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 ‘La La Land’ is something to sing about

In time for Christmas, there’s the eye-popping, heart-lifting “La La Land,” which honors and modernizes the screen musical to such joyful effect that you might find yourself pirouetting home from the multiplex.

OK, perhaps we exaggerate.

“La La Land,” created by the copiously talented writer/director Damien Chazelle and featuring the dream pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is not for everyone.

Perhaps you don’t like music, or singing, or dancing. Or romance, or love, or beautiful people falling in love. Or sunsets, or primary colors, or pastels. Or stories. Or, heck, the movies themselves.

If you don’t like any of those things, maybe stay home.

Otherwise, be prepared: By the end, something will surely have activated those tear ducts. The one complaint I overheard upon leaving the film was: “I didn’t have enough Kleenex.”

The first obvious gift of “La La Land” is its sheer originality. Let’s start with the music. Unlike in so many other films, nobody else’s hits are used here. The affecting score is by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (also getting kudos for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”)

Our setting is Los Angeles, and so it begins — as it must — on a jammed freeway.

But unlike Michael Douglas in “Falling Down,” the drivers here simply brush off their frustrations, exit their cars, and break into song and dance.

This virtuoso number, “Another Day of Sun,” which was filmed on a freeway interchange with some 100 dancers toiling in sizzling temperatures, establishes Chazelle’s high-flying ambitions. It also tells us we’d darned well better be ready for people to break out into song — because that happens in musicals. And it introduces our main characters.

Sebastian (Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist, with stubborn dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress, working as a barista while auditioning for TV parts. They clash on the freeway. She gives him the finger.

They have a second bad meeting at a piano bar. Finally they meet a third time, at a party. Suddenly, they find themselves on a bench overlooking the Hollywood Hills at dusk. And then … they dance.

Is it Astaire and Rogers (or Charisse)? Yes and no. Stone and Gosling are charming musical performers, but way less polished and ethereal than their cinematic forbears. This human quality in their first duet makes us root for them.

And we keep on rooting. It’s hard to imagine more perfect casting here. Gosling’s Sebastian is suave and sexy but also ornery and unsure of himself; Stone’s Mia is warm and ebullient but also fretful and self-doubting. They need each other to chase their respective dreams.

But what will success mean, and can they possibly achieve it together? It’s this pillar of the story that lends it a very modern, melancholy bite.

Chazelle, 31, shows his love for cinema with references both sly and overt to classics like “Singin’ In the Rain” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

And then there’s the nod to “Rebel Without a Cause,” with a scene at LA’s Griffith Observatory.

There, at a place built to watch the stars, the two dancing lovers actually lift up into them.

It’s corny, sure, and gorgeous and romantic. As Sebastian says to his sister earlier in the film, “You say ‘romantic’ like it’s a bad word!” In a musical, romantic is NEVER a bad word.

Some people resist musicals because in real life, people never break out into song; they just speak their feelings. To which musical lovers say: “Exactly! And this is why we need musicals.”

Long live the musical. Bring enough Kleenex.

Natalie Portman explores the mysteries of Jackie Kennedy

Jacqueline Kennedy did not have a conventional speaking voice. It’s part New York, part prep school Mid-Atlantic, and it’s jarring to most modern ears. Natalie Portman remembers her first few days on the set of “Jackie,” going all in on that very specific accent and looking up to see her director Pablo Larrain’s wide-eyed bafflement.

“Pablo’s face was like ‘uhhhhh…’,” Portman said laughing.

They were filming a recreation of the television special “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” where CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood followed the first lady around with cameras as they spoke about each room and her pricey restoration. Larrain stopped during one take and played footage of the actual tour just to check. He was amazed at how spot-on Portman’s interpretation actually was.

Still, “at the beginning it was shocking,” Larrain said.

It was also, he notes, different from how Jackie Kennedy sounded in other circumstances. She had a public voice and a private voice, which Portman was able to study through Kennedy’s recorded interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

The film “Jackie,” out in limited release, explores the nuances of these public and private sides of the enigmatic figure in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband in 1963 as she plans the funeral, exits her home, comforts her children and tends to her husband’s legacy.

It’s what compelled screenwriter Noah Oppenheim to make her the subject of his first script.

“Most often she is perceived through the lens of being this style icon, this beautiful woman at her husband’s side. People are fascinated by their marriage and his infidelities. But I didn’t feel like she had ever gotten enough credit for understanding intuitively the power of television, the power of imagery and iconography and her role in defining how we remember her husband’s presidency,” Oppenheim said.

It was she, a week after the assassination, in an interview with Theodore H. White for LIFE magazine, who first uttered the word Camelot in reference to their time in power.

“I always assumed that the Kennedy administration had been referred to as Camelot from the beginning, that they were this young, handsome couple and American royalty,” Oppenheim said. “The fact that she came up with Camelot is incredible. That one reference accomplishes more than any list of policy accomplishments ever could have in terms of cementing in people’s minds who Jack Kennedy was.”

The film, however, isn’t out to provide answers. It relishes in Jackie being this inscrutable figure, showing the subtle differences in her interactions with the people around her, including a priest (John Hurt), the journalist (Billy Crudup), her longtime friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard).

“(Oppenheim) told her story through these different relationships and the different roles she played around the people in her life at different times. I think that’s really powerful … Consistency or arc is really a narrative fiction. Human beings are not like that,” said Portman, who is earning some of the best reviews of her career for her performance.

Larrain wouldn’t do the film without Portman. The script had been around since 2010 before getting the attention of Darren Aronofsky, who was set to direct his then-fiance Rachel Weisz in the role. After exiting, Aronofsky stayed on to produce and was the one who made the somewhat unconventional ask of Larrain, a Chilean filmmaker, to consider it.

When Portman met with Larrain, she said it was akin to “being dared” to do the film.

“He was like, ‘we’re going to do this together or we’ll both walk away,’” she said. “I was like ‘all right, this is good. Let’s take each other’s hands and jump.’”

The tone, thanks to studied editing of Sebastian Sepulveda and a striking score by Mica Levi, can sometimes seem more like a psychological thriller than a conventional character study. Larrain delights in the beauty of bringing an audience to “that indeterminate place.”

Portman, on the other hand, knows she’s at the disposal of her directors and often isn’t aware of the exact tone until she sees the finished product.

“When we were making ‘Black Swan,’ I thought I was making a completely different movie from the one I saw. I thought we were making something almost like a documentary and then I saw it and I was like ‘What? What is this!?’ I literally had no idea,” she said. “I thought it was like a realistic portrait of a psychological breakdown of a person and it was not at all. You can totally misunderstand tone, but still it can work.”

The film, heavy with historical and emotional significance, did allow for some levity, though, compliments of that White House Tour.

“We enjoyed that so much,” Larrain said. “It was just talking about furniture and chairs. And she would even make the same mistakes Jackie did.”

Portman: “We laughed a lot. Pablo kept being like ‘be more excited about the chair!’ She’s REALLY excited about the chair.”

Larrain: “But it was necessary because it shows a kind of splendor. I think when you are portraying such a tragic and critical moment, you need to have splendor to really understand that.”

‘Trolls’ is big-hearted sensory overload

“Trolls” is a sugary sweet confection of sights and sounds that will surely leave a fair share of adults with an aching stomach and bleeding ears from sensory overload.

But, it’s not for them, is it?

Sure, it’s their childhood toys that are being riffed on, but beyond the dazzlingly grotesque renderings of the 1970s rec room look — all carpets and felt and mustard yellows — “Trolls” is not a nostalgia play.

It’s for the kids, and fairly young ones too, who will no doubt be swept up by the neon, the sterilized cover songs of pop music past and present, and the goofy, big-hearted humor. Even the parents will find loads of charm from that last one. The script is quite clever, but it is too easily overshadowed by everything else that’s going on (which is a lot).

The governing theory behind “Trolls” seems to have been to crank it up to eleven at every turn. That fits with the mantra of the Trolls themselves, which is hyper positivity (and I do mean hyper). They sing and dance and hug every hour and celebrate with joyous abandon. There’s even a Troll in full body sparkles who sings only in auto-tune — an example of how the jokes can go way too far into just plain annoying territory.

Thankfully, it’s grounded with some truly fantastic vocal talent led by Anna Kendrick (Princess Poppy), whose impeccable comedic timing and silky speaking and singing are perfectly used. I just wish they would have stuck with more original songs, saving the known pop tunes for comedic effect only. Sonically speaking, “Trolls” is hitting a little too close to that abysmal George Lucas mess “Strange Magic.”

The story itself is an odd one. The Trolls have some distant neighbors called Bergens — grotesque-looking monsters suffering from chronic depression who decided long ago that the only way to be happy is to eat Trolls. Yes, EAT the Trolls, like their own personal supply of Prozac. For some reason, they only do this once a year on Trollstice. But that all ended 20-some years ago when the Troll King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) heroically staged a massive escape mission, saving his subjects from death by Bergen.

Cut to the present day and the Trolls are happy and celebratory as ever, but their party gets a little too rowdy and, well, an exiled Bergen (Christine Baranski) spots them and captures a few to weasel her way back into the good graces of the people of Bergen Town. The dreary ugliness of Bergen Town and its inhabitants actually has a bit of a Jim Henson-vibe, reminding older audiences of a time when children’s productions were still allowed to be insanely weird and even a little creepy. But it stops at the visuals. Even the awkward Bergen scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) has a perfectly crisp pop voice when she bursts into Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Why didn’t she go full character actress in song? It’s just another one of the ways in which “Trolls” mashes up past and present in a way that doesn’t quite coalesce.

In any event, Poppy and the rare negative troll Branch (Justin Timberlake) take it on themselves to go try to save the captured Trolls. They have a fun enough buddy comedy chemistry together, though Timberlake is not as adept at voice acting as Kendrick is. And ultimately, the “get happy” moral of the story, while trite compared to something like “Inside Out,” is sufficiently sweet enough for its audience. Did you expect more from a piece of candy?


Wee, weird heroes star in ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home’

After a steady stream this year of Batman, Superman, Captain America, X-Men and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it’s time now for a group of kids who float, are invisible, who spark fire, manipulate plants, control bees and give life to inanimate objects. Not really, X-Men exactly. Call them X-Tweens.

They’re the unlikely young heroes and heroines of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the Tim Burton-directed 3-D film loosely based on the novel of the same name by Ransom Riggs.

Sweet, with some mind-blowing visual effects, it’s the perfect film for your young disaffected mutant friends.

Asa Butterfield (Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) plays a young adult who stumbles upon a secret refuge for supernaturally gifted youngsters hiding in a time loop in 1943.

Our hero befriends the mysterious schoolmarm Miss Peregrine (a delicious Eva Green, channeling a sexy Mary Poppins by way of Helena Bonham Carter) and learns that the children are in danger from ever-growing malevolent forces.

Burton is a natural choice to direct: The material already has that gloomy, Victorian vibe, a stylized dreamlike quality and a sort of Goth-punk look, which is catnip to the director of Edward Scissorhands.

He also famously adores misfits; here, the screen is filled with them.

No surprise the job of turning the book into a film was handed to Jane Goldman, who is familiar both with mutants and the 1940s, having been the screenwriter for X-Men: First Class. A somewhat ponderous first half leads to a hard-charging second, filled with ingenious fight-scenes, glorious ocean liners and sublime underwater moments.

The film should come with a Harry Potter-like warning for those allergic to new whimsical vocabulary terms like “ymbrines,” “Hollows” and “hollowgasts.”

But go with it.

Your head will be in pain soon enough trying to make sense of the increasingly elaborate rules of time-travel and body shifting.

The peculiar children of the film’s title are certainly unique but you can find plenty of other films in the DNA of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, particularly skeleton soldiers from Jason and the Argonauts, the X-Men franchise for making freaks lovable, Groundhog Day and even the underappreciated Hayden Christensen film Jumper, which also has time shifting at its core and the same sort of evil force in Samuel L. Jackson.

Hyper-stylized films like Burton’s usually create stiff performances, but Terence Stamp is grounded as a knowing grandfather and Chris O’Dowd is perfectly oafish as a clueless dad.

Other cameos are by Judi Dench, Allison Janney and Rupert Everett (blink and you miss them). Ella Purnell is lovely and understated as a love interest; she’s buoyant, in more ways than one.

So stretch your definition of heroes to include, say, a cute little girl with razor-sharp teeth on the back of her head. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has all the making of a super franchise — the call of destiny, the making of heroes and the embrace of kinship. Plus, of course, coming to terms with your inner freak.

Tim Curry, Laverne Cox commit to ‘Rocky Horror’ remake

Tim Curry’s participation in Fox TV’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped erode fan resistance to a remake of the 1975 cult film, producer Lou Adler said.

“As you can imagine, when we announced we were doing this there was a tremendous backlash from fans who have been with us for 40 years,” said Adler, who was behind both the big-screen original and the Fox version airing in October.

“That all loosened up,” he said, when Curry signed on to the role of Narrator. The actor played scientist and transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the film.

“You really made the difference,” director-choreographer Kenny Ortega told Curry during a Q&A with TV critics about the project.

“It was a blessing. I loved being there,” Curry replied. Asked how he felt about Frank-N-Furter being his most enduring role, his reply was droll.

“That’s not much I can do about it, really,” he said.

The lovefest resumed when producers discussed the performance of Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) as the new Frank-N-Furter. Cox didn’t participate in the panel.

“She had so much to give to it,” Ortega, also a producer on the project, said of Cox, citing her depth of talent, life experience and “incredible respect” for the movie. He recalled the first day of rehearsal for the cast album, when Cox performed “Sweet, Sweet Transvestite” with Curry, who uses a wheelchair, sitting alongside the pianist.

When she finished, Ortega said, Curry was the first to respond, shouting “bravo!”

There was a note of cynicism introduced, this from reporters who asked why a remake of a beloved film was needed.

Ortega replied that the remake gives an “incredible cast” the opportunity to bring new life to the characters with “vivacity and creativity.”

The stars include Ben Vereen as Dr. Everett Scott, Staz Nair as Rocky, Ryan McCartan as Brad Majors and Victoria Justice as Janet Weiss.

The TV movie, airing Oct. 20, also incorporates the audience-participation element — including costumes and commentary — that ultimately became a staple of the film’s late-night screenings in theaters.

Justice, playing the role filled by Susan Sarandon in the movie, said she’s a longtime “Rocky Horror” fan herself: She saw the film first as a fifth-grader and attended one of those midnight showings, at age 15 and in fishnet stockings and feather boa, with her mom.

“I’d never seen anything like it before in my life,” including the music and the campiness, Justice said, calling the part “a dream come true.”

Ab Fab Q & A: Patsy, Eddie and friend Kate Moss hit the big screen

Champagne socialites Eddie and Patsy are back onscreen in a movie spin-off of the hugely popular BBC television series “Absolutely Fabulous.”

The film comes 24 years after the self-absorbed duo, played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, first hit TV screens in 1992.

The pair sat down to talk about the transformation to the big screen, convincing supermodel Kate Moss to film in the Thames and the possibility of more movies.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity:

Associated Press: Was the series always going to be a film? Was that always in the back of your minds that you’d put it onto the big screen?

Joanna Lumley: It was always in the back of Jennifer’s mind ever since I placed it there in 1995. So, she’s been thinking about this for a long time.

Jennifer Saunders: Yeah, every time I saw you, you’d go to me, “Do a film, write a film, write a film.”

AP: Honestly, really, was it?

Saunders: Seriously, and then she started telling the press that I was writing a film, so I actually had to write a film. Otherwise I just look stupid. “What happened to the film?” We go, “There was no film, Joanna made it up.”

AP: Getting Kate Moss on board — was she written in from the beginning?

Saunders: I wrote the whole thing and then forgot to ask her. Wrote the whole thing, sold it to Fox and the BBC and they said, “So Kate’s up for it?” I went, (snaps fingers) “Got to ask Kate.” I just thought she’d be cool about it and she was cool about it. She’s, you know… I thought, well if she says no, we have to get a picture of her or something and push it off the balcony.

Lumley: Did you really think that? You didn’t think that would work on a movie did you? You didn’t think pushing a photograph off the edge would work?

Saunders: To be honest, I didn’t think it through.

Lumley: No, you haven’t thought it through, Jennifer. This is not the first time.

Saunders: No, I know. We were very lucky _ very lucky _ that she said yes.

AP: And she’s such a good sport, as well. I mean, was she actually in the Thames?

Lumley: Oh my God yes.

Saunders: Yes. She was so good and people were going, “Have a cup of tea, have a blanket” and she’d go, “Oh, you’re all being so nice. If this was a modeling shoot they’d just leave me here and tell me to stop shivering.”

AP: What was the atmosphere like on set, was there any actual partying?

Saunders: It’s hard work because you have to fit an awful lot into a day and you cannot afford to get behind because if you start getting behind then everything falls apart. So, we’re on a very tight schedule and we moved like the wind.

Lumley: We did, however, have a lunch break when we were filming the Hookie Mookie party and we had a lunch break at the wonderful old Prospect of Whitby, which is one of the most ancient of the English pubs, London pubs.

Saunders: We were filming right opposite there, yeah.

Lumley: And who was in there?

Saunders: There was a lunch and then we got a picture of it, all sitting outside the pub, and it was you, Kate, Gwendoline Christie, Jon Hamm, Janette Tough.

Lumley: You.

Saunders: Celia Imrie, Bruno Tonioli. It’s just like…

Lumley: It was extraordinary. This is just a sample of some of us clumped together there eating fish and chips.

Saunders: We were all going, “Look at that picture.” Lulu and Emma Bunton probably.

Lumley: Yes, I think she was there. The pub was really cool. They just brought us food.

Saunders: Honestly it was… We had such a lovely time that day. Just hanging out at the Prospect of Whitby with the gang.

AP: And do you think this movie is paving the way for any more? Can you see a sequel or more films coming out?

Lumley: Yes we can.

Saunders: You see, she’s started already. She’s started already.

Lumley: Yes. I am pleased to say we can see a future.

Saunders: She’s started already. In a year’s time people will be going, “Where’s the sequel, Jennifer?” I’ll say, “There was no sequel. There was no movie.”

‘Captain Fantastic’ and the fantasy of a perfect world

Captain Fantastic is about the fantasy of being able to create a perfect world for your children, and the crushing realization that such control is ultimately impossible. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) pursues this ideal in a particularly extreme way – by removing his family from society altogether and creating his own little utopia in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.

We meet the family in the midst of a hunt. They’re all covered in camouflaging mud. The eldest, Bo (George MacKay), slaughters an animal, and Ben tells him that he is a man now. Primitive though the ritual may be, this family is not. Far from it. They are survivalist philosopher kings – highly educated and extremely self-sufficient.

Ranging in age from single digits to late teens, the six children, Nai (Charlie Shotwell), Zaja (Shree Crooks), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton, who resembles young River Phoenix), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Bo have been molded in Ben’s very specific image. And, for the most part, they worship their father and their lifestyle – Noam Chomsky day and all.

The casting director should win an award for finding these truly excellent young performers, who shine alongside the always wonderful Mortensen.

But the cracks are starting to show in this little family unit, and not just because normal hormones and attitudes are emerging.

“I’m not a Trotskyist any more. I’m a Maoist!” Bo says in an angsty teenage huff at one point.

No, there is something more serious festering. Their mother, Leslie (Trin Miller), has been away for three months, hospitalized with severe depression. The kids miss her dearly, and her absence is becoming an issue. But we never get the chance to really meet her. Ben finds out early in the film that she’s killed herself.

He tells the kids this fact very frankly. Ben never lies to his children. He trusts that they can handle the truth, whether it’s the circumstances of their mother’s death and mental illness or the littlest one asking what rape is.

The death forces the family out of their little paradise and into the real world to attend her funeral in Arizona – even though Leslie’s grieving father Jack (Frank Langella) has threatened to arrest Ben if he shows up. But, c’mon. It’s their mother. Of course they’re going to go.

“Grandpa can’t oppress us!” the youngest exclaims.

So, they pack up their rickety green school bus and venture down from their ivory tower to go south, into the depths of the America that Ben hates. The younger ones have been so sheltered that they’ve never heard of Coke or Nike, or seen an obese person. Things get especially tense when they meet Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her family and disrupt their suburban normalcy.

While the kids seem happy, all outsiders are pretty much in agreement that Ben is unfit to parent. Unlike Harrison Ford’s unsympathetic Mosquito Coast protagonist, however, Ben clearly loves his family deeply and genuinely thinks that his way is the best way. This struggle between the individual parent and society’s expectations is one without an easy resolution. Both are right and wrong.

The film veers into cloying sentimentality a little too often, and, some might tire of Ben’s philosophies. But, that also just means that there’s room for his character to grow too.

Captain Fantastic is the second feature from writer-director Matt Ross (his first was the affair drama “28 Rooms), who is currently best known for his acting. In addition to over two decades in the movies, Ross plays the tech titan Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley. I imagine a film of the caliber of Captain Fantastic is bound to change that – this is no flash in the pan success. It’s a single, beautifully realized vision with edge and a true heart.

In ‘Tarzan,’ a questionable return to the jungle

Tarzan has been dusted off, his abs polished and his vocabulary spruced up in David Yates’ handsome but altogether pointless “The Legend of Tarzan,” a chest-thumping resurrection of the Ape Man that fails to find any reason for the iconic character’s continued evolution.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why Tarzan has yet again swung back into our lives: Tarzan and Hollywood were born almost simultaneously, like conjoined twins of a new pop-culture machine. The first “Tarzan” silent came just a few years after Edgar Rice Burroughs’ initial novel.

More than 50 films have followed. But as time has gone on, Tarzan has ceded his mass-market turf to a new set of brawny, questionably attired do-gooders, who swing not from vines but webs and grappling hooks. Monkey Men are out; Batmen are in.

Tarzan’s relevance has also drifted. He was originally conceived as a pulpy fable for a society feeling nostalgic for nature as it watched Model Ts roll off assembly lines. Burroughs’ tale coincided with the National Parks movement and the creation of the Boy Scouts.

So if properly outfitted for today’s back-to-the-land trends, Tarzan probably should be a thinner, bearded man who can brew a hoppy IPA and lives off-the-grid in Brooklyn coffee shops.

Can such a vestige of imperial-era imaginations — one dreamed up by a man who never set foot in Africa — be updated to today? “The Legend of Tarzan” suggests not, and the film’s main source of suspense is watching it twist and contort a century-old property into something meaningful.

Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad’s script sets the tale a decade after the discovery of Tarzan in West Africa; seen only in flashback is Tarzan’s origin story, including a more violent version of his famously loquacious introduction to Jane. Tarzan or John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) is living in London with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). The jungle is far behind him: he’s a Lord, polished and serious but still with ape-like hands that would impress even Donald Trump.

He’s coaxed back to Africa by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American and veteran of the Civil War who seeks to uncover what he believes is Belgium’s introduction of slavery to the Congo. The character, loosely based on a real historical figure, is the most intriguing if awkward addition. A better, more realistic movie could have been made about him.

In the Congo is Belgium’s envoy, Capt. Leon Rom, a linen-suited hunter of diamonds to fill Leopold’s coffers. For this symbol of refinement and menace, the filmmakers naturally turn to Christoph Waltz.

The simplistic historical backdrop of late 19th century Congo here is more cartoonish than even Tarzan, himself. But the atmosphere is richly exotic, full of majestic vistas and vivid close-ups. Filming largely on sound stages, Yates, veteran of later “Harry Potter” films, has firm control of the film’s lushly romantic imagery. You feel that Bogie and Bacall could drift down the river at any moment.

But the film, searching for a purpose and some drama, doesn’t deserve the grandeur Yates gives it. Tarzan, played with sufficient muscle and smarts by Skarsgard, leads an uprising through his ability to communicate with animals and the (largely faceless) natives. He’s a Jungle Jesus returned to fight colonial incursion, and among the more ridiculous white saviors you’re likely to see.

The wildlife is also comically over stimulated. The CGI gorillas appear like Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons on steroids. Effort has been made to make Jane more than a damsel in distress, which she literally denies being at one point. The scene-stealing Robbie breaks though the role’s stereotypes even while still being mired in them.

Agility is the prime trait of Tarzan, but “Legend” has little of it. The film strains to juggle the character’s baggage instead of embracing the tale’s innate silliness and spirit of adventure. (Over the years Tarzan fought dinosaurs and Roman gladiators.)

That this is merely another naked attempt to profit from a well-known property is visible even in the film’s title. There, not even hidden by a loin cloth, is a little trademark symbol next to “Tarzan”: King of the Franchise.

‘Free State of Jones’ bares forgotten Civil War tale

Newton Knight was a poor Mississippi farmer and Confederate soldier who deserted the Army in early 1862, waged a rebellion against the Confederacy and ended up forming a little colony of exiles, which they referred to as the Free State of Jones.

Their numbers rose with deserters as the Confederate effort floundered. They even took over Jones County and raised an American flag at the courthouse. It’s a fascinating slice of forgotten history. Coming after three years after “12 Years a Slave” made sure we’d never forget the name Solomon Northup, it’s not unreasonable to expect that maybe “Free State of Jones “ could do that for Newton Knight or his fellow rebels.

The film might teach you the name Newton Knight (played by a scruffy, gaunt and almost feral Matthew McConaughey), but it is far too sprawling and too unfocused to be placed in the canon of forgotten Civil War-era stories alongside “12 Years a Slave.”

This tale follows Newt from his last days in the service to his near-accidental establishment of a rogue state in a swamp as the war rages on, all the way to emancipation and reconstruction. If 14 years sounds like a lot of territory to cover, it is, and the movie takes its time doing so, running nearly two and a half hours. And yet it still feels hurried.

It begins promisingly enough, with the requisite war is hell reminder — fast-cutting between horrific injuries on the battlefield and then in an overrun makeshift hospital. Newt grudgingly participates, mostly by helping the wounded, but then something happens that rattles him personally and he heads home to his wife Serena (Keri Russell, looking very concerned) and their young child. Things are bleak there, too, where Confederate soldiers regularly rampage homes and take anything they might need and want — corn, livestock, blankets — for the war effort. There’s also the deplorable “Twenty Slave Law” which allows members of the Confederacy to opt out of conscription if they provide 20 slaves. It’s a law that benefits only the rich and that is not lost on Newt or his poor friends, none of whom own slaves or support the Confederate cause either.

Being a deserter, Newt’s mere presence endangers everyone. Serena even packs up the kid and leaves. When they literally send the dogs after him, he retreats to the swamp where he meets some runaway slaves, and they begin to grow their community. It’s here where things get a little murky and rushed.

Director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games”) wants badly to present a lyrical epic, and there are some moments of grace, but mostly it’s just labored, propelled only by the passage of time, pages worth of printed exposition on the screen and the hope that Newt’s journey is a good enough engine. And yet with all of those years covered, Newt is as defined as vapor, and his supporting characters even less so.

There’s also a jarring cut early on to a trial in 1948 in Mississippi where one of Newt’s decedents is suspected of having African American ancestry, despite looking white. While you get used the back and forth, it doesn’t ever drum up the suspense of a courtroom drama or achieve its intended poignancy.

Newt does in fact take up with Rachel (a powerful, if underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former house slave to a plantation owner. The question being asked in 1948 is whether or not they had any kids, thus starting a line of mixed race ancestors. It’s certainly an interesting thread, that this fight could continue so many generations after the war, but as with most things here, in execution it’s just more pasta thrown at the wall.

Rachel is one of the more compelling characters in the film, as is Moses (Mahershala Ali), who we meet with steel claws around his neck and see progress into a true protest leader by the time the war is over when, despite emancipation, little has changed for the former slaves and actually seems to be getting worse.

The Civil War and reconstruction were messy, and “Free State of Jones” wants to tackle it all. In the end, it’s too much for any one film to handle compellingly with such specificity.


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‘Elvis & Nixon’ recalls a bizarre moment in history

This we know: On Dec. 21, 1970, Elvis Presley showed up bright and early at the White House gates, delivering a barely legible note he’d scrawled on American Airlines stationery to President Richard Nixon.

Presley said he’d love to come by and meet the president, and that he was also seeking a badge to be a federal agent, so he could help combat the drug culture and the “hippie elements” ruining the country.

What the movie, directed by Liza Johnson, lacks in factual material it replaces with whimsy and quirky humor, helped greatly by the casting of Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. — PHOTO: Courtesy
What the movie, directed by Liza Johnson, lacks in factual material it replaces with whimsy and quirky humor, helped greatly by the casting of Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. — PHOTO: Courtesy

And though the initial reaction of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was “You must be kidding” — scrawled in the margins of a memo — that meeting did take place, hours later. It led to an awkward Oval Office photo that the National Archives says is its most requested image, more than even man walking on the moon — which probably was a more predictable sight than Elvis Presley standing next to Nixon.

What exactly did the two men discuss?

No transcript exists, just a memo describing it.

That’s where “Elvis & Nixon” comes in, filling in the blanks in a dramatization of what has to be one of the odder White House encounters on record.

What the movie, directed by Liza Johnson, lacks in factual material it replaces with whimsy and quirky humor, helped greatly by the casting of Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon.

The problem is that other than the meeting, which is fascinating indeed, there’s not much of a story.

We hear a lot about the quest of Presley’s good friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to get back to Los Angeles and see his girlfriend. It’s not clear why we need to know all this. It certainly bogs down the proceedings.

We begin with Nixon’s aides proposing the meeting to their skeptical, cranky boss. “Who the (expletive) set this up?” Nixon asks.

Flashback to 36 hours earlier. Presley is watching news footage at home in Tennessee, and doesn’t like what he sees. He takes out a gun and shoots the TV set to smithereens.

Soon enough, he’s on his way to Washington, via Los Angeles. En route, there’s an amusing scene where some Elvis impersonators approach him in an airport lounge. They think he’s one of them, and want to compare notes.

Speaking of impersonation: Both Presley and Nixon are such larger-than-life characters that any actor playing them seems likely to teeter on the precipice of mimicry. Shannon, a terrific actor whose features don’t resemble Presley’s at all, does a nice job of avoiding the cartoonish, finding a way to explore the essence of his character, physically and vocally (that slurred “thank you very much.”) And Spacey, who by the way is one of our finest impressionists, avoids mocking; he’s quite funny as a grumpy, profane man who is deeply uncomfortable in his skin.

Presented with Presley’s childishly scrawled note, Nixon’s young aides like the idea of their very square boss engaging with a pop legend — good for the youth vote. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) reluctantly approves. Nixon at first objects — it’s his nap hour! — but then the aides enlist his beloved daughter Julie, who wants a signed photo.

And so Elvis turns up in his black cape-like suit and huge gold belt buckle — and loaded with his prized handguns. Once disarmed, he’s ushered in, with strict instructions not to touch the president’s M&Ms or his Dr. Pepper. He ignores both. “You got a bottle opener?” he asks.

And so this fascinating encounter goes, combining things we know happened (the photo, the hug Elvis offers) with things we don’t (did Elvis really demonstrate karate?)

By the way, Presley gets his official agent badge that very day, from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (Actor-playwright Tracy Letts has a truly fabulous cameo as the stunned official who issues it.) Fiction? Nope.

As Haldeman said so succinctly: You must be kidding.

“Elvis & Nixon,” an Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some language.” Running time: 87 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.