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: “Night Train to Lisbon”

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It was considered a talky and drawn out bore by a handful of critics, but I found Bille August’s 2013 drama “Night Train to Lisbon” to be a soothing and almost cathartic film despite its occasional lapses. It’s a swirl of mystery, romance, self-examination, and character study that does at times trip over itself and its subtle but clumsy preachiness. But ultimately the film dives into themes and reflections that I found fulfilling.

The film is based on Pascal Mercier’s 2004 novel about a man lost in his loneliness and plagued by feelings of unfulfillment and unimportance. The great Jeremy Irons plays Raimund Gregorius, a language professor at a college in Bern, Switzerland. The film’s opening scene tells us scores about its main character. We see Raimund in a meager, dimly lit apartment. The walls are covered with books portraying what almost seems like an obsession. Raimund stirs around but there’s no one else there. No voices. No vibrancy. Nothing lively or colorful. It’s a portrayal of his loneliness.

Later that rainy morning, while walking to school, he comes across a young woman standing on a bridge about to commit suicide. He’s able to grab her before she jumps and then takes her to his classroom to gather her thoughts. As he begins teaching his class she wanders off leaving behind her raincoat with a book in the pocket. Raimund immediately sets off to find the mysterious young woman using the book as a guide which leads him to Lisbon, Portugal.

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The story quickly moves away from Raimund’s search for the young woman and to his fascination with the book. It was written by a man named Amadeu do Prado. Raimund is mesmerized by the life depicted in the memoirs and he ventures across Lisbon putting the story together through the people who knew Amadeu. Along this personal journey, Raimund finds some people who are eager to help him. He also finds some who are reluctant to revisit the painful and tumultuous past they shared with Amadeu.

Through Raimund’s conversations with people we get flashbacks to Amadeu (portrayed by Jack Huston) and his life. We see his difficult childhood and his complicated relationship with his family. We witness his venture into a left-wing resistance movement that went against the Salazar administration. We see scarred friendships and fragile romances. It’s a truly compelling life story even though it sputters at times and its historical account is clearly told from a strict and persuaded point of view. This occasionally strips the film of its genuineness and makes it the film a bit like a lecture.

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While I found Amadeu’s unfolding story interesting, it was Raimund who kept me enthralled in the movie. With every peeled back layer of Amadeu’s past Raimund realizes how unfulfilling his own life is. Through the book he tries to experience the life that he has never had. Jeremy Irons navigates this journey with such temperate and emotional precision. It’s not a loud or showy performance. Instead he uses a more reserved approach which serves the character and his state brilliantly. I truly felt for Raimund and completely bought into his plight.

These dual stories are also helped by a fascinating assortment of wonderful actors and actresses. There are so many rich supporting performances from Huston, French actress Mélanie Laurent (a favorite of mine), Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Lee, Martina Gedeck, Auguest Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Tom Courtenay, and several others. Each have their specific role in Raimund’s journey and Amadeu’s story and the strength of the acting brings both vividly to life.

There is also plenty of beautiful scenery, wonderful locations, and interesting camera work to talk about, but this really comes down to the story and your ability to latch onto it. I had no problem with this mainly because of the film’s centerpiece Jeremy Irons and the story he tells. There is the occasional rough patch and a few hints of odd one-sided lecturing. There is also an intriguing human drama that sucked me in and had me genuinely caring about the characters. That’s an essential piece of any good drama and “Night Train to Lisbon” has it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

THE THROWDOWN : Zombies vs. Vampires

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

*Last week “Annie Hall” (56%) took out “Midnight in Paris” (44%) in the Woody Allen deathmatch*

In keeping with the Halloween season, today’s Throwdown focuses on two stalwarts of the horror genre. Whether you’re a fan of horror pictures or not, undoubtedly you have seen movies featuring zombies and movies featuring vampires. Both have roots in classic horror films, both have been spoofed, both had been parts of huge franchises. But this is all about the battle. Today we’re putting the living dead in the ring with the blood suckers to determine which are the better horror movie terrors. A great case could be made for both, but ultimately it’s you that will decide. Vote now!

ZOMBIES VS. VAMPIRES

There have been variations of zombies in the movies for years. But they really made their way into the limelight in 1968 in George Romero’s horror movie classic “Night of the Living Dead”. Since then, zombies have found their way in hundreds of films. But they’ve also been spotlighted in comic books, video games, and television shows. But their real position prominence came from the big screen and you can almost expect a new zombie movie of some kind every year. There have been loads of sequels to Romero’s classic film. But we’ve seen different approaches to zombies from a variety of films such as “28 Days Later”, “Resident Evil”, and “The Evil Dead” just to name a few. But there have also been zombie spoof films that are tons of fun, movies like “Zombieland”, “Dead Alive”, and “Shaun of the Dead”. So there are no shortage of zombies in the movies and personally I’m happy to hear it.

You can trace vampires in the movies all the way back to the silent movie era. I mean who can forget the classic “Nosferatu”? And Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was a driving force during the Universal movie monsters craze in the 1930’s. While vampires did hit a lull in popularity, they are certainly back with a vengeance and you can see them in a huge variety of films. To prove the point just look at the variety of people who have played big roles in movies as vampires – Gary Oldman, Keifer Sutherland, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Lee, Leslie Nielsen, Tom Cruise, Wesley Snipes, and even Pee Wee Herman! But even more than zombies, vampires have leaked over into several other genres including comedies and even teen romance flicks (unfortunately). Movie lovers have a fascination with vampires and it’s easy to see why. And with the current creature of the night craze, don’t expect any shortage of vampire movies in the near future.

So what say you? Are you partial to the walking dead or the blood suckers? You decide who comes out on top as the better movie monster. Is it the zombies or the vampires? VOTE NOW!

“DARK SHADOWS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp’s history of collaborations could graciously be called a roller-coaster. The two have worked together on a total of eight movies, each to some degree sharing the same Tim Burton gothic quirkiness. Burton’s style is unique and specific and it’s easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. He’s also known to dabble in the same general themes and his movies often have the same look and tone. “Dark Shadows” is no different and you almost instantly know you are watching a Tim Burton picture. But to be honest, I’m not the biggest Burton fan and I’m rarely attracted to his films. But there was something about “Dark Shadows” that caught my attention.

The trailer and TV spots showed what could potentially be a hilarious dark comedy based on the “Dark Shadows” vampire soap opera from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Depp plays Barnabas Collins who finds his life turned upside down after breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). The Collins family had moved from Liverpool, England to Maine and started a fishing village. They called it Collinsport and built the huge Collinwood Manor on top of a hill overlooking the town. Angelique was part of the Collins’ work staff and immediately fell for young Barnabas. But he never notices her especially after finding the love of his life Josette (Bella Heathcote). Taking the ‘woman scorned’ idea to new levels, she uses her black magic to cause the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and Josette. To take things even further, she turns Barnabas into a vampire then buries him in the forest in a chained up casket where he stays for almost 200 years.

But his casket is accidentally unearthed and Collins is eventually freed. The problem is that the year is 1972 and things certainly aren’t how they were when Barbabas was buried. At this point the movie seems set up to be another absurd fish-out-of-water story. In fact, that’s exactly what it was advertised as. And while there are some genuinely funny moments when Barnabas clashes with his new 1972 environment, it’s far from the meat and potatoes of the story. “Dark Shadows” actually plays things straight for much of the film and I often found the comedy to be back-burnered. To me Burton squandered a lot of potential by not spending more time on laughs. One minute he and Depp are winking their eye and having fun with the old show. The next minute they’re taking the story in a more serious direction. I found the absurdity of the comedy to clearly be the most fun.

After being freed, Barnanbas connects with the dysfunctional Collins descendants now living in the rundown Collinwood manor including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). He also meets Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), a rebellious teenager and David (Gulliver McGrath), a young boy who believes in ghosts. Helena Bonham Carter plays a boozing psychiatrist living in the house supposedly to help David. He also meets Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) David’s governess who has a striking resemblance to Josette. Barnabas finds that his descendants have allowed their family fishing business to fall apart. He takes it upon himself to rebuild the business back to prominence especially after seeing that the rival fishing company is run by an incarnation of none other than Angelique.

One thing you instantly notice is that the film looks fantastic. Even when the story sputters, the visuals never do and the movie features some gorgeous camera work and fantastic makeup and costume design. Burton also does a nice job a recreating a believable 1972, an unusual time in American history that strangely fits a Tim Burton project. I loved the selection of 70’s pop and rock songs chosen for the film and there are several funny jokes involving things such as lava lamps, hippies, and The Carpenters. And while we’ve seen comedies that focus on misplaced people before, here it works pretty well. But unfortunately we only get snippets of it scattered throughout the picture. It’s mixed in with the more serious and straight-laced narrative which often times causes a frequent and almost distracting change of tone throughout the film. This isn’t so much due to Burton’s direction, but to the structure of the story.

Depp plays weird really well and here he gives his usual solid performance. His comfort level with pasty-faced Burton roles is evident and his own quirky sense of humor shines through. His goofy facial expressions and sometimes exaggerated line delivery really sells the Barnabas Collins character even during the times where the main story feels lifeless. Depp can get a laugh from the audience just by lifting an eye brow at the right moment and his performance was one of my favorite things about the film. Most of the other cast members are good particularly Jackie Earle Haley in a fun role as the Collinwood caretaker. There are no glaringly bad performances and to be honest, it’s Depp’s show.

“Dark Shadows” is a genre-jumper that moves between comedy, horror, drama, romance, and action yet never feels grounded in any of them. An argument could be made that this is a typical Tim Burton picture and if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to like it. And I certainly won’t deny that Burton’s fingerprints are all over the movie. But I just didn’t find myself as interested in the main story as I hoped to be. The comedy works and there are some truly clever and funny gags that you have to appreciate. Depp carries many scenes and makes them work just by his stiff and unusual character presentation. Things like this really work in the film. In other words, “Dark Shadows” isn’t a terrible movie. In fact, it’s far from it. But it is an inconsistent movie and one that I have a hard time embracing. I may like the film more after a second viewing, but right now it feels like a movie that had great comedic potential but only gave us a sampling of it.