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Ad Astra (2019)

I knew early on when I was watching the advertisement for writer/director James Grey’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) that this was going to be more a quiet, slower, contemplative movie than the ads were making it seem. Hey, I like quiet, slower, contemplative movies, but I like the ones where they give me an entry point, a reason to care, and a story with characters that make me feel compelled to watch what happens next. Ad Astra does not quite rise to that level.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in a near future with a special mission: to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The father left Earth decades ago to search for intelligent life and develop an alternative energy source. His discovery has unleashed a series of destabilizing power surges across Earth. Roy is ordered to travel to the outer reaches of Neptune and discover what has happened to his father and his crew who have stopped communicating. If necessary, he is to use all options to correct the problem, including taking his dear deadbeat dad’s life.

Ad Astra is probably the most realistic portrayal of what space travel cold be like in the near future. It’s a grounded approach that feels very detail-oriented without necessarily losing the audience in the schematic output of all those details. It reminded me a bit of a companion piece with last year’s First Man, where the audience saw all the ingenuity, as well as makeshift dangers, of early space flight. The interiors of these space ships and bases are far closer to resembling the plain days of early NASA than anything fancy and gleaming when it comes to futuristic science fiction. When Roy is walking around a giant tower reaching high into the atmosphere, it feels like you are there with him experiencing the dizzying heights, locked into his human-sized perspective of something so massive and intimidating, and it’s merely man-made. Wait until we get to the heavenly bodies. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends the film an authenticity as well as the amazing solar visuals from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). The scale of space is really felt as Roy keeps venturing further and further away from home, into the cold darkness of the unknown, towards that missing father and sense of resolution. The visuals and stately special effects are beautiful and given an additional level of ethereal glory from a score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). It’s a lovely movie to sit back and watch, and thanks to its episodic structure, it delivers something new every twenty minutes or less. The movie can feel more than a little tedious as it stretches out into the cosmos. There’s something to be said about a film that has the patience to take in the splendor of the universe, and there’s also something to be said about having a more significant story to pair with those awe-inspiring cosmic panoramas.

My issue with Ad Astra is that everything feels to be locked in at a very general level of substance. The story of a son voyaging to meet his absentee father and come to terms with that relationship is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of a main character living in his famous yet distant father’s shadows is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of exploring life in the universe is fine, except the movies doesn’t do so much with that either. It feels like you’re watching what must have amounted to twenty pages of script spread out over the course of two hours. If it’s going to be a character study, then I need more attention spent deepening Pitt’s character beyond the pretty rote daddy issues on display. If it’s going to be a contemplative exploration of man’s place in the universe, then I need more sides and angles of perspective throughout the movie. There are no real supporting characters in this movie outside of guest appearances (Hey, it’s Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland). The father figure is kept more as looming idea or force of nature than human being. Roy’s wife (a barely there Liv Tyler) is more a recorded visual of regret to remind the audience of Roy’s loss and sacrifice, relating to his pursuit of his father. The entire film feels far too sketched in, archetypal, and generalized to noodle around with weighty ideas and concepts that it doesn’t seem fully committed to exploring in meaningful ways.

The problem with a narrative that’s episodic is that not every episode is as interesting. Each Pitt stop (oh, you bet I’m intending that pun) allows a slightly different tale to emerge, but then it’s over and done and we’re moving onward. With Apocalypse Now, those episodes came together to tell a larger mosaic about the madness of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it was taking. I was not getting that same kind of cohesion with Ad Astra. The most exciting episode involves a lunar chase and shootout. It’s cleverly executed and makes strong use of the limitations of space, in particular the lack of sound. One second your co-pilot is at the wheel and the next he has a soundless bullet hole through the head. It was an intriguing segment because of the unique realities of staging its genre car chase that open up something familiar into something new. Unfortunately, many of these episodic segments just incrementally push the story along, pairing Roy with a new group of people that we’ll shed in fifteen minutes or so. Don’t get attached to anybody because the only characters that really matter in the universe of Ad Astra are Roy and his father. Every other character is merely a representation of some aspect of their relationship. It makes the smaller episodes feel a bit mundane unless they have something fresh, like that lunar chase. Otherwise, it’s more people we’ll be soon getting rid of doing inconsequential tasks.

Removing the dominant father/son relationship, Ad Astra is a movie about the search for meaning in life. Roy’s father has exclusively put that meaning upon the discovery of intelligent life in the universe. If human beings are all there is, he questions what’s the point of going on? First off, Mr. McBride is only exploring one portion of space and to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, there’s a “big-ass” amount of space. If the man fails to detect any signs of intelligent life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, it only means it hasn’t been found where one person was looking (the Missing Keys Dilemma). On a philosophical note, even if humanity was all there was in the great wide expanse of space, that doesn’t make our existence any less remarkable. If we happen to be the lone representatives of intelligent life, born from heat and rock and millions of years of trial and error getting it just right, then that’s incredible. There are so many variables going against the existence of life on our tiny bubble of air out in the vast vacuum of space, and just because we lucked in and others have yet does not take away from the appreciation and majesty of humanity’s prized situation. Do we put our meaning outside of ourselves or develop our sense of meaning from within? I cannot say whether Ad Astra is keeping this storyline so vague and generalized so that is can stand-in for spirituality, the idea of looking for proof of a higher intelligence, a God, and finding meaning in a grander design rather than the chaos and luck of chemistry and evolution. Or does Roy’s father represent God and Roy is man confronting an absentee creator? Under that interpretation, the ending might make a little more sense, but again I’m doing the movie’s work for it by projecting meaning.

It’s pretty much a one man show and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is asked to do a lot without showing much. His character is a reserved man by nature, though that doesn’t stop him from explaining his inner thoughts through intrusive voice over narration, an addition that feels tacked-on after some test screening to better acquaint an audience that was having difficulty staying on board. Pitt is an actor capable of tremendous subtleties through his movie star good looks, and he has moments here where his eyes are telling the story that the movie doesn’t seem interested or committed to tell. If you were going to spend two hours in space with one actor, you could do far worse than someone like Pitt.

Ad Astra is more art film than thriller, more father-son reclamation than sci-fi, and more a drifting homage to Apocalypse Now in Space than something that can stand on its own merits. The expansive cosmic visuals are luxurious on the big screen, the level of detail toward the realities of space travel are appreciated, and Pitt is a sturdy anchor for the project, but what does it all come to? Everything is kept at such a generalized level that the movie feels like it’s skirting the surface and ignoring larger depth. It has a surfeit of directions and choices it can make for greater depth, but we have to keep on trucking, like a ticking clock, entirely constructed to serve one purpose, barreling toward the father/son confrontation and resolution. Except I didn’t care about Roy’s dad because I didn’t feel the impact he had on his son, I didn’t feel the need for some form of closure, the driving force of the movie’s big little universe. And yet we drift onward, like the boat in Apocalypse Now, heading for our destination because we’re told to do so. Ad Astra is an acceptable matinee with some well applied technical craft and a bleak sense of realism but it’s ultimately too empty of an experience to warrant any return trips of value.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Robot & Frank (2012)

It’s the age-old story about an elderly man (Frank Langella) suffering from Alzheimer’s who teaches his robot helper to be his partner in jewelry heists. While that sounds a lot more fantastic than the movie we eventually get, Robot & Frank is a mellow, sincere, and overall nice movie that treats the particulars of its world with a wry sense of whimsy. The movie is really a mismatched buddy film as Frank is hostile to being forced to live with robotic help, but soon the two of them form the basis of a friendship, and when things get dangerous it’s heartwarming the lengths they’ll go to save the other. Give the Alzheimer’s subject, expect some twists in the final act concerning Frank’s world. The movie wants to hit us emotionally but I felt mostly remote, smirking at some of the fun of the old codger back in the burglary business of his youth. But the film just stays at a very even-keel level of emotional resonance, drawing us in but not exactly taking us anywhere. The ending is curiously without any sort of comforting resolution that could have put a solid piece of punctuation on the film’s emotional drama. Langella, it should be said, is excellent. Robot & Frank is a high-concept buddy film, fairly pleasant and entertaining but when it comes to a close you may wish that the film had relied less on chaste understatement.

Nate’s Grade: B

Super (2011)

Super is a different kind of superhero movie. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither) has crafted a story that attempts to deconstruct the superhero fantasy. In his story, the people that put on the costumes to fight crime are just as dangerous as the criminals.

Frank (Rainn Wilson) has two memories he can hold onto as his life’s highlights: marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler), a former drug addict, and assisting the police in finding a crook. He works as a short order cook and dreams of being something more. Then local crime lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon) comes into Frank’s home, eats his eggs, compliments him on his cooking of said eggs, and then walks off with Sarah. He’s been gotten her hooked back on drugs. Frank tries to rescue her but Jacques and his goons (Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn) won’t let him get anywhere close to his wife. Then Frank becomes inspired. He feels that God has spoken to him and instructed him to become a crime-fighting super hero, the Crimson Bolt. With a wrench, Frank patrols his streets looking for crime to vanquish and a way to thwart Jacques. Along the way he gets help from Libby (Ellen Page), a 22-year-old girl who works in a comic book store. She jumps at the chance to live out her super hero fantasies and elects herself to be Frank’s sidekick, Boltie. Together they plot to clean up their city and maybe enjoy some of the perks of superhero-dom.

Super mines familiar territory scene in other movies, the what-if scenario of what might transpire if people put on some tights and attempted to fight crime. Unlike last year’s similarly themed Kick-Ass, this is a movie that refrains from overt style. It does not portray Frank as a hero in any traditional sense. Gunn takes great pains to showcase the frayed mental state of his main character. Frank is troubled, seriously troubled. His attempts to escape his reality are borderline dangerous and his violent attacks are without warrant. I watched this movie shortly after seeing the suitable violent Hobo with a Shotgun (good pairing, folks), and the tone of the violence between the two films was starkly different. Hobo‘s violence is meant to make you laugh; Super is meant to make you wince, then laugh in a “Oh my God” kind of alarm. In Super, the extreme bouts of violence, which are not as prevalent as in Hobo, are meant to make you think how stunningly dangerous Frank and Libby are. When somebody cuts in line at a movie theater, the rest of the people react in disgruntled anger. But Frank goes into his car, changes his clothes, comes back as the Crimson Bolt and declares, “You don’t cut in line,” and strikes the guilty party across the face with his trusted wrench. The crowd is freaked out, naturally. These revenge fantasies are taken to the limits, and Frank has decided that everyone deserves the same punishment for breaking the rules of society whether they be a drug dealer or a line jumper (“You don’t butt in line! You don’t steal! You don’t molest little children! You don’t deal drugs! The rules haven’t changed!”). Frank follows in the same vein of disturbed social justice as Travis Bickle.

The characters are played straight, which only highlights their demented oddball qualities even more. Wilson is a strong comedic actor as he showcases week after week on TVs The Office. He’s always had something of a unique “off” quality to him, be it presence or looks or demeanor. It allows him to slip into cracked characters so easily. Frank is a troubled individual, but there’s something sympathetic about his plight to finally assert himself in the world and stand up to forces that he feels have victimized him. He’s a sad guy, lonely, deeply insecure, feels impotent to the world, and yet he can put on a costume and work out his varied psychological issues. Wilson can be terrifying, deadpanned hilarious, and even potentially touching as he desperately seeks a life filled with moments he can be proud of.

But it’s the little firecracker that is Page (Juno, Inception) that makes Super come alive with risk. Page’s performance is bristling with uncontrollable energy; she practically shakes with excitement over becoming a superhero sidekick and leaving her boring reality. Then, when they actually do kill bad guys, she jumps around, taunting at the top of her voice, chuckling at a level of violence that should be disquieting to most normal human beings. That’s because Page, in particular, has tapped into her character’s manic wish-fulfillment role-playing persona. What would faze people makes me laugh and hop around in impish joy, because she is laying out her idea of justice. And Page is joyous to watch. She’s so excited onscreen that her words practically trip over themselves. And then there’s the superhero sexual angle. This is the first movie, by far, where I ever viewed the elfin actress in a sexual manner. And with Gunn’s film being what it is, prepare for some strange discomfort. Libby tries to seduce her superhero partner into being a partner of a different sort, and she leaves the sidekick suit on.

The tone is meant to make you squirm and laugh under your breath through gritted teeth. Seeing Frank legitimately hurt people can be funny in a bleak sense, and the delusions of the main characters and their inept execution as superheroes certainly adds plenty of chuckles. When Frank tells his newest sidekick that they’re going to fight crime, she’s bouncing off the walls in happiness. That is until she discovers “fighting crime” means sitting in an alley and just waiting for crime to materialize. “This is so boring,” she groans. Frank’s oft-repeated catch phrase of empowerment, while swinging his wrench of justice, is: “Shut up, crime!” But then he later starts to reconsider his place in the order of society, reflecting upon his brute force actions and whether he too has become a criminal in the pursuit of battling evil (“How can I tell crime to shut up if I have to shut up?”). The side stories involving the evangelical TV superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) are a hoot. They’re even funnier when you consider that Frank uses these outlandish bits of corny Christian message-delivery as confirmation from God. For those looking for some Kick-Ass kicks, they will be sorely disappointed until the violent confrontation between good (Frank and Libby?) vs. evil (Jacques and his minions).

Super isn’t so much of a superhero parody as a morally queasy, crazy, discomforting comedy of the darkest sort. Gunn’s film shows that people with unchecked superhero fantasies can be just as dangerous as the criminals they seek to penalize. Gunn de-romanticizes the concept of vigilantism. Wilson and Page make a fun pair of superheroes with a few screws loose themselves. This is a different kind of superhero movie, the type that shows how dangerous and ridiculous and insane the fantasy can be in a real world where the bad guys have guns and a short fuse. Gunn’s Troma-fied super story has plenty of dark laughs, uncomfortable moments, and nutball characters. I don’t even fully know what to think about the film. Do I really like this? Am I supposed to? Is this all entertaining or just uncomfortable? Is it an entertaining form of discomfort? Does the ending, which aims for emotion, work, or has the film burned too many bridges and fried too many nerves to attempt something tonally different? Super probably won’t win any new converts to the genre, and I imagine its bleak laughs will push many away, but the film also has a car-crash watchability. I do not mean that in a backhanded way. Super keeps you watching but you don’t know if you want to.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Maybe the American public just doesn’t care for the jolly green giant. The second incarnation of a big screen Hulk flick is better paced, with more action sequences and better special effects, but I just kept shrugging my shoulders the whole time. I was never truly engaged by the movie at any point. Edward Norton fills the role of Bruce Banner for the second go-round and does an admirable job. The climax involving one giant CGI monster battling another giant CGI monster gets tiresome. This is a fairly middle of the road movie that might pass the time but does little else with style.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Reign Over Me (2007)

Adam Sandler in a serious drama? Well it worked in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, but that was aided by Paul Thomas Anderson deconstructing the typical Sandler goofball in his glut of crude yet successful comedies. Can Sandler work his thespian skills in a story not tailor-made for him? I think writer/director Mike Binder’s 9/11 human drama, Reign Over Me, is proof that Sandler can step outside his popular persona for a worthy cause. But this movie isn’t it.

Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is an ordinary dentist living his family life in Manhattan. Then one day he spots his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), zipping along on an electric scooter. He looks drastically different than Alan remembers, and this is because Charlie?s wife and children, and even his dog, were on one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Charlie?s life now consists of a new adolescence where he does what he wants because of the insurance money, so he plays video games late at night, goes to see Mel Brooks retrospectives, and keeps remodeling his kitchen over and over. He is without friends and refuses to even think about any painful memories. Alan takes it upon himself to help his former dentist school pal confront his grief and get back on his feet.

The varying elements never truly mesh, and Reign Over Me has a very haphazard, clumsy feel as it never comes to a firm landing. There’s a mixture of the serious and the sitcom, and both elements go together as well as vodka and motor oil — sure it may work in the immediate but couldn’t it be much better? Many of the connections feel tenuous and it’s hard to care about certain storylines, especially the film’s preoccupation with Alan’s midlife malaise. Are we supposed to be in Alan’s corner as he argues his adult life sucks because women at the office throw themselves at him and his wife wants him to open up? Am I really supposed to believe the film’s assertion that he covets the freedom of a 9/11 widower? Reign Over Me never shifts gears smoothly when it comes to tone. The audience is left to question why this story needs to be told through the prism of a bored dentist. It never truly feels right.

Charlie isn’t just bummed out, he is severely damaged from the shock of 9/11; this is far beyond post-traumatic. At several points he just freaks into violent fits out for no discernible reason, but people still tolerate him and don’t call for greater help. It would be naive to think that one friend could fix all of the psychological horrors of one man, but then you remember this is a movie. Charlie could use some serious meds. Friendship is important, but Reign Over Me toys with the object of abject loss without delving too deep, instead feeling that one good crying confessional and a terribly manipulative and unbelievable court battle will sum everything up.

I think that feeling was pervasive for me while watching Reign Over Me was that I felt toyed with. The drama takes a long time to wind down and even then it settles on surface-level solutions that always seem so easy in movies. Many of the comedic elements feel too dependent on sitcom generalizations. Charlie comes to Alan’s apartment late at night and asks his wife if he can go out and play. Alan chastises his friend, saying he’s an adult and doesn’t need his wife’s permission to go outside. Can anyone guess what the next moment will entail? That’s right, he asks his wife if he can go out and play. You’ll be forgiven if you hold for expectations of a laugh track. Reign Over Me even is also filled with the usual suspects like the brassy receptionist, the shyster lawyer, and the hilarious misunderstandings between the sexes that bring about sexual harassment lawsuits.

Let me stop and illuminate on that last bit. Alan’s patient is obsessed with wanting to orally pleasure the good doctor, enough that she sues when he declines a second time. For whatever reason, he sees her again and she apologizes in some ham-handed back-story about how her husband dumping her left her devastated (and if you can figure out what Binder has in store for the film’s broken female and broken male, then you too deserve a lollipop). This storyline is beyond tacky, a bit humiliating for the actress, and a prime example of how poorly the all the female roles are written. It’s shocking that Reign Over Me can examine male adult male bonding so well but completely drop the ball with every single female character. Alan’s wife seems nice and responsible but the film tries to convince us she’s sucking the life out of him because she likes jigsaw puzzles, quiet nights at the home, and knowing where her husband is when he’s out odd hours of the night. It’s appalling how this movie treats its female characters. They are either seen as flighty beings at the control of their sexual desires or as cold, non-sexual wet blankets. After the hour mark you can almost forget about seeing anything about Alan’s family except for an implausibly tidy “I’m sorry/No I’m sorry” phone call.

Sandler can be a fine actor when given the right material, and a character that retreats into an infantile existence seems like a plum role for him. He effectively channels Charlie’s disconnect from reality, but a lot of his grief tics will start to remind you of Rain Man-style autism, like repeating phrases, obsessive behavior, and moaning and rocking while upset. He gets lots in his Bob Dylan bird’s nest of hair.

Cheadle is always dependable as an actor and proves to be a stable center the film needs because of its narrative shortcomings. He’s doing primarily a lot of reaction but still manages to work above his material and build sympathy to a character that really deserves less. Sandler bounces around like a ping-pong ball and Cheadle holds steady, and the two men form a rather strong acting unit that just makes me wish the material were up to their task.

Ultimately Reign Over Me is hard to pile on because of its wealth of good intentions and fleeting moments of dramatic heft. It’s a messy film that somehow believes all its disjointed elements fit together, when in reality the movie never settles on a cohesive tone. The acing is generally strong and there’s some mature and realistic writing regarding male relationships, however, there are just as many frustrating moments. The film skims the surface of Big Issues like 9/11 grieving but never wants to develop into something more thoughtful. Instead, the film retreats much like Charlie into an easier existence where the questions are only momentary. Reign Over Me is a fine if unremarkable drama, but good intentions can only take you so far. At some point, to be memorable, you have to actually be good.

Nate?s Grade: B-

Jersey Girl (2004)

Writer/director Kevin Smith (Dogma) takes a stab at family friendly territory with the story of Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a music publicist who must give up the glamour of the big city to realize the realities of single fatherhood. Despite brief J. Lo involvement, Jersey Girl is by no means Gigli 2: Electric Boogaloo. Alternating between edgy humor and sweet family melodrama, Smith shows a growing sense of maturity. Liv Tyler stars as Maya, a liberated video store clerk and Ollie’’s real love interest. Tyler and Affleck have terrific chemistry and their scenes together are a playful highlight. The real star of Jersey Girl is nine-year-old Raquel Castro, who plays Ollie’’s daughter. Castro is delightful and her cherubic smile can light up the screen. Smith deals heavily with familiar clichés (how many films recently end with some parent rushing to their child’’s theatrical production?), but at least they seem to be clichés and elements that Smith feels are worth something. Much cute kiddie stuff can be expected, but the strength of Jersey Girl is the earnest appeal of the characters. Some sequences are laugh-out-loud funny (like Affleck discovering his daughter and a neighbor boy engaging in “the time-honored game of “doctor””), but there are just as many small character beats that could have you feeling some emotion. A late exchange between Ollie and his father (George Carlin) is heartwarming, as is the final image of the movie, a father and daughter embracing and swaying to music. Jersey Girl proves to be a sweetly enjoyable date movie from one of the most unlikely sources.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

To all those hairy-footed Tolkien geeks that chewed me out for having the audacity to call 2002’’s Two Towers, of all things, “boring,” let me say this: while I still find the second entry of The Lord of the Rings to be disappointing and pretty flawed, the final chapter, Return of the King, is a glorious and satisfying conclusion. Instead of doing a usual review (plot synopsis, strengths/weaknesses, etc.), I’’m going to bring back the charges I had against Two Towers and explain why Return of the King does not suffer from these ills. Will the defendant please rise as I read aloud the charges.

Charge Number One: Two Towers has nothing going on for its majority except hyping an oncoming battle.

And I still feel this way. Short of the great Helm’s Deep battle, there was oh so little going on in Two Towers that they could have easily trimmed an hour away from it. And don’’t give me this crap about the whole kingdom of man subplot or Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) realizing his eventual responsibilities. Whatever. Now, in Return of the King, there is so much going on and the pacing is so tight, that despite being the longest film by far (3 hours and 20 minutes), this is the FIRST Lord of the Rings films that has not put me to sleep in the theaters. The nearly hour-long battle involving the 200,000 Orc army with its huge elephant creatures is mesmerizing and visually stunning. But even after the battle and before, unlike Two Towers, there is plenty going on that actually matters, not just three characters running around endlessly.

Charge Number Two: Despite nothing going on except waiting for a battle, Two Towers has little characterization of any of its characters.

So even though little is going on, Two Towers still doesn’’t use all this free space to deepen characters. But in Return of the King, the characters come through and shine. The hobbits are back to the front burner and the film is better for it. Sam (Sean Astin, in the finest performance of the film) and Frodo’s journey becomes increasingly important and the strain and deception of Gollum puts a wedge between their friendship. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) looks scornfully at Sam and dismisses him from their journey, it’’s heartbreaking. Why? Because after two years we as an audience have come attached to these characters and do feel for their struggle. When Sam, toward the climax, says, ““I may not be able to carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!”” I dare anyone to try not choking up. We also get deeper moments of character with peripheral characters, like Faramir realizing he can only satisfy his father by a suicidal mission. Even the smaller characters from the second film, like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her kingly father Theoden (Bernard Hill), have wonderful moments where the emphasis is on characterization. Return of the King is filled with rich character moments that remind us how much we enjoy and feel for these people … uh, and hobbits.

Charge Number Three: Most of the characters from Fellowship of the Ring have scant appearances in Two Towers.

This still holds true. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, brilliant) returned from the dead but had about three minutes of screen time. The elves (Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) were given the amount of screen time most people would consider cameos. And then the hobbits were left alone for the overlong subplot involving Theoden and his clan. What Two Towers really was was the dwarf, elf, and Aragorn movie. And I like each of those characters but this story is not theirs – it’s the hobbits. So the disproportionate amount of time spent with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn felt like what would happen if, in Star Wars, C-3PO and R2D2 had their own film. It wasn’’t as interesting and it wasn’’t right. But with Return of the King, the attention is back to the hobbits, and all of the characters in the entire film have at least one stirring moment of quality time. Gandalf is back in a big way and it’s welcomed. What else is welcomed is the increasing attention Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have. They started as merrymakers, but by this trilogy’s end they are desperate to join the ranks and fight. The shared moments between Merry and Eowyn in battle are great. The moments between Pippin and Gandalf are even better. And even though the elves still get the short end of the stick, they make lengthier appearances that are more satisfying. It appears, though, that Cate Blanchett’’s longest amount of time in this whole trilogy was narrating the opening prologue.

Charge Number Four: Excessive dwarf jokes.

Even if you disagree with me on the previous three charges, you must agree with me that Two Towers had about a million dwarf jokes too many. Return of the King, to my knowledge, doesn’’t even have ONE dwarf joke. Fabulous. This is not to say I want less Gimli. The subplot involving the Two Towers trio seeking an army of the dead (a tad deus ex machine) is intriguing, and his competitive banter with Legolas is still ripe (“Bah! That still counts as one!”).

Return of the King is an amazing experience and one that is a fully satisfying conclusion, unlike say, I don’’t know, maybe the last two Matrix films. The danger feels more abundant now that the end is near and the tension mounts. The payoffs are rewarding and the climax is fittingly climactic. However, the 20-minute resolution is a bit drawn out. It seems director Peter Jackson can give us three hours of fast-paced action but can’t speed through a medley of hugs. You think it’s over…. and then there’s more, then you think it’s over…. then there’’s more. This is a small quibble for such an epic trilogy, and Return of the King proves that it’’s really one large triumphant film, with a bit of a sag in the middle. What? Did you think I’’d get through all this Lord of the Rings love-fest and not take one last jab at Two Towers? Though I still prefer Fellowship of the Ring out of the three, Return of the King cements the trilogy’s cinematic greatness in our time. Oh yeah, and the cinematography, special effects, production design, makeup, and score are magnificent too.

The defendant is cleared of all charges.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

My countrymen and fellow Americans, I come here not to praise ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ but to bury it. I don’’t know if it’’s a result of being the bridge between the beginning and end of this saga (taking the role of neglected middle child), or a result of unmet sky-high expectations, but I may be alone here in saying that ‘Two Towers’ was a letdown. I’’ll try and frame my reasoning as to not be attacked by hairy hobbits and men with pointy hats and long flowing beards.

1) Story structure. Unlike Fellowship of the Ring, where we’re introduced to a rich world and have suitable character set-up, the second LOTR film puts almost all our characters on the backburner and gives us an insufferably long subplot involving a king and his brood. The movie peters out an ending and seems to throw its hands in the air saying, ““See ya’ a year from now.””

2) Length. This wasn’’t a problem with the previous film but man did ‘Two Towers’ become unbearable as it went. Some described the first film as three hours of walking; well the second could be described as two plus hours of folks hyping a battle and then — a battle. Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about a significant battle …and that’’s it. An hour could have easily been cut from this. It got to the point where my girlfriend was sprawled across my lap pleading for me to somehow make the movie end.

3) Characterization. So much time is spent doing nothing you think the film would further round the characters? Oh how stupid you would be. Nothing new seems to be drawn from any character, with the exception of the treacherous yet likable Gollum. Several people from ‘Fellowship’ (Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen) have screen time that amounts to no more than a cameo, so why in the world aren’’t we getting anything more from our already established heroes? Everyone just looks friggin’ bored. As was I.

4) Excessive dwarf jokes.

I re-watched ‘Fellowship’ and all of the reasons ‘Two Towers’ suffered were not evident. So what does this tell me? Nothing particularly, except not to see the movie in the theater again. ‘Two Towers’ is by no means a bad film. The cinematography, production and special effects are all breath-taking and sweeping. I’’ll still look forward to seeing the next, and last, installment in Peter Jackson’’s ‘Rings’ epic, but ‘Two Towers’ has left a bitter taste of disappointment to linger upon.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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