#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


Original US release date: December 17, 2003
Production budget: $94,000,000
Worldwide gross: $1,119,929,521

Might as well do this, right?  I did a #ThrowbackThursday on The Fellowship of the Ring here and I did one on The Two Towers here, so let’s finish off the trilogy with The Return of the King!  As before, I’m looking at the Extended Edition, so there are scenes – and even characters – that are featured in the version I’m looking back upon that are not included in the theatrical cut.  These make a true difference in giving the audience closure on some of the ongoing subplots and character arcs.  For instance, near the beginning of the film, there is a major scene featuring Christopher Lee’s Saruman, yet Saruman was nowhere to be found in the theatrical edit.  So, yes, the Extended Edition is monumentally lengthy, but it’s a much more complete and satisfying narrative experience.

Also of note regarding the film is that it was only the second film in history, after James Cameron’s Titanic, to cross the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office.  A couple of other films that were released before Return of the King, namely Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, now sit above the $1 billion mark, as well, but they both required re-releases that occurred long after their original runs and after the original run of Return of the King, as well.


In addition to that, after the series scored Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards for both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in the two prior years, The Return of the King finally delivered with a win in the category.  Conventional wisdom is that the win counts as a moral victory for the entire series and that the first two installments were never going to win because the epic finale was waiting in the wings.  I don’t know if I agree with that, but that’s what many people think.

One way or another, the film certainly lives up to any lofty expectations it had weighing on its shoulders.  Director Peter Jackson took this job extremely seriously, wanting to pay respect to author J.R.R. Tolkien, pay service to the cornucopia of deep and engaging characters, and deliver for the fans that had waited for so many years – and in some cases, the majority of their lives – to witness Tolkien’s magnum opus fully realized in spectacular live-action.


In order to end up with the film that Jackson (and everyone else) desired, he knew he couldn’t cut corners.  He had to deliver on story, character, dialogue, and action.  And there is plenty of each.  The action doesn’t kick into gear, right out of the gate.  There is still a healthy dose of groundwork to be laid before the fun, eye-popping geekouts can commence.  But that’s not a problem (for those with an attention span, at least), because by this point in the story, we already feel a strong connection with the characters.  We care what they have to say.  We care what they need to do.  We care about their wants and desires.  The film is never boring because we feel like we’re a part of it.  We’re engaged.  We’re invested.  This is the magic of big-sprawling franchises that allows us to spend a significant amount of time with the characters.  Had each of the series installments been a brisk 90 minutes, so much would have been lost – most importantly the weight of the events that occur.

Along the way, everyone gets at least one moment to shine – even the characters that weren’t introduced until later in the narrative.  Jackson is savvy enough to know that every character is someone’s favorite character, so he makes sure to give everyone in the audience something to cheer about.  (My favorite moment is the big one for Legolas.  “That still only counts as one!”)  Ultimately, all of the character arcs lead up to two nearly-simultaneous events: Frodo’s arrival at Mount Doom and the Battle of Pelennor Fields.  But instead of using the action as an escape from the story, Jackson adeptly uses the action to embolden said story.  Characterizations are further developed based on the actions that are taken in war.  Important events in the narrative are both caused and affected by the physical conflicts.  It all works together as one massive cornucopia of masterful storytelling by one of the great filmmakers of our time.


This feels abbreviated, but what more can truly be said about this film or this series, in general?  Once everything is tied up at the end of the film (in a series of codas that the impatient whined about but were necessary in order to completely close the door on the story), the audience has had an immensely rewarding experience that honors the devoted, the attentive, the thoughtful, and the persevering patrons who were willing to submit themselves to the full, unforgettable adventure that was The Lord of the Rings.  The franchise will forever stand on its own as an unmatched combination of art, spectacle, and legacy that will likely long outlive each and every one of us.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


Unlike many, I have no strong feelings towards Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.  I liked the first three (I actually preferred the second one, Dead Man’s Chest, above the others as it was the best mix of character, story, and spectacle) and didn’t much care for On Stranger Tides, but I was never extraordinarily enthusiastic about the series, nor did I feel any vitriol towards it or any of the individual films.  So, I went into this fifth installment with no particular expectations and an open mind.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is, true to the title, a tale told by living men (and women), and that tale is one of the search for Poseidon’s trident by Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley).  The film falls in nicely with the original trilogy (On Stranger Tides remains on the outside looking in) in terms of the story arc and tone.  After largely abandoning loyal fans of the series with a total change of direction in On Stranger Tides, Disney and new directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg do a course correction and return to the story of the characters that put the franchise on the map.


Along the way, there are some fun and innovative action set pieces, continuing a property tradition.  The climax is especially unique with some sleek visuals that will set this film apart from its summer competition.  For me, however, these action beats came too far apart.  When something exciting isn’t happening, the narrative significantly slows down and even feels like it’s almost at a dead stop in a couple of places.  I actually found this to be true of the other films in the series, as well, which is why I’ve never been over the moon about them.  And this is as much a dialogue problem as a story problem.  The characters are interesting and quirky, but most of what they have to say . . . well . . . isn’t.  Having said all of that, when things pick up steam, the film moves along nicely.  Yet, while the story has real stakes, it also plays it safe.  I can understand that; there’s a lot at stake with this film and Disney needs the old fans to return and leave happy if the franchise is to continue.

They also need new blood to inject some hope for the future into the property.  And they found some.  There are a couple of new primary cast members in Thwaites’s Henry Turner and Kaya Scodelario’s Corina Smyth.  Both actors do well and the characters are important to the overarching Pirates mythology.  They have worthwhile character arcs and will likely be welcomed by fans.  Whether or not this leads to some enhanced level of stardom will depend on a number of other factors, but these are good roles for both of them to increase their profiles.


Then, of course, we have the returning Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbosa and Johnny Depp as the ever-popular Jack Sparrow.  Rush is as perfect as ever for his part and Depp seems to relish being back in the only role people care to see him in, anymore.  I’ve tired of Depp, myself, but I have to admit that Jack Sparrow is his baby.  All of his zany, over-the-top characters that have caused so many of us to grow weary of seeing him pop up in what often seems like everything began with Jack Sparrow.  It was his first role of this nature and it’s still his best.  Even when the dialogue doesn’t play as funny as screenwriter Jeff Nathanson seems to believe, Depp’s delivery gives it a boost and often makes it funny in spite of itself.  The film isn’t hilarious, despite Depp’s earnest efforts, but its hit ratio is unquestionably much higher than that of Baywatch.

If you’re a diehard franchise fan, don’t leave until the credits have finished rolling (if you’re truly a diehard franchise fan, you’ve already seen the film and sat through the credits, by now).  The movie feels like a final chapter, nicely tying up longstanding unresolved plot threads and leaving the characters in comfortable spots that can be envisioned as a final farewell to them.  And then the post-credits stinger happens and potentially changes everything.  My guess is that Disney and the floundering Depp wanted to give a go at reviving the property one more time to see how much mileage is left.  The main narrative is crafted as a last adventure but, if it breaks out and the audience tells them that they missed it and want more, they’ve left themselves an opening.


Ultimately, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (ugh.  What a clunky title.) falls under the same umbrella as many other sequels that have come along in 2017, such as Underworld: Blood Wars, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Rings: great for those who are fans, but nothing to convert those who have already decided they aren’t into the series.  I felt pretty much the same as I did about the first three Pirates films (it’s absolutely better than Tides).  I thought it was fine.  It had high points and it had some problems.  Didn’t love it.  Didn’t hate it.  I appreciated the action and Depp’s efforts and I see potential in the new faces, but it’s not a particularly compelling journey for the entirety of the running time and I would have loved some dialogue that could have kept up with the cast.  Bottom line: if you like the other movies in the series, you’ll like this.  If you don’t, you won’t.

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Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers


Original US release date: December 18, 2002
Production budget: $94,000,000
Worldwide gross: $926,047,111

My #ThrowbackThursday journey to Mount Doom continues with The Two Towers.  I did a #ThrowbackThursday column on The Fellowship of the Ring, a while back (right here, if you missed it) and now it’s time to take a look at the next chapter.  This is the Extended Edition that I’m discussing, here, for your information.

This middle chapter has the benefit of being able to hit the ground running.  We start the film with an absolutely exhilarating action sequence that follows up on a pivotal event from Fellowship.  As long as the film is, the pace rarely slows.  Of course, there is time taken for exposition and to introduce new characters, but the narrative still moves along rather briskly.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the most notable inclusion among the main cast is Andy Serkis’s Gollum.  Gollum appeared briefly in Fellowship, but he takes front-and-center in The Two Towers and, as a result, was catapulted into the public consciousness, becoming a household name almost immediately.  References are still (and likely will forever be) made in everyday conversation to his “my precious” catchphrase but his presence is worthy of more remembrance than that of just a simple one-liner.


Gollum’s most famous and noteworthy scene involves a conversation between his two disparate personalities, but beyond that, he is a very complex character, beautifully realized by Serkis and the WETA visual effects house.  Serkis’s performance – both in his voice work and motion-capture – brings Gollum to life and makes him feel as if he’s really there with the remainder of the cast.  The writing fleshes him out; he can be funny and endearing one moment, then untrustworthy and frightening, the next.  He is the Yoda of Lord of the Rings in the sense that he’s a creation of the special effects team and is yet the one who comes out of the series with the strongest fan sentiment.

In the midst of all of the spectacular effects (Gollum isn’t the only memorable CGI creation, as we are also introduced to Treebeard) and action set pieces, there is some tremendous character work that goes on all across the board.  Frodo and Sam experience growing pains, we learn more about Aragorn, an unexpected friendship blooms within the remnants of the Fellowship, and there’s plenty more on top of all of that.  This extended edition even gives additional background to Boromir.  The runtime of the film is not wasted.


And of course, it all looks gorgeous.  Peter Jackson knows how to frame a shot and he and his location scouts made a genius decision when choosing to film in New Zealand.  Not only did it cost significantly less to shoot there (check out that production budget, up above) but it’s so beautiful that it almost looks like a different planet.

For me, personally, the scale of this film is perfect.  It’s still small enough that we aren’t flooded with too many characters to get to know them, but large enough that the battles feel grand and bigger than what we see in most other films.  The Battle of Helm’s Deep is spectacular and my favorite large-scale battle of the series (I still love the smaller battle in the Mines of Moria from Fellowship, a bit more).  Jackson always knew how to strike the balance between action and story/character and he was never better at it than he was in this middle installment.  In fact, many middle chapters suffer from feeling incomplete as they are neither the beginning nor the end of the overarching narrative.  But Jackson made several adept choices when he decided to shift certain story elements around amongst the three chapters and we got much better films because he did so.  The Two Towers is structured is such a way that keeps it from suffering that “Middle Child Syndrome”, thanks to the exquisite development of several subplots that achieve both genesis and resolution within this single film.


I’m not entirely sure which of the three chapters of the Lord of the Rings series is my favorite, but I’ve always leaned a bit towards this one.  I enjoyed Return of the King but always felt it got a little too bogged down in less-consequential characters.  So, it’s close between Fellowship and The Two Towers.  I really appreciate the more intimate feel of Fellowship and thoroughly enjoy its well-executed character development.  But the well-balanced nature of The Two Towers puts it about a half-step above it, I believe.  It doesn’t really matter, though.  This is the second entry in a legendary trilogy and no film fan’s collection is complete without a copy.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


Original US release date: December 19, 2001
Production budget: $93,000,000
Worldwide gross: $871,530,324

We are creeping up on the fifteenth anniversary of the first installment in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long since Frodo stood tall and set out on his quest to save Middle Earth from the ever-looming threat of Sauron.  But he couldn’t do it alone.  And therefore the Fellowship was born.

I’m not sure which of the three Lord of the Rings films is my favorite; they all have unique elements that the others don’t, setting each of them apart from the others.  Fellowship lives up to its title and is the most personal film of the three.  Friendships are formed, tested, and ended.  It’s about as small-scale as a film of this type could be.  That sounds like an unusual word to use to describe such a huge film, but I find it appropriate.  Though there are a lot of characters and battles in this initial chapter, Fellowship is driven by what’s happening on the inside, not what we can actually see with our eyes.

The story begins when the great wizard, Gandalf the grey (Ian McKellan), becomes aware of the growing danger of the evil Sauron, long thought vanquished.  Gandalf takes a proactive stance and begins to assemble a fellowship to take the source of Sauron’s strength, the One Ring of Power, and destroy it in the only known possible manner: by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom.

The fellowship consists of nine members: four Hobbits, a dwarf, an elf, two men, and an Istari (Gandalf).  Their relationships and interactions are the heart of this first chapter of the story.  The characters are what hooks the general audience – the unconverted who have never and will never crack open a J.R.R. Tolkien tome.  The fellowship isn’t full of perfect people, but they’re believable and endearing.  Only Boromir (Sean Bean) garners true suspicion, which is the core of his character arc.

And each of these characters have their own arc, which is pretty astounding.  For those who make it far enough, their arcs breach two or three films.  But, regardless of life span, no character is simply window dressing.  Everyone has a role in the greater mythology, which is one of the things that makes the saga so beloved.

Upon its release, The Fellowship of the Ring received mounds of praise for its visual effects, due in part to the entirely computer-generated character, Gollum (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis).  Technology has advanced in the fifteen years since Gollum first appeared but, even by today’s standards, he still holds up well, though he appears very little in this first installment and really became the talk of the town after The Two Towers.  In Fellowship, more so than Gollum, there are epic battles that tingle the spine and there are creatures galore.  The Orcs are a sight to behold and would be convincing in a real-world setting.  My favorite sequence in the entire six-film mythology (counting the trilogy of The Hobbit films) is that which takes place in the Mines of Moria.  Moria features one of the aforementioned battles, an impressive troll, and the ominous Balrog.  As great as the film is regarding the important things (story, character, etc.), it’s also a thrilling spectacle that throws one challenge after another at our heroes.

The design of the film is unmatched on every level: costume, set, character . . . all of it is beautiful and immersive.  Director Peter Jackson and the location scouts earned their pay when they decided upon filming in New Zealand (it was also extraordinarily inexpensive to film there.  Take a look at that shockingly modest budget up above!).  If I could live in any fictional town or city, it would absolutely be the elven village of Rivendell.  Middle Earth feels like an actual world, fully-realized and brought to us courtesy of Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Being the first of a planned three-part story, The Fellowship of the Ring naturally leaves unresolved plot elements, but it also does a nice job of telling a self-contained story.  There’s no cliffhanger, per se; there’s just more story to tell.  But this one – the story of the fellowship of nine – is encapsulated here in its entirety.  Along the way, the film features everything a good film should and the audience vicariously experiences the highs and the lows through these perfectly developed people.  You rejoice in their victories and agonize over their defeats.  And you want to see more.  As I said, I’m not sure which chapter in this tale is my favorite (all three were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Award, with The Return of the King winning), but The Fellowship of the Ring probably holds the dearest place in my heart.  It has my favorite scene, keeps the focus on characters and relationships, and – quite simply – has the benefit of being the first part, thereby feeling fresh and unlike anything that had come before.  Audiences may be jaded now, but Fellowship is a classic that will live on forever and threw down the gauntlet in raising expectations for giant tentpole films.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring