Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien


Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Title: The Fellowship of the Ring
Publication Info: George Allen & Unwin, 1954
Summary/Review:

I read this book aloud (along with my wife) to my daughter for the first time.  It’s still a classic, imaginative adventure that I remember.  Although there are some slow and boring parts when reading to a 9-year-old.  You begin to notice how tedious the lists of names and places and the songs and poems are when you’re reading aloud.  Nevertheless, we had a good time reading it and are looking for to the more action-oriented The Two Towers next.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Treason
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019) 
Summary/Review:

In the finale of this trilogy of books, Grand Admiral Thrawn finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Governor Tarkin (of the original Star Wars fame) and Director Orson Krennic (of Rogue One fame).  Even more pressing is an incursion by the war-like Grysks from the Unknown Regions into Imperial territory.

To fight this new threat, Thrawn must work with his own people, the Chiss, with Admiral Ar’alani leading a fleet in an uneasy alliance with Thrawn and the Empire. This book also marks the return of Eli Vanto, who has defected to the Chiss, and it is great to have him back.  Commodore Karyn Faro is established as another great character who becomes a great leader under Thrawn’s tutelage.

It’s interesting that Thrawn is associated with the evil Empire, because he’s an excellent example of leadership in the way he establishes Vanto and Faro as his proteges and then trusts their experience. It’s very different than the rest of the Empire where the “leaders” either step over one another or cower in fear. Brierly Ronan, Krennic’s deputy who is sent along to watch over Thrawn, is a slippery character who is more typical of the Empire we know, although his character also develops in interesting ways.

This book is excellent at building intrigue and gamesmanship.  The only flaw in my mind is that when the story finally builds to a climactic battle, it’s not all that interesting to read about, compared with how exciting it would be depicted in film.  There is more Thrawn to read, as Zahn is now publishing an Ascendancy trilogy about Thrawn’s experiences before he joined the Empire.  And this trilogy of novels I just completed also tie in with the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, so I’m going to have to catch up on that too!

Rating: ****

Book Review: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Alliances
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, [2018]
Summary/Review:

This second book of the new trilogy, after Star Wars: Thrawn, teams up Grand Admiral Thrawn with Darth Vader. In a parallel narrative, a younger Thrawn still with the Chiss Ascendency meets up with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars. In both stories their mission brings them to the remote planet of Batuu, which just happens to also be the planet used for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney theme parks (if Disney’s going to Star Wars synergy like this, at least they did it very well!).

Thrawn and Vader make an interesting pair because they seem to be the only individuals who can trip one another up. There’s a lot of tension due to their mutual mistrust and competing goals.  While I didn’t think it was a good as the first book as it gets bogged down in plot details, it’s still a compelling novel.  I also felt Eli Vanto’s presence was missing from this book.  Still, I’m looking forward to book 3.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Portrait of Jennie (1948)


Title: Portrait of Jennie
Release Date: December 25, 1948
Director: William Dieterle
Production Company: Vanguard Films
Summary/Review:

Set in the heart of the Great Depression, a struggling artist named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) finds his muse in a girl he meets in Central Park, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones).  His art dealer and mentor Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) sees promise in a sketch he makes of Jennie and encourages him to paint her portrait. The problem with Jennie is that she wears long out-of-fashion clothing, talks about a no longer extant theater in the present tense, and every time Eben meets her appears to have aged in years rather than in the days or weeks that have passed.

This movie has a lot of flaws. The dialogue is wordy and clunky, Jones is not at all convincing at portraying a child or even a teenager, and the romance that blossoms between the adult Eben and underage Jennie is downright creepy.  I guess it presages teen paranormal romances where a teenage girl finds romance with a centuries old immortal. Nevertheless, I am won over by the romantic charm of this movie, and it is one I enjoyed in my own youth as well.

Unusual for the time, the movie made use of extensive (and expensive) location shooting.  The shots of the snow-covered and sun-drenched Central Park are worth every cent, and it’s great to see the Cloisters museum doubling as a convent school, and the Graves Light in Boston Harbor appearing in the film’s denouement. There’s also a nice effect where many scenes begin as if they’re painted on canvas.

It’s interesting to watch this movie so soon after A Matter of Life and Death, as both movies are romances that deal with life and afterlife.  Portrait of Jennie even uses a switch from black-and-white to full color for effect, although in a much smaller amount. My favorite scene when I watched this when I was younger is when Eben gets a commission to paint a mural of Michael Collins in an Irish pub, and it remains a great scene.

Portrait of Jennie doesn’t seem to be as well-known or highly-regarded as other movies of its time, but it’s worth seeking out if you like a sweet and romantic fantasy movie with a mix of humor and mystery.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


Title: A Matter of Life and Death
Release Date: 15 December 1946
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: The Archers | J. Arthur Rank
Summary/Review:

A Matter of Life and Death begins with a strikingly intimate conversation between British airman Peter Carter (David Niven), aboard a burning bomber over the English Channel, and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). They bond in a few moments of shared humanity before Peter, who has no parachute, determines he would rather leap to his death than burn.  Then this movie gets very, very weird.

Carter survives his fall and washes up on the shores of England. He meets June who works at a nearby base and they fall in love. It turns out that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat killed in the Revolution, was supposed to guide him to the Other World but lost Peter in the fog over the Channel.  With a new leash on life and his romance with June, Peter argues that he should be given another chance at life.

A neurologist named Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) takes on Peter’s case, in two meanings of the word. First he assumes that Peter’s visions of otherworldly people are due to brain injury.  Later he takes on the role as Peter’s counsel in an Other World trial. Perhaps the weirdest part of the trial scene is that a becomes a debate of the British versus the Americans, with American multiculturalism ultimately being celebrated.

This movie is often compared to It’s a Wonderful Life as they both deal with the trauma of World War II and contain fantasy elements of the afterlife.  But I found it reminded me of The Devil and Daniel Webster, because both movies are built around a fantasy trial sequence. This movie also clearly was an influence for the most recent Pixar film, Soul.  Both films feature an escalator to the afterlife, heavenly bureaucracy, filing cabinets full of the details of every person who ever lived, and historical figures acting as mentors to souls. I also learned that a sample from the prologue of this movie is in one of my favorite tunes from my teenage years, “If I Were John Carpenter.”

A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven in its American release) stands out as a unique and experimental film for it’s time.  And even though I wasn’t aware of it before watching it for this project, it is also clear it’s an influential film.  It’s a bit on the corny side, but I expect a lot of classic film fans will enjoy it. If nothing else the opening scene between Peter and Kim over the radio is magnificent.

Rating: ***

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

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Del Rey Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Grand Admiral Thrawn, the antagonist introduced into Star Wars literature in the now non-canonical Heir to the Empire, is reintroduced in this Disney canon novel. This story serves as something of an origin story, beginning with Thrawn being found by the Imperial Navy after apparently having been exiled his mysterious species of people, the Chiss Ascendancy.  The novel depicts his rapid rise through the ranks in the years after the end of the Clone Wars. Thrawn is known for his brilliant observational and strategic skills, and throughout the novel the reader gets  to see his internal monologue on how he unravels the words and mannerisms of others.

The novel is also told from the perspective of Eli Vanto, a young cadet from Wild Space who inadvertently becomes Thrawn’s translator and assistant. At first resentful of the interference in his own career path, Vanto grows to respect Thrawn and also rises in the hierarchy of the Imperial Navy.  They have Holmes and Watson kind of relationship.  In a parallel story, Arihnda Pryce rises to become governor of her homeworld Lothal through similar skills of cunning.

This novel is less war story or space opera and more a work of political intrigue.  Zahn does a great job at taking these putative villains – Thrawn, Vanto, and Pryce – and making them captivating and even sympathetic characters.  The audiobook has great production values and Thompson does great voicework, giving Thrawn the reserve of Anthony Hopkins and Vanto a Appalachian accent befitting his background in Wild Space. This is an excellent novel and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Soul


Title: Soul
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The latest film from Pixar continues the studio’s exploration of the liminal space between life and other planes of existence begun in Coco and Onward. The movie is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz musician who works as a high school band teacher in New York City to pay the bills until he gets his big break. On the very day that break comes, the opportunity to back jazz star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at a gig, he falls to his death. Finding himself as a soul heading up on an escalator to “the great beyond,” he runs away and ends up in “the great before,” where souls are prepared for their life on earth.

Through a series of misadventures, Joe ends up as a mentor for the recalcitrant Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Further misadventures result in Joe and Soul 22 on Earth, although not in the way they expected. This portion of the film has some hilarious hijinks but also the opportunity for Joe and Soul 22 to teach one another about the meaning of life. As you might expect from a Pixar film, the finale is tear-inducing in its honesty and beauty.

The movie has been criticized for its depiction of Black man not actually inhabiting his body for most of the movie (and that a white woman occupies that Black body for a good portion of the film). This criticism should not be overlooked especially considering that this is the first Pixar film ever with a Black lead character, but it also does not mean that one cannot enjoy this movie. Soul is a thoughtful, funny, and inspirational film that is a small story on the surface but it resonates deeply.

Rating: ****