Hawks-150After two Super Bowl appearances in a row, everyone’s paying attention… yet even with all the scrutiny, it seems that there’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.

By Greg Wright

Time to get offensive.

Remember the Seahawks’ previous attempt at augmenting their offense with a high-profile trade? The experiment with Percy Harvin melted down over the first five games last season, culminating with the star refusing to go back into the game during the fourth quarter of the embarrassing home loss against the Cowboys. Russell Wilson finished that game with a woeful 126 yards in completions; the offense only mustered 9 first downs; and the Cowboys controlled the game clock with over 37 out of 60 minutes.

And really, that Cowboys game was not just an anomaly at that point in the season. After that game, and after Harvin was traded to the Jets the ensuing Friday, I inaugurated this column with the following:

It was fine and dandy that Percy Harvin was catching 85% of the passes thrown his way. It’s not fine and dandy that he was averaging just 6 yards on those catches–the lowest YPC average on the team, and, yes, 144th in the league!

Clearly, the offense needs a lot of work. A lot. “We really played like crap,” Baldwin offered in a follow-up interview on Wednesday.

This is what things look like when your team graduates from underdog status to figuring out how to win with a roster stacked with highly-paid superstars. “All our guys are very talented. We want to have all of them involved,” admits Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell. “It’s a tough orchestration of the whole thing.”

“Tough” is an understatement. This is what the scoring drive chart looked like for that game.

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One scoring drive of any significance for the Seahawks. Yes, pretty offensive.

Those of us with memories like elephants (either those in the living room or locker room, as you prefer) probably have our thoughts of the Hawk offense colored by games like the fiasco against the Cowboys. It’s why, even when things look so bleak against the Packers through three quarters in the NFC Championship, we’re neither surprised nor panicky. We know the Seahawk offensive has the ability to stink up the place good. And we know fourth-quarter heroics have become one of Wilson’s trademarks as a consequence.

Here’s the part we may not be aware of, and which gets ignored amidst all the attention the Seahawks’ number-one ranked defense gets.

The Seahawks’ offense was ranked number 9 in 2014.

That’s not too shabby in a league led by pass-happy teams like the Packers, the Patriots, the Cowboys, the Chargers, the Saints, the Broncos, the Eagles, the Ravens, and the Colts. Uh-uh. In fact, it’s almost shocking.

What’s more, the Hawks were 6th in yards per offensive play at 5.9; 3rd in time of possession (32:22); and 4th in turnover margin (+10). The latter two categories are really a tribute to the defense, but still: the Seahawks’ O makes more big plays than any team in the league, and it’s not just the running game that contributes. And they tend to own the second half of games.

It’s certainly true that a sterling D will give the offense more chances than a crappy one; but it’s equally true that if your team is stocked with defensive talent, the odds are that the offense is not likely to be equally stocked.

Which brings us, finally, to Jimmy Graham. What kind of impact can we expect the former New Orleans “tight end” to have on offensive output?

First, he won’t have the kind of impact Harvin had… which is to say, the negative kind. Bevell admitted having problems getting Harvin his touches, and they tended to look mostly like quick screen passes for little to no gain. Wilson will not be dumping passes to Graham behind the line scrimmage. No.

Second, Graham won’t be called on to be what Zach Miller was. He won’t end up being a de facto sixth lineman.

But don’t expect the Hawks to start amping up the passing game overall, either. The offense will still center around Marshawn Lynch and the running game.

There are, nonetheless, specific areas where Graham’s height and downfield threat will help.

First: productivity in the red zone. In the Super Bowl, we saw the difference that a big target on the outside can make–and Graham will be a bigger and better target than Chris Matthews.

Second: ball control and third down percentage. Sure, the D puts the ball in the hands of the offense a lot; but the O doesn’t do as much with it as they could. Seattle ranked 11th on 3rd down with 42%… a long way behind–guess who?–the league-leading New Orleans Saints at 48%.

Don’t expect Graham to be the Seahawks’ leading receiver, and don’t expect Wilson’s number to start looking more like Rodgers’ or Brees’ or Manning’s.

But presuming all the moving parts stay relatively healthy, do expect the Seahawks offensive to move up in the rankings a bit.

And, in an upgraded game of keep-away, do expect an improved offensive to make an already stunning D look even better.

by Jeff Walls

Avengers: Age of Ultron was more of the same for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the new chapter in the expanded universe franchise offers something new.  A new superhero, Ant-Man, is introduced to the same world that is already occupied by heroes like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.  His superpower—the ability to shrink down to the size of an insect—takes the franchise to new heights, quite literally.  It’s as if Marvel crossed over with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and it is just as fun as that high-concept idea sounds.

The movie introduces us to scientist Hank Pym, creator of the Pym Particle, which combined with a special suit grants the wearer the aforementioned shrinking ability.  The movie opens in 1989 with Pym explaining that due to the dangers that his invention represents, he is keeping his formula secret, even from the powers-that-be at S.H.I.E.L.D.  Fast-forward to present day, however, and Pym’s former protégé is on the verge of replicating the formula and selling it to the highest bidder.  Fearing the dangers of an army armed with his ability, Hank is determined to break into the lab and destroy all traces of the new formula.  Unfortunately, years of using the technology himself has taken a toll on Pym.

ant-man-insetEnter Scott Lang, a just-released-from-prison thief looking to turn his life around for the benefit of his young daughter Cassie.  After discovering Pym’s suit and its abilities, Scott learns that the scientist has been watching him for some time and arranged their meeting.  He wants Scott to take over his role as the world’s smallest superhero and stop the villainous Darren Cross from destroying the world.  “I know what we should do; we should call the Avengers” says Scott.  Sorry Scott, they’re busy.

In the comics, Hank Pym was the founder of The Avengers, but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has taken until the very end of Phase 2 to introduce him.  The movie does, however, successfully establish that he has been saving the world long before any of the other Avengers became the heroes we know them to be today (other than Captain Rogers, of course), but that he has been determined to keep his power and heroic acts secret (think of him as the anti-Tony Stark).  The flashbacks and backstory really help to establish the veteran Ant-Man within the universe Marvel has already created and a plot revolving around him passing it on to the next generation was an inspired idea.

Although all of the Marvel movies bring with them a sense of humor, Ant-Man is certainly the most comedic of the bunch.  It’s a good strategy for the movie, because if the filmmakers had tried to take the film too seriously, the story of a man standing less than an inch tall and fighting full-sized bad guys while leading an army of ants would have come across as ridiculously silly.  It helps that the movie cast Paul Rudd, an actor best known for comedies, in the lead role (although it should be mentioned that oft-serious actor Michael Pena delivers many of the movie’s funniest moments).  In many ways, Paul Rudd acts as a stand-in for the audience members who have been watching these Marvel movies for almost ten years now.  His observations about the world of superheroes, such as the previously mentioned “call the Avengers” quote, often reflect our own thoughts while watching these movies and are questions that we have always wanted to ask.

Whereas it is no surprise that Rudd succeeds when it comes to the movie’s comedic elements, it is a delightful surprise to find that he can also pull of the movie’s action sequences quite believably.  We buy him as an athletic thief who can hold his own in a fight, especially after he receives training from an especially bad-ass Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne.   It does help that Rudd is given one of the slickest looking costumes we have seen, and the villainous Yellowjacket may be the most visually impressive villain Marvel has yet introduced.

The action scenes themselves are hit and miss.  Ant-Man and Yellowjacket are continuously growing and shrinking throughout the fight scenes, which can get very disorienting.  The visuals of them fighting amid giant everyday objects (a Thomas the Train toy set, for instance) are quite impressive and offer something entirely different from what we have seen in all of the other Marvel movies. Although the technology has certainly improved in the past twenty-six years, however, many of the scenes involving the ants looked like something right out of 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  They still work, though, thanks largely to the movie’s less-than-serious tone.

Ant-Man is just the latest chapter in what has become a pretty good track record for Marvel Studios.  Like Pixar in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Marvel just continues to release one hit movie after another.  This movie is a strong finish for what the studio has dubbed Phase 2 and things are looking very positive as we move into the third phase.

Ant-Man opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and the AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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Hawks-150After two Super Bowl appearances in a row, everyone’s paying attention… yet even with all the scrutiny, it seems that there’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.

By Greg Wright

The Seahawks’ come-from-behind overtime victory over the Green Bay Packers in the 2014-15 NFC Championship game will go down in my mind as the best game in team history.

The way the game ended, I dare say, will certainly stick in the memory of everyone who saw the game.

I also think that the disheartening loss in the closing moments of the Super Bowl two weeks later has led to Seahawks fans forgetting how lucky the Hawks were to even be there in the first place.

Yes, I did say lucky.

I did not say good. I did not say the Seahawks deserved to be in the Super Bowl. Maybe they did; but I did not say that.

No, the Seahawks were lucky to get there after the way they played through 55 out of 60 minutes in the NFC Championship game.

Do you remember the first quarter looking like this?

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Do you remember the Seahawks being outgained 176 yards to 49 in the first half?

Do you remember Russell Wilson completing exactly one pass for positive yardage in the first half?

Do you remember the Packers virtually camping out on the Seahawks end of the field, visiting the Hawks’ 30 yard line or better on six straight possessions?

Do you remember the Hawks trailing 16-0 at halftime, lucky to even be as close as that?

Do you remember Jermaine Kearse going 0 for 5 on his first five targets from Wilson, giving up four interceptions to defensive backs in the process?

Do you remember Burnett’s “victory slide” with five minutes to go after Wilson’s and Kearse’s final miscue? Do you remember the sinking feeling you had then?

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Do you remember the Seahawks, after coming back for a 22-19 lead, failing to stop a gimpy Aaron Rodgers and giving up this field goal at the close of regulation after yielding 48 yards?

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Do you remember how eerily similar that was to the playoff loss in Atlanta two years earlier?

No?

Capture3Well, to be honest, I didn’t remember all that either, until I rewatched the game last night. It’s funny how victory can erase the painful details of short-term memory.

It’s also funny how the final stats in a game can erase short-term memory, too, since the Hawks ended up pretty much owning the Packers, statistically, over the final two quarters and overtime. Ultimately, they bested the Packers in just about every meaningful statistic except turnovers.

But let’s just admit, shall we? You don’t turn the ball over five times and win a championship. Aside from the miraculous finish, that was just one ugly game. One we were lucky to win.

Oops! There goes that word luck again.

Luck, nothing. We don’t need luck. We’ve got Russell Wilson.

When Wilson’s at the helm, it’s really not luck at all. It’s miracles by design.

 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, review by Greg Wright

What was that I was saying about Lee Pace being a welcome presence as Thranduil in The Desolation of Smaug?  When Peter Jackson has him ride to war on a caribou in The Battle of the Five Armies, I heave a heavy sigh. When the caribou’s antlers become weapons of mass destruction in the heat of battle, my popcorn comes up in my throat!

While Five Armies is, overall, the best-executed of the three Hobbit movies, Jackson just doesn’t seem to know when he’s on to a good thing and when enough is enough.

Eight years ago, when TheOneRing.net asked me to opine about plans for the Hobbit films, I editorialized as follows:

Without yet getting into the structure that such films might assume, it’s fair to say that Tolkien wouldn’t have written the same story that he did had he written it subsequent to The Lord of the Rings.

battle-of-the-five-armies-insetFirst, we know that, when Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, he had no intention of it becoming a part of the history of Middle-earth.  Second, we know that Tolkien had to later revise The Hobbit to make it consistent with his masterwork, retooling Bilbo’s riddle game with Gollum.  Third, we know that Tolkien had to temporarily suspend work on Rings in order to work out exactly how characters like Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the Hobbits themselves fit into his broader mythology.  Fourth, we know that Tolkien gave up writing a Rings sequel because the material simply became “too dark.”

Complicating matters is the general perception amongst many fans—a sentimental, romanticized, and unexamined perception—that The Hobbit is a light, whimsical fantasy.  It is not.  It is, in fact, an allegorical bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale, a story of loss of innocence.  It’s about children no longer covering their eyes in terror and imagining giants and bogies, but rather coming to see the world with eyes wide open and finding out that the most dangerous monsters may be some of their fellow adventurers.  The conventions of fantasy may dispose of Smaug quite neatly; dealing with Thorin—or Bilbo’s own complicity in a Great Wrong—is another matter entirely, but one which is at the heart of The Hobbit.

Given that The Lord of the Rings has already come to the screen, though (and stupendously so), we have already seen how blithe young Hobbits such as Pippin must learn to become grave warriors; we have already witnessed the darkness of battles like that at the Pelennor; through Théoden, we have already witnessed sleepers waking to the harsh reality of betrayal and self-deception; we have, in short, already lost the innocence of Middle-earth.  Trying to recapture it—on a scale that would duplicate the boxoffice success of Rings—would be a bit like returning to fifth-grade summer camp after a stint in college dorms.

So two choices present themselves: first, scale back the design of The Hobbit as Lord of the Rings Lite for the younger set, and hope that Peter Jackson’s fans have all spawned their own sets of Hobbit-sized kindergarteners who will be thrilled with a Curious George version of Middle-earth; or second, embrace the tone of the last third of The Hobbit and integrate the tale seamlessly with Peter Jackson’s other films.  Boxoffice potential almost dictates the wisdom of the latter choice, regardless of the “violence” it does to Tolkien’s original tale.

As much as I have chafed at the execution the very approach I suggested—a thorough embrace of the last third of Tolkien’s novel as the tone for the entire series of Hobbit films—in the end the choice does seem wise. The Hobbit films will indeed, as time goes by, prove to be a suitable legacy companion to the Rings films.

Five Armies, in particular, strikes the right balance where the other two Hobbit films failed: its tone is more consistent throughout than Unexpected Journey, and it doesn’t feel like a rushed sequence of chase scenes, as did Desolation.

Still, Jackson is not at his best form here.

For example: the film’s opening sequence, Smaug’s destruction of Lake Town, is a pretty fine depiction of what it would look like if a dragon attacked your wood-structure town; but Jackson can’t stop there. Instead, he stages a showdown between Smaug, the “Dragon Who Talks Too Much, Like a Bond Villain,” and Bard the Smuggler (um, Bowman) who, instead of felling the dragon with a simple (if legendary) black arrow, struggles to launch a six-foot steel quarrel, designed to be fired by a “windlance ballistae,” at the mighty lizard. Which he manages to do with, yes, a standard bow. Uh… I think not. So the setpiece falls as flat as a dead dragon, as CGI-thrilling as it is, because Jackson overreaches.

Similarly with the events at Dol Guldur. It’s not enough for Gandalf to have a showdown with the Necromancer cum Sauron; no. Gandalf must first confront an orc army, then all nine Ringwraiths (rather spoiling their much, much more effective appearances in the Rings films), and then he must be rescued by, of all people, Galadriel. As my niece’s husband Jesse pointed out the other day, Galadriel is, after all, a ring-bearer, so the decision makes some measure of sense; but Gandalf is himself a ring-bearer and (in the broader background of Tolkien’s fiction, though it does not enter into Jackson’s films) essentially an angelic being. As the Providentially-appointed Enemy of Sauron, Gandalf should not really require a cameo from the Lady of Lothlorien to emerge from Dol Guldur midly scathed. (And how did he manage to recover his keen cap and staff, by the way?)

And then, of course, there’s all the excesses of the titular battle itself. Enough said.

All the excesses notwithstanding, Jackson really does strike gold in Five Armies with Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo. Here, at last, Freeman is given plenty of room to sputter and pause, to stammer and harrumph his way to a very difficult moral decision. And that’s really at the heart of this tale—as I noted in my editorial for The One Ring.

Richard Armitage, as Thorin, also finally justifies his casting with a decent portrayal of Dragon Lust in the first two-thirds of the film. Between he and Freeman, the Hobbit films manage to conclude with some decent chemistry and a measure of heart.

However, as I confessed to Jesse the other day, I have not seen enough of interest to motivate me to seek out the Extended Editions of the three Hobbit films. Not even my professional curiosity has gotten the better of me.

Perhaps I have finally broken the dragon’s spell. Thanks, Peter.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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Hawks-150After two Super Bowl appearances in a row, everyone’s paying attention… yet even with all the scrutiny, it seems that there’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.

By Greg Wright

February hurts less in July, doesn’t it?

In my wife’s family, they call the first day of every month Fool’s Day, and it might be tempting to look back on Super Bowl XLIX, played on February 1 this year, in that light.

CaptureBut with the luxury of five months’ perspective, Darrel Bevell’s play call on Seahawks’ final offensive snap of what’s now being called one of the greatest Super Bowls is looking less foolish and offensive all the time.

After all, that play was not Seattle’s final chance to score. With the Patriots backed up to their own 1/2-yard line just afterward, a safety was not out of the question. Nor was a fumble in the end zone recovered by the Seahawks for a touchdown.

Capture2Game planning was certainly not at fault. The Hawk M.O. was followed to a tee, keeping the game close with a stifling, limiting defense (even with three injured defensive backs) and an explosive, patient offense. The goal of keeping the game close with a shot to win at the end was met, continuing an amazing three-year run of having a lead at some point in every game.

Yes, the Hawks gave up 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, and a Super Bowl record 37 pass completions overall to MVP Tom Brady.

Capture3But it would be hard to ask more of a hamstrung defense playing against arguably the greatest coaching/QB combo in NFL history performing in career-best form. Brady’s instincts and discipline allowed him to complete the short passes he could and needed. He took what the D let him, and that was it.

It’s certainly true, however, that the Hawks beat themselves on February Fool’s Day. But it ultimately wasn’t Michael Bennett jumping offside on that crucial post-interception defensive stand that lost the game.

Capture5It wasn’t Russell Wilson throwing an interception on his final throw of the season.

It wasn’t Malcolm Butler making a career-defining play to pick the ball off.

Nor was it Ricardo Lockette failing to extend his arms a little more to catch the ball, or even Jerome Kearse failing to win the one-on-one battle with Brandon Browner on that play.

No, what made the Seahawks February Fools this year was the fact that they are just too good.

I know you’re thinking, “Say what?!?!?!”

Capture8Seriously. The Seahawks lost Super Bowl XLIX because they are too good, and too stocked with talented players.

That’s why Brandon Browner got away.

That’s why Brandon Browner was on the Patriots’ defense in the first place.

That’s why Browner was able to diagnose the play on the line of scrimmage and tip off Butler to look for the slant.

That’s why Browner knew Kearse’s tendencies and played the block perfectly.

Capture8bThat’s why Butler’s lane to the ball was wide open and why an otherwise genius play on an otherwise genius day went haywire.

I see it clearer and clearer the more often I replay that snap.

Brandon Browner, who wouldn’t have been in the NFL in the first place if not for the Seahawks, a player who learned the Seahawks way to a tee and now has two Super Bowl rings running, a corner back who, all things being equal except asking price and suspensions, could very well having been starting on the right side of the D for the Hawks in Super Bowl XLIX instead of playing for the Patriots, is the reason the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl.

Capture9I’m happy for the guy. Couldn’t happen to a nicer millionaire underdog with a chip on his shoulder.

But let’s face it, 12th Man. The Hawks are good. Darned good. It might feel a little foolish to lose Super Bowl XLIX not to Tom Brady but to Brandon Browner–the one that got away. But we’re lucky to have this team in Seattle.

Just imagine what surprises the coming season will bring. Maybe Bryon Maxwell will eliminate us in the NFC Championship!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, review by Greg Wright

What was that I was saying about An Unexpected Journey not feeling rushed, about moving at a pace, and with an ethos, that would have made room for Tom Bombadil in Fellowship? About the inclusion of songs, in all their silliness and pomposity? About belly laughs and witty homages?

Naw. The Desolation of Smaug begins instead, and perhaps appropriately, with a not-so-witty homage to Peter Jackson himself as the director opens with a flash-back sequence of Gandalf’s initial encounter with Thorin at the Prancing Pony in Bree. And as the scene opens, just as with the Bree scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson emerges from the darkness munching on an oversized carrot. That’s a fitting metaphor, methinks.

Once the flashback is complete and we learn that Thorin is out for revenge (there’s a revelation), off we go with chase after chase after chase after chase. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the events of The Desolation of Smaug covered about four days instead of the weeks they would necessarily entail. That’s how rushed this film is.

desolation-of-smaug-insetYou might think that embellishing a short novel like The Hobbit into three overstuffed films might produce a sense of increased passage of time rather than compression, of bloat rather than haste, but that’s simply not the case.

The story, such as it is, covers the trail of Bilbo, Thorin, and company from Anduin to The Lonely Mountain. They are hosted by Beorn, venture into Mirkwood, are held captive by spiders and Wood Elves, escape via wine barrels to Lake Town, and then penetrate Smaug’s lair.

And that’s sort of the problem with making three movies out of The Hobbit. This section of the tale has no story arc of its own, in classical terms. So as a filmmaker, you have to invent one: figure out who the primary protagonist and antagonists are in this particular movie, and manage a central conflict to some kind of narrative resolution.

Jackson managed the same problem fairly well in The Two Towers, which was saved by a brilliant and groundbreaking portrayal of Gollum. In The Desolation of Smaug, however, Jackson seems to hope that if we are hurtled along fast enough, we won’t notice that the emperor didn’t have time to dress properly.

Nominally, Jackson sets up Thorin as the central protagonist in this segment of the story, with the conflict to be “resolved” being the return of the rightful “King Under the Mountain.” To that end, one can’t have Thorin slink into Beorn’s halls, as he does in the novel, nor spend too much time mummified in spider silk, nor be shut up in a barrel, nor even sitting around uselessly on the side of a mountain. And you certainly can’t have the Arkenstone enter the narrative in an offhand and disconnected manner, as it does in the book.

But the wheels fall off this wobbly cart of a narrative conflict when you have Thorin entirely out of the picture for what is the centerpiece of the film: our introduction to Smaug and his treasure hoard.

Jackson’s solution? Invent an absolutely insane and absurd sequence with Thorin and his crew battling the dragon in Durin’s mountain fortress. Tolkien didn’t write it this way because he knew it would be a battle the Dwarfs could not survive. Jackson… well, narrative logic has never been his strongest suit.

It’s bad enough that the humor of the Company’s encounter with Beorn is replaced by a chase culminating in gnashing teeth; that the oppressiveness of Mirkwood is exchanged for rushed irritability; that the Company’s wine barrels must be most illogically open while hurtling through cataracts and a hail of Orc arrows; that the romance between Kili and Jackson’s Elf-warrior Tauriel must even exist; that Bard the Bowman should be a smuggler; that Jackson must divide the Company by inventing Kili’s injury; or that Gandalf should prove powerless (and rash) against the Necromancer.

But for pity’s sake… if you must do these things, can’t you at least make them more interesting? And must you cap it with that awful sequence with Smaug? When Bilbo mutters, “What have we done?” I can only hope that’s Jackson’s chosen form of irony.

Lest you think that I found the movie completely without merit, I will note that Jackson’s depiction of Thranduil, Legolas’ father, is worth seeing. Appropriately condescending, superior, and vain, Lee Pace’s performance makes me wonder what might have happened had Jackson found a way to make Thranduil the central villain of this episode.

As it is, it’s hard to see anything other than greed as the central villain… and in The Desolation of Smaug, greed wins. Ick.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is available to stream at Amazon. You can also stream it for free right now on xfinity if you’re a Comcast subscriber.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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Hawks-150After two Super Bowl appearances in a row, everyone’s paying attention… yet even with all the scrutiny, it seems that there’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.

By Greg Wright

News runs awfully thin between “voluntary OTAs” and training camp. Sure a good thing we’ve got a high-profile contract extension to be talking about, eh?

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the 2015 season will be the final year in Russell Wilson’s rookie contract. Per the NFLPA CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), rookie contracts are signed at relatively fixed rates—and because Wilson was drafted in the third round, his four-year contract for $2.99 million has made him the bargain-basement steal of the NFL. While other top-flight teams have been paying their quarterbacks upwards of $20 million per year, the Seahawks are still only required to pay Wilson $1.5 million for the coming season. This has allowed the Hawks to allocate their salary budget to the defense—one of the keys to their stunning run deep into the playoffs the last three seasons.

After the third years of Number 3’s rookie contract, he’s eligible to negotiate an extension which could call for a significantly higher salary in his fourth year and beyond. After two straight Super Bowl appearances, Russell Wilson is due for a payday. Given the kinds of contracts that lesser QBs have recently signed (SF’s Kaepernick last year, 6 years at $114 million; the Panthers’ Cam Newton this year, 5 years at $108 million), speculators estimate that Wilson will get a new contract valued at over $24 million a year. NFL insiders (read: rumormongers) report that Wilson is asking the Seahawks for a contract that will earn him more than Green Bay’s QB Aaron Rodgers (5 years, $110 million).

Casual football fans might find the latter claim hard to credit. After all, Wilson is Seattle’s darling, an unassuming, cliche-spouting, hard-working, hospital-visiting, down-to-earth, nose-to-the-gridiron football fanatic. He couldn’t really be paying that much attention to what others are making, could he?

Well, Wilson’s PR department has been working overtime since the ill-fated conclusion of Superbowl XLIX. Whether Wilson has ever personally managed his social media feeds or not, we know for certain this is how Wilson rolls now:

WilsonFacebook1

Since Wilson was taken under the wing of the New York Yankees’ former star Derek Jeter, signing on to become one of the founding members of The Players Tribune last October, there’s no question that Wilson has been transforming his image from one of the NFL’s humbler players into, well, the image of a Player…

…maybe even a Playboy. A couple months ago, Wilson started dating pop star Ciara. She’s accompanied him to gala dinners as well as Seattle Children’s Hospital.

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This week, Wilson created something of a firestorm by posting the following image on Facebook for “Women Crush Wednesday.” (The image is part of the promotion for Ciara’s new album.)

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Many die-hard Seahawk fans and Russell Wilson acolytes have been crying foul. After all, this is not the image of Seahawk QBs. Not at all. Nope.

This is how superstar Seattle QBs roll:

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That’s all well and good, actual football fans will say. But what on God’s green astroturf does any of this have to do with actual football?

Good question.

And here’s the answer.

Midway through last season I (somewhat ironically) wrote about “The Next Tom Brady.” In that column, I observed the following:

Don’t expect Carroll to sacrifice the future of the team in order to build around a superstar QB. If Carroll continues to guide the team over the next decade, we’ve probably only got another five years or so of watching Wilson play for the home team.

After that… expect a blockbuster trade that keeps the Seahawks defense stacked for years to come.

As the Hawks proved in February, who needs a Peyton Manning (or the Next Tom Brady) when you’ve got The Legion of Boom: The Next Generation?

And do you really want the Next Tom Brady when the Original Tom Brady hasn’t won a Superbowl since 2004?

Those QB salaries are a killer. When the time comes to invest in rebuilding the defense, Carroll won’t flinch.

Wilson is not the long-term future of the franchise. It’s still the D.

I chafe a little bit at the Hawks getting bested by Brady’s defense in the Super Bowl… but seriously: where do perennial Super Bowl QBs often end up? Media markets like Boston or New York, not backwater hick markets like Seattle.

Russell Wilson is already dressing the part he expects to play for years to come. The Seahawks will undoubtedly sign Wilson to a long-term contract. Will he end up with the richest contract in NFL history? That remains to be seen.

But again: don’t expect Wilson to be in Seattle ten years from now (if he’s still healthy enough to play). Two or three years into his new contract, Wilson will inherit Manning’s spot on the Giants… or may, in fact, be the next Tom Brady. With the Patriots.

That’s how megastar QBs (with pop star wives) roll.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, review by Greg Wright

I must confess: I capitulated to pessimism in the weeks leading up to the theatrical release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. I had been increasingly skeptical that these adaptations would be anything but dark and violent, almost the opposite of the colorful and often light-hearted tale that Tolkien originally wrote. Yes, I am fully aware that things get awfully bleak once Bilbo and company cross the Great River and forge into Mirkwood—but the first third of the book includes an awful lot of humor in the context of danger (such as the encounter with the Trolls, and even “Riddles in the Dark”), giddily awkward songs, and a lightness of tone that makes Rivendell feel like an eternal birthday party.

So the good news: my pessimism on these issues was largely unfounded. Unlike the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring, An Unexpected Journey doesn’t feel rushed. It moves at a pace, and with an ethos, that would have made room for Tom Bombadil in Fellowship. The colors are bright—exceptionally bright, and clear, thanks to the care that Jackson and New Line have put into the 48fps 3-D presentation. The songs are there, in all their silliness and pomposity. Elrond and Rivendell actually seem pleasant instead of grim and dour (if beautiful). Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum produces both chills and belly laughs. We even get a healthy dose of witty homages to The Fellowship of the Ring, including numerous cameos of both principal cast members and memorable bit roles.

unexpected-journey-insetBut frankly, all this narrative generosity doesn’t add up to feeling like a good thing. Journey seems so intent on being thorough, detailed, and spacious that it never manages to develop either the emotional resonance or cinematic momentum of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Like Fellowship, Unexpected Journey often feels like an extended exercise in “setting the stage,” as it were, rather than an actual story being told. It does manage to do justice to Tolkien’s original work better than I expected—but it’s missing the spark of excellence and audacity found in Fellowship and Return of the King. Peter Jackson (and the audience) would have been better off with a film that made him happy, rather than a film that feels designed to please a picky and territorial fan base. It never develops any real emotional punch&mash;no gravitas. It never feels like anything is really at stake.

The one exception is Bilbo’s decision to spare Gollum’s life. That’s the heart of this episode in the trilogy, and it’s a fine moment—and also a key connection with the larger scope of Jackson’s Middle-earth. The important point, again, is not entirely that Bilbo finds room in his heart for mercy, motivated by pity. It’s that, through that merciful act, the larger Providential arc of Divine movement is worked out. Neither Bilbo, nor Frodo, nor even Gandalf, Elrond, or Galadriel, are powerful enough to save Middle-earth from great Evil. Evil will ultimately destroy itself through its own evil impulses, and Gollum is the agent of that demise—in spite of the best intentions of others.

Other themes also register, but don’t fare as well. For Thorin and the other Dwarves, Jackson scripts a nice speech for Bilbo about the need to find a home—and it’s a thoughtful and creative solution for the dilemma of creating a through-line for Unexpected Journey. It’s just a shame that Bilbo connects with Thorin through a violent act fabricated by Jackson and company—especially when, early on in the film, Gandalf advises Bilbo that “true courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” It seems that, to Peter Jackson, such advice simply doesn’t apply to the “unredeemable.”

Still and all, the film was for me an unexpected lack of irritation, and a more-or-less satisfying return to Middle-earth… though it certainly doesn’t measure up to the best of Jackson’s forays into Tolkien’s world. I’ll applaud Jackson for using the film to break new ground with cinematic technology, and for achieving a somewhat kinder, gentler Middle-earth.

But this is simply not a compelling film, except for the most die-hard of fans. One of the British reviews of the film has said it looks like “the most expensive TV program ever produced.” I think that hits it about on the head.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is available to stream at Amazon. You can also stream it for free right now on xfinity if you’re a Comcast subscriber.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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Redondo’s PowellsWood Garden, in collaboration with local storytelling guilds, hosts its fourth annual Storytelling Festival July 24th and 25th with five national storytellers on hand to share personal and folk tales. The festival includes fun for all ages with workshops for adults, a free program for children’s groups on Friday, and a full day of storytelling concerts on Saturday.

In an era when quick blurbs on social media are the norm for communicating one’s identity to the world, it is refreshing to hear a well-crafted personal story. Previous visitor Rebecca Chamberlain summed up her feelings about the festival this way: “Between the natural world, and the human imagination, we entered a timelessness… and experienced what ‘spellbound’ means.”

Photo: Susan Wilson, courtesy Motoko

Photo: Susan Wilson, courtesy Motoko

This year’s teller lineup is chock full of spellbinding entertainment. Mime Antonio Rocha uses movement to help unlock our imaginations. Motoko brings Asian folktales to life with humor, charm and elegance. Playwright, commentator, and storyteller Kevin Kling shares his “can do” attitude through personal stories of overcoming adversity. Self-described “Affrilachian” teller Lyn Ford tells folk and personal tales rooted in her multicultural heritage.  Donald Davis, a true southern gentleman known for his bow ties and hilarious personal stories, will charm audiences of all ages.

The Festival’s Friday workshops are open to anyone with an interest in storytelling, and are especially useful for those who use stories in their life or work. Workshops begin at 9:00 am and end at 3:30. Friday’s events conclude with conversation and sweets at Tea with the Tellers, an afternoon social for workshop participants and tellers.

Saturday telling begins concurrently at each festival tent at 10:00 a.m.; gates open at 9:00 for check-in, garden exploration, and resources, coffee, and food purchases. Tellers move from tent to tent throughout the day giving all visitors a chance to hear all tellers, but visitors may also follow their favorite teller if desired. If one has limited time, the Closing Concert from 3:45 to 5:00 features all of the tellers.

Advance registration is required for all Friday events; workshop pricing varies—see the festival website http://powellswoodfestival.org/ for registration and pricing.

As an added bonus, day care programs, homeschool groups, and day campers are welcome to attend the festival free of charge as a part of the children’s programs on Friday. Participants will hear three tellers and receive a short tour of the garden in this one-hour program.  Four time slots are available; to book contact Kristine at admin@powellswood.org or by phone at 253-529-1620.

Saturday tickets may be ordered in advance via the festival website or be purchased at the gate; adult tickets are $20.00, children (12 and under) are $5.00 and a family pass is $40.00.

Friday lunch for workshop attendees is catered by Panera and can be pre-ordered with tickets. For those who wish to enjoy lunch in the garden on Saturday, options include catered sandwiches, salads, chips and cookies, coffee and espresso drinks, and hand crafted ice cream by Ice Cream Social. Visitors are also welcome to bring their own lunch.

The festival is held at PowellsWood Garden located at 430 South Dash Point Road in Federal Way. Festival parking will be accommodated at Sacajawea Park at 1401 S. Dash Point Road.  Please catch the festival shuttles, which run continuously starting at 8:45, for transportation to the garden. There is no parking at the garden during the festival except for handicapped vehicles.

Online Ticketing at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/920053.

The Return of the King, Extended Edition review by Greg Wright

I have to assume that those who really want to know about the Extended Edition of The Return of the King are already fans of Peter Jackson’s adapted Lord of the Rings.

After all, would anyone who dislikes Krispy Kremes be interested in merely a bigger Krispy Kreme? I doubt it. And what makes a Krispy Kreme special, so I have been told, is all in the eye of the consumer, as it were.

But wait, you say. The Return of the King is no light-as-air confection. And of course I agree, though not everyone would. Further, I suggest that the Extended Edition is as much a different movie from the theatrical version as was the extended Fellowship—as different as a slice of New York cheesecake is from a Krispy Kreme.

return-of-the-king-extended-insetMy point is this: not everyone likes Krispy Kremes, though the vast majority does. And the Extended Edition is not just a bigger Krispy Kreme. It’s more than that, and entirely different.

So, rather than provide a detailed rundown of what’s new in the longer treatment of Jackson’s King (which every fan will know about soon enough, anyway), I’ll attempt to do two things: first, explain to fans why they have good reason to be excited about this edition (precisely because it’s not simply more of what they already like); and second, persuade a few of Jackson’s harsher critics that “biting into” the Extended Edition won’t merely amount to more of a bad thing.

Why the Extended King Is Better

Football is said to be a game of inches. Championships can be lost merely by the failure of a running back to stretch that last yard for the pylon. (Don’t we know that in Seattle?)

In the same way, film is an art form of milliseconds. Editors agonize to get each cut right, down to that 1/24th of each second for which each individual frame stays on the screen. Get the cuts right, and cinematic magic has been wrought. Get them wrong, and the audience is lost.

Just from that standpoint—and leaving issues of special effects, sound editing and scoring entirely aside—the same raw footage may produce two entirely different films depending on how that footage is edited. Given, then, that the Extended Edition of The Return of the King has not only been edited differently but has also increased the running time by fifty minutes, it is—technically—a completely different work of art.

But the changes run deeper than just thousands of new frames and variations on existing themes. Most significantly, the protracted ending—which was the object of most critical barbs in the original release—does not now seem nearly so protracted. It is also more well-earned.

For one thing, the added and extended scenes provide a greater understanding of various characters’ motivation: why Pippin is really drawn to the Palantír, how Faramir has anticipated the Orc attack across Anduin, why Denethor’s resentment of his younger son reaches its peak following the garrison’s repulsion from Osgiliath, why Denethor’s despair is unfounded madness, why Gandalf’s confidence is shaken following the siege of Minas Tirith, and why Aragorn can conversely be so confident that Sauron will be alarmed by Gondor’s march to the Black Gate.

For another, a great many loose ends are tied up. We find out, for instance, what becomes of Saruman and Wormtongue. We find out how the Palantír came to rest at the base of Orthanc, and what happens to it after Pippin’s indiscretion at Edoras. We see how Aragorn’s ghostly host overcomes the Black Ships. We find out what happened to Gandalf’s staff. Éomer, Faramir and Éowyn don’t simply seem to fall off the face of Middle-earth.

And there are just so many nice touches: Tolkien’s personal nightmares of a giant wave rolling over green fields finding their way into Éowyn’s nights; sunlight on the king’s garland at the crossroads; a single blossom on the White Tree of Gondor; the look of dismay on Aragorn’s face while looking down on Pelargir; Éomer’s grief over his sister’s broken body; the hands of a healer; and Gandalf’s showdown with the Witch King of Angmar.

In total, it all adds up to a much stronger argument against despair. During interviews for the theatrical release, Jackson remarked, “It must be about hope. I don’t think the alternative is particularly attractive. There has to be some degree of hope.” And of course the sum is greater than the parts.

But the parts themselves also highlight why the extended cut is not just a stronger statement but also a better movie: because the theatrical cut—despite its many bravura sequences—often gave character development short shrift, left far too many threads dangling in Middle-earth’s winds, and allowed precious little time for those nice touches.

This is not to say that the extended cut is perfect. There still seems to be information missing in Arwen’s scenes with Elrond, Éowyn’s affection for Faramir still dawns much too quickly, Merry still seems missing in action prior to those split seconds in which he slashes at the Witch King’s heel, and the sequence of events at the Black Gate remains a rushed puzzlement.

But this cut of The Return of the King, this very different film twelve months removed from the demise of Jackson’s friend Cameron Duncan, is far less about the sadness of death than it is about the hope that remains the other side of that seeming darkness. This time, Jackson doesn’t just have to “hope hope is there.” It is there.

Why Jackson May Disagree

Presumably, Peter Jackson will not now renege on his assertion a year ago that the theatrical cuts are the versions of his movies that he prefers. When I participated in round-table interviews with the director, he was quite emphatic on this point, theorizing that the only reason fans can bear the longer versions is that they have the luxury of viewing them in their own homes. But apparently Jackson thought in December of 2003 that theatrical audiences could stand a longer running time than he thought they could in December of 2001. After all, the running time of the theatrical King compares pretty favorably with the running time of the extended Fellowship. Perhaps Jackson simply isn’t the best judge of what audiences can bear when it comes to their appetite for Tolkien and good filmmaking.

Screening The Return of the King “with people who were intimately involved in the film,” Jackson ironically notes in an Extended Edition bonus feature, “gives you quite a misleading sense of exactly what you’re dealing with because you’ve then got to look at it in the cold light of day and say: Okay, what does somebody who’s not that attached to the movie going to actually make of all this?”

And this may not be so obvious, but the answer to that question was not necessarily to be found in the audience response to the theatrical cut. After all, at that point, how many of us could honestly claim to not be “intimately involved in the film?” Jackson and his crew weren’t the only ones to have lived and breathed Middle-earth over the last several years. Yes, of course, they were more enmeshed and heavily invested in bringing that vision to the screen. But as audiences filed in to theaters to feast on their first serving of The Return of the King, their appetites had most certainly been whetted. Objectivity had long since been lost, and their responses were quite intimately bound up in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, Tolkien, and Peter Jackson himself.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t know that there are more than a handful of critics who could objectively assess this Extended Edition. But I’d be willing to bet that those who do retain that capacity will be far more impressed than they would have been with the theatrical cut, if they had seen it.

Jackson’s opinion of the theatrical cut is also dependent on his own preferences, and I have no doubt that he was a more than a little depressed during the theatrical release press junkets, due both to his sadness at Cameron Duncan’s death and the predictable letdown following the conclusion of the superhuman post-production cycle leading up to the film’s release. Would Jackson have cut the film as he originally did were he in his present state of mind? I doubt it.

The Extras

A great additional service, of course, that this Extended Edition release does the moviegoing public is the much-anticipated collection of bonus features (if you track down the actual hardware, rather than stream this online). Writer-director Michael Pellerin has done an astounding job of compiling a truly insightful and meaningful look into the process and significance of bringing the final installment of this cinematic trilogy to the screen and into our homes. In fact, these features are as much a monumental accomplishment in their own right as The Return of the King itself, and just as deserving of praise and awards. (They also expose the bonus features that were included with the theatrical release home video edition for the literally ridiculous sham that many of them, such as the National Geographic feature, were.)

“J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth” may, in fact, be the definitive video talking-head analysis of the significance of The Lord of the Rings. Colin Duriez and Bill Welden rightly point out, among other things, how dependent Tolkien’s invented world was upon the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Fall of Man. Further, Tom Shippey, John Garth, and Brian Sibley all discuss at length Tolkien’s theory of “eucatastrophe” and its connection to his epic story: how Middle-earth’s deliverance from the tyranny of Sauron and his Ring at Sammath Naur was intended to invoke the joy of the resurrection of the Christ, the victory of God over sin and the grave.

Still, I have a hard time shaking the feeling that this collection of bonus features is a concerted effort to somehow give New Line and Peter Jackson more credit for honoring Tolkien’s themes than they deserve. It’s disconcerting to see Shippey defending Jackson’s interpretation of the Grey Havens as a metaphor for death; and it’s downright irritating to know for a fact that, at the time of the theatrical release of the film, Boyens and Walsh had no understanding of the Catholic view of fallenness, and that Jackson himself had never even heard of the term “eucatastrophe;” I know because I was the one who asked him about it. Heck, I even know first-hand that as of the release of The Two Towers composer Howard Shore was ignorant of the Music of the Ainur. Pellerin may know his stuff, but Jackson and company simply did not.

The End of All Things

But here, at the last, I must content myself with having documented, along the way, the points at which Jackson’s vision has diverged from Tolkien’s. The web pages containing my exhaustive coverage of the films will be forever enshrined in the Internet Wayback Machine, and I can also hope that my book Peter Jackson in Perspective will suitably serve as the companion piece for the Extended Edition that I intended it to be. After five years of intense journalistic activity, it was time for me, too, to begin letting go of The Lord of the Rings. And I doubt I had any easier time of it than Jackson obviously had.

“It’s a tough project to say goodbye to,” says sound designer David Farmer. “It’s not just any old trilogy. It’s a pretty special part of history—and not just for the people that watch it, but for the people that worked on it.”

Thanks, Mr. Jackson. Thanks for letting us all intimately partake of your vision. Even ten years after the fact, you have helped make our perception of Tolkien’s own vision more bright and fresh.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Return of the King Extended Edition is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Two Towers, Extended Edition review by Greg Wright

I must confess that I did not eagerly await the release of the extended version of The Two Towers. While the extended Fellowship is an epic worthy of being called a classic—taking what was already a fine, effective film and improving it by tweaks and bounds—I did not see much hope for a similar treatment of Towers. Why? Because the source material for this extended cut was so much weaker to begin with. While the theatrical Towers proved excellent grist for fanboys, I nonetheless found it tedious at times and oppressive as a whole. Without Jackson’s stunning realization of Gollum, the film would have seemed to me a nearly complete loss.

Fortunately for the studio—and the audience—Peter Jackson and crew were at the helm of this effort and not me! For the most part, the extended Towers wisely employs the tactics which worked so effectively for the first extended installment. Indulge me as I share my impressions of the more significant changes.

two-towers-extended-insetThéodred, Éomer and Éowyn

One of the earliest added segments—brief though it be—surveys the slaughter at the fords of Isen: the scene of Théodred’s mortal wounding. Éomer and his eored come upon the aftermath of the battle and find precious few survivors. Indeed, King Théoden’s son, Théodred, seems to be the only Rider left clinging to life.

This short segment is typical of the difficult cuts restored in the extended version. On its own, its presence in the theatrical version would have added little but precious minutes to the running time; when combined with other similar snippets of the action in Rohan, however, it does wonders in establishing Éomer as a sympathetic character, and explaining his banishment; in grounding the valorous pessimism of Éomer and his sister, Éowyn; and in “selling” Théoden’s grief, later, alongside his son’s burial mound at Meduseld. All in all, Rohan’s leading characters benefit greatly from the extended treatment.

Merry, Pippin, Ents—and Huorns!

The elements of the story line related to Treebeard and Fangorn Forest also benefit—probably even more so than Rohan’s leading characters. In the theatrical version, literally days go by while Merry and Pippin’s story line is dropped. For me, this was terribly maddening. Rather gratifyingly, a great deal of the “missing” days are restored. For instance, Merry and Pippin learn about “Ent draughts” and their effect on diminutive folk like Hobbits; and they also have the chance to discover barrels of Southfarthing pipe weed in the flotsam and jetsam of Isengard.

But the real bonus in the extended cut is the fashion in which Jackson and Boyens make up for the tragic story line losses of the theatrical Towers and both versions of Fellowship. Tolkien’s creative and engaging development of Treebeard’s character—including his charming manner of speech, his preoccupation with hastiness, his songs and references to the Ent-wives—is not only resurrected, it’s interwoven with freshets lifted from Tom Bombadil. The sneakiest moment in this respect may come when Treebeard tells the sleepy Hobbits, “Heed no nightly noise.” The investment in Treebeard pays off heavily when it’s time for Treebeard (and, yes, the Huorns!) to confront Saruman and his forces.

Saruman, His Minions—and Sauron’s

The balance sheet with respect to Saruman, however, is rather mixed. The most pleasant surprise of the early scenes in the extended Towers is probably the extra moments we get to spend on the trek across Rohan with Merry, Pippin and their captors. These additions not only aid character development, they plug what was a key plot-hole of the theatrical version: the reason that the raiding party consists of orcs from both Isengard and Mordor. The extended version makes it quite clear that a rendezvous between Saruman’s orcs of the White Hand and Sauron’s forces had been pre-arranged—and that Sauron’s troops were not expecting a westward course across Rohan, much less rough treatment from their larger and hardier counterparts.

The downside is that this tension goes nowhere—in fact, the extended version only reinforces what is arguably one of the most tragic simplifications of Jackson’s Towers: the idea that Saruman really thinks he can be an ally to Sauron, when all he can truly hope for is to be either a lackey or a usurper. The outcome of the War of the Ring shall be “the union of the two towers. Together,” Saruman explains, “we shall rule.” Fat chance, that. It’s sad that Jackson’s Saruman doesn’t understand that the Ring is his only chance for survival—and not merely by gaining it, but by using it against Sauron, not in league with him.

Aragorn, the Dúnedain and the Elves at Helm’s Deep

The additional time spent developing Aragorn’s character has a likewise mixed payoff. To Jackson’s credit, Aragorn now really has a history—and one that other key characters, like Éowyn, discover. We find out quite a lot more about the Dúnedain, to whom Aragorn belongs, and about his long struggle to fulfill his destiny as the heir of Elendil. While Aragorn’s character is still, for Jackson, a hero-in-the-making rather than a hero-born-to-be, Aragorn’s development now takes place in the context of his identity as Tolkien created it. The strongest element in this regard is the time devoted to a discussion of one of Aragorn’s heirlooms, the Ring of Barahir: a First-Age gift from the Elvish king Finrod, and a sign of descent from Barahir’s son Beren. A nice touch, indeed.

But this only exacerbates what is already an inexplicable tension between Aragorn and Elrond, who in Tolkien’s tale is also descended from Beren and his Elven bride, Luthien. Further, the arrival of Haldir’s Elves at Helm’s Deep now becomes a grudging concession to alliances of the past—in spite of “knowledge” that the cause is lost. For all the mental powers which Jackson and Boyens have invented for Elrond and Galadriel, their vision is spectacularly shortsighted, and incorrect. One can only guess that some lost footage somewhere justifies the inexplicable relationship of Jackson’s Aragorn and Elrond.

The Steward, His Sons and The Ring

And it’s truly odd that added scenes related to Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, aid one of the story’s principal minor characters—Faramir—while seriously weakening one who doesn’t even have a line of dialog in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. It’s refreshing, certainly, to get some feeling for the significance of Osgiliath in the story of Gondor. Likewise, the flashback relating its recapture—some months prior, from the forces of Sauron—is an efficient way of providing weight to the dilemma which Faramir faces: what can the younger brother of a favored and highly popular older brother, sent on an odd quest to Rivendell amidst the heat of battle, do to impress his father? The scene provides badly needed justification for Jackson’s Faramir to haul Frodo to the White City of Gondor, considering that the incident does not appear in Tolkien’s novel.

The Problem of Boromir, the Problem of Evil

But the flashback in Osgiliath also does something which must be almost obscene for many Tolkien fans: it completely alters the motivation for Boromir—a character who has already died in another movie! Boromir’s actions need to make sense within the context of The Fellowship of the Ring—and they do!—not within the context of The Two Towers. Having thought we’d already made sense of Boromir—that he’d fallen victim to the Ring’s power to work upon his own temptation to power—we’re now told that he really wanted to bring the Ring to Gondor only because Daddy wanted him to. It was no fault of his own; he was just trying to be a good son. The bigger explanation seems to be, for Jackson, that the problem of evil is purely external, not internal: and that’s an idea which is not in the spirit of Tolkien.

All in all, though, the extended version proves very satisfying to fans of The Two Towers. If you haven’t seen the short version, the extended version is also the better bet of the two. But if you didn’t much care for the theatrical release, the extended version may or may not float your boat.

One thing is for sure: the pace is much slower, so lay in a good supply of snacks and caffeinated beverages—and enjoy!

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Two Towers Extended Edition is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Fellowship of the Ring, Extended Edition review by Greg Wright

In general, I am not a fan of “director’s cuts,” or extended versions of theatrical releases. With very few exceptions, such as Milos Forman’s Amadeus, the addition of “restored” footage makes little or no impact on the effectiveness of a movie. Peter Jackson’s extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring is one of these rare exceptions. In fact, the additions that Jackson has made—scattered widely across its three-plus hour running time—transform Fellowship from a very good movie into a truly great film.

Attention to Detail

Many Tolkien fans were probably disappointed to find that Tom Bombadil was not restored. In general, though, Jackson judged rightly in not introducing major new sequences to the film. Instead, bits and snippets have been added to the scenes that were already there, helping greatly to eliminate the rushed feeling of the original version. Many of these detail-oriented additions simply make the film feel lived in—like Bilbo’s frantic avoidance of the Sackville-Bagginses, the short pub conversation of the Gamgees and Sandymans, the passing of the Elves in the woods of the Shire, or the extra time taken in the passage of Moria.

extended-fellowship-insetOthers, like the fleshed-out Orc ambush of Isildur at Anduin, improve the viewer’s orientation to Middle-earth and its back-story. It’s safe to say that someone who has never read The Lord of the Rings would be much better off seeing the extended version of Jackson’s movie.

Moving the Plot Forward

In the theatrical release of Fellowship, it often feels that the plot wouldn’t advance if it weren’t pushed along mercilessly. The effort to keep the running time down removed many of the filmmaker’s story-telling tools from Jackson’s kit, and the film consequently suffered. When we can spend a little more time in Lórien, however, we get not only the added bonus of seeing it during the daytime, but much more of Haldir’s conversations with the Fellowship, too. This tremendously aids the viewer’s understanding of the Fellowship’s imminent dissolution. We understand the tensions between Elves and Dwarves a little better; we see a little more of Aragorn’s leadership in Gandalf’s absence; we see more of a contrast between Aragorn and Boromir; and Haldir is allowed to reinforce Galadriel’s later assertion that the Fellowship brings great evil to Lórien.

The longer visit to Lórien also allows a more thorough reaction to Gandalf’s departure. “Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf,” Galadriel says. “We don’t yet know his full powers.” Boromir is even allowed to philosophize a bit, and Sam can recite his own tribute.

Of course, the great bonus of this more leisurely pace is the purposefulness now felt in the scene at Galadriel’s mirror; it seems far less perfunctory, less like a potty stop and more like a way station. And the few moments spent on the gifts of Galadriel will pay off heavily, in terms of narrative effectiveness, in later installments.

The ability to spend a bit longer on Anduin also heightens the tension with respect to Gollum. It’s much clearer that he’s a clever, persistent tracker; Aragorn’s unease becomes more understandable; and Gollum’s ties to Mordor are reinforced.

Character Development

The biggest payoff in the extended version, however, is probably in character development. We get to spend much more time with Bilbo, and gain a better feel for Sam’s loyalty. Merry and Pippin become much more than Jacksonian Ewoks, and Celeborn comes off as a leader instead of a foggy-headed dope-smoker. Frodo’s emotional response to the weight of the Ring and the travail of the Fellowship becomes almost palpable.

Four of the principal characters, though, are particularly helped by increased screen time. Boromir becomes much more three-dimensional. His exchange with Aragorn at the shrine of Narsil establishes much of his overconfidence and arrogance, and his extended speech early on at the Council of Elrond establishes his motivation. In Lórien, he is allowed to exhibit both marked despondency and human compassion, so that his extended torment with Frodo at Amon Hen becomes clearly schizophrenic—a personality split under the influence of the Ring, not just latent or hidden aggression.

Aragorn’s self-doubt becomes not only suggested, but terribly explicit. While visiting his mother’s grave in Rivendell, he is reminded by Elrond that his fate is less than determined. He may or may not come to wield great power. “I do not want that power,” says Aragorn. Illusions of grandeur do not motivate him. He is the anti-Boromir. Much later on the Great River, as the two speak, Boromir tells Aragorn, “You’re afraid—scared of who you are, and what you are.” Aragorn doesn’t argue, and we know well enough by that point why. He is afraid. He will not flinch when the rubber must hit the road, but he will still be afraid.

Galadriel, of course, is simply allowed to come alive. Her relationship with Celeborn becomes tangible and credible, and her interest in the Fellowship authentic. Even her time with Frodo is more lingering, and she is allowed to remark on the cost of power—the cost of which Aragorn is only too aware. She exhibits Nenya, one of the Three Rings of the Elves. “To bear a Ring of Power,” she tells Frodo, “is to be alone.” Frodo is finding that out; but we get to see a glimpse of that in Galadriel. Her character is less of a cipher.

It’s hard to believe that Gandalf’s portrayal could be improved, but it has been. It helps to see the workings of his mind. The very small moment now spent for him to take Frodo aside on the trail from Caradhras to Moria is judicious and effective. Here we see Gandalf profoundly disturbed by his premonition that Moria will bring his doom. His concern for Frodo’s care is never more palpable; his irritability with Merry and Pippin more understandable; and his tenderness with Frodo in Moria more heartfelt.

It’s also a tremendously nice touch to have him as the silent partner behind Frodo’s leadership of the Fellowship. As they leave Imladris, Frodo asks, “Which way is it, Gandalf? Left or right?” A knowing and compassionate smile very faintly touches Gandalf’s face. “Left,” he says. It feels like a biblical spirit of guidance.

Effective Action

The running time of the original Fellowship was so short as to leave even the movie’s action sequences feeling rushed. Two of these are improved tremendously by the increased running time. The first is the battle with the Cave Troll in Moria, and the second is the climactic clash with the Uruk-hai at Amon Hen. If the original release established Orlando Bloom as the definitive Bowmaster, you won’t want to miss what he does with seven consecutive shots in the extended version. Unbelievable!!

In its original configuration, The Fellowship of the Ring was very much deserving of the Oscar nominations it received, and the awards it did win. In its extended version, it’s clearly the movie of the millennium thus far; and the performances of McKellan, Bloom, Bean, Holm, Mortensen, and Wood all become Oscar-worthy.

How many thumbs up can we find for this movie? Any spares out there?

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Return of the King, review by Greg Wright

Symphonic. I can find no better single word to describe the design, execution, and impact of The Return of the King.

Conventional wisdom dictates that movie scripts be designed and function in much the same way as a short story; another apt comparison would be the musical form of the overture.

And just as most stories are short in comparison to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, so are most movies mere overtures in comparison to Peter Jackson’s unprecedented cinematic achievement. A running time of three-plus hours certainly allows a design reminiscent of a symphony’s multiple, distinct movements—even, as in this case, the many “false” endings for which symphonies are often criticized.

Other classic films of the past, of course, have also felt symphonic—Amadeus, Apocalypse Now!, Lawrence of Arabia, even Saving Private Ryan. What distinguishes Jackson’s magnum opus, however, is that the tempo of his cinematic symphony’s final movement is largovery slow. Proportionately, Jackson spends nearly as much time on his denouement—the “wrapping up” of the story—as does Tolkien. And Jackson’s daring pace, perfectly in harmony with the spirit of Tolkien, pays off in a terribly satisfying and haunting experience.

return-of-the-king-insetIt’s well that audiences have a chance to catch their collective breath. Sequences of The Return of the King stack up as some of the most visceral entertainment ever conceived—too intense, I would imagine, even for many teenagers. The sequence in the Morgul Vale, for instance, had me literally cowering in my seat, even as Frodo himself cowered from the cry of the Witch King. I would never have anticipated that the Black Breath could be so effectively evoked through film.

And the battle of the Pelennor fully conveys the scale and horrific cost of genocidal conflict. I was convinced that this truly was a battle to determine the fate of men—a “war to end all wars.” The elephant-like Mumakil may have been overdone, and purists—like myself—will chafe at Jackson’s treatment of the Black Ships; but the stand which Eowyn takes at her fallen King’s side, facing down the Witch King of Angmar astride his winged steed, is a moment that makes Jackson’s rocky road to Minas Tirith worth whatever anguish it might have brought.

Still, Jackson knows that the heart of this story is not cities, dark riders, or vast armies. It’s the hobbits, and the struggles they face in playing their own small parts in the War of the Ring.

Early on, Frodo and Sam discuss their dwindling food supplies—which Jackson craftily utilizes to illustrate how the Ring’s power can cause Frodo to doubt even his trusty gardener—and Sam still anticipates “the journey home.” Similarly, Merry and Pippin look forward to the day they can relax “back at the Green Dragon after a hard day’s work.”

So it’s a shock to Sam and Frodo—and dismaying to the audience—when they realize they aren’t going to need food for the return trip. It’s saddening, when Pippin and Merry are separated, to hear Pippin ask, “We’ll see each other soon, won’t we? Won’t we?” Merry can only reply, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And honestly, because Jackson has been brave enough to tweak plot points ever since the hobbits left the Shire, we feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen, either.

So we are left to work through the hobbits’ despair with them, feeling, like Pippin, that “we have no song for great halls and evil times.” All we have is what Gandalf calls “a fool’s hope,” as dire times drive men to fell deeds. “Go now,” one character says as the darkness surrounds him, “and die in what way seems best to you.”

But in keeping with Tolkien’s vision—with his belief that his art could “rekindle an old light” in the darkness of this world’s anguish—the foolishness of hope triumphs over the despair at the ends of pragmatic wisdom. Frodo may well poignantly ask, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life?” And he may justifiably debunk the subtitle of Bilbo’s story: “There and Back Again.” But that’s still not the end of the tale.

“The ships have come to carry you home,” Annie Lennox sings over the closing credits. How will we feel when that day comes for ourselves? Will we feel, like Peter Jackson expressed in interviews, that our story has ultimately been depressing—that whatever triumph we have experienced is but a temporary respite from the “long defeat”?

Or, as screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh alternately anticipate, will we find freedom and release?

As they worked on the final phase of this film, Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh watched a young man be taken from this world by cancer. Was that the end of his story? Tolkien believed in a life after death, a “place called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed.” So do Boyens and Walsh, in a way. “The journey doesn’t end here,” their Gandalf says, using Tolkien’s words. Death is “just another path, one that we all must take. As the gray rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and turns to silver glass, then you’ll see it. White shores; and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

And a languid conclusion to a satisfying symphony.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Return of the King is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Two Towers, review by Greg Wright

With the Hobbit films having run their weary course, and 10 years having passed since The Lord of the Rings wrapped up its home video run, the time seems right to revisit my reviews of the Rings films.

The Nature of “Story”

In Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo take a little time to rest and philosophize as they approach Cirith Ungol. They talk about the story in which they find themselves, and about the nature of Story in general. Not surprisingly, Tolkien’s Hobbits observe that we don’t hear about all stories: the unlucky or the unfaithful are not memorialized. No; it’s those who stick it out to the end that we hear about, those who persevere to the conclusion of their quest.

Of course, that’s not entirely true, nor has it ever been. But it’s certainly true of the kind of tale in which Frodo and Sam find themselves. And it’s as true of Peter Jackson’s movies as it is of Tolkien’s books.

two-towers-insetJackson’s is a Different Story

Jackson’s filmed version of The Two Towers is not the same story as Tolkien’s. The titular towers are not even the same as those emphasized by Tolkien: Orthanc and Barad-dûr have been substituted for Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith. The framework of Jackson’s story is provided by the Axis of Evil which hems in and ravages Rohan and Gondor; Tolkien’s framework places more emphasis on the battle for right, waged in the shadowlands which form between darkness and light.

With a different framework come different details. The story line of Jackson’s movie departs from Tolkien’s text in more marked and radical ways than did the previous installment. This comes as no surprise to Tolkien fans, however, as the many teasers and trailers for The Two Towers give up many of Jackson’s secrets fairly easily.

It’s Not Just the Plot

So when seeing Jackson’s movie, we find that Éowyn plays a very different role for Jackson than she did for Tolkien. After all, her voice is featured more, perhaps, in the previews than in the entirety of Tolkien’s novel. We know that she goes not to Dunharrow, but to Helm’s Deep; she gets far closer to Aragorn than Tolkien ever let her. And this is only one of many such details that change in Jackson’s story.

It’s sufficient to say that the well-read Tolkien buff will find plenty to squirm about in The Two Towers, if there’s plenty of squirm in the buff. But such details are really not the way to measure any story, much less Jackson’s. Plot variations are just the window-dressing for what the story is really about. Why is Jackson’s story particularly worth telling? Why is it particularly worth watching?

It’s About Responsibility

In The Fellowship of the Ring, we saw a very different Aragorn and Arwen than Tolkien envisioned. In The Two Towers, we see more of them, and it’s not just more of the same. We also see a very different Theoden, and a different Faramir. Why are they different? Why has Jackson given us consistently conflicted characters where Tolkien served up stock archetypes?

Jackson’s treatment of Arwen in The Two Towers is a good case study. We see more of her influence on Aragorn, physically and metaphysically. We see more of her in flashbacks, and in flash-forwards. We see more of the tension between her and Elrond than Tolkien even included in his Appendices. Arwen, like other Jackson characters, exhibits precisely what drives Jackson’s movies: the tension between being and becoming, and the responsibility that comes with free will and the exercise of choice. You may want to reject what your family has stood for, Jackson tells his audience, but there will be a price to pay if you do. Count the cost, and pay the piper when he calls.

It’s About Redemption

It’s also no spoiler, even for those who have never read the books, that Gandalf makes a return engagement in The Two Towers. Having fallen into the abyss with the Balrog in Moria, he emerges victorious and is sent back to aid in the defense against the onslaught from Mordor and Isengard. For Tolkien, this was a major event. For Jackson, it’s merely a presage of what’s to come. Time after time, Jackson’s characters appear to fall, only to rise again.

Of course, the repeated motif of victory over death points precisely to the evangelium which Tolkien designed into his story: the joyful good news of the victory of mercy over judgment, the victory of life over death. Tolkien called the effect eucastastrophe. Even Jackson’s Boromir, we will remember, redeemed himself with his valor in defense of Merry and Pippin, and with his dying fealty to Aragorn. The Two Towers is all about such redemption, and sets the stage for The Return of the King.

It’s About Faithfulness

Finally, and ultimately, Jackson’s movie is about the faithfulness to be found even in seemingly broken fellowship. The image of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli gamely pursuing the marauding Uruk-hai indelibly defines the guiding heart of The Two Towers. Because of the chosen framework for his story, Jackson’s movie is darker than Tolkien’s. Because of the details that hang from his framework, his movie is more grisly, and may be hard for many to watch, particularly children.

But in the end, Jackson’s movie makes a strong case for perseverance; for faithful service to those you’ve sworn to uphold; and for standing by the right thing, after all has been considered and doubts have been weighed. Do the right thing, Jackson says, and do it whatever the cost.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Two Towers is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Fellowship of the Ring, review by Greg Wright

With the Hobbit films having run their weary course, and 10 years having passed since The Lord of the Rings wrapped up its home video run, the time seems right to revisit my reviews of the Rings films. We start this week with my original review of the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Peter Jackson’s Vision of Middle-earth

The director of The Fellowship of the Ring has walked a very fine line between faithfulness to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision and placing upon that vision his own unique stamp; and he has managed to do it, for the most part, consummately.  Alternately rushed and elegiac, perfunctory and moving, Jackson’s film version of the novel manages to portray the key elements that make Middle-earth a fantasy reader’s preferred destination.  At the same time, Jackson has lifted some of the lesser themes from the novel into the foreground, presenting some new spiritual ideas to his audience for consideration.

First and foremost, the story remains one of the tension between Free Will and Providence.  The best of Gandalf’s words from the book remain intact, if condensed mostly into one speech to Frodo at the crossroads in Moria, reminding Frodo (and the audience) that, first, there are other hands than our own guiding our fate; and second, that it remains up to us to decide what to do with the time that we have.

fotr-insetBut the first of the elements that makes this uniquely Jackson’s picture, and one that works very well, is the emphasis on the temptation of The Ring.  Gandalf, Bilbo, Boromir, Galadriel, Aragorn and even Elrond (partly through the Prologue) are all given extended, lingering chances to ponder the significance of the chance at unrestrained power.  While most of these encounters occur in the book as well, the opportunities that are added (Boromir at the Red Horn Pass and Aragorn at Amon Hen) and the time devoted by Jackson to the other encounters makes it clear that personal response to temptation is one issue with which he hopes to confront his audience.

The second element dominates the closing moments of the film, though it is foreshadowed in the extended treatment of Gandalf’s visit with Saruman.  For Jackson, it doesn’t seem enough that Tolkien’s heroes go on motivated by the conviction of things not seen (the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1, one with which Tolkien seems utterly content).  Instead, the characters can only go on by knowing precisely where they are headed, and why.  For instance, Pippin and Merry no longer play an unwitting part in protecting Sam and Frodo; instead, knowing that Frodo is leaving the Fellowship, they deliberately draw the fire of the Orcs.  Likewise, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli do not go in pursuit of the two Hobbits having to guess at Sam and Frodo’s fate; they know.  I doubt that Tolkien would have been enthused at this change.  In his vision, acceptance of not knowing was precisely part of properly understanding the relation of Free Will and Providence.

The third element comes at the very end of the film, as Sam sinks into the waters of Anduin, reaching out for help.  To this point (the exception being very brief sequences in the Shire), Jackson’s film has been exceedingly dark.  Even in Rivendell it is fall, and the colors are muted; and most of the truncated Lórien sequence takes place in twilight.  Why?  Where is the light?  Jackson answers with a vision straight from Michelangelo: the vision of the hand of Man reaching out to God for Salvation, coming in the form—here—of the hand of another Hobbit assisted by a bright Light.  It’s an audacious addition to Tolkien’s vision, and it works!

Visualization from the Printed Page to the Screen

A (mostly) live-action film has been in the minds of many a fan since the days of the first Star Wars movie.  The ability of cinema technology to blend live-action sequences with CGI and other special effects has finally made the film presentation of even the most fantastic images a reality.  So how does TFOTR score?  Excellent, in most ways.  The art direction in general is fabulous (well, it kind of had to be, didn’t it?), and certain locations (the Shire, Rivendell and the Argonath, as examples) are terrifically realized.  Overall, though, the world of Middle-earth seemed a little greasier and dirty than I had imagined it.

Expanded Roles for Some Characters… 

It’s natural that some details of the plot and characters should change in order to make the transition from book to screen.  In past efforts, as in the present, it has been obvious that you just can’t pack all those characters into the available screen time.  So what do you do?  Obviously a lot have to go (like Tom Bombadil!) and others must be presented as composites.  But what’s up with the expanded roles for Arwen and Elrond?  In the book, they surface only in Rivendell, while in the movie, they explicitly become significant players in the drama.  Why?  Presuming that expanded roles weren’t the price to pay to get the actors Jackson wanted, it’s pretty easy to account for Liv Tyler’s presence.  With the second movie still a year away, you can’t really wait until the second movie for Éowyn to appear as the series’ primary romance interest.  A viable love interest must appear early to give the movie a strong, young, attractive female character, making the stand-alone-film formula work.  Regarding Elrond, his newly-visualized (Prologue) warrior status (though true to the novel) will presumably just simplify things, obviating the need to account for his sons Elladan and Elrohir.

…And Reduced Roles for Others

Tom Bombadil is not the only character MIA.  There are myriad others.  But, as with other adaptations, Bombadil’s absence is the most significant, and troublesome.  Does he disappear simply because, like the rest of us, Jackson has no clue what Bombadil is to represent?  Certainly, Tolkien spent a great number of words on Bombadil for a reason, and it could only have been to clarify things spiritual: for instance, that there are powers in the world over which things material (and even magical) have no power.  Do these spiritual implications come through strongly enough in the movie without Bombadil?  Do they need to?  Jackson seems to have substituted magically-powered females and wizard-duels for the role intended for Bombadil.  Why do Elrond and Celeborn seem so, uh, reserved in comparison to their female counterparts?

The Performances

It’s certainly a pleasure to see many familiar faces from around the world cropping up in wonderful and delightful ways.  After The Matrix, for instance, it’s great to see Hugo Weaving get a turn at ancient nobility as Elrond.  Likewise, it’s absolute genius to cast Ian Holm as Bilbo.  And while other international favorites such as Christopher Lee, Ian McKellan and Cate Blanchett contribute in major roles, I’ll go out on a limb here and nominate Sean Astin as the casting coup of the series, and the heart of the film.  Ever since Rudy, Astin has deserved a shot at anchoring a major film, and here he shines.

The Bottom Line

Though it’s clear that this is a darker—and scarier—vision of Middle-earth than comes across on the printed page, obviously, the film succeeds as terrific entertainment for adolescents and adults, and will no doubt sate the appetite of Tolkien addicts at least for a few months.  Box-office records will fall, and fall mightily.  But what about the entire series?  Will it become flabby and perfunctory, like the Star Wars series?  Or will it actually build momentum, and end with as satisfying a conclusion as the novels?

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Fellowship of the Ring is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Presence, review by Greg Wright

What can you say about an effective ghost story… without spoiling the effect?  Without spilling key plot points and character arcs?

The answers are: Not Much, and Very Little.  So prepare for what may be the shortest film review I’ve ever written, as I have no intention of ruining the very simple and intense pleasure that is a screening of The Presence.

I will, however, just mention that my wife and I recently spent a long weekend at a “cabin in the woods” and had some creepy experiences. So the timing of this review is at least a propos of something.

Here’s the basic setup:  A troubled young writer schedules a secluded week or two holed up the remote cabin where she spent time with family as a child.  The catch: the cabin is now inhabited by a ghost.  The other catch: the writer ends up with some additional unwanted company, human and otherwise.

So just a few things to note.

the-presence-insetFirst: While this is writer/director Tom Provost’s feature-film debut, he’s hardly a greenhorn in the business.  His background in theater is on display with the creative staging of the copious cabin interior sequences—but his lengthy (if spotty and varied) experience as a TV actor, screenwriter, and editor/producer/director of commercial films comes to culmination here.  This is really a pretty brilliant first film, one with which any director would be immensely pleased.  Even though Provost has mentioned his awareness of the film’s many shortcomings (so says he), I can’t think of a single significant thing he could have done to improve the effect.  Certainly, a larger budget wouldn’t have helped a bit—and it’s not often you can say that.

Second: The major roles are brilliantly cast.  In the past, I’ve usually felt that Mira Sorvino has been given a free pass by directors (and critics) because she’s just so darned appealing. But she’s really working here, and contributes immensely not only through her performance but through the influence of her craft.  The synergy that’s created between her character backstory and Provost’s script is pretty remarkable.  It is, in fact, what really lends the story’s climax its weight and significance.  In addition, Shane West, Justin Kirk, and Tony Curran are all seasoned vets and turn in A-list supporting work here.  Again this reflects well on Provost.

Third:  It’s worth pointing out that this is a film that really nails what a good ghost story should do.  Yes, it works at a metaphorical level—as Sorvino’s writer gets a chance to work through her “inner demons”—and takes seriously the notion of the metaphysical world.  But it also takes that extra step, taking very, very seriously the idea that the metaphysical world has both a bearing on the here and now and, literally, the hereafter.  It’s a stirring vision of mercy and redemption.

This is a wonderful film to not only watch and enjoy but talk about and think about for days afterward.  If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking in the form of a ghost story, invest in The Presence.  You won’t regret it, unless you suffer extensively from either clinical or culturally-induced ADD.

Just don’t expect chase sequences, blood and guts, zombies, or slasher gore.  This is a smart film that takes its time getting under your skin.

Well, now… I guess that wasn’t so short after all!

The Presence is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, review and interview by Greg Wright

It seems to me absurd to be talking about “entertainment” in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. The real story there, after all, is the damage in Kathmandu and the human toll involved; and yet we also find headlines about “the deadliest season in Mount Everest’s history.”

Thanks to the quake, the world’s tallest mountain is back in the news again, as some 150 climbers on hand for the pre-monsoon summit season are now more or less trapped above the notoriously unstable Khumbu Icefall, through and over which poured the avalanche that killed over a dozen at Everest’s base camp.

While perusing the abundant discussion of the Nepal disaster on social media, I was reminded of my talk several years ago with three-time Everest summiteer Conrad Anker, who was in Seattle promoting his “documentary,” The Wildest Dream. The film attempts to answer the question, “Could George Mallory and Sandy Irvine have possibly summitted Everest before they disappeared in 1924?” Anker’s angle on the answer was to attempt a “free climb” of the “Second Step” on Mallory’s Northeast Ridge route—a feat which has only been accomplished by two climbers. The Wildest Dream documents Anker’s attempt.

wildestdreaminsetMy discussion with Anker following the screening was pretty detailed. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am something an Everest junkie, and will read or watch just about anything connected to Himalayan mountaineering.

I am also a huge, huge fan of David Breashears’ IMAX Everest film starring Ed Viesturs and the team that was on the mountain during the deadly climbing season of 1996.  If I came across that film playing on Dick Tracy’s wristwatch, I’d find myself glued to even that postage-stamp sized screen.

In any event, here’s a bit of my what I talked about with Anker. You can read the entire interview here.

GW: I read Jim Wickwire’s Addicted to Danger.  It seemed to me he was saying climbers are all adrenaline junkies.  And since there’s nothing quite like the rush of climbing an 8000-meter peak, we keep going back for more—because it’s just such a thrill.

CA: Yeah—free-soloing a rock face or climbing an ice climb, or driving a jet boat: everyone responds to risk in a different way.  And risk is what creates adrenaline.  And adrenaline—like that “No Fear” thing—has been maligned.  It’s not risk; it’s what we need to do.  And the risks that I take, to someone not in it, I seem like the craziest person in the whole world. “You’re going to go climb Everest—you’re doing it for the second time.  You are completely nuts.”  And yet this same person can be sitting in a board room running billions of dollars into a hedge fund, selling short and buying long, working with these derivatives that tanked the whole thing. And they have a tremendous amount of risk.  It’s just they’re looking at it in a different way.

GW: At the same time, in spite of processing all of this at the intellectual level, we come head to head with the unanticipated and the unexpected.  With Wickwire, it’s on Denali or with Marty Hoey on Everest; with you it’s on Shishapangma with Lowe.  At that point, something else clicks in, right?  Or you say, “Now it’s happened; now it’s reality.”  And you have to go through the survivor guilt, and say, “Did we go too far?  Did we manage the risks?”  What makes you want to get back on the bike, as it were, after that?

CA: Obviously, in a balanced intellectual sense, you would have to say, “Well, the rewards are greater than the risks.”  Something like that.  And I think some people can analyze that, and say, “Yes, that’s what it is.”  And someone else can say, “Well, I’m not going to climb any more.”  But doing that at a certain level where you’re not crossing the line over into that danger zone, I just think that there are certain people who are hard-wired in their DNA to go out and take on more risk than their fellows.  And that’s what has allowed humans to become what we are.  For just one example, look at Homer’s Odyssey: these great tales of leaving behind the family and going off into the unknown—and great risk of death or disfigurement.  And then they come home and are heralded as heroes.  They might come back with bounty, and things like that.  It goes back into when we were hunter-gatherers.  The men would have to go out and do this, and it is sort of the basis of how we have created society.

GW: Well, at a survival level, even then there had to have been some people who said, “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.”  And because of the extremity of the circumstances, they tended to be bred out of the equation.

CA: Or they became the ones who made the better baskets.  And for their tribe and their clan, they were able to have worth in a way that wasn’t necessarily equated with going out on the hunt.

So in this case, we have the climbers—and the film producers. Anker puts himself on the line at 28,000 feet while National Geographic suits figure out how to “make a better basket,” as it were, about Mallory’s pursuit of Everest.

The Wildest Dream itself is not really a documentary per se, but a kind of Himalayan reality TV, with high-def camera crews on hand to capture Anker’s staged recreations of George Mallory’s final assault on Everest in 1924, and his attempt to free-climb the legendary “Second Step,” the obstacle which most likely—most likely—turned Mallory and Irvine back before summiting.

But I digress, in a way.  There’s a ton of mountaineering history behind this film, and even a little cinematic history as well.  Ever since Mallory and Irvine disappeared in the third British Everest expedition, speculation about their odds of summiting prior to their deaths has varied widely.  Their last known position on the north ridge was somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000 feet (depending on which version of sole eyewitness Noel Odell’s own recollections was actually correct) and it has been impossible to entirely rule out either of the major options: success or failure.

But in 1999, Anker was a last-minute addition to a speculative expedition that set out to recover the body of Irvine—and instead found Mallory himself.  The story of that expedition has been contentiously told elsewhere: online, in print, and on video.

What that expedition failed to do, however, was answer the key Mallory question: would it have been technically possible—from a purely mountaineering point of view—for Mallory and Irvine to have surmounted the Second Step and pressed on to the summit?

In spite of a fairly settled conclusion in his own account of the 1999 expedition, the question has obviously gnawed at Anker over the intervening decade because the Wildest Dream expedition sets out to answer that question once and for all—not definitively, of course, but to Anker’s satisfaction.

To up the ante this time out, Anker’s team includes a young Himalayan neophyte, Leo Houlding, as Anker’s climbing partner—in an attempt to replicate the Mallory-Irvine pairing.  Further, the climbers are outfitted with replica clothing and equipment from Mallory’s era.  Ideally, the climbers would tackle the critical highest reaches of the North Ridge route in the replica gear as part of the challenge.

The movie earns high marks for documenting the Mallory saga.  With an all-star voice cast that includes Liam Neeson and his late wife Natasha Richardson as George and Ruth Mallory, letters and period writings from the pair (and others) accompany Ken Burns-style photo montages and newsreel footage to tell the tale of their ill-fated and tragic romance.  Interviews from Mallory’s descendants, Anker, and other Everest/Mallory experts round out the drier, technical part of the program.

The re-enactments of the 1999 expedition aren’t terribly convincing, however, especially for those familiar with the professional and ethical squabbles associated with that effort; but from a historical documentation standpoint, the film nonetheless excels at putting us right on the slopes of Everest for sorting that story out in a condensed and simplified fashion, and it completely nails the drama of finding out exactly what climbing in Mallory and Irvine’s gear might entail.  Wisely, the production team abandoned the idea of using the replicas aside from a few short high-altitude excursions.  While Mallory and Irvine might have been used to climbing in gabardine and hobnails, Anker and his partner were not—and the risk of frostbite or sliding off the mountain was simply too high.  But the sequences are no less stunning for the failed attempt.

Finally, it’s probably an excellent idea that the early stretches of the film feature a post-summit Anker.  Otherwise the tension that mounts during his unaided climb of the 90-foot-high rock face called the Second Step might just be too much for audiences.  The stakes of such technically challenging climbing are always high—but at 28,000 feet, well into the so-called Death Zone… well, only a handful of climbers would be so daring (foolhardy?) as to attempt such a thing.

Knowledgeable climbers, as Anker himself notes, will well know the significance of a fixed belay—which Mallory would have been climbing without—but try telling that to a lay audience.

Also try telling newbies that Anker isn’t the first to “perform” as Mallory on Everest (the honors there go to the British actor Brian Blessed), that Anker also tried free-climbing the Second Step in 1999 and (just barely) failed, or that Anker is almost certainly not the only climber to have succeeded in the attempt—and so what?  Those facts are probably best left out of what is most certainly Anker’s attempt to best not Everest but himself.

Why climb Everest?  Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.”  The real answer was probably, “Because it’s still there.”  Anker is drawn to Mallory because he’s driven by the same impulses: when you aim high and fail, and it’s within your power to try again, you simply go back for another round.

Never mind the details.

So my biases aside… Is this worth a rental?  I’d say probably yes.  I know way more about Everest than is likely good for me, but I still know an entertaining film when I see one.

The Wildest Dream is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, commentary by Greg Wright

Sergio Leone transformed the American Western. Literally. As one of the major exponents of the low-budget guerilla filmmaking genre dubbed the “Spaghetti Western,” Leone transcended the limitations of a pulp brand and elevated it to a fine art. Yes, there had long been “Horse Operas.” But Leone’s grandiose Italian heritage really did ultimately produce a form of Western that was baroque in its scope and style. His films were mythic operas of justice.

leone-insetOne of the reasons Westerns are so effective, of course, is because the very material from which they draw their stories is myth. The tradition is literary. As the American Frontier was opening, homeward-bound letters were already re-writing history, and pulp novelists like Ned Buntline (see: the “Duke of Death” hagiographer in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) were johnny-on-the-spot to capitalize on the East Coast appetite for all things Cowboy and Indian. Stories about gunfighters were especially popular. Even noted 19th century-born European writers like C.S. Lewis raved about the influence such books had on their imaginations.

The trick is this: Western stories don’t have to actually be true. Nobody expects that. No, they just have to feel true. And most good Westerns have that in spades.

But what makes them feel true? Not the landscapes, which are often Mexican, Canadian, or Spanish. Not the sets, which are often far too aged for newness of the frontier. Not the costumes (though Halloweenish conventions help a lot!). Not the performances, which can often be alternately wooden and over the top. As Spaghetti Westerns demonstrate, the voices don’t even need to sync with the lips.

No, the issue is this: Does the human dilemma, the heightened drama of primal urges, feel right? Does the story portray essential, raw motivations in palpable, tangible fashion? Does an Old Testament, ruthless, almost bloodthirsty appetite for justice ooze through every frame of celluloid?

As the Western genre “matured” (read: bloated), Hollywood sort of lost sight of the purity of motivation in favor of a post-war psychologizing. Sure, big-budget films like The Searchers, Shane, and The Big Country can be considered classics of the genre. But in reality they were almost domestic dramas disguised as Westerns. Thanks to the clarity imposed by low budgets (and the inability to, you know, make their films in the actual Old West), a new school of European ragtag auteurs took advantage of the freewheeling 1960s to recapture the zeitgeist and energy of the early films of John Ford and the works of Bud Boetticher.

Seriously. Compare High Noon, Yellow Sky, The Gunfighter, Stagecoach, The Oxbow Incident, or Winchester ’73 with Hollywood’s colorized 1950s and ’60s Western epics. You can see where Leone and company were coming from.

But not where they were going to.

leone-inset-1Leone introduced Europe to TV’s Rawhide costar, Clint Eastwood, in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. In this very rough film (one that couldn’t possibly get distribution today), Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” (an appellation that stuck after the fact) rides into a town pinned under the ruthless and dictatorial thumb of a feud between two rival families. More free-agent mercenary than hired gun, Eastwood’s character sees the opportunity to both balance the scales of justice and profit financially by playing the two sides against each other, using the money to help the innocent. Justice is served, but not by a saint. Eastwood’s character is more an Angel of Death.

The feel is right: If you see injustice and a gun is handy, what are you gonna do? Just stand by and watch? Well, not if you’re Eastwood. You squint your eyes, bite your cheroot, and take a stand.

leone-inset-2For a Few Dollars More upped the ante in 1965 with a higher budget, a more sprawling storyline, and a consummate character actor in Lee Van Cleef. Here was a co-protagonist worthy of Eastwood. This time the story is more a quest, and the justice pursued by Eastwood’s “Manco” has personal connections via Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer. Great Wrongs are perpetrated by the villain Indio, and once again the Angel of Death pursues and enables Right with brutal effect.

Again, the film is very rough; but the feel is also right: When somebody wrongs you, do you really feel like turning the other cheek? If your family is slaughtered, do you remarry and raise another passel of kids for the monster to destroy? No. You go after the bastards.

leone-inset-3Which brings us to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (The film was released in 1967, the same year that the first two films made their North American debut.) Eastwood is back; but “Blondie” is no deathly dealer of concrete and motivated justice here. Instead, he’s figuratively manacled to a much uglier character, Tuco, a manic outlaw who shares half the secret to a secret hoard of Civil War gold; Blondie holds the other half of the secret.

Van Cleef is back, too, as a Union officer (and hired gun gone rogue) who’s also on the trail of the lost Confederate bullion. This tale, which takes nearly three deliciously detailed hours to unfold, culminates not in a clear-cut battle between a Hero and a Villain but in a three-way showdown between the lesser of evils. Good is not absolute in this universe; instead it’s the relative judge between the Bad and the Ugly, delivering very sweet just desserts. There are not just two kinds of men, Leone’s script tells us. Things are not that neat.

Once more, it feels right, in spite of the moral murkiness. The film is about betrayal, and Leone takes the time to spell out very clearly that the frontier is no place for maidens or the naïve. No; in fact, the naïve had best not even entertain the notion of goodness on the frontier: it’s all dirty, it’s all corrupt, it’s all brutal. It’s all desperate, and almost pointless.

And wasn’t this the disillusioned reality that was about to dawn in the United States? Didn’t we all feel that way already, after Kennedy, but especially after King, after the other Kennedy, after Kent State and Viet Nam? And after Watergate? Our hands were dirty; the United States was no longer a moral beacon but had turned into just another special case of the Bible’s book of Judges. The best we could hope for was to chop the corpse of a gang-raped concubine into twelve pieces and send them out to all the tribes as warnings of the bloodbath to come… right?

leone-inset-4Well, we can thank God, sort of, that Leone didn’t quit with a trilogy. His fourth (and in many ways, best) Western was the truly operatic and literally mythic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969 U.S. release). Eastwood and Van Cleef don’t appear; instead Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda (yes! as a villain!) take the leads. And here, Leone gets to stage his film in John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley, a setting that fittingly never actually hosted such grandiose stories.

Fonda plays Frank, the hired gun of a railroad Empire Builder. The Iron Horse is opening up the West, and the West is changing dramatically. Bronson’s nameless vigilante is nominally the protector of a homesteading (and not so helpless) heiress played by Claudia Cardinale; but he’s really there because he’s got a history with Frank, and a score to settle.

Yes, the story sprawls like a big-budget Hollywood picture (and, in reality, it was, spawned by Leone’s independently-produced successes). But nobody here looks as spiffy as they did in Shane or The Searchers. The Spaghetti Western grit still covers everything in sight, and Ennio Morricone’s epic score underlines the oddity around every corner.

And oh… the climactic confrontation between Frank and Bronson’s “Harmonica” feels oh-so-right. In an oh-so-Old-Testament sort of way.

One critic, I forget who—perhaps it was Film Comment’s Bob Cumbow, but I can’t track down the reference—noted that Leone’s work was characterized by long silences punctuated by blazes of gunfire. (This is true even in Duck You Sucker, aka A Fistful of Dynamite, a misfire of a film that closed Leone’s foray into Westerns—a film that is hard to classify at all, much less nail down as a Western.)

In this way, Leone’s films model God’s seeming interaction in our world, as reported in the Bible. He starts us out in Eden, serves justice, then goes silent. He sends a flood, serves justice, then goes silent. He delivers us from Egypt, plants us in Palestine, then goes silent. He sends invaders from Assyria and Babylon, serves justice, then goes silent. He returns us to Jerusalem, serves justice on our neighbors, then goes silent. Jesus comes, conquers death and sin, then disappears to heaven. He ransoms our souls, stands in for justice, then leaves us to work out our salvation through suffering and sorrow, often seeming to vanish for days, weeks, even years. Yes, the pattern of quick justice followed by silence is scripturally familiar.

But make no mistake: there are no Christ figures in Leone’s Westerns. Mercy is as out of place in his landscape as Leone’s dusters. This truth you will not find in Leone’s vision: God is found not merely in the satisfaction of retribution via human agents; he is also there in the desert, between oases, calling us to sit and dwell in the silence and wait not for an explosion but a still, small voice.

As humans, we want justice, and we want it now, served our way. Leone’s films are visions for December 8 or September 12.

Just don’t learn to live there. God’s a lot bigger than that.

Sergio Leone’s films are available to stream at Amazon.

Check one out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!