Film Review “Tolkien”

 
TOLKIEN
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins
Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
He was arguably the greatest fantasy writer of all time and certainly the godfather of modern fantasy literature. British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (1954-55) have endured the test of time while inspiring countless other works of the same genre, not to mention a modern-day film franchise that grossed nearly two billion dollars domestically. What many may not know is who Tolkien was during his formative years and what inspired him to create such a diverse world. Finnish director Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”) helms a modestly successful attempt to shed light on the complicated young life of the writer, poet, philologist, academic and World War I veteran.
 
When we first meet John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), he is being forced, along with his younger brother, to move from their family cottage in the English countryside, which is painted as grossly idyllic, to the overly dark and sinister heart of an industrial city by his widowed mother. (The family patriarch died in South Africa when Ronald was three years old.) Thanks to the efforts of the stern, yet caring Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney, “Layer Cake”), the Tolkiens avoid complete destitution, but things go from bad to worse in 1904 when Ronald’s mother suddenly dies. Father Francis does not abandon them, though, and helps the lads find a home at a boarding house, and ensures their continued education based upon the family’s reputation.
 
Although brilliant and already well-educated, Ronald initially does not fit in well with his fellow classmates, preferring the company of books over people. However, thanks to a scuffle on the rugby field, Ronald develops a close fellowship with three other lads as they form their own, semi-secret society. Even into their teens, Ronald (Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle, “The Lost City of Z”), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, “Dunkirk”) and Robert Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson, “The OA” tv series) continue their pledge to change the world through artistic endeavors. Their most difficult challenge, though, arrives when they all volunteer to serve in the war to end all wars.
 
The hallmark of a good movie is how long does it stay in your train of thought. Some are gone so fast that you might as well file an insurance claim for amnesia. A few manage to linger on forever like the taste of apple pie that grandma made for you twenty years ago. While “Tolkien’s” romantic elements are full of innocent sweetness and the four lads’ friendship is nice, none of it is all that remarkable. The only exception might be how Ronald’s imagination, even at a young age, began to create the fundamental building blocks that would become Middle Earth. What does stay with you are the horrific battle sequences. War is hell, as Sherman once said, and it’s depicted as such in “Tolkien.” Karukoski doesn’t shy away from also delving into what’s nothing less than PTSD for the survivors of the Great War. Hoult is at his best when he portrays the evolution of the author from naïve linguist to a leader of men suffering from trench fever to a grown man struggling with his inner demons. Karukoski does a marvelous job throughout with the use of symbolic imagery to put us into the head of Ronald as he continues to put together Middle Earth. It greatly helps to overcome some of the sluggishness that exists during the more mundane aspects of Ronald’s life, which is left a little vague in a spiritual sense as Tolkien was a devout Catholic, something that’s barely alluded to in the story.

Overall, “Tolkien” should satisfy all but probably the most die-hard Middle Earth enthusiasts who may strive to pick apart every, last embellishment. It’s a fairly satisfying film that should wet your appetite for a “Hobbit”/”Lord of the Rings” movie marathon.
 

Kansas City Concert Review: Little River Band

 
LITTLE RIVER BAND
Ameristar Casino - Kansas City, MO
May 3, 2019

Maybe it’s my age but to me the best music ever created was done so in the 20th Century.  Great music.  Great lyrics.  Amazing voices.  Today the majority of what I hear I can’t understand, even when it’s Autotuned!  Which made my first time listening to the Little River Band live so amazing.

If you grew up in the 1970s/80s (I graduated high school in 1978), then LRB was surely part of the soundtrack of your life.  Their musical gifts, and incredible harmonies, made songs like “Reminiscing,” “Lonesome Loser,” “Cool Change” and “The Night Owl” so memorable.

Now led by bassist/singer (and Kansas City native) Wayne Nelson, who joined the Australian band in 1979, the show was an amazing retrospective of both their greatest hits and some newer material.  Their song “The Lost and the Lonely,” from the band’s 2014 album “Cuts Like a Diamond,” a tribute to the troops, was well received, as was an extensive piano intro by keyboard maestro Chris Marion before the band played “Cool Change.”

An enjoyable evening was capped off by the band coming out front and greeting the fans, which I found to be a pretty incredible thing, especially after playing a 90 minute gig!  If you’re a fan of “classic” rock and pop, then LRB is a band you’ll want to catch.

For more information on their current tour, click HERE.

Film Review: “The Chaperone”

THE CHAPERONE

Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by: Michael Engler

Rated: Not Rated

Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

PBS Distribution 

Period drama “The Chaperone” is a delightful little film that’s as much about a married woman seeking out who she is as it is a study about the early life of iconic dancer/actress/writer Louise Brooks (1906-85). A native of Cherryvale, Kansas, Brooks moved to Wichita in 1919 where she began a dance career that would lead her to the legendary Denishawn School in New York City. It’s during that transitionary period that we meet her as well as the older woman who chaperones the then 16-year-old on her journey.

Based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by American author Laura Moriarty, “The Chaperone” takes us back to a time when modern dance was still establishing itself. This newfangled artform is alien to the folks of Wichita who have difficulty appreciating its artistry. That is except for Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), the clearly unhappy wife of prominent lawyer Alan Carlisle (Campbell Scott) and the adopted daughter of a Kansas farm family who claimed her when she arrived aboard an orphan train from New York City.

Norma may be straight-laced, but she is more cosmopolitan in 1922 than her neighbors, some of whom casually talk about joining the KKK at dance recital to maintain purity. Revolted by such sentiment and looking for an adventure, Norma jumps at the chance to chaperone Louise (Haley Lu Richardson, “Five Feet Apart,” “Split”) to New York City, where Norma hopes to learn who her birth mother was. Her traditional values and quiet nature are a stark contrast to Louise who struts around like she is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Louise becomes a fast-rising star at Denishawn, which only feeds her free-spirited, sometimes petulant attitude, played with unmistakable charm by Richardson. Director Michael Engler, who has helmed episodes of “Empire” and “Downton Abbey,” insures Louise doesn’t become too unlikable by harnessing the tangible chemistry between McGovern and Richardson to reveal to us just how damaged the young dancer was. McGovern’s infuses her character with subtle bravery and humility, making Norma that much more admirable as she becomes a source of encouragement for Louise, not to mention an inspiration as she tracks down her past and finds new love. Famous for her bob haircut, Brooks, whose actual first name was Mary, is resurrected on the silver screen with wonderful flair as Richardson not only captures the look of the famous Kansan, but also her sexual complexities even at such an early age.

Although filled with marvelous period costumes, “The Chaperone” does fail to go into real depth about the social conditions and inequalities of the era, and is therefore a missed opportunity by the filmmaker. Still, “The Chaperone” provides a nice change of pace from commercial epics involving caped heroes and purple-skinned villains.

Kansas City Theater Review: “RENT”

RENT

Music Hall – Kansas City, Missouri

April 29, 2019

The Broadway (and off-Broadway) stage has often been the place where a generation can speak without rebuke.  The 1990’s saw the production of two very important shows that shed light on the, at the time, the little discussed subject of AIDS.  The first show was Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America.”  The other?  Jonathan Larson’s “RENT.” 

Opening off-Broadway on January 25, 1996, “RENT” tells the story of a group of struggling artists (filmmaker, musician, performance art) living in the SoHo area of New York City.  Their goal is to present their art to the world without compromising – to not “give into” the man.  This week, the 20th Anniversary Tour is in Kansas City, with moderate success.

To me, the evening, like the show, was in two acts.  The first act, in this writer’s opinion, was slow, which is a word I normally would not apply to a musical where the cast moves non-stop while performing dozens of songs.  I’m not sure if it was opening night jitters, or bus-lag, but several of the characters just didn’t seem to be “into it” during the first act.  The performances were fine…it’s just that many seemed to be a beat behind.

Musically, the show is magnificent.  I’m sure everyone has heard “Seasons of Love” at least once in their life, and this song, which opens Act II, is performed with heart to spare.  Other favorites were “Santa Fe,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” and “La Vie Boheme.”  Highlights in the cast were Lyndie Moe as Maureen and Devinre Adams as Collins, who is my favorite character in the show. 

 Sadly, Jonathan Larson never saw “RENT” performed before a live audience.  On the morning of January 25, 1996, Larson died after two different hospitals mis-diagnosed a heart condition.  With his parent’s consent, the show went on that night.  For his work, Larson posthumously won 3 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. 

“RENT’ continues it’s run in Kansas City through Sunday, May 5th

Film Review: “Avengers: Endgame”

AVENGERS: END GAME
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 3 hrs 1 min

I think it’s ironic that the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is opening the same week that the 25th James Bond film is announced.  James Bond first hit the screen in 1962 with “Dr, No.”  The MCU began in 2008 with “Iron Man,”  And while some of the Bond films have been hit or miss (I’m looking at YOU, “A View to a Kill”), I don’t think I’ve ever given an MCU movie a rating less than four stars.  Sadly, our rating system only goes up to five, because otherwise I’d give “Avengers: Endgame” six!

NOTE:  THIS WILL BE A SPOILER FREE REVIEW

“Endgame” picks up where “Avengers: Infinity War” ended…with half of the world’s population vanishing in a literal puff of smoke after the evil Thanos (a superb James Brolin) has donned his gauntlet, studded with the Infinity Stones, and snapped his fingers.  Unfortunately half of the people eliminated included some popular figures from the MCU, including Black Panther and Spider-man.  Those that have survived mourn their lost colleagues, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr, the backbone of this franchise) taking the loss of Peter Parker badly (I will say that, of all the characters that were lost in “Infinity War,” the loss of Parker hit me he hardest – Tom Holland has really inhabited the character).  The remaining Avengers gather and try to figure out how to return their world to the way they knew it.

I really can’t share any of my favorite moments for fear of giving away a plot point.  I will say this; you will laugh.  And you will cry.  And you will go through every emotion in the middle.  For the last eleven years we have met, and grown with, these characters.  We are as protective of them as we know they would be of us.  And the final chapter of this saga is one for the ages!

Book Review: “For The Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records”

“For The Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records”
Author: Brian Slagel/Mark Eglinton
BMG Books
Trade paperback: 192 pages

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

The story of Metal Blade Records is the story of Brian Slagel-a metal-obsessed Southern California kid who launched a fanzine and landed a record store job before cobbling together what he assumed would be a one-off compilation of fledgling bands from the L.A. scene. “For The Sake Of Heaviness” pulls back the curtain to reveal the definitive look at how Metal Blade began, what they’ve accomplished, and where they’re going. With the help of co-writer Mark Eglinton, Brian Slagel invites the reader into a personal conversation about his life’s passion, and the passion that drives Metal Blade-finding, exposing, and promoting the best heavy music on the planet.

We have all probably heard in one form or another the story of how Metallica got their first big break via a compilation put together by a friend of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.  What we haven’t heard until now is the detailed story of the man who made it all happen. Within the pages of “For The Sake of Heaviness” we get an in-depth look at Brian Slagel the fan turned found/owner of one of the premier heavy metal record labels in the world. Over the course of the books 192 pages readers learn about Slagel’s first exposure to music and how a love for all things heavy would land him smack dab in the middle of the early eighties tape trading scene where he would meet a fellow  Danish collector recently transplanted to the Los Angeles area.
Brian and co-author Mark Eglinton do a great job telling the story of Metal Blade providing readers with plenty of detail and lots of stories from the early days of sweating it out in his mothers garage to working with artists like As I Lay Dying, Behemoth and Gwar to name just a few.

“For The Sake of Heaviness” is more than just the story of a guy who started his own record label. Going deeper you see the passion and love Slagel emits and how he took that passion and turned it into the business it is today. As a fan of a lot of the bands who either are currently on the label or have been associated with it in the past hearing stories of how they got to Metal Blade was really enjoyable but where the book really shines is the underlying message of just how far passion, dedication and hard work can get you in life.

CD Review: Dead Kennedys “DK 40”

“DK 40”

Dead Kennedys

Manifesto Records

3 Discs

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

Out of the hundreds of punk bands that emerged from the late ’70s punk scene, only about a dozen or so have achieved iconic status four decades later. One of those was the Dead Kennedys. The DKs embodied the spirit of punk from the get-go. Their very name was a shocking reminder of the collapse of the American Dream. Then again, the name would be nothing if the Dead Kennedys didn’t have the goods to back it up. The band’s latest offering titled “DK 40” is a three-CD live collection featuring three different performances from the early 1980’s. The collection is being released via Manifesto Records and offers the aural evidence that the Dead Kennedys were one of the most potent punk bands — period.  It features the band serving up amped-up live versions of all their classic tracks, free from the constraints of the recording studio.

If you never had the chance to catch Dead Kennedy’s with the classic lineup of Klaus Flouride, East Bay Ray, D.H. Peligro and Jello Biafra then now is your chance. The newly released “DK 40” provides listeners with three different live performances from 1982 and 1985. All the bands staple songs are here including “Kill The Poor”, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, “Chemical Warfare” and of course “Holiday in Cambodia”. Disc 1 and 2 include performances from the bands 1982 European tour and feature similar track listings however Disc 3 showcases the band in their home city of San Francisco in mid 1985. This disc was probably my favorite of the three as it featured a wider variety of material than the previous two discs including songs like “Hellnation”, “Jock O Rama” and “MTV Get off The Air”.

 If you are looking to add to your DK collection or start one then “DK 40” is a solid starting point/addition. You get all the well known material along with a spattering of lesser known tracks giving the 3 disc set a nice balance for all level of fans. Where I found the package to be a little lacking was that it featured two nights from the same tour making for some redundancies. The band did tour in 1983 and 84 so I am not sure why they chose to include two shows from 1982. On the plus side the three discs come packaged in a sleek tri-fold package with interior and disc artwork by Eric S. Goodfield and also includes a brief description of each show giving listeners just a little something extra to help celebrate the bands 40th anniversary.

Disc 1: Paradiso (December 5, 1982):

1. Moral Majority
2. Am the Owl
3. Life Sentence
4. Police Truck
5, Riot
6. Bleed For Me
7. Holiday in Cambodia
8. Let’s Lynch the Landlord
9. Chemical Warfare
10. Nazi Punks Fuck Off
11. Kill The Poor
12. We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now
13. Too Drunk To Fuck

Disc 2: Alabama Halle (December 13, 1982):

1. Skateboard Talk+Intro Noise
2. Man With The Dogs
3. Forward to Death
4. Kepone Factory
5. Life Sentence
6. Trust Your Mechanic
7, Moral Majority
8. Forest Fire
9. Winnebago Warrior
10. Police Truck
11. Bleed For Me
12. Holiday In Cambodia
13. Let’s Lynch the Landord
14. Chemical Warfare
15. Nazi Punks
16. We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now
17. Too Drunk to Fuck
18. Kill the Poor

Disc 3: The Farm (May 25, 1985):

1. Darren’s Mom
2. Goons of Hazard
3. Hellnation
4. This Could Be Anywhere
5. Soup Is Good Food
6. Chemical Warfare
7. Macho Insecurity
8. A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch
9. Forest Fire
10. Moon Over Marin
11. Jack-O-Rama

12. Encore
13. Stars and Stripes of Corruption
14. Second Encore
15. MTV Get Off the Air
16. Holiday In Cambodia

Film Review “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”

Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro
Release date: 10 April 2019 (US)
Running time: 132 minutes

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I had no idea that back in May of 1998, when I first snuck in to see a film in theaters called “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, that he would end up becoming one of my favorite directors and influencing my interest in film so much. Terry Gilliam has always had a lot of luck with getting his film well receptive. They are always unique and never follow the Hollywood typical bubble that every other film does. Well “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is no different for Gilliam. This was a film that he was trying to get made for nearly three decades. If that shows nothing else it is that the guy was determined to bring this project to life no matter what. Well after it’s long journey to the world, it is definitely worth the wait.

Back in 2000, Jean Rochefort was originally cast to play Don Quixote and Toby was to be played by Johnny Depp (imagine that?!). They even made a documentary about this failed attempt called “Lost in La Mancha”, worth checking out. I have to admit thought, I am HUGE fan of Jonathan Pryce, who also collaborated with Gilliam in his film “Brazil”, another one of my favorites). Pryce nails it for me as Don Quixote. Other than Depp, the role of Sancho Panza has previously had even Robin Williams and Ewan McGregor attached before Adam Driver aka Kylo Ren in the “Star Wars” Universe. I have to admit, if I had a dream cast and out of all the people that could have played Panza Driver probably wouldn’t have been my first choice. Don’t get me wrong, he was good in the film and did the role justice but I wanted a little more from him here.

Here is the film’s official Premise: “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is the story of Toby (Driver), a cynical advertising director, who finds himself trapped in the outrageous delusions of an old Spanish shoe-maker (Pryce) who believes himself to be Don Quixote.  In the course of their comic and increasingly surreal adventures, Toby is forced to confront the tragic repercussions of a film he made in his idealistic youth – a film that changed the hopes and dreams of a small Spanish village forever. Can Toby make amends and regain his humanity? Can Don Quixote survive his madness and imminent death? Or will love conquer all?

When I watch a Terry Gilliam directed film, you know you are going to get amazing locations, really unique set designs, wonderful costumes and simply the best cinematography. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” delivers in all of these departments, no question. The film runs a little long for me personally and when watching it with my wife, I noticed she checked out not shortly after it started. I think I appreciated it cause you can see where all the blood, sweat and tears went into this film. You can tell that this was the hail Mary pass at the end of the quarter for Gilliam and I definitely think it was a score!

Speaking earlier of “Lost in La Mancha”, the writers and directors of the film are currently working on a follow-up film, titled “He Dreamed of Giants”, which dives into the history of the film’s making this time around and what has happened since the events documented in “Lost in La Mancha”. Count me in!

Sponsored content: If you go searching for this film you might have to do a bit of digging since it can be a little hard to find a stream. Be sure to browse safely and enjoy this less than typical film.

Film Review: “The Aftermath”

THE AFTERMATH
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke
Directed by: James Kent
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I can still vividly recall the first art-house film I reviewed professionally – the 2000 British drama/comedy “Topsy-Turvy” at the Tivoli Cinemas in the Westport area of Kansas City, MO. Sadly, the Tivoli, an arthouse institution in our fair city for nearly 40 years, has permanently closed its doors. So, it was poetic that the last film I reviewed there would be another period British drama, “The Aftermath.” While it has its share of flaws, “The Aftermath” proved to be a decent swan song before the proverbial final curtain came down at the Tivoli.

Directed by James Kent (“Testament of Youth”) and based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Welsh author Rhidian Brook, “The Aftermath” is set in Germany just months after the end of World War II. With the ruins of Hamburg as a backdrop, where an estimated 40,000 civilians died in a firestorm created by ten days of heavy Allied bombardment, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives at a train station to meet her husband, British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). It’s a subdued meeting at best and we can instantly tell that something is amiss between the two.

Colonel Morgan has been assigned to command British forces in Hamburg who are tasked with keeping the peace and helping to rebuild the city. Similar to how the British Empire forced American colonists to house their soldiers, Colonel Morgan and Rachael commandeer the home of widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgrd), a former German architect with no love lost for the defeated Nazis. However, the British see all Germans as the enemy just as much as Stephen’s teenage daughter sees all Brits as villains. Colonel Morgan, much to the dismay of Rachael, invites the Luberts to remain in the upper story of their home to avoid sending them to a tent camp in the middle of winter.

Rachael is desperate to have her husband again, but he remains mostly stoic despite the pain he carries with him. In addition to his emotional distance, Colonel Morgan is often called away to deal with Germans protesting over how little there is to eat and increasing guerrilla warfare violence carried by the SS’s, young Germans still devoted to Hitler’s cause. Increasingly starved for affection, the two wounded souls belonging to Rachael and Stephen become drawn to one another despite their differences. The question then becomes can Colonel Morgan save his marriage before Rachael runs away with Stephen.

In a partially successful effort to create suspense, and to give Colonel Morgan something to do besides having awkward conversations with Rachael, the script presents the aforementioned side story of young German men, presumably former members of the Hitler Youth, brandishing the number 88 burned into their arms. “The Aftermath” never goes too in-depth about it, but these 88s are an allusion to a real-life military organization the Nazi hierarchy tried to create towards the end of World War II with a program called “Werewolf.” While the goal was for trained soldiers to commit acts of sabotage behind Allied lines during the war, and to keep up the fight even after it was over, the Werewolf never amounted to anything more than just a lot of propaganda. The members of Werewolf were improperly supplied and more importantly, had little stomach to continue fighting once Nazi Germany had officially surrendered.

The dramatic presentation of the SS in “The Aftermath” murdering British soldiers in a last-ditch effort of defiance is a fallacy. While films do sometimes have to take dramatic license to make a story more entertaining for the masses, the mis-telling of history often leads to misperceptions of actual events and therefore can cause ignorance on a broad scale. I would make the argument that filmmakers who choose to play fast and loose with historical facts in order to liven up a story should state at the end of their creation that what the audience has seen is historical fiction. At least it would be more honest than giving lip service that it has been “inspired by/based upon true events.”

The overall performances are entertaining and there is solid chemistry between Knightley and Clarke. The latter delivers the most powerful scenes of the film playing a man sick of death and destruction. Kent’s pacing is a little choppy at times, but it all leads to a conclusion the audience can savor. “The Aftermath” deserves praise for at least exploring a time frame rarely done before as war movies are usually all about blood, guns and guts. For a refreshing change, we get a tale involving what happens in the aftermath.

Thank you, Tivoli Cinemas. It was a pleasure seeing art-house films there for the past 18+ years. Hopefully the aftermath of your ending won’t be as despairing.

Film Review: “Penguins”

PENGUINS
Narrated by: Ed Helms
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson
Rated: G
Running time: 1 hr 16 mins
Disney Nature

I don’t know what it is about penguins that make them so damn cute!  Is it the way they walk?  The fun they obviously have when they slide across the frozen tundra of the Arctic?  The excessive fuzziness of their young?  I really don’t know but I’m pretty sure they could do an all-penguin remake of THE EXORCIST, complete with projectile vomiting and self-gratification with a crucifix and people would go “awwwww.”   Which is exactly the sound I made many times during a recent screening of “Penguins.”

Steve is an Adelie penguin looking for love.  He and the other males in his colony are on a trek to find a mate.  But the road to love isn’t easy.  Especially when your pals are stealing parts of your nest in order to attract that special gal.  And what are you supposed to do when you finally meet her?

A beautifully shot (over an almost three year period) film that manages to be both heart-warming and thrilling, “Penguins” gives the audience the “birds-eye” view of life in Antarctica.  And it’s a pretty chilly one.  Whether it’s having to walk miles upon miles to find food or teaching your chicks how to play dead when a leopard seal tries to eat them, it’s a hard knock life.  Yet, it’s also one full of love and adventure. 

Like “March of the Penguins” before it, “Penguins” is a film the entire family can enjoy.  Kids will love it for the penguins; parents for the story.  Nature is on full display in this film and it’s one I highly recommend.

Film Review: “The Haunting of Sharon Tate”

THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE
Starring: Hillary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst
Directed by: Daniel Farrands
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 34 mins
Saban Films

As a child of the 60’s, I grew up in a time full of tragedies.  Some of these events (among them, the assassinations of JFK and RFK) intrigued me to the point of learning everything I could about them.  Another were the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends at her home in August 1969.  Which really made me want to see the new film, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate.”

In 1969, Sharon Tate was on her way to becoming a movie star.  With roles in films like “The Fearless Vampire Hunters,” where she was directed by her future husband, Roman Polanski, and “Valley of the Dolls” she proved to be a very beautiful woman whom the camera loved.  A year earlier, during an interview, Sharon Tate spoke of a premonition she had of her death, one that was very disturbing. 

After a brief clip from the aforementioned interview, the film picks up in August 1969, when Sharon Tate (Duff) returns from London, where she is visiting her husband while he prepares for his next film.  8 ½ months pregnant, Sharon is happy to be home, surrounded by her best friend, Abigail Folger (Hearst), Folger’s boyfriend, Wojceich Frykowski (Pawei Szadja) and family friend (and Sharon’s former lover) hair stylist Jay Sebring (Bennett).  One day a knock on the door reveals a small, bearded man asking to speak to “Terry.”  Despite being told that Terry no longer lives there, the man drops off a package and leaves.  Sharon is told that the man and his friends has been coming by constantly, looking for the former owner of the home, record producer Terry Melcher.  That night, Sharon has a vision of a very violent encounter with the mystery man, one that continues to grow in violence and intensity.

I’m completely torn in how to review this film.

On the plus sign, I give much credit to writer/director Daniel Farrands, who has done an incredible amount of research and ensured that everything noted in the film, from the red mailbox at 10050 Cielo Drive to the name of Sharon’s dog (Dr. Sapesrstein) is faithful.  There were a few factual errors but, creative license being what it is, I’m not going to quibble.  The performances are also strong.  Though Hillary Duff looks nothing like Sharon Tate (while Ms. Duff is certainly attractive, I can honestly say that, at the end of the 1960s, Sharon Tate was one of the most beautiful women in the world), she gives a fine performance of a woman slowly descending into a nightmare she cannot prevent.  The supporting cast is also well cast and deliver good work. 

On the negative side, the film is horribly violent.  A quick intro using actual news and crime scene footage opens the film, and the murder scene including Sharon Tate’s body is shown, though her body has been retracted from the image.  However, as Sharon’s vision continue to grow, so too does the violence.  In the real attacks, Ms. Folger was stabbed almost 30 times…Mr. Frykowski over 50…and you get to witness almost every one of them.  That and the fact that Ms. Tate was pregnant make the violence horrific to watch.  Eventually you become numb to the violence being inflicted, taking away from the horror of the situation.

So I’ll leave it up to you, the reader.  If you’re looking for an interesting take on a very familiar story, you might want to check this film out.  If you’re not a fan of multiple murders, repeatedly depicted, you may not.  Or, like me, you’re just waiting for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming take on the story, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Film Review: “The Mustang”


THE MUSTANG
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins
Focus Features
 
Robert Redford is no stranger to being involved with projects that explore the American West (“The Horse Whisperer,” “Jeremiah Johnson”) or the hardships of prison life (“Brubaker,” “The Last Castle”). It’s no wonder then that the Hollywood icon, under the title of “executive producer,” is prominently featured for the new prison drama, “The Mustang.” It makes perfect sense as a means to market the film, but this occasionally emotional story proves to have legs strong enough, thanks to its lead actor, to not need Redford’s name as a carrot.
 
In a powerful, career-defining performance, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Far from the Madding Crowd”) plays Roman Coleman, a convict in a rural Nevada prison who prefers solitary confinement over being with the general population. Roman admittedly does not play well with others as his inner rage often gets the best of him. A caring psychologist (a drastically underused Connie Britton) sees him as a challenge and decides to give him a second chance, whether he likes it or not, by providing him a rare opportunity to rehabilitate.
 
Roman finds himself thrust into a program in which wild mustangs are saddle broke and then sold, something that’s currently done in real life at several prisons throughout the West. A grizzled horse trainer named Myles (“shockingly” played with grit by Bruce Dern) offers Roman a deal to move up from being a manure shoveler to a trainer. The catch is that Roman must stay in the ring with a mustang that’s as seemingly untamable as Roman. It’s a tall order yet the outcome is predictable.
 
Despite guidance from a veteran, horse training prisoner (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), Roman’s achievement is short-lived as his temper rears its ugly head and he treats his mustang as a punching bag. Back to solitary Roman goes while at the same time his estranged, pregnant daughter is trying to get him to sign over some property so she can use it to start a new life. A storm as fierce as Roman and his mustang unexpectedly rolls in, giving Roman a second chance at redemption, but as expected, nothing comes easy in this tale.
 
As the first, feature-length film by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (“Rabbit”), “The Mustang” captures the essence of the Western landscape and the power, and even grace of the wild horses who populate it. It also presents an all-too brief glimpse at a prison system that in general has no intention of rehabilitating criminals. It’s only rare exceptions like the mustang program that a chance is given, but those seem to be skating on thin ice as they are poorly funded and snickered at.
 
Schoenaerts is a revelation. His performance is fueled with tangible fury against the world and himself. It covers a pain he gradually comes to face and Schoenaerts fleshes it out with nothing short of perfection. However, Clermont-Tonnerre beats us over the head with the whole, Roman-and-the-horse-are-reflections-of-each-other thing. Events within the story are also often foreseeable so don’t expect any genuine surprises or originality where that’s concerned.
 
In the end, “The Mustang” is worth the ride because of Schoenaerts’s performance alone.

Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon – The Hidden World


Voiced by: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), America Ferrera (Astrid), Cate Blanchett (Valka), Kit Harington (Eret)
Directed By: Dean DeBlois

Rated: PG-7
Running Time: 104 minutes
DreamWork Animation

Right from the start, we’ll admit that How to Train Your Dragon is one of our favorite animation movies of all time. The Hidden World even though it’s animated, somehow feels so real, not just the visual effect and animations which put it over the top, but the story of the movie that is incredibly appealing and makes you believe in the supernatural. It is an emotional movie telling us that in every relationship you are, you must know when to let go and move on with your life.

The action takes place one year after Hiccup found his mom in the second film. Now they created a strong bond with their dragons, and everybody has one. There are no huge cages in their village to contain them, they are basically living together. That is becoming a problem because their home, Berk, is now overpopulated and their village chief, Hiccup, must find a solution.

Even though Hiccup is facing that problem, followed by his desires, he continues to rescue dragons from evil Vikings that are trying to lock them up and use them as slaves. He rescues every single dragon alongside his partner the Night Fury dragon – Toothless and brings them to Berk.

A dangerous new threat is coming to Berk, from the cold-blooded dragon tracker and killer Grimmel (voiced by F. Murray Abraham). Grimmel is the evil looking villain and his character fits very well in the movie. He is driven by his desire to kill every single Night Fury, alongside every other dragon.

He knows about Hiccup and the village full of dragons Berk, thus his plan is to go to the village and capture Toothless as the Alpha Dragon and make him command all the dragons to follow Grimmel’s orders. The angry dragon slayer uses the white female Night Fury dragon (Light Fury) as bait for Toothless.

Hiccup is facing his toughest decision yet as village chief. They must abandon the village that has been their home for generations and left by Hiccup’s father to guard. Hiccup doesn’t know what to do and there is no time to hold his horses. He remembers though, that his dad was talking about some place hidden from the world, beneath a great waterfall, but he is not sure exactly if it is true.

Grimmel using the Light Fury as bait came to Berk, with a plan of a surprise attack on the village and taking Toothless. Hiccup was expecting the attack as he found poisonous darts in the village. They shut him down and he is forced to leave. Now everybody in the village knows the power of Grimmel and they are forced to make a fast decision on their future. After Hiccup inspired the people of the village and made them believe that Berk is not about place, but about his inhabitants, they got on the way in the search of the hidden world.

Meanwhile, the alpha dragon Toothless after he meets the white female Light Fury falls in love and can’t get his mind of her. This part is quite amusing, as the dragon is doing all kinds of silly things just to impress his beloved. Hiccup is getting jealous and confused by Toothlesses behavior, since he doesn’t realize that even Toothless wants to have a family and a relationship.

The visual and sound effects on this movie are out of this world, you can see and hear that they’ve put so much effort in trying to make it more realistic and they succeeded. Even though it is animation, it feels like real life and it makes you get into that imaginary world.

The movie was released in early January in Australia and in February in United States and has grosses already 501.9 million USD in box offices. Right now, the movie holds a record of 7.8/10 in IMDB and an almost perfect score of 90% in Rotten Tomatoes, something that surely certifies the overall quality of the film.

To sum up,How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is astounding. Somehow, they captured that feeling as you were living beside them all these years through this trilogy. The characters in the franchise look older like its audience in real life, which started watching this trilogy 8 years ago.

You can learn a lot from this movie, it is deeply emotional and funny at the same time, has amazing visuals and a simple story about love and friendship. It is not a movie only for children, but for all ages. If you still haven’t watched it, you should grab some popcorn and do it!

Film Review: “Dumbo”

Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito
Directed By: Tim Burton
Rated: PG
Running Time: 112 minutes
Walt Disney Studios

My recollection of “Dumbo” is incredibly brief and simple, and may even be a false memory. I believe I watched the 1941 classic when I was four- or five-years-old. I’ve never had an interest in rewatching it even though it is a relatively short animated classic, clocking in at barely over an hour. That’s a lot easier to digest than this Burton-ized remake, which has ballooned to nearly two hours, relies heavily on green screen and CGI, and has removed the talking animals element. Instead the story of Dumbo is told with the help of the humans around him at the circus.

Ringmaster Max Medici (DeVito) has recently purchased a pregnant elephant, believing that a baby animal could draw curious eyes to his traveling circus which has currently set-up shop in Joplin, Missouri. Much to his dismay, the baby elephant is a “freak.” Max believes the oversized ears will draw laughs instead of affectionate, “Awhs,” and he’s not wrong. Believing in the blue-eyed baby elephant though is Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), the children of Holt (Farrell), a WWI veteran returning home without an appendage and attempting to adjust to his sad new life as a widow. Milly and Joe also know about Dumbo’s talent as a flying animal.

There’s actually a lot to like about “Dumbo,” but it fails at doing two vital things, connecting emotionally with the audience and telling a story about acceptance. The components are there, but they never come together. Since the animals can’t talk, we’ll never know what Dumbo is actually thinking, but Burton does an odd thing. He never really shows pain, frustration, or loneliness etched across Dumbo’s face once he’s separated from his mother. Instead he has the human actors state how they think Dumbo is feeling. There are a few moments between Dumbo and his mom, but nothing on the level of the original.

As for accepting others for their differences, it feels more like a theme that’s left to simmer on the film’s backburner. Instead of hammering that point home through allegory, the film feels more interesting in introducing ancillary characters and distracting viewers with visual effects. It’s an odd observation because director Tim Burton is known for allowing his weird to overtake his more normal productions, as he fights for the voice of the bullied or marginalized hero. This might be his least weird movie, settling for a cookie cutter style, instead of his usual gothic imagery juxtaposed against mainstream aesthetics.

But like I said, there’s a lot to like in this movie. Despite its PG rating, it’s perfectly safe for kids of all ages and there’s nothing really terrifying. The children at my screening appeared to adore it. It may be nearly two hours, but it never feels boring or dull. It never stoops down to an Illumination level of humor and has several legitimate jokes. The green screen is very impressive considering and every adult actor manages to gnaw on that green screen while the child actors are believable most of the time in their roles. I just don’t see children rewatching this over the years and eventually showing it to their kids one day.

There’s one interesting part of the movie that I really enjoyed and it even gave me pause as to where or not Disney executives watched the final product. I say this because Burton seems to take a subtle jab at the Disney media conglomerate through the film’s villain, V.A. Vandevere (Keaton). He’s an “entrepreneur” that buys up other unique entities so that he can expand his amusement park empire called Dreamland. He has several rides and attractions that feel very reminiscent of Disneyland/Disney World properties. It’s almost as if Burton isn’t just commenting on Disney’s recent purchases of Marvel, “Star Wars” and Fox, but also their current trajectory of buying popular brands to financially exploit instead of giving a voice to fresh, young animators and filmmakers. Or maybe Burton realized that he’s become Hollywood’s tolken weirdo for oddball franchises (“Alice in Wonderland” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) and wanted to remark on what’s become of the film industry. The intentional/unintentional metaphor certainly won’t be lost on adults in theaters who’ve spent a pretty penny on Disney’s “reimagining” that falls short of living up to the original.

Originality is no longer valued at the Walt Disney Company. The last original movie was under their Pixar brand, the film “Coco.” That was November 22nd, 2017. The next original idea? That isn’t until March 2020, another Pixar film. So in between this two-and-a-half year amount of time, one of the largest companies in the world is going to throw out every sequel and remake they can think of at moviegoing audiences, because that’s all that can guarantee the company billions of dollars. Maybe I shouldn’t be voicing my frustration about that in this review of a children’s film, but I find it necessary for you to be prepared for my and other’s annoyance at the litany of live-action remakes and sequels that continue to pour out of the Disney factory like a river spilling over its banks. Back in 1941, the House of Mouse took a brave attempt at something new and unique. That’s no longer the case.

Film Review: “The Hummingbird Project”

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT

Starring:  Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard and Salma Hayek

Directed by:  Kim Nguyen

Rated: R

Running time:  1 hr 51 mins

The Orchard

There’s a great scene towards the beginning of “Something About Mary” which features Ben Stiller and Harlan Williams talking about William’s idea for a video entitled “7 Minute Abs.”  Stiller shoots down his idea by commenting that someone may try to better him with a video entitled “6 Minute Abs.”  The new film “The Hummingbird Project” offers the equivalent of “5 Minute Abs!”

Vincent Zeleski (an excellent Eisenberg) and his cousin, Anton (an equally good Skarsgard) are employees at a high tech communications firm, writing code and making the boss rich.  But they have come up with an idea.  One that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams.  And all they have to do is dig a tunnel from Kansas to New Jersey.

A well written (by director Nguyen) and directed thriller, the film introduces us to the Zeleski cousins as they begin to hatch their scheme.  Their plan is to build an underground optical fiber system that can intercept stock buying and selling transactions on their way to New Jersey, allowing them to get their orders in first and profit off of their information.  Their goal is to have a signal that reaches the Garden State from the exchange in Kansas in less than 16 milliseconds.  17 is too slow. 

It is so nice to see Eisenberg in a role that he can inhabit.  While I thought he was OK as Lex Luthor in the recent “Justice League” themed films, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the “The Social Network” Eisenberg, one who deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  Here he is the idea man…the fast talker who won’t take “no” for an answer.  As cousin Anton, Skarsgard is an odd bird with a good heart and a great mind.  He’s the kind of person who will tell you “it’s a secret” than draws up a hand-written non-disclosure form for you to sign because he just explained the entire project to you.  As the boss who feels hurt by her employee’s betrayal, Hayek is, as always, beautiful and firm.  And it’s so nice to see “Breaking Bad” star Michael Mando (Nacho) in a good role playing a genuinely good person.