“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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“X-Men: Apocalypse” movie review

XMenApocalypseEpic! It isn’t often that one word can sum up the screening experience of a movie, especially when going into the film, one had lots of hesitations that stemmed from the questionable trailers. Prepare yourself for the heaviest of the X-Men movies future or past. Probably the best feeling to take away from this one is the storytelling quality of the cartoon paired with Bryan Singer’s unparalleled handling of what is arguably the most successful Marvel franchise over the decades (that may be changing with the unprecedented popularity of The Avengers). While some may describe this movie as a failed attempt at reliving the glory days of the X-Men, I venture to say that there is enough evidence to support this being a strong third movie. As much as I enjoyed the movie–and do not mistake me, I did–there was a LOT going on in this movie and it came close to failing to effectively and successfully tell A complete three-act story. Just like in Batman v Superman, where Warner Bros bit off more than they could chew, 20th Century Fox came close to making the same mistake. Thankfully, the story was just strong enough to drive excitement and thrill through the minds and bodies of the audience.

X-Men: Apocalypse is the third movie in the Bryan Singer reboot (fourth installment if you count the original X-Men movie from 2000). The world of Ancient Egypt was once the center of the universe; and in that great empire, there lived the original mutant [Apocalypse] (Oscar Isaac). He grew in strength and power to the point that he ruled the world. After several of his fellow Egyptians betrayed him in attempt to bury him alive, he was cast into a deep sleep hundreds of feel beneath the surface. Due to a dedicated group of followers thousands of years later, Apocalypse was awaken and he has set out to reclaim the planet as his own and raise his children. Determined to build his mutant army, he begins to recruit the most powerful X-Men including Storm (Alexandra Shipp). When Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) encounters Apocalypse while in Cerebro and is captured, the still-fractured X-Men must go to great and nearly impossible lengths to rescue him and save the world. Teaming up with new student Scott (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (American Horror Story’s Evan Peters), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Havoc (Lucas Till) will battle Apocalypse and his four horsemen including Storm, Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

What a cast! The quality of talent in and of itself is an outstanding accomplishment and is responsible for a great deal of the success of the film. Writers create characters and directors craft them, but it is the actor who ultimately brings the characters to life for the silver screen. Each and every actor is an excellent match to their respective characters. In addition to the actors we have been introduced to in past films, the newcomers quickly cement themselves in this and future movies. With so much material and less than three hours to deliver a movie that could be on par with the previous two and The Avengers films, it was vitally important to have an impressive cast that could win you over instantly. There simply wasn’t time for an actor to grow on you or to decide how you felt about a particular character. Each actor needed to his a homerun as soon as they stepped out of the dugout. I paid close attention to Sophie Turner because I was only familiar with her from Game of Thrones, and I just wasn’t sure how I would feel about her as one of the omega class X-Men (Jean Grey). Oh, I knew she looked the part, but could she pull it off??? And the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Much like Captain America: Civil WarX-Men: Apocalypse is nothing short of a superhero extravaganza. And although they are similar in many respects, there are two completely different tones in the respective movies. Are they both serious? Yes, but the former also includes comedic relief sequences and dialog (and yes, if you read my review, I found those to be poorly handled but I am not going to revisit that tarmac scene or the annoying Spider-Man in this article) while the latter retains the serious tone throughout the movie. However, it is successful in not becoming a parody of itself as was the case with Batman v Superman. I will state this: Civil War does boast a dynamic plot that flows smoothly the whole time, whereas Apocalypse flows smoothly most of the time, but at others, it does feel a mite bumpy. We could discuss symptoms of the problems all day, but the root of the problem is simply trying to tell too much story in one movie. To be honest, I have a felling that I am going to decide that I like X-Men more but that is likely because, in all fairness, I grew up with the cartoon. What works for X-Men, much like Captain America, is the fact that the audience does not need to be familiar with the comics in order to enjoy the movie. Singer makes sure that anyone who enjoys high concept comic book superhero action movies will enjoy this film. Well, that is, unless you happen to be a diehard comic book aficionado. This movie is simply exciting and visceral.

Memorial Day weekend will either be dominated by powerful mutants or charicatures from the other side of the mirror. Although X-Men will probably not perform as well as Civil War, I don’t think Alice has a chance of topping this quintessential summer blockbuster on the unofficial start to the summer. Unless you live here in Florida where summer started in March. Haha. Speaking of Florida, and in particular Orlando where MegaCon 2016 is being held, knowing that most of the theaters would be filled with cosplayers and enthusiastic fans, I had the challenge of finding a theatre in the area at which to watch the movie and not face cols out auditoriums and nose-bleed seats. I was successful in finding a small privately owned theatre in the vicinity and has the whole thing practically to myself. Running camera for a medical convention, so I am writing from the Rosen Shingle Creek instead of my condo in Tampa. It’s been quite nice to stay on site versus driving an hour here for the event each day. Happy Memorial Day!