Tolkien – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The latest in the recent proliferation of writer-based biopics, Tolkien recounts the early life and young adulthood of J.R.R. Tolkien (portrayed by Nicholas Hoult as a young man), best known as the author of the children’s fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Like the biopics, Rebel in the Rye (also starring Hoult as J.D. Salinger), The Man Who Invented Christmas (starring Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens), and Goodbye Christopher Robin (starring Domhnall Gleeson as A.A. Milne), this film focuses on the inspiration for what would become classic stories celebrated by generations of readers (and moviegoers).

Nicholas Hoult stars in Tolkien

As the actual process of writing is mostly cerebral and therefore not inherently interesting, the film must focus elsewhere. In this case, Tolkien looks at how the impoverished young Tolkien brothers lose their father and mother before John (the “J” in J.R.R.) turns 13, and must live with an elderly matron who takes in young orphans. While there, John meets another resident, Edith (Lily Collins), who is studying to be a pianist. Their budding romance interferes with his school grades, and is soon halted by Father Francis (Colm Meaney), a well-meaning, but misguided priest who made a promise to John’s dying mother that the boy would attend college and make something of himself.    

A Fellowship of Words and Beauty

Without Edith, John turns to his three best friends for support, classmates Robert (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney), with whom he forms an after-school think tank. Together, they plan to change the world through the power of art. Their fellowship of words and beauty, however, is disrupted by World War I, which forever breaks apart their bond. The film is told mainly through flashbacks from the battlefield, as John struggles desperately to find Geoffrey in the heat of a grisly attack.  

One of the film’s chief goals appears to be laying the groundwork for Tolkien’s eventual creation of Middle Earth. We learn of his love for inventing language, his connection to “rings,” his anguished love affair with a woman he is forbidden to see, and horrific battle scenes forever seared into his memory. While providing possible connections from Tolkien’s past to his groundbreaking books, the film leaves much unsaid – merely offering suggestions of where some ideas or images might have originated.

The acting is terrific, and the transition from younger actors to older ones especially so. Music by Thomas Newman is often reminiscent of the feature films based on Tolkien’s work. Production values excel across the board, making Tolkien a must-see for fans of the books and film trilogy.

Tolkien

The adolescent and early adult years of the famed author J.R.R. Tolkien are examined in this drama that explores how his real-life experiences influenced his later books.

  • Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney
  • Director: Dome Karukoski
  • Writers: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
  • Genre: Biographical Drama
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Blair Witch Returns to Florida Film Fest as Special Event

By Leslie C. Halpern

Marking the 20-year anniversary of its release, the scary pseudo-documentary, The Blair Witch Project returns to the Florida Film Festival where it was featured as the opening night film in 1999. This time it appears in a 35mm version in the coveted special event spot as “An Evening with the Blair Witch: A 20th Anniversary Celebration” on Sunday, April 14 at 8:00 p.m. at Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida. As the filmmakers are local and will be participating in a Q&A following the screening, this event likely will sell out fast. Tickets are available now for this program and all screenings at the Festival, which runs from April 12-21, 2019.

Twenty years ago when the story broke that five local University of Central Florida film school graduates had sold their micro-budget horror film to Artisan Entertainment at Sundance Film Festival, I was lucky enough to interview the filmmakers in their studio and write articles for Orlando Sentinel, Sun-Sentinel, The Hollywood Reporter, and Markee Magazine. As proof that you should never throw anything away because someday you might need it, I dusted the creepy black widow spider webs off one of my articles from 1999, and am reprinting it below.    

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The stir created by the premiere of the low-budget thriller, The Blair Witch Project, purchased by Artisan Entertainment at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was no less exciting than the stir created during the actual filming of the pseudo-documentary. During the month of October 1997, Haxan Films transformed the tranquil beauty of Maryland’s Seneca Creek State Park into the haunted Black Hills Forest, the site where three student filmmakers (played by Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) mysteriously disappear during filming of a documentary about the mythical Blair Witch. Although the three students never emerge from the forest, terrifying footage of their experiences is discovered a year later.

The Blair Witch Project. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Written, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and produced by Gregg Hale and Robin Cowie, the four men—along with co-producer Michael Monello—comprise Orlando-based Haxan Films. Sanchez grew up in Maryland, and with the assistance of The Maryland Film Commission used the benign park for the eight-day shoot.

Postproduction in their home office was more daunting than haunting, however. Eight days of shooting produced 18 hours of raw footage, which took more than a year to edit into an-87-minute film. Shot on video and 16mm film, in color and black and white, the feature is a hybrid of looks created by method filmmaking, where Haxan Films achieves amazing realism through the imperfections of the footage. Blurry shots, seemingly unedited footage, improvised lines and unplanned expletives allow the actors to film themselves experiencing terror in the haunted forest.

“The actors’ prime directive was to react to stimuli and roll camera on everything that occurred,” Myrick says. To prepare for their ordeal, the actors were given a two-day crash course in filmmaking.

The unsuspecting actors didn’t know what awaited them as they wandered through the woods, deprived of sleep, proper nourishment, and knowledge of the production team’s plans, which included nightly harassments, haunted images, and a bloody discovery wrapped in flannel.  “Actually it was just some extracted teeth with the roots attached that we got from a dentist,” Cowie says. “You can’t really tell what it is—just that it’s nasty, real nasty.”

Sanchez says although the production team spent countless hours walking through the woods before the shoot, the tedious scouting was well worth it. Their in-depth knowledge of the woods was crucial for the nightly hauntings staged by the production team. “My favorite part was waking up the actors at 3:00 a.m. and scaring them,” Sanchez says. To facilitate these supposed encounters between the filmmakers and the Blair Witch, the production team moved quietly through the woods—sometimes a mile or more—in the dark using red-lens headlamps. Filming around Halloween added to the ambience.

During filming, the actors moved to and from pre-determined locations, encountering actors and non-actors with whom they improvised scenes. Direction was limited to written notes passed to the actors as they interviewed people in town before entering the haunted forest. In the woods, the actors relied on Global Positioning System (GPS) handsets for navigation. The production team also used GPS to track them. Notes, gear, and food were exchanged via baskets marked with DayGlo orange bike flags.

Cowie, who also serves as president of the development and production company FILMstart, Inc, says although a few local actors were used for small roles, many of the people interviewed in the film were local non-actors who agreed to answer questions. “Heather went up to people and asked if they had heard of the Blair Witch,” Cowie says. “For whatever reason, some of them said ‘yes’ and related stories they had heard or television shows they had seen on the subject.”

What possessed locals to share witch stories based on a myth conjured up by the filmmakers?  Myrick says it was one of many lucky signs that appeared along the way. “On the second day of filming, we were hiding in camouflage in the woods while the actors tried to negotiate crossing a log across a river. Because they were effectively shooting on film, they had sound gear, cameras and rolls of film on their backs. I knew that if they fell into the water and soaked the camera and film, then our movie was over. We couldn’t afford to buy any more stuff. I thought to myself, ‘If they can just make it across the log, then we’re home free.’”

They made it across the log.

While Artisan Entertainment test markets the film to determine play dates and range of distribution, Haxan Films is developing more projects, including screenplays, a book detailing the production of The Blair Witch Project, a film sequel, a television series and an interactive CD-ROM, all based on Blair Witch mythology.

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For more information about “An Evening with the Blair Witch” and Florida Film Festival, visit the official website.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Key in Character Names

By Guest Blogger: C.L. Roman

Trust me on this one. Authors put a lot of thought into naming their characters. Why?

If an author has done their job correctly, readers fall in love with them, or love to hate them. Those readers will follow a beloved (or behated) character through plot after plot, rather than lose them. And characters are identified by their names, the very mention of which conjures notions of bravery, honesty, talent or superlative evil. It is no surprise then that those names can become more recognizable than the titles of the books the characters inhabit.

Think of the names of some of your favorite literary characters.

Harper Lee’s Scout, J.K. Rowling’s Harry, Margaret Attwood’s Offred – none of these names came about by accident. The author chose or invented the name for a reason. Whether it was to symbolize the character as a whole, explain an essential detail of personality, convey a secret truth about a personality type, give the story an ironic twist, delineate the character’s role in the story, or foreshadow the individual’s eventual end, character names usually have a purpose.

But does any of this really matter? Do readers sit around pondering the meaning of character names? Some do. Some don’t. So why do authors put so much effort into naming characters?

There are a number of reasons.

Appellations have a certain “feel” or intrinsic meaning attached to them based on the traditional definition, or cultural connotation. Would Alice Armstrong steal money from the helpless little old lady? Alice means “noble.” Armstrong…well, it kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? So, unless the name is being used ironically, Alice is probably an upstanding citizen. On the other hand, any American who grew up during the cold war might have trouble with a protagonist named Boris.

Unlike real people, characters in books have names that compliment or directly oppose their natures, creating a sort of personality shorthand for author and reader alike. Just like other symbols in literature, a lot of the meaning in names is subliminal. Without realizing it, readers draw certain conclusions about a character based on what they are called. This means that some of the heavy lifting of characterization can be accomplished with relative ease.

In my Outcast Angels series, for instance, the angel’s names are derived from the words for giants and/or gods in various cultures around the world. Fomor is a shortened version of Fomoire, a race of gods out of Irish mythology. Danae is his wife. Her name is taken from the Tuatha dé Danann. Their union reflects the intermarriage between these two mythological races. Since all the major players in this series are angels, demons, or half-angels, I wanted names that indicated from the first page that these characters were not wholly human.

In my current work-in-progress, I chose the name Maeve for one of my main characters because it is the name of a warrior queen, and the character is a fighter who will not be dictated to, yet who is not afraid to love.

It is true that sometimes Bob is just Bob. No hidden meaning, no symbolism involved. Just…Bob. Especially when the character is minor, it may be that the name is nothing more than a convenient identifier. Alternately, maybe the author has a character who they originally named Tom but then realized there was already a Timothy in the story. So, the author changes Tom to Joe for no other reason but to avoid confusion.

Of course, with such a mundane name, the reader is clued in that this character may not have a very big place in the story. So even plain Jane names have a purpose.

That purpose might be just to make the character accessible. Let’s face it; most of us aren’t wizards like Harry. But Harry – the boy with the ordinary name – wasn’t so ordinary after all. That dichotomy is what makes him so relatable. We are all ordinary on the outside, but characters like Harry Potter assure us that it is what is inside that really counts.

And that’s the magic. Finding characters that in some way mirror our own experience is the reader’s door into the fictional world. Sometimes the name provides the key.

Author Bio

C.L. (aka Cheri) Roman, writes fantasy and sci-fi with a paranormal edge. You can find her at www.clroman.com and on Facebook. Cheri and her ever-patient husband live in the not-so-wilds of Northeast Florida with Jack E. Boy, the super Chihuahua, and Pye, the invisible cat.

Links

You can find Cheri’s books

Book Reviews from My Nightstand

By Leslie C. Halpern

In addition to reading books for pleasure, I’m a book reviewer for several online book sites. I typically read about two books a week, so that’s more than 100 books a year. Even so, there’s always a tall stack of books waiting for me on my nightstand – paperbacks, advanced reader copies, and ebooks loaded on my Kindle, delivered to me from various sources, such as publishing houses, book fairs, and writer’s meetings.

People give me all kinds of books to review from the current year or perhaps even published a couple of years earlier. I’m exposed to a variety of genres throughout the year, from traditionally published books to small presses to self-published platforms – including adult books, YA, and children’s publications. As an author myself, I know how important it is to spread the word about interesting, well-written books that readers would enjoy – if only they knew about them. So here are a few of my favorite books that I read this year from that tall stack of books on my nightstand.

Click the highlighted titles for more information or to purchase from Amazon.

Fiction

 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. (audiobook) 2018 Hachette Audio. ASIN: B0714BGVIV. 8 hours and 17 minutes. Read by Robert Petkoff. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel jumps off the page and into our imaginations with this highly animated audiobook. The story concerns a lonely middle-aged gay author named Arthur Less, who journeys around the world attending mediocre literary events to avoid attending the wedding of his former lover. Naturally nearly everything goes wrong on each leg of the journey, and everyone he meets reminds him of the failed love affair. Poor Arthur starts to believe the entire trip was the universe’s plan to further degrade him. Told with poetic descriptions and comical details, the audiobook version also includes the voice talents of Robert Petkoff, who manages to portray people of all ages, sexes, races, and origins in this lively retelling of Less’s story.

ARMS War for Eden: (Book 1) by [Arseneault, Stephen]

ARMS: War for Eden by Stephen Arseneault. (paperback and Kindle) 2016 CreateSpace. 978-1537554518. In the first of the ARMS science fiction series, two former Domicile Defense Force Biomarines (genetically engineered humans trained to fight during wartime) are forced to find a new gig during a break in the war. Outcasts Harris Gruberg and Tawnish Freely bond together in a lucrative scheme to sell arms to the outer colonists just before hunting season. Ready to retire off the generated funds, their plans go awry when they learn of mysterious deaths and rumors of war in the same place they sold their weapons. The uneasy truce and unacknowledged attraction between these two main characters is enjoyable to read, and the plot contains enough twists that readers won’t quite know what to expect regardless of how many other science fiction, military action, or space operas they have read in the past.

An Incomplete List of My Wishes by [Reiter, Jendi]

An Incomplete List of My Wishes by Jendi Reiter. 2018 (Paperback and ebook) Sunshot Press, 978-1944977207. This collection of eleven short stories by award-winning poet and novelist Jendi Reiter focuses mainly on interpersonal relationships and overcoming grief, fear, and isolation. Several stories include gay characters struggling with their homosexuality, and adolescents contemplating how their religious backgrounds fit into their evolving self-image. Complex and lovely, these stories are filled with great sadness, flashes of anger, touches of humor, and ultimately revelations from characters who in some way mirror our own lives.

And for the Little Ones

Mixter Twizzle’s Breakfast by Regan W.H. Macaulay. 2018 (Paperback and ebook) Mirror World Publishing, 978-1987976496. This children’s book for young readers introduces a peculiar red-deviled creature who lives beneath a chicken coop on a farm. Mixter Twizzle, as he is known, sneaks into the coop at breakfast time and steals eggs out from under the hens. Although his belly is full, his heart is empty. When a stolen egg unexpectedly hatches and a chick emerges, Mixter learn a valuable lesson about life. Beautifully illustrated by Wei Lu, this book should delight early and transitional readers with its quirky main character, who is monstrously cute in appearance, speech, and mannerisms.

Nonfiction

Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now? (Acculturated) by [Smith, Travis]

Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Now? by Travis Smith. 2018 (paperback and hardcover) Templeton Press. 978-1599474540. This book examines the ethical standards and practices of popular comic superheroes. The author dissects these characters from scientific, philosophical, psychological, religious, and cultural perspectives for a fascinating look at who we need to actually save the world from current problems. Five chapters compare two similar superheroes in preliminary battles to determine the final winner. For example, Batman competes with Spiderman for retaining peace neighborhoods, and the god-like characters Thor and Superman are pitted against each other. Fun to read, this book also includes profound insights into humanity.

 

Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body by Gavin Francis. 2018 (Audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07DGJPSH8. Unabridged 6 hours and 49 minutes. Read by Thomas Judd. Scotland physician Gavin Francis looks at bizarre naturally occurring physical abnormalities such as humans turning into werewolves and growing horns. Other chapters look at other quirky, though less dramatic physical transformations, such as jetlag, gigantism, infertility, castration, menopause, and bodybuilding. With his professional medical background and sensitive approach to the material, this book doesn’t sensationalize or demoralize, but rather explores weird pathologies with which the average reader is unfamiliar. Clearly written and always interesting, Shapeshifters also contains unexpected humor that lightens some of the darker material.

Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body & Mind by Nick Littlehales. 2018 (Audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07B1JFXHT. Unabridged 6 hours and 39 minutes. Read by Nick Littlehales. A sports sleep coach and creator of the R90 Sleep Technique, the author’s goal in writing this book was to teach people how to maximize their resting time. Everyone knows how debilitating it is to get a poor night’s sleep, but who knew how many elements contribute to a night of tossing and turning? Readers will learn about how lighting, food, activities, and thoughts can aid sleep or fuel insomnia. More than just a guide for improving sleep, this book also offers plenty of ideas for living better and more efficiently.

Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? by Mark Hyman, MD. 2018 (audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07B2Z6J7D. Unabridged 10½ hours. Read by the author. Best-selling health and nutrition author, Dr. Mark Hyman offers his latest book on picking the right foods for optimal health in this book. His suggested plan is the same as what he’s been espousing in his earlier works, such as Eat Fat, Get Thin. He says people are sick, fat, and out of shape from eating sugary, processed, and adulterated non-food items. His recommendations include eating whole foods that are locally sourced whenever possible. The book looks at good food as medicine, and non-food or bad foods as sickness. For those unfamiliar with the latest food trends, this book provides clearly defined useful information and a comprehensive plan for good health.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Boy Erased – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

According to the movie’s trailer, 77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America. This film, based on the 2016 memoir Boy Erased by Garrard Conley, tells the true story of one young man who was forced into the church-sanctioned program by his parents to erase his homosexuality.

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe star in Boy Erased. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

The son of a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe) and a God-fearing mother (Nicole Kidman), Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is forced to confront his homosexual impulses. Although he has a steady girlfriend throughout high school (Madelyn Cline), he breaks up with her when he goes to college – eager to be free of her increasingly demanding requests for a more physical relationship. At college, he quickly befriends Henry (Joe Alwyn), a handsome, athletic young man who sexually assaults Jared in an ugly violent scene.

Year-Long Conversion Program

When it’s clear their friendship has ended because of the assault, Henry seeks revenge by outing Jared through a prank telephone call to his parents. The call prompts his father to seek the advice of church elders, who unanimously decide the boy needs conversion therapy to chase away the devil inside him. Mrs. Eamons drives her son to the extended Love In Action assessment facility where he’ll be evaluated by its self-appointed expert, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay), to determine whether or not he’ll need the year-long conversion program.

Not surprisingly, most gay participants do not undergo an instant “cure” during the assessment phase, and get recommended for a year-long stay at the facility. The conversion program includes public shaming, invasions of privacy, mock funerals, and physical beatings with the bible. Some attendees embrace the philosophy and want to change, others play along with the program awaiting release, and (in a melodramatic climax) Jared refuses to submit to the ridiculous inauthentic spectacle.

Fine Performances

Kidman (who hails from Australia) is especially good in this role as a sharply dressed Southern Baptist who undergoes a conversion of her own in which she’s finally able to stand up to her husband while still embracing her beliefs. Edgerton also delivers a fine performance in which we’re never quite sure how much Sykes actually believes the rhetoric he spews. For example, when he encourages the teens to divulge more of the sexual details that brought them to Love In Action, there’s a hint of salaciousness without full-blown licentiousness. Likewise, Hedges offers a nuanced performance in which it’s unclear how much of the happy boy has been erased and how much replaced with a struggling young man.

Despite the good performances, there’s often a staged feel to the scenes – a manipulation that arises partly from the material and partly from the direction. Telling audiences what to think and feel sometimes seems a little too much like conversion therapy.

 Boy Erased

  • The gay son of a Baptist preacher is sent to a strict church-supported conversion therapy program where they try to set him “straight.”
  • Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Cherry Jones, Madelyn Cline, Theodore Pellerin, Joe Alwyn, Britton Sear, Flea, David Joseph Craig
  • Director: Joel Edgerton
  • Writer: Joel Edgerton (screenplay); Garrard Conley (author of memoir, Boy Erased)
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Run Time: 114 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.