Movie Review ~ Tolkien


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Craig Roberts, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Genevieve O’Reilly, Laura Donnelly, Pam Ferris, Sir Derek Jacobi

Director: Dome Karukoski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: As biopics of famous authors have proved, finding a way to depict the life of someone so renowned for his or her storytelling can be a tricky game. One needs only to look at the curious flatness of Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Becoming Jane, or even as far back as 2003’s Syliva, to see that a screenwriter has their work cut out for them if they want to take on a well-known literary scribe. On name recognition alone, J.R.R. Tolkien is by far one of the bigger names to get the “this is your life” treatment on the big screen and for a man who was so closely associated with fantasy it’s rather pleasant to note his biopic is one that is most grounded in reality.

The life of Tolkien could easily have been covered as a multi-part mini-series on HBO, Netflix, or Amazon Prime (where they are getting ready to film their own series based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels) because the man certainly lived a life. Raised with his younger brother by a poor single mother who died when he was 12, he went to live in an upper-class boarding house that afforded him the opportunity to go to a good school and get into a prestigious university. Marrying his first love before serving in the war, he returned home to teach and began writing the novels that would be his legacy. These events even read like the plot of a movie we’ve all seen before and would seem to lend itself well to a similar treatment, which would have been just fine. Thankfully, the filmmakers took a different approach.

The movie centers on the friendship that develops between Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) and three other young men he meets in school and remains close with as they go to college and join the war effort. At first an outcast from the boys in his class, Tolkien eventually finds they are really no different from him with their own set of personal problems in life and at home. Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson, The Darkest Minds) is the headmaster’s son living in the heavy shadow of his emotionally withdrawn father, Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, Dunkirk) struggles to make a name for himself as a musician, and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle, The Lost City of Z) is a sensitive poet who becomes Tolkien’s closest friend.

Screenwriters David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford (Pride) give us a light sketch of the early life of Tolkien and a brief dab of his post-War life but their film mostly focuses on his teenage years through his time at the Battle of the Somme. For director Dome Karukoski, this is more than enough meat to cook a fine feast that doesn’t rely on trickery (or much pre-knowledge of the author) to be fulfilling. While there are some interesting visual cues during Tolkien’s war experience that veer to the fantastical, such as seeing dragons in fire raids or ominous evils in plumes of smoke, Karukoski’s movie has its feet on the ground. I was bracing myself for the movie to feature hints along the way of how Tolkien came up with the stories and characters that would earn him a place in the history books. Thankfully, aside from a wise teacher that has a twinkle of Gandalf in his eye, there’s no crusty janitor at Oxford that could have inspired Gollum nor is there a squat gentleman at the local pub enjoying a fine meal who reminds us of Bilbo Baggins. No, the screenwriters and director have held back on being too on-the-nose with these elements and have conveyed instead how the books came out of the collective whole of Tolkien’s life up until the point he put pen to paper.

While it doesn’t exactly stretch his range, Hoult’s performance as Tolkien is admirable in its presentation because many general fans of the author likely aren’t too aware of the personal life of the man behind the majestic worlds he created. So there’s a bit of freedom for Hoult to make the role, more or less, his own. Whether he’s muddied up on the battlefields, in natty tweeds lounging around Oxford, or walking through the woods talking to trees, he always seems to be on the right track. As his sweetheart and eventual wife, Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) turns in her best performance to date by giving some decent nuance to a role that could easily have been tossed away as the “supportive spouse” part. Recognizing her limitations in society, Edith’s one night out with the boys turns from joy to sadness as she realizes that she’ll never (in her lifetime) be able to have the same privileges as the man she loves. If there’s anything that feels truncated in the film, it’s the love affair between Tolkien and Edith which is the first thing to take a backseat in favor of other plot points.

All three of Tolkien’s friends provide good supporting performances, namely Boyle as Tolkien’s best ally and the one he desperately tries to find during the war. Hoult and Boyle have some good scenes together, as does Holt with Genevieve O’Reilly (The Kid Who Would Be King) as Geoffrey’s mother who sadly comes to realize she doesn’t know her son as well as his friends do. In his few brief scenes, Sir Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) challenges Tolkien to push himself further as a writer/scholar and it’s not too hard to discern where the genesis of a certain white wizard came from. The only nitpick I have is that there’s a lot of dark-haired guys in the film and during some of the war scenes it was hard to keep track of who was who.

Arriving in the still massive wake of the Avengers: Endgame box-office juggernaut, I fear Tolkien might get lost in the mix because it’s not loud enough to attract much attention outside of fans of the author that know it’s coming. There was some buzz in the news a few weeks back when it came out that Tolkien’s family did not endorse the film, though they hadn’t even seen it at that time. While that may give you pause to see this film, it’s helpful to know that most biographies don’t have the support of the family and sometimes that allows the author of the work to, sure, take a few liberties with the material but also not be as beholden or precious to their subject. In the case of Tolkien, it’s clear everyone involved had a great respect for the late author (he died in 1971) and were invested in this tale of his first valued fellowship.

The Silver Bullet ~ Tolkien

Synopsis: Explores the formative years of the orphaned author J.R.R. Tolkien as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Thoughts: I love a good biopic (emphasis on good) so there’s a certain spark of excitement generated by this first full trailer for Tolkien which seeks to give us a look at the life of the famed author before he wrote the novels that would captivate readers for generations.  Long before he sketched out Middle Earth, created Hobbits, dreamed up Gollum, and conjured Gandalf, Tolkien grew up in the shadow of war and eventually found himself entrenched in it.  I’m interested how the film will tie these experiences into his writing and already am liking the look and feel generated from what I’ve seen so far.  Starring Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) and Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror), I’m keeping my fingers crossed Fox Searchlight does better with this author biography than they did with their A.A. Milne fiasco Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Movie Review ~ Holmes & Watson


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A humorous take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Stars: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes, Rebecca Hall, Kelly Macdonald, Hugh Laurie, Pam Ferris, Lauren Lapkus, Rob Brydon

Director: Etan Cohen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s been a month since Thanksgiving but there’s a fresh turkey to be found at your local cinema.  Sadly, there’s no wishbone to be had in this bird but if there had been, you’d likely use up your wish and go back in time to select another movie, any other movie, to see instead.  Haven’t we had enough Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson yet?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic literary creations have already come to life in multiple well-made movies over the past eight decades and one highly regarded television series, not to mention we’ve already had one marginally liked comedic take with 1988’s Without a Clue.  Yet the famed duo still provide fodder for further films and when they don’t have an ounce of brains in the planning you get a movie like Holmes & Watson.

A film sure to make Conan Doyle roll over in his grave, Holmes & Watson is a dum-dum comedy featuring Will Ferrell (The Campaign) and John C. Reilly (Carnage) hoping to recreate some of the magic they found in 2008 hit Step Brothers.  While that movie was no brilliant fete of moviemaking, it looks like Lawrence of Arabia compared to this stinker.  It seems like no one bothered to think through anything above and beyond the simple character constructs everyone already knows and then unfortunately let Ferrell and Reilly fill in the blanks.  Left to their own devices, the duo entertain only themselves for a turgid 90 minutes.  Adding in unnecessary modern references and a few Trump jokes for good measure not to mention an amazing amount of bad dubbing and numerous continuity errors and you have a movie that feels cobbled together from rejected remnants of better scripts.

Opening with the meeting and eventual friendship of a young Sherlock Holmes and John Watson when Holmes is dropped off and bullied at an elite boarding school, we jump forward to an established Holmes and Watson testifying at the trial of the recently captured Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looking pained in every one of his brief appearances onscreen).  When Moriarty goes free and a threat with his evil touch is then made on the Queen (Pam Ferris, The Raven), Holmes and Watson jump into action with the assistance of an American doctor (Rebecca Hall, The BFG) who catches Watson’s eye.  Also providing assistance is Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as the housekeeper at Baker Street, Rob Brydon (Early Man) as Inspector Lestrade, and Hugh Laurie (Tomorrowland) as Holmes’ older brother.

Admittedly, I saw Holmes & Watson at the tail end of a long holiday weekend and sort of half dozed off around the 40-minute mark but was told by my movie-going companion all I missed was an appearance by Steve Coogan (Philomena) as a one-armed tattoo artist operating at a wrestling studio (because…of course).  My sleepiness is also likely the reason I saw the movie was written and directed by Etan Cohen and for a brief moment was filled with fear that the Oscar winning director of No Country For Old Men had played a part in this…only to realize that was Ethan Cohen.  The man captaining this sinking ship was Etan (no ‘h’) Cohen and he gave us the gems Men in Black III and Get Hard…more in line with what’s on screen.

With a cast this stacked you almost feel sorry they are ending 2018 with such a scarlet letter on their IMDb page but if there’s one good thing to come out of Holmes & Watson is that hopefully studios will think twice before giving Ferrell such a long leash in future movies.  He’s a large reason the movie fails so spectacularly, halfheartedly hamming it up for the camera like he’s sleepwalking through the second to last sketch on a March episode of Saturday Night Live.  He’s merely collecting a paycheck and dragging down a lot of better actors with him.  Looking over his movies, he hasn’t made a legitimately good one in almost a decade, box office numbers aside.  It’s time for the actor to take a step back and have a good talk with himself about what kind of actor he wants to be because he’s consistently turning up in trash.

At this very moment audiences find themselves with a plethora of solid movie choices available to them and to even consider plunking down your money for Holmes & Watson over far better fare like Roma, Mary Poppins Returns, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Ben is Back would be a real waste.  Worse, you’d be rewarding the filmmakers and stars for their bad choices.