to help them defend themselves against police, those were tactics employed in the 1910s, not thirty years earlier, as the film would have it.

But these are quibbles. There is a general truth to the film’s representation of the struggle for universal female and male suffrage, a truth that is not out of place during an election year when voter suppression is a real issue more than a hundred years later. These issues aren’t the main thrust or takeaway of the movie—that is actually “wait for the second installment in this franchise…” But it’s there. Three Tennysons for this entertaining film.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

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

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

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Howard’s End

Howard’s End

E.M. Forster (1910)

When E.M. Forster was four years old, he moved with his mother into a country house north of London called “Rooksnest.” He later wrote that from the time he moved in, “I took it to my heart and hoped…that I would live and die there.” Forster only lived in the house for ten years, but it remained an ideal to him of English country life and morality—as opposed to the encroaching values of industrialization—and it was Rooksnest that formed the basis in his mind of the house known as Howard’s End, which is the central symbol of Forster’s breakthrough novel of 1910, the book that made him famous.

Many readers consider Howard’s End to be Forster’s masterpiece, though there are always some who prefer A Room with a View and others who, like me, are proponents of his more epic Passage to India. Nevertheless, it is Howard’s End that was ranked number 38 on Modern Library’s list of the “100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th century.” Does it deserve this lofty rating? Does the novel hold up today, after more than a century?

Forster was dealing with important social questions of his time, in particular the question of class differences and the question of which of these classes would ultimately define the England of the twentieth century. Three distinct classes are represented in the book by the three individual families involved in the action of the novel: the intellectually and culturally elite Schlegel family who maintain the older virtues of the upper classes; the materialist capitalist Wilcox family, who maintain the pragmatic virtues of the conventional middle class; and the Bast family with working-class origins though possessed of a soul striving for something finer, but ground down by brutal economic forces.

Forster himself had spent a good deal of his time among the intelligentsia, the Schlegel-like writers and artists who would become the Bloomsbury group and with whom Forster had much in common, so his initial attitudes must have been in sympathy with them, but he was, by the time he wrote Howard’s End, rethinking those sympathies, realizing that without the capital produced by the middle class the intellectual class would hardly be able to maintain its position and, further, well-meaning sympathy toward the working classes would not bring about any real relief of their condition without true societal change. And so we have the character of Tibby, the Schlegel brother in the book, who essentially does nothing at all that benefits anyone, and is happy simply living on his inherited fortune and studying music for his own enjoyment; and  Helen, the big-hearted sister who takes on the improvement of Leonard Bast as a kind of private do-gooder project and ultimately destroys him. Thus Forster seems to suggest that the learning of the intelligentsia is pointless if it is simply for the sake of learning itself, and the beneficence of this class is useless unless it has a wider and well-conceived strategy to it.

Thus Margaret, the Schlegel sister who is the novel’s true protagonist, is a kind of Everyman (Everywoman?) figure in Forster’s Morality play, torn between the extremes of her sister Helen, idealistic, impulsive and emotional, and the man she ultimately marries, Henry Wilcox, the capable, responsible, and practical businessman who owns Howard’s End. Forster structures the novel in a way that compels Margaret to act as a buffer and a bridge to reconcile the extremes of Henry and Helen—a merger that seems to be Forster’s recommended policy in the novel. Margaret is certainly far more practical than her sister. “More and more,” she says at one point, “do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it. . . . Hurray for riches!” In her marriage to Henry, Margaret (and Forster with her) sees a merging of the salient characteristics of the classes they represent. “Only connect,” she says. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

Surely there are similar class distinctions in the contemporary world. It’s a matter of opinion, I suppose, whether contemporary readers will be satisfied by Forster’s fictional proposal. But it is certain that no contemporary readers will find the book interesting chiefly as a comment on social conditions. We are certain to look at Margaret, Henry, Helen and Leonard as individuals, not representatives of class, and we are going to react to them accordingly.

And the fact of the matter is this, folks. Whatever there is in Henry Wilcox that may have been admirable to Margaret Schlegel, or to readers in 1910, is inconceivable to readers in 2020. Let’s face it, Henry is a bigoted, misogynistic, self-important philistine. He’s a boor with no redeeming features except for the dubious honor of being not quite as reprehensible as his son Charles, being less quick to see the worst in other people. It may be that tiny, tiny hole in the massive dyke of his inflexibility that Margaret expects her indiscernible trickle of compassion to burst through. But it seems a long, long shot.

Henry is rich, and he has become rich through his business, the Imperial and West Africa Rubber Company—which, as is clear simply in its name, is a colonial enterprise that depends on Wilcox’s exploitation of the native peoples of places like Nigeria for his own profit. He has no use for social reform—if the poor deserved anything, they would have enough money to buy it. They were as little his responsibility as those African natives were. He sees no reason to treat his own servants with any common decency, though he demands that he himself be treated with deference. As for women, they are subject to hysterical fits and the idea of giving them the vote is preposterous. Of course, in much of this he is a man of his times, but that’s not much of an excuse. When his first wife, Ruth, who owns Howard’s End, writes out a (witnessed) codicil to her will on her deathbed, leaving the house to her new friend Margaret Schlegel, Henry destroys the paper, with the eager support of his family, declaring that it cannot be legally binding, and that there is no need to tell Margaret about it. Most egregiously, during his marriage to Ruth he had a mistress, Jacky, while he was in Cypress on business, and when he left there he abandoned her and left her to fend for herself as a “fallen woman.” She is now living with the working-class Leonard Bast, who, though he is not married to her, does feel he has a responsibility to her.

The novel’s greatest irony lies in this indiscretion of Henry’s. When Margaret is made aware of it before their marriage, he believes she has deliberately set a trap for him (one can only reason that, since this is something he would do, he expects it must be what someone else is capable of). But when Margaret forgives him, he eventually comes to view the affair as nothing to be concerned about—he is no more responsible for Jacky’s fall than he is for Leonard Bast’s unemployment, even though it was his own (mistaken) pontificating about Bast’s place of business being unstable that led to Bast’s resigning his position. He has no personal responsibility for anything that happens to anybody. Let them fend for themselves. Nor does he see the blatant hypocrisy of his later attitude toward Helen for her own sexual indiscretion.

I won’t go into any “spoilers” here in case you’re reading this before reading the book, but  suffice it to say that the biggest flaw in the novel is our difficulty, as readers, to suspend our disbelief enough to accept Margaret’s marriage to this guy, and her defense of him to Helen. It’s not enough to say simply that times have changed. There were people in 1910 who were more evolved than this—the Schlegels themselves are a case in point.

The only way I can make sense of this is to think of Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale”—the story of patient Griselda, a woman essentially married to a monster named Walter who torments her for twelve years before her patient virtue breaks him and turns him into a decent human being. Margaret is not as patient as Griselda, nor is Henry as abusive as Walter, and Henry’s change takes something outside their relationship to blossom, but maybe it’s more believable. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

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

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

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Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin (1953)

James Baldwin’s debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, the semi-autobiographical story that culminates in 14-year-old John Grimes’ born-again experience as he physically struggles on the floor of his stepfather’s storefront church, is generally considered his masterpiece. It comes in at No. 39 on the Modern Library list of “Best English-Language Books of the 20th Century,” and also made Time magazine’s 2005 list of the “100 Best English Language Novels since 1923.” Thus, along with Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Baldwin’s novel forms a kind of triumvirate of the most significant novels by African Americans between the Harlem Renaissance and what we usually think of as the Civil Rights Movement.

But Baldwin’s book is simultaneously broader and narrower in its concerns than either Wright’s or Ellison’s. It is broader in that it is about more than being Black in America. It’s also about universal concerns like growing up, sexuality and sexual identity, faith and its loss, love and its loss. It is narrower in that it really doesn’t try to tell us about Black experience in a white society. Rather it focuses on one very specific individual—teenaged John Grimes, in a very specific family—one in which his abusive stepfather is a Pentecostal preacher who loves his own son Roy, John’s unreliable brother, but cannot bring himself to love John; in a very specific place—Harlem in the 1930s; on a very specific day—John’s birthday. Baldwin makes no implication that John’s experience is the quintessential metaphor for all African Americans everywhere. But readers will extrapolate some general truths from the experiences of this single family.

What Baldwin’s book does more convincingly and through the truth of personal experience is document the significant role of the church in African American life, both in its positive function of unifying the community and providing inspiration, and also in its negative aspects as a source of moral judgment and exclusion. Baldwin was well aware of these aspects, having been brought up in them, and, like John in the novel, having had a religious awakening at the age of 14 and having become a preacher himself, until he eschewed his faith.

Baldwin divides the novel into three sections. The first part begins as John wakes up on his birthday, wondering if anyone in his family is going to remember what day it is. Elizabeth, his mother, is arguing with Roy about their father, Gabriel, who is aloof and authoritarian and ready to enforce his dictums with beatings. When John thinks everyone has forgotten his birthday, his mother gives him some money to buy himself whatever he wants as a present. He uses it to attend a movie, one of the things his father forbids. When he gets home, he finds that Roy has been in a fight in which he was stabbed, and Gabriel is blaming Elizabeth for Roy’s wild behavior. Florence, Gabriel’s sister, tries to intercede, but Gabriel strikes Elizabeth anyway, and then beats Roy for defending his mother. The section ends with John joining Elisha, his church’s youth minister, in cleaning the church his family attends, and Gabriel, Elizabeth, and (to John’s surprise) Florence entering the church to attend the evening service.

The second part of the book, titled “The Prayers of the Saints,” is a brilliant tour de force in which Baldwin presents us with the entire complex backstory of this family while never straying from the self-imposed straight chronological narrative of this single day in John’s life, a classical unity of time in which is revealed a classical family curse. He does it by allowing us to overhear the unspoken prayers of all the novel’s chief characters as they rehearse before God their secret sins. The section begins with the prayer of John’s aunt Florence, Gabriel’s sister, who has nearly forgotten how to pray, it’s been so long. She reveals her resentment of her brother dating back to childhood, when Gabriel’s drinking and gambling drove her to leave their southern home on a train for New York, where she had married, and lost, a good man. She also remembers her friend Deborah, Gabriel’s first wife, who knew that Gabriel had an illegitimate son in Chicago.

In Gabriel’s prayer, he remembers his conversion after a night of wild carousing, remembers his turning preacher and his defending Deborah at a revival meeting when others shunned her for having been raped at 16. He also remembers his first son, the illegitimate Royal, now dead through his own debauched life, and whose mother Gabriel had abandoned when she became pregnant, giving her money to start over in Chicago.

Elizabeth prays, recalling her own unhappy childhood, in which her mother died and an aunt took her away from her father. She recalls her lover Richard, who suffered unjustly at the hands of the police (Black Lives mattered then, too) and died before she had given birth to John. In New York, she had met Florence, who introduced her to her brother Gabriel. Elizabeth comes out of her prayer when she hears John, lying on the floor and overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit.

The climactic part three of the book, called “The Threshing Floor,” focuses on John himself, writhing on the floor of the church in the throes of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the book, the adolescent John has been struggling with his own sexuality and his church’s attitude toward sin. His thoughts and his natural inclinations, he feels, threaten to separate him from God: “You is in the Word or you ain’t—ain’t no half way with God.” Prior to the service, John had been roughhousing with Elisha, whom he admires deeply—a struggle that he compares to Jacob wrestling with the angel. In a way that seems radical by today’s standards, but which has a history in English poetry that goes at least as far back as Donne—“Imprison me, for I /except you enthrall me never shall be free,/ nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”—Baldwin equates the physical ecstasy of sex with the spiritual ecstasy of religious fervor: John is enthralled by the way Elisha’s “thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit,” and as the Holy Ghost speaks to him on the church floor he experiences “a tightening in his loin strings” and “a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha; desire, sharp and awful as a reflecting knife, to usurp the body of Elisha, and lie where Elisha lay; to speak in tongues, as Elisha spoke, and, with that authority, to confound his father.”

Baldwin would not write openly about a homosexual relationship until his next novel, Giovanni’s Room, in 1956. But it is clearly suggested in this novel, though it is not a crucial element in the plot since any form of sexuality would cause the 14-year-old protagonist shame and confusion in the stifling atmosphere of this particular tradition. John hopes that his born-again experience will bring him closer to his stepfather. You can probably guess how well that works. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it is more positive than you might imagine. For a book that deals with violent conflict with a difficult father, sexual ambivalence, religious guilt and shame, and, oh yeah, living in a racist society, it’s surprisingly affirmative—as if something has been exorcised, something has been blessed. If you haven’t read it, you ought to. Four Shakespeares for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

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

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

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Mulan

Mulan

Niki Caro (2020)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Milan is the latest installment in Disney’s ill-advised obsession with remaking all its classic animated features as live-action films, a trend that seems at best a mistaken reading of current popular tastes as preferring computer-generated effects to animation, and at worst a cynical ploy to recycle previous successes to squeeze every last ounce of money from them. This apparently unstoppable mania has mostly yielded terrible results, a la 2019’s Dumbo, and even when its results are palatable, as in 2016’s The Jungle Book, the product has been significantly inferior to the original animated version.

Such is the case with Mulan. Originally released in 1998, the animated Mulan capped a decade during which Disney’s “princesses” had cast off their familiar “Some Day My Prince Will Come” image, beginning with the Gaston-busting Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and moving through the John Smith-rejecting Pocohantas in 1995 to the cross-dressing woman warrior Mulan in 1998. And while the film drew criticism for Westernizing or “Whitewashing” an original Chinese legend, there is no question that it went a long way in empowering Asian girls in the United States who had seen precious few role models in the popular media.

The idea of a live-action Mulan first surfaced in 2010, but got nowhere. It grew legs in 2015 and, wishing to avoid past mistakes, Disney tried to hire an Asian director, first approaching Oscar-winning Ang Lee, who declined with regret, unable to fit it into his schedule. Disney also approached acclaimed Chinese director Jiang Wen (Let the Bullets Fly), who had recently appeared in their Star Wars saga Rogue One, but that didn’t work out either. On Valentine’s Day 2017, Disney announced that Mulan would be helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro, who had made Whale Rider and North Country.

Without an Asian director, it was doubly important for Disney to get the casting right, particularly the lead. They wanted an ethnically Chinese woman who could speak good English and who exhibited passable martial arts skills. They interviewed and tested some 1,000 candidates on five continents until finally settling on the Chinese-born American actress Liu Yifei—a choice the company may have since regretted, since her controversial support of Hong Kong police on social media sparked a widespread movement to boycott the film. The Chinese government launched a rival pro-Mulan campaign, ensuring the film will get plenty of play in the People’s Republic, if not Hong Kong itself. But I digress.

The new version keeps the same basic concept as the old one: Facing a foreign invasion, the Chinese Emperor decrees that one male member of every family in the country must join the Imperial Army to defend against the attackers. Mulan’s father, a war hero, is the only man in her family, and so prepares to join the emperor’s forces, even though his previous service has left him barely able to walk. Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army in her father’s place. She eventually becomes an honored warrior and a hero for her family and country.

But that is essentially all that the two films have in common. The writers of the screenplay—and there are a committee of them—have chosen to eliminate some of the most popular features of the original film: the songs, which won an Oscar in 1998, and the talking dragon Mushu, who, voiced by Eddie Murphy, brought some humor to the animated film. Mushu did not go over well in China, and Disney decided to go in a different direction with the live-action film. And director Caro, aiming for realism, chose not to include soldiers singing about going off to war. The dropping of these elements has resulted in an atypically sober film more evocative of Game of Thrones than the Mulan cartoon, and it has decidedly not pleased fans of the original movie.

The screenplay that replaces the original is, frankly, something of a mess, which is not surprising for a script written by a committee. It was put together by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who teamed up to give us the recent Planet of the Apes movies), and Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin (who teamed up on the TV movie Christmas Perfection and the short Boy Eats Girl: A Zombie Love Story). How they divvied up the work is anybody’s guess—I suppose it may have been something like “OK, Jaffa and Silver, you work on the action scenes, and Hynek and Martin, you do the relationship stuff,” or some such thing.

But it all seems to have been done as a kind of paint-by-number production, where the parts get put together but there’s not a lot of spirit behind the outside shell. Put in humorous early scene where girl is a disappointment to parents. Send her off disguised as a man and give her some embarrassing moments trying to avoid being seen with her pants down. Have a scene where she bonds with her fellow soldiers. Have her save the day, but get banished when they find out she’s a girl. Give her a romantic interest. Give her an antagonist who is enough like her to make it interesting. Throw in some Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon martial arts stuff. Explain her superhuman martial prowess by calling it “ch’i,” because that sounds pretty Chinese. Give her a triumphant return. OK, that script’s done. What should we churn out next?

To be sure, the film looks great: There are some magnificent cinematic shots filmed in both New Zealand and China. The costumes are beautiful and the fight scenes skillfully choreographed. But this is the appealing outer shell of a film that has no heart. The weakest parts of the generic script are the training scenes in which Mulan is supposedly bonding with her fellow troops. In a change from the original story, in this film she has an inborn ch’i-abundance that gives her great abilities, which she essentially has to hide while training. So the only reason to show her training is to show her bonding, and there are perhaps two scenes in which she speaks to her fellow soldiers, but so little is said in those exchanges that none of the other soldiers is distinguished as an individual, except Chen Honghui (Yoson An of TV’s The Luminaries), who becomes Mulan’s rather lukewarm love interest, and her commanding officer Commander Tung (famed martial arts choreographer Donnie Yen), an old comrade of her father, and the man who exiles Mulan when she is revealed to be a woman. Both characters are based on Li Shang in the animated film—perhaps the writers were afraid having a single character who was both commander and love interest might make him into too memorable.

The one memorable character other than Mulan and her sympathetic father (Tzi Ma of TV’sThe Man in the High Tower) is Xian Lang, a ch’i-powered shapeshifting witch played by China’s best-known actress Gong Li (who starred in films like Farewell My Concubine), who is aiding Bori Khan (martial artist Jason Scott Lee), the one-dimensional villain invading the empire. In two of the most promising scenes in the film, Mulan confronts Xian Lang, and we learn how much the powerful Xian resents being in a subservient role simply because she is a woman. Unfortunately, the scenes play like rip-offs of scenes between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Disney’s recently acquired Star Wars franchise, and “ch’i” comes off as simply a kind of Chinese translation of “the Force.” Perhaps such scenes might have seemed less derivative if one of the myriad writers of the film had actually been Chinese, or at least Asian.

Disney took a big gamble releasing this film on streaming rather than on the big screen, which movie houses worldwide had anticipated as a chance to lift them from pandemic financial woes. Instead, Disney made it the first major streaming release after launching Disney Plus with the live-filmed Hamilton several weeks ago. And the company gambled that people sitting at home watching their computers were going to be willing to spend thirty dollars to see the film. The film cost $200 million to make (it is the largest-budget movie ever made by a woman director), and it is still too early to know how well the gamble has paid off. But if you want my advice, unless you have four or five kids who are going to gather around the little screen and make it worth your while, I’d save the thirty bucks and wait a few months until you can stream it for free. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

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

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

twitter-in-stream-wide-billted2

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Dean Parisot (2020)

The cosmic quest of Bill & Ted Face the Music—the duo’s need to put together and perform a piece of music that will keep the entire cosmos from disintegrating and thereby save reality as we know it—is pretty much about as far from the pair’s initial quest in their 1989 premier (passing their history final) as it is possible to get. But if it seems unprecedented or a claim far beyond the power of so inconsequential a thing as music, think again. For thousands of years, the “music of the spheres” was a seriously held tenet of faith: the notion that the divinely conceived universe literally demonstrated the harmony of its design in a music that played forth as the heavens moved. Chaucer or Dante would have understood it. So it follows logically that, if that universe were coming apart, the way to save it would be to return it to that very literal harmony. Cue Wyld Stallyns.

The current film is not billed as a “reboot” but as the third installment of the Bill and Ted series, initiated with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989 and followed by Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in 1991. If it seems unusual to have a gap of 29 years between installments of a movie franchise, that’s because it is. Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who originated the Bill and Ted adventures, had conceived of a third film by 2010 (which would have been just a 20-year gap), and both Alex Winter (who’s been devoting himself to making documentaries in the interim) and Keanu Reeves (who’s been doing a couple of little things like The Matrix and John Wick series) were on board to reprise their roles, but there was some difficulty in finding backers for the film, and while it remained in conversation and the principals kept saying it was going to happen, it stayed on the shelf until a distributor was found and the movie was greenlighted in May 2018, with production finally beginning in the summer of 2019. As with most films, COVID-19 has messed with distribution plans for Bill & Ted, but the film was finally released, simultaneously both in theaters and on demand, on August 28. It’ll cost you as much to stream it on Amazon Prime as it will to go to the theater, but of course you’ll be a lot safer that way.

Directed by Dean Parisot, who directed Galaxy Quest and Fun With Dick and Jane and was hired to direct this film back in 2012, the movie makes it clear that thirty years have gone by in the cinematic world of Bill and Ted just as in the real world: Their marriages to medieval princesses Elizabeth and Joanna—played here by Erinn Hayes (of TV’s Kevin Can Wait) and Jayma Mays (from TV’s Glee)—are in trouble, owing mainly to the lameness of Bill’s and Ted’s ability to adult. And they don’t understand why it’s not a good idea to go to couple’s therapy as a foursome, to the frustration of therapist Dr. Taylor (Jillian Bell of Brittany Runs a Marathon). Meanwhile their daughters Theodora “Thea” Preston (Samara Weaving of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—and the niece of Reeves’ Matrix co-star Hugo Weaving) and Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine from Bombshell) are chips off the old blocks and show every indication of following in their inept fathers’ footsteps. Worst of all, the middle-aged Bill and Ted, having once been huge stars of the rock music scene, have now been reduced to playing at the Elks Lodge in front of 40 people who are there not to see them but because it’s two-dollar taco night. They have still never achieved that one great song—the song that would unite the world—which Rufus, their contact from the civilization of the future, had told them was their destiny.

Rufus, of course was famously played by comedian George Carlin in the first two films. Carlin died in 2008, and there was no move to recast the part: Instead, the filmmakers decided to pay tribute to the deceased “dean of counterculture comedians” by using old footage from the first film to create a holograph of Rufus, welcoming people to the palace of the future’s Great Leader.

Thus it is Rufus’s daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal of TV’s Gravity Falls) who travels back in time in this film to bring Bill and Ted back to the future. (The character is essentially a tribute to Carlin, whose own daughter is named Kelly—and in fact Kelly Carlin appears in a cameo in this film as one of the character Kelly’s entourage in the future).

In a mid-life crisis of sorts, Ted tells Bill that he is no longer confident that they will ever successfully write the song that brings the world together. At this point Kelly arrives from the future and brings the pair back to meet with the future’s Great Leader (Holland Taylor of TV’s Two and a Half Men), Rufus’s widow and now the most powerful being in the world of the future. She tells Bill and Ted that they must complete the prophesied song and sing it with their entire band in a venue known as “MP 46,” in order to “save reality as we know it by uniting humanity across time.” And by the way, they have exactly 77 minutes and 25 seconds (i.e., the remaining length of the movie) to get this done.

Bill and Ted reason, probably wisely, that since they haven’t been able to come up with this world-changing song after thirty years of trying, they are not likely to do it now in less than two hours. So they begin a quest through time to track down various versions of their future selves in order to steal the song that they must have created from their older selves. Meanwhile, the Great Leader has lost faith in them, and believing that Rufus had interpreted historical data incorrectly, concludes that an alternative conclusion from the data is that Bill and Ted must be assassinated in order to save reality, and she sends a killer robot—an insecure “terminator” by the name of Dennis Caleb McCoy (Anthony Carrigan from TV’s Gotham)—to track them through time and kill them.

Appalled by her mother’s decision, Kelly travels back to the present to warn Bill and Ted, but finds them gone and meets Billie and Thea instead. The two daughters, gung-ho to help their fathers save the world, go on their own time quest that parallels their fathers’, but the girls go into the past rather than the future to put together the greatest group of musicians ever assembled: They track down Jimi Hendrix in 1967 and a young Louis Armstrong in 1922, then travel to the 18th century to collect Mozart, and the third millennium BCE to collect the legendary Ling Lun, supposed creator of music in ancient China. And if that is not enough, they speed back to the stone age to collect a drum-beating cavewoman named Grom who, for purposes of the film, seems to have been the first musical human. Rapper Kid Cudi even shows up for the band, playing himself and spouting a whole lot of theoretical physics jargon.

To describe how this all comes together in 77 minutes and 25 seconds would be to engage in way too many spoilers. It would probably not surprise you, though, to learn that all these forces meet up in the end for the great world-saving concert, in which Bill and Ted are joined by their old band-mate Death (William Sadler) from Bogus Journey, bringing along his electric bass.

I must admit that there are holes in this plot large enough to drive a semi through. In a situation where you have access to a time machine, how can it matter that you have exactly 77 minutes and 25 seconds to solve a problem? You have all the time in the world. And what sense does it make if you are Bill and Ted to travel forward in time, to find out what you did in the past (which is still your future)? If you go past the point in time when reality was going to go blooey, and you find yourselves still alive in the future, then things must have turned out fine, right?

But why worry about such details in a Bill and Ted film? As Chaucer said, there’s no point in making earnest of game. The movie is a lark. Its chief purpose is to give their fans another look at air-headed slackers in their later years—and as they travel into the future, in their later and later years. The confrontations with their future selves (who get steadily worse until the death-bed Stallyns) are absurdly comic, though they tend to turn out badly (as Bill tells Ted: “Your future you is a very pretentious dickwad”). But I found the daughters’ roundup of the super band of all time more interesting. The fact is, despite its premise, Bill & Ted Face the Music is not going to change the world. But it will probably make you laugh, and distract you from your pandemic blues. Two Jacquelyn Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

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

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

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

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.