REVIEW: “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Ep. 1 & 2

It’s safe to say Amazon is pretty serious about “The Lord of the Rings”. The mega-company forked out $250 million for the television rights to the J.R.R. Tolkien classic following the successes of two Peter Jackson-helmed movie trilogies. Even more, Amazon has committed $1 BILLION to their new Prime Video streaming series, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”. In unison with the Tolkien Estate, Amazon is eyeing five seasons and around fifty episodes to tell their massive story set thousands of years before Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.

Regardless of the amount of money spent, venturing back into Middle-Earth, the place that Peter Jackson envisioned and visualized so well, was going to be a massive undertaking. And while I don’t hide my preference of the movie trilogy format over a streaming series, Amazon and their showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay presented a pretty compelling vision of their own. That didn’t remove every question/concern I had, but it did encourage me with its potential.

Based on Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” novel and its appendices, “The Rings of Power” sets out to cover all of the key points of Middle-Earth’s Second Age (basically the period and events summarized in the five-minute prologue in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”). Episodes 1 and 2 are all about introducing (and in some cases reintroducing) us to Tolkien’s vast and sprawling world. There are plenty of new places and even more new faces. But we also get some familiar locations and a few names fans know by heart.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Episodes 1 and 2 are directed by J. A. Bayona whose first two feature films were the dramatically different yet equally well made “The Orphanage” (2007) and “The Impossible” (2012). He later made “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (but let’s not talk about that one). With “The Rings of Power”, Bayona seems to have a good grasp of his critical task. It’s up to him to lay the enormous groundwork for what’s to come, and do it in a way that not only captivates audiences but leaves them hungry for more. Even more challenging, Bayona has to evoke those feelings of returning to Middle-Earth, recapturing the magic of the Jackson movies while presenting it a fresh new way. In a nutshell, he succeeds.

The eight-episode first season kicks off with two shows dedicated to table-setting and world-building, not unlike the first half of “The Fellowship of the Ring”. The big difference here is the series is much broader in scope meaning more characters and more time spent introducing them. Bayona and the team of writers do a good job putting faces and voices to these characters who undoubtedly will have pivotal roles to play going forward. But with so many players to ground in the world, we get a lot less action. Some might call it slow, and it occasionally is. But it’s also crucial to locking in our investment.

Among the many inhabitants of Middle-Earth we meet are a young Galadriel (played by Cate Blanchett in the Jackson movies and by a fabulous Morfydd Clark here). She’s an Elven warrior, driven by the death of her brother to root out a gathering evil that she believes is on the horizon. There’s also Elrond, a High Elven architect and politician (played by Hugo Weaving in the movies and in the series by Robert Aramayo). This young Elrond is optimistic and outgoing – much different than the cynical and world-weary leader he would become.

We also meet Durin IV (Owain Arthur), Dwarven prince of Moria (known here as the flourishing city of Khazad-dûm). And Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a Silvan Elf and soldier who has a forbidden love for Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a human healer in a small Southlands village. Then there’s also the adventurous young Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), a Harfoot who are this show’s hobbits. These are just some of the characters we meet in the first phase of this journey.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The performances are uniformly excellent with everyone feeling at home in their uniquely defined regions of the world. Much of Middle-Earth is still settling itself in the aftermath of war, and that weighs heavier on some races than others. This alone allows for a variety of stories to be told and an interesting range of performances. It’ll be fun watching these different experiences change and eventually meld together as this rebirth of evil once again plunges Middle-Earth into darkness.

Back to the world itself, everything looks magnificent, including the stunning production design, the exquisite costumes, the breathtaking locations, and the spectacular special-effects. You can tell Amazon tapped into the talent pool behind the Jackson movies, bringing back several people who helped to so vividly bring Middle-Earth to life. There’s still a long way to go with the series, but if it keeps this level of visual quality, we’re in for a treat.

A fundamental part of what made “The Lord of the Rings” movies so special was the sheer wonder of the creative vision combined with how beautifully it flowed from start to finish. My biggest concern with “The Rings of Power” is in its ability to maintain that same creative cohesion. Can such an massive story with so many moving parts and even more directors flow as gracefully as the movies did before it? Time will tell, but I love what they’ve given us so far. The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” are a visual feast, and the character-building helps lay a solid foundation for what’s to come. I don’t know how it will all come together, but I can’t wait to find out.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is streaming now on Prime Video.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Lightyear” (2022)

One of the few box office misfires to come from the Disney goldmine known as Pixar was “Lightyear”. The House of Mouse poured $200 million into the acclaimed animated studio’s latest feature, not counting marketing. Yet to date the film has only managed a meager $222 million take. Hardly the results Pixar expected or are accustomed to.

“Lightyear” is a spin-off from the popular “Toy Story” film series but not in the conventional sense. It centers around Buzz Lightyear, but it doesn’t take place in the same universe as the main “Toy Story” films. Instead it’s framed as the movie that young Andy watched in the early 1990s that made him love Buzz. It’s what drove him to want the Buzz Lightyear toy figure (voiced by Tim Allen) in the four “Toy Story” movies. It’s a strange yet inspired idea from first-time director, Angus MacLane.

On the positive side, “Lightyear” is a visual achievement that features stellar animation – some of my favorite to date from Pixar. The sharply detailed textures, the incredible lighting, the cinematic framing – it all creates this stunning space spectacle that is a joy for science-fiction lovers like me. And speaking of that, it’s evident that much of “Lightyear” is inspired by countless sci-fi movies that MacLane clearly has an affection for.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

But despite starting strong, “Lightyear” begins to fizzle and before long finds itself stuck in one gear. It can’t muster any real excitement from its action scenes and has a hard time generating a much-needed emotional connection. The characters are fine and they’re each given their own dramatic scenes meant to reveal heart. But these moments feel almost mechanical to the point of leaving no real impression.

Out is Tim Allen, replaced by Chris Evans who makes for a solid but unremarkable voice of Buzz. We first meet him in uncharted space where he and his best friend and commanding officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) stop at an unidentified planet after picking up signatures of life forms. The plant-based life turns out to be hostile forcing the space rangers to flee. But when Buzz’s insistence on doing things on his own results in their ship crashing back down on the planet, the crew and the team of scientists find themselves marooned.

A year passes and during that time Space Command constructs a community and research facility built around harnessing the strange planet’s resources to find a way back to Earth. It culminates in the creation of a new hyperdrive which Buzz is set to test. His goal – launch into orbit, reach hyperspeed within four minutes, and then return to the planet with the results. During the test he fails to reach hyperspeed. But when he returns he’s shocked to learn that the four minutes for him was actually four years, three months, and two days on the planet.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Without giving away the story or getting into details, Buzz returns from a final test to find Alisha and his friends gone and the planet under assault by a mysterious villain named Zurg and his army of robots. He and his robot cat, Sox (a scene-stealing Peter Sohn) encounter three young recruits from the colony’s defense force hiding out in a training camp. One is Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s young adult granddaughter. There’s also the skittish and insecure Moe (Taika Waititi), and an elderly ex-convict named Darby (Dale Soules). While Buzz initially plans on repelling the robot assault on his own, he soon comes to realize he’ll need to rely on the help of others if he wants to beat Zurg and find a way back home.

The message of “Lightyear” is glaringly clear from the start, but it’s a good one. It’s about humility, trust, and accepting help rather than doing things on your own. Sadly it’s the storytelling that hits a wall, especially once Buzz teams up with the three recruits. Their ‘adventure’ sees the movie at its most conventional and kid-focused. But then things really bog down once MacLane and his co-writer Jason Headley throw in talk of time dilation and temporal paradoxes. It becomes hard to identify the target audience.

“Lightyear” offers plenty of pretty things to look at and one funny/adorable robot kitty. But it hardly reaches to infinity, and it certainly doesn’t go beyond. Instead much of it sits idle in orbit unsure of what kind of story it wants to tell. Worst of all, the story just doesn’t have the ingredients for something truly memorable. The animation is second to none, but it can only carry the movie so far. “Lightyear” is now streaming on Disney+.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Lost City” (2022)

Life has a funny way of changing your plans on the fly. For that reason I was a little late getting to “The Lost City”, the star-studded action-adventure comedy from directors Adam and Aaron Nee. While I do try to see nearly every major release, I wasn’t that upset about missing this one. Sure, I liked the old 90’s throwback look to it and seeing Brad Pitt ham it up is a plus. But for some reason “The Lost City” wasn’t high on my priority list (perhaps seeing the trailer 100 times in the theater wore me out).

“The Lost City” turns out to be a fairly entertaining romp, driven by the charisma of its three big stars, Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, and Brad Pitt. The movie starts strong and by far its funniest moments are found in the first 30 minutes. After that the humor dries up as the script (written by Oren Uziel, Dana Fox, and the Nee Brothers) tries but can’t quite squeeze out the laughs. Thankfully there happens to be just enough of a “Romancing the Stone” vibe to keep things fun.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Bullock plays Loretta Sage, a popular romance novelist who has closed herself off following the passing of her archeologist husband John. Despite struggling to find inspiration, the deadline for Loretta’s new book “The Lost City of D” is quickly approaching. It’s the highly anticipated final chapter in her hit series that follows the romantic adventures of lead characters Dr. Angela Lovemore and Dash McMahon. Her publicist and friend Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) already has a book tour scheduled which thrusts a hesitant Loretta back into the public eye.

To promote the book, Loretta is asked to appear with Alan Caprison (Tatum), her dimwitted Fabio-esque cover model who portrays Dash from her books. To her chagrin, the enthusiastic crowd is far more excited about Alan (and the prospect of him taking off his shirt) than her or her writing. A perturbed Loretta storms out, but while waiting for her ride she’s kidnapped by some meatheaded goons working for Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe). He’s a weaselly billionaire with family issues who needs Loretta’s help finding a tomb containing a legendary relic called the Crown of Fire.

Fairfax zips Loretta away to a remote island in the Atlantic where he has discovered an ancient lost city at the base of a brewing volcano. After reading Loretta’s last book, he’s convinced that she can help him translate a parchment which will reveal the location of the tomb holding the Crown of Fire. But Alan proves himself to be a doofus with a heart. He hires former Navy Seal with weathermanly good looks, Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) to help him rescue Loretta and prove to her that he’s more than a cover model. As you can guess, hijinks ensue.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

I won’t dare spoil things, but let’s just say the rescue doesn’t go exactly as planned. Loretta and Alan find themselves alone in the jungle with Farifax’s henchmen hot on their trail. Meanwhile there’s a not-so-funny side-story with Beth and a cargo pilot (Oscar Nunez) trying to find the island and help with the rescue. That’s not to say there aren’t some amusing moments scattered throughout the rest of the movie and Bullock and Tatum have decent chemistry. But the story kinda sits in one gear the rest of the way, and it doesn’t quite do enough to make it feel original.

In the end, “The Lost City” makes for a fairly entertaining way to spend 100 minutes. But though it starts really strong, the second half plays more like a copy-and-paste of past movies. Bullock is a solid anchor, Radcliffe gets a couple of humorous lines, and Tatum does his best. But it’s Pitt who steals the show. So much so that the drop-off is pretty significant whenever he’s not on screen. Still, there’s enough here to pass the time as long as you know what to expect. “The Lost City” is now playing in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Last Bus” (2022)

With “The Last Bus” Scottish director, writer, and accomplished painter Gillies MacKinnon gives us a warm-hearted road-trip movie that happens to be right up my alley. Driven by an outstanding lead performance from screen vet Timothy Spall, “The Last Bus” tells a simple and straightforward story. But that’s exactly what this tender and bittersweet drama needs to be.

Written by Joe Ainsworth, the story centers on an elderly man named Tom Harper (Spall) and most of what we learn about him is fed to us throughout his journey. What journey, you ask? The 838 mile trip from John O’Groats on the U.K.’s northeastern tip to Lands End, the mainland’s most southern point. And why is he making such a trip? Because of a pledge he made to his late wife Mary.

Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

“The Last Bus” is several things, but above all it’s a moving meditation on life, love, and the commitments we make to those closest to us. It’s also a beautiful reminder of the blessing of memories. Tom’s journey is intercut with well handled flashbacks to key moments with Mary – highs and lows that defined their loving marriage. They’re framed as memories brought to Tom’s mind during different stops on his meticulously planned pilgrimage.

With his free bus pass in hand, Tom moves from town to town, stopping at diners and B&Bs that he and Mary visited in their youth. Along the way he encounters an eclectic blend of strangers, often relying on their kindness to keep him going, especially as the arduous journey begins to take its toll. Yet he pushes on, determined to reach his destination. “I just want to keep my promise.

Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

It turns out the more we learn about Tom and Mary’s backstory the more predictable the movie becomes. With each stop things become more obvious and the conclusion, though undeniably sweet, seems like an inevitability. There’s also a strange addition to the story as word of Tom’s travels gets around. He unknowingly becomes a social media sensation with radio stations broadcasting his progress as reported by people who catch a glimpse of him on the road. It’s an amusing and well-meaning twist, but one that feels tacked on and that doesn’t really lead anywhere.

Recently there have been several movies about widowers reckoning with grief and/or mortality. Some have taken serious looks at those themes while others have been more whimsical. “The Last Bus” falls somewhere in between. It certainly has the whimsy, but it also has its serious moments too. And much like all these movies, it has a big heart that finds its way into every scene. And even though you know where things are going, you’ll still want to stay on the bus and see it through till the end. Just like Tom. “The Last Bus” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Long Night” (2022)

The new rural horror film “The Long Night” is a prime example of a movie that’s working from a good idea but that lacks the substance (and at times the budget) to see that idea through. It’s a bit of a mishmash of several horror sub-genres which is intriguing in itself. But there just isn’t enough story to even fill the film’s 90-plus minute running time.

Directed by Rich Ragsdale and penned by Robert Sheppe and Mark Young, “The Long Night” focuses on a woman named Grace (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her search for her parents who she’s never known. We learn that she grew up in a foster home and has spent the last ten years looking for clues about her family and their Southern roots. Most have led to nothing but dead-ends.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA

While in her New York City apartment, which she shares with her Ivy League boyfriend Jack (Nolan Gerard Funk), Grace gets a call from a man named Frank who has been doing research for her in an unidentified Southern state. He tells her he’s found a compelling lead about her parents and she needs to come to his farmhouse ASAP. He gives her the old “If I’m not there, let yourself in. The key is under the flower pot.” There’s your first red light.

As they pack, Jack suggests a detour to the Hamptons where he can finally introduce Grace to his parents. She is immediately overjoyed but also a bit anxious. “Don’t worry”, Jack assures her, “everything is going to be fine.“ Talk about famous last words in a horror movie. And there you have red light #2.

Cut to the opening credits were Grace and Jack are driving down a remote country highway. Things clearly didn’t go well with Jack’s parents which has left Grace with a sour taste in her mouth. Soon the couple arrives at Frank’s rustic two-story farmhouse as ominous and foreboding music (that doesn’t really match the beautiful rural scenery) wails in the background. That aggressively creepy music – red light #3.

As you probably guessed, Frank isn’t home but the key is right where he said it would be. The two settle in and check out the house. Grace finds the old-timey style charming while Jack’s jerkiness and upper-crust condescension kicks in. But then there are the signs that something’s not right – the off-putting smell in the bedroom, a snake in the kitchen, and the weird totem in the nearby woods. “It’s a southern thing,” Grace explains. Ummm, is it really?

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA

Of course there is something ‘not right’, namely the black-robed demon-worshiping cultists in cattle skull masks who appear after dark and surround the home. What follows is a lot of screaming, lots of fog, lots of running around in the house, lots of running through the woods, lots of hazy hallucinations, lots of spiraling camera tricks. Even Jeff Fahey pops up out of the blue.

Unfortunately what we don’t get is much in terms of story. The movie struggles to fill the space between its catchy setup and the eventual reveal. Ragsdale incorporates a rather pointless chapter structure to break things up a bit, and Taylor-Compton gives it her all. But neither can compensate for the lack of emotional and dramatic heft during the film’s middle patch. And neither the spooky backwoods tropes or the deranged death cult can muster the kind of tension this movie desperately needs. “The Long Night” is out now in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

Sundance Review: “Lucy and Desi” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

On its surface, “Lucy and Desi” looks like a fairly by-the-books documentary. There’s little to its style or approach that sets it apart from countless other docs. But don’t be misled. In addition to its compelling subjects, the feature is energized by director Amy Poehler who isn’t just throwing out facts and old footage. Instead she frames her film as the love story of two beloved entertainers who forever changed television and our culture.

That warm and sincere focus is what makes Poehler’s film such a delight. As you might expect, the movie will resonate most with those familiar with the wild and improbable success story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But Poehler’s approach results in something that’s both endearing and insightful which should open the documentary up to anyone regardless of their history (or lack of) which the iconic couple.

“Lucy and Desi” is full of entertainment history but it’s also intimate and personal. One of my favorite touches is in how much is told in the couple’s own words and through their own voices. Clips from a number television and radio interviews give us their true perspectives on the ups and down of their incredible journey together. Meanwhile interviews with their son, Desi Arnez Jr. and daughter, Luci Arnez Luckin shed even more light but from yet another personal angle.

And of course, we also hear from entertainers who not only knew them but were inspired by their work – Carol Burnett, Charo, Bette Midler, among others highlight the impact Lucy and Desi had on generations of performers. Words like “fearless”, “effortless” and “extraordinary” often were used especially in describing Lucy. She had a natural talent for comedy, but she was also a fiery straight-shooter which proved invaluable in an industry ran predominantly by men.

Image Courtesy pf Amazon Studios

Poehler rightly gives time to the couple’s years prior to meeting. As Lucy left New York City for Hollywood, Desi was escaping Cuba for Miami. Only a short time later, the two met for the first time in the commissary at RKO Pictures and were married six months later. From there the couple’s personal and professional lives took off in large part thanks to the massive success of “I Love Lucy”.

Poehler takes time to stress the importance of “I Love Lucy” and the impact it made on the television industry, both on screen and behind the camera. We hear about how each show was performed in front of 400 studio audience members and with no retakes. About how they once did 41 shows in 41 weeks. And how “I Love Lucy” would help establish the rerun model that would be used forever after. And of course there was the relationships with their co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley.

Their business partnership extended beyond “I Love Lucy”. The film covers the formation and success of their own studio, Desilu Productions which would produce such shows as “The Untouchables”, “Mission: Impossible”, and “Star Trek”. The couple would grow Desilu into the second-largest independent television production company in the United States. And of course there was their later purchase of RKO Studios.

But in “Lucy and Desi” it always comes back to the personal – in this case the relationship between the two stars. The stress and demands of fame hurt their marriage leading to an eventual split. But as Poehler shows us, there remained a deep connection between them even as they were miles apart and with new spouses. The two loved each other as much as the country loved them. By stressing that truth, Poehler’s film, though very much a documentary, comes from a place closer to the heart. And that’s a choice which makes “Lucy and Desi” stand out.

VERDICT – 4 STARS