Tolkien (General Release)
As fascinated as we are with great writers, the cinematic appeal of watching someone put pen to paper, clack away on a manual typewriter or peck at their laptop keyboard is at best negligible, and more likely, non-existent. Still, award-winning Finnish director Dome Karukoski chose renowned writer J.R.R. Tolkien as the subject of his first English language film.
Tolkien’s actual writing time on screen is mostly limited to a single shot at the film’s conclusion; however, the script attempts to connect the dots between his real world life to his middle-earth characters and adventures from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Harry Gilby portrays the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and then Nicholas Hoult stars from college age forward. The film bounces between Tolkien’s childhood as an orphan, his elite private school education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, matriculating at Oxford University and soldiering in WWI.
It’s during his stay at Ms. Faulkner’s boarding house when he meets Edith Blatt, the love of his life. While attending prep school, he and three friends: Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and Geoffrey Smith (poet), form the TCBS (Tea Club and Borrovian Society), a club dedicated to changing the world through art.
It’s at Oxford where Tolkien’s love of language kicks into a yet higher gear, though it’s during his time in the Battle of the Somme — one of the deadliest battlefields of WWI — that we see his ‘trench fever’ contribute to many of the visuals later associated with his books.
Lily Collins portrays Blatt at the age where Tolkien must choose between her and his Oxford education, but as often happens with true love, the two later reconnect and remain married for more than 50 years (until her death). This film doesn’t cover their later years and instead focuses on the formative ones – both for his imagination and their relationship.
We see his early childhood games (The Shire inspired from his time in Sarehole outside Birmingham) and the film often slaps us with an ‘obvious stick’ on how certain segments of life translate directly to his familiar stories in future years. In fact, there is no mention of C.S. Lewis and The Inklings — his friends who later supported his writing efforts. We do, however, get a sequence with Tolkien and Blatt backstage at Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle” opera … a dot that requires the simplest of connectors.
The film looks terrific — especially in the battle scenes, which are staged dramatically and horrifically (much as we imagine the war was) by cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannesson. Unfortunately, that’s the highlight. This is mostly a generic biography of an extraordinary writer. Adding to the frustration is the fact that Nicholas Hoult recently portrayed reclusive writer J.D. Salinger in “Rebel in the Rye”… roles too similar for the same actor.
“The Hobbit” was published in 1937 and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 1954-55, the latter being the best-selling fiction of all-time before being overtaken by J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. Tolkien’s key seems to have been his lifelong fascination with language. He even created his own – not just words, but complete languages. That would likely have made a better focus here. Seeing the foundation of “the Fellowship” was somewhat interesting, although much of that segment came across like a poor man’s “Dead Poet Society.” Supposedly, the Tolkien family has refused to endorse the film, likely placing the script “In a hole in the ground …”
Charlie Says (Limited Release)
Author Joan Didion wrote “the 1960s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969,” and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that tragic night … actually two tragic nights (August 8 and 9) … there is no shortage of recollections and reenactments through both print and visual media.
For anyone who was alive at the time or has read the story since, the grisly murders and cult commune lorded over by Charles Manson remains nearly beyond belief. Unfortunately, it’s all too real.
Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner previously collaborated on “American Psycho” (2000) and “The Notorious Bettie Page” (2015), and here, “inspired by” books from Karlene Faith (“The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult,” 2001) and Ed Sanders (“The Family,” 1972, also one of the film’s producers), we get a glimpse of the Manson cult through the eyes of the women, especially Leslie Van Houten.
And let’s be honest, that’s where the real mystery is. A domineering, arrogant, white supremacist is not nearly as interesting as the story of how these women became so enchanted by him that they were willing (even anxious) to murder innocent people on his behalf.
Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) stars as Leslie Van Houten, nicknamed “LuLu” by Manson not long after they meet for the first time. We see Van Houten, Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) in an isolated cell block of a California Women’s Prison five years after the murders. They are going through therapy sessions with Faith whose goal is to remind them of who they were before meeting Manson.
During the prison therapy sessions, we get flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch where Manson ruled over his followers which also included Mary Brunner, Squeaky Fromme, Linda Kasabian and, of course, Tex Watson, who initially comes off as quite aloof, but eventually buys in totally — in a most violent manner. It’s these flashbacks that are meant to help us understand the brainwashing which stuck with these women through the crimes, through their trial, and through years of incarceration.
We hear the “garbage dump” song. We hear about money and ego. We learn that “the new rules are no rules.” We see Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star shattered by music producer Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day) after his introduction from Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys drummer), who hung around the ranch sometimes. And we hear Manson’s rantings about the correlations between The Beatles’ White Album and the Bible, and about how a race war is coming (and it’s named Helter Skelter).
Matt Smith plays Charles Manson, and oddly enough, this comes on the heels of his playing artist Robert Mapplethorpe in “Mapplethorpe.” Smith seems to have fun with the role, but it’s these segments that feel underwritten. We want more of an explanation of how this could happen. On the other hand, the therapy sessions in the prison actually provide more insight to the lasting effects of the man and the cult that brainwashed them right into committing cold-blooded murder and a life behind bars.
The thankless job of a prison therapist becomes clear as Faith realizes that if she breaks the Manson spell, these women will be forced to live with the unimaginable atrocities they committed. For a different perspective, track down the 1976 TV movie “Helter Skelter” that was based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book. It starred Steve Railsback as a terrifying Charles Manson.