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

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews

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

if-beale-street-could-talk-review-700x300

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins (2018)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

You might remember Barry Jenkins’ last film, a little thing called Moonlight, which garnered eight Academy Award nominations and took home three Oscars, including Best Picture. That film, which had been based on an unproduced semi-autobiographical drama by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, told the story of a young black man trying to find himself in a hostile world. The movie, telling a compassionate but troubling story, was a surprise winner over the uplifting but far less substantive La La Land.

So it’s no great surprise that Jenkins’ new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is not exactly the feel-good movie of the season either. Adapted from acclaimed author James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name (the title comes from a line in the old W.C. Handy standard, “Beale Street Blues”), the film is thematically rather close to Moonlight: It tells the story of a young black couple in early 1970s New York, struggling to find a place for themselves in a world that seems hostile to their love, in a country designed to keep them from succeeding.

The first scene of the film shows us the couple, 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne in her first movie role), and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James of Selma), attractively dressed in autumnal colors as they stroll casually through a park under yellow leaves and look lovingly into one another’s eyes. This idyllic scene is undercut with the next shot, which shows Tish visiting Fonny in prison, speaking to him on a phone with a barrier of glass between them. She is there to tell him that she is pregnant with his child. After the initial shock, Fonny is overjoyed with the idea, though he wishes (it matters more to him than to her, Tish as narrator tells us) that they could be married. They agree that the ceremony should take place as soon as he is cleared of the false charges that have put him here, and he is free once again. Fonny does want to know if she has told her family or his father (a curious specification which becomes more understandable before long), but Tish says she wanted to tell Fonny first.

The next two scenes provide a stark contrast between Tish’s family and Fonny’s. When Tish reveals her condition to her parents and her sister, there is a pregnant pause (no pun intended) until her father Joe (Colman Domingo, also from Selma) overcomes his shock and decides the news is worth celebrating. Mother Sharon (Regina King from TV’s American Crime, who has already won a Golden Globe for this performance) was on board from the beginning, as was Tish’s feisty sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris of TVs Empireand Mad Men). The scene is almost unparalleled in American cinema—spontaneous and unprecedented support for an unmarried 19-year old mother-to-be. But a whole different note is struck when the family invites Fonny’s parents over to share the news and celebrate with them. Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis from TheHelp), an overbearing holier-than-thou Evangelical Christian demands to know who is going to take care of the child, tells Tish that “I always knew you’d be the destruction of my son,” and ultimately actually calls on God to curse mother and baby. Fonny’s sisters, cookie-cutter versions of their Mom, are in full support, while his father Frank (Michael Beach of TV’s ERand Third Watch), overjoyed at the news, brings the party to a screeching halt by battering his overbearing wife.

The two scenes underscore two of Baldwin’s (if not Jenkins’) favorite themes: In his later works (like BealeStreet), Baldwin emphasized the importance of the family as a cornerstone of African American culture and identity, and Tish’s loving bulwark of a family demonstrates that theme. As for Evangelical Christianity, it should be noted that Baldwin, in his late teens, was himself an Evangelical preacher, and a very popular one, but grew to see that form of religion as a sham, and ultimately rejected religion altogether, declaring that Christianity had reinforced the institution of slavery by depicting temporal trials as God’s will and promising some kind of salvation in the sweet by-and-by. He would later write, in The Fire Next Time, that “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” Clearly God has not made Mrs. Hunt any larger, freer, or more loving. The implication is, its time to get rid of her concept of God.

The story of the film progresses in scenes of flashback—showing us Tish and Fonny’s deepening relationship, his growth as a woodworking artist, and their difficulties in finding a suitable place to live in Greenwich Village as landlord after landlord refuses to rent to a young African-American couple; alternating with scenes in the present, with Tish visiting an increasingly disillusioned Fonny in jail while her family, particularly her mother Sharon, tries to find evidence to prove Fonny innocent of the rape charge for which he is incarcerated awaiting trial.

It is clear from the beginning that Fonny cannot possibly be guilty of the crime, having a sound alibi and having been on the other side of the city when the crime took place. But he’s been tagged for the crime by a corrupt and vengeful police officer (a smarmy Ed Skrein of Deadpool), and in a racist legal system, it’s his innocence that must be proven, not his guilt. Officer Bell’s foil is the other significant white character in the film, the defense attorney Hayward (Finn Wittrock of TV’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace), whose well-meaning ineffectiveness is helpless against a system designed to protect the likes of the vile Officer Bell. The fact that, ultimately, the film is able to generate a sense of hope amid this distorted system is a product of Jenkins’—and Baldwin’s—portrayal of the close and supportive family sustaining the young couple through adversity.

The effect of the film is achieved not so much through the gentle, subdued action and soothing music in the scenes between Tish and Fonny, but particularly through the more dynamic energy of the supporting characters, as in the scene with Fonny’s mother. Another particularly seering scene is Fonny’s conversation with his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry of TV’s Atlanta), just out of prison on a marijuana charge he pled guilty to in order to avoid a false charge of stealing a car, of which he was accused even though he doesn’t know how to drive. Daniel’s pained account of his abuse in prison, where “they can do with you whatever they want,” is hard to ignore: “The white man has got to be the devil,” Daniel says, with the unsilenced voice of the powerless, “because he sure ain’t a man.”

Most memorable of all is probably Sharon, who works tirelessly to obtain Fonny’s release, even flying to Puerto Rico, where the prosecution has spirited away the rape victim Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios of TV’s From Dusk Till Dawn) to keep their case from being blown. The meeting between Sharon and Victoria is devastating and crushing, the fragile Victoria’s psyche as crushed by the legal system as Tish’s promises to be, and Sharon’s disappointment as raw as Fonny’s with the stark denial of justice.

This film is likely to leave a lasting effect on you, and it’s certain that the issues it raises are still with us, 45 years after the novel’s original publication. One need look no further than the difficulty the NFL is having finding acts willing to perform during halftime of the upcoming Super Bowl, after their official stance regarding Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. It’s certainly one of the best films of 2018. Four Shakespeares for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

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

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

181225-vice-dick-cheney-still-cs-417p_670ae1c13727c64f86e3d9305fe427b4.fit-2000w

Vice

Vice

Adam McKay (2018)

“Facts are stubborn things,” Ronald Reagan once famously observed. I wonder if the Great Communicator could have foreseen how, within a generation of his presidency, his own party would put into power a man whose version of reality is so often violently at odds with actual facts—one who, in the last week, for example, told combat troops that he had personally locked in for them a 10 percent raise (when in fact they were getting a scheduled 2.9 percent raise guaranteed them annually by Congress), and that the former president lived in a house surrounded by a 10-foot wall, when such a claim could obviously be disproved by looking at the house. That his supporters believe what the current president says anyway would have been inconceivable in Reagan’s era, but today such things are made possible by vehicles like FOX News and other outlets—vehicles that came into being only by the abolishment of the government requirement that news sources give both sides of political issues “equal time.” And one of the people behind that particular deregulation? Congressman, later Vice President, Dick Cheney.

Cheney, of course, is the subject of the new movie by Adam McKay (The Big Short) called, ironically, Vice. You probably don’t have to be told that it’s not called that only because its subject became the Vice President. The film has been getting mixed reviews from audience members, some of whom think it’s the greatest movie of the year, and some of whom are ranting about how awful it is. How many of the ranters have actually seen the movie is a legitimate question, but that’s the case with a lot of films these days: People who think they would have objections to a certain movie for one reason or another based on advance comments about it will go on rottentomatoes.com and blast a film they’ve never seen. But I’m pretty sure in this case that someone who thinks he or she is going to vehemently dislike this movie is probably right. So it’s surprising to me that the person feeling this way would actually go see Vice. But assuming that some of these haters did sit through the film, their biggest complaint is that it’s a bunch of lies.

Now McKay makes it clear at the beginning of the movie that the facts in the story are as accurate as he could make them, but much is not known because Cheney was one of the most secretive public figures in history. But the chief negative events depicted in the film—the rush to attack Iraq after 9/11 based on incomplete and unreliable intelligence; Colin Powell’s hesitancy about the plan and regret over his speech before the United Nations; the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the disregarding of the “quaint” rules of the Geneva convention and the argument that the United States does not torture, therefore what it was doing to prisoners was by definition not torture; the no-bid contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq granted to Haliburton (the company for which Cheney served as CEO)—are matters of public record. Much of the rest of the film consists of private conversations that clearly are imagined, since it would be impossible to know what happened at such times; or purely fanciful scenes, like one in which Alfred Molina appears in a cameo as a waiter offering Cheney and his pals a menu of delicious ways to twist the Constitution, or another in which Cheney and his wife Lynne engage in a mock-Shakespearean dialogue a la Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Since no one would mistake such scenes as anything but parody, I imagine the viewers must be referring to the actual facts as lies, something which can only happen in a post-truth universe in which it’s already been decided that if it wasn’t on FOX News it can’t be true.

And this, as far as I can tell, is the point of McKay’s movie: This world in which we now live is the product of the political career of Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Though that conclusion may be debatable, it’s difficult to find fault with the evidence. The way it’s presented, of course, may be offensive to some people, since McKay’s tone throughout is satirical and generally without any respect for the former VP. Still, there are moments in the film where Cheney comes across as sympathetic, even admirable, most notably in his confrontation of his wife Lynne’s abusive father at her mother’s funeral, and in his immediate and unconditional acceptance of his daughter’s sexual orientation when she comes out to her parents. These are private, family moments, and McKay seems to suggest that Cheney, as a good husband and father, may have done better in life had he stayed out of the public sector altogether. There is even a scene in which the filmmakers give a mock ending after bringing us to the point of Bill Clinton’s election, narrating how Cheney retired to rest on his laurels as his wife Lynne wrote scholarly books on history.

There are things about the film a viewer might object to, but it’s not the politics, which are up front and obvious—what you see is what you get here. No, the difficulties with Viceare structural: Like McKay’s previous critically acclaimed The Big Short, Viceis full of gimmicks, and has less a linear narrative than a collage of scenes that are almost set pieces, some, as I’ve said, completely fictionalized or imagined, some serious, some farcical, all aiming to give some insight into the man who remains, even in the end, an enigma. This seems to be McKay’s style, but whether it works as well in what is essentially a biopic as it did in his expose about the 2008 financial crisis will strike different viewers differently.

What is certain is that Christian Bale (who worked with McKay on The Big Short), nearly unrecognizable after putting on a load of weight (reportedly 40 pounds) and working in impressive makeup that makes him the spitting image of the former vice president, gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. He reproduces Cheney’s mannerisms, his deadpan expression, and his twisted smile, and his growling Batman-style voice is close enough to Cheney’s grumbling snarl to make us forget its Bale and think we’re watching Cheney himself. He is complemented by Amy Adams (a McKay veteran from Talladega Nights) as a blonde-wigged Lynne Cheney, the straight-laced power behind the throne. She shines as Cheney’s own Lady Macbeth, whom the film depicts as a stalwart tower of strength who—as the young Cheney bounces around as an aimless, drunken, bar-fighting lineman and Yale dropout in Wyoming—straightens the lost boy out with a come-to-Jesus in which she tells him to clean up his act or she’s gone.

Steve Carell (another alumnus of The Big Short) turns in a performance as a strangely eccentric Donald Rumsfeld who becomes Cheney’s mentor, and apparently turns him into a Republican while the young Cheney is a congressional intern, and the two work together in political chicanery through the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush I administrations. In a telling and presumably apocryphal scene, Cheney asks Rumsfeld what exactly they are supposed to believe in, and gets only a dismissive laugh in answer. Rumsfeld and his disciple Cheney, McKay seems to suggest, are motivated solely by a thirst for power, rather than by any conservative political principles.

To this mix addOscar-winner Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who plays a completely clueless George W. Bush, agreeing to let the Vice President take the lead on things like foreign policy and budgetary concerns. It’s hard to see this characterization as anything other than satirical hyperbole. But it ispretty funny.

The film is held together by a generally chronological arrangement of scenes, and by everyman narrator Jesse Plemons, who seems to be everywhere—as everything from a soldier on the ground in Iraq to a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He’s a choral figure who sees Cheney from the outside, like the audience, and understands him no better than we do. In the end that gray indeterminacy is all we see of the “real” Cheney. Like a Michael Moore film, some people will leave the theater satisfied with that. Some people won’t. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one, based mostly on the performances.

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

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

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

1280x720-marypoppinsreturnstr

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

Rob Marshall (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The-Favourite-Official-Trailer-Key-Art-Movie-Previews-Olivia-Colman-Emma-Stone-Rachel-Weisz-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-21

The Favourite

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos (2018)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

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

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

Screen-Shot-2018-11-27-at-11.09.24-AM

Boy Erased

Boy Erased

Joel Edgerton (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

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

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

04frontrunner-context1-superJumbo

The Front Runner

The Front Runner

Jason Reitman (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

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

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

green-book-poster-slice-600x200

Green Book

Green Book

Peter Farrelly (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

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

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

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.