The Outpost


With their backs against the wall came their finest hour.

(2020) True War Drama (Screen Media Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Milo Gibson, Bobby Lockwood, Celina Sinden, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Taylor John Smith, James Jagger, Alexander Arnold, Cory Hardrict, Will Attenborough, Scott Alda Coffey, Kwame Patterson, Fahim Fazli, Jonathan Yunger, Jack DeVos, Alfie Stewart. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

The War in Afghanistan has gone on longer than any armed conflict in U.S. History. In some ways, it has been a war of attrition with few pitched battles. One such was the Battle of Kamdesh on October 3, 2009 when 53 American soldiers in the remote Combat Outpost Keating in a valley surrounded by three mountains – not an idal defensible position, as any student of combat will tell you – were attacked by more than 400 Taliban fighters.

That war has come to the forefront of our consciousness lately – no easy task, given the circus of news that continually grabs our attention whether we  want it to or not – when the New York Times reported that intelligence sources revealed that the Russian GRU – their military intelligence arm – was bribing Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers.

The film is based on a non-fiction book co-authore by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. Director Rod Lurie – himself a veteran of the Army and a West Point graduate – understands the mind of the soldier, and clearly shows an affinity for them, getting the banter down pretty much pitch-perfect. We are basically flies on the wall at the camp for the first hour of the film, observing the regular attacks by Taliban sharpshooters, and getting a sense that the men are making the best of things, but are aware of the danger they are in; one analyst dubbed the camp “Camp Custer” because he thought it likely to be the site of a massacre down the line.

We meet some of the soldiers stationed there, from competent base commander Benjamin Keating (Bloom) to Ty Carter (Jones), who is not well-liked and doesn’t really take things all that seriously, or Clint Romesha (Eastwood), who has reservations about what they’re doing there and occasionally voices them to superior officers with varying amounts of acceptance, and Broward (Patterson), the rigid officer whose strict adherence to the book might just get them all killed.

The trouble is that we don’t really get to know most of the characters here, so when the attack comes during the second half of the film, it is hard to keep track of who’s who, who has survived and why we should care. It robs the movie of some of its effectiveness because of it.

But that’s not to say that this isn’t an effective movie – it is very much that. I honestly believe that this is the best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan despite having a budget that likely wouldn’t have even paid for the pyrotechnics on the Spielberg film.

Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore utilize hand-held cameras to good effect here; they capture the chaos of the battle really nicely The movie, which was supposed to bow at SXSW earlier this year, instead gets a limited release in a handful of select theaters and a VOD release (see below for platforms). That’s heartbreaking in a way; this is a movie meant to be an immersive experience, with a fabulous sound system, a ridiculously big screen and a minimum of distractions. Reviewing it on less ideal circumstances takes away from the film’s impact. Hopefully, once the pandemic begins to ease off a bit, we will get to experience this film the way it was meant to be – in a theater with a huge screen, a sound system that will blow your cloths off, a dark room and a bucket of popcorn in your lap.

Beyond that though, we are at a critical juncture in American history. We are weary of the politics, the pandemic, the economy, all the ills that make our futures both individually and collectively less certain. We need heroes, and this film provides some real-life ones – this was the first battle in more than 50 years that produced more than one Medal of Honor winner. Incidentally, the movie doesn’t end with the battle; it features a coda in which one of the survivors faces his grief and his guilt. It’s as powerful a moment as you’re likely to see in the movies this year and has earned this movie a spot as one of the best films of the year so far.

REASONS TO SEE: The best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The ending is incredibly powerful. Look no further to see an account of what heroism looks like.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s not a lot of character development here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of war violence with some grisly images, a staggering amount of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the men who took part in the battle appear in variously important roles in the film, including Medal of Honor winner Ty Carter (played in the film by Caleb Landry Jones) and Daniel Rodriguez, who plays himself.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Prince (El principe)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge)


Jack Sparrow in his usual befuddled state.

(2017) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Stephen Graham, Paul McCartney, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Delroy Atkinson, Bruce Spence, Adam Brown, Giles New, Danny Kirrane, Juan Carlos Vellido, Rodney Afif, Hannah Walters. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

 

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me! As a young lad venturing to Disneyland, the Pirates of the Caribbean was always one of my favorite rides. Gore Verbinski adapted the ride’s backstory into a rollicking supernatural adventure that became yet another lucrative license to print money for Disney. In many ways, the film franchise that developed from the theme park attraction has outstripped the ride of its place in pop culture.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) has fallen on hard times. With his beloved Black Pearl reduced to a ship in a bottle, he only commands a land-bound disaster of a boat, the Dying Gull. An attempt to rob a bank – by dragging it through the streets of Saint Martin by a team of horses, certainly a novel approach – ends up disastrously with most of his crew quitting in disgust.

In the meantime young Henry Turner (Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) has encountered the undead Captain Salazar (Bardem) who was lured into the Devil’s Triangle by a young Sparrow and cursed to remain there. Salazar spares Henry to pass on a message to Jack – “death is coming straight for you.”

Jack’s spectacular bank robbery failure has put him in touch with astronomer/horologist Carina Smyth (Scodelario) who has been studying the legendary Neptune’s Trident which supposedly gives the wielder control over all the seas. She believes she has discovered the location of the fabled relic; Jack needs it to protect himself from Salazar, Salazar needs it to restore his life and Henry needs it to restore his father to life so that he and his mother might be reunited permanently.

In the meantime Captain Barbossa (Rush), the former antagonist turned ally, also seeks the Trident for reasons of his own. All of these competing factions will collide on a desolate island; at stake is control of the oceans and of course their very lives.

With Verbinski out of the picture (although he remains in the capacity of a producer), Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg who previously teamed up on the epic Kon-Tiki take over the franchise and deliver a movie while not the best in the franchise history is not the worst either. The special effects are right up there with the first film in the series and while the plots are as convoluted as they tend to be in this series there is a little more personal background being revealed here. One of the main characters also has a major revelation that will affect the franchise should it continue on to a sixth film, which Disney seems to have every intention of doing.

I kinda hope that they don’t however. A lot of loose ends are tied up here and this would certainly make a fitting end for the franchise. It might also be a jumping off point for a new series although Thwaites and Scodelario don’t hold a candle to Bloom and Knightley in the parts that they play; the late-film cameo of the two veterans of the first three films only serve to highlight how much better the two were. It’s not that Thwaites and Scodelario are inferior actors, mind you – it’s just that the roles of Henry and Carina are way too similar to Will and Elizabeth that the differences are pretty much too minute to mention. The writer, Jeff Nathanson, definitely could have made the characters a little bit more distinct.

Depp has for better or worse made the role a signature and all the elements are there, but the charm is wearing off. I don’t get the sense that Depp is overly enthusiastic about continuing to play the role of Captain Jack; there’s only so much you can do with the role. He’s colorful, yes, but the part has become a parody of itself. In the first film, Jack was not just befuddled and lurching about like Dean Martin on a Saturday night, but also clever and occasionally vicious as well. You got the sense that his demeanor is something of a means to get others to underestimate him.

Sadly, there’s none of that in Depp’s performance now. Depp has resorted to mugging over acting; it could be that he literally has nothing more to add to the role. I’m certain that the paycheck is enough to entice him to do it and given the box office cold streak Depp has been done I’m sure the salary for these movies is welcome. Jack Sparrow has become a WYSIWYG role, a lovable drunk with all the charm that lovable drunks possess. Sad to say, that charm overstays its welcome when it comes to lovable drunks and I feel like the franchise has reached that point too where the antics become less endearing and more exasperating.

Bardem however was inspired casting. He is without a doubt one of the best in Hollywood at playing villainous characters, maybe one of the best of all time. Salazar would be a worthy adversary in any film but in some ways, his evil is wasted because none of the heroes hold a candle to him. Every franchise needs great villains but they also require the heroes to be the equal of those villains and Captain Jack has become more parody than pirate.

There are some nice action set pieces, particularly one involving a guillotine and another involving zombie sharks (which is teased in the trailer). Often a film franchise feels the need to one-up themselves when it comes to action sequences; wisely, Ronning and Sandberg resist the urge and instead use action sequences that fit the story more than dazzle the eye.

The series feels worn out and without ideas. If the franchise is to continue, I really think that it needs an infusion of fresh blood, no pun intended. Some shaking up needs to be done and the post-credits scene which strongly hints that there will be another film in the franchise, it also teases the return of one of the iconic villains of the series which seems almost a step back. I hope they go in a different direction if they do intend to make another film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem is one of the finest villains in Hollywood today. The loose ends of the franchise are tied up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Thwaites and Scodelario are inadequate replacements for Bloom and Knightley. At times the plot seems to be spinning its wheels in a single place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence as well as some mild sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The six year gap between films is the longest of the series; the running time of two hours and nine minutes is also the shortest run time of the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Treasure Planet
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 68 Kills

Digging For Fire


A bunch of bros hanging out.

A bunch of bros hanging out.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Jane Adams, Tom Bower, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Ron Livingston, Jeff Baena, Timothy Simons, Padraic Cassidy, Steve Berg, David Siskind, Jude Swanberg. Directed by Joe Swanberg

Relationships are impossible. I mean, making them work is – first of all, you have to find someone with whom you can co-exist. Someone whose idiosyncrasies won’t drive you bonkers. Second, you have to find someone whose ideals, goals and philosophy is compatible with yours. Finally, you have to find someone with all that with whom you will grow in the same direction. What’s the secret to making all that happen?

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are housesitting for some Hollywood types out shooting on location. They’re treating it like a bit of a vacation since the home they’re watching is up in the Hills and has all the amenities you could possibly imagine. However, as of late, the two have been having problems. Tim has been feeling emasculated and when Lee’s mom (Light) and dad (Elliott) want to foot the bill to send their son Jude (Swanberg) to an exclusive pre-school that they can’t afford, that sensation only gets worse. Of course, if Sam Elliott were my father-in-law, I’d feel emasculated too.

For Lee’s part she’s tired of putting up with Tim’s childish behavior and his lack of inertia. He seems to be stuck in a rut and she’s frustrated – in more ways than one. To put it bluntly, she has been reading a book called The Passionate Marriage and it isn’t about fruit. When one of Lee’s friends (Lynskey) organizes a girl’s night out for her, Lee jumps at the chance, and agrees to take Jude to visit her parents, giving Tim some time to do the taxes which he has been putting off for too long. Tim found a bone and a rusted gun buried in the yard and he’s been obsessing over that.

Of course, Tim decides to chuck the taxes aside and brings a battery of bros over, including the somewhat over-the-top Ray (Rockwell) as well as Billy T. (Messina), Phil (Birbiglia) and Paul (Berg). Much alcohol and recreational substances are ingested, and Ray brings over a couple of girls including Max (Larson), with whom Tim begins to flirt.

When Lee’s friend is forced to cancel, Lee decides to just have a night out on her own. When a drunk obnoxious guy tries to hit on her, she is rescued by bar owner Ben (Bloom) who gets hurt when the drunk gets belligerent. Lee accompanies him home on the back of his motorcycle so she can give him some first aid; it becomes apparent that the two are attracted to one another. Can the two stay true to one another or are things that far gone?

Swanberg, one of the originators of the mumblecore movement, has retained some of the elements of those films here, although I would hesitate to classify it as true mumblecore. Swanberg tends to allow his actors to improvise their dialogue so the conversations sound real. He also has a tendency to examine relationships from a distance, a means I think of giving the audience some perspective which takes a little bit more work than making them feel invested or part of the relationship onscreen. Rather than rooting for Lee and Tim, we’re more observers of Lee and Tim. We’re not invested as to whether they stay together or not and so regardless of which way it goes, we don’t feel like it’s a monumental situation. As in life, there are reasons for them to stay together and reasons for them to drift apart and there really is no way to know which one would be best for them and just like in life, the decision has resonance in both directions.

The cast is extraordinary for a Swanberg film, and there really isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The humor here is bone dry (no pun intended) which is typical for Swanberg and it shows up in unexpected but appropriate places. Swanberg has a deft touch as a director and it really shows here to nice effect.

Some of the movie is a bit disjointed and some of the scenes feel like they were either added on as an afterthought, or were stranded when other scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I would have liked a little bit more flow. The movie’s denouement is on the quiet side and some may find that the payoff isn’t what they wanted.

I must say that I’ve been liking Swanberg’s work more and more with each passing film. He is certainly a rising talent with a lengthy filmography already to his credit (Swanberg regularly churns out two to four movies a year). While it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he might be behind the camera for a big budget franchise movie someday, I kind of hope he doesn’t. He seems to excel at movies that take a moment in time or a slice of life and let us examine it thoroughly. Through that lens, we end up examining our own lives, particularly who we are, where we are, what we want to be and what we want out of life and love. Heady questions to be sure.

To answer the question, there is no secret to making a relationship work. It takes dedication, focus, hard work and willpower. In other words, it takes the same things to make any sort of worthwhile pursuit work. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty cast. Dry sense of humor. Nicely captures inner workings of couples.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed in places. Payoff might not be enough for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references, some foul language and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell, Adams and DeWitt all co-starred in this summer’s remake of Poltergeist while Larson and Birbiglia also starred in Amy Schumer’s hit comedy Trainwreck this summer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Air

The Bling Ring


Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

(2013) True Life Dramedy (A24) Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann, Carlos Miranda, Gavin Rossdale, Stacy Edwards, G. Mac Brown, Marc Coppola, Janet Song, Anne Fitzgerald, Lorenzo Hunt, Timothy Starks, Rich Ceraulo, Joe Nieves, Nelson Rockford, Doug DeBeech, Erin Daniels. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Woman Power

It’s hard for some to recognize what America has become. Celebrity-obsessed, fame-driven, materialistic and entitled. In many ways we’re a nation of spoiled brats.

None more spoiled than the Bling Ring, a group of bored, privileged sorts who yearn to be celebrities. Rebecca (Chang) is the ringleader, more or less. She meets new kid Marc (Broussard) and find themselves with much in common. One thing is a talent for larceny as at a party the pair steal things from unlocked cars of other partygoers.

When Marc mentions offhandedly that a wealthy acquaintance is about to leave town, Rebecca spots this as an opportunity to make a big score. While Marc is reluctant – this is a friend, or at least someone he knows after all – Rebecca overcomes his misgivings and the two steal a handbag, which Rebecca notices is the same one as her fashion idol, Lindsay Lohan, owns. The two steal a Porsche and use the cash they steal to go on a shopping spree that allows them to buy the luxuries that they couldn’t previously afford.

Soon, they’re hanging out at posh clubs where celebrities like Kirsten Dunst and Paris Hilton hang out. They discover that Hilton is going to be out of town and decide to find her address and check it out. With a key conveniently left under the doormat, they gain entry and find wall-to-wall swag, so much there’s no way she’ll notice any of it missing. Rebecca begins to show off some of the jewelry she’s stolen to her friends Nicki (Watson), Sam (Farmiga) and Chloe (Julien). Unsurprisingly, the others want in.

They continue to go on what they think of as shopping sprees in the homes of celebrities who they can confirm are out of town – among the victims are Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox and Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, the kids may be bold but they’re not bright; they’re seen on security cameras and brag about their bling on social media. This leads the cops right to them.

Coppola, who grew up surrounded by famous directors (Francis Ford, her dad, and Marc, her brother) and actors (Nicolas Cage, her cousin and Talia Shire, her aunt), has the experience to put a personal edge on the film and the directing chops to make it interesting, but curiously as frenetically paced and glamour-conscious as the movie is, there’s an oddly flat quality to it. The lead actresses all seem like their eyes are glazed over, not quite drugged but almost like they’re staring into a different place than the rest of us see. It’s a bit disconcerting.

Watson, the best-known of the young actors playing the crooks also does the best job. Her Nicki is by turns bored, peer-pressured, demanding and self-delusional. Like all of the other characters, she’s truly unlikable and her value system is virtually non-existent. These girls (and boy) are all about self-gratification and achieving fame without earning it; it’s no wonder one of the real perpetrators ended up with a reality TV show; the mentality of becoming famous for being famous is irresistible to these girls.

While Nicki’s new age mom (Mann) is proof that shallow can be genetic (or at least environmental), it’s really hard to find anything that smacks of a redeeming quality for any of them. When the poop hits the fan they turn on each other like rats. They have no empathy for the people whose homes they are invading, only a lust for designer clothes, high-end watches and of course whatever the loose cash lying around can buy them. This is the true entitlement generation rather than the welfare recipients that Fox News misidentifies in that regard. These young people believe that fame is something that should be handed to them rather than earned. I think most famous people would assure them that fame is a double edged sword and maybe these kids have learned that by now.

Coppola displays the culture of celebrity, material possession and fame obsession that we have degenerated into quite dispassionately and without judgment or comment, although perhaps by displaying the ultimately empty pursuits and absent moral compasses may be in itself a kind of judgment. We are left to watch, horrified perhaps or maybe just plain disgusted as these kids show the worst qualities of our modern society; whatever remorse they might have had seems to be more in line with being caught rather than in having done something wrong.

Because the characters are so without redeeming qualities it is difficult to find anything to relate to here, except maybe by relating to the polar opposite of what these kids are, which is harder work. I wonder how many young kids will see something of themselves in the Bling Ring; I suspect that those who are most like them will not. Most of these sorts of people can (and often do) look at themselves in the mirror all day long, but fail to see the ugliness that’s reflected there.

WHY RENT THIS: Trainwreck; you just can’t look away. Scathing indictment of our shallow society.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Characters so unlikable that audience has nothing to identify with. Occasional bouts of “Look ma, I’m directing!”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of bad language, plenty of drug and alcohol abuse (by teens) and some sexually suggestive conversation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Paris Hilton’s home were shot in her actual home.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette about the real Bling Ring, hosted by the author of the original Vanity Fair article that inspired the movie, as well as an interview with Paris Hilton, one of the victims of the crimes, and her decision to allow her home to be used in the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.2M on an $8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spring Breakers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Results

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Martin Freeman mulls "His Precious".

Martin Freeman mulls “His Precious”.

(2014) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Jed Brophy, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Richard Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Sylvester McCoy, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage. Directed by Peter Jackson

Since I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein as a boy, I was hooked not only on Middle Earth but on fantasy films in general. From Tolkein, I went on to read the works of Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Terry Brooks, Melanie Rawn, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Raymond Feist and many others. I became an avid Dungeons and Dragons player in college. In short, I became a fantasy nerd.

When Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings trilogy I was in fantasy nerd heaven. All three of the movies were standout films, epic in scope and yet humanized by Frodo and Sam who ironically weren’t human but Hobbits. I looked forward to the new Hobbit trilogy eagerly.

The first two movies I enjoyed but less than the LOTR films; the third one I enjoyed less than the first two. Essentially what happens here is that the Dwarves led by their new King Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) have taken Erebor back and the dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch) has gone on a rampage, taking out Laketown with fire and destruction. At last Bard (Evans) the Archer with most of the city fleeing for their lives takes out Smaug.

However, the damage has been done. His town is no longer habitable and his people are refugees. They’ll need assistance in rebuilding their lives, and so Bard approaches Thorin to get a share of the mountain’s treasure which Thorin had promised, but Thorin – now mad with greed – refuses and turns his back on them. He also refuses to return to Elven King Thranduil (Pace) artifacts which belonged to him. With little choice, a battle looms between the three armies.

This is where Gandalf (McKellan), who has been a prisoner of the Necromancer (Cumberbatch again) until rescued by Galadriel (Blanchett), Elrond (Weaving) and Saruman (Lee), arrives to warn all the parties that a massive orc army is approaching. When it arrives, the dwarves are in for the fight of their lives, even aided by Dain (Connolly) a cousin of Thorin’s. When a fifth army arrives from an Orc stronghold, it appears that the Elven, Dwarven and Human armies may be annihilated. However, the courage of a special Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) may be the turning point for the entire affair.

Lots of fans have groused at the adding of new material that wasn’t in the original source material in the first place, particularly of Tauriel (Lilly) an Elf created by the filmmakers to have a romance with Kili (Turner). I can only say that while much of the material served to pad out the book which would have never supported three films on its own that for the most part enhances the original material somewhat. I blow hot and cold myself on the matter but it is at least interesting to see Jackson’s take on the background of the book although I still wish that he’d found some way to shoehorn Beorn into the movies. C’est la cinema.

The biggest gripe I have with the movie and the reason why I have given it the lowest rating I have given any of the Middle Earth films is that it is mainly one long battle scene. Everything in the movie is either battle or leading up to it, beginning with the fight with Smaug at the beginning, Thorin’s battle with his own morality and of course the major battle scene that concludes the film which lasts not quite an hour. Sure, there was an extensive battle sequence at the conclusion of the first trilogy, but that film also had the quest of Frodo and Sam interweaving in to relieve the nonstop clanking of swords.

That said, the CGI effects continue to impress, particularly at the increased frame rate and in IMAX 3D which as I’ve said before, is a rare upcharge that’s actually worth it. Also worth it are the performances of Armitage, who is plagued by demons of greed and at last realizes that he is not that guy, and Freeman who is the heart of the Hobbit and at last demonstrates it. At times throughout the series we have seen that there is more to Bilbo than what we see on the surface and never more than in this film. Freeman is a superb actor – those who saw his performance in the Fargo mini-series earlier this year will agree. He is finally coming into his own after years of being stuck in character actor purgatory. I look forward to seeing him continue to get expanded roles in important projects.

While the movie goes full circle in linking to the original trilogy with some off-hand remarks and essentially reuniting Gandalf and Bilbo as the preparations for the party that began The Fellowship of the Ring are underway, in many ways the links to that trilogy are more assumed than anything else. I would have wished for a little tighter of a bond between the two trilogies.

This will be Jackson’s last foray into Middle Earth and in that sense, we do get some closure, saying goodbye to a film series that will always remain close to my heart as a fan and as a critic. It is not the best movie to go out on and really shows quite graphically how the decision to make three movies out of The Hobbit was not a good artistic decision although it must be said it was a sound financial one as the second trilogy will have generated close to three billion dollars U.S. in box office by the time all is said and done.

Still in all, the movie is sufficiently entertaining to be worth seeing if just for the special effects, although those who didn’t care for the first two films in the trilogy or for fantasy in general will continue to dislike this trilogy. For the rest of us, it is a bittersweet occasion as I will miss our trips to Middle Earth and the company of hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards.

REASONS TO GO: A pretty solid farewell to Middle Earth. Freeman and Armitage do solid work. Terrific effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much battle which gets numbing after awhile. Lacks relief from the constant battle scenes.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence mainly of the fantasy warfare sort, some scary monsters and other frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee Pace, who plays the father of Orlando Bloom in the film, is actually two years younger than Bloom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Into the Woods

New Releases for the Week of December 19, 2014


The Hobbit The Battle of the Five ArmiesTHE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

(New Line/MGM) Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Jed Brophy, Stephen Fry, Ian Holm. Directed by Peter Jackson

The journey of Bilbo Baggins comes to an end as the greed of Thorin Oakenshield puts the fragile peace of Middle Earth at risk whilst in Mordor a shadow stirs, awaiting the presence of the One Ring. In the meantime, with Smaug wreaking havoc on Middle Earth, armies of orcs, elves and humans converge upon the Lonely Mountain. Can the three races unite to defeat the forces of darkness,?

See the trailer, clips, interviews, footage from the world premiere and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)

Annie

(Columbia) Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne. A painfully cheerful and terminally optimistic orphan literally runs into a cynical New York City billionaire who is also running for mayor in a hotly contested race. Realizing that his association with the plucky little girl is helping his cause, he decides to spend more time with her. But gradually she wears him down and pulls from inside him the best part of who he can be. Based on the 1982 movie which in itself was based on the hit Broadway musical.

See the trailer, clips and a music video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some mild language and rude humor)

Night at the Museum: Curse of the Tomb

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson. The wax figures that come to life after the New York Museum of Natural History closes are in big trouble; the magic that animates them is beginning to fade. Desperate to save his friends, Larry the security guard races around the globe to find out what’s happening and reverse it before the magic is gone forever.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for mild action, some rude humor and brief language)

PK

(UTV) Aamir Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Anushka Sharma, Boman Irani. A mysterious stranger comes into the city, asking questions nobody usually bothers to act. He has a strange, child-like quality that is endearing to some and troubling to others. His journey will take him into a world of love, laughter and letting go.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Point and Shoot

(The Orchard) Matthew Vandyke. An American who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, eager to find what adventure is left in the world gets on his motorcycle and takes off to North Africa. His road trip takes him to places and situations he could never have prepared himself for, including fighting in the Libyan Revolution – and being captured and held prisoner for six months.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Wild

(Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman. Based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose heroin addiction, reckless behavior and sexual promiscuity led to the destruction of her marriage. Having hit rock bottom in every sense of the word, she impulsively decides to hike the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail despite having no experience in it and being woefully unprepared. Channeling the memory of her mother, she sets out with only the force of her will to see her through. Witherspoon is considered a lock to garner a Best Actress nomination for her performance here.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village, Regal Oviedo Mall and other local theaters
Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use and language)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


A merry company indeed.

A merry company indeed.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey but that isn’t always true. Sometimes the journey really begins when the destination is reached.

For the company of dwarves under Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) that couldn’t be more true. After the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, they must travel through the Mirkwood, a once-green and pleasant forest grown dark with corruption. There be spiders in them words, big ones the size of Volkswagens. There are also wood elves, led by the dour King Thranduil (Pace) who isn’t exactly on Thorin’s Christmas list – when Erebor originally fell, Thranduil failed to aid the dwarves in their hour of need, turning his thin aristocratic back on them. Thranduil’s isolationism mirrors that of America and Great Britain (for that matter) in the pre-World War II days when the original book was written and reminds us that Tolkein wasn’t just writing a children’s story – there was plenty of allegory to go around too.  Among the wood elves is a familiar face – Legolas (Bloom) who happens to be Thranduil’s son. Also there is Tauriel (Lilly), an elf Legolas is a bit sweet on. She also is the object of attention for Kili (Turner), one of the dwarf company.

Also on their tails are a party of Orcs led by the gruesome Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who appears to be answering to a mysterious Necromancer (Cumberbatch). Gandalf (McKellen), fearing the worst, goes to Dol Guldur accompanied by fellow wizard Radagast (McCoy) to investigate and gets more than he bargained for.

Meanwhile the company has made their escape from the elves with Tauriel and Legolas hot on their trails and make it to the human village of Laketown where they receive aid from Bard (Evans), a ferry captain who is dissatisfied from the corrupt regime of Laketown’s master (Fry). Still, Thorin manages to convince the Master that a dwarven presence in Erebor will only mean prosperity for Laketown. They are sent on their way with weapons and provisions leaving behind Kili who is gravely hurt after an Orc attack.

Once at the Lonely Mountain, the company will need to find the hidden doorway into Erebor and Bilbo (Freeman) will have to search for the Arkenstone, a powerful talisman and symbol of the right of the King Under the Mountain to rule Erebor without waking Smaug (Cumberbatch again) which is beastly difficult when you consider how much a dragon loves his treasure. Can Bilbo retrieve the jewel before Smaug becomes fire…and death?

To tell the truth I was more impressed with the visuals of the first movie than the overall film which I thought was more exposition than action. I’m pleased to report that’s thankfully not the case here where the film moves at a more suitable pace for fans of the original trilogy. There’s also more of Middle Earth to be explored (we’d already been in Rivendell and the Shire where the first film was primarily set) and a lot more action sequences.

Freeman remains a pitch-perfect Bilbo although he’s given less to do here. While Thorin and Balin (Stott) remain the primary focus within the dwarves, Kili gets a lot more attention here while we get to spend a goodly amount of time with new characters Tauriel, Bard and Thranduil although returning Legolas gets his share of screen time as well.

Once again the visuals are remarkable, particularly in the IMAX 3D High Frame Rate presentation, which is one of those rare instances where the upcharge is worth it. Of special note is Smaug, who is done through motion capture but the detail to his look is so exquisite you can see the individual scales as his muscles ripple under his skin. This may well be the most life-like CGI creature ever captured on the big screen.

Some Tolkein purists are grousing about the character of Tauriel who is a whole cloth invention of the filmmakers but I for one appreciate the inclusion of a female character in a book that was distinctly male-centric. Personally I don’t get that kind of complaint. It’s not like it’s headline news that the film version of a classic book is going to be different. That the movie version is different does nothing to diminish the original source material. You can still read it; it’s not like once the movie shows up in the local multiplex all the copies of the book are confiscated and burned. If you don’t like the movie version, don’t watch it. It’s really that simple.

This is definitely fine holiday entertainment. Jackson’s Middle Earth films may not have the same appeal as they once did but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. This is a great improvement over the first movie of the new trilogy; if the second film makes the same kind of improvement we’re in for a crackerjack of a time in 2014.

REASONS TO GO: A distinct improvement over the first film in the trilogy. Smaug is an amazing creation.

REASONS TO STAY: Still lacks the heart of the first trilogy. Cliffhanger ending abrupt and unsatisfying.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some seriously frightening images and plenty of fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tauriel is a complete invention of the filmmakers and doesn’t appear in any of Tolkein’s writing. She was brought in to add female characters into the film as the book has very few of them.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring

RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part III

New Releases for the Week of December 13, 2013


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG       

(New Line) Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by Peter Jackson

Continuing on their journey to reclaim the Lost Kingdom of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and thirteen stout and true dwarves must navigate the gloomy Mirkwood, take on swarms of giant spiders and Beorn the skin changer and the dangerous Wood Elves before coming face to face with the most fearsome foe they could imagine – the dragon Smaug. It will take all their courage and camaraderie to survive these obstacles.

See the trailer, clips and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)

Nebraska

(Paramount) Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacey Keach. A man decides to humor his cantankerous old dad and accompany him to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize the man suspects is a sham. Along the route he will see his father through different eyes – and maybe become a better man in the process. Acclaimed director Alexander Payne shot this in beautiful black and white.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some language)

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Kathy Najimy, Chad Michael Murray, Tika Sumpter. Madea reluctantly helps a friend make a surprise visit to her daughter in the country during the holidays. When they get there, things aren’t at all what they expect and in typical Madea fashion she must give out massive doses of her own brand of Christmas spirit or kick some serious booty – sometimes both.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opening Thursday)

Genre: Holiday Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references, crude humor and language)  

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl


Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2003) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Mackenzie Crook, Damian O’Hare, Lee Arenberg, Zoe Saldana, Angus Barnett, Giles New, Vanessa Branch Directed by Gore Verbinski

I didn’t do handsprings when Disney said it was making this movie based on its popular ride, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. After all Country Bears left a stench so thick in theaters the year previous that some exhibitors were forced to fumigate.

However, someone at Mouse House got the brilliant idea to turn over the movie to überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, who in turn had the brilliant idea to hand the directing reins to Gore Verbinski, who directed The Ring and Mouse Hunt but more importantly, was responsible for the invention of the Budweiser Frogs. Finally, Verbinski had the even more brilliant idea of casting Johnny Depp as one of the nefarious pirates. The result is one of the best adventure movies of recent years.

Will Turner (Bloom), an apprentice blacksmith and sword maker in the Caribbean colony of Port Royal, is in love with Elizabeth, the governor’s daughter (Knightley). Her somewhat bumbling father (Pryce) has made a far better match for her, betrothing her to a dashing naval commander (Davenport). Will takes solace in capturing a cunning pirate named Jack Sparrow (Depp), late of the infamous Black Pearl, who is scheming to retake the ship and crew — who left him marooned on an uninhabited isle.

Unlike Gilligan, Sparrow escapes and makes his way to Port Royal, only to be thrown in the hoosegow and sentenced to be hanged. His sentence is interrupted by the Black Pearl itself, with its new commander, the bloodthirsty Barbossa (Rush), which storms Port Royal, wreaking great destruction and mayhem. The plucky Elizabeth is taken, no doubt to be ransomed back to her wealthy father. The British navy makes a cursory search for her, but knows a ransom will have to be paid.

Turner takes matters into his own hands, breaking Sparrow out of jail and enlisting his help save his ladylove. Sparrow is to get his old ship back in the process. Sparrow agrees, and the two sail off headed for the lair of the Black Pearl. To this point, it’s pretty much a routine pirate movie.

Now is where the movie really gets interesting. It turns out that Barbossa and his crew have no intention of ransoming the girl back. They are under a terrible curse, one laid on them by angry Aztec gods for having stolen sacred gold. The crew have become the living dead, whose condition is revealed by moonlight. They are invulnerable and immortal, but unable to partake in the pleasures of the flesh that their wealth would buy them. Desperate to become human again, they need to reassemble the entire Aztec treasure and sacrifice an innocent human to placate the gods.

Elizabeth has the last ingot, and she makes a nifty innocent sacrifice. Turner takes great exception to that plan.

This is the kind of movie for which summers were made. Beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted and a nifty storyline to boot, with plenty of eye candy to satiate even the most jaded moviegoer.

Depp, in particular, is absolutely out of this world. He seems to be half drunk all the time, and all drunk half the time, but his charade of inebriation hides a keen mind and a terrifying tactician. With an airy wave of his hand, Depp tosses off bon mots like Dean Martin, but when the scene calls for swordplay, he is unusually graceful and adept.

Of course, Bloom can handle a sword himself, as he has shown in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He makes a compelling romantic lead, but is simply blown out of the water by Depp. Knightley is lustrous, yet retains enough spunk to make her character interesting. In fact, all of the major and minor characters here are interesting; they seem to fall in the Disney family ethos, but have edges rough enough to make them appealing to a more mature crowd.

Rush is absolutely delicious as a film villain, as he was in Mystery Men. He’s completely terrific here. Verbinski has a wonderful sense of scope, and the look is as epic as any pirate movie from Hollywood’s heyday. He throws in wonderful visuals of cursed pirates that owe only their concepts to the Disney ride, enough so that one can recognize them in the movie, but definitely much farther developed than the more primitive animatronics of the theme park attraction.

Pirate movies haven’t been much in vogue of late, but this one will change all that. This is much fun for the entire family, and a movie you are sure to want to own so you can enjoy the ride over and over again. Michael Jackson must have eaten his own liver back then – he famously constructed a copy of the ride that inspired the movie on his Neverland ranch for quite the pretty penny. He could have waited and bought the DVD instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Depp creates an iconic character. Great story and an awesome curse. Wonderful effects and just enough comic relief to keep the movie balanced without degenerating into parody.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unreasonable fear of pirates…

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of cartoon-ish violence and a few disturbing images that the very small might be frightened by. However for most kids this is pure Disney fun, particularly your overactive little boys.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The ship used to play the HMS Interceptor is a real, working sailing vessel. It is the Lady Washington and serves as the tall ship ambassador for the State of Washington. It was also the same ship used in the holodeck sequence of Star Trek: Generations in the opening sequence where Picard performs the wedding ceremony for Troi and Riker.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD-ROM feature (remember them) on the original DVD release includes the ability to “pirate” up a personal photo (you can do that now with an app on the average smart phone). There are also production diaries, a blooper reel and a featurette on the Disneyland ride. The featurette on the sequence in which the moonlight first reveals the true aspect of the pirates is superior to others in the same ilk.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $654.3M on a $140M production budget. The movie was an international blockbuster and started up a multi-billion dollar franchise for Disney which is rumored to be actively looking to get a fifth film in the series going as of this writing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Blood

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Beautiful Creatures

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


 

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

An olliphant never forgets.

(2003) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, John Noble, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee,Thomas Robins, Hugo Weaving, Paul Norrell, Lawrence Makoare. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

After a long wait at long last the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s version of the epic J.R.R. Tolkein-penned trilogy The Lord of the Rings came upon us, and it was everything we hoped it would be – although had it come out 10 years later it would have been split into two movies in order to maximize profits although in this case I wouldn’t have minded so much.

The movie opens with a flashback, as we see how Smeagol (Serkis) took possession of the ring (or vice versa), murdering his friend Deagol (Robins) for it. Smeagol slinks into the wilderness, gradually losing his soul and becoming the creature known as Gollum.

Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) are being led for a secret way into Mordor by Gollum unaware that the wicked creature intends to lead them into a trap. The lembas bread which has sustained them is running low, and Sam is rationing it. They need to climb a nearly vertical rock face in order to enter the tunnels that will take them into Mordor. However, Gollum displays his treachery, using the ring’s hold on Frodo and some strategically placed lembas crumbs to drive a wedge between Frodo and Sam, which leads to Frodo telling the weeping Sam to go home.

Meanwhile, the other heroes of the fellowship have no time to rest on their laurels after the events which crowned The Two Towers. Gandalf (McKellen), Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) ride for Isengard to take on Saruman (Lee), only to find out that the Ents have done it for them. They discover the hobbits Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), happily smoking their beloved South Farthing pipeweed and munching away on the spoils of Isengard’s larder.

Once again, the group separates, with Gandalf and Pippin going to the city of Minas Tirith to assist Gondor in the battle to come. Aragorn, Legolas, Merry and Gimli return to Rohan to await word from Gandalf and also convince King Theoden (Hill) to aid Gondor in their time of need, although he is loathe to do so since Gondor provided him with no assistance when his people needed it. When Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Gondor, Gandalf warns Pippin not to tell Denethor (Noble), the Steward of Gondor, of the death of his son Boromir (Bean) which Pippin witnessed.

However it turns out that Denethor already knows and the news has unhinged him. Pippin offers up his services to placate the half-mad ruler. Denethor refuses Gandalf’s plea to light the signal fires to call on aid from Rohan, but Pippin lights the fire anyway, and Theoden determines to go to Gondor’s aid. Eowyn (Otto) pleads to go with her uncle, but he refuses, asking her to stay behind to lead Rohan if he doesn’t return (he doesn’t expect to, knowing the numbers of warriors he brings will be inadequate). She disguises herself as a man and goes anyway, as does Merry, whom she pledges to look after.

Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham) can do no right in the eyes of his father, which is further complicated when Osgiliath, the fort he is charged to defend, is overrun by a numerically superior force of Orcs. Denethor orders Faramir and his company back to retake the fortress, even though Faramir knows that neither he nor his men will survive the attempt. That proves to be the case, as Faramir’s body is returned to Minas Tirith and Denethor completely loses it, extolling his men to abandon their posts and flee for their lives as an enormous army of orcs and mercenaries riding elephantine war beasts reach the gates of the city and begin to knock on the gates. To Pippin’s further horror, Denethor becomes determined to cremate Faramir’s body, even though as Pippin discovers, Faramir is still alive.

In the mountains of Mordor, Gollum springs his trap on Frodo leading the defenseless hobbit into the lair of a giant spider named Shelob, who attacks Frodo and at last, poisons him with her venom, wrapping the hapless hobbit in web for eventual dining. Fortunately Sam arrives in the nick of time to fight off Shelob, but can’t stop a small band of Orcs from taking Frodo’s inert but still-living body. Sam manages yet another dramatic rescue and the two emerge from the mountains, only to find that there are at least 10,000 Orcs encamped between them and Mount Doom.

As the force from Rohan encamps in the mountains, Elrond (Weaving) appears, bearing the re-forged sword of the King that had once defeated Sauron and gives it to Aragorn, urging him to take up the role he had been born to play: King of Gondor, heir to Isildur and the great kings of legend. Knowing that his love Arwen (Tyler), daughter of Elrond, is dying as Sauron grows stronger, having refused to leave Middle Earth with the rest of elvenkind, Aragorn reluctantly accepts the mantle he has avoided all his life. He, Gimli and Legolas go into the mountain to persuade an army of the dead to assist them. This army, led by the King of the Undead (Norrell), once broke oaths to the King of Gondor and were cursed for it. They will respond only to the King of Gondor, and when Aragorn reveals his sword, he has the allies he seeks.

Not a minute too soon, either. Minas Tirith is in the process of falling, despite the heroics of Gandalf. The mercenaries, orcs and nazghul are in danger of overrunning the city when Theoden and the Rohirrim arrive. They are able to hold off the hordes, but at great cost. Aragorn’s arrival with the army of the dead, however, saves the city. Once this is done, Aragorn releases the dead to their final rest.

All is not over, however. Aragorn knows that Frodo cannot hope to succeed with all the Orcs still encamped in Mordor. The forces of the Fellowship must make a desperate attempt to give Frodo and Sam the time they need to make it to Mount Doom and destroy the Ring in the fires that it was forged in. But Frodo may not want to destroy the Ring after all and Gollum is still lurking about with a part to play in the final dénouement.

As with the first two movies, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is absolutely breathtaking visually. The city of Minas Tirith is like a wedding cake in concrete, beautiful and imposing. On the flip side, the computer-generated Shelob is terrifyingly realistic; you could almost imagine her crawling around the dark places in your home town. A lot of sensitive people are going to have some nasty nightmares as a result of her.

The battle scenes are impressive in their scope. Thousands of computer-generated warriors move in tandem with the real actors and extras that were employed in the battles of Pelennor Field and of the Black Gate. Even the most jaded of moviegoers will be amazed and enthralled by what Peter Jackson has brought to life onscreen.

Mortensen gives a performance for the ages; his charisma and rugged good looks would earn him further starring roles, although I daresay he’ll probably always be remembered as Aragorn. Still, in many ways this movie is Sam’s story more than anyone else’s. He shows growth as a character, becoming the equal of any of the heroes who have garnered more press. It is Sam who provides the movie’s emotional payoff.

Elijah Wood’s Frodo is a curious case. Although ostensibly the focus of the movie, Wood is curiously detached. It’s very hard at times to fathom who Frodo is, although, to be fair, Frodo is undergoing drastic changes at the hands of the Ring. It’s hard to imagine being less interested in Frodo than you are in Merry or Pippin, but that is the case here. Wood does a pretty good job, but that’s not good enough to stand out in a cast that performs so magnificently.

Orlando Bloom also showed the makings of a big star, although Legolas is not really at the fore much in the trilogy; when Legolas is given the spotlight, however, Bloom shines. Andy Serkis provides Smeagol and Gollum both with humanity; although treacherous and conniving, you wind up feeling the pity for the character as both Frodo and Bilbo had, which is crucial for the story. The supporting cast of Wenham, Otto, Urban, McKellen, Monaghan and Boyd in particular all added luster to their résumés here.

Roger Ebert criticized Return of the King and the trilogy overall as having a “silly story,” which is one of the few times I have disagreed with him quite this vehemently. The story of the trilogy is the story of man’s own ability to grow and change. Written at the dawn of the atomic era, it ascribed hope that we could overcome the desire to use an awesome weapon, and conquer the forces of darkness and despair. Not silly at all, I find it a powerful story that has as much meaning in my everyday life as do some of the smaller films Ebert prefers.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has an honored place in cinematic history for groundbreaking visuals, and passionate vision. Return of the King is the best of these movies, not only because it should be, as the payoff of the trilogy, but because it also is so well-made and the performances well-given. Once you get past the eye candy, all you are left with is the performances and in that, you will not find a better ensemble than this one. It is to date the only movie nominated for more than ten Oscars (eleven to be exact) to win every award it was nominated for, and deservedly so. It is one of three films to win eleven Oscars, the most in the history of the award. I don’t know how much more honored a film can get.

I viewed the conclusion of this beloved trilogy with a mixture of awe, wonder, sadness and satisfaction. I am sorry the trilogy is now complete, but look forward to the works of Peter Jackson, Viggo Mortensen and the rest of the cast. There is an emotional epilogue in which some of the main characters of the trilogy take their leaves – not only from the tale, but from those of us who have followed the story from day one. It is a most satisfying ending.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing piece of film-making; it earned every Oscar it got and more. It will stand as one of the first true classics of the 21st century.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You find this a “silly story.” Roger Ebert, shame on you!

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are pretty grisly in places but I cannot emphasize enough just how frightening Shelob is as a creature. If you have a fear of spiders or are particularly sensitive to monsters, be warned that Shelob is as scary a creature that has ever been put to film.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Peter Jackson has an irrational fear of spiders and modeled Shelob on two of the species he fears the most.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1B on a $94M production budget; the movie made ten times what it cost, easily a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Iron Man