Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Review: "Rocketman"

There’s a lot to like about “Rocketman,” a movie that very much wants you to like it about a man who spent a lifetime making likable music. It’s the life story of pop singer Elton John, which he produced himself after trying for two decades to get it made.

That’s a very Oprah thing to do, and watching the movie reminds me of that “O” magazine where she puts herself on the cover of every issue. It’s an enjoyable flick, as long as you understand it’s a great big ol’ narcissism pie.

Of course this film will be compared to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was a better movie about a better singer from last year. Taron Egerton plays Elton and sings the songs himself, despite not much looking or sounding like him. For example, he repeatedly refers to himself as fat, then he takes his shirt off and it looks like the usual sculpted Hollywood bod.

It’s a solid turn, though I didn’t emotionally connect to this character like I did “Rhapsody.”

The film, directed by Dexter Fletcher (who worked with Egerton on “Eddie the Eagle”) from a script by Lee Hall of “Billy Elliott” fame, is pitched more like a Broadway musical than a conventional biopic. People will suddenly walk out of their scene into a musical number, using Elton’s sprawling catalogue of pop hits to carry the story.

Of course, Elton didn’t write his songs to be part of a coherent narrative, so some of the lyrics are changed around or very different arrangements provided. It mostly works, but sometimes it doesn’t.

We start with Elton entering an addiction group therapy having walked out of a performance wearing one of his signature extravagant stage outfits, something that looks half an angel and half a devil. He lays out his confession that he’s an alcoholic, drug and sex addict, bulimic and shopaholic. Then we flash back to his life story, starting at childhood but mostly taken up with his 20s and 30s.

At first he’s arrogant and in denial, but as the film goes on pieces of his costume fall off, and he gets more real.

Born Reginald Dwight, his childhood was unhappy, ping-ponging between parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) who openly loathed each other and often took out their frustrations on the shy, bespectacled kid who showed a talent for piano. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) is the only one who openly encourages him.

He grows into an awkward teen who learns the music biz backing up American soul acts touring the U.K. in the late 1960s. “You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be,” one of them advises.

The arc of his life changes when John is introduced to Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and they go on to form a half-century songwriting partnership. Elton had a genius for melodies but was bad with words, which Bernie supplied ably. It’s a tender, brotherly relationship with a brief hint of romance in the beginning.

If “Bohemian Rhapsody” was criticized for glossing over its main character’s homosexuality, “Rocketman” puts it front and center. It’s the central theme of Elton’s struggle in life, trying to be what others want instead of being true to himself. This plays out in a haze of drug-fueled montages as he performs for massive concert crowds in between waking up in strange places.

Fletcher sends his camera flying around his subject, with each turn of the piano resulting in a new costume change to denote the passage of time. It makes for a breezy aesthetic, but also tends to brush over pivotal events like his brief, disastrous 1980s marriage to a woman he had just met.

The other major relationship is John Reid (Richard Madden), who became Elton’s boyfriend and manager. It’s an extraordinarily vicious portrayal, depicting Reid as a soulless manipulator who was willing to sacrifice his client/lover’s health and well-being to further his own ends. Their initial hook-up is probably one of the most scorching gay sex scenes we’ve seen in a mainstream movie.

I liked “Rocketman” but walked out of it feeling like I didn’t know Elton John any better than I did going in. Ever the showman, he shows us his self-destructive side, but only the parts he knows will dazzle.

Review: "Ma"

Screenwriting legend William Goldman said there are only three kinds of movies: those that are meant to be good and are, those that are meant to be good and aren’t, and those that were never meant to be any good.

I’d like to humbly suggest a fourth category: obviously trashy movies that are aware of their own trashiness and have fun with it while still not really being all that good.

“Ma” reminds me of lots of bits and pieces of other movies. “Misery,” with a seemingly normal, unappreciated middle-aged woman who’s secretly bonkers and played by an Oscar-caliber actress -- in this case, Octavia Spencer.

“Carrie,” about a teen girl traumatized by her sexual humiliation at the hands of her classmates, which is due for a hard comeuppance. The usual motley assembly of comely teens from every horror movie ever who just want to party.

Spencer is obviously having a lot of fun with this role, playing the kray-kray baddie in a low-budget scare flick. She fake-smiles her way through interactions, passing as normal while staring daggers when backs are turned. She’s not the most physically imposing cinematic killer, but she is good at lulling people in for a good stab in the back.

She plays Sue Ann, a timid teen who grew into a resentful woman. She has a miserable job as an assistant for the world’s nastiest veterinarian (Allison Janney). When a group of teens beg her to buy booze for them, she tuts and frets about nobody drinking and driving, and then relents.

A few winks later and Sue Ann is now hosting a never-ending party in the basement of her house out in the sticks, passing out shots and dancing the night away in an attempt to recapture some of her stolen youth. Insisting the young’uns call her “Ma,” she pokes through their social media and worms her way into their lives.

Diana Silvers plays Maggie, the new kid who has just moved to town from San Diego and immediately falls in with the cool gang. In this rural enclave, that means getting buzzed and hanging out at “the rock piles,” a pasture full of rubble that has been a party spot for decades.

Juliette Lewis plays her mom, Erica, who’s been through some rough days and is working as a cashier at the local casino in hopes of graduating up to dealer. She loves Maggie and gives her too much rope to hang herself with, making noises about “making good choices” but always too busy to check up.

McKaley Miller is Haley, the brazen girl who likes to impress everyone with her brazenness; Corey Fogelmanis is Andy, a sweet-faced boy who makes moony eyes at Maggie; Dante Brown is the funny, smart black kid; Gianni Paolo is Chaz, the headstrong jock.

Luke Evans turns up as Ben, Andy’s dad, though they never have a scene together so we’re just taking the filmmakers’ word for it. Missi Pyle plays his nasty, drinky girlfriend, who knew Erica back in the day.

Actually, it turns out all the adult character knew each other in high school, leading to gauzy flashback scenes with child actors who don’t resemble the grownups in the slightest. Suffice it to say, Sue Ann craved to be part of the in crowd, who just played her off for jokes.

Director Tate Taylor has made some good flicks, including “The Help” and “Get on Up;” screenwriter Scotty Landes is a TV guy doing his first feature film script. Tonally “Ma” is all over the map, spooky edging into scary and passing through comedy along the way. This creates a lot of awkward transition periods where we’re not sure if we’re supposed to be cowering or cackling.

Some stuff just plain doesn’t work, like a shy girl in a wheelchair (Tanyell Waivers) who is tied into the game very late in the going. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that she and Sue Ann’s relationship deserved a whole movie of its own, or to be cut out of this one.

I can’t really recommend “Ma,” though I did on some level enjoy it. It would be incorrect to say this movie isn’t trying very hard; rather it’s laboring mightily at unworthy things.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: "Aladdin"

The part we feared most, Will Smith as the genie, actually turns out to be not so bad.

This is Will Smith, after all, an entertainer not without his charms. His genie is goofy and funny and appropriately self-important. The blue CGI body is still a little off. And although he doesn’t make us forget Robin Williams’ manic-yet-slyly-tender voice work in the original animated “Aladdin,” Smith turns out to be an able, updated substitute.

The rest of the cast…

Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are fine as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, all a-twinkle and a-dimple as the comely young Arabian couple. (He’s Egyptian and she’s British/Indian, which isn’t too egregiously off by Hollywood standards.) I liked the cartoon version of the sultan as an affable dolt; Navid Negahban seems more haunted than sympathetic.

The big letdown is Jafar, a far fall for one of Disney’s most scrumptious villains.

He had that scarecrow frame and twisty little beard, hooded eyes and a marvelous baritone growl (supplied by Jonathan Freeman). Marwan Kenzari just looks like some guy they plucked out of the street bazaar and put into a vizier’s outfit. Worst of all, his Jafar has a high, almost whiny voice. Not surprisingly, he’s the one character who doesn’t get to do his song from the animated version.

When it comes to screen villains, tenors go home.

You know the story: gold-hearted street rat thief Aladdin (Massoud) falls hard for Jasmine, the princess of Agrabah, who is being courted by a string of foreign princes. After picking up a magical lamp, he summons the big blue genie (Smith) to sorcery him into ersatz royalty, makes a big entrance, and then things go south because of all the lying -- plus those nasty Jafar schemes.

Of all the cartoon movies Disney has turned into a live-action remake, “Aladdin” falls smack in the middle. It’s a bright, fast-paced spectacle that isn’t just a shot-for-shot remake of the original. Director Guy Ritchie, known for turning stodgy Sherlock Holmes into a knife-fighting action star, co-wrote the screenplay with John August.

Some of it works really well. The magic carpet ride to the song “A Whole New World” is still a dazzler, as Aladdin and Jasmine cruise the world and discover love. The entrance of the fictional “Prince Ali” has all the jazz and verve of the original. I appreciated the updating of Jasmine’s character into a strong-willed young woman who doesn’t just resent having the sultan pick her husband, but actually vies to take the sultan’s place.

Other stuff lands with a clunk. Abu the monkey is a little too CGI for his own good. I disliked having Jafar’s henchman, the parrot Iago, relegated to mere dumb beast. The snappy repertoire between the haughty Jafar and his Bronx-cheering, Gilbert Gottfried-voiced pet was the animated film’s main comic engine.

A couple of new songs just plain don’t play. In the oddest one, “Speechless,” Jasmine starts belting while the guards are leading her away, and all her enemies start dissolving into dust a la “Avengers: Infinity War,” and I wondered if she’d suddenly acquired magical powers.

Similarly, a romance contrived for genie and Jasmine’s handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), falls rather flat. He’s a world-bending cosmic powerhouse -- why he gotta have a dame?

I can’t say as I really wanted a live-action “Aladdin,” but now that it’s here I object to its existence less than I thought I would. My kids enjoyed the heck out of it, and even the stretches that had me sighing with impatience weren’t so interminably long they had me wishing I was somewhere else.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Night Train to Munich" (1940)

You have to think about the situation in England when "Night Train to Munich" came out in August 1940. Hitler ruled Europe uncontestedly. The Brits had just rescued their remaining forces from France at Dunkirk. The Blitz was about to commence, a year of nightly terror for London dwellers.

The U.K. had been the world's mightiest global empire, now humiliated and (most thought) about to be conquered.

And here is this cheeky romantic comedy caper -- a lark, a piffle, starring Rex Harrison as a supremely self-pleased spy posing as a Nazi to smuggle a brilliant scientist and his daughter out of Germany. Heck, when we first meet Harrison he's singing penny-ante tunes while hocking records at a wharfside shop.

(Although, given Harrison's legendary talk-singing turn in "My Fair Lady," one tends to doubt the mellifluous warbling is his own.)

One can fault the British for their stiff-upper-lip routine, tired classism and tamping down of emotions. But this film, innocuous as it is, represents a massive middle finger waving across the channel at the bloodthirsty huns.

It starts with the German invading Czechoslovakia. Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt) is a scientist working on a formula for armor plating superior to what Germany has. He manages to escape on the last plane out, but his daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood), is captured and sent to a concentration camp.

There she meets Karl Marsen, an impudent young man who is nastily beaten by the prison guards for a speech against Nazi brutality. They hang out at the barbed wire line separating the men's and women's section, and a little POW romance starts to bloom. Karl is able to bust them out and get her to England, where she is reunited with papa.

Alas, it has all been a ruse. Karl is secretly an agent of the Gestapo, using Anna to find her father. He snatches them and smuggles them onto a German U-boat.

Paul Henreid plays Karl, and it's a bit disconcerting at first to see him as a Nazi, considering his iconic role is as resistance leader Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca" just three years later. He even sounds different, eschewing Laszlo's deep, sonorous tones for a higher pitch.

Harrison plays Gus Bunnett aka Dickie Randall, the British agent charged with guarding the Bomasches who got one-upped by Karl. He asks to be given a chance to return the favor, as they know the scientist and his daughter will be transported on the titular train.

Dickie is puckish and too clever by half, a confidence man with a charter from the British government. He dresses as a German Corps of Engineer Major, Ulrich Herzog. Using only a forged letter of introduction and his own wits, he bluffs his way past successive layers of the Nazi bureaucracy.

It's funny how, having convinced one German functionary, he actually recruits them to brag on his behalf to the next layer of the hierarchy.

Claiming he had an affair with Anna four years earlier, he worms his way aboard the train with the mission of convincing the scientist to cooperate by the time the arrive. So Herzog/Dickie woos Anna -- partly for show, party for real -- pretends to recruit her father and plays a cat-and-mouse game with Karl, who both harbors suspicions about Herzog and resents him for horning in on Anna.

Despite betraying Anna, Karl still seems to harbor hopes of continuing their prison camp liaison.

Butting into the mix is the curious pair of Charters and Caldicott. This is a comedic relief duo first introduced by Alfred Hitchcock in "The Lady Vanishes." Played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, they're British chaps who travel about the globe on some vague sort of business, talking obsessively about cricket and backing up into various goings-on.

They were such a hit with the crowd that various filmmakers started inserting Charters and Caldicott into their movies. They were a staple for about a decade, did some radio and were eventually reprised as a BBC show.

They're funny for a little while, including their introductory stretch where various German officers order them off the train, out of a waiting room, off of wagon, and so on. At first they express indignation, followed by obstinance, inevitably giving way to compliance when large men with guns are called in.

"Night Train to Munich" was directed by Carol Reed ("The Third Man") from a screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder -- the same scribes behind "A LadyVanishes" -- based on a short story by Gordon Wellesley.

It's obviously a low-budget affair, notable for the persistent use of miniatures for exterior shots. The entirety of Karl and Anna's escape from the POW camp is accomplished by tracking across the prison yard to show a barbed wire fence ripped open. It looks little more than a child's model.

Harrison and Lockwood make for an interesting pair. She's a smart and independent woman (by 1940 standards, anyway), and is continually vexed by Dickie's risk-taking and abundance of self-confidence. While he's passing himself off as Major Herzog -- why just a major? why not a colonel? -- he wears a monocle and an even more inflated sense of superiority than he normally does.

At one point he barges into her bedroom while she's abed in her nightie, explaining that he has told the Germans he will reignite her passions based on their previous affair. He calmly explains the situation and proposes they toss for who gets the couch. Pretty risque stuff for that era.

I don't think "Night Train to Munich" is a particularly great film. The story can't seem to decide who to follow. At first it's Anna, then it's Dickie, and for awhile -- too long, really -- Charters and Caldicott are the main show.

Still, I like the idea of this movie more than the one they made. Producing a flip, insolent send-up of the Nazis at a time they were facing the very real possibility of becoming subjugated by them is an act of enormous cheek. Can you imagine what would've happened to everyone involved in the film if the Axis had won?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Video review: "The Upside"

“The Upside” is a film of modest ambitions but obvious charms. It stars Kevin Hart doing his adorable false bravado thing, though with a role boasting more shadings than he’s been given before. And it shows off the under-utilized comedic skills of Bryan Cranston, best known for his dramatic roles. (This despite first coming to fame as a sitcom dad.)

Cranston plays Phillip Lacasse, a billionaire investor-turned-author whose life has been on a downward spiral the last few years, losing his wife to cancer and his mobility to a leisure sport accident. Worse yet, his will to live is at a low ebb, despite the bucking up of his faithful executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), who runs his enterprise and watches out for him.

So when it’s time to hire a new “life auxiliary” -- aka personal assistant -- Yvonne knows right away that Dell Scott (Hart) is all wrong for the job. An ex-con who’s only halfheartedly looking for a job; he says and does all the wrong thing. But he impresses Phillip with his attitude, and lands the gig.

You can probably guess where things go: initial disaster followed by bare competence, which grows into a budding friendship that’s due for a major fracture right at the end of the second act. Director Neil Burger and screenwriter Jon Hartmere play things strictly by the numbers, with story beats and emotional catharsis timed down to the audience-tested minute.

And yet, it works. The trio of main actors share genuine warmth with each other, playing character who each have trouble connecting with the greater world in some way.

“The Upside” is a prototypical laughter-and-tears dramedy, a remake of a better French film. It won’t surprise you, but it will entertain.

Bonus features are middling-to-good. They include deleted scenes, a gag reel and five documentary shorts: “Onscreen Chemistry: Kevin and Bryan,” “Creating a Story of Possibility,” “Bridging Divisions,” “Embracing Divisions” and :Presenting a Different Side of Kevin Hart.”



Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum"

John Wick runs like an old man with rheumatoid knees.

Hollywood can do amazing things with faces, but the knees always give you away. Star Keanu Reeves staggers and clomps in a herky-jerky cadence that bespeaks of a man in his 50s who’s more worried about preserving his tendons than achieving maximum speed.

Yes, yes, if you’ve followed the legendary assassin’s journey through the first two movies, you know that Wick’s been repeatedly pummeled, stabbed and shot as he’s pursued by a virtual army of other killers, so that certainly factors into how much he’s slowed down. A couple of other assassins even makes jokes about his lurching ways.

He’s still game for a third go-round in "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum,” which is a continuation of the story that plays out over a few days' time, during which Wick has waded through an increasingly deep ocean of blood.

The last portion of the title is Latin for “prepare for war,” so you know things are just getting ratcheted up to another level of ultra-violence.

I liked the raw kinetic energy of the first two movies, which were known for putting veteran stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski in the director’s chair, a then-novel approach that has since been much imitated. (And surpassed, imho, by “Atomic Blonde.”) The fights were in our face, unmasked with no jumpy editing or obvious stunt doubles.

The franchise reaches middle age here, relying more on CGI and other cheats, and with some fights that go on way longer than they should. Same for the movie in general, which feels bloated at 10 minutes past the two-hour mark. These sorts of action-reliant spectacles are best at a tight 101, like the first one.

Still, it’s hard to deny the movie’s still a lot of fun, what with all the Glock blasts to the face, people getting thrown through windows, motorcycle sword fights and chop-socky rope-a-dope. There are just enough talkie scenes to act as a deep breath before we plunge in for more slice-and-dice.

It seems in the last film Wick, who was reluctantly drawn out of retirement after five years, had committed the ultimate transgression against the High Table, the fictional ruling part of a worldwide association of assassins. They have their own little pet rules, with sanctuary hotels in each major city, always called the Continental, where killers can trade in special gold coins for refuge and weapons.

Wick killed a member of the Table on Continental New York grounds, so now he’s hunted -- excommunicado -- with a $14 million price on his head with nowhere to turn for help. A mysterious “adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon) shows up and deems that others are at fault too, including Winston (Ian McShane), the gravely manager of the Big Apple hotel, and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who runs the seedier side of town with an army of winos.

They helped John Wick before, and now must pay their own pound of flesh.

Halle Berry is a new face as Sofia, who manages the Continental in Casablanca and owes him an old favor. Ditto for Anjelica Huston, a Belarus matriarch who runs the ballet school where Wick grew up. That at least explains his grace with guns and knives, twirling in place like Nureyev as he takes one life after another.

Wick even gets his own assassin fanboy (Mark Dacascos), who runs a streetside sushi bar by day and commands a cadre of ninja assassins at night. He keeps telling Wick how honored he is to be fighting him, which is a hint of his long-term prospects.

Bedecked in a sleek black suit, long hair and scraggly beard, Reeves is more a force of vengeance than an actual person. But this is not the sort of movie you go to for dialogue and character development. It’s a gleeful orgy of bullets and bruises, film noir as bloodbath.

Drink deep, because it looks like we’re in for a whole lot more of these.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Video review: "The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part"

It took five years to make a sequel to “The LEGO Movie,” but that apparently wasn’t enough time to come with anything more original. This is basically a rehash of the smash animated flick based on the ubiquitous building toys, which most parents are convinced are secretly designed to cause maximum pain when stepped on.

Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), the everyman hero from the first movie, finds himself shunted aside after his cheery savior shtick has worn thin. The world has become very apocalypse-y in the years since, with daily attacks by brightly-colored aliens.

As you may recall, the toys are living out their lives at the direction of real-world human kids, in this case a brother and sister whose animosity gets played out in the toy realm.

Transported to the aliens’ world, Pratt and his crew --Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Unikitty (Alison Brie), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman) and Benny (Charlie Day) -- find themselves faced with a proposed alliance. Specifically, their leader, Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) wants to put a ring on it with the earthlings’ brooding Batman (Will Arnett).

Face-paced to the point of incoherence, “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is made strictly for the kids.

Bonus features are quite good. They include a commentary track by the filmmakers, a sing-along version that includes trivia and games, a music video for the song “Super Cool,” deleted scenes and outtakes, plus several making-of documentary shorts.



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review: "Red Joan"

"Who was using who? I was a shadow in a man's world. Invisible... but in the end, powerful." 
                                         --Joan Stanley

The "old" Joan in "Red Joan" is played by the incomparable Judi Dench, while the younger version -- who actually has the majority of the screen time -- is portrayed by Sophie Cookson, who reminded me a lot of Midge Wood, the bookworm girl played by Barbara Bel Geddes in "Vertigo."

They're clever, perpetually unappreciated women with obstinate chins who eventually undertake to assert themselves for what they want and the things they believe in. In Joan's case, this means spiriting atomic bomb secrets to the Russians during and after World War II.

"Red Joan" toys around with this fact for its first half, in a somewhat lackluster did-she-or-didn't-she game of storytelling cat-and-mouse. Of course, we know she'll be revealed as a spy in the end, as if common sense and the title of the movie didn't instruct us so.

What I found more interesting was how the Joan of the year 2000 has resolved the inner struggles of her self from 1938 and the years immediately thereafter. The film, written by Lindsay Shapero and directed by Trevor Nunn, depicts young Joan as struggling with the morality of her spying, manipulated by a pair of Russian émigré siblings who pick at her vulnerabilities.

By her 80s, though, Joan has mostly put away this part of her life. When her activities are discovered and investigated, she feigns ignorance before eventually embracing her role in a matter-of-fact way. She reminds her interlocutors that the Allies had promised to share their nuclear research with each other, but the Americans got to the atomic bomb first and quickly shut out the British-Canadian research team and the Russians.

I felt if everyone had the bomb, it was less likely they would use it on each other, she patiently explains to her shocked son (Ben Miles) -- essentially crediting herself as author of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Even though we know where the movie is going to go, I was intrigued and entertained by the journey getting there. The story is loosely based on that of Melita Norwood, who passed on secrets to the Russians while employed as a secretary.

The Brits' counterpart to the Manhattan Project was codenamed Tube Alloys, which is a very British codename. Stephen Campbell More plays Max, the head of the research team who eventually falls for the much younger Joan.

Her heart, and also much of her head, still resides with Leo (Tom Hughes), the dreamy young Communist firebrand she met during her student days at Cambridge. He has a sort of slouchy charm, doing a lot of side-eye ogling at her through one of those floppy haircuts that falls into his eyes.

His sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), is the more subtle of the two, befriending Joan and encouraging her romance with Leo.

There's a lot of subtext about how Joan is denigrated for her gender, constantly being asked to fetch the coffee or run the fancy new clothes dryer when she actually has a degree in physics and is one of the sharpest tacks in the department. She's the first one to suggest a centrifuge to separate the radioactive material isotope thingee.

(OK, I'm not a science guy.)

It's a great-looking film, filled with vintage cars and clothes and street scenes. I also liked Freddie Gaminara as a socialist sympathizer who coasts on his title and privilege.

Dench is terrific as always, though Cookson makes the strongest impression. It's enervating to see a timid young thing blossom and grow in confidence, overcoming adversity even as others vie to bend her to their will. Joan does indeed bend, though more as a result of internal resolve than external pressure.

It's not every spy drama that depicts the traitor as the heroine. But "Red Joan" operates in the shadows of ambiguity and compromises.

Review: "Tolkien"

I’m not sure what the recent fascination is for biopics of British authors of fantasy/children’s books. We’ve had not one but two of the “Winnie the Pooh” creator, and now here is “Tolkien,” based on the young life of “The Lord of the Rings” writer J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s a stately and respectful film that doesn’t reveal any huge insights on John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, played empathetically by Nicholas Hoult -- especially if you already knew how his gruesome experiences in the trenches of World War I shaped his views and writing.

This is one of those rare movies that could’ve stood to be either much longer or much shorter.

There is imagery from the “Rings” saga interspersed throughout the film, flashes of imagination or dream fever where Tolkien sees a fiery Balrog rise from the furnace of the battlefield, or a towering crowned Sauron figure outlined over the twisted bodies of the fallen. The dragon Smaug and even the snowy steed Shadowfax make appearances.

It’s clear this movie would not exist without the success of the “Rings” trilogy and the subsequent (overly sprawling) film adaptation of his earlier novel, “The Hobbit.”

My guess is this movie will appeal more to hardcore fantasy fans who want to see the inspiration behind their beloved stories than a more general audience.

The Tolkien family has apparently objected to the film, no doubt because they were not consulted on its production (and presumably received no remuneration). But it’s a fairly standard  biopic that certainly does not seek to uncover character flaws or hidden secrets.

The film largely focuses on two sets of relationships that defined Tolkien. Orphaned at a young age and awarded a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, Roland (as he was known) at first clashes with and then befriends a trio of upper-crust boys. (They are played by Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney in their adult years.)

All are artistically inclined but afraid to reveal their passions to their stodgy parents. In Roland’s case, this means the caring but strict priest (Colm Meany) who acts as his legal guardian.

Dubbing themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS, they spend their years at the Barrons shop exchanging poetry and musical inspiration. When all four enlist in the military upon the advent of war, it sets up a series of expected, but still devastating tragedies.

The other significant piece of the tale is his romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who came to live at the same boarding house where Roland and his younger brother (who’s not given much of a presence) were assigned. She is a piano prodigy who feels hampered by her lack of opportunities, and the pair soon begin a furtive courtship.

The main story is framed by a war sequence in which Roland sets out on a quest to find one of his school days chums, fearing for his safety. Wracked with fever, he is accompanied by a diminutive but stout junior officer named Sam (Craig Roberts), and it’s hard to miss the reference to Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom with a loyal lackey in tow.

It’s also interesting to see how Tolkien was building the little pieces that would become Middle Earth going back to his childhood, with drawings and snippets of stories festooning his walls and cramming his desk. This is a man who created his own languages, and then used them to weave a mythology as vast and intricate as anything by the Greek or Chinese.

I’m not sure if “Tolkien” unearths any tremendous understanding of the author’s life, other than he was a diligent, talented loner who was shaped equally by tragedy and fellowship.

I’m personally skeptical of the idiom that you have to suffer in order to be a great artist, but here is a man who would not have sprung forth an entire world without experiencing the darkest hells of this one.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Reeling Backward: "A Man for Hanging" (1972)

Made-for-television movies, particularly before the modern era, usually had low production values and even lower ambitions. "A Man for Hanging" is certainly guilty of the former but not the latter. It's a surprisingly effective -- and risk-taking -- Western that in a lot of ways plays more like a horror flick.

The main character, eventually named as Avery Porter, is a masked madman who roams the prairies indiscriminately raping and killing for seemingly no purpose other than his own appetites. He wears a black hat and vest, dandyish yellow shirt and bright blue bandana, and a curious custom mask that's like an oversized eye patch, covering the entire left side of his face.

Played by Peter Breck with a signature jackal-like cackle, Porter is essentially a nightmare creature from sprung from the gates of hell. From whence he came, and soon shall he go.

He genuinely hates his prey, and especially women, teasing and taunting them before victimizing them. It seems that a woman once got the drop on him, resulting in his hideously scarred features, as well as his antagonism to everyone of the feminine gender.

Curiously, when Porter's mask is ripped away in the early going, it's revealed that while most of his cheek is mangled -- seemingly more by acid than fire or physical trauma -- his left eye is entirely intact.

It's strange that he would cover it along with his poor flesh, robbing him of three-dimensional vision. (Which is sorta useful in the Old West, what with all the ridin', ropin' and shootin'.) Apparently his appearance is more important to him than having the full measure of his senses.

Directed by Joseph Mazzuca from a script by Joan Gardner, both television veterans, "Hanging" is quite overt in its depiction of violence for its time and venue. I was surprised to actually hear the word "rape" used in reference to his attacks. Theatrical films had even shied away from that term until very, very recently.

The story starts with Porter gleefully shooting his own horse while laughing. He later says it went lame, but we get the sense he purposefully rode it until the poor animal gave out. We later learn he and some fellow bandits have robbed a bank, leaving a wake of bodies behind, and Porter is set to meet up with them to split the loot.

In most Westerns, the money would be the MacGuffin that everyone is chasing after. But here it's barely mentioned. We never even see the cash. It's only brought up when it proves a source of conflict between Porter and his chief henchman near the end.

The tale is set in motion when Porter stumbles upon the Barrenger family farm looking for a new horse. After watching the menfolk depart on a wagon for town, he saunters into the barn and terrorizes Sally (Victoria Thompson), the wife of one of the brothers. She manages to escape when the tussle is interrupted by Ma Barrenger (Lesley Woods), who gets speared on her own pitchfork for her trouble.

Porter makes a beeline for the border, while brothers Shep (Paul Carr) and Tom (David Macklin) form the core of a posse led by Deputy Willie (Steve Raines). Tom is the young hothead who always wants to wade in guns blazing, while Tom is the older and wiser of the two. Both are complete pinheads compared to Willie, who keeps counseling them to caution they never observe.

In one clever bit, they manage to pin Avery down on a rocky outcropping. While the Barrengers argue and tussle about making their move, the masked killer sneaks down the side of the little mountain, steals a horse and all their canteens.

The rest of the story is a slow, dry chase as they stagger across the desert and the posse seems hopelessly outmatched by the wily Porter. A late addition to the proceedings is Liz (Brooke Bundy), a rootin'-tootin' cowgirl wannabe who comes closest to outgunning Porter on his own  terms.

Her sister, blonde bombshell Ellen (Virginia Wood), gets an especially vicious beating from Porter when he visits their homestead/stagecoach landing, and her husband, Fred (Michael Pataki), receives a six-gun to the face for his trouble.

What's interesting about Porter is his total lack of hesitation in killing. At least Han Solo talks before he shoots. Porter will interact with somebody only as long as it takes to get what he needs out of them -- information, in the case of Fred, or forcible sex from Ellen -- and then his guns or fists come out.

He shoots Fred nonchalantly as he's working the telegraph machine. The film even shows a fair amount of blood and bullet holes. Compared to a theatrical Western from just eight or 10 years earlier, it's a virtual gore-fest.

As the title foreshadows, there's a hanging in this film after the intrepid posse finally catches up with Porter. It doesn't go down like anyone thinks. The brothers argue about whether it's right to hang Porter without a trial, and as they're bickering he takes off on the horse they thought to use for his execution, the untied noose around his neck flapping behind. But then it gets caught in a tree root and his head is snapped backward, essentially hanging himself.

If there's a theme to be had, it's that evil will not dally while the forces of good vie for what justice is best.

I don't mean to pretend that "A Man for Hanging" is any kind of great cinema. It's a cheap, hastily-shot bit of claptrap made for the TV, almost entirely forgotten today. Yet I think it's worth recognizing for being edgier than similar fare you'd see that of that day.

Any TV movie that can get mothers to clap their hands over the eyes of their wee ones and exclaim, "I can't believe this is on television!" can't be all bad.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review: "UglyDolls"

There's some A-list singing talent behind this C-list animated musical, which "borrows" heavily from the Toy Story franchise. This includes Kelly Clarkson, Pitbull, Blake Shelton, Janelle Monae and Nick Jonas.

Alas, this based-on-a-toy-line tale doesn't have the verve of the first "The LEGO Movie" or the emotional heart of those Disney toy flicks. It's a pretty standard "finding your own voice" story, directed by Kelly Asbury from a screenplay by Alison Peck, with co-producer Robert Rodriguez contributing the story.

The songs aren't as good as "Sing," standard floaty pop ballads and forgettable upbeat ditties. Clarkson and Monae, who handle the bulk of the singing duty, are wonderful singers but are constrained by the fact their voices and styles are astonishingly alike.

Clarkson is Moxy, a bright pink "ugly" doll with a gappy grin and unidentifiable appendage atop her head. The setup for this world is that every doll is created for a particularly child to love, but some of them get screwed up in the factory and are rerouted to the Uglyville cove, where monster-like creatures with extra (or missing) limbs, eyes, etc. comprising all sorts of shapes get along fabulously.

Moxy is the lone resident who pines to still make it into the "Big World" and receive her assigned child, but this involves going through the training program where the perfect dolls compete and snipe with each other to conform.

Jonas provides the voice of "Lou," the seemingly benevolent leader of the perfect dolls, who has a bright blond pompadour comprised of yellow yarn and a dazzling smile. It's all a front for a very nasty "mean boy" mentality, in which he constantly nitpicks and belittles the other dolls for not shaping up to his standard.

You can take a wild guess where this all ends, with the perfect dolls turning out to be not so perfect and the ugly ones displaying beautiful insides. By that I mean their hearts and souls, not their stuffing. No dolls are in serious danger of being hurt, though there is one scene toward the end that's pretty much lifted straight out of the last Toy Story movie.

Monae is Mandy, one of Lou's henchchicks who has more sympathy for Moxy and her crew, and for good reasons we'll find out later. Blake Shelton plays Ox, the one-eyed bunny mayor of Uglyville. Pitbull does Ugly Dog, Moxy's main wingman, and Wang Leehom is Lucky Bat, the town's resident sage critter.

Other non-singing voice cast members include Wanda Sykes, Jane Lynch, Emma Roberts and Gabriel Iglesias.

I found my mind wandering a lot during "UglyDolls," though my 8-year-old was pretty tuned in and entertained. There's no mistaking the downmarket level of creativity in this movie, which feels like the sort of thing you'd get as an original on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix. It'll be there soon enough.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review: "Long Shot"

I’m not quite sure if the title of “Long Shot” refers to the woman running for president of the United States or the dweeby guy who becomes her speechwriter and falls for her. Given they are played by world-class beauty Charlize Theron and frumpy beta male extraordinaire Seth Rogen, respectively, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

Hollywood: the only place where guys who look like they were plucked straight out of a video game tournament get supermodels to fall for them.

Once, just once, I’d like to see a mainstream movie where a regular-looking guy is ensorcelled by a regular-looking woman, or vice-versa. But this is showbiz, and we like to look at pretty people.

There are a lot of things that don’t work in this movie, but surprisingly the Theron-Rogen pairing is not one of them. It’s a sweet and awkward dance, about two very busy but lonely people, and in the end we believe she really could fall in love with him.

(The other way is a given.)

Mostly this is due to a very strong and subtle performance by Theron, who shows us layers of emotion, ambivalence and calculation we don’t usually see in the romantic comedy game.

Also, he is hitting at only about 60% of Full Rogenness, which turns out to be the perfect dose of his neurotic/obnoxious shtick.

He plays Fred Flarsky, a crusading journalist at the Brooklyn Advocate who has built a reputation for spit-flecked invectives against those he sees as evildoers. As the story opens he is infiltrating a Nazi sect (Brooklyn Nazis?) and goes so far as to agree to a swastika tattoo to prove his bona fides.

Theron plays Charlotte Field, Secretary of State serving under an idiot president (Bob Odenkirk) whose only preparation for the role of POTUS was playing one on TV. But now he’s decided not to run for reelection in favor of something “more prestigious” – feature films – and offers to endorse Charlotte for her own run.

She and Fred run into each other at a posh party Fred’s best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) invites him to as a cheer-up after losing his job. Turns out Charlotte babysat for Fred when they were teens, and there was an early and embarrassing, uh, indication of his desire for her -- the pudgy D&D bookworm pining after the student council president wannabe.

The political flacks tell Charlotte she isn’t funny enough, so she brings Fred on as a punch-up writer who travels with her around the club promoting a major environmental initiative she wants to use as a springboard for her presidential announcement.

Bearded, wearing the same type of rainbow-hued tracksuit he did as a kid, carrying a copious amount of drugs at all times, Fred stands out like a sore thumb on the international stage. But as they spend time together, they find the old attraction still burns.

Soon she’s teaching how to be a real grownup, and he’s helping her find her inner kid. One sequence, where they drop drugs and dance till dawn, ineptly plays national security issues for a goof.

In the black column is the film’s ability to hold up a funhouse mirror to our current political environment. Like any good satirist knows, it’s better to wield a scalpel than an ax.

Rather than being a blowhard Trump clone, Odenkirk’s prez is a self-deluded hack. Similarly, Andy Serkis (barely recognizable behind a Steve Bannon-esque wig and facial prosthesis) is a stand-in for a Roger Ailes type as the conniving head of the Wembley global media conglomerate.

Several cutaways of a Fox News-like morning talk show, replete with sniggering goombahs tossing around sexist jokes, are just devastating.

But the movie also has a surprising moment I didn’t expect where Fred gets an eye-opening reveal about his own biases and intolerance.

Director Jonathan Levine and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling wisely stay away from getting too deep into the political weeds. This is reflected by one of Charlotte’s political image consultants on their strategy to stress her glamour rather than her plans: “We don’t drill down too deep on policy, and that’s because our research finds people don’t care.”

Witty, funny, occasionally gross, “Long Shot” is that rarest of cinematic animals: a political romantic comedy with a fuzzy, warm center.