Booksmart – Film Review

Every new generation has its coming-of-age big screen favorite. The last few years alone have produced a slew of quality features: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), and the excellent Lady Bird (2017) to name but three. But once time has passed and home viewing is in order, you can bet none will be subject to download and replay in quite the same way as director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart.

More in line with the tone of Dazed and Confused mixed with Clueless meets Superbad rather than the above-mentioned, Booksmart tells of what happened to two certain female high-schoolers on the eve of their graduation. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is valedictorian and student-body president while her best buddy and fellow high-achieving school swat Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is the activist of every worthy cause happening. She’s about to spend her summer overseas in Botswana helping the village locals make their own tampons. Between them, they’re not exactly on the nerdy genius level of a Sheldon Cooper, but they’re in that neighborhood. 

It’s the last day of high-school and no one cares about anything. Not even Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis). “I hope I never see you again,” he announces over the school sound system. But Molly and Amy care. After all, graduation isn’t until tomorrow. The school year may almost be over, but surely there’s still a full day of classroom work to be done.

When Molly, whose years of constant study has paid off with acceptance into Yale, suddenly discovers that many of the school partiers have also been accepted into high-standard universities once summer is done (one even has a six-figure salaried job already waiting for him at Google) the girl is genuinely shocked. “But you guys don’t even care about school,” Molly exclaims. As Annabelle (Molly Gordon) tells Molly to her face, “We don’t just only care about school.

Molly runs to Amy and insists that on this final night before cap and gown day they need to go out and partay! “We haven’t done anything,” Molly declares. “We haven’t broken any rules.” But Amy’s not so sold. “We were going to watch that Ken Burns thing,” she responds.

There are a few classroom parties they can attend. There’s the rich kid’s disco party complete with DJ and gift bags on his parent’s yacht, there’s the Murder Mystery party that the thesps from the drama club are holding, or there’s the rock ‘n roll hang-out-and-get-drunk free-for-all party at Nick’s place. His grandparents are stuck on a cruise ship that broke down somewhere in the middle of the ocean, so the place is free. Molly has already decided. They should go to Nick’s. If only they knew how to get there.

Booksmart is sharp. It doesn’t follow a similar pattern of rowdy R-rated teenage comedies, nor does it fall into the groove of predictability. Getting laid is not part of the plan, nor is anyone purposely looking to lose their virginity before high school is officially done. The bucket list for a wild and crazy night is different. Plus, there are no villains. The males are not objectifying the females, and there’s no gang of mean girls. Molly and Amy may well be on the outside from the majority of the students, and maybe they were not officially invited to Nick’s place to party, but that had nothing to do with them being unpopular – no one thought they would turn up. And ordinarily, everyone would be right.

Before it gets to the point where those caps will be finally tossed into the air and the students are ready to face a summer of either part-time jobs or just hanging out and having fun before college – the drama club has invited everyone to join them for a summer season of ‘Shakespeare in the Park- ing Lot’ – the girls will ultimately get what they want, in one way or another. They’ll experience a night of becoming continually lost after dark while searching for Nick’s place, unintentionally taking drugs – the stop-action animated hallucinatory sequence where they see themselves as a couple of naked Barbie-like dolls is achingly funny – and they’ll become the center of attention at not one but all three parties. One of them may even land a potential prison sentence on their record.

With an ensemble of so many endearingly funny characters to encounter, you find yourself hoping the film returns to a favorite the moment it cuts away. The two leads, Feldstein and Phoenix native Dever, have what it takes to ground the center (Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s younger sister), plus there’s good support from the adults consisting of several SNL alumni. In addition to Sudeikis, there’s Will Forte who along with Lisa Kudrow play Amy’s parents, and Mike O’Brien as a suspect pizza delivery guy. Plus, Will Ferrell gets an Executive Producer credit. But the standouts are the teenagers.

Direct from Broadway’s titular role in Dear Evan Hansen is Noah Galvin as the luvvie drama student George who celebrates graduation eve with a murder mystery dinner party at his house. “Alan,” he tells scenery chewing fellow thespian Austin Crute, “You’re giving me a 10 when I want a 2.” But it’s the wealthy and dreamily drug-addled Gigi (Billie Lourd, daughter to Carrie Fisher), referred to as the school’s one percent who hilariously steals every moment, often by just turning up.

Director Wilde delivers Booksmart with the energy of a thriller that never lags. Sequences end with quick edits often making you wonder if what you’ve just heard was even funny, yet somehow the sharp cutaway acting as a visual punchline seems to make it so. Depending on your personal appreciation or tolerance of teenage humor, it’s possible the older you are, the less you’ll appreciate Booksmart’s audacious, often manic style. But for its target audience, the talented Wilde, whose film resume is long and accomplished but perhaps best remembered as Dr. Hadley on TV’s House, has unexpectedly hit the comic bullseye with her directorial debut. Seriously, who knew?

MPAA rating: R     Length: 105 Minutes

Posted in Film

Things I Know To Be True – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

The creative process of a play is fascinating. When Australian playwright Andrew Bovell wanted to write a new, intimate play, his intention was to explore several areas, including thoughts and feelings of his father (a man he called the quintessential Australian suburban dad), the future expectations of how things should be for a family once the children have grown and moved out, and the place where he grew up, run away from, then returned to – Adelaide.

In 2013, during early development, Bovell workshopped ideas with Australia’s State Theatre Company, where, through intensive group discussion and improvisation, nuggets of what would later become a fully-fledged play began to emerge. It was Adelaide actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey (who would go on to play teenager Rosie) who talked of her time traveling in Europe in the year after high-school and before college – termed ‘Gap-Year’ in Australia – and how her heart was broken, how she became homesick for Adelaide, and what happened when she was alone, standing on a train platform. She made a list of things she knew to be true. In the same way that English film director Mike Leigh incorporates the best elements of an improvised performance during rehearsal into his screenplay before filming, writer Bovell used Cobham-Hervey’s European story as a launching pad for his new play. The title comes from the performer’s shared adventure.

When the play premiered three years later on its home turf, the story of the Price family was set in Adelaide. Later that same year, when the play opened in London with a new cast, the Australian location remained. But for American audiences, Bovell has adapted his play to better reflect a more familiar setting. The Price family are now Americans and live somewhere in the Midwest.

Arizona Theatre Company’s new presentation of Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True is the critically acclaimed production created by Milwaukee Repertory Theater and directed by the company’s Artistic Director, Mark Clements. It’s the final production of ATC’s varied 2018/19 season and continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 2. It’s also the epitome of a valley theatre must-see.

Told from the perspective of the four grown siblings who introduce each new season of the year with a monologue, the play begins with the Price’s youngest daughter, Rosie (Aubyn Heglie). Rosie was on her great European adventure, the one she’d been saving for having spent a year waiting tables and babysitting. “Berlin. A winter coat. And a broken heart,” she begins. Now, with a brief but spectacular love affair gone wrong – Emmanuel from Madrid ran off with Rosie’s 400 euros, her camera, her iPad, and a large piece of her heart – the teenager misses home and her family more than ever. To stop herself from coming apart she makes a list of all the things she knows for certain to be true. Because of her inexperience, it’s a very short list. 1) Things at home are the same as when she left and they always will be, and 2) “I know that I have to go home.”

Set in the Price family back yard where the only constant among all the changes is the large tree and the continual cultivation of dad’s white roses, with each new season comes a new monologue and whole new set of family values to conflict. The older daughter, Pip (Kelly Faulkner) tells us, “This yard is the world. Everything that matters happened here.” Pip talks of how once when she was twelve she saw her mother banging her head against the trunk of the tree while crying. “What makes a woman like that cry?” she asks. A mother. Her mother. Pip never had the courage to ask. It scared her. Now that she’s a woman, married, with children of her own, she doesn’t need to ask. “I know exactly why a woman bashes her head against the trunk of a tree.”

Then there are the two boys. Mark (Kevin Kantor) who is listed as ‘Mia’ in the program’s cast list for heartbreaking reasons later revealed, used to climb the tree and hide. “From up there, I could see the world,” he tells us. At least, he could see his world, as an outsider, observing everything and everyone without their knowledge, “Not really a part of the picture, and not really even knowing why.” Among the things he saw was his mother secretly drinking and smoking. “I suspect that of all of us, she smoked the most cigarettes on account of me.”

And finally, Ben (Zach Fifer). When Spring arrives, Ben’s monologue reflects the chaos of the home, the chores that had to be done and by whom, and his observations of the arguments, the conflicts, and the love between his parents. “She loved it when they danced,” Ben relates. “And we groaned and stuck our fingers down our throats and pretended that we weren’t interested in their dancing, in their love, in the secrets that only they shared.” But Ben will have secrets of his own with a story that will conflict with everything his father values, including where the young financial services officer, whose job it is to move money around all day, got the cash to pay for that expensive looking foreign sports car parked outside in the drive.

Incorporating familiar and easily relatable themes of family love and expectations, Fran (Jordan Baker) and Bob (Bill Geisslinger) are part of the American dream, having had struggles, worked hard, bought a house, raised four children, put three through college with one more still to go, and hoped that their children’s lives would be even better than theirs. But when expectations conflict with the reality of others, it doesn’t quite work. “It wasn’t meant to be like this,” states Bob. “I thought they’d be like us. But better than us.” He thought they’d all want to live close by, or at least, remain in the same city. But it’s not going to be, as many parents regularly discover. “Stop thinking we can handle it because maybe we can’t,” declares Fran.

With a running time of two hours and ten minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission, Bovell’s play doesn’t simply pull you in, it forcibly yanks, keeping a firm grip on your attention as conflict after conflict is confronted, while Bob and Fran’s family hopes are challenged and rejected. It’s a fascinating watch that results with a lengthy running time that ultimately feels considerably shorter once concluded. With energetic direction from Clements that has his players forever on the move while fleshing performances from a superb cast, who by now must know their characters from the inside out, Things I Know To Be True becomes an unexpected, emotional roller coaster. Make no mistake, you’re going to be shattered. It’s difficult to remember a play that resonates in such a way to the point where your mind has an inability to think of anything else hours after having left the theater. But among the drama, there’s also humor. When dad wanders the yard looking lost in his own world, Fran dryly warns, “I’m not taking care of him if he gets dementia.”

The power of the piece is how easy it is to relate. The problems that face the Price family will not necessarily be yours, heaven forbid. The conflicts are not altogether typical. So much occurs within the changes of those seasons with emotions so thoroughly wrenched, it’s hard to believe there would ever be a survivor, but the idea of expecting what family life is going to be and how a parent wants them to play out – the kids marrying good people with weddings in the yard, and having good kids of their own, with sleepovers at the grandparent’s and barbecues on most Sundays – is universal. What doesn’t completely work is the translation from an Australian culture to an American.

Rosie’s year before college traveling Europe is a regular occurrence for Australians. Parents expect and often encourage it as a way for their children to experience a world in the old country before their days at university back in Oz begin. This ‘gap-year’ is not a thing in most American families and would be considered an unusual step of unbelievable tolerance for an eighteen-year-old alone, overseas in Europe by any American parent, let alone Fran and Bob Price.

Bob talks of their family background as working-class while the play presents them as living an American middle-class existence, but what is considered working-class in both Australia and in England is not the same socio-economic structure as here in America. Most Brits and Australians tend to be confused by the American definition of middle-class when they hear it; to them, it represents something else. And, in an American setting, I’m not convinced that dad’s suspicious reaction to Ben’s flashy car would be quite as negative as presented in this play.

Plus, when Fran reveals she has secretly saved almost $200,000, throughout the years since being married, as a plot point it jars. In both the U.K. and Australia, health costs are low to practically zero when compared to the cost of American insurances, co-pays, deductibles, and all those extra individual bills from doctors, nurses, intern doctors, anesthesia departments, and the surgery itself, which all have to be paid. University costs are also considerably less expensive and simpler to the point where going to university and paying off debt is rarely a problematic factor. If the Price family have bought and now own a house in a nice neighborhood, raised four children and put them all through college on income earned from a working-class background, it’s doubtful anyone could have saved a penny, let alone a secret stash from mom’s income that was enough to buy a second mid-western home with cash. A typical American family would still be paying off debt. Remaking foreign culture movies and television shows into American ones is understandable when aiming for a mass market, but American theatergoers are considerably more discerning, understanding, and appreciative, particularly those who would go to see Things I Know To Be True in the first place. Appreciation of Bovell’s work would have been just as easily relatable and perhaps that little more interesting had the setting remained in Adelaide presented with Australian accents.

Still, the transfer, while raising questionable outcomes and motives because of cultural differences, doesn’t alter the appreciation of what is clearly great writing. The one thing I know to be true is that this ATC presentation is the finest and most emotionally affecting live theatre production the valley has seen so far this year. It’s the play you didn’t know you were waiting for.

Things I Know To Be True continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 2

Pictures courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Posted in Theatre

A Dog’s Journey – Film Review

Not to be confused with the recent A Dog’s Way Home, which isn’t difficult considering it comes from a book written by the same author, A Dog’s Journey is the sequel to A Dog’s Purpose.

The titles are interchangeable. In 2017’s Purpose, the dog named Bailey journeyed through four lives due to reincarnation until he eventually circled back to his original owner Ethan, once a boy, now a grown man. In this year’s Journey, Bailey is given a purpose by Ethan at the moment the dog sadly passes on. He’s to come back, look for Ethan’s granddaughter, and keep her safe.

As before, Bailey, voiced again by every family’s favorite frozen Disney snowman, Josh Gad, will reincarnate until events lead the pooch back to Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and his wife Hannah (this time played by Marg Helgenberger replacing the late Peggy Lipton). He’ll begin as Bailey, then move on as Molly – “I’m a girl this time!” exclaims the surprised canine – then as Max, then as Toby.

I’ve lived a lot of lives and I’ve pee’d on a lot of stuff,” Bailey reminds us in an introductory voice-over. The setup this time is that Ethan and Hannah have opened their farmhouse doors to daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) and their granddaughter Clarity June, or CJ, after the death of Ethan and Hannah’s son. From the outset, Gloria is the film’s principal villain. “Does anybody think about what I need?” she demands when it’s clear that both Ethan and Hannah care about her all the time. She’s also a neglectful mother to CJ, and, worse, she hates dogs.

After a confrontation and an unfair accusation that all the grandparents want is to get their hands on their son’s insurance money, Gloria loads the car, takes CJ and drives away, determined that her daughter will never see her grandparents again. Heartbroken with no knowledge of where Gloria and CJ may be, Ethan and Hannah, along with Bailey who is not entirely sure why all the big people around him are so unhappy, are left alone on the farm. And when due to an illness, Bailey is euthanized – I know, it’s about fifteen minutes into the film and I’m already reaching for the Kleenex – Ethan asks his dog to return with a specific purpose. “Come back for CJ like you came back for me,” whispers Ethan. Which is what the dog does.

At each point of Bailey’s rebirth as a different breed, somehow the universe has contrived his arrival to be near where CJ happens to be, whether it’s somewhere in Pennsylvania or later in another life in New York. Each time, the young girl is just that little bit older.

If you’ve read the W. Bruce Cameron novel, you’ll see that while the overall story arc is similar, there are several events and outcomes altered, particularly with the character of deadbeat mom Gloria. Her fate in the book and the circumstances of her mental health are fortunately not a part of the film, though that doesn’t stop her from being portrayed in a thoroughly negative light. “Can you figure out your dinner tonight?” she tells her daughter as the woman readies herself to go out on another date. “Again?” responds the high-school teenager left alone to fend for herself. Later, when an older CJ (English actor Kathryn Prescott with a perfectly fine American accent) has the courage to confront her mother after the woman, while drunk, reveals a truly awful thing that she has done, CJ tells her, “You are literally the worst mother in the world.”

What the film has understandably done is held back on much of the dark, serious qualities that author Cameron incorporated into his best-selling novel. Everything is made just that little more palatable for a family audience. There’s still conflict and upset – ne’er do well boyfriends, drunkenness, death, the emotional abuse of a resentful parent, cancer, not to mention those moments when the dog passes on – but handled with a lighter touch that keeps the story buoyant, and, because of Gad’s upbeat narration as Bailey, often funny. When Bailey tells us how he enjoys those fallen scraps that land on the floor, the system is, “She drops it. I eat it. That’s our deal.

In truth, A Dog’s Journey is what you expect; exactly what you expect. It’s the movie-going equivalent of a country kitchen comfort food breakfast you might order at Cracker Barrell. You make your order, you know what you’re getting, there are no surprises, but it tastes just as you want and you’re always satisfied. Like Bailey and those fallen table scraps, that’s the deal. After all, that’s why you went.

When people eventually reunite and a love that was always meant to be finally comes to pass, be warned, there’ll be no stopping a theatre full of sniffs, even though you knew it was all going to unfold in the way it finally does. And take extra tissues. The loudest sniff you’ll hear will probably be yours.

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 108 Minutes

Posted in Film

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum – Film Review

From the close of credits in Chapter 2 to the opening credits of Chapter 3, a little under an hour has passed. “He knew the rules,” states Winston (Ian McShane) the owner and manager of the Continental Hotel where the offense took place. “He broke them.”

Excommunicado in effect, 6 pm, eastern standard time,” announces the middle-aged, heavily tattooed, and all-around scary looking operator (Margaret Daly) at the communications center for the High Table. With minutes to go before every killer around the globe will want to cash in on the $14 million contract on his life, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is on the run.

His crime, you may recall at the end of the last film, was because he killed a man called D’Antonio. It wasn’t so much the kill that was the problem. In a heightened world where murdering someone is as regular as a healthy bowel movement, putting a bullet in those who deserve it wouldn’t normally raise an eyebrow. Not in this world. It was where Wick committed the act that’s the problem.

The Continental is protected, a safe haven for visiting assassins where guests are under orders to put their weapons away. It’s sanctuary. But Wick pulled the trigger on sacred grounds. He may have got his man but it came with a cost. Winston had no choice. The order was declared. Legendary hitman John Wick must now run for his life. And in a world of amoral hyperreality, a practical sub-culture populated by loathsome, despicable murderers where rules of behavior must be observed, Winston gives John Wick one hour to move. Once the hour is reached and that scary looking operator back at the communications center announces it’s finally 6 pm, the mayhem begins. And this being a John Wick movie, it doesn’t stop.

That’s the setup for John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, and that’s all you really need to know. The film’s subtitle comes from a Latin phrase. “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” It means, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” And it’s nothing but war for an exhausting 131 minutes that you’ll get.

Throughout most of the film’s considerably bloated running time, fight arrangements will include, but not limited to, bullets, knives, belts, pointy things to the eyes, the unique use of rear kicks from horses, dogs going for the crotch, and anything with cringe-inducing sharp angles that happens to be within reach at just the right moment. The fights are so well executed with such style and continuous creative energy, they’re really meticulously choreographed dance movements with nasty weapons. Director and former stunt man Chad Stahelski, who did most of the fights himself, is John Wick’s Busby Berkely to Reeves’ Gene Kelly. “Guns,” requests Wick telling what he needs to get through the day. “Lots of guns.”

Wick’s character introduced in 2014 was always intended to kick start a new franchise. But for personal taste, it’s the original that remains the most effective. Coming out of retirement to search for the men who invaded his home, stole his car and, worst of all, killed his dog, introduced us to the murky, mysterious, and the intentionally ludicrous fantasy world of those who run sanctuary hotels for assassins. Not knowing anything about the High Table, the global organization that invokes the rules for killers, was part of the intrigue. We never saw the man behind the curtain. Unfortunately, Chapter 2 pulled the curtain aside and made a reveal. In the way that the most effective ghost story is the one where you don’t see the ghost (or, as in Jaws where you don’t see the shark) discovering how the High Table was run dissolved that sense of mystique. It may have upped the ante on gunplay and stacked the bodies even higher from the first film but it also removed the wonder.

Chapter 3 reveals even more High Table secrets. It ups the death toll even further. This time, with reluctant help from fellow assassin Sofia (Halle Berry), who has some doggie issues of her own, there are more dead bodies on the ground than there are stars in the sky. Every bad guy – well, they’re all bad – that Wick encounters along the way always has an army of men and bodyguards whose only purpose is to be disposed of. They’re shipped in by the busload. At one point, they’re literally bused in. When back in New York after Wick has made an excursion to the deserts of Morocco, vehicles packed to the brim with killers aiming to kill the killer arrive at the curbside.

In addition to McShane’s Winston and Berry’s Sofia, Lance Reddick as the Continental’s faithful concierge and Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King return. Plus there’s the new addition of Anjelica Huston referred to as The Director – “All of this for what?” she asks Wick when he turns up asking for help and calling in a favor. “Because of a puppy?” – and Asia Kate Dillon as the Adjudicator, a merciless member of the High Table whose strict adherence and enforcement of the rules makes her Wick’s biggest enemy. She’s the one character who never pulls a gun. She never needs to. Yet she’s perhaps the most deadly of all. A call or a swift order is all that’s required.

It’s doubtful that those going into Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be unaware of the first two chapters. With that in mind, you’ll know exactly what to expect. The third outing is more of the same, but with more bullets to the face and a few good visual gags. Galloping on a horse through the city and firing at assassins on motorbikes as though John Wayne was in New York is one of them. And like Webster’s dictionary, the sight of a Morocco bound John Wick stumbling for days among the sand dunes of the desert under a blazing hot sun, looking like Lawrence of Arabia but in dress shoes, a black suit, white shirt, and black tie is another. He’s there in search of The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) a man who sits high atop of the High Table in a tent in the middle of nowhere.  What he actually does there all day is anybody’s guess.

There’s no denying how well all of this adrenaline-fueled violent nonsense is made. If thrills and spills and countless disposable bodies being sliced and diced are all you’re going for, then Chapter 3 is definitely yours. But the never-ending action where there are no consequences to murders, no feeling of pain, or loss, not even the celebration of triumph, ultimately exhausts. With no real investment any more other than admiring how the moves are executed, there’s nothing or no one to root for.  Certainly not Wick.  In reality, he’s just as loathsome as everyone else. After all, the revenge for his pup was covered in 2014. The exhaustion kicks in long before the film concludes.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 131 Minutes

Posted in Film

Tolkien – Film Review

There are certain names in our culture that when heard or seen reach further than existing as a mere representation of a person or a commodity. Its very sound can embody an emotional attachment beyond the norm. Kodak is one. In entertainment, there’s Walt Disney. And in fantasy literature, there’s Tolkien. The very name, the sound, its look, can’t help but conjure images of elves, mountainous snow-capped landscapes, magic rings, and fiery dragons. It’s unique.

In the new biographical drama Tolkien from Finnish film director Dome Karukoski, the early days of the writer, poet, and academic, born in South Africa, raised in England, is told. Beginning with Tolkien’s time as a second lieutenant commanding enlisted men at the Somme after the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front, the officer is left dazed and confused having witnessed and survived one of the bloodiest battles in world history. More than a million men were either killed or wounded.

After being helped by one of his men back into the muddy trenches while bombs and gunfire continue to blast all around them, Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is told, “I don’t think the night will treat us well, sir.” It’s during this time that Tolkien, tired, cold, scared, and with a feverish mind, throughout the night reflects back on the events of his life that lead him to this point.

Tolkien enjoyed a childhood with his mother (Laura Donnelly) and his younger brother living in the pastoral country setting of England’s Sarehole Mill. His father had died in South Africa leaving the family stranded and penniless in another country. Because of this, with the help of Catholic priest and family friend Father Morgan (Colm Meaney), shelter is given, but it would mean having to leave the green mountains of England’s pleasant pastures, as described by poet Robert Blake, and live among the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of Birmingham’s industrial revolution. The clouds of unhealthy smoke blown into the air in volumes from the imposingly tall brick stacks of the factories, polluting everything and everyone for miles, corresponds with the poisonous yellowy green gas Lt. Tolkien experiences in the trenches.

By covering Tolkien’s early years, the film explores the young man’s time after his mother’s death studying at King Edward’s School. While there, he developed a deep fellowship with three other boys. Together they formed a secret society which they called the TCBS (it stood for Tea Club and Barrovian Society, indicating their love of drinking tea in Barrow’s tea stores by the school).

It was during this time that Tolkien met Edith Bratt (Lilly Collins), a young woman three years his senior who lived in a boarding house in an affluent area of Birmingham. But Father Morgan, Tolkien’s legal guardian, disapproved of the relationship and believed it was the older, protestant woman who was responsible for Tolkien failing his exams. The Catholic priest demanded that Tolkien stopped meeting, talking, or even corresponding with the young woman or Tolkien’s university career would be cut short.

The Tolkien estate in England is said to have disavowed the film. That’s not to say it disapproved. It simply wanted it known it had nothing to do with the production. At the time of releasing that statement, the estate had yet to see Karukoski’s movie. Certainly, there are timeline differences in the big screen telling as opposed to how events unfolded in real life. Tolkien and Edith reunite after a temporary breakup just as the young man is about to leave for war. “Stay alive and come back to me,” she insists. In reality, they were already wed, but there appears little that would negatively impact Tolkien’s character or give false allusions to the man. If anything, the film paints a respectful picture of the writer and tends to leave out some of the warts ‘n all elements.

When war broke out, his relatives are said to be shocked when he did not immediately volunteer for the army. Tolkien, who by his own admission had ‘little physical courage,’ elected to continue his studies rather than put on a uniform. At the time, it was commonly thought that the war would end quickly.  It was a year later when he entered the Lancashire Fusiliers after relatives became outspoken regarding their wanting him to fight, and a further eleven months until he was finally sent overseas. The film portrays none of this, indicating only that he was there, at the Somme, doing his part. It also downplays the conflicting role of religion in Tolkien’s life. After the marriage, Edith converted to Catholicism, but the event is not part of this screen retelling. Neither are those famous conversations and shared thoughts with Christian author C.S. Lewis.

What the film does is parade events in its narrative where fans of his writing will recognize references that would go on to inspire events in his work, some more obvious than others. The secret society fellowship of the TCBS is one of them. Plus, when Edith talks of her passion for Wagner’s music, particularly the four-opera cycle, known simply as The Ring, one of Tolkien’s friends chides, “It shouldn’t take six hours to talk about a magic ring.” And it’s during the horrors of suffering in the trenches with the fear of death forever present where for just a moment Tolkien’s feverish mind sees the flame throwers of the Germans as the fiery breath of a CGI dragon. In truth, the sequence is little more than a brief cinematic fantasy invented to satisfy, if only for a moment, those hoping to catch a glimpse of a hobbit or anything else that might relate to the famous Peter Jackson epics.

Lasse Frank Johannessen’s widescreen cinematography is rich in its color and stunning in its well-composed beauty. Plus, the casting throughout is good. With her delicate, attractive features that lend themselves so well to the camera, coupled with her character’s wit, intelligence, and talent, there’s little doubt why Hoult’s Tolkien would be instantly smitten with Collins’ Edith. His lifelong love for her would later become an inspiration for a character found in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a work published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977.

When a professor at Oxford (Derek Jacobi) tells Tolkien, “A word without meaning is merely a sound,” he’s referring to the invented language the student has a talent for creating. Tolkien’s name has a literal meaning – ‘daredevil’ or ‘foolhardy.’ But neither words spring to mind when you think of the man. See the word Tolkien and you now associate a whole different set of meanings; a Shire, fantastical kingdoms, fellowships, hobbits, elven princes, dwarf warriors, dragons, and wizards. Tolkien the movie may not recreate any of those characters or settings, but it does illustrate their inspiration. The film is more like a big screen special edition of a Sunday evening Masterpiece Theatre. It’s as tasteful as the poster suggests, and always engaging.

MPAA Rating: PG 13       Length: 111 Minutes

Posted in Film

Guys and Dolls – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

It’s worth reminding ourselves. In 1950, when Guys and Dolls first opened on Broadway with Sam Levene, it was an instant smash. Critics trumpeted its triumphs and houses were packed. Three years later when practically the same cast moved from New York to London, it was the same story; praise from the papers, packed houses, and a lengthy run. Since then, each subsequent revival has been a major success. In 1982 when a new, re-imagined production opened at London’s National Theatre, it was deemed a sensation and ran for four years. And in ‘92 when Broadway revived it yet again, this time with Nathan Lane headlining, history repeated itself.

Running now at Peoria’s Arizona Broadway Theatre until May 26 is a new, vibrant production of the Frank Loesser musical that underlines why Guys and Dolls works every time. The show doesn’t rely on special effects; there are no falling chandeliers, helicopter landings, or the spectacle of pyrotechnics. It’s that old fashioned style of working with a good book, great characters, high-energy choreography, and a memorable score that hits a bullseye with every song. Each number is so well crafted and perfectly realized, it fits the individual singing it and becomes a musical representation of a characterization in and of itself.

Of course, simply putting on a show where the material is first class doesn’t automatically guarantee a quality production. Because of its popularity for the past sixty-nine years, there have been plenty of low-grade presentations in community theatres, high-schools, and even regional professional theatres that have failed to make the musical sparkle; some covered previously by this column. But that’s not the case here.

For this Jim Christian directed production, ABT has assembled an outstanding cast that appears to be having as good a time on the stage as the audience is having watching them. There’s a comforting feeling that’s immediately evident the moment the show begins. From the energetic choreographed opening of the shady characters going about their shady business behind the backs of the cops in NYC’s Times Square to the conclusion of Fugue for Tinhorns where Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Mathew Mello), Benny Southstreet (Tyler Pirrung) and Rusty Charlie (Taylor Wright) sing of sure things at the racetrack. With voices that harmonize and soar, the tone is set for what you instinctively know is going to be a quality production. And there’s not a moment that follows that ever lets you down.

Those new to Guys and Dolls and seeing it for the first time – how you’re envied – should know that the setting is based on a series of short stories from Damon Runyan, a newspaperman who spun tales of gamblers, gangsters, street hustlers, and their dames who populated the Broadway area not long after the Prohibition era. The book was adapted by Abe Burrows, and though writer Jo Swerling is also listed, this is not his work. Swerling delivered a script that was deemed “inappropriate” and wasn’t used. Burrows was then hired. He wrote a new book. But Swerling’s contract stated that he was to get credit whether any of his material was used or not, which is why you see his name in the program as a co-writer.

The term ‘Runyonesque’ refers to the character – in addition to the above-mentioned tinhorns, there are also other colorful monikers such Harry the Horse (Christopher Cody Cooley), Sky Masterson (Sam Hartley), Big Jule (Bob Downing), and Nathan Detroit (John Cardenas) – while the term ‘Runyonese’ refers to the language. While other characters, such as the Save a Soul missionary Sarah Brown (Trisha Hart Ditsworth), the cop Lt. Brannigan (Olin Davidson) and nightclub singer Miss Adelaide (Caelan Creaser) talk in a more casual present-day vernacular, the guys of the street possess a unique style of present tense formal speech with invented slang and no contractions. It’s funny to hear and great to quote and has the unique ability to be understood even if you’ve never heard the terms before. In 2019, they probably all sound familiar.  In 1950, many of the terms were new. Guys are men; dolls, dames, and broads are women; ne’er do wells and those who welch on their markers are bums; shooters are the guys who play craps; bundle is the amount their betting, and lettuce is the currency they hold. And if a horse ‘can do,’ then it’s a sure thing.

Joseph C. Klug’s scenic design covering the Save a Soul Mission, a nightclub in Havana, the Hot Box nightclub, the sewers where the guys roll dice, and Broadway where most of the action takes place is all a series of painted crazy-house angles. While the backdrops are effective, there’s a definite glitz of Manhattan missing. While the show is described as a musical fable of Broadway, there’s nothing suggesting the sparkle of the Great White Way in its design, not even a sign that reads Times Square. You miss the flash of marquee lights, particularly in the finale when the company assembles for a reprise of the title song. Plus, this might be the first time seeing Lieutenant Brannigan portrayed wearing a cop’s uniform instead of being a plainclothes officer. It doesn’t necessarily spoil things, but it does seem curious.

If you know the ‘55 movie and you’ve wondered why certain songs were cut, including A Bushel and a Peck, the answer’s simple. Producer Samuel Goldwyn is on record of saying he didn’t like them, so they were gone. Fortunately, ABT has messed with nothing and kept the originals intact. Backed by the music direction of Mark 4Man and his accomplished eleven-piece orchestra who sound twice that size, the show soars the most when the voices sing. The ensemble songs, The Oldest Established, Guys and Dolls, and Luck Be A Lady lead by Sam Hartley are as perfectly realized as the solos, highlights being Caelan Creaser’s comical Adelaide’s Lament, Doug Botnick singing Arvide Abernathy’s gentle and lesser-known More I Cannot Give You, and both Trisha Hart Ditsworth’s solos, I Know and If I Were A Bell.

Then there’s the classic Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat with Matthew Mello’s Nicely-Nicely taking the helm and leading the ensemble. If ever a song needed an encore, and not just the chorus but the whole thing from beginning to end, with Christian’s staging and this cast with those voices, it’s this one.

Guys and Dolls continues at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until May

Pictures courtesy of Scott Samplin

Posted in Theatre