Mini-Movie Review: ‘Tolkien’ is Fairly Inessential Bio-Cinema

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynne-Carney, Craig Roberts

Director: Dome Karukoski

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Flashes of World War I

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Would you be intrigued to know that some of the elements of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s actual life? The biopic Tolkien is counting on it, although it is not especially committed to that idea. The legendary English fantasy writer (as played dutifully by Nicholas Hoult) is haunted by memories of World War I with rather dragon-esque fire in the sky, and he has a tight group of schoolmates that one might call a fellowship. But beyond those (easily identifiable, not particularly cinematic) connections, this is a fairly straightforward story about a boy of modest, tragic (Dickensian, even) origins who made good. It is a life well-lived, but not necessarily captivating at every little moment. But at least his romance with his future wife Edith (Lily Collins) is compelling, built as it is on mutual respect and fascination. The emotions in their declarations of love are not atypical for the genre, but the language is unique and heartfelt. Focusing the whole movie on this intimate love story might have been a more inspired choice.

Tolkien is Recommended If You Like: Tolkien completism, The less interesting story behind the story

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Cellar Doors

This Is a Movie Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Take on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Has a Killer Instinct But Not a Killer Execution

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds and Attempted Gun Wounds

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous and prolifically portrayed detectives in English literary history, is the sort of man who cannot enjoy his breakfast unless his two eggs are perfectly symmetrically arranged. As he puts, “I can only see the world as it should be.” His skill at identifying culprits so precisely derives from his distaste for his surroundings being askew in any capacity. And when a crime has been committed, things are certainly askew. For a Poirot newbie like myself, this thesis statement is clear and compelling enough. It points to a tradition that has led to a recently predominant style in which brilliant detectives do not fit on a normative intellectual scale.

As for how this version of this most classic of Poirot cases plays out, Branagh is eager to put his many new spins on locked room mystery tropes. But first, certain typical patterns are unavoidable. Each passenger must be introduced with just enough color to make everyone a legitimate suspect, and the camerawork must be painstakingly particular to note every cabin, door, and hidden compartment. But once the setup is through, there is fun to be had (or at least attempted) in mixing up expectations. Oftentimes, characters in these stories try to get away with little lies or hide pieces of their identities that ultimately prove to be quite telling. In this case, the experiment – and alas, mistake – is that everyone gives themselves away with such dishonesty.

A good mystery should be a few steps ahead of most of its viewers. Branagh does indeed pull that off, but he is also a few steps ahead of his own movie, which is not similarly advisable. The result is an end product in which the love for the genre is clear, but the volume at which it is being poked and prodded is too much weight to bear. Most of the performances are overly stiff, stuck in roles within roles in which the unnatural seams start to show. Only Michelle Pfeiffer manages to truly cut loose. Branagh’s formal openness is a good start, but ultimately a star-studded affair like this one requires much more lasting personalities to really hit.

Murder on the Orient Express is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie completism, Marvelous mustaches, the Michelle Pfeiffer Renaissance

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Symmetrical Arrangements