“Tolkien” BioPic Movie Review

One of the world’s most engaging authors in one of the world’s most un-engaging biopics. Go behind the prolific fantasy writing, linguistics, and mythology to discover the origins of author J.R.R. Tolkien. From his early childhood as an orphan to his studies and teaching at Oxford, follow the famed author on his own unexpected journey to eventually pen those iconic words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Biopics are often challenged with balancing what the audience wants to see with the reality of what was, both the attractive, inspiring moments and, if applicable, the gruesome or repulsive. And over all, Tolkien does an adequate job of highlighting the personal history of Tolkien (tol-Keen); however, where the biopic does not deliver is evoking a significant emotional response from the audience. If you’ve read that it comes off as a glorified Wikipedia article, then don’t worry, that is not true. But, it isn’t an I, TonyaTheory of Everything, or Amadeus either. As biopics go, it is pretty much middle of the road. Though the story may not be as fascinating or gripping as audiences want, it does deliver command performances by Hoult, Collins, and JRR’s three best friends. In addition to the impeccable casting, the production design is gorgeous and the score is compelling. Sometimes biopics make the mistake of treating the subject with too much reverence, thus overlooking or glossing over low points or decisions that place the subject in a less than favorable light. And, without knowing a detailed history of his life, I am left with the real possibility that this biopic did just that. Perhaps it’s the oversimplification of Tolkien’s quasi-privileged life that predisposes the screenplay to falling short of evoking strong emotion from the audience. If there is one message that is clear from this biopic, it’s that imagination served as an escape from the obstacles and trials of life, especially during WWI.

Years before he would write The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien found himself in a childhood fellowship with three other outcasts at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, England after his mom, who would regale him of stories of dragons and knights, unexpectedly passed away. This close friendship would follow him all the way through to college and even into WWI. These four friends would draw upon one another for courage and artistic expression. Taking inspiration from his own fellowship including the personal/interpersonal challenges Tolkien faced as he and his friends challenged one another and his affections for Edith Bratt, Tolkien reflected on these experiences to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Although the scenes from WWI serve as a framing device for this biopic, it is the formidable years spent at King Edward’s School and Oxford that truly defined Tolkien and set him up for his timeless masterpieces. Had the movie taken a more linear approach, the story may have been much more impactful. As it stands, there is so much oscillation between the “present day” moments and the flash forwards/backwards (yes, there are both in this movie) that it was difficult to focus. The majority of the movie takes place at Oxford, but the number of flashbacks and flashforwards took me out of the story periodically. Flashbacks can be a useful storytelling tool, to provide visual exposition, but they are often misused. Had this movie followed the approach that Fried Green Tomatoes took with the use of present-day and flashbacks, then I think it would have delivered more powerful story. Although as a screenwriting lecturer I recommend that my students not use flashbacks because of how tricky it can be to integrate them in such a way that they advance the plot, if a screenwriter chooses to use flashbacks, then the writer has to make sure that the flashback or flashforward works to move the plot forward–add something of value to the story. With Tolkien, the flashbacks do little more than frame the story. Other than some impressive visuals and opening a window into the world that inspired and shaped Tolkien, these moments do not significantly advance the plot in meaningful ways.

With Tolkien’s infatuation with (future wife) Edith Bratt, there was certainly opportunity to turn this into a romance, shifting focus away from the fellowship Tolkien had with his three close male friends. Thankfully, the romance between Tolkien and Edith was a nice B story to our A story. I say B story instead of subplot because it is a counterpart to the main outside action plot (story A). Furthermore, the romance between the two does heavily influence the and even inspire the romance between future characters Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. From romantic to close platonic relationships, that is truly what the plot of the biopic is about. Throughout the movie, you will encounter various relationships that Tolkien experienced during his life. Although we don’t spend much time with him and his younger brother, it is well-established that he has a moderately strong relationship with his brother. Furthermore, we see that Tolkien had a strong relationship with his mother, whom helped to shape his imagination in his younger years. It is widely known that Tolkien was a Catholic, but that is not highlighted in the movie (and it isn’t missed) but it’s that element that explains why the family priest is his legal guardian. Tolkien and the priest have a contentious relationship, but it is clear that the priest wants Tolkien to succeed in life. We don’t get to spend much time with his foster mom, but she seems to understand Tolkien and Edith’s relationship. Before getting to focal relationships, Tolkien has a strong relationship with his mentor and professor whom is chiefly responsible for Tolkien pursuing his scholarly studies at Oxford.

The central relationship(s) in the movie is between Tolkien and colleagues Christopher, Geoffrey, and Robert. For most of the movie, they are shown to be as close as brothers, but I appreciate the movie spending some time on the development of the relationships. What starts out as heavy conflict (that even devolves into physical altercations), soon evolves into the kind of friendships that you and I hope to have with close friends that ostensibly become our family. Despite Tolkien not coming from wealthy families like his friends, they share one very important thing in common: a desire to change the world through art. Each of the boys has a different interest, but they each inspire one another to stand up to the obstacles of life and achieve what each deeply desires. Of all his friends, Tolkien was closest to Geoffrey, whom was tragically killed during WWI along with Robert. Christopher is the only survivor out of Tolkien’s three friends. While Christopher’s scares (we are led to believe they are more emotional/psychological than physical) impacted his ability to compose music, Tolkien harnessed the atrocities of war to inspire The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I absolutely love the depiction of close friendship between these young men because we seem to have very few examples of this level of male companionship in cinema, by in large. Many of the closest friendships are often shown between women. The structure of the plot keeps the movie from being as inspirational as it could have been, but there is still a lot to like here.

As biopics go, this one is middle of the road. It is not outstanding nor is it a bore. For fans of the author, I feel that you will get quite a lot out of the movie. The impeccable casting is the strength of this story. Each actor/actress delivers solid performances. Whether you are more familiar with the books or movies, you will find surrogates for notable characters throughout Tolkien’s most famous writing. Interestingly, the late author’s estate released a statement saying that Tolkien’s family members “do not endorse it or its content in any way.” In fact, the estate has yet to see the movie. Perhaps its the exclusion of nuances that the family is aware of in the author’s life, but I am unable to see why any parts of this biopic are controversial in any way. If you enjoy reading his books or watching the movies that were inspired by them, then you should see this biopic. Not because it is an outstanding motion picture, but because it does give you insight into the real world of Tolkien.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“The Favourite” full film review

A brilliantly entertaining satirical dramedy! Not your history channel biopic. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a motion picture inspired by the reign of 18th century Queen Anne of England. Even if Lanthimos has not previously won you over with his renown commitment to auteur filmmaking, The Favourite may just be the film to draw you into his penchant for dark dramedies that mock the absurdities of the world in which the story exists. Personally, I did not care for either Lanthimos’ The Lobster or Killing of a Sacred Dear, nor did I like last year’s highly stylized artistic film Phantom Thread directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. However, I truly enjoyed every second of The Favourite. A screenwriter’s dream, this film is built upon one of the year’s (if not THE) best screenplays, and brought to life by an incredible lead and supporting cast. And the degree to which this outstanding film impresses the audiences does not stop there. The costumes, locations, and set design are incredible. Upon watching this film, I was reminded of another worldclass period drama where each scene felt like it was an oil painting. I am talking about Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Never before have I seen a film come so close to delivering the experience that the Kubrick masterpiece did. Another film of note that this one reminds me of is All About Eve. When you’re comparing a film to some of the best films to ever be made, you know that is a good sign. This no-holds-barred dramedy provides audiences with a story about a twisted love triangle within the royal court of Queen Anne that is anything but prim and proper. You will be instantly sucked into just how bizarre and brilliant this film is because of the seductive visuals and razor-sharp wit.

In the early 18th century, England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne occupies the throne, and her close friend Lady Sarah governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing, and Abigail sees a chance to return to her aristocratic roots. (IMDb)

With so much to love about this film, it is difficult to know precisely where to begin. Visually, this film is stunning. Between the cinematography executed with impeccable precision and the set design lit with a combination of natural lighting and candles, each scene is as if it was a commissioned painting by a Baroque artist. Not quite to the levels of Barry Lyndon but certainly encroaches upon that territory. The use of wide angle and fish eye lenses, the creative use of camera positioning to convey the tone of a scene or a subjective view of a character was masterfully directed. While the palace where we spend most of the time is already immense, the camera makes everything look even larger to convey the relationship between a character and the royal court or the emotion of a scene. Under most circumstances, it’s difficult to pull off a fish eye lens but Lanthimos does so excellently! The unconventional camera placement and angles reflect the emotional beat or warped nature of the scene. While this film is heavy on the dialogue, it is also equally heavy in the visual storytelling. There are moments in the movie that assault the eyes and others that are so hilariously candid that you are glad the camera allows us to get a glimpse into the twisted world of 18th century royal England. More than any other film I’ve seen this year, this one exemplifies the ability for the camera to be an extension of our own eyes to bring us even closer–intimately close–to the narrative.

A screenwriter’s dream! The writing in The Favourite is some of the best that I have seen in a long time. We’ve had many great screenplays this year, but there are usually flaws here and there–something that could have been streamlines, expanded upon, or reworked in order to make better. However, there is literally nothing about this screenplay that I would change. Every scene of a screenplay should begin as close to the end of the scene as possible and every scene needs to point to the realization at the diegetic conclusion. And this screenplay does precisely that. Even the development of the characters can be witnessed through the physical movement and dialogue of the characters. Not that commitment to the guidelines of screenwriting means the screenplay lacks imagination–definitely not. There is plenty of imagination in this story but it delivers every emotional beat, every turning point, every action with a powerful punch. The characters contain multiple layers and each scene reveals something new to add to these multidimensional characters. Sometimes it may be a subtle nuance that we learn about a character or it could be a big reveal that was hinted at earlier in the story. At times, your senses are assaulted with a sequence of actions that are wildly erotic or offensively contemptible. It’s that oscillation between extremes that keeps this drama titillating.

More than a satire on the 18th century British royal court, this film is about the lengths one goes to change one’s life or situation and all the costs associated with that. Screenwriter Tony McNamara worked with Lanthimos to adapt Deborah Davis’ original script into the outstanding script that serves as the foundation for this film. It’s also a grim reminder that you can change your surroundings, title, clothes, and job but you may still be selfish, power-hungry, lonely, and unfulfilled on the inside. Perhaps you think you’ve won one game, but you were completely unaware of all the rules or that you were actually playing a difference game altogether. Perhaps you are trying to rise up in a capitalist company or culture, and when you almost reach the top, you are reminded that you are just a lowly pawn in a greater scheme or plan. So many ways to read this film. There is depth to this film that Phantom Thread did not have (hence why I did not like it). It’s not just pretty to look at and listen to, but there is diegetic depth and dimension to this narrative brought to the screen. One of the most brilliant aspects to the story is how you feel about Abigail, Queen Anne, and Sarah. Because you will definitely change how you feel as the story unfolds. No spoilers, but you will witness a course of events that truly reveal who these characters are, what motivates them, and where allegiances lie. The character whom you think you should be rooting for, may actually be the very one who is the most deceptive of all. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard dialogue that is this vicious and beautiful all at the same time. And yet, nothing ever feels forced, fake, or annoyingly on-the-nose. The subtext of what is being said is rich and intriguing. Not only do these characters do and say some of the very things that we either do or imagine we would do but they execute it with razor sharp precision and in an organic manner. You will see it all and hear it all–that is certain. Be prepared to gasp, laugh, cringe, and more. Never before has cruelty, power, and desire been so delicious.

Yorgos couldn’t have asked for a better cast. The ensemble that makes up The Favourite is stellar. And there is lots of eye candy to go around. Whether we are talking the royal court, parliament, or even the servants, there are lots of pretty guy and gals whom make up this phenomenal cast. Beyond the look of the cast, the talent is breathtakingly good. Delivering figuratively sucker-punches one moment and conveying something seductive through the use of subtlety the next, the breadth of talent on display in this film is remarkable. Heavy dramedies like this one require chemistry levels near perfection. Because it is a character driven story that is supplemented by actions; therefore, it’s imperative that the actors work well together in order to never allow the audience to slip out of the story. Everything about this film works flawlessly.

Now that you’ve watched Bird Box, you need to head to your local cinema to experience one of the most audacious motion pictures of the year. You are certain to be entertained by the witty dialogue, picturesque locations and production design, and magnificent cast. Not your typical Jane Austen-esque period drama; it artistically pushes the envelop and holds nothing back. This film definitely ranks within my Top 10 films of 2018, and look forward to see how well it does at the major award shows coming up.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“The Shape of Water” film review

Absolutely enchanting! Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a beautiful modern fairy tale told through a classical means. From the provocative first scene to the endearing final moments, this film explores the human condition in an innovative way that highlights the spirits of kindness, generosity, and love. In a film that could have so easily played out like many other-worldly science-fiction love stories, this story demonstrates the power of cinematic storytelling full of brilliantly developed characters and excellent direction from Del Toro. Positively gripping. The Shape of Water provides audiences with a fresh perspective on the “monster movie” genre by taking you on a whimsical journey into the belly of a government research facility during the Cold War where you meet characters you love and love to hate along the way. As with many of his other films, Del Toro once again crafts an imaginative experience through the creation of memorable characters grounded by solid writing, direction, and cinematography. It seems like “genre films” are becoming a thing of the past, because so many want to exist in multiple planes; however, for all the elements at its heart, The Shape of Water is a classic monster genre film but breaks new ground.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mostly isolated mute young lady who works in housekeeping at a remote, underground government research facility near Baltimore. With only her starving artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) to keep her company at home and her close friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to watch over and speak for her at work, she leads a rather mundane life but longs for music, adventure, and romance. Taking place during the Cold War in 1962, Elisa’s encountered the strange and questionable over her time in and out of cleaning labs. Her nondescript life will be forever changed when she discovers the lab’s newest secret–a mysterious amphibian-like creature who lives in an aquarium tank. Over the days, Elisa feels compelled to visit the creature as the two of them develop a trusting bond. When the creature’s very life is at stake, Elisa must work quickly to construct a plan for his safe evacuation.

The Shape of Water has one of the most innovative openings to a film in that it juxtaposes a serene, calming yet mesmerizing sequence of underwater shots during the opening title sequence against a rather provocative first scene. Del Toro will successfully have your attention for the entirety of the film. It isn’t often that we get fairy-tale like narration at the beginning of a monster movie, and Del Toro’s choice for the beginning narration was absolutely perfect. It not only provided strategic exposition, but set the tone of the film. What we are about to watch may contain elements of monsters and mysteries, but it is a modern romantic fairy tale. Horror and science-fiction have often been used as conduits for filmmakers to explore the human condition and all its imperfections and growth; so by combining elements from both to create an innovative monster movie, Del Toro provides audiences with a fantastic opportunity to use the film’s diegesis as a mirror to our modern lives. Although the “beauty and the beast” style love story is central to the film, the film also comments on topics such as race, marriage, and class during the 1960s. There is also a side story that alludes to how members of the LGBTQ community were treated in the workplace and within the community. An incredibly comprehensive plot that never loses focus on the main story.

What an excellent cast! Sally Hawkins brings such endearing and powerful subtlety to her mute character. Her commitment to Elisa is so exquisite that you will swear that you can hear her voice through her sign language. Much in the same way we explored interspecies communication in last year’s Arrival, we witness just how the movement of hands and facial expressions know no bounds when establishing relationships with those with whom we cannot verbally communicate. In many ways, this movie is a combination of Beauty and the Beast, TV’s Swamp ThingArrival, and a little Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hawkins’ exceptional performance may very well land her an Oscar nomination, and quite possibly a win. Doug Jones’ creature is a brilliant combination of monster and lover. From the moment you encounter him, you will feel a human-like connection to his character. Like with Hawkins’ Elisa, Jones’ creature exhibits the power of subtlety. That seems to be a common element of this film: subtlety. So often the techniques of the pioneers of cinema are forgotten. Hitchcock proved over and over again that the camera itself can create suspense. Of course, he took many of his techniques from silent cinema where the camera was instrumental in visually communicating so much. Del Toro utilizes this power of the camera to not only visually create emotions but to work through actors to allow subtle powers of character to enhance the experience of this movie.

Beyond our central characters, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) have mini-movies of their own. And indirectly, their mini-movies have an impact on the larger story; however, these side stories never eclipse the central plot and only serve to bolster the overall experience. Spencer’s character enables audiences to explore marriage in the 1960s and Jenkins’s character provides a platform for discussion regarding how ostracized members of the LGBTQ community were before more modern times. There is also a scene where a classy looking black couple was denied seating at a diner. So many societal themes that can be used as a framework through which to understand the time in which this story takes place, and now the characters can be used to explore modern themes as well. Each and every chiefly supporting player has a significant impact upon the central diegesis of The Shape of Water. Del Toro took special care in integrating every element and making sure each aspect of the story was never just filler or for shock value. Each character, each scene, each camera angle moves the story forward.

The reality of love and relationships juxtaposed against an imaginative backdrop grounded in a literal view of life in the 1960s comprise this world created by Guillermo Del Toro. Whether you enjoy an excellent monster movie or old-fashioned romance, you will enjoy The Shape of Water. The brilliance of this film can be found in how this modern fairy tale is told through classical means. I also enjoyed the references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and dramas that can each be seen in the plot of this film. No image is ever wasted in Del Toro’s film. If there is one negative critique, the second act is a little drawn out and could have been trimmed a little, and some added suspense would have been appreciated in the second act as well.

“Gifted” movie review

A cute paint-by-the-numbers heartwarming drama. Although Gifted may be in the vein of a Hallmark Original, it doesn’t shy away from nor sanitize the real problems faced by adults and children. Fresh off the Spider-Man series, director Marc Webb switches gears from superhero action movie to family drama. However, this drama stands out from its counterparts due to the organic feel of the dialog and in how it follows a blockbuster formula. Webb is certainly not new to directing cinematic dramas; he directed the wildly popular 500 Days of Summer which has a cult following in and of itself. Diegetic contrast can easily be drawn between Gifted and 500 Days of Summer in the simple fact that the former is chronologically out of order–but it can easily be said that the movie would not have the artistic or emotional impact that it did if it were told in order–whereas the latter is traditional in linear storytelling. If it were not for Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer’s billing in the film, this one would likely go by the wayside. Over the course of a director or writer’s career (although not limited to those roles), there are occasionally films that provide audiences with a glimpse into a director getting in tough with his or her roots, and this is one of those. More polished and comprehensive than a typical Hallmark movie, Gifted is satisfying enough but does not leave a lasting impact.

Faced with raising his niece Mary (McKenna Grace) after the untimely death of his sister, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) lives a modest, hardworking life in a small coastal town in Florida. Mary is no ordinary child; she is a mathematics prodigy. Against the advice of friend and neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary in a typical elementary school. When Mary’s unparalleled, brilliant mathematical skills come  to the attention of Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) and principal, her school encourages Frank to enroll her in an exclusive school for cognitively gifted children. With a deep desire for Mary to have a normal, fun childhood, Frank declines the full-scholarship. News of Mary’s ability and the scholarship soon reach Frank’s mom Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), a genius in her own right. After failing to reason with her son, Evelyn takes him to court in order to secure parental rights. Throughout the custody battle, skeletons come out of the closet and the reasons for Frank’s decisions become clear.

Paralleling the brilliance of Mary’s cognitive abilities, a trait that runs through the entire family, the most notable element that stands out in Gifted is the casting. Child actors playing characters who are atypically outstanding in a particular field can come across as precocious, if not just plain annoying. Whether a kid genius, musical savant, or prima ballerina, attributing adult-like qualities to a child can create a character that comes across as out of touch with the majority of the audience. Not so with McKenna Grace. With her wide eyes, missing front teeth, and refreshing spontaneity, she provides audiences with a relatable character who just happens to be brilliant. This relatablity can be attributed to her down-home charm and humble demeanor. When he’s not saving the world, Captain America is raising his niece in a non-discript small coastal town outside of the bustling Tampa-St. Pete metropolitan area. While many actors become type casted after bringing an iconic character to life, Evans is working to prevent this by appearing in lead roles that are in stark contrast to his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sporting a perpetual scruffy beard, love for the outdoors, and a boyish-fatherly charm, Evans demonstrates his ability to successfully transfer his acting prowess to other genres in cinema outside of his famous Captain America.

Supporting the two leads are Spencer’s Roberta and Duncan’s Evelyn who are interestingly mirror characters in that they are the antithesis of one another. Although her screen time is limited, Roberta’s appearances are strategic and greatly support the emotional pull of the movie. Wise beyond her likely formal education, Roberta cares nearly as much about Mary’s well-being as does her father-figure uncle. Spencer’s charisma is easily seen in this chief supporting role and I cannot think of another female actor who could have done this role justice as well as Spencer did. The character of Evelyn is an interesting one to evaluate. On one hand, she is a monster of a grandmother who wants to control her granddaughter and protect the family’s academic legacy; but for fear of smothering her like she did her own daughter, tries to be as loving and concerned as she can. Although at first I thought that this was a role better suited for Jessica Lange, I do not feel that Lange could have captured the vibrant love that Evelyn has for her family–tough love maybe–but sincere love for and desire for her children to be successful. Evelyn is both an enlightened academic and tough-loving mother and grandmother.

Gifted does its best to be a tear-jerker, but it never quite hits that emotional peak. There were times that I was close to tearing up, but there was just a little something extra missing that prevented the tears from rolling down my face. The plot of this film was as structured, precise, and predictable as a chalk equation on a blackboard, but it still has a charm that will assist it in beckoning patrons to watch it at the cinema when it hits select theaters this week with a wide release predicted in the near future.

Written by R.L. Terry

Written by J.M. Wead