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.

Movie Review ~ Tomb Raider (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I’m more of a Mario guy so I don’t pledge allegiance to Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series of games that originally spawned two movies starring Angeline Jolie in 2001 and 2003. That’s important to note because while most fans of the video game didn’t care for the Jolie adventures I found them to be pleasant (if slight) diversions and a noble attempt to introduce a strong female into the male-dominated halls of gamer heroes. With Jolie declining to continue, the series sputtered out until a recent reinvention of the game got Hollywood interested in further adventures of Lara Croft.

Enter recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who beat out a host of fresh faced ladies for the role of feisty Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider. With direction from Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who first made a splash with his 2015 film The Wave and scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons (fairly new names on the screenwriting scene) the results of this new take on an old premise are decidedly mixed. While the first half of the film lays some nice groundwork in re-introducing audiences to our heroine, there’s precious little in the way of overall payoff during the last hour of action.

Vikander’s Croft is less self-assured than Jolie’s previous incarnation and that makes for a nice entry point to her world. Vikander’s impressive abs actually appear onscreen before she does when she’s found sparring in a London gym and getting her butt whupped. Mountain biking her way around town working for a delivery service, she proves she’s one of the guys early on during a spirited race through the city streets that leads to trouble with the law. That’s when Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour) appears as Croft’s guardian and she’s none too pleased with her ward’s antics.

After her globe-hopping employer disappeared, Miller was left to take care of his young daughter and the vast family estate and business that bears his name. Long declared dead, the memory of Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter) lives on in his daughter who still can’t fully accept he’s gone. When it comes time to sign over the company to her, Lara discovers a clue that sends her on an adventure around the world to an uninhabited island in Japan that supposedly holds the remains of a Queen who brought death to all she touched that was buried alive and forgotten.

Once Lara makes it to the island, the myth of this evil royal turns out to be the most interesting thing the film has going for it. I was more invested in seeing her remains unearthed than I was in watching Lara outwit Japanese street thugs or escape the clutches of a deranged treasure hunter (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). While Uthaug puts Vikander into many perilous predicaments, many of these are so CGI and stunt double heavy that it felt like the film was moving through levels of a video game instead of building any kind of cinematic momentum.

While Vikander makes for a plucky lead, her Croft is almost completely devoid of any kind of personality to speak of. She’s clearly damaged by the absence of her father but aside from that we know as much about her at the end as we did at the start. Goggins has made a career out of playing these big toothed crazies so this doesn’t feel like much a stretch for him, his danger comes not from anything internally cracked but all external weapons that easily take down targets. Appearing only briefly, Scott Thomas seems to be waiting for a sequel script to arrive to give her something more to do (though the film makes a pretty giant leap at the end to keep her involved) while West finds his way back into the movie through predictable means.

I kind of knew what Tomb Raider was going to be when I went in but honestly I was hoping it would be a little more intelligent. Lara and her dad shared a love of puzzles so the assumption would be that we’d see her solving some clues to his whereabouts along the way…but Lara tends to solve all of these riddles and clever traps in her mind. We, the audience, never see the inner workings of that thought process so it becomes dull viewing when we aren’t let in on the secret. Even a finale inside a tomb has oodles of opportunities to bring some fun obstacles to overcome, ala The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that sadly never come to be.

The framework is clearly laid for future installments of this new Tomb Raider franchise and I’d be up for more of Vikander if the plot was firmed up a bit and more fun was injected into the mix. This first outing, while sporadically entertaining, felt too paint-by-numbers to be considered much more than a middling popcorn feature.

Movie Review ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Sergei Polunin, Willem Dafoe

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In my limited experience with Amtrak, I’ve come to the conclusion travel by train through the Midwest can be the most exciting way to be bored. There’s a rush of fun and thrill to board, find your seat, and sit back as the chugging engine moves you past the fields of wheat and country roads. Then that first half hour is over and you realize you have seven more to go until you reach your destination. I’ll admit that there were times when I wish there was something more exciting to do aside from looking forward to your time in the dining car. Not saying that murder would be a welcome addition to riding the rails but…it could spice things up a bit.

Maybe that’s why I was always such a fan of Agatha Christie’s sparkling 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express and its various incarnations on film and television over the years. I have a particular fondness for Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film that featured Albert Finney as Christie’s famed moustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot. Though too young for the role and padded enough to make him look like a Belgian Humpty Dumpty, Finney won me over (even if Christie didn’t care for him) and the ensemble cast of A-listers made solving the mystery Christie cooked up that much more fun. Poirot has ridden the Orient Express again in two more adaptations for television but he’s back onscreen under the guidance of director/star Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the results are similarly old-fashioned and quite fun.

Many are going to have a problem with the relative cool tone of the film and it’s aloof star player. This is a movie that unspools slowly and with precision, taking care to present grand elegance instead of common luxury and nuanced performances in place of star cameos. I’m not saying it all works but, for me, it was the ride I was hoping for.

On his way back to London to help with a case, Poirot finds himself on the famed Orient Express on a three day journey back from Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded at this late winter date so all compartments are occupied. En route, Poirot’s careful eye sees an unusual familiarity between two supposed strangers (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) and a sadness in a deeply religious missionary (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2).  He spots a divide in the working relationship between an art dealer (Johnny Depp, Tusk) and his two employees (Derek Jacobi, Cinderella, and Josh Gad, Beauty & the Beast) and observes a brusque chill from a Russian Princess (Judi Dench, Skyfall) traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman, Hyde Park on Hudson).  There’s also a strange German doctor (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) and a brash man-eater (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) keeping him occupied and, at the very least, entertained.

It’s when the train derails in the middle of the night and one of the passengers ends up dead that Poirot’s brief bid for rest gets interrupted. There’s a killer onboard and the longer Poirot interrogates each passenger the more he begins to realize there are multiple suspects with the same motivation.  Can he detect who done the deed before the rescue crews arrive and the train makes its way to its final stop?  The solution to this one is a corker and those who know it won’t be surprised but Branagh and company want you to remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

This is a handsome looking film and Branagh has captured it nicely in 65mm, preserving the lushness of the setting and maintaining the classic grain of a celluloid experience while keeping things crisp. The landscapes are almost entirely CGI (didn’t think Dench was going to get snowbound in the middle of nowhere did you?) but the period details are all practical and perfect.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor)works with Branagh to find interesting angles, such as the discovery of the body filmed from above which makes the audience feel like we’re watching rats in a maze.  There are nice long takes as the camera moves throughout the train and everyone is framed to look their absolute best.

Branagh will likely catch some heat for making the thrust of the film rely a bit too much on him. The magic of the previous movie was how well balanced Finney was with the rest of the actors; Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her small role which is played here by Cruz.  The interrogation scenes felt more intimate and personal there whereas under Branagh’s watch the interviews are brief and blunt.  There’s a crime from the past that mysteriously links everyone on board and because it weighs so heavily into the solution there could have been better steps taken by screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) to lay the groundwork throughout the first ¾ of the film.

I didn’t mind Branagh’s screen time, nor did I think twice about his crazy facial hair or thick Belgian accent. I liked his persnickety ways and it plays nicely off the rest of the cast who are allowed to be a bit more broad.  The film ends with a hint that we might get more Poirot (Death on the Nile, from the sound of it) and I’d be up for another adventure with Branagh.  Dench, as always, makes the most out of her role, easily nailing all of her character’s grand snooty comebacks.  Gad and Depp are usually pain points for me but they play a good game here, both actors are restrained without feeling constrained.  Ridely, Odom Jr., and Cruz might be far less memorable than previous actors that have played these roles but they acquit themselves nicely the more we get to know them.  Lovely Pfeiffer is having a grand time playing a loudmouth widow, she looks gorgeous and Branagh even got her to sing a lullaby over the closing credits.  Pfeiffer has a sweet, if thin, voice but it works for the song and the character.

I always enjoyed watching the original film during the winter months on a cold day. It’s good timing this new version is coming out just as the temperature is dropping and snow is on the horizon.  It’s a perfect film for a lazy day or sophisticated night out.  The deliberate pace and overall conservation of energy might bore audiences that just paid to see the brain smashing Thor: Ragnorok last weekend, but I’d encourage you to book passage on Murder on the Orient Express for another type of adventure.

The Silver Bullet ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Synopsis: A lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into the thrilling mystery of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Thoughts: Oh boy does this one look fun.  Based on Agatha Christie’s twist-filled 1934 novel, audiences have traveled on the Orient Express already in a BBC adaptation and the 1974 star-studded spectacle which remains one of my all time favorite films.  I admit I grimaced a bit when I heard a new version was in the works but as the cast came together for director/star Kenneth Branagh’s remake I began to soften a little.  This first trailer hints at the high level of class the filmmakers are employing for this murder mystery and though I’m guessing movie-goers may chuckle a bit at Branagh’s grandiose Poirot mustache I’d be willing to bet they’ll be intrigued enough to hop on board when it’s released in November. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows), Penelope Cruz (Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and, regrettably, Josh Gad (Frozen)