Tolkien Movie Review

“Tolkien”, is about the famous fantasy author (who would make sure you know that the right way to pronounce his name is “Toll-keen”) and how he grew up and learned to value “fellowship”. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has a rough start in life, with a dead father, and soon also a dead mother. He and his younger brother became wards to the Catholic Church, but because of a forward-thinking priest, Tolkien gets a classical education and gets into Oxford. But after being sidelined with World War I, he gets to marry his true love. He gains stature as a Professor at the college, and eventually writes some very large books. But ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ do not make a big dent in this movie, because it ends about the time that he starts on them…

 

Young J.R.R. Tolkien and his mother and brother are helped by the parish priest Father Morgan (Colm Meaney). He makes sure that they have a home after their father passes away. But soon after his mother is also gone, and the two boys are put into a nice foster home. Tolkien at first finds it hard to make friends, but he soon makes several lifelong friends. When he grows up Mr. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is able to get into Oxford. He knows a fellow orphan in his foster home named Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) and believes that she will be the love of his life. Tolkien and his chums have raucus talks and arguments about deep subjects. They form a “fellowship” of sorts, and hold fast to be true to each other. Edith also becomes a part of his life, and when he enters college, his grades suffer.

 

Oxford is ready to pitch Tolkien out of school, because he is not living up to the highest of standards. But he happens to meet Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) who is a specialist in languages. Tolkien manages to convince the Professor that he has the same love of language and for the origins of speech. He is able to impress the Professor with some made-up languages that Tolkien created for his own writing. Tolkien is able to thrive in the new class setting, and he and Edith are very happy. He feels that the world is ready for a new saga that is a great and as far-reaching as the opera Wagner created “The Ring Cycle”. But before that can happen, World War I breaks out. Tolkien and his three friends are signed up and enlisted in a short time.

Tolkien spends time at the front in Somme. In the trenches, he puts all of creative spirit on hold. The War is horrible, and he sees many people injured and killed. Tolkien is infected with trench fever, and he spends time searching for one of his friends on the front lines. With his feverish mind, he looks out on the No Man’s Land area and imagines what the fight between good and evil might look like. Shadowy black wraiths hover over the battlefield, as armored knights gallop in the dead trees out on the landscape. Dragons roar across the sky as thunderous booms rain down on the broken land. Tolkien is seeing those images that he would eventually put down onto paper in his later books.

Nicholas Hoult does a very decent job in portraying Tolkien, and he does the man justice. He shows a lot of compassion and smarts as a young brilliant writer. But he and Lily Collins do not have a lot of energy together in their scenes. The story is a bit of a see-saw back and forth from Tolkien’s war time activity, to a flashback set of sequences of his prior life.

All Is True Movie Review

“All Is True” is a love poem, neh – a Love Sonnet – to the veritable Bard of Stratford-on-Avon. Yes, William Shakespeare is in his retirement years. He is spending these years not at Sun City West playing golf, but instead puttering around in his garden bemoaning his deceased son. His long-suffering wife and his two daughters are beset with Old Will’s presence after many, many years. For all those years, he has been living in London – writing and directing at the Globe Theater. But when it burns down, his whole life is put in disarray, and he retreats back to his humble abode. It is actually a pretty nice estate, because he has spent years being the world’s most successful playwright and poet. His patrons have lavished Shakespeare with enough to make his life very comfortable in his sunset years. Now, if he could only stop driving his family crazy…



William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) has returned to his hometown, back from being a major success in London. The theater that he had founded has burnt to the ground, and he no longer has any reason to be there. He gets back to his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and his daughters.  Susanna (Lydia Wilson) is married to a Puritan, so that means she is not happily married. Daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) is unmarried and is considered an ‘old maid’ with a tart tongue and a shrewish attitude. Will is back and he really starts to think about his son, Hamnet. He had died nearly two decades ago, while William was in London making the theater magic happen. Shakespeare did not allow himself to grieve properly, and now the loss of his son hits him hard. That was his family legacy, in his passing down of the family name to continue the Shakespeare greatness. With his daughters, they will not retain the family name, so there is a possibility that the Shakespeare line will be snuffed out.

Wife Anne has had many years to mourn her son and will not accept that hubby Will is just now getting around to it. After all, when Hamnet died, Will was consumed with the hustle and bustle of the Globe Theater. He was too busy writing “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the time and could not get back to see Hamnet laid to rest. Now, Shakespeare has remnants of letters and poems created by Hamnet when he was younger, and alive. There was a rough but noticeable talent in his writings, and William is mourning the loss of not only a son, but the one who could have carried on the new family tradition. But Anne is stoic and steadfast, and she knows whatever secrets that Hamnet held are also dead. Judith has some shocking news for her father, and he does not know how to begin to understand what happened, and how his son died.



During this hubbub, there is a visit to the estate by an old friend and very wealthy patron of William Shakespeare. The Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), who is a noble by birth and a scoundrel in nature, comes to meet his favorite British poet and playwright. The Earl never needed to put on airs or persuade people to respect him. It was his due by his heritage. Shakespeare, on the other hand, was humble and born into poverty. His father was involved in scandal and he was frowned upon. So, Shakespeare has worked mightily to polish the family name. But both of his daughters have brushes with bad reputation and gossip. So, the cycle starts over once more. When the Earl of Southampton finally leaves William to his situation, he wishes him well. He wants him to remain true to his recent work in London as a genius, and not wallow in the backwater tides of the local countryside.

Kenneth Branagh plays his man-crush William Shakespeare with an intensity and a ton of prosthetic makeup. He does wind up looking like the historical portraits of The Bard, so it is a fitting appearance. Branagh really loves him some Shakespeare. So much so that he lives to direct movies adapted from Shakespeare, or star in movies adapted from Shakespeare – or mostly star in and direct movies that are adapted from Shakespeare. Branagh finds a suitable match with Dame Judi Dench playing Anne Hathaway, the woman who married William Shakespeare. These two are wonderful on-screen and play well against each other. Along with the cameo role of the Earl of Southampton, Ian McKellen has a twinkle of mischief in his eyes as he builds up and berates Shakespeare. They also are great in the same scene.



In Phoenix, playing exclusively at the Harkins Scottsdale Camelview.

Peterloo Movie Review

“Peterloo” is an overly ambitious retelling of a British historical event from 1819. It was soon after the Battle at Waterloo and the War was over. British common folk thought that good times would come. But the English royalty and Parliament, plus the wealthy land owners and merchants, continued to abuse the lower classes. They rose up with noble ides, like their American cousins, to rally for more freedom and equality – universal suffrage, voting rights, the end of tariffs and better wages.

This all led up to a sunny day in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, where a crowd of 60,000 or more came to cheer on a reformist speaker. But at the end, they were trampled, stabbed and shot by the King’s Army and local police. Thus the “Massacre at Peterloo” was born, a play on name “Battle of Waterloo”.

At the end of Waterloo, a single British bugler, Joseph (David Moorst) remains in a field. He stumbles all the way back to his hometown of Manchester. Back with his father Joshua (Pearce Quigley) and mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), life is harder than ever. The end of wartime has ended the hardship, suffering and toil of the common British worker. The dawning of the Industrial Age has made 16-hour days and child labor a big thing. Common people look for a way to get a better deal out of life.

The dream of Radical Reform, a way to change government and society to be more equal and just, is coming to the lower classes. The King and other Royalty are not impressed by the ideas of change. Major speakers, such as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (Rory Kinnear) are well known in the country and they are spreading the ideas of equal representation and voting rights.

Many people in Manchester decide that getting Henry Hunt up to the northern reaches of England would spark the population and help to bring about change. The local farmers, small shop owners and textile mill workers plea with him to visit and speak to a crowd of local folk. The District magistrates and local constables are spying on the townsfolk to see if they are getting out of hand. They are worried that a new fresh change in the politics could put them all out of a job.

The Home Secretary in London sends an Army officer to the area to amass a large group of soldiers. They are all back from war in France, so they can be a military show of force at home.  Mistrust and bad manners are also getting in the way of a united English people. Various newspaper people are also interested in how the large group of people in Manchester will react when Henry Hunt speaks to them.

The day comes, and Henry Hunt is ready for a big crowd. He has some stirring words to say to everyone. During Hunt’s speech, one of the magistrates reads the Riot Act out of open window – out to the crowd. The crowd does not hear any of that, but now the magistrates are able to disperse the meeting. They will use any means that they require to end Hunt’s speech and to arrest the people in charge.

The Army cavalry charges out riding horses to attack the peaceful assembly with sabers at the ready. Hunt and the others are arrested. The army forces try to clear St Peter’s Fields. But there are too many people, and the entire event ends in bedlam and mayhem. Some people in the crowd are killed and many more injured. The bugler Joseph, now returned home, is stabbed with a sword. He dies, along with a little over a dozen others. There are many more injured and hurting. Word gets out that the “Massacre at Peterloo” was an affront against the English people from their out-of-control government.

“Peterloo” is an honest effort to teach people about a savage and unfortunate event in British history. The biggest problem is the medium that is used. The ideas that are brought up and explained in this movie could have been expanded and given more time to digest – but only if this had been created as a limited mini-series.  Perhaps on Amazon Prime, because they are the movie’s main producer. With a length of over two and a half hours, the movie still feels rushed, just because there are too many threads that are left unresolved.

Perhaps Mike Leigh, as the writer, was thinking that he would be paid by the word. There are so many speeches and speechifying in this movie that it eventually gets like verbal assault on the ears. There are never any true human characters in the movie, nobody that makes an emotional connection. Each person was mostly just a symbol – the Old Farmer, the Drunk Townsman, the Sneaky London Political Player, the High-Minded yet Soft-Spoken Leader…

All of these people are given words (lot and lots of words) that seem to written as a dry dissertation by a boring English Professor of British History. Very little of it could be relatable to the honest common workers of Manchester. There is even a part when a woman a small group meeting stands up and complains that everyone is using too many big words that they she does not understand. The same could be said for the audience, most of the time.

Detroit Movie Review

You can’t spell Detroit without R I O T…

 

Kathryn Bigelow wants to take you back fifty years in “Detroit” to see one of the most vicious race riots in America. The fuse had been lit long before that and was smoldering. But an incident where the Detroit police closed down an unlicensed after-hours bar set off the spark. This movie takes a close-up view of the events in that time. It shows a brutal and unfiltered look at the Algiers Motel incident and the aftermath. This was an awful display of racist police brutality and indifference by people who might have stopped it.

After three days of rioting in the streets of Detroit, destruction is widespread. But a new Motown vocal group is about to hit the stage at the Fox Theatre. The police close it down and send everyone home, since more rioting is coming closer.  But not before Larry (Algee Smith) takes a shot a singing to the empty seats. Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) head over to the Algiers Motel, hoping that it will be free from disruption. They meet two white girls there at the motel, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). They have met some other black guys named Carl (Jason Mitchell) and Greene (Anthony Mackie).

After hanging out in various rooms, Carl takes a starter pistol and says he can shake up the white police and National Guard. He aims the harmless pistol out the window and shoots a few times. The National Guard thinks they are under attack from a sniper at the Algiers Motel. The Guard bands up with the Detroit police and Michigan state troopers to surround the building. They are insisting that they will not leave until a sniper or a weapon has been found. The police patrol is led by Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) who is partnered with Officer Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and rookie Officer Demens (Jack Reynor).

A black security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) also follows the other officers inside, thinking that he can defuse the tension. But Krauss is taking no prisoners and all three officers round up all people inside the hotel annex building. Carl tries to run and is shot dead. Every other person there, all the black men and the two white women, get hours of harassment and beatings. Krauss is the bigoted leader and Flynn and Demens follow his lead.

The Michigan state police see the Detroit police abusing people and leave the area. There are some National Guardsmen also inside, attempting to keep order. But when they see that Krauss is out of control, they also leave. Before the end of the night, there are three people dead in the hotel annex, most of the rest are bloodied and beaten. There is never any gun found…

There is a section of follow-up in the last part of the movie. Kraus, Flynn and Demens are charged with abusive behavior and murder. For some reason, Melvin Dismukes is also charged, even though he tried to keep things calm. At the trial, police union Attorney Auerbach (John Krasinski) puts many of the victims under suspicion for their past crimes. An all-white jury found nobody was guilty of anything.

Kathryn Bigelow has (again) made a very moving and profound movie. She and screenwriter Mark Boal also teamed up to make “Zero Dark Thirty”. This time they tackle the historical events of a terrible tragedy. The Detroit riots cause 43 deaths in total, including a few police and firemen. But the big focus here in the inept and racist ways that a few people in authority could destroy the lives of some folks at the Algiers Motel.

The movie is shot with a documentary style, with camera movement tracking closely behind various groups. The tension and the panic and stress are perfectly portrayed. Each situation where a bad decision is made turns into several other worse choices. The entire event seems to spin wildly out of control, with deadly consequences.

Every actor is well-cast and does a superb job. John Boyega and Will Poulter both stand out in the role. Boyega is the small-time security guard in over his head. Poulter is an over-the-top sadistic racist cop who would rather shoot all of them dead. Algee Smith is also convincing as man who wants to be free to sing to the world, yet he is trapped in the worst place ever.

Race relations back fifty years ago could bubble up into hatred and violence. But it has done so again since then; in Los Angeles (1992), then again in Ferguson (2014) and in Baltimore (2015). The movie “Detroit” can never solve the problems of racism and deep internal feelings of rage. Perhaps watching this will give people a chance to reflect, and then talk about it, instead of acting on it.

Hidden Figures

In the early days of the Space Race, when the USA and the USSR both worked to be the first in space, there was limited technology. The only ‘computer’ available was a person who excelled in math and could handle very complex calculations. The math experts and engineers who ran NASA in the early 1960’s were brilliant people. Almost all of then were men, and even more were White. That’s why this true story of three Black women is so outstanding.

When a Black person (‘Negro’ was the phrase used back then) was the best ‘computer’, and that person was also a woman – well that could lead to whole lot of trouble. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a complete master of math, and could calculate complex re-entry points down a few hundred yards. She was needed for her skills in doing the computations, but the NASA engineers all looked down on her. She was not like them, so they did not think she was quite as good…

Katherine also had two good friends at the NASA facility, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Mary had the skills and the desire to become an engineer, but the schooling was not available to ‘colored folks’. That is, until she challenged the local rulings and was permitted to take night classes at the all-White school. Dorothy was the leader of several talented Black women who were on staff at NASA. Yet she was not permitted to have the title of Supervisor. The White office manager Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) would not help Dorothy to advance, because she was Black, and therefore, unqualified.

 

Katherine had to face countless times when bigotry and low expectations hindered her progress. The chief of the lab was Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). He would give Katherine work to review that was incomplete because sections had been removed, since she did not have the security clearance. But when the Manager of the NASA facility Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) found out how smart Katherine was, he made sure she got all the information that she would need. He even removed the limitations of ‘Colored’ bathrooms, so that Katherine would not need to run across the campus.

Also, the lab obtained its first IBM mainframe computer system, and Dorothy Vaughan had been teaching herself how to code programs on the new device. She became an expert and she was in charge of several other women and became a real Supervisor. Mary Jackson earned her degree in engineering and also continued to work at NASA on the space program.

Seeing that this is a true story of real people involved at the early stages of NASA, this movie shows the struggles that many of these women had to overcome. Before any Equal Rights laws were passed, these smart and powerful women showed that they were equal to the White men. They did that just by being able to perform at their highest levels. They did not allow the racism and sexism to fester and make them bitter. The fought back in the best way they knew how – they excelled at what they did.

 

The three main characters are played by three fantastic actresses: Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson. They all handle the character with grace and with dignity, even when the White world around them is harsh and cruel. They all show a deep courage and persistence to achieve great things. Also, Kevin Costner is a great addition, because he shows an understanding that success shows no ‘Color Line’. His character would not allow bigotry to stand in the way of getting the best results.

“Hidden Figures” does a terrific job in bringing to light a little-known aspect of the early days of NASA. The social norms of that era were broken so that some very talented Black women could have a chance to make a big difference in the success of the program. It is great story to tell, and it does it in a quiet, dignified manner.