Thursday, September 12, 2019

Tolkien: Exceptional Storytelling

Movie Review: Tolkien (2019)
Version: Library Blu-Ray

Much was written about the early life of fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, but not much has been told in film. The 2019 film Tolkien brings to life his struggles and triumphs as an orphan and prodigy of language and the arts in early 20th century England and the imagination that brought him to write two of the world's most beloved stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

As a young boy, John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary would lose both their father and mother and be sent to live with relatives and then a boarding house to grow up. Their legal guardian was a kindly Catholic priest named Father Francis, who shepherded their upbringing and quality education. Tolkien takes us through those cold, difficult days, and the part camaraderie played in building Tolkien's imagination and the appreciation of friendship and fellowship that would become key themes in his books. He struggled to pass his exams to earn scholarships and just as he was about to attach himself to an esteemed professor of language, The War to End All Wars (World War I) erupted and Tolkien found himself on the front lines in Europe, where his experiences fueled many of his visions for the horrors of battle for his stories. Of course, he returned after the war to become a professor of philology and write his books. Many of his friends did not make it through the war, providing grist for his tales as well. 

Tolkien is a rugged, ambitious telling of Tolkien's early life and a celebration of language and storytelling. The action is vivid, its settings are breathtaking, and the characters are heartwarming, making for brilliant film making and the story memorable. So, too, the imagery is evocative. The film does Tolkien himself proud. Harry Gilby is excellent as young J.R.R. and Nicholas Hoult is devout as his adult self. Colm Meany was wonderful as Father Francis. They lead a great cast. As a steadfast Tolkien fan, I found the film Tolkien exceptional.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Shazam!: Impish, Upbeat -- I'm Liking It!

Movie Review: Shazam! (2019)
Version: Library Blu-Ray borrow

Shazam! is a new kind of superhero movie, fashioned out of comic books first published in the 1940's and over time morphed by DC Comics into something of a wink and a nod to what you think of today as the persona of a Superman or a Batman. Its greatest feature is its impish, upbeat sense of humor. I'm really liking it!

Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) is an orphaned boy who has grown up trying to find his idealized mother, living in and out of well meaning but not-making-it Philadelphia foster families. Most refuse to deal with him but in his latest family he finds foster parents and foster siblings who won't give up on him and an incorrigible new friend in Freddy (played by Jack Dylan Grazer) who helps him discover his amazing new powers. Taken to an underground lair by Wizard Shazam to become the champion to keep the seven evil powers in check, twelve year old Billy is selected to protect the world, but the wizard gives him no instructions. Meanwhile, a previous candidate to be champion, Dr. Sivana (played by Mark Strong), who was denied, returns and is chosen by the seven evil powers to be their champion. This is when the heart of the movie takes off.

A fun part of the film is Freddy helping Billy figure out what his powers are. The two twelve-year-olds do what twelve-year-olds would do testing ideas, some good some not so good. Billy proclaims the wizard's name, "Shazam!" to become the superhero or to return to himself, as he and Freddy try to figure out how to live out the dream life of a kid being a superhero. They learn he can't fly, falling flat on his face, but that he is impervious to pain. In fact, the two sneaking out of the foster care house late at night and going to a convenience store, stop an armed robbery. As part of their discovery process they tease the robbers into shooting Billy, watching the bullets bounce off. "It kinda tickles," Billy giggles. There is all kinds of silliness between the two new buddies as the movie fully explores this relationship, and it works.

Eventually Dr. Sivana shows up to challenge Billy. And the two are of equal power. This contest puts everyone connected with Billy in danger, so while Billy originally just sloughs it off he finally realizes he has to take it serious. This is where the fun wears off. The movie drags on as it takes an enormous amount of time to resolve the conflict between Dr. Sivana and Billy. Honestly, they could have done it in half the time. As is, they cheapened the charm.

What the superhero movie genre needed was a sense of humor after taking itself too seriously for too long, and Shazam! fits the bill just great. (Just next time, guys, resolve the conflict more quickly, OK?)

Friday, September 06, 2019

Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany: A Lot of Information; Hours of Entertainment!

Book Review: Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany by Julian Stockwin
Version: Author paperback

Author Julian Stockwin posted past photos on Facebook of his research trips for his historical fiction novels, and I commented that he should write a book compiling some of his most interesting finds. He steered me to Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany, "A Ditty Bag of Wonders From the Golden Age of Sail". I was expecting a book of interesting bits and pieces of lore and wisdom of the sea, perhaps some notes on tying knots and types of sails and classes of wooden tackle blocks. But no, this wide collection of knowledge is much more than that.

Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany is a small "tome" of research of the age of sail. Of the people and the places and the battles from that amazing time when England was the master of the seas and none dared oppose her. Too, it digs deep into the words we speak that emerged from that time. And it tells of the daring and the discoveries that both heroes and the plainspoken achieved who might have lived lesser lives on land. Also, it delves into inventions that marked a time when men had to come up with their own solutions to challenges, so far away from civilization, and the beliefs and superstitions that followed them far out to sea. Such faraway and dangerous travel would also have its misfortunes, and Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany has a section on those, too.

Most often when I'm reading a Stockwin novel, I want to breeze through it, because it's a compelling story I must finish to the end. But Stockin's Maritime Miscellany isn't that kind of work. You want to study it and savor it for its detail. And there's plenty of detail! One hundred and eighty-seven pages of regular content, plus eighteen pages of museums, important historical dates, ship sizes, and a detailed glossary. And the book is full of historical black and white photographs, with a photo index in the back.

So to say I was pleasantly surprised by the contents is an understatement. "Miscellany" is a good description! Reading this thorough book will provide you with not only a lot of information but also many hours of entertainment. It belongs on any shelf with books of stories of naval engagement, not to mention age of sail. And it gives you a deep understanding of the history of the times. If you haven't read Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany, add it to your to-read list now.