Charlize Theron Saves ‘Long Shot’; Third ‘Wick’ Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea; ‘Tolkien’ a Simple Tale, Well Told

By BILL GEIGER | May 29, 2019

Long Beach Island — These last two weeks I’ve seen some pretty disparate flicks. One was good, though. One was worth my time. That’s usually how the math adds up at this time of year. There’s a 33 percent chance I’ll see a film that I like during the two-week, three-film cycle I usually follow for this column. The other two? Heh-heh. More on them later.

And so, in no particular order, the three films screened for this week are “Long Shot,” with Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen; “John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum,” with Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Halle Berry; and “Tolkien,” with Nicholas Hoult.

“Long Shot” is a fantasy “rom-com” that asks the question, what happens when a nerdy, pimply young adolescent, Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a high school freshman, just discovers the power a beautiful girl could have over him.

He convinces said beautiful girl, Charlotte Field (Theron), a senior who also “babysits” him, to read her speech for student council president one night. He compliments the speech effusively, receives a somewhat passionate kiss from Charlotte, then does what any pimply red-blooded nerdy American boy would do after such a kiss. He becomes so physically aroused his pajama pants are unable to contain the image of his hard-on.

Thus begins one of the film’s primary leitmotifs.

As happens in life, their paths diverge. Fred lands a job writing for an independent news service while Charlotte lands in politics (remember she was writing a student council campaign speech), tosses her influence behind a shady character who runs for President (Bob Odenkirk) and wins, and appoints Charlotte secretary of state, a position she fills well due to her character and work ethic.

Fred, meanwhile, finds out his paper is being purchased by right-wing billionaire Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), who likes to scoop up leftist publications like these and dismantle them. Fred is so bothered by this news he quits the paper and then wonders what he’ll do going forward.

Fred calls his best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) hoping Lance’ll be able to take his mind off his quitting his job, and it works for a while, but Lance takes Fred to a large party where Charlotte is in attendance, as is the billionaire who purchased Fred’s former paper. There’s an unfortunate incident between Fred and Wembley, but not before there’s a twinge of recognition between Fred and Charlotte.

Before long, Fred and Charlotte reconnect, and although it’s almost a beauty and the beast scenario, enough embers from their long-ago tryst remain for them to rekindle their relationship, and then to take it up a few notches.

Charlotte decides to hire Fred to “punch up” her speeches; he succeeds at this, and also at insinuating himself into her life. Her chief of staff and other handlers are at great odds with Charlotte’s decision, and as she is intending to run for president, even more convinced that Charlotte’s decisions concerning Fred are going to doom the presidential run.

We all know the road to the presidency can be fraught with lots of potholes, and Charlotte and Fred are faced with a whopper, but in true Hollywood fashion, “Long Shot” plays the odds and, well, you know how it’ll end.

Theron continues to amaze in some of the roles I have had the privilege to watch over the past few years. From “Mad Max: Fury Road” to “Snow White and the Huntsman” to “Atomic Blonde,” her range keeps expanding. She has exquisite comic timing, and can as easily wend her way around a comedy as she can the most dramatic role out there, as she does playing a serial killer in “Monster.” She makes “Long Shot” work.

Seth Rogen, on the other hand, is as limited as Charlotte is gifted. He is funny; he is earnest; but his range is about half hers. If the role calls for a geeky nebbish, Rogen’s your man. But he’s certainly not a leading man, nor someone who should be carrying a film such as this. Luckily, he didn’t have to.

As I said, Charlize carried the film, and “Long Shot” wouldn’t have worked at all if any other actor had played Charlotte Field. So Rogen should count himself lucky, since Theron lifted all the scenes in which she and Rogen played together. The supporting cast was good as well, and really, the film only really dragged once, during the middle reel, and during one of Rogen’s longer interludes.

*   *   *

I suppose the John Wick movies are an acquired taste. Truth be told, I’ve only seen pieces of “John Wick” and “John Wick: Chapter 2,” mostly on television and mostly late at night.

I’d start watching them, and after about 15 minutes, I’d channel surf again, having no interest in the film. I’ve seen enough bits and pieces of each to be able to piece together the respective plots, and wondered if the third chapter would be any different. It wasn’t.

For those who have been living on Mars or have had their heads in the sand since 2014, the year of the first “John Wick,” or 2017, the year of the sequel, John Wick is a taciturn, moody individual, an assassin by trade, who was on the verge of retirement in the first film but circumstances and several attacks on his life (and the life of his beloved dog) forced him back into the assassin trade.

As far as I can tell in “Chapter 2,” Wick is in Italy repaying some kind of debt to the Italian Mafia, which allows the sullen, reticent killer a chance to run around Rome among all the ancient and medieval structures that dot the city, killing bad guys or dispatching them with his martial arts skills.

In “John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum,” our beloved killer walks around in what seems to be a perpetual New York night, trying to evade the hordes of assassins who want to kill him. You see, at the end of Chapter 2, Wick apparently killed a member of the High Table, the Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio. The High Table oversees everything the member assassins do, a virtual overall ruling group of the International Assassins club.

Because of this, Wick is considered “excommunicado” by his handlers from the High Table and fair game for any of the other assassins. Plus, as an added incentive, a $14 million bounty is placed on his head. Once that sentence is handed down, Wick has until 6 p.m. that night to get his affairs in order. Then the killing begins.

It’s not just a dark night in New York, for Wick. It’s a rainy one, as well.

Now that he knows he’s fair game, Wick tries to reach out to various people to ask for some help. But he still has some time before the bounty begins, so he goes to the public library in New York City to retrieve some valuables hidden in a book. With about 15 minutes to go before his bounty is collectable, Wick discovers the first assassin gunning for him, and Philadelphia Sixers fans should be interested in him.

Reserve center Boban Marjanovic plays Ernest, the first assassin, who decides to ignore the 15 minutes Wick still has left to him for his safety. Wick tries to get him to give him more time.

“I still have 15 minutes. Just give me that,” Wick pleads.

“Who’s going to know?” Ernest answers.

The old saying “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” is a valuable lesson Ernest should have learned before he decided to try to assassinate Wick. He would have been better off sticking to basketball.

Once the clock hits 6, all hell breaks loose. Wick finds assassins around every corner. The highly orchestrated martial arts fights are impressive for the first three or four groups of assassins who come after Wick. After that, it begins to numb the senses. In the two hour and 10-minute run time, I’d say two hours are spent in chopsocky martial arts fighting. I don’t care how good a fighter is, I’d have to guess half an hour of fighting is enough to exhaust anyone.

But then again, John Wick is not a typical person. He has more lives than a Cheshire cat. He fights in the rain, he fights in the dark, he fights in the library, he fights anywhere an assassin can find him. He fights on motorcycles, on horses, in New York, in Casablanca, in the desert, in hotels. Wherever assassins are looking for him, John Wick will accommodate them.

Angelica Huston, playing a ballet director, tries to help. She helps him get to Casablanca, where he looks up Halle Berry, an old friend and the director of a hotel there, and she helps him find the Elder who Wick believes can relieve him of his curse. Berry travels with two attack dogs whom she equips with bulletproof vests behind which she hides handguns.

One of the dogs gets shot, and you think, geez, someone just killed a dog, then you see the dog running after Berry and mauling more bad guys. No kidding, the sequence in Casablanca saw at least 100 bad guys killed. Then John goes into the desert with a small drop of water in a water bottle, hoping to find the Elder of the High Table who can help him.

He walks for a while with his scraggly hair and his black suit, then passes out, gets picked up and put on a camel, then deposited into the tent of the Elder. The short sequence, which lasts maybe half the time of the battle of Casablanca, was perhaps the weakest link in the whole film.

But from there, more carnage, as he returns to New York and to the hotel where the High Table likes to stay. A character known as The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) has come to the hotel to set the balance of assassin justice swinging correctly, hoping to get the likes of John Wick into the ledger of the dead.

To that end, she tries to enlist Winston (Ian McShane), the hotel’s owner, and Charon (Lance Reddick), the concierge, to help her, but they’re not wholly on board. Charon, by the way, is the mythological figure who ferries souls of the dead across the river Styx. Nothing, however, can remove the soul of this film from its stygian darkness.

So The Adjudicator solicits Zero (Mark Dacascos), a sushi chef and master assassin, to eliminate John Wick, which sets up the whole denouement, eventually a mano-a-mano fight between Wick and Zero. It’s epic, but, by that time, we’ve seen so much chopsocky nothing registers anymore.

I tried to keep the choreography of the fighting in mind, the epic way director Chad Stahelski lined up his scenes, but the sequence in Casablanca kept coming back to me. Stahelski, by the way, was a stunt double for Reeves in the Matrix films.

Speaking of the Matrix films, Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus in those flicks, is in John Wick as the Bowery King, forced by The Adjudicator to give up his reign because he helped John Wick. Seems like you can’t win if you do, and you can’t win if you don’t. A film for the video gamers and that ilk, “John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum” is certainly not everyone’s taste.

By the way, the “Parabellum” in the title is a kind of handgun, but the word itself means “prepare for war.” It was mentioned in the writings of a 4th-century Roman, one Publius Flavius Vegetius, and the whole quote goes like this: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” I suppose John Wick is prepared for war; that is, after all, his whole life.

*   *   *

Not so for John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the sensitive and bookish author of The Lord of the Rings. When war was declared in 1914 England, Tolkien was a student at Oxford University, and he and most of his classmates left school to join the cause. The scenes of the war were horrific, and it would have been very difficult for a student to be able to return to the calmer life of academia after experiencing that.

But Tolkien did experience The Great War, more specifically the Battle of the Somme, a 1916 battle in which the death toll among the British, French and Germans was one million soldiers, making it one of the costliest battles in that war and in all the wars previous. Tolkien’s experience in that battle was mind numbing, but the film used it as a way to explain how Tolkien’s imagination was able to transcend mundane existence and keep him somewhat grounded.

All this as a way to introduce “Tolkien,” a biography of J.R.R. up to the publication of The Lord of the Rings. A very simple film, one that both lays out the trajectory of his writing and shows his ability and prodigious intellect. Nicholas Hoult plays the teenage and adult John Ronald.

He was born in South Africa, but his mother moved the family back to England after a lengthy visit turned permanent when his father died during their long trip. It was clear that Mable Tolkien was a pervasive influence on young Ronald (that’s what everyone called him), and taught him Latin and told both Ronald and his younger brother stories filled with giants and dragons and fairies, accompanied by a “magic lantern” that would spin, sending fantastic images across the walls of their bedroom.

Mable converted to Catholicism and grew friendly with the local priest, Father Francis (Colm Meany), who was a major figure in young Ronald’s life. When Mable suddenly died of complications from diabetes, Francis took over the raising of the boys. He sent them to live in a boarding house, where Ronald looked after his younger brother Hilary, but could never forget the stories his mother told.

Ronald started to experiment with language, creating one from scratch with vocabulary, grammar, syntax and everything a language needs. No doubt, he used his knowledge of Latin to bring this about. That knowledge of Latin and Anglo Saxon helped his memory retain all that it did. In one interesting scene, Ronald went to a new school, and in his literature class was asked to read The Canterbury Tales in the Middle English, and when it was his turn, though no one showed him where they were in the poem, Ronald rose and picked up the poem exactly where the students had left off, and began to recite it in perfect Middle English from memory.

Eventually he would make the acquaintance of several of the students at this new school, and Ronald and three others formed a club in which they discussed poetry, history, linguistics, anything that interested them. Ronald by this time was also fancying a girl, several years his senior, who was living in the same boarding house. Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) played the piano and delighted Ronald a great deal.

When the time came for him to go to college, he would need a scholarship because he couldn’t afford Oxford. He received one, but his time with Edith caused him to miss assignments, and he was in danger of being sent down to a lower college. When all else seemed lost, he discovered Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) in the department of philology, the love of words and language, something Tolkien likewise loved. He convinced Wright to give him a scholarship, and he was again settling in with languages, this time Old English and Gothic.

Then the Great War broke out. Tolkien volunteered, served with the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. He saw his first action in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, but by then he was suffering from trench fever, a condition caused by bites from lice. I’m sure the horrific fighting in that battle, with the Germans using flamethrowers and shooting poison gas, left a lasting impression on Tolkien and certainly infused his later battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings.

“Tolkien” tells the story of a major fantasy writer of the early 20th century. It doesn’t make any profound statements, other than early childhood is the time to plant the seeds of education. Give kids books, not phones. You never know what kind of an imagination you’ll be growing.


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