The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

Return of the King

“Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”

I’ve concluded the trilogy, making this the first full trilogy of films that I’ve written about. Lord of the Rings has always been an epic accomplishment in my mind, and I’m glad I got the chance to watch them again. If I were to watch these movies another time, I think I would want to read the books first. There are far too many details casually mentioned and then later referenced with plot significance that I constantly asked myself if I had missed something while watching this final installment. Maybe that’s on me, or maybe it’s on the film itself. Regardless, I really liked Return of the King.

The concluding film of the saga follows the final lap of Frodo’s adventure to bring the One Ring to Mordor to toss it into a volcano. I think this is the clear centerpiece of the movie, the part that I’m most excited to watch, but a lot of other things happen as well. Aragorn rises to the occasion to become the leader he was destined to be. Mary and Pippin fight a few things. Sometimes the elves look wistfully past the camera, concerned about something or another. It’s a big, epic, conclusion to a beloved sequence of films. For the most part, I find it really effective.

Return of the King gets a lot of flack, though, for its multiple endings. It seems Peter Jackson just couldn’t say goodbye to his beloved trilogy, or maybe the books just play out like this as well, but this movie could have ended five or six times. It’s a common criticism, but I’m not sure I agree with it. The movie is very long, but I actually found the pacing to be the most tolerable of the three, and each of the endings are a fun conclusion on an integral plot point. There are bigger plot gripes I had, some similar to those I had with the Two Towers: several more “crying because someone looks like they’re dead but actually aren’t” moments being a major culprit. The nonsense with the Eagles is also just poor storytelling whichever way you spin it.

But look at me, being all cynical about such a beloved trilogy. Again, I’d like to assure you that I am just as impressed by the scope and magnitude of the Lord of the Rings movies as most everyone else, and I really enjoyed them. I think these movies are near-perfect for those who have read the books and want to see every twitch of a character’s nose played out on screen. Jackson handles this source material as well as anyone could, but I sadly would have liked twenty minutes or so of cutting. There’s a lot of tedium to get to the meat of this story, and it dilutes the payoff for me.

That being said, this may be the best of the three movies in terms of its strongest moments. Aragorn feels like a true hero by the end of the film, and his coronation is a fantastic scene and a rightful sendoff for that character. The Sam and Frodo stuff is still pulling from a familiar well at the beginning (whether or not to trust Gollum), but it really takes off towards the end, making for a juicy conclusion to a fantasy epic of this scale. The onscreen friendship between the two is also downright powerful, and I always found myself hoping the next scene would cut back to them.

Though I think there’s some imbalance in quality between scenes, I think one of the best things about these movies is the wholeness that comes through laying it all out as Jackson does. As I’ve discussed previously, every character’s strength makes up for another’s weakness. The Fellowship may have disbanded literally, but the spirit of cooperation is still present, and every piece of this machine feels absolutely necessary to the rewarding ending. Return of the King, and the two films before it, have changed filmmaking. It’s a trilogy of greatness that does not disappoint.

And with that, twelve hours later, I can finally check off The Lord of the Rings. 


Films Left to Watch: 875

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Alien (1979)

Alien

“A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

In light of the new movie dropping this summer, I decided to pull the original Alien off the shelf and take a look at the movie that started not only a franchise but an entire subgenre of modern sci-fi horror. The premise of this movie incorporates some of my favorite story features, and expert craftsmanship from Ridley Scott launches this movie into a higher plane of enjoyment for me. Its one of the most exciting films I’ve seen lately, and I hope that Alien: Covenant can pick up on a few lessons from this classic movie.

Alien depicts the commercial space vessel Nostromo as it makes its return back to Earth. Strangely, its crew members are awakened from stasis when the ship’s computer recognizes a distress signal, leading the crew to stumble upon a planet with alien life. Although they flee to their ship, an alien presence has found its way onto the Nostromo, and Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) must find a way to stay alive when faced against a ferocious alien life form lurking throughout the vessel and an incompetent ship of crew members making survival all the more difficult.

I feel that most horror movies come down to a balancing act: How well can you deliver thrills while also keeping your audience guessing? Most horror movies I see in theaters measure up poorly, and they hit you over the head with predictable beats in every scene. I often wonder if there was any creative inspiration for some of these movies or if the filmmaking process has simply stifled a director’s vision along the way. They all seem like trailers for themselves, and they’re endlessly frustrating for this reason. Alien is not only the exception, but its the gold standard for this balancing act.

From the first moment of Alien, the creeping camera exploring the empty spaceship, you’re invested in this environment. The Nostromo is a pressure cooker from which mayhem can erupt at any corner. From the first time the crew members break quarantine protocol against Ripley’s orders, you know something is coming. Something is on this ship. A horror movie can never hide that something is coming. Where Alien succeeds is when that something comes. The pacing is brilliant, and it evokes maximum scares with its admirable sense of restraint.

I also found myself fascinated with Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal on this viewing. There’s something outside the norm about Weaver. Her powerful voice and heavy screen presence simply demand your attention, and her character is written to maximize these strengths from the actress. You stand by Weaver early on due to her strength and intelligence, and this devotion to the protagonist never seems to falter. The other crew members, however, seem to deserve their fates. In this sense, Alien is a cautionary tale. Listen to Sigourney Weaver or die. And nobody listens.

I’m also really intrigued by the sexual imagery that Alien is famous for. Scholars have asserted that the film is a progressive take on sexual assault, and the imagery is hard to deny. An interview with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon reveals his intent was to “attack the audience sexually,” and every scene seems to adhere to this philosophy. The movie is forceful, refusing to pull punches or to lessen its impact on the audience. Straight-on camera angles and near-Cronenberg levels of body horror are key components of a pervasive visual style. Every death is visceral, and it conveys a primal, sexual horror that sinks into your subconscious as you experience the movie.

Alien is brilliant, and I’m delighted that I get to write about its very different sequel, which I plan to do soon. For now, I’ll sign off with an affirmation that Alien is a benchmark of horror thrillers. It continues to be studied and imitated because it’s so damn smart, and it’s hard to imagine today’s horror genre without it.


Films Left to Watch: 876

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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Two Towers

“Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer.”

I have to say, I’ve faced a weird phenomenon when watching these Lord of the Rings movies. With some time to clear my head, I think back more fondly on them. I think it’s easy to remember the great parts about these movies. With The Two Towers, it’s the Frodo scenes with Sam and Gollum that come to mind exclusively. Maybe I’m just getting cynical about movies that work on a blockbuster scale, but I’d much rather watch some softer character interaction than that Helm’s Deep battle. But when I sit down to write about The Two Towers, all that comes to my mind is the good and not the bad. I don’t know if that speaks well on the movie or not, but I felt this should be expressed. Anyway, this is part two of three in my Tolkien expedition.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers follows the continued ventures of Frodo (Elijah Wood), a young Hobbit meandering around to return the One Ring to the fires of Mordor from whence it came. He was previously joined by a bunch of other heroes, but they’ve split up by now, so this movie has a lot of them meandering around as well. Meanwhile, some bad guys are meandering around, and it seems like all hope is lost until the right people meander into the right people, turning the tides in this captivating conflict.

I kid, of course, because this movie is still nothing short of astounding. The scale of production and the detailed world-building are of the highest quality, but I spoke about all of that last time. What really got to me while watching this film was how much you have to excuse away if you’re not a Tolkien fan. I think The Two Towers brings the “they’re not actually dead count” up to four or five, and I think that’s pretty inexcusable for any movie. The story is epic, and it’s incredibly entertaining for the most part, but it’s these holes in the storytelling that keep these movies from being a masterpiece in my mind.

The Aragorn story is well depicted, but I’m not sure it could stand on its own, for example. Granted, this trilogy is very much about scale and how each player represents a piece of the grand scheme, but these pieces are definitely not equal in quality. I found myself waiting for Frodo to come back onscreen for long stretches of time. His dynamic with Sam and Gollum is so enticing that everything else seems like fluff at times. I haven’t read the books, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the movie’s target audience, so I feel fair in addressing some of these weaknesses.

That being said, The Two Towers is still a delightful movie, improving upon Fellowship in a lot of regards. Peter Jackson doesn’t have to waste any time with exposition, which is why fantasy stories always take a while to get off the ground in the first place. This feels like the meat of the sandwich: the piece of the story that Tolkien really wanted to dive into. I stayed away from the Director’s Cut this time around, and in doing so, I think the movie was very well paced, despite some slower moments. Helm’s Deep is still an exciting climax that keeps any “second act trouble” at bay, and all the characters feel even more realized than they did in Fellowship. It’s pure, unfiltered, Lord of the Rings, and it’s among the best of its kind.

I can’t shake the cynicism I had with this watch, but I suppose my Fellowship review was where I made the positive points, so I’d direct you there for more words of praise. These movies are a treasure of cinema and a valuable road map of epic storytelling. I’m really looking forward to the concluding film, as long as it provides a disclaimer that nobody else comes back to life.


Films Left to Watch: 877

(Again, the count doesn’t go down until I finish Return of the King.)

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Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan

“Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.”

I’ve stated in the past my love for the obsessive, ambitious young protagonist. Whether it’s Whiplash, The Social Network, or even the much darker Black Swan, there’s a common thread of passion and desperation that gives these movies a daring sense of humanity. It’s no surprise that Darren Aronofsky takes a more cerebral, kinetic approach to this framework in one of the most visually engaging movies of the last decade.

Natalie Portman portrays Nina Sayers, a ballet performer in a prestigious New York dance company. When company director Thomas Lorey (Vincent Cassel) announces an upcoming production of Swan Lake, Nina aims to be cast as the White Swan. Her real challenge, however, is becoming the darker, more corrupt counterpartthe Black Swan. The company meanwhile welcomes another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who best embodies the traits of the Black Swan, creating tension between herself and Nina as a strange friendship develops between them.

There’s a lot at play in Black Swan, but I’m surprised how easily Aronofsky breaks apart the story and introduces its themes in a straight-forward manner. The movie has a reputation as a strange, psychological horror feature. There’s a case to be made for all of those labels, but I think a common misconception about Black Swan is that it’s confusing or simply abstract. It’s a film about a lot of things, but the majority of those things aren’t really up for debate. We see the breakdown of the obsessive artist, her corruption through sexuality, and the ruthless nature of a cutthroat culture where only the strongest rise to the top and nobody lasts long. It’s concise and highly effective.

The imagery is heavy-handed, but I think it works beautifully. Nina’s story undoubtedly parallels the Swan Lake opera, going so far that the end credits of the movie attribute each actor with their counterpart from the original opera. Portman is a perfect White Swan, pure and untainted at the start. Aronofsky does a great job in the ballet scenes of showing us Nina’s technical skill while also alluding to her greatest weakness as pointed out by Vincent Cassel’s character: a lack of passion. Kunis, on the other hand, delivers what I think is her strongest performance to date. She feels genuine, down-to-earth, and powerful in a sexual way. It’s a nuanced take on the “Black Swan” representation that isn’t necessarily malicious; it just feels more primal and compelling. The movie is also ripe with black/white imagery, (The color of Nina’s clothing holds meaning in every scene, if my interpretation is correct.) and there’s all kinds of visual details to look out for when you’re experiencing the movie.

I remember hearing some weird buzz about Black Swan when it came out years ago, but I can say with confidence that it’s a technical triumph. It sinks pretty far into its dark visuals and rarely hits the brakes on its tension which is probably why it isn’t the most accessible movie. Even so, I think Black Swan is remarkably rewatchable if you’re in the right mindset for it, and I it’s one of Aronofsky’s most exciting movies. It’s right up my alley, and I’d love to see more movies like it.


Films Left to Watch: 877

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Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo

” Did you ever see an elephant fly?”

Nobody talks about Dumbo much these days. I remember seeing this movie as a kid, but I probably haven’t thought about it for years until I spotted it on my list with a tantalizing 60 minute runtime. Strangely enough, the film was made with the sole purpose of recouping losses from the box office failure of Fantasia, which may explain its simple concept and short length. With only an hour to kill, I tried to immerse myself in yet another early landmark of Disney animation.

The film follows the story of Dumbo, a circus elephant born with comically sized ears. He is ridiculed by his fellow animals, save for his kind mother (Verna Felton) and his snappy mouse friend Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy). Towards the end of the film, Dumbo discovers that his eccentricities might be his greatest benefit – because, you know, he can fly. It’s a short, effective story that hits some familiar beats but stands out with its charm and visual flair.

I thought the most noteworthy part was the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment, a hallucination experienced by Dumbo where he accidentally becomes intoxicated on alcohol-fused water. The roughly five minute scene perhaps serves as a time-filler, a plot separator after which Dumbo realizes he can fly when he wakes up from the nightmare in a tree. The scene itself is strange, and the alcohol connotation makes it pretty dark for a kids movie. You wouldn’t see anything like it today, but it’s definitely a neat indication of the period that these segments could be hamfisted in a movie. It reminds me of the “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, although “Pink Elephants” is rightfully more concerned about overstaying its welcome.

The film’s release was just a month after that of Citizen Kane, so it’s fun to note that both films were the high point of their respective genres in 1941. In terms of Disney animation, I’d still prefer Dumbo to Snow White which came out a few years earlier; it has less substance than Snow White but I find it more focused and entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis. Both of these films do contain a lot of meandering and lack of direction in their plots, which may be why I couldn’t get too invested in either of them. Undeniably though, the movie loses none of Disney’s quality.

Dumbo is an interesting relic of its time, and perhaps credit should be given for how well it holds up today. It would easily keep a child entertained, even one that might be accustomed to more modern styles of storytelling, and I think this is a testament to the care that went into Disney movies around this period. Even if you can’t get on board with the concept, there’s still a smart direction to the movie that keeps it artistically beautiful to watch. All in all, Disney has certainly done better since 1941, but this movie was a great sign of progress in getting there.


Films Left to Watch: 878

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Fargo (1996)

Fargo

“There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”

When you watch a lot of Coen brothers movies, it’s easy to spot the patterns. “A regular person gets wrapped up in the world of crime” seems to be the starting point for just about every film, along some other classic Joel and Ethan tropes. These guys haven’t made a lot of bad movies, but some are easily better than others, and that’s dependent on a lot of factors. I think I love Fargo for a lot of the same reasons I love No Country for Old Men: the world-building, the quirky details, and the thematic drive that gives each movie its soul, something you rarely find in similar movies.

In the cold but courteous town of Fargo, North Dakota, Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) seeks a large sum of money for a lucrative real estate deal. He gets involved with a pair of criminals whom he hires to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd), hoping to profit off the ransom that her father will pay. When complications arise on the other end and his wife doesn’t return home safely, Lundergaard is investigated by the savvy Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who aims to get to the bottom of these unfortunate circumstances.

Fargo is clearly the Coens’ best atmosphere piece. Not just the local scope of the story and the entrancing regional dialects, but the cinematography conveys heaps of information about this region and the people who inhabit it without a line of dialogue necessary. This then leads to what I believe is the film’s biggest strength: the contrasts. This is a movie about a wholesome town, nearly pure white, that is tainted by intruders. The geographical differences seem to depict a moral struggle at the center of the movie, one that isn’t too heavy-handed but comes through powerfully nonetheless. It’s easy to forget how much this movie has to say until the very end when Frances McDormand emerges as a shining figure of morality, fending off evil and protecting her home.

On a moment-to-moment level, Fargo also yields more positive reactions for me than a lot of Coen films. The humor arises beautifully from each situation and not just from scripted jokes, and the movie strikes a fun balance between weighty and casual from scene to scene. The movie was also perfectly cast, with Steven Buscemi bringing a slimy, engaging performance opposite Peter Stormare. We get to spend a lot of time with the two criminals, and it helps round out the film’s cautionary tale, exhibiting once more that ambition should never come before humanity, a lesson that many characters end up learning the hard way.

This is a movie ripe with other star-making performances, and it’s great that so many of these actors got to work together again on future Coen projects. I think Frances McDormand is the most engaging performer in the film. She builds such a quirky, unique charm in her character such that you can’t take your eyes off her in any scene. William H. Macy is also given free reign in what is probably his most well-suited role: a character that desperately doesn’t want to be a loser anymore. It’s a specific niche, but he pulls it off better than any actor could (with Boogie Nights being another example).

This is a soothing but captivating film, one that you could turn on for nearly any mood. The Coens demonstrate near technical perfection, but they allow the film to be guided by heart instead of mind, making it one of their most memorable works. Endlessly rewatchable and packed with stunning scenes, Fargo is a really impressive movie that I would recommend as anyone’s introduction into the work of the Coens.


Films Left to Watch: 879

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Seconds (1966)

Seconds

“The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want. Things! Not people, or meaning, just things.”

I’m a big fan of The Twilight Zone, and I’ve always been drawn to concepts that imitate its style. It’s as if American cinema was forever changed in the 60s following the success of the series, and we finally started to see these strange, high concept movies that place the individual in an alternate state of existence. Most importantly, though, these stories always have something to say about the normal world, the one in which we live. Seconds is a film I really enjoyed because it plays out exactly in this style, though I think it’s far from perfect.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a successful but unfulfilled man with a struggling marriage and a bleak daily life. His situation is forever changed when he receives a phone call from a friend whom he thought was dead. Hamilton is informed of a mysterious organization that will provide him with a “fresh start” in life. What follows is a psychologically fascinating sci-fi fantasy with a strong commentary on personal fulfillment, perspective, and the people most important to us. This is one of those movies where the unraveling of the plot is a big portion of the payoff, so I won’t delve much deeper into the story.

Seconds is a slow film but one in which a lot of things happen. It resides in a chilling middle ground where the scenes take their time to play out while still spewing ample plot information. From the outset, this builds a creepy mood. Seconds is both a mystery and a social experiment, and this contrast can be uncomfortable at times. It’s not a relaxing film, and I think you have to be in the right mood to take it in, but it’s well worth your time just to view it technically. The film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, and there’s an unwavering direction from John Frankenheimer that makes me optimistic to view his more famous works.

While I enjoyed the film, I can’t say it’s completely successful in what it sets out to do. It has a lot of flair which I think can detract from the story. At its core, I think Seconds works best when it’s about a man trying to figure out how he should live his life. There are times when this theme is thrown to the wayside for something creepy or strange, and while it builds this effective mood that I’ve mentioned above, I think the story could have been given more attention. The protagonist’s brief fling with the woman from the beach stands out as one example of this. It’s definitely a surreal sequence between the two characters, but it can feel hollow and too “cinematic” when it should be more personal.

On the whole, Seconds is a really fun movie which plays out a formula that I’ll never tire of watching. It’s dark, brooding, and unapologetic in its commitment to the absurdities of life. I hope to see more films like it in the future, just maybe written a bit more carefully.


Films Left to Watch: 880

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