Movie Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)


Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Release Date: 17 December 2003
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Company: New Line Cinema | WingNut Films
Summary/Review:

The trilogy finishes with a bang with the most action-packed and exciting film of the series.  Once again, Jackson emphasizes being an epic war movie, but in this case it is appropriate since the story concludes in an epic war.  Plus we get great character entries as Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are split up and become members of the Rohan and Gondor forces.  Meanwhile, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), has the greatest character moment in the enter series when she declares “I am no man!”

The quest of Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and their guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) is not given short-shrift.  Frodo and Sam are put through the wringer and their pure exhaustion is evident. The whole trilogy is a wonderful movie-going experience, and a great story of hope in time of strife, collaborative effort, and friendship.

By the way, my daughter is now fully on board with The Lord of the Rings and wants to dress as Legolas for Halloween.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)


Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Release Date: 18 December 2002
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Company: New Line Cinema | WingNut Films
Summary/Review:

The middle film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is still an immensely entertaining movie, but it feels like a step back after the majesty of Fellowship. The biggest flaw in the movie is that it is an epic war movie that overshadows the quest of the hobbits, who I believe are the heart of the story.  Helm’s Deep is given way too much significance, with scenes of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) surfing on a shield and elves dying in slow-motion to New Age music just making it all too silly.

When the movie does focus on hobbits, though, it excels.  The growing burden of bearing the ring is deftly shown in Elijah Wood’s performance as Frodo and Sean Astin’s Sam’s efforts to support his friend.  Andy Serkis does a remarkable job of bringing out the Gollum/Smeagol divide in an early motion-capture performance.  Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin’s (Billy Boyd) adventures and alliance with the Ents is also well done. And I think Miranda Otto’s portrayal of Eowyn adds a necessary heroic women character without falling into the “strong woman” trope.

After my kids not showing much interest in The Fellowship of the Ring, this movie did win my daughter over, so that’s a plus! I wrote a review of this movie back in 2003 where I said basically the same thing, so you can see that my mind doesn’t change much in 18 years.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)


Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Release Date: 19 December 2001
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Company: New Line Cinema | WingNut Films
Summary/Review:

I revisited this movie for the first time since it was in the theaters which was really too long to wait because I’ve always loved The Lord of the Rings. I watched with my kids who were not quite sold on Tolkien, alas.  There’s a lot to love of about this movie, mostly in that you can’t deny the imagination that went into adapting Tolkien’s work. It may not be what YOU imagined when reading the books, but you can’t deny that that it is a possible recreation of Middle Earth.  The cast is chosen well, and Elijah Wood does an excellent job at expressing Frodo’s emotion despite not having a lot of dialogue for a lead character.

The movie does have some flaws.  For example, it relies way too much on slow motion.  And like the book it based on it is overwhelmingly male. Jackson attempted to address this by giving Arwen (Liv Tyler) a bigger role although it feels like an attempt to force in a romance story without any effort to write romance well.  I do appreciate Cate Blanchett’s work as Galadriel since she appears to be really an ethereal and eerie elf in real life.

The changes this movie makes from it’s source material are largely beneficial to the story’s pacing and character development.  Tom Bombadil’s story is rightly ditched because it would be a too ponderous side trip.  And the ending is actually improved by using the climactic battle and dissolution of the Fellowship from the beginning of The Two Towers as a cliffhanger.  It’s really an excellent example of adaptation that the ensuing two movies did not live up to.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave the Best Picture to Return of the King and AFI included Fellowship on the 100 Years list.  I think they both intended to reward the entire trilogy, but it is my belief that Fellowship is the best film of the three.

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: The Mandalorian (2020)


Title: The Mandalorian
Release Date: 2020
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jon Favreau
Episodes: 8
Production Company:  Lucasfilm | Golem Productions
Summary/Review:

WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS HERE! DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THIS SEASON AND WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

The Mandalorian returns with Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) on a quest to reunite The Child (a.k.a. Baby Yoda) with the Jedi, assuming he can even find Jedi in the galaxy. Familiar faces from season 1 return to support The Mandalorian on his quest, including Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris), Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), and Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr).  But this season is also about tying in The Mandalorian with wider Star Wars lore, featuring the live action debut of the characters Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) and Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), as well as the return of Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), now teamed with Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen).  The biggest character reveal, though, is reserved for the final moments of the season finale.

Each episode is still largely self-contained with the Manadalorian typically involved in carrying out a favor for someone in return for information that will help him on the quest.  Tantalizing details of the larger story trickle out but also there are some huge revelations through the season.  For example, we learn that “Baby Yoda” is actually named Grogu, and that he was a youngling who survived the Jedi Purge.

Pedro Pascal continues to provide some wonderful, nuanced acting in the lead role. His character learns a lot about his people and his beliefs this season and makes some dramatic choices out of his love for Grogu. The rest of the cast also remains uniformly brilliant, and I particularly like Bill Burr bringing a bit of morally ambiguous wisdom to his Space Boston character. The Mandalorian is a great mix of action, drama, mystery, and humor and remains the only show my whole family eagerly watches together.

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Movie Review: Treasure Planet (2002)


TitleTreasure Planet
Release Date: November 27, 2002
Director: Ron Clements & John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I’ve heard of steampunk and cyberpunk, but I guess this movie is sailpunk, since it involves sailing ships traveling through space.  The retelling of Treasure Island in an alien setting has some fun features: Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes skysurfing, John Silver (Bryan Murray) is a cyborg, the captain is the anthropomorphic cat, Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), and a shapeshifting creature named Morph (Dane Davis).

But outside some impressive visuals, Treasure Planet doesn’t go far enough in reinventing Robert Louis Stevenson’s story as a space opera (and believe me, I just watched Treasure Island and Muppet Treasure Island, so I’m very familiar with the basic plot points that are repeated in all three interpretations. The movie soundtrack also features songs by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls that does nothing but date the movie to the early 2000s.

Treasure Planet isn’t bad, per se, but it had the potential to be so much more if the filmmakers had embraced the weirdness rather than playing it safe.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review Treasure Island (1950)


Title: Treasure Island
Release Date: July 29, 1950
Director: Byron Haskin
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Since I was watching Muppets Treasure Island and Treasure Planet for movie-watching projects, I decided to complete the trilogy of Disney adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel with this Technicolor spectacular.  This was Disney’s first fully live-action film and benefits from moody set design and location filming in England.

12-year-old Bobby Driscoll plays Jim Hawkins as an all-American boy of the 50s and seems to specialize in making sour faces in reaction to other characters, but he does all right in the role. Robert Newton steals the show with his West Country accent and says everything you want to hear from a movie pirate.  Denis O’Dea as Dr. Livesy adds some gravitas to balance the pirate antics.

Overall, it’s a good adventure, and while this move is clearly in the mold of 1950s family entertainment, it nevertheless holds up very well.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Release Date: December 23, 1954
Director: Richard Fleischer
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Synopsis:

It’s 1868 in San Francisco, and rumors abound that vessels in the shipping lanes across the Pacific are being disrupted by a monster.  This disappoints marine science expert Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), who are eager to travel to Saigon.  They are invited to join US Navy expedition to investigate the rumors of the monster.  The expedition also included harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

After nearly four months of methodically searching the Pacific, the captain is ready to return to San Francisco, but then they witness a nearby merchant ship get struck by something and explode due to it’s cargo of gunpowder.  Rushing to aid the sinking ship, the naval crew spot the “monster,” which turns and attacks them next.  Aronnax, Lorre, and Land all end up overboard.  They are carried on flotsam to a mysterious submersible vessel which they investigate and it appears to be abandoned. They witness through a window that the crew of submarine are actually carrying out an undersea burial.

The trio are captured by Captain Nemo (James Mason) and the crew of the Nautilus. Initially, Nemo wishes to execute the men but then decides to hold them prisoner, largely because he admires Aronnax’s scientific work and willingness to die with his companions.  Aronnax learns that Nemo and his crew were enslaved at a penal colony where they mined for material used in making munitions.  Now they find peace from the cruelty of human warfare, while destroying munitions ships that would contribute to further war.

Aronnax becomes convinced that if he gets close to Nemo, he can convince Nemo to use his technological knowledge for the betterment of humanity.  Meanwhile, Ned works on a plan for escape.  Conseil, feeling that the Professor has become irrational in his alliance with Nemo, joins Ned on an escape plan.

Nemo imprisons Ned after an escape attempt, but when the Nautilus is attacked by a giant squid, Ned is not only able to break out of his prison but also rescues Nemo.  The Nautilus sails to their base at the island of Vulcania, only to find it has been surrounded by warships (possibly due to Ned sending out the coordinates in bottled messages).  Nemo goes ashore to set off a bomb to destroy all of his scientific work, but is fatally shot while returning to the Nautilus.  The crew agree to go down with the Captain, but Ned manages to escape with Aronnax and Conseil in a skiff, where they watch Vulcania explode from afar.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This may be one of the earliest movies I ever saw, with a screening at our local community club.  I loved it for its adventure and humor, and watched it several other times over the course of my childhood.  I was also a big fan of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Walt Disney World when I was a kid.

What Did I Remember?:

I may not have been able to summarize the plot of the film before watching, but several times throughout the film just as something was about to happen I remembered what was coming next.  Obviously key scenes like Kirk Douglas singing “A Whale of a Tail,” the conflict with the “cannibals,” and the attack of the giant squid are impossible to forget.

What Did I Forget?:

Mostly just the first ten minute or so, the boring establishing scenes prior to Kirk Douglas singing.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie is a pure adventure, drawing on the genius of Jules Verne, mixed with the mid-century Disney/Hollywood whimsy.  The humor and charm help mask that this is actually a very dark story with some deep philosophical questions.  I’m sure some people could pick nits with the special effects, but I still find them damned impressive depictions of the undersea world.  Douglas, Lorre, and Mason are all terrific in their iconic roles.  Also, this movie has a awesome sea lion that sings along with Kirk Douglas.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Not unlike King Kong, this movie includes a terribly racist depiction of indigenous people of the South Pacific.   The scene with the “cannibals,” especially when they get electric shocks from the Nautilus while Ned and Conseil laugh at them, is just awful.  I imagine that if this movie were remade today they would probably also work to have the crew of the Nautilus reflect the actual diversity of mid-19th century sailors rather than just be a bunch of white guys

Is It a Classic?:

It’s a whale of a tale and it’s all true, a classic through and through!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Son of Kong (1933) BONUS #AtoZChallenge


Here is special BONUS A to Z Challenge movie review to tie in with King Kong.

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Son of Kong
Release Date: December 22, 1933 (
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Synopsis:

A month after King Kong ran rampant in New York, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is hiding from reporters and process servers in a guest house.  With word of an indictment coming down, Denham reunites with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and they sail of to the East Indies hoping to pick up some cargo trade.

They stop in Dakang, where they watch a mediocre show of performing monkeys followed by a song by Hilda Peterson (Helen Mack). That night, Hilda’s father is drinking with Nils Helstrom (John Harstrom), and the two men get into an argument.  Helstrom kills Hilda’s father with a blow to the head and sets fire to their tent.  Hilda rescues the monkeys from the fire and drags out her father’s body.

Helstrom meets Denham and Englehorn, and it’s revealed that he was the captain who gave Denham the map to Kong’s island.  Seeking to escape justice for murdering Hilda’s father, Helstrom makes up a story of treasure on the island and the trio set off to recover it.  Hilda also asks to go with Denham, and when he turns her down she stows away on the ship.

Helstrom stirs up mutiny in the crew and they put of Denham, Englehorn, Hilda, and the cook Charlie (Victor Wong) on a boat to Skull Island.  When Helstrom tries to appoint himself new captain, the mutineers throw him overboard as well.  Helstrom, Englehorn, and Charlie are separated by a dinosaur attack, and now 2/3 of the way into the movie, Hilda and Denham meet and befriend a smaller and younger giant ape.  Denham also discovers that there really is a treasure.

The film ends with a sudden earthquake causing the island to sink. Helstrom is eaten by a sea creature while trying to escape.  Baby Kong saves Denham by holding him above the water until Englehorn, Hilda, and Charlie can get him in the boat, sacrificing himself in the process.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This movie was also the second installment for WWOR’s trilogy of great ape movies on Thanksgiving afternoon.

What Did I Remember?:

I remember Hilda tearing off part of her slip to make a bandage for Baby Kong, and I remember Baby Kong holding up Denham as the island sinks.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot most of the film, including the fact that only about a third of it involves the titular character.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This is a good movie for Armstrong as Denham as it shows some character development with him feeling regret for bringing Kong to New York.  Hilda is a great character who has a lot more agency and adventure than Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The movie introduces numerous subplots that have potential (such as Denham’s legal struggles in New York, the tension between Hilda and the man who murdered her father, Denham’s redemption arc with Baby Kong, et al), but fails to follow up on any of them.  Script writer Ruth Rose said about the rushed sequel “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier,” but there are really only a handful of moments of good comedy.  The brevity of the movie (69 minutes) works to its advantage since you don’t have to invest too much time on it, but if they’d made a longer movie they could have developed the plots and characters better.

Is It a Classic?:

No, this is a mildly-entertaining cash grab.

Rating: **

Movie Review: King Kong (1933) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: King Kong
Release Date: April 7, 1933
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Production Company: Radio Pictures
Synopsis:

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a Hollywood filmmaker who films on location in remote wilderness settings. He’s been told by his producers he needs to cast a woman in his next picture but no casting agent will allow any of their actresses to go on a long, possibly dangerous journey.  The night before setting sail, Denham finds the down-on-her-luck Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and decides she will be perfect for the film.  On their ship journey halfway around the world, Ann develops a romance with the first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot).

Denham leads the ship to a unchartered island near Sumatra he’d heard of from a Norwegian captain. On the island they interrupt the indigenous people carrying out a ceremonial sacrifice of a young woman as “bride of Kong.” The chief is intrigued by Ann but she and the crew return to the ship.  Later the native people abduct Ann and sacrifice her to Kong, a giant gorilla.

Denham, Driscoll, and many sailors follow in pursuit. Kong kills off most of the men while also defending Ann from various dinosaurs and a pterodactyl.  Eventually Driscoll is able to bring Ann to safety while Denham subdues Kong with gas bombs.  Denham decides to bring Kong to display in New York, promising everyone they will be millionaires.

A few months later, Kong debuts on Broadway, and pretty much immediately escapes into the city.  He once again takes Ann and fights off various people who try to stop him (and perhaps his only real jerk-move is derailing an elevated train for no apparent reason).  He climbs to the top of the Empire State Building for safety, but there he is shot down by army biplanes and falls to his death.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

Kong and I go way back.  One day when I was a toddler, I wanted to go shopping with my mother and grandmother, but they made me stay home with my father.  I fell asleep mid-tantrum.  Meanwhile, my mother felt guilty and decided to bring home a gift – a foot high, plastic, King Kong piggy bank.  She placed it right near my head so I would see it when I woke up, expecting delight, but instead hearing my terrified screams!

Nevertheless, that King Kong would be one of my favorite toys for years to come.  Whenever I built New York City’s skyscrapers with my wooden blocks, I placed King Kong on the Empire State Building.  I also remember a giant, inflatable King Kong on the real Empire State Building in 1983 for the movie’s 50th anniversary. I can’t remember the first time I watched the original King Kong, but I know I saw the 1976 remake first, on tv sometime in the early 80s.

WOR in New York had a tradition of showing King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young on Thanksgiving afternoon and we watched them all for several years running.  In 2005, I enjoyed a two-theater, two-city double feature where I watched the original King Kong (1933) at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge and then hopped on my bike and rode to the Somerville Theater in Davis Square and saw Peter Jackson’s new remake of King Kong .

What Did I Remember?:

This movie has the simplest of plots so it’s hard to forget much.

What Did I Forget?:

Nevertheless, I forgot how much of the movie is on Skull Island.  Only the last 20 minutes take place in New York.  I think the remakes have conditioned me to have a greater balance of the locations.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie was a technical marvel when it was released, and even if the special effects look “unrealistic” by today’s standards, you have to admire the imagination and artistry that went into them. The final scene where Kong bats at biplanes from his perch at the top of the Empire State Building is still breathtaking.  And it is heartbreaking when Kong is shot and falls to his death.

I have always hated the final line, “It was beauty who killed the beast!” No, Denham, you jerk, it was you who took this animal from its home, chained him up and put it on display, and then called on airplanes to shoot it down when he got away.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Where do we start?  The movie is full of racial stereotypes from the Chinese ship cook to the “natives” on Skull Island.  And why is an island in the Southeast Asia or Oceania region populated with people who look African?  The depiction of gender isn’t any better.  Sure you can say that the patriarchal behavior of the men in the film is an accurate depiction of men of the time, but the scriptwriter also decided that most of Fay Wray’s dialogue would be “Aaah!” Finally, there’s a lot of cruelty to (imaginary) animals in this film.  It’s no wonder that King Kong remakes have made Kong more sympathetic and the women stronger characters.

Is It a Classic?:

As a pure adventure/horror film with iconic moments, it is clearly a classic, but be ready for all the baggage that comes with it.

Rating: ****

I don’t have any other K movies to recommend unless you want to watch King Kong (1976) and King Kong (2005). Get your guesses in for my movie starting with L in the comments. (Hint: it is based on a romantic debut novel that became a huge bestseller).

Movie Reviews: Jaws (1975) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleJaws
Release Date: June 20, 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Zanuck/Brown Company | Universal Pictures
Synopsis:

A rogue shark attacks people swimming in the waters off of a New England beach town.  Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but others, including Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) fear the economic devastation of closing the beaches right before Independence Day.  The shark kills more people, the shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives to advise, and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to kill the shark.  Quint, Hooper, and Brody sail out on a boat that’s not large enough to track and kill the shark, bonding on the journey.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This movie was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, a place that my family vacationed at often during my childhood.  We loved visiting the spots used as locations for the movie including some businesses that still had their “Amity” shop signs on display.  I’m pretty sure that I watched Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D before I ever watched Jaws in its entirety, but sometime in the late 80s it became one of my favorite films of all time.  The sequels are “meh” because they’re about the shark, but Jaws is a story about people.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the plot and many details fairly well.

What Did I Forget?:

There’s a brilliant scene where Martin Brody’s son imitates all of his gestures and they make faces at one another.  It’s one of those great Spielberg family touches.  Later in the scene, Ellen Brody (Lorrraine Gary) and Hooper have great repartee over wine, which is interesting considering that in the novel they have an affair (I’m so glad Spielberg didn’t include this subplot).

While I remembered that Mayor Vaughn wanted to keep the beaches open, I forgot that Vaugh actually encourages people to go into the water before the July 4th shark attack.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

As noted above, this is a movie about people.  The first hour of the movie is less about a shark and more about how people respond to crises.  The town government prioritizing the economic interests over peoples’ lives feels very relevant at the time I watched this movie.  The second part of the movie is three men on a boat all from different backgrounds, all with key abilities, and all with serious flaws.  The camaraderie among Brody, Hooper, and Quint is one of the best aspects of this movie. People may want to avoid or dismiss this as a horror movie but I think they’ll miss that great human storytelling, adventure, and even comedy.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I want to say that the ongoing manhood competition among Quint, Hooper, and Brody is dated, but really men are still that stupid about these things.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, an all-time great.

Rating: *****

I apparently have no other all-time favorite movies starting with J. Let me know your favorite J movies so I can remedy that.  And if you have a guess for my K movie, let me know in the comments. (Hint: it’s about an out-of-towner having a really bad day in New York).