Mini-Movie Review: ‘Tolkien’ is Fairly Inessential Bio-Cinema

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynne-Carney, Craig Roberts

Director: Dome Karukoski

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Flashes of World War I

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Would you be intrigued to know that some of the elements of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s actual life? The biopic Tolkien is counting on it, although it is not especially committed to that idea. The legendary English fantasy writer (as played dutifully by Nicholas Hoult) is haunted by memories of World War I with rather dragon-esque fire in the sky, and he has a tight group of schoolmates that one might call a fellowship. But beyond those (easily identifiable, not particularly cinematic) connections, this is a fairly straightforward story about a boy of modest, tragic (Dickensian, even) origins who made good. It is a life well-lived, but not necessarily captivating at every little moment. But at least his romance with his future wife Edith (Lily Collins) is compelling, built as it is on mutual respect and fascination. The emotions in their declarations of love are not atypical for the genre, but the language is unique and heartfelt. Focusing the whole movie on this intimate love story might have been a more inspired choice.

Tolkien is Recommended If You Like: Tolkien completism, The less interesting story behind the story

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Cellar Doors

My 2019 Tribeca Film Festival Adventure


Photo Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Another spring, another Tribeca Film Festival. As is my custom, I took in a few films at the Lower Manhattan fest, and now I am here to report back to you what I thought of the offerings. Read on to discover what was in store in my 2019 Tribeca Film Festival Adventure!


This Is a Movie Review: Bong Joon-ho Wants ‘Okja’ the Super Pig to Be Your New Best Friend

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, Shirley Henderson

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: Not Rated, But Watch Out for Factory-Grade and Mano-a-Mano Violence

Release Date: June 28, 2017 (Theatrically in New York and Los Angeles/Streaming on Netflix)

There are some people who are perfectly fine with consuming animal products, and then there are others who are staunchly vegan. If a multinational conglomerate were to engineer adorable giant pigs to cure world hunger, I do not imagine that most people would change their stances. Nor, if his latest film Okja is any indication, does Bong Joon-ho. But we are not here to focus on the masses (save for a decadent prologue that establishes that they are here to lap up whatever innovation/new species is fed to them). This is a story about a girl and her super pig, and all the zany, brainy, insane-y forces of the world that get in her way.

It might be possible to find Okja – who looks like a land-dwelling hippo with big ol’ floppy ears and a stretched-out porcine face – completely adorable and still be okay with eating bacon. I know I certainly do. Or perhaps this film will convince to swear off all pork products forever. No matter where you fall on this spectrum, it cannot be denied that Okja’s young farmgirl companion Mija (newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun) has been done wrong in so many ways. Her grandfather sells Okja to the Miranda Corporation, which will purportedly parade her around as the winner of a Super Pig contest, but of course that is just a distraction away from how the sausage is made. A visit to the factory makes it look practically genocidal. A group of activists known as the Animal Liberation Front teams up with Mija to expose Miranda for what it really is, but their motives may not fully align with each other, as Mija just wants to take Okja back home. And taking it all back to the beginning, Okja and Mija’s friendship was practically engineered by Miranda for its marketability.

Despite how grossly its animal characters are treated, Okja is not about shaming its audience. Its purpose is holding up a cracked funhouse mirror to global capitalism. Or is it just a normal mirror? In which version do we ravenously consume faces and anuses? (They’re American as apple pie!)

Befitting a Bong Joon-ho film and a world in which people feel that they can get away with anything, the production design is a beautiful and lavish rainbow, but also probably extravagantly wasteful. The characterization is similarly outsized, with the heroes, villains, and half-hero/half-villains alike displaying a range of delectable behavior. As the braces-wearing Miranda CEO, Tilda Swinton is an anxious mix of demonstrating her power and proving that she does in fact have power. Her underlings include the preternaturally calm Giancarlo Esposito and the bizarrely squeaky-voiced flibbertigibbet Shirley Henderson. Jake Gyllenhaal is deep in character work as usual as a sweaty, shorts-sporting zoologist TV host. And as the head of the ALF, Paul Dano offers up scary commitment. His brand of ethics is admirable, but not above violent enforcement. Okja asks: do we really want to free the animals if it requires such militancy?

When the film gets into specifics, though, the questions are never that simple. It all rests on the shoulders of little Mija, who has the most clear-cut motivation of anyone. Her focus and resolve allow her to achieve her purpose, but it is not clear that that result makes the world a better place. What do we make of life when every individual story is a MacGuffin?

Okja is Recommended If You Like: Orphan Black, Free Willy, The Hunger Games

Grade: 4 out of 5 Magical Animals

This Is a Movie Review: Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes Passion Project ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ is a Strange Hot Mess

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This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening

Director: Warren Beatty

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for a Few Snafus Involving Alcohol and Bodily Fluids

Release Date: November 23, 2016

Rules Don’t Apply has four credited editors and 16 credited producers, and the entire of all of their handiwork can be felt onscreen. Warren Beatty’s passion project about the ’50s Hollywood goings-on in billionaire producer/aviator Howard Hughes’ empire has about as many approaches as it does characters, and it has A LOT of characters. The two main ones are virginal aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her driver, aspiring businessman Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). The pair’s flirtatiousness is doomed by Hughes’ rule prohibiting romance between any of his employees and also by the film losing track of their story. Joining them is a who’s who of the friends that Beatty has made over the years, most of them flitting in and out for a hot second.

While the wild shifts in pacing and tone prevent Rules Don’t Apply from amounting to much, there are plenty of details scattered around that are worth some pleasures (and if corralled more efficiently, could have made for a much more accomplished end product). Much of this is to do with some oft-repeated, almost mantra-like bits of dialogue. After Howard tells Marla where their H2O is from, she wonders aloud, sounding as if she is learning for the first time either the entire concept of liquids or how to speak English, “Hmm. Water. From Maine.” Also contributing to the lack of experience of living as a human is Howard’s bizarre insistence on a very particular ice cream flavor. Perhaps that same whimsy explains all the alliteration in the character names.

Hidden beneath this weird mess of nominal satire is a fascinating performance from Beatty. “Hidden” is the optimum word here, both because this film is hard to make sense of and because Beatty often shoots himself in the shadows, with Howard an enigmatic presence taking care of most of his business behind closed doors and via middlemen. But his inscrutable ways are commanding. The chaos surrounding him serves this svengali’s arc well. It is almost as if Beatty figured out exactly the movie he wanted to make but forgot to tell everyone else. To be fair, that is understandable when you have four editors and 16 producers.

Rules Don’t Apply is Recommended If You Like: Being Confused

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Bowls of Banana Nut Ice Cream