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

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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Rocketman

Rocketman

Dexter Fletcher (2019)

Rocketman, the jukebox musical biopic of Elton John, begins with Taron Egerton (Kingsman), dressed in an orange-and-maroon outfit of feathers, plumes, wings, and demonic horns, walking purposely down a long hallway, and my mind immediately flashed back to last year’s biopic about another gay British rock star of the ’70s, Bohemian Rhapsody, which opened with Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, suited for the stage and walking through a long passageway until he emerges onto the Live Aid stage for Queen’s most memorable set. Knowing that Rocketman’s director Dexter Fletcher was the man responsible for taking over the last few weeks of Rhapsody’s filming and steering it to its successful conclusion when original director Bryan Singer self-destructed, it might be natural to assume that Elton is about to open a door and walk out on stage. Instead, he opens a door and walks into a group therapy session, announcing that his name is Elton Hercules John and he’s “an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, a sex addict, and a shopaholic.” It’s a bit of a surprising twist, and illustrates the slightly lighter touch behind this film as compared with Rhapsody. But yes, like Freddy Mercury’s bio, it’s the same old story of how musical stars with all the money in the world end up crashing into personal disaster when faced with the allure of drugs, pills, and alcohol. The story is as old as the original 1930s’ A Star is Born, and as timely as…well…the 2018 version of A Star is Born. Look forward to seeing it again in the upcoming biopic of Judy Garland—speaking of A Star is Born.

So the general arc of the movie is awfully familiar. But the details are fascinating and Fletcher does have a number of tricks that keep the movie from being the same old same old. The therapy session, which Elton, as one would think, takes over as he fills the room, acts as a frame for the story as Elton gives a roughly chronological view of his life story, removing more and more of his costume as he goes along—stripping away his façade and stage persona to find the Reginald Kenneth Dwight beneath the Elton John disguise. In many ways the film is structured more like Jersey Boys than Bohemian Rhapsody, since the performances in the latter film are all on stage, but in Rocketman many of John’s songs are presented as in a classic musical, as part of the dialogue or as illustration of character points. In a poignant moment early in the film, Reggie is singing “I Want Love,” and the rest of his family take up the song as the camera wanders about the house to the musical stylings of his self-centered mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard of The Help), his unbending father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh of TV’s Wanderlust), and his sympathetic grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones of the Harry Potter and Bridget Jones films). That song, as it turns out, dramatically underscores the ultimate theme of the film: Elton does what he does because he’s searching for love, something he never gets from Mom and Dad. When he comes out to his mother and tells her he’s “a poofter, a fairy, a queer,” she’s not surprised, but tells him that no one will ever love him “properly.” And nobody ever does, at least in the film.

So if you’re expecting to hear the original Elton John songs, you’ll be disappointed, since it’s the cast members’ versions you’re going to get. Egerton, however, has a perfectly entertaining pop singing voice, and in the 2016 film Sing he performed one of Elton John’s songs, “I’m Still Standing.” So although Elton’s first pick to play him in a biopic was Justin Timberlake, Egerton gives notable renditions of several numbers, including the title song—performed as a kind of voice-over as Elton plunges into a swimming pool in a half-hearted drug-induced suicide attempt in the middle of a huge blowout party at his house—or of “Crocodile Rock,” which the film depicts him introducing at his 1970 American debut performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, which  Fletcher presents as so uplifting that Elton and the entire audience end up floating in the air.

Yes, there are moments of fantasy in the film. There is no actual record of any audience members literally leaving the ground during that number—which, to be totally accurate, did not actually occur at all, since “Crocodile Rock” was not written until 1972. This is just one of several places where screenwriter Lee Hall (who had previously teamed up with real-life Elton on Billy Elliot the Musical) takes some liberties with the story. Hall and Fletcher had unprecedented access to Elton John for purposes of the film, and John is listed an Executive Producer in the credits, so it’s unlikely there is anything in the film that Elton John did not approve. But it’s also true that the film is officially billed as a “musical fantasy” about Elton’s “fantastical human story.” Plausible deniability there when it comes to getting the facts straight.

One of those facts, as the film makes clear, is that  while the music is Elton’s, the lyrics of all Elton’s hits were written by his collaborator Bernie Taupin (played here with warm sympathy by Jamie Bell—who, in a great piece of trivia, played the title role in the 2000 film Billy Elliot, written by Rocketman screenwriter Hall). So the film’s application of all those song lyrics to Elton’s own life is ingenious but somewhat ironic, since the lyrics are really coming from Taupin’s life experiences. But that’s just part of the overall fantasy.

But aside from Taupin and John’s classic songs dazzling our ears, and Julian Day’s recreations of Elton John’s spectacular costumes dazzling our eyes, Egerton’s dazzling performance as the man who at one time was responsible for 5 percent of all record sales worldwide is what holds the film together. It is very much on a par with Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning turn as Freddy Mercury last year. Fletcher, who directed Egerton in 2015’s Eddie the Eagle, seems to have known just how to get a remarkable performance from him as Elton.

The younger portrayers of Elton—or Elton when he was still Reggie—also turn in commendable performances. Matthew Illesley, 9, does a surprisingly lively rendition of “The Bitch is Back,” aimed at his mother. And one of the most memorable scenes in the film involves 14-year-old Kit Connor as Reggie who, neglecting to bring any music for his piano audition at the Royal Academy of Music, sits down and plays exactly what the interviewer had been playing when he came in, purely by ear after hearing it once.

Other members of the cast give creditable performances as well. Howard does so well playing someone you love to hate that she’s perfect as Elton’s narcissistic mother, and Mackintosh is heartlessly cold as his distant father. The other real villain in the film, Elton’s music manager John Reid (played here by Richard Madden, best known as Rob Stark in Game of Thrones), who becomes Elton’s lover but cares only for the money he can make off him, is smoothly diabolical. But each of these roles is little more than a caricature, and together they form a bevy of unrequited loves in Elton’s life. More memorable, and less one-dimensional, are the two characters—Granny Ivy and writing partner Taupin—who actually do show Elton some love, but whom he hardly seems to notice.

Thus “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places,” though hardly an Elton John song, might well be the theme song of this film. Ultimately, the endnotes of the film inform us that Elton has been sober for decades and has finally found David Furnish, someone to love him properly and to whom he has been married for some time, and, by the way, someone who also produceD this film. Bohemian Rhapsody ultimately won four Academy Awards and grossed more than $900 million worldwide. Rocket man tells a similar story in a more creative way. It remains to be seen whether it and capture the same kind of success. But I’d recommend that you see it. Three Tennysons for this one.

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

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

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Booksmart

Booksmart

Olivia Wilde (2019)

Here’s a little coming-of-age movie that garnered some $7 million during its opening weekend—not exactly a summer blockbuster, but if anybody was anticipating that, they shouldn’t have released it opposite Disney’s live-action Aladdin, which was primed to dominate the Memorial Day weekend box office. But the film by first-time director Olivia Wilde is the most critically acclaimed movie currently in theaters, with a 98% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.com. It is notable that audience ratings for the film are somewhat lower than those of critics, with only 76% positive ratings. I’m always curious about such discrepancies, so I took a look at some of those audience reviews.

What was immediately clear is that viewers either loved Booksmartor hated it, with most of the reviews being either five stars or one star, with very little in between. Most of the haters who actually gave a reason for their evaluation (rather than simply saying the film was terrible) complained about two things: Many condemned the film for vulgar language and raunchiness. I was a bit confused by this complaint, since the film is clearly rated R, and clearly states that this rating is given “for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking—all involving teens.” To get this warning and then be shocked, shocked, that the “F” word is used throughout the film, and that sexual activities are implied (though not depicted) seems somewhat disingenuous. It is possible that these negative reactions are a response to the fact that in this particular end-of-high-school party movie, it’s a pair of young women out to party (one of whom is “out” as a lesbian), rather than Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. In any case, I didn’t find these criticisms convincing.

More legitimate are the complaints that the movie is essentially plotless, or that there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. It’s quite true that the film is episodic, that it moves from one set piece to another, with only the slightest thread connecting all the scenes. It is true that plot is not the movie’s strongest asset. It seems likely that one of the reasons for this is that there are no fewer than four writers listed as responsible for the screenplay: Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), Emily Halpern (TV’s Good Girls and Black-ish), Sarah Haskins (also of TV’s Good Girls and Black-ish) and Katy Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic). The reason for this eclectic pedigree is apparently that the screenplay bounced around Hollywood for several years, and was tweaked along the way several times, before finally seeing the light of day in Wilde’s breakout film.

The fact is that Booksmart belongs to a genre of film not widely admired for careful plotting. It’s an epic-night high school party movie that has its roots in films from AmericanGraffitithrough Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused to Superbad.Tropes common to this particular film genre abound in Wilde’s film as well: protagonists who don’t quite seem to belong with the rest of their high school crowd; a huge blowout end-of-the year/end of high school party; an obligatory drug experiment; awkward romantic/sexual situations; a blow-up fight between best friends; high school weirdo who turns out to be misunderstood; clueless parents; a climactic graduation day speech—yes, all the elements are there. But Wilde gives these tropes new life with a bit of a twist.

The episodic nature of the plot is also characteristic of an even older, archetypal form of story to which Booksmart belongs: it’s a quest story, with the protagonists searching for the site of the party that they believe will complete them as human beings and fulfill their wishes by uniting them with the people they’ve had crushes on throughout their high school careers. And, like the medieval questing knight, the ultimate reward of the quest turns out to be self-knowledge.

The story follows the adventures of Molly (Beanie Feldstein of Ladybird), the alpha female and class president of the school, and her BFF Amy (Kaitlyn Dever from TV’s Last ManStanding), who spends much of her time in Molly’s shadow but is just as smart and focused as her friend. The two of them have devoted the last four years to study and ensuring they graduate at the top of their class so they can get into Ivy League colleges and secure a golden future. Things seem to have worked out for them, since Molly is heading for Yale while Amy will be going to Columbia after graduation.

And so they take a smug view of their classmates who have wasted so much of their high school careers in partying and carrying on. In a scene that sets the tone of the movie early on, Molly overhears three of what she considers her class’s losers talking about her in a critical way, and responds with the classic nerd comeback to the “cool kids,” that she’ll be at Yale next year achieving her dream while they will be stuck with the dead-end futures they deserve. But the scene doesn’t end as Molly—and the audience—might expect. Turns out one of these kids is also going to Yale, another to Stanford, and the third has already been recruited to write code for Google. In disbelief, Molly stammers “But, you guys don’t care about school…” and gets the answer: “No, we just don’t only care about school.”

It’s a life-changing revelation for Molly. She confronts Amy with the news: all this time she had believed she had to choose between schoolwork or fun. Now she realizes it was not an either/or proposition. “They did both,” she tells Amy. “We’re the only assholes who did one.” The two of them do the only thing they can: They are going to fit four years of partying into one giant blowout party thrown by Molly’s vice-president Nick (Mason Gooding  from TV’s Ballers), whom she’s had a secret crush on for years). Amy’s secret crush, a skateboarding chick named Ryan (played by Victoria Ruesga, and actual skateboarder from North Hollywood) will also be there, and even asks Amy if she’s coming to the party. There’s only one problem: the party is at Nick’s aunt’s house, and they don’t know where that is.

Thus the movie becomes the quest for the great party. Molly and Amy travel through the night, crashing lesser parties (a pathetic champagne party on a yacht, a mystery-game party hosted by the school’s drama geeks) and finding unanticipated complications at Nick’s party when they finally get there, all the time finding out more about themselves than they may have bargained for.

Feldstein and Dever make a believable and sympathetic buddy team, but the film’s unusual twist is that there are really no villains in the story: the other students that Molly and Amy saw as adversaries are just as sympathetic—the two had simply never really known them. In this the film is probably more like American Graffiti than any other coming-of-age, last-night-of-high-school movie. Some of the supporting characters in the film turn in memorable performances as well, most notably Skyler Gisondo (from The Amazing Spiderman) as Jared, a rich kid nobody likes, and Billie Lourd  (daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, a strange party girl who seems to turn up everywhere.

The movie is a clever and surprisingly fresh comedy. It’s been heralded as thecoming-of-age movie for Generation Z. I’m not sure I’d go that far. This is, after all, basically an all-white high school in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb with a student body all of whom seem wealthy enough to attend Ivy League colleges. Not exactly working-class heroes. And with the recent bruhaha about wealthy parents bribing their kids’ ways into elite colleges, the “party all you want and still get into Yale” theme might be a bit tone deaf. But it’s a pleasant enough comedy if you don’t think about it too hard. Three Tennysons for this one.

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

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

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John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum

John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum

Chad Stahelski (2019)

It’s another week before the scheduled release of Disney’s new live-action version of Aladdin, in which Will Smith plays the genie that Robin Williams made famous in the original 1992 animated film. And it was probably a sure thing that this latest live-action cartoon was going to finally knock the juggernaut that is Avengers: Endgameout of the number one slot at the box office. So it may be a bit of a surprise that the latest chapter of the John Wick franchise was this week’s box office champ. But when you think about it, it’s not that much of a difference: John Wick: Chapter 3is nothing if not a live-action cartoon.

How else does one explain the gratuitous violence presented in a way that evokes absolutely no more empathetic response from the audience than Wile E. Coyote’s falling off a cliff or being blown up by a stick of dynamite? We know that Wile E. is not real—he’s just a drawing—just as we know that the dozens and dozens of would-be assassins chasing John Wick are cyphers—most of the time you can’t see their faces because it’s dark or raining or they are wearing helmets of some kind. It’s essentially a video game in which you rack up points by snuffing out the lives of imaginary foes. It’s no surprise, either, that there isa John Wick video game in which you, too, can kill or be killed. In a cyber-sense of course.

The thing that makes cartoonish violence undisturbing is the objectivity with which we view it: We know it’s not real, so we react differently than we would if it were, or if we could imagine it were. With Wile E. Coyote, we laugh. With John Wick, we may at times be tempted to laugh—I burst out laughing at one point when John dispatches an adversary with a library book. But the more likely response is a kind of awed hypnotic attraction to the choreographed and artistically set dances of death delivered by the film. It’s no accident that in one scene a group of ballerinas—albeit ballerinas apparently in training as potential assassins—perform their graceful movements onstage, choreographed by the New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck, before being elegantly infiltrated by a group of real assassins. It’s director Chad Stahelski’s emblem of what he is doing with the violence in the film, inviting the viewer to see it as quite literally a ballet of brutality. (I should note that a spinoff film, tentatively entitled The Ballerina, is in the works, and is being given a pretty good launching point in this film).

Stahelski, who also directed the first two John Wick movies, was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrixfilms and is a martial arts expert himself, so the primary interest of his direction is the meticulously choreographed combat scenes. These are enhanced in the film by the camera work of Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who did the Oscar-nominated work in The Shape ofWater)as well as the impressive work of production designer Kevin Kavanaugh (who did TheDark Knight Rising) and art director Chris Shriver (who won an Oscar for Birdman). These artists created John Wick’s incredibly quirky battle in the aisles of a military museum—in which all kinds of historical weapons are displayed in glass cases, which Wick and his adversaries rhythmically, and with incredible precision, break into in order to get the next weapon with which to attack their opponents. Even more impressively, they framed his final epic battle in what amounts to a hall of mirrors, with colorful fluorescent-lit walls of glass.

As in the previous installments in this series, screenwriter Derek Kolstad has created a story without a whole lot of plot or dialogue: It’s the action scenes that are the meat of the film, as in an Asian martial arts movie (the final battle, in fact, is something of an homage to the hall of mirrors scene in Enter the Dragon) and, practically speaking, a good deal of John Wick 3’s gross receipts will be from foreign markets, particularly in Asia, and there is no necessity to dub or provide subtitles for action scenes, so…marketability!

But the plot that is here begins immediately after John Wick’s second chapter ends: Wick (Reeves) is, you might recall, a “retired” assassin who has worked for a large international conglomerate of assassins, ruled by a board of directors called the High Table. Goaded out of retirement by an enemy who steals his car and kills his dog, he takes vengeance on the perpetrator (basically that’s chapter one). Chapter two, which begins four days after chapter one ends, has John recruited by a criminal named Santino to kill his sister, so that he can take her place as one of the directors of the High Table. When John completes this task, Santino puts out a $7 million contract on him as the murderer of his sister, in order to deflect suspicion from himself, but John ends up killing Santino in the Continental in New York—which is, according to the rules of the High Table, a safe house. For breaking these rules, the Continental’s manager Winston (Ian McShane from TV’s Deadwood) declares him “excommunicato” puts a $14 million price on John’s head, but gives him a one-hour head start before he announces the global bounty on John’s head.

And that’s where chapter three begins. Basically, Wick plans to find “The Elder” (Saïd Taghmaoui from Wonder Woman), mysterious head of the High Table, somewhere in Morocco, and beg him for a chance to make right his defiance of the rules, and so get  the $14 million bounty taken off his head. To get there, of course, he has to fight off assassins galore, and he also needs help in getting passage out of New York. For this he turns to The Director (Anjelica Huston), who runs the ballet-assassin school under the High Table’s auspices. She helps him get to Casablanca, where he tracks down another former associate who owes him a favor, the assassin Sofia (Halle Berry), who owns a pair of killerMalinois attack dogs who have a great time in another great fight scene. Casablanca, by the way, has never looked so good—maybe because this scene isn’t being filmed in Casablanca but in the beautiful Atlantic port city of Essaouira, as anyone who has visited either Casablanca or Essaouira will immediately recognize.

Meantime a robot-like High Table administrator called “The Adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon from TVs Billions) has been sent to the Continental to impose further penance for the Wick affair on Wick’s former allies, Winston and the quirkily independent Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, Reeves’ and Stahelski’s old Matrixbuddy). To track down and finish the job on Wick, she also dispenses her own handpicked assassin named Zero (martial artist Mark Dacascos from TV’s Hawaii Five-O), a sushi chef who uses his skill with knives to work as a contract killer.

Some of the performances here are exceptional. Huston and Barre are memorable as usual, as are McShane and Fishbourne. Reeves has a type—tight-lipped and surly—that is the essence of John Wick and that he pulls off precisely. Dacascos’s is perhaps the standout performance here—his fan-boy adoration of the person he’s been sent to kill is a real hoot. In the end, though, there isn’t much meat in the film—it looks really good and has a few quirky plot twists, but beyond the technical virtuosity it doesn’t leave you anything more to think about than does a Road Runner cartoon. Sometimes, of course, that may be all you’re looking for. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

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

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

tolkienfilm

Tolkien

Tolkien

Dome Karukoski (2019)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not am not an average moviegoer who may have decided to come see Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s new biopic Tolkien, about the formative years of the creator of the modern fantasy genre, because of a fondness for J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels TheLord of the Rings and The Hobbit, or of the films that helped re-popularize them for the 21st century. If I were, I might have found this film a cozy and entertaining rendition of the author’s life, as a good percentage of its audience seem to have done: At latest count, the movie has an 86 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. This, of course, reflects an audience predisposed to like the film, since they already like Tolkien himself. Critics, by the way, have been less kind to the film: Rotten Tomatoes finds only 49 percent of critics giving the movie a favorable rating. This 37 point gap is quite unusual, and I’m not sure I can explain it. Most of the critics dislike the film for rather vague reasons—it’s not imaginative enough, many say, considering the fact that its subject is one of the greatest imaginative minds of the 20th century. It’s fairly generic, they say. It’s slow-moving at times. But these are trifles.

As for me, as I said, I am not the average moviegoer in this case, having published a 700-page Critical Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien back in 2011. Perhaps it put me at a disadvantage to come to the movie with so many preconceptions about the author’s life, since one must, in the case of all biopics, allow for the fact that movies will take some license and will fictionalize part of the story in order to create something more dramatic than the bare facts, and so perhaps arrive at a certain truth about the subject that transcends the facts. I understand this. But allow me to say: That is not the case here. In fact, the most egregious alterations of fact in this film actually made for a less dramatic and interesting story than sticking to the actual facts could have.

The film focuses on the years from 1908 (when Tolkien was 16), which is when the orphaned Tolkien and his brother Hillary moved into a boarding house in Birmingham, run by Mrs. Faulkner, and when Tolkien met and fell in love with 19-year old fellow boarder and orphan Edith Bratt; and December 1916, when the (nearly) 25-year-old Lieutenant Tolkien, suffering from the ravages of trench fever, was invalided home from the battle of the Somme in the First World War to recover his health and, ultimately, to settle down with Edith. Aside from an early montage of life with his dying mother and a final montage of life with Edith and his children years later, the film focuses on his relationship with Edith and with his friendships with three close friends from King Edward’s School in Birmingham, with whom he formed a club called the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barovian Society)—named for Barrows, the tea room in which the group would meet.

All of this makes perfect sense: These years were for Tolkien the most emotionally tumultuous, and the most formative in his life. They are the perfect subject for a movie about him. And Nicholas Hoult (best-known as the Beast from the X-Men movies) and Lily Collins (who was Snow White in Mirror, Mirror) manage to come off as likeable and believable as Tolkien and Edith (Collins bears a striking resemblance to pictures of the young Edith). But screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford manage to distort, omit and puzzlingly add so many important details, and for no apparent reason, that the film actually becomes hard to watch. Let me count the ways:

  • Tolkien’s mother Mabel died when John Ronald was 12. She died of diabetes. Yet Gleeson and Beresford have him tell Edith at one point that he doesn’t know how his mother died. What?
  • Father Francis Morgan, played here by Colm Meaney (best known from his years on Star Trek: the Next Generation), was appointed by Mabel as the boys’ guardian when she died. She did so because he was a kind and loving man. Meaney portrays him here as, well, something of a meany. But in fact Tolkien and his brother Hillary were very close to him, and he provided a needed parental figure during their formative years. It is true he forbade Tolkien to see Edith, but chiefly because he had promised to do his best to raise the boys and it seemed that Tolkien would not get into Oxford if he was distracted by his infatuation with her. Tolkien agreed out of his deep respect for Father Francis.
  • And because Tolkien was a devout Catholic all his life. A detail that the screenwriters seem not to have deemed especially important, but which underlay Tolkien’s entire philosophy of “secondary creation,” which is what he called his creation of Middle Earth, deemed as a pious imitation of God’s own primary creation of the world. In part Tolkien’s faith was formed by his close relationship with Father Francis, and was crowned by his eldest son John’s own ordination as a Catholic priest. All of this, of course, also played into the difficult relationship with Edith, who agreed to convert to Tolkien’s faith before they were married—an act that cost her nearly all her closest friends. Such things were far more significant a hundred years ago than the film acknowledges.
  • The actual story of Tolkien’s proposal to Edith is farmore dramatic than the film portrays. Forbidden to contact Edith while under Father Francis’s guardianship, Tolkien waited three years until the day he turned 21 (January 3, 1913), at which point he wrote to her and expressed his love. She wrote back to tell him she was engaged to another man, at which point he hopped on the first train to where she was living in Cheltingham and swept her off her feet, convincing her to break her engagement and agree to marry him. Ultimately he married her shortly before he left for the war in France. For no reason that I could tell, this film ignores that dramatic encounter and has him simply meet her by accident as he’s going off to war. Why on earth?
  • The T.C.B.S. was vital to Tolkien’s growth and his commitment to become a writer. Formed with the son of King Edwards’ School’s headmaster, Rob Gilson (Patrick Gibson of TV’s The OA), the young poet Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle of TV’s Ordealby Innocence), and the young musician Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney of Dunkirk), it is quite true that the group, in their naïve innocence, did vow to change the world through art, and encouraged one another in their artistic efforts. It’s true that Gilson died on the first day of the Somme, and that Smith died later in the year, though Tolkien heard of Smith’s death via a letter from Wiseman after his return to England. But the film makes the completely unfounded suggestion that Smith was gay and was sexually attracted to Tolkien. ScreenwriterStephen Beresford was apparently behind this depiction, reading between the lines in some of Smith’s letters to Tolkien, which do express a close friendship—a fact that apparently can only be interpreted in today’s world as sexual. In his last letter to Tolkien, expressing his sorrow at Gilson’s death, Smith wrote:

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight there will still be left a member of the TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. … May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

So, that means “I’m in love with you”? What the hey? It’s likely this kind of distortion that convinced the Tolkien estate to distance itself from the film, issuing a statement that “they did not approve of, authorize or participate in” the project.

  • There’s this little thing called The Silmarillion? Sure, most moviegoers don’t know about it, but Tolkien had not conceived of The Hobbitor, much less, Lord of the Ringsduring the period this movie covers. It’s his earlier mythology that he was putting together at this point. The film flirts with an image of Edith dancing under the trees, an image that reappears several times in the film, that recreates one of the profoundest moments in Tolkien’s entire life: It occurred after he returned from France and, during his recuperation, when she danced for him under a tree, and he was inspired to create the legend of Beren and Luthien—the mortal man who falls in love with an elven princess. Through their lives, Tolkien always thought of Edith as his Luthien, and himself as Beren, and had those named inscribed on their tombstone. The film never explains the image, and refers to the names on the tombstone in a last note with no explanation, which makes it more confusing than edifying. Why should the filmmakers include this motif if they weren’t going to make anything of it?
  • Last and most heinous, the film, which alternates between scenes of Tolkien on the Somme battlefield andflashbacks of his earlier days, spends a long, climactic scene with the fevered and halucinatory Tolkien stumbling around on the Somme battlefield looking for Smith, but seeing shadows that look like dragons, ents, or creatures out of Mordor. That never happened, of course, but sometimes such scenes can encapsulate something important to the film’s overall theme. That’s not what happens here. The scene is so absurd, since Tolkien comes out of the experience alive—apparently all one had to do to survive the single bloodiest battle in European history was to wander aimlessly around the battlefield looking for your dead friend. It’s a scene that bends audience incredulity to the breaking point.

Oh to be sure there are scenes in the film worth watching, most notably a scene between the student Tolkien and Oxford Professor Joseph Wright (a delightful Derek Jacobi), who inspires the young scholar to focus on Philology after he fails to thrive in Classics, but these are few and far between, and they don’t make up for the gaffes. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one. Apparently there are two other Tolkien biopics in development right now. We can only hope they will be better than this one.

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

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

hero_long-shot-image

Long Shot

Long Shot

Jonathan Levine (2019)

So there’s a clown in the White House who used to be a TV star and has no real interest in governing, but only in using the presidency to further his own interests. And there’s a competent woman who happens to be Secretary of State who wants to run for president but finds that it doesn’t matter what her positions are on issues, only whether the electorate finds her likeable, while at the same time having to maneuver a minefield of judgments and expectations she would never have to consider if she were a man. Yes, I’m describing, of course, the new romantic comedy by Jonathan Levine (50/50) starring Seth Rogan and Charlize Theron—a film that, like most RomComs, has little in common with the real world.

But seriously folks, the film’s political milieu doesn’t really go beyond being an environment in which the comedy takes place. Long Shot is not the incisive political commentary that 1995’s Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin vehicle The American President was, or even Ivan Reitman’s 1993 Dave. Rack makes clear. But it recalls those films, which were popular when the protagonists of this story were in high school, as the nostalgic ’90s-music soundtrack reminds us. The political world in this film is simply what romantic comedies have always included as the “old society,” destined to be replaced by the “new society” represented by the lovers. The RomCom formula, dating all the way back to the Greek playwright Menander in the 4th century B.C.E., has always involved a pair of young lovers (in this film, “young” is a relative term) who want to get together but are blocked from doing so by certain figures and/or situations that make their hooking up difficult—this complication needn’t be especially serious (say the girl’s father has vowed not to marry his attractive younger daughter off until he can find a husband for his shrewish older daughter) or even plausible (the girl herself has vowed never to marry anyone whose name is not “Earnest”), but it must be overcome before the pair can get together. In this case, the “girl” is running for president, and her image is going to take a really big hit if it’s known she is getting it on with a schlumpy, uncouth unemployed journalist who doesn’t know how to behave at a state dinner.

I mean, let’s face it. Do you really see Rogan and Theron as a natural couple? Theron’s advisers try to tell her it’s not a good idea: Would the public accept Kate Middleton having a romance with Danny DeVito? they ask at one point. But I suppose it’s believable enough. One often sees apparently wildly mismatched couples who seem to be happy enough together. I mean, I could never figure out what a hot babe like Betty Rubble could possibly have seen in a short, dumpy dimwit like Barney but hey, who am I to judge?

As the film opens, we see Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a journalist having infiltrated a White Supremacist group, ready to endure a swastika tattoo in order to get his story. But his identity is blown by someone recognizing him from one of his online left-wing articles, and he escapes by jumping through a window, falling two stories and smashing into a parked car before getting up and taking it on the lamb, shouting a few choice verbal provocations as he flees. When he gets to his office, he learns that the independent liberal weekly publication he works for has just been bought by a right wing media mogul named Parker Wembley (played by an almost unrecognizably made-up Andy Serkis doing a scathing caricature of Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch). In disgust, Flarsky quits his job.

Meanwhile Charlotte Field (Theron) is Secretary of State to a dufus, President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk of TV’s Better Call Saul), who spends his time in the Oval Office watching streaming episodes of himself playing the president on his old TV show. Chambers calls Field into his office to tell her that he has decided not to run for re-election in 2020 because he wants to use the presidency as a boost into a film career. This leaves things open for Field to make a run at the presidency herself, and she can count on Chambers’ endorsement if she doesn’t ruffle his feathers between now and the election. In anticipation of her run, she’s put together a team that includes hard-bitten Maggie Milliken (June Diane Raphael of TV’s Grace and Frankie) and the more high-strung Tom (Ravi Patel of TV’s Master of None) whose job it is to mold her into a candidate people will vote for. They get advice from an image consultant (a wonderful Lisa Kudrow in what amounts to a cameo that you will wish were longer) who reports, among other things, that the public sees Field as lacking a sense of humor.

So what we’ve got, as the film finishes its exposition, is a contrast between one character (Fred) who will cut off his nose to spite his face before he compromises one iota on any of his deeply held opinions, and another (Field) who seems willing to bend in any direction to appease her president and to charm the electorate in order to obtain the ultimate goal, the presidency, in the end.

Moving toward that required RomCom convergence, Fred seeks out his longtime best bud Lance (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., of Straight Outa Compton), who unlike Fred seems to have his act completely together as a prosperous business owner, but in required best-friend fashion takes Fred out to drown his sorrows with liquid and pharmaceutical assistance. Their night ends when Lance takes the seriously underdressed Fred to a formal fundraiser at which they can engage in wistful nostalgia over the vocal stylings of the favorite group of their youth, Boyz II Men, who are performing at the gala. But here, like Romeo spotting the love of his life at the Capulets’ wing ding, Fred sees Secretary of State Charlotte Field—and recognizes her as his childhood babysitter. What are the odds?

After an awkward reunion in which Charlotte learns that Fred is currently unemployed, mogul Wembley tries to corner the Secretary and Fred gives the smarmy Machiavel a piece of his mind, a gutsy move undercut by the faceplant down the steps that follows it. But Charlotte, looking for a new speechwriter to punch up her speeches with some humor, hires the unemployed Fred (over her staff’s objections), and he agrees to take the job as long as he can trust her not to water down her principles in order to curry favor with political power brokers. The rest you can probably guess from the expectations of the RomCom genre.

There is some movement in both protagonists from their initial differences: Fred does ultimately recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and that perfect, after all, is the enemy of good; and Charlotte finds that there are some principles that cannot be sacrificed. We might take some comfort in this message, but mainly we just like these two actors, who have a strangely workable chemistry in this film, and whom we’re glad to see get together. There are other standout performances in the film as well: Jackson is likeable and genuine as Fred’s old buddy. Raphael is icily protective as Charlotte’s right hand woman. Serkis is obnoxiously unlikeable as the media magnate, and Odenkirk’s clueless incompetence is scarily real as the lame duck president. In smaller roles, Alexander Skarsgård is excellent as a Trudeau-like Canadian Prime Minister who’s totally sculpted into a media image but is pretty much of a dork in real life, and Kurt Braunohler, Claudia O’Doherty and Paul Scheer do a hilarious lampoon of a Fox & Friends trio spewing an endless ooze of inane and inappropriate drivel.

Sure there are a lot of things in the film that are a real stretch for our willing suspension of disbelief. There are a few plot holes as well. But this is a romantic comedy, after all. Isn’t it a stretch to think that a set of twins, separated many years earlier, would show up in the same city at the same time and interact with the same people, causing much confusion? In fact, why not make it two sets of twins, and double the confusion? But wait—why not make the local Abbess their long lost mother? Long Shot may not be Shakespeare, but it’s probably more believable. Three Tennysons for this one.

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

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

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

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Joe and Anthony Russo (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

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Top 15 Medieval-themed Films of All Time

The Top 15 Medieval-themed Films of All Time

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

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

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

  1. The Fisher King (1991)

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

  1. The Name of the Rose (1986)

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

  1. Braveheart (1995)

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

  1. Ran (1985)

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

  1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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

  1. The Natural (1984)

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

 

  1. Seven Samurai (1954)

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

 

  1. Henry V (1989)

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

  1. The Princess Bride (1987)

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

  1. The Lion in Winter (1968)

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

 

  1. Beckett (1964)

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

  1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

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

3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

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

  1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

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

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

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

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

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

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

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

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

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.