Movie Review: Tolkien

tolkien-french-poster-752x1024

Like many, I grew up reading the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and his excursions into middle-earth. Even though world building has come a long way since then with other grand epic fantasies, Tolkien paved the way not only with his imagination of his worlds but his sense of history and primarily language.

There are a few things that go into consideration when making a biographical motion picture of such a creator as Tolkien who not only has a large literary body of work but has also been the source of several huge films based on his work. One of the things to consider is what separates the artist from the art and what influences led the artist to create?

This is a Fox Searchlight production. It does not reference the Warner/New Line movies in any way. On top of that, it was made without the involvement of the Estate or family. This last part may leave a sour note, but the fact is that Tolkien estate has never authorized any sort of biographical film about Professor Tolkien, and seem unlikely to.

With all that out of the way. this biopic  directed by Finnish director Dome Karukoski is a fine dramatic picture and portrait of an artist as a young man, but of the bonds of brotherhood that that would impact him for the rest of his life. On top of that is the romance he shared with Edith Bratt, the love of his life — not only the future Mrs. Tolkien, but the Luthien to his Beren.

You can approach Tolkien as a fan of his work, but even if you know nothing about The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or any of his other works, you can appreciate a remarkable  period coming of age film about fellowship, young love, the horrors of war, and the lasting impact they have on us for the rest of one’s life. People expecting insight or revelations into the creation of Professor Tolkien’s world will have to be satisfied with being offered the building blocks that are at the heart of his imagination.

At a young age, he (the younger young Tolkien is played by Harry Gilby) had always had a love of languages and was an adept reader. He was home-schooled by his mother who would unfortunately die while he and his brother were quite young. He and his brother are put into foster care while Father Morgan,  a gruff priest (played full on Irish by Colm Meany) is his legal guardian. While in school, he forms a friendship with fellow students that would influence the ideas of the bonds of fellowship for the rest of life.

As a teenager (now played by Nicholas Hoult), he meets and falls in love for fellow boarding house resident Edith Bratt. Father Morgan is opposed to this on the basis that it will effect his studies and his admittance to Oxford, and she is not even Catholic.

Even when he is an Oxford student, he is not the not the best at his studies of classics, but would later find his his true calling at the prodding of a philology professor, played by Shakespearean legend Derek Jacobi.

The trailers for this film made me think this was a biographical movie that mixed in the author’s life story with his fiction in surreal fashion like Paul Shrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I certainly thought so from trailers, but that is not the case. The instances of surreal, dream and nightmare images of reality and fantasy elements mixing together are confined to Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of the Somme during World War I. The Battle of the Somme serves as the centerpiece to the story as most of the film is told in flashback from it.

Tolkien is a film worthy of seeing not only for fans of the Professor, but even for those who are not. It is filled with fine performances by actors of young to old. NIcholas Hoult as Tolkien brings a balanced mixture of a youth that is conflicted with what his heart’s desires and what is expected of him. Lilly Collins as Edith Bratt (who once auditioned for the role of Tauriel for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy) makes it easy to believe why she would be the eternal love of J. R. R. Tolkien.  It is also supported by a remarkable score by Thomas Newman who may have done one of his best work in years since Shawshank Redemption. Sure, the film could cover the famous years that have been the subject of many documentaries already, but that would make for a trilogy of films if it did.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film. Whether you are a fan or not, it transcends the biopic genre and presents a drama that is well made, intelligent and entertaining. Recommended.

Advertisements

Anime Review: The Ancient Magus Bride

magus

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.

— JRR Tolkien

It may seem like anime has no problem of portraying fantasy worlds. But let’s look at that objectively. How much of the well-known fantasy series these days are in the Isekai genre? In other words a character or characters find themselves dropped in a fantasy/RPG/gaming world. Nothing wrong with that, but the sheer number of these that come out every season is baffling and I guess there is a market for it. There have been some great ones like the classic Vision of Escaflowne; some good ones like Grimgar; and for better or worse, Sword Art Online has played a huge part in the popularity of the genre. Note: Konosba is a masterpiece. I don’t care what you say. Fight me. But any original anime that is based on magical and fantastic worlds are getting far and few. Even Record of Gancrest War though it is not Isekai relies on RPG elements of leveling your powers up by defeating opponents and acquiring crests.

I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of the first three episodes of The Ancient Magus Bride last year and was captivated immediately not only by the beautiful animation and attention but the world creation involved. It began streaming on Crunchyroll in October 2017 and I am happy to say that the series as a whole is as captivating as those first moments I saw the preview. Based on a manga series written and drawn by Kore Yamazaki, the anime follows the manga quite closely.

We are first introduced to Chise at an auction where she is selling herself at auction so that someone would talk care of her. Yeah, it’s weird and creepy as heck – even for anime. At the London auction she is bought for five million pounds by Elias, a reclusive seven-foot mage who hides his skull shaped head in public. He aims to make her his apprentice because she is a Sleigh Beggy, a mage who is able to create and absorb great magical energy.

What unfolds over the next twenty-four episodes is a magical journey through Celtic myth and folklore as Chise learns to use her power. We also get to know more of Elias and the world they inhabit. And what a wondrous world it is. The world of The Ancient Magus Bride is pretty much our world, more specifically England, but it is inhabited by creatures invisible to us. Chise’s inherent ability allows her to see these creatures though and as a Sleigh Beggy, they are drawn to her. It helps that these fey creatures are in most cases simply adorable.

Chise1

There are many things that make The Ancient Magus Bride work so well. It’s not afraid to take its time to tell its story of discovery. Through Chise’s point of view we undergo a journey into a world of faëry that is filled with wonder, beauty, and horror. It is with that sense of wonder that makes it special. There are shots in almost every episode that are worthy of framing and rival any that done by Studio Ghibli. The animation by Wit Studio is that good.

One of the early episodes introduces us to dragons, who are a protected and fading species from the world. Chise encounters an aging dragon who is near the end of its life. The dragons when they die return to the earth from where they came and become great trees. In his last moments, Nevin the dragon shares his final memories of flight with Chise and in the end offers a branch from the great tree that he will soon become so that she may fasten her mage’s staff.

Chise2

Drawing heavily from Celtic mythology, we meet characters like faërie Queen and King Titania and Oberon, a Banshee who no longer has a voice, a leánnan sídhe who is in love with a mortal, and a church grim that will form a protective bond with Chise. The world building just feels authentic and inviting as well. It’s as if the anime is saying “This world has dangers, but it also offers beauty and love. Come join us.” I highly recommed that you do.

The Ancient Magus Bride is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com subtitled and Funimationnow.com English dubbed. A home release has yet to be announced.

The manga is licensed in English by Seven Seas Entertainment and is available from Amazon.com digitally and in paperback.

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

 

circe

My experience with Greek mythology was first instilled by the movies of Ray Harryhausen. I loved Jason and the Argonauts as a kid and still do to this day. I may have read some condensed little bits of Greek myth while in middle school. It was not until I attended college that I was exposed to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And although I found Homer interesting, overall I thought The Odyssey was pretty dry. Maybe it was just the translation I read.

Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe is in no way dry or boring. It takes the old myths that we are familiar with and weaves them together into a narrative that is captivating, engaging, and fresh. Reading Circe is akin to sitting is a great hall after a meal while a poet recites tales of love, passion, loss and magic. The lights are dim and a crackling fire is burning on the hearth.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun. A seemingly black sheep of the family she is exiled after showing kindness to Prometheus who was punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mortals. It is here that Circe’s story begins to take off. She is exiled to the island of Aiaia. On this island she hones her craft of herbcraft, referred to as pharmaka. To the gods it is considered witchcraft.

But even in exile she receives visitors. The first is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He doesn’t care about her exile status and finds her fascinating. He brings her news of the outside world, of the wars of man and the petty squabbles between the gods.

We later get glimpses of Circe’s family. Her sister is Pasiphaë, wife if King Minos of Crete, and mother of the Minotaur. Her brother is Aeëtes, King of Colchis and keeper of the Golden Fleece. Through her eyes we get a unique perspective on the old myths that so many of us grew up on.

Circe is probably best remembered as the witch that Odysseus encounters and basically shacks up with for a year while returning from the Trojan Wars. And true to the spirit of her narrative, Miller presents a different perspective on the familiar tale as told by Homer.

Madeline Miller has managed to take the old and present it as something that is fresh, and told in a style that is engaging and hard to put down. The language flows smoothly and is almost conversational in ton. It’s perfect for the first person perspective that it is written in. Of special note, the audiobook, as narrated by Perdita Weeks, is exceptionally performed with nuanced storyteller like performance. It is Perdita Weeks’ first book narration and I hope to here more of her performances.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is the perception of women in the world of the Greek myths. Miller explores that not only with Circe, but with Medea and Penelope as well who had been given short shift in most other interpretations. Jason and Odysseus are not the heroes that they have often been portrayed as and the reason why Circe changes any men that come to her island to pigs is understandable and as far as I’m concerned better than some deserved.

What Miller has done is something special and hopefully can be taught alongside Homer and Ovid in Classics courses in the future. Despite it being a retelling of stories thousands of years  old, its style is modern, and relevant. Highly Recommended.