RETRO REVIEW: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

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Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” was an extraordinary introduction to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It not only introduced us to its compelling assortment of characters, but it also firmly planted us within J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast enchanting world. But it’s the second installment, “The Two Towers” where the series truly hits its stride.

“The Two Towers” takes the story of its predecessor and expands it in every way. Fascinating new characters, more lands throughout Middle-Earth, and even higher stakes than before. But one of Jackson’s many great accomplishments is how seamlessly he blends these new pieces into the existing fabric. And despite the immensity of his scope, the movie never loses its intimacy.

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Picking up where “Fellowship” left off, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam’s (Sean Astin) journey to destroy the One Ring has grown more arduous and the weight of the ring more burdensome. As the two struggle to find a path to Mordor, the sallow, emaciated Gollum (Andy Serkis) secretly follows them. He was the ring’s former owner, consumed by its power and desperate to reclaim it. When Gollum is discovered Frodo shows pity and uses him as a guide against the pleas of a concerned Sam.

A second story thread follows Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) as they follow the trail of their abducted Hobbit companions Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). They are led through the war-torn lands of Rohan whose King Theodin (Bernard Hill) lies under a spell of the wicked wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).

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And yet a third story thread follows the aforementioned Merry and Pippin who manage to escape their Uruk-hai captors after the Orc soldiers are attacked by Éomer (Karl Urban) and his exiled Riders of Rohan. The two Hobbits hide deep within Fanghorn Forest where they encounter a mysterious tree beings called Ents.

The challenges for this incredible three-headed story are obvious. Huge in scale and with a ton of ground to cover, yet vitally important that it all comes together. Jackson melds together his many moving parts with remarkable precision. And of the several new characters introduced not a one feels wasted or undeserved. Each fit and have a place in Tolkien’s tumultuous world yet have their own personal storylines that take form without ever feeling pointless or intrusive. It’s a remarkable mixture of character and narrative.

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Then there is the genius of Jackson’s technique. From his sweeping camera combing the exquisite New Zealand landscapes to the subtlest of closeups capturing every worry, concern, and pain of the characters. Equally exhilarating are the action scenes both small and epic in size. It’s hard not to be blown away by his framing of the action as well as Weta Workshop’s extraordinary special effects. Jackson really opens it up with the first of the series’ huge battlefield sequences. The Battle for Helm’s Deep remains my favorite segment in the entire trilogy.

Much more could be talked about including Jackson’s knack for not only building tension but maintaining it throughout a sequence. Also “The Two Towers” highlights Jackson’s keen ability to convey to the audience an incredible sense of the mystical and magical. The world he and his teams place us in are rich with imagination and the fantastical. But the greatest thing about the series is that it’s far more than eye candy and sparkly window dressing. It’s the characters and their stories that form the heart of trilogy. That’s especially true for “The Two Towers”.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5STAR K&M

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Caution, concern, skepticism, uncertainty. These are just a few words to describe my feelings after hearing a new Star Wars movie was on the way. After all, we aren’t talking about making any old thing. J.J. Abrams was taking what is arguably the most popular brand of any entertainment form and bringing it back to the big screen. He was tinkering with a property known for having the most passionate, the most protective, the most dedicated, and the most outspoken fan base. He was tackling a franchise viewed as more than a simple series of movies by millions of people from practically every demographic. Abrams was making a new Star Wars movie. No pressure.

Let’s be honest, when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand from George Lucas for $4.06 billion there was reason for Star Wars junkies like myself to at least be cautious. The Disney-fication (my new word) of Star Wars worried me. Then J.J. Abrams was given the keys to the new film. Abrams, a guy I have always seen as hit-or-miss, is best known for rebooting the Star Trek film series. But he didn’t only reboot Star Trek. He completely altered the structure, tone, and feeling of the Star Trek universe replacing it with a hip new Hollywood version. That’s the last thing I want in a new Star Wars picture.

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Abrams, a self-admitted Star Wars fanboy, has said all the right things when talking about the new film. He directs, co-writes, and co-produces “The Force Awakens”, which is essentially Episode VII. It is a film positioned as a conduit connecting the old to the new as well as an injection of fresh energy for a new generation. That sounds good, but can it deliver? Can this new era of Star Wars suck me in like the previous efforts. An answer was hinted at once John Williams’ score struck that glorious and familiar opening note.

I was able to avoid spoilers and all story details which made my viewing experience all the better. For that reason I’ll stay away from any semblance of a plot synopsis. But let’s just say the film starts with a bang and we are quickly introduced to the franchise’s new players. Abrams wants us to make early connections with these folks because they are clearly set to be key ingredients in this film and the franchise in general.

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On one side we meet the resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s the highlight of the new bunch – a strong independent sparkplug who is remarkably resourceful yet burdened by her past. We get the jittery, disillusioned Finn (John Boyega). He’s the film’s cowardly lion – a man with a conscience but who is too afraid to follow it. Boyega goes full throttle in every scene which isn’t always the best acting choice. And then there is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best pilot in the galaxy. He’s a cool, rousing Han Solo type but with Luke Skywalker’s unwavering devotion to his cause. And then there is the little droid BB-8, an example of a cutesy character done right.

 

In the other corner we have The First Order, an evil Third Reich-ish force risen from the ashes of the Empire. They are led (or are they) by the volatile and dangerous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is driven by an almost maniacal obsession to be the most feared person in the galaxy. There is the smug opportunist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) whose lust for power rivals that of Kylo Ren. He operates a Nazi-like military force and flexes his murderous muscles at will. But there is also the shadowy enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we only see in a familiar grainy hologram form.

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And then you have the classic characters who Star Wars fans love. It has been roughly 30 years since the events of “Return of the Jedi” and names like Han, Luke, and Leia are spoken of by many in near mythical terms. Harrison Ford returns as Han and he gets the bigger chunk of screen time. He’s slower, grayer, but ever the cool space pirate. He and his howling compadre Chewbacca feel as if they haven’t missed a beat. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is focused on leading the resistance movement against The First Order. Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared after a particularly troubling event. And of course there is C3PO and R2D2. Seeing these characters again is exciting for any true fanboy. I do think there are moments between them that deserved a little more attention, but I’ll leave that one alone for now.

The real trick for Abrams is juggling all of these characters both old and new. To help he brought in writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on the scripts for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”). The script works mainly because the characters never get lost in a deluge of special effects. Each are given their own moments particularly the new faces who are well-developed and left with enough questions to be intriguing.

Speaking of the effects, there is a ton of CGI yet it never looks overused or blatantly obvious.  As good as the prequels often looked there were many instances where Lucas would visually overload his screen. Not here. Regardless of how fantastical things get, the special effects work to promote the setting, the characters, or the story. The new weapons, vehicles, and technology are fun, much of it based on blueprints from the original trilogy. Star Wars has always been known for its top-notch sound design. Here is no different. And Williams’ score is perfect sometimes feeling plucked right out the earliest films.

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Seasoned Star Wars fans will notice several nostalgic throwbacks, entertaining Easter eggs, and cool bits of fan service, but in a sense this contributes one of the film’s few problems. It plays it too safe specifically in the final act. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fan service. It struck a strong chord with me. But at the same time it kept the big ending on a relatively short leash. It was way too familiar down to certain details. Not bad by any means, but very familiar. It could be that Abrams feared alienating the tough-minded and vocal fan base. I can respect that. Now that he has expressed himself as a Star Wars loyalist I’m hoping the next installments will take us into some newer directions.

But enough of that. I am so happy to be able to stand up and tip my hat to J.J. Abrams. Talk about a bold and pressure-filled undertaking. Taking the reigns of the biggest entertainment franchise in the world was gutsy and the pressures to deliver a new yet faithful sequel were intense. But he does it. “The Force Awakens” is a fun, action-packed tablesetter for a new era of Star Wars. It has heart, emotion, and a childlike exuberance that should spark a flicker of excitement in even the most hardened person’s heart. But most importantly it FEELS LIKE a Star Wars movie. That may sound a bit silly to the more casual audience, but Star Wars fans know exactly what I mean and that may be J.J. Abrams’ single greatest accomplishment with this film.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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While it may have one of the clunkiest movie titles of 2014, that hasn’t stopped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from raking in loads of praise from critics and even more cash at the box office. I have to admit I’m surprised at how this franchise has found life again. I love the original 1968 classic, but frankly this doesn’t seem like the type of series that would appeal to the modern movie sensibilities of many of today’s moviegoers. The 2011 franchise reboot along with its $480 million box office grab proved me wrong. And of course when you make that kind of money you know there is going to be sequel.

I liked the first installment of this reboot but I didn’t see it as the gem that many did. This time around we have a new director and an overhauled cast but the writing team stays intact which you can sense from the first act. In what has become a very familiar way to setup these types of films, the movie opens with snippets from newscasts explaining the state of the world since the events of the first film. Human civilization has collapsed, ravaged by the effects of a deadly simian flu which decimated the population and triggered near apocalyptic after-effects. In other words things on earth are pretty bad, that is unless you are an ape.

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large colony of apes who live in the forests outside of what was San Francisco. These apes share the intelligence of Caesar which we see exhibited in a variety of ways. Many of the apes believe that humans are now extinct, that is until they encounter a small group of them in the forest. The group turns out to be part of a pocket of survivors living in the city. Their energy supply is almost gone and a hydroelectric dam in the forest could supply them for years. But as they learn, the dam is smack dab in the middle of ape territory which presents a very big problem.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film are the political wranglings that take place both between humans and between the apes. Internal debates, distrust, and dissensions plague both camps as each try to figure out how to handle the other. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the small group, recognizes something special about Caesar and tries to form a bond with him. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more skeptical and he prepares the humans for war in case Malcolm fails. Similarly Cesar believes peace is the best option but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has personal animosity towards all humans and he wants to be proactive.

All of that is constructed in a way that shows the similarities between the humans and apes. In fact, that’s a central theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it be tender family relationships or fear-driven warmongering, we see it all in both the humans and the apes. But what may be the most amazing feat accomplished by this film is its incredible way of translating emotion from the apes. Every display of love, hate, disappointment, frustration, anger, or sympathy that we get from them is incredibly…well…human. Much of it is due to the brilliant makeup and special-effects. But the true credit goes to the stunning motion caption mastery. I love hearing from people who are finally recognizing the genius of Andy Serkis. But folks let me just go ahead and say it – this is Oscar-worthy work. And Kebbell isn’t too far behind him.

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Now while the story is entertaining and never boring, it still has a few things that keep it from being truly phenomenal. There are so many familiar plot angles that we get throughout the entire movie. Honestly, I was amazed at how many things I saw that I had seen in other films. I don’t want to spoil anything , but it really stood out and it made many plot lines predictable. I also thought several of the emotional tugs were a bit obvious and gimmicky. What’s amazing about it is that they still worked for me. I knew I was having my heart-strings yanked during these instances yet I still went with them. Effective but still obvious.

Despite those gripes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a highly entertaining picture. Regardless of its familiar directions the story still kept me engaged. It easily kept me attached to these characters and the film moved at an almost perfect pace. There is some great action, awesome effects, and the performances are strong (none better than the stunning work of Andy Serkis). This is yet another big budget 2014 blockbuster that delivers. I just wish the story itself went out a little more on its own.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN” – 3 1/2 STARS

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s “The Adventures of Tintin” has been in the works for close to 30 years. Spielberg first purchased the rights in 1983 but the main filming didn’t actually begin until 2009. Jackson produced and Spielberg directed this animated motion capture film based on the immensely popular comic book series from Belgian artist Herge. While the Tintin character is most popular in Europe, Spielberg and Jackson hope the broader exposure will result in a least two more films. There’s certainly nothing in “The Adventures of Tintin” that should discourage a sequel. But there’s also several things in the film that keep it from being as good as it could have been.

In many ways “The Adventures of Tintin” is an old-fashioned adventure with a shiny modern coat of paint. It’s a classic style, simple and straightforward adventure yarn that at times feels like an Indiana Jones treasure hunt picture. But it’s the cutting-edge motion capture and CGI animation that instantly catches your eye. The character’s gorgeous three-dimensional renderings are incredibly realistic but with just a touch of cartoony style. The animation also features an incredible level of detail. It’s seen in everything from the various around-the-world locations to the fantastic period recreation. “Tintin” is a visual treat and there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy the steady barrage of eye candy found throughout the film.

I mentioned that “Tintin” is simple and straightforward and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I did have a few issues with the story. The movie starts with Tintin purchasing a model ship from a vender at an outdoor market. There is practically no introduction whatsoever and it seems like the movie expects you to already be familiar with the character. As someone unfamiliar with Tintin, all I learned is that he’s a journalist and adventurer and his best friend is his white dog Snowy. After buying the ship Tintin is immediately approached by two individuals who try to take it off of his hands. This leads to the discovery that the model ship may hold a clue to the whereabouts of a lost treasure. Upon seeing this, Tintin and Snowy head off on a globe-trotting adventure to find the treasure before a shady character named Sakharine does.

From there the movie launches into a frantic and almost hyperactive action romp. The film seems to move from one elaborate cinematic set piece to another, each filled with that signature well-choreographed Spielbergian action. There’s also just enough story to keep everything interesting. But I did feel the movie start to lag in the middle especially during a long series of flashback scenes intended to tell the history behind the treasure and it’s connection to two of the characters. Speaking of characters, Tintin teams up with Captain Haddock, a drunk who loses control of his ship to Sakharine. While Haddock has a few funny moments he’s also borderline annoying at times especially when he goes off on one of his ramblings. There are also a couple of instances where his attempts at humor seem to clash with the tone of the movie. While the movie hits a few speed bumps in the middle, it quickly picks back up on its way to a wide open ending that clearly points to a sequel.

Overall “The Adventures of Tintin” is a fun time that the entire family can enjoy together. From the start, the movie jumps right into the adventure but don’t expect much of an introduction to Tintin or even any character development to speak of. And while the story is about as basic as you can get, it really only stumbles in a few places. But it’s the movie’s presentation that is the most impressive. The film looks amazing and features some of the most eye-popping CGI and visually stunning action sequences. The John Williams score doesn’t hurt either. When it comes down to it, “The Adventures of Tintin” is like several of Spielberg’s other pictures – light on story but heavy on appearance. It’s not a perfect movie but there is still plenty to latch onto and once you get onboard it’s easy to stay with it all the way.