I’m fascinated by the idea that someone would make a sequel to a film considered one of the greatest of all time. It’s one thing if it’s a movie that came out just a few years before, as in the case of The Godfather II, but to make a sequel years later, often without a lot of the same cast and crew, seems weird.
In many cases, it’s just a cash grab, but is there perhaps artistic integrity in some of these? Well I’m going to find out. I’ll be skipping the better known sequels like Godfather II or any Star Wars sequels. Instead, I’ll be taking a look at more obscure ones like Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night and the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. I’ll be scoring them by this system:
Story (30 Points)
Returning Characters (15 Points)
New Character (15 Points)
Experience (20 Points)
Originality (20 Points)
I’ll be starting in one week with my review of Return to Oz.
It’s been ten years since The Sopranos aired “Made in America,” its final episode, and it remains one of the most talked about episodes in television history. While initial reactions were mixed, mainly due to a mix of shock and a general sadness that the show was ending, it has come to be regarded as one of the greatest finales of all time. Regardless of what viewers think the ending means, most (not all) agree it’s a great sendoff to an amazing show… but you want to know my thoughts or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Even without the final scene of “Made in America,” it’s hard to deny its greatness. The tension is gripping throughout, we finally see the love-to-hate Phil Leotardo get popped, and we get a beautifully poignant and tearjerking final scene between Tony and his Uncle Junior. Honestly, it’s probably the greatest episode of the series next to Season 5’s “Long Term Parking.”
However, it’s that final scene people keep talking about, so today I’ll be looking at a few of the theories surrounding it, concluding with my own personal theory which I’ve been kicking around for a few years now. First, let’s take a moment-by-moment look at the very final scene of The Sopranos.
After leaving the retirement home where Uncle Junior is now living, Tony enters Holsten’s , the restaurant where he will be meeting his family for dinner. Tony picks “Don’t Stop Believin'” on the jukebox, Carmela enters and sits down, and they discuss the recently-engaged Meadow going to the doctor to switch birth controls, as well as Tony’s soldier Carlo Gervasi agreeing to testify. AJ Soprano enters, right in front of a man wearing a Members Only jacket (We’ll call him MIMOJ for the rest of the post).
Tony says he ordered onion rings for the table (“best in the state”), and Meadow arrives, having trouble parallel parking her car. MIMOJ looks over at Tony’s booth, AJ references his father’s quote from the first season finale to “remember the times that were good,” even though Tony forgets saying it, and MIMOJ walks into the bathroom. Meadow finally parks her car, Tony looks up, CUT TO BLACK.
Does the sudden cut to black mean Tony died, presumably at the hands of MIMOJ (his going into the bathroom a Godfather shout-out)? Or does this ending signify something different altogether? Although many fans look to creator David Chase for answers, it’s obvious he doesn’t intend to tell any more than what’s in the episode, giving clearly contradictory answers just to troll people. He’s the creator, writer and director of this episode—he’s given you everything he wants you to have, stop hounding him for more. Also, it’s clear that cast members have been given no definitive answer, as Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) believes Tony to be dead, while Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri) has stated he believes Tony is alive.
The most common theory held is that Tony dies in this final scene, and there is a doctoral thesis-level argument for that laid out here. One of the major points made is how the camera constantly cuts between Tony looking up towards the door when the bell rings…
Followed by a POV shot from Tony’s perspective, looking at the door.
Since this happens multiple times in the scene, the writer goes on to argue that since the last shot we see is Tony looking up, the blackness that follows is what Tony is now seeing aka death. It’s quite a compelling argument, as this pattern of shots does seem to hold true throughout. From a director’s point of view, it makes a lot of sense, but as a writer, I need more.
Every death on The Sopranos had buildup and motivation, even the most shocking, and it would be entirely un-Sopranos to kill off the main character in its final moments without some kind of explanation, at least in subtext. I refuse to buy into theories suggesting that the scene merely represents Tony’s karma coming back to bite him, or that it’s a hit from one of the other five mafia families he had dealings with that we never saw. The Sopranos was never that kind of show.
Theory #1: Tony Dies at the Hands of the Lupertazzi Family
Within the “Tony dies” camp, this is perhaps the most popular theory. The Lupertazzis were the main antagonists of seasons 5 and 6, with it all coming to a head in the penultimate episode “The Blue Comet.” Current Lupertazzi don Phil Leotardo plans to take out Tony Soprano, Silvio Dante and Bobby Baccalieri, in retaliation for the Sopranos killing Billy Leotardo and Fat Dom Gamiello, beating Coco, and ignoring Vito Spatafore’s homosexuality. After Bobby is killed and Silvio is put in a coma, Tony agrees to have a sit-down with Phil’s right-hand men Butch DeConcini and Albie Cianflone. Accompanied by George, a member of one of New York’s Five Families (the only time we see a character from one of the others) to assure that promises will be kept, Butch gives Tony the go-ahead to kill the increasingly-erratic Phil.
After Phil is located, he is taken out and things presumably go back to normal.
So why would the Lupertazzis kill Tony? When Phil was missing in action, Butch was the acting head of the family. Since he and Albie sat down at a meeting with George in attendance, they know the consequences if they were to hit Tony after a peace agreement was reached. Butchie and Albie have been shown throughout the show’s final episodes to be very level-headed, especially in comparison to Phil’s emotional behavior, so for them to put a hit out on Tony after this meeting would be the epitome of foolishness.
Some have argued that perhaps they could not track down MIMOJ, the supposed assassin they’ve hired, in time to call off the hit, but in previous episodes, hits have been called off at the very last second. Just look at Season 4’s “The Weight,” where John “Johnny Sack” Sacrimoni has his contact call off a hit on Ralph Cifaretto as the assassin is looking right at him. To suggest that the Lupertazzis could not reach the hit man in time is ridiculous, as days pass between the meeting with George and the final scene of the episode.
I suppose a thin argument could be made that Phil personally put out the hit while hiding out from everyone. He is very angry and losing it a bit at this point, however even he is not dumb enough to put out a hit that would cripple his own family that much. He obviously cares about the well-being of the Lupertazzis, and even if he were to die, he would not want them to be in straits that dire. I just can’t see a practical theory for the Lupertazzis being the ones who put out the hit.
Theory #2: Tony Dies at the Hands of One of His Own Men
Over the course of the show, Tony sure has wronged a lot of people, often in his own family, but would any of them go as far as to kill him? For the most part, I still argue that from a storytelling perspective, it’s a cheat to claim something like “Oh Furio Giunta hired a hit man to take out Tony,” when 1) Furio felt terrible guilt and blamed himself for ever considering this in Season 4 and 2) His story ended seasons ago. To end the show on an ambiguous note implying someone who has left the show is related to Tony’s death is too far. Sure, the Members Only jacket is a callback to the Season 6 premiere “Members Only” in which out-of-focus soldier Gene Pontecorvo hung himself after being denied early retirement. However, it is a stretch to suggest that MIMOJ is a relative of Gene’s, as Gene was really only a minor character outside of this episode. Ending the series on one of his actions would just leave viewers shrugging and trying to remember who he was.
The only member of the Soprano crew past or present that could possibly have a motivation and a plot-relevant reason to kill Tony is Pasquale “Patsy” Parisi. In season 2, Patsy’s twin brother Philly is killed on Tony’s orders by Gigi Cestone. In the premiere episode of season 3, a heavily inebriated Patsy comes this close to shooting Tony in revenge, opting instead to pee in his pool.
Over the course of the next few seasons, he remains in the background, always being a presence but rarely doing much. He does get in a fight with Christopher at one point, and he coldly threatens Gloria Trillo, but for the most part, he’s out of focus. However, he seems to rise to prominence in the last few episodes of The Sopranos. Now this may be simply because the other main characters are no longer around due to death, illness or injury, but all of a sudden, Patsy is getting a promotion around the same time his son Patrick is engaged to Meadow.
Meadow seems concerned as she arrives at the restaurant. Something seems to be on her mind as she nervously parks her car and runs into the restaurant, a worried expression on her face.
Has she just put the pieces together on the way over or is Meadow simply concerned because she’s late? Has Patsy’s son only shown interest in her so Patsy can have inside information on where Tony is? I’ll admit that this was the theory I held for a while, but there just isn’t enough evidence.
Patsy is obviously working his way up the ladder, so is he seizing his opportunity while things are hot with the Lupertazzis? If he is in fact climbing the ladder, what good would it do to take out Tony now? He might be able to frame the Lupertazzis, but as shown above, it would be hard to believe that they would have any interest in taking out Tony. The focus on Patsy in the final episodes probably exists to show just how many characters have fallen by the wayside, and this is the kind of character who has finally caught a break.
Theory #3: Life Just Goes On
So if Tony doesn’t die, he just lives life as normal right? Like the song says, “The movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.” Well I refuse to buy into this theory too (I’m difficult, I know). Watch the way the scene adds upon itself, with the pattern of cuts (as described above) and the building of the Journey song. If in fact this is a “Life Goes On” ending, why does it cut early?
I also refuse to buy into the more bizarre theories like 1) It’s all a dream (the episode or the whole series, either way) or 2) It’s all been a documentary and the cameraman gets whacked (OK that one makes me laugh). Instead, I believe there is one more interpretation of the ending…
My Theory: Tony Thinks He’s Dying
To properly understand this final scene, we need to take another look at the scene in The Godfather which inspires it. The obvious inspiration is one of the reasons I refuse to believe this ending is without meaning. In the final scene of The Sopranos, MIMOJ simply looks in Tony’s direction and walks into the bathroom. Viewers who think the final shot represents Tony’s death assume MIMOJ walks into the bathroom, picks up a gun and comes out shooting, killing Tony before he knows what hit him (perhaps a reference to “Soprano Home Movies” where Bobby talks about not hearing death when it comes.)
In the classic restaurant scene of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is meeting with rival gangster Virgil “The Turk” Solozzo and corrupt police chief Mark McCluskey, who were both behind the attempted assassination of his father. Since Michael is frisked before dinner, Peter Clemenza has a gun planted in the bathroom inside the toilet tank. Although Clemenza has advised him to leave the bathroom and come out shooting, Michael instead sits back down, has one last think about it, murders McCluskey and Solozzo, and leaves the quiet restaurant.
However, this scene is just not practical in a modern-day setting. Even while the Corleones are planning the murder in 1945, Salvatore Tessio says the special kind of toilet tank is “old fashioned.” By 2007, no restaurant would have that kind of toilet tank, especially not a modern eatery like Holsten’s. Second of all, why would the MIMOJ need to walk into the bathroom to get the gun at all? He came in by himself and was not frisked at any point. If he had come armed, no one would have known or cared.
Also, if the MIMOJ plans to kill Tony, he should have walked into the restaurant, shot him and left. Instead, he sits at the bar for a few minutes, drinks coffee and looks over at Tony’s table more than once.
This is all in addition to the fact that AJ entered the restaurant right behind him. There are multiple people in the restaurant who could positively ID this man if he committed murder, and the bartender has heard his voice (even though we the audience have not). Even if he broke protocol and took out all four Sopranos, it is still unlikely he would get away with it. I suppose I could understand him not shooting right away just to be sure he has the right person, as a similar mix-up happened in the previous episode with Phil Leotardo. If MIMOJ is a hire assassin from Italy or something, maybe he is trying to verify that this is Tony Soprano, but sitting down just feet away from your intended gangster target and constantly without subtlety looking in his direction is the definition of idiocy.
Also, what happens if the hit is successful? It worked in The Godfather, because it was a quiet restaurant in the 1940s. People understood that the mob did dealings like this and is best to just not get involved. However, Holsten’s is a busy restaurant, with people constantly entering. Heck, it’s implied that Meadow is entering right as the show ends, meaning MIMOJ has no easy way out. What if there’s someone in the restaurant with a gun? If the door is blocked, he could get tackled. It isanything but an ideal situation for a whacking.
In fact, we get a restaurant murder in “Stage 5,” where Gerry Torciano is taken down in front of Silvio Dante and their dates. It’s a quiet, fancy Italian restaurant and mass hysteria still ensues. Most of the guests run out of the large dining room, while a few hide under their tables, and the killer makes his escape by running through the kitchen.
But… MIMOJ is constantly looking over at Tony right? If he’s not eyeing up his target, what is he doing? Well, Tony has been in the news a lot over the course of the show, especially the last season. Perhaps MIMOJ realizes he is sitting across from one of New Jersey’s biggest criminals. That answers half of it, but why does Tony constantly look over at MIMOJ? Because Tony Soprano believes he is about to get whacked.
It has been mentioned before that the restaurant scene is Tony’s favorite scene in The Godfather, and AJ mentions in “The Second Coming” that his father is ecstatic every time he watches Michael kill the two men. Of course a show that constantly subverted the tropes of mob movies wouldn’t end with a scene straight out of one, but a character in this kind of show thinking he’s in a mob movie? Does it get any more postmodern?
This theory even ties into the pattern of Tony looking up at the door followed by a POV shot from his perspective. The final shot of pure black doesn’t represent death, but rather Tony having a panic attack. In addition to the nerves Tony experiences due to thinking he’s about to die, AJ has started at a new job, Meadow is getting engaged and Carlo has agreed to testify.
The reason Tony’s panic attacks began in the very first episode were because of his family life changing. It is even established that the therapy sessions were really what helped keep the panic attacks under control, not just the medication. Even though Melfi has been a main character since episode 1 (Heck, she’s listed in the credits before Edie Falco), she is intentionally written off in the penultimate episode “The Blue Comet.”
Without the benefit of therapy, Tony’s panic attacks are much more prone to make their return, especially at a moment like this. The scene and song selection might be a call back to Season 2’s “House Arrest,” when Tony has a panic attack to the tune of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” a classic rock song that builds similarly to “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Ultimately, ending the series with the same panic attacks that began it create perhaps an even bigger downer ending than Tony’s death. If Tony was whacked in this scene, he died for something, and perhaps even in a way he would have liked (if he had to pick one). To put Tony right back where he started makes it seem like all the dead bodies that piled up over six seasons are completely for naught. Tony is as helpless as he was at the beginning of the show, but now almost all of his friends and associates are dead. Like his mother Livia said in “D-Girl”, life is “all a big nothing” … or as Steve Perry would say, “The movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.”
You remember K. Gordon Murray, right, the mastermind behind the American dub of the Mexican film Santa Claus(Spanish: Santa Claus)? Well it turns out he made more films. Alright, well he didn’t make films, but he did badly dub more films into English, and I’m going to be looking at one of them today—Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters… or Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood… or Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb vs. the Monsters. PICK A TITLE!
Ugh. This lack of naming is why I’m unofficially calling this The Return of K. Gordon Murray.
Alright, well let’s take a look at the poster and see what we’re in for
NOW… THE FAMOUS CHARACTERS OF THE FAIRY TALE WORLD… TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME
So who do we have, K. Gordon?
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
I mean, we’ve seen them together before, but whatever. Go on.
STINKY THE SKUNK
Of course you remember Stinky the Skunk, right? His terrible odor awoke the whole kingdom in “Sleeping Beauty.” No? OK then, he was a rejected dwarf who was sent away for being too extreme. WHO IS THIS? I am not aware of one Grimm Fairy Tale featuring a skunk. A little research shows one South American folk tale called “The Jaguar and the Little Skunk,” but it’s more likely that K. Gordon saw that there was a skunk in the film and assumed it was a famous fairy tale character, when it was probably just a skunk. Plus, he speaks in an annoying high-pitched voice like Chip n’ Dale. Who else do we have?
and THE FRIENDLY RED-HEADED OGRE
Just go with it at this point. Oh, recognize him? That’s because he’s played by Jose Elias Moreno, the same guy who played Santa Claus in that other film.
In fact, some more of the cast and crew of Santa Claus return as well, including both voice actors and, of course, the man, the myth, the legend, the over-expository narrator, KEN SMITH.
Unfortunately, old Kenny only returns to narrate the opening of the film, but it’s exactly what you’d expect. Since the movie starts on a spinning globe, he just starts narrating away about “the awe-inspiring act of creation” (his dub of Inherit the Wind is far less entertaining) and how some places on the earth still contain fantasy characters. Apparently, every evil fairy tale character lives in “The Devil’s Dominion,” where a courtroom decides the fate of the ones who stop doing evil.
The wolf and the ogre are standing trial for not eating Little Red Riding Hood and killing Tom Thumb, and at the trial we see an array of famous villains like Dracula…
Not the Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee Dracula, but apparently the John Carradine Dracula of the later Universal films. That’s what the kids love.
We also have The Kidnapper.
I’m not sure who this is supposed to be, but he kidnaps children because they’re “tender and make good broth.” He could be any given giant, ogre or something. (He’s not The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as the Mexican film came out before the book was written.)
Following him, we have Carrot-Head.
Seriously, though, this guy is called Carrot-Head, but also says his head is full of water.
Next to him is Frankenstein’s Monster. They call him Frankenstein, but I’m not opening that can of worms like the rest of the internet. Finally, we have Two-In-One.
I think it’s supposed to be a man and monster attached at the hip, but it looks more like two guys who glued their butts together by mistake (Or on purpose maybe, whatever they’re into).
Unfortunately they’re not all here to play the Family Feud. They are instead the jury of the trial, which is ruled over by the Evil Queen. The Queen is introduced by this guy blowing a bullhorn, even though it’s dubbed over with a bugle call.
It’s jarring to say the least. Anyway, we meet the Queen from Disney’s Snow White.
I mean, it’s a fairy tale in the public domain, but this look is so obviously copied from the Disney version of the character that I cannot believe they didn’t sue.
Even weirder is the fact that none of the other villains resemble their most famous interpretations. Frankenstein’s monster has a goofy hairdo, the Big Bad Wolf wears a really cheesy costume that looks nothing like the Disney version, and as mentioned above, Dracula does not resemble Bela Lugosi at all.
They refer to the Queen as The Queen of Badness, which I’m sure was way catchier in Spanish, but K. Gordon just translated it literally. However, other times she is referred to as The Queen of Madness (and I think Sadness once), so it looks like the dubbers just forgot what they were calling this character after all.
Anyway, the jury declares them guilty and The Queen of __adness declares that they are to be executed by the circular saw. Um… am I still watching a kids movie? I wasn’t expecting something out of the Spanish Inquisition.
Yeah, yeah. However, in something right out of the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition, the prisoners are tortured by having their feet tickled with a feather.
Yeah, that’s not as catchy, real life Spanish Inquisitor Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros.
Meanwhile, as the Wolf and Ogre await execution (they’re charged together for different crimes, but it’s not the worst representation of the legal system in a kids film), Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb (clearly voiced by the same adult actress) are wandering through the world to save them.
They meet a fairy who originally says there’s no way she can help them, although she then promises they will go without hunger, thirst or cold. However, she also says “May God help you,” even though she’s a magical fairy who could have done more. Along the way, the town is poisoned by The Queen of __adness and her sister, who turn them into dead-eyed monkeys. Remember the sister from Snow White? Of course you don’t! Apparently she has one, and she kind of looks like Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz out of costume, but that’s probably a coincidence.
The Queen of __adness often looks into her crystal ball because apparently a Magic Mirror cost too much for the props department. Instead of the iconic “Mirror mirror on the wall,” she opens with “Kachi Poochie Poochie Poochie” or some gibberish along those lines. It’s absolutely hysterical. She sends various monsters to stop Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb along the road, but of course the children defeat them with the help of that totally-out-of-a-fairy-tale skunk.
At one point, the Queen of __adness even communicates with Satan himself, even though unlike K. Gordon’s other film, we don’t see Santa Claus shoot an arrow into his anus. Sadly, it’s just through her fireplace which apparently has a connection to hell.
Strangely, a lot of time is spent with the wolf and ogre in prison, including Three Stooges antics where they hit each other with their prison ball and chain (although we hear a gong sound effect) and a poorly-overdubbed musical number.
Eventually the children free the wolf and ogre and confront all the villains in the kingdom. Red Riding Hood tricks the Queen of __adness into falling into her fireplace, sending her to Hell… or as Stinky the Skunk exclaims in his squeaky voice “The witch fell down to Hades.”
This apparently destroys all of the evil in the entire world! Wow, K. Gordon, you’re really into epic tales of good and evil, aren’t you?
Did kids enjoy this? I just imagine they would have been confused and a bit horrified at points (the wolf and ogre are about to be sawed to death when they get saved). The dubbed songs are terrible and out of sync, the voice acting pretty lousy, and the plot nonsensical. It’s nowhere near as enjoyably bad as Santa Claus, but it’s worth it to revisit the truly awful and confusing world of K. Gordon Murray.
We’ve been through all ten Middle-Earth films and a bunch of extras, so it’s time to wrap up with some final thoughts. Since there are so many characters in these films, I’ll be breaking it down (mostly) by species.
BEST AND WORST DWARF
Seeing as how there are thirteen dwarves in The Hobbit‘s company alone, that means we have more than 39 choices here, not to mention Dain, Gimli and others. As for the worst, I find Dori, Nori and Ori from the Jackson films pointless, but I particularly find Ori, the baby of the group, to be the most unbearable.
It would make sense to give a portrayal of Thorin or Gimli the point for best, simply for getting the most screen time. Hans Conreid and Richard Armitage both give their all in playing Thorin, the former making him a wizened dwarf who has never had a home, the latter a younger and somewhat stoic, but unquestionably good dwarf with a tragic arc. I like John Rhys-Davies’ performance as Gimli in Fellowship enough, but he just gets dumber as the other two go on. My favorite is actually Bofur from the Jackson films, portrayed by James Nesbitt, who has a huge heart, a great sense of humor, and is constantly stealing scenes. As for which specific film, I’m going to call it a tie between Unexpected Journey and Battle of Five Armies, because he gets incredibly heartwarming scenes in both.
BEST AND WORST WIZARD
I have some issues with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf but nowhere near enough to count him as the worst, especially seeing his kind moments in Return of the King, Unexpected Journey, and especially Fellowship. Radagast the Brown is silly, but there’s still something likable about the guy, even in the midst of the bird droppings and quirkiness. The worst is the Gandalf who looks and sounds nothing like Gandalf in Russian The Hobbit.
As for the best, Christopher Lee’s Saruman is great, especially in the extended cuts. It’s a role he deserved to play, and he relishes every moment. However, the very best is John Huston’s Gandalf in the animated The Hobbit. He reprises the role in the animated Return of the King, but he just has less to do there.
BEST AND WORST HUMAN
Well there are a whole ton…
But yeah it’s Denethor, no question. He’s so over-the-top that it makes his scenes hilarious.
There are obviously a whole ton of good ones. I like Bard in Battle of Five Armies, Faramir in Return of the King, and Eowyn in Two Towers and Return of the King. John Hurt’s Aragorn from Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings almost takes it, instantly showing a kingly and ranger side, but I have to give it to Sean Bean as Boromir from Fellowship of the Ring. He is the best part of Jackson’s trilogy, giving a Shakespearean arc to a character who could have easily been forgettable. Fellowship is his movie.
BEST AND WORST ELF
When done wrong, the elves in Tolkien’s work can come off as aloof and uncaring. I can’t stand Legolas in Jackson’s films with the exception of Fellowship, but it ultimately comes down to Thranduil the Wood-elf king. He’s voice by OTTO PREMINGER in the animated film, and yet I still find Lee Pace’s melodramatic take worse, especially in Desolation of Smaug.
In Bakshi’s film, Anthony Daniels shows us that Legolas can be an interesting character, even with just a little screen time. Liv Tyler is great as Arwen, especially in Fellowship, and I quite like Evangeline Lily’s Tauriel in The Hobbit films. The best has to be Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, especially because it seems like such odd casting on paper, yet it mostly works. I wish he had more moments of lightness, but I really love him in Unexpected Journey most of all. His scene with Bilbo as they lightly snark at each other while walking around Rivendell is brilliant.
BEST AND WORST HOBBIT
Honestly, there aren’t all that many who are bad. I have some issues with Merry and Pippin in Jackson’s films, but I’m all in by Return of the King. Sam in Bakshi’s film is really stupid, but by the time the Fellowship breaks, he gets a lot better. The worst has to be a tie between Merry and Pippin in the animated Return of the King. In a special where Frodo and Sam are also not great, the radio DJ voices of Casey Kasem and Sonny Melendrez are just awful and distracting.
On the good side, Christopher Guard and Elijah Wood both have their moments as Frodo, but I much prefer Guard’s stronger performance. Sean Astin is brilliant as Sam Gamgee, but every single portrayal of Bilbo is memorable, except perhaps the brief one in Bakshi’s film. The best of these is Martin Freeman though, who brings such heart and such humor to Bilbo that he takes this category without competition. If I had to pick his best film, it’s Unexpected Journey, simply because he feels like the main character.
BEST AND WORST VILLAIN
Is it Richard Boone’s badly-voiced Smaug? The hokey-looking Smaug from Russian The Hobbit? Azog or any of the other pointless orcs from The Hobbit trilogy? Sauron’s living suit of armor? No, it’s the goofy sounding Witch-king of Angmar from, you guessed it, the animated Return of the King.
Yes, Christopher Lee’s Saruman is up for this one too, but he also just misses the win. It’s ultimately very close between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, a breakthrough in special effects featuring brilliant voice acting, and Andy Serkis’ Gollum, a breakthrough in special effects featuring brilliant voice acting. I really do like Smaug, but it’s Gollum that truly steals the show.
BEST AND WORST SONG
Music is a large part of Tolkien’s writings, and most of the films work in some songs one way or another. For the worst, there’s the Goblin-town song from Unexpected Journey and literally every song from Rankin/Bass’ The Return of the King. However, the “win” unsurprisingly has to go to the funky disco number “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way.”
As for the best, we have “I See Fire,” “The Last Goodbye,” “Into the West,” any version of “Misty Mountains Cold,” “Roads,” and more. I have a soft spot for “Rolling Down the Hole” from the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, but I have to give it to Enya’s “May It Be,” which closes out Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s gorgeous and an absolutely perfect note to close on.
BEST AND WORST EXTENDED EDITION SCENE
Obviously, this will only involve the Jackson films, but each extended edition has moments that truly elevate the film. However, there are a few that make you scratch your head. Aragorn trying to eat Eowyn’s unappetizing soup in Two Towers is a failed attempt at comic relief, and the aforementioned Goblin-town song in Unexpected Journey is just plain awkward. The worst is still the testicle-chewing Master of Lake-town from Desolation of Smaug, though. Seriously, someone wrote this scene, set it up, filmed it and watched it without once considering it might be pointless and disgusting.
Most scenes added to the films, however, expand the characters greatly. There’s Bilbo and Elrond’s brief scene in Rivendell in Unexpected Journey, the additional Beorn scene in Desolation, all the additional character moments (and Alfrid’s death) in Battle of Five Armies, Pippin and Faramir in Return of the King or the death of Saruman in the same, and all of Boromir’s additional dialogue in Fellowship. However, the win has to go the additional scene of Boromir and Faramir in Two Towers. It’s the first time we see Faramir feel like his book counterpart, and we quickly see the love between these two brothers. We never actually see them together in the book, so it takes what is there and does more with it. It’s an absolutely brilliant scene.
With the exceptions of the Rankin/Bass cartoons and the Russian Hobbit, each film has moments of pure visual wonder, letting us soak up Middle-earth in all its glory. Smaug looks fantastic, as does Gollum. Most all of the backgrounds in the Hobbit films look beautiful, but sometimes it’s hard to beat the models and on-location shots of Lord of the Rings. Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings has some breathtaking backgrounds, but also some unfinished animation which refuses it the win. Even though I wanted more from Mordor, I ultimately have to give the win to Return of the King. Just look at the Grey Havens.
BEST AND WORST SCENE
I’ve already talked about the bad scenes from the extended cuts, but there are still plenty to go around. There’s the gardens of delight from the animated Return of the King, the terrible cliffhanger ending of Desolation of Smaug, literally any of Alfrid’s scenes in Battle of Five Armies, Galadriel’s heavy metal voice in Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf calling the same character “Aruman and Saruman” in the same breath in Bakshi’s film, war looking like a dance in Russian The Hobbit… the list goes on. Nothing is more unpleasant and a waste of time than Sam’s banishing in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King.
What is the best scene in all of these films? There’s the defeat of Smaug in Five Armies, the barrel scene in the animated Hobbit, Bilbo and Bofur’s scene in Unexpected Journey, the riddle contest, Thorin’s death, meeting Aragorn in Bakshi’s film, the Balrog and much more. Ultimately, I have to give it to the Council of Elrond from The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s gorgeous to look at, introduces many important characters, shows us the danger at hand, and puts the movie on course for a tremendous second half.
BEST AND WORST STORY
The worst story is Rankin/Bass Return of the King. Yeah, shocker.
No film tells the story perfectly, but do I prefer the drawn-out pace of the Hobbit films or the faster pace of the Lord of the Rings films? Both have their strengths and weaknesses, as Unexpected Journey has amazing atmosphere but takes a little long to get going, while Fellowship of the Ring has a near-flawless second half, but a speed round of a first. It might be surprising, but I ultimately give the best story to Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. It’s quite a good adaptation story-wise, in spite of its flaws, and it just feels like Tolkien’s work while still showing Bakshi’s magic.
AH NO NOT THAT PICTURE! No one wants to see Treebeard’s anus.
Let’s see where that puts us…
And that puts us at a tie, which is somewhat appropriate. Look at the way the two trilogies mirror each other. Both have phenomenal opening installments, long-winded second installments that are best when they show the hobbits or their starring special-effects villain (Smaug or Gollum) and end with a film drastically improved by the extended edition. That said… I have to pick one.
Unexpected Journey is a more consistent film, atmospheric and fun with an amazing lead and gorgeous visuals, but there are a few unnecessary scenes. It got the higher score in the original review, but if I had to watch one right now, it’s Fellowship. The second half of this film is absolutely brilliant, and regardless of the score, it’s the better of the two. I’m confident to call it the best film overall.
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen
It’s the final review in the Middle-earth series, and this is the big one. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won 11 Oscars including Best Picture and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, so have I just been too mean?
My Original Thoughts on Return of the King
Ugh, this was the one that killed me. So much was cut from the book that I really had a beef with Return of the King and couldn’t watch for a long time. It wasn’t that everything on screen was unbearable, but so many things were removed that it was an entirely different story.
My Thoughts Today
The extended cut helps a lot, no question. I think that’s been the case in every single one of Jackson’s films so far (in spite of the testicle-eating in Desolation of Smaug), but I’ve noticed it most in both final chapters (Five Armies and this). Both of these have long battle sequences, and the theatrical cuts just feel excessive. However, the character scenes added into the extended cuts manage to make these battle sequences feel earned. The films are longer, yes, but they’re broken up with dramatic character moments. If we care about the characters risking their lives in battle, the battle sequences are that much more interesting.
Return of the King is actually the shortest of the three volumes of Tolkien’s work (the appendices excluded). Like the previous two, it is split into two books, the first involving the war in Gondor, and the second involving the destruction of the ring, the crowning of Aragorn, and the return journey. However, there are only three chapters involving Frodo and Sam’s journey until the ring is destroyed.
I understand leaving some of Two Towers for this film, but does it all work here? We start with a prologue, showing how Smeagol (Andy Serkis) became Gollum. Both Tolkien in his book and Bakshi in his film showed this early on, but I understand wanting to wait.
The opening prologue of Jackson’s Fellowship was long enough, and we knew who Gollum was. It also nicely cuts to Gollum now, traveling with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), showing us ultimately how far he’s fallen.
I spoke about the Saruman scene in my last Adaptation Snub, but it really is a great scene. In the book, this is the first time the characters meet Saruman in person. We know him through Gandalf’s tales and all the background we’ve heard, but this is our present-tense introduction. His army may have been defeated, but he still has his voice, and that wins over some of the company temporarily. However, Gandalf isn’t fooled and he breaks Saruman’s staff. Grima Wormtongue drops a Palantir on the ground, unsure what it is, and we don’t see Saruman again for a while.
In the film, Grima (Brad Dourif) stabs Saruman (Christopher Lee) causing him to fall with the Palantir. Even though the Scouring of the Shire is cut, I’m just glad we get a scene where Saruman truly feels like his book counterpart, and Christopher Lee is brilliant. The death scene is overkill in true Jackson fashion, as Saruman is stabbed, falls from the tower, lands on the spike of a wheel and gets drowned, but for Jackson, it’s fairly subtle.
After Pippin looks into the Palantir, he and Gandalf ride with haste to Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith, which looks amazing.
Honestly, some of my favorite scenes in this film are just Gandalf and/or Pippin walking around Minas Tirith before the battle starts.
You really feel the weight of it all when Gandalf and Pippin are standing at the top level of the white city, with the fires of Mordor visible in the distance.
Inside the city, Gandalf and Pippin meet Denethor (John Noble).
The way his character is changed is perhaps more angering than the things left out altogether. Of course a movie cannot always convey all the complexities present in a book, but this film is four hours long! There are plenty of Denethor scenes, especially in the extended cut, and yet there is barely anything sympathetic about his character. Book Denethor is deeply, tragically flawed, somewhat hopeless from relying too much on the Palantir, but still not an altogether bad person. He has descended into madness, but he still lights the beacons to call for aid from Rohan, because he might be mad but he isn’t insane. When he burns himself on a pyre, it’s one of the most tragic moments in Tolkien’s work, a once great man having given up all hope.
John Noble plays Denethor like someone out of a middle-school production of Shakespeare. He chews so much scenery that they had to start just giving him actual food to eat on screen.
There’s a scene where he’s talking with his son Faramir (David Wenham), complaining that he didn’t bring the One Ring to him. As much issue as I had with Faramir in the last film, at least he now feels like his book counterpart. He even gives a version of the famous line about not using the ring regardless of the circumstance. However, Denethor will not have it, standing up, tripping over his throne, and muttering something that probably translates to “Boromir was loyal to me.”
He then trips again, falling square on his butt as Faramir approaches him. For a slight moment, we think maybe he’s seeing the light, until we find out that he’s just hallucinating his favorite son (Boromir) being there. It’s just so silly.
Look, there are plenty of over-the-top Shakespearean characters in these films that work. Take for example Theoden (Bernard Hill). He gives grandiose speeches rallying his people, has his flaws but overcomes them, and has a very theatrical demeanor about him.
It’s not necessarily the exact way I read him in the books, but it still works. Now, obviously he’s meant to be a more sympathetic character than Denethor, but his overblown moments don’t feel hammy.
Denethor on the other hand just get more and more ridiculous, leading to one of the most hilarious death scenes in cinematic history. In the book, Denethor finally gives up hope after looking into the Palantir and seeing another fleet of ships coming. In the movie, Denethor is only implied to have the Palantir, making his madness seem less justified. There is a scene in the extended cut where Aragorn uses the Panatir by Denethor’s throne, but I always thought the reveal of Denethor having one brought it all together beautifully and tragically. Subtlety is great, but this is one aspect really should be in the forefront to properly understand the character.
There’s a great scene where Pippin sees Denethor walking by with his funeral procession, carrying the wounded body of Faramir to the pyre with him. It’s not overblown, and we do feel a bit of tragedy for Denethor as he walks through the kingdom, giving up hope fully. Then it gets stupid.
Denethor soaks himself with oil in the most over-the-top scene since… well, his last one.
As he prepares to burn himself and his son, Gandalf rides in to save the day and casually tosses Pippin on the pyre so he can save Faramir. Denethor attacks Pippin, so Gandalf has his horse kick him Denethor back onto the fire. He has a brief moment of clarity until he catches completely and begins running down the hall like a madman (which he is).
In a moment that was clearly shot in an earlier version of this scene that was far more subtle, Gandalf coolly says “So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion.” Yeah, passes right down the hall! You are a wizard right? Can’t your extinguish him or something? Nope, just give a calm eulogy as he runs right past you.
Oh but wait, there’s more. Denethor runs all the way to the tip of the city’s cliff and jumps all the way down into the battle.
Why don’t you just play “Great Balls of Fire” over the scene while you’re at it? It wouldn’t make the scene any less somber. How about a 1960s Batman-esque PLOP appearing when he hits the ground? An obligatory Benny Hill theme joke?
As silly as Denethor is, I really do like Pippin in these scenes. Actually, both Merry and Pippin are much more like their book counterparts here. I get that Jackson was trying for character arcs, but they’re such cliched arcs. There’s a subplot in the book where Pippin befriends a soldier of Gondor and his young son, and while it’s not featured in the movie, we get a scene that still captures its spirit perfectly. Faramir points out that Pippin is wearing his armor from when he was a boy, and Pippin tells Faramir that he is different than Boromir, having “strength of a different kind.” Faramir’s kindness and wisdom are his defining characteristics in the book, so it’s nice to finally see them here.
Peter Jackson is brilliant with these little character scenes, and they pop up all through his six Middle-earth films (especially in the extended cuts). The battle sequences are grand, sure, but these character moments make them worth it.
The defeat of the Witch-king is handled pretty well here… at least much better than it was in the Rankin-Bass cartoon. He doesn’t sound like the Knights Who Say Ni this time around, actually having a threatening voice and appearance.
He never takes off his helmet to reveal a crown floating above nothing (It might not look scary, I get it), but his defeat is as satisfying as it was in the book, as Merry and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), having formed a kinship on the road, tag-team to take him down.
Surprisingly, one of the aspects of the book that seems like it shouldn’t work totally does. While Aragorn conjuring up an army of the dead works in the context of a book, how does one successfully transfer that to film? Well, Peter Jackson actually acknowledges the fact that it’s going to look a little silly without going full-on goofy with it.
One step creepier and it might have been too much, but one step lighter and you’re riding Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. For a filmmaker that never misses a chance to be overblown, this is just the right balance. There’s even a “You and what army?” moment that actually works. It’s like the characters are aware this looks a little silly, so they play it up a bit.
In one moment during the battle, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is in the forefront, standing up like a rugged action hero, and in the background dozens of the army of the dead are just beating up on a creature. It’s genuinely funny, and it’s meant to be (I think).
Aragorn finally starts to feel kingly in this film, never as much as he did in Bakshi’s film, but he’s getting there. When he and Gandalf decide to lead an army to the gates of Mordor, we see his inner royalty. At the gates, they meet The Mouth of Sauron.
Hey Jackson, STOP BEING SUCH A LITERALIST! He’s The Mouth of Sauron, as in “his mouthpiece,” just like the Eye of Sauron isn’t a literal eye watching over Middle-earth. It’s like those disgusting lip and ear devices from Santa Claus.
All I’ll say is I’m glad Tolkien never had a portion describing how Sauron “raped the land,” or Jackson may have had to bump up the rating on this one.
Alright, now let’s talk about the dumbest thing in the whole film
Okay… second dumbest. To be fair, the Frodo, Sam and Gollum scenes mostly work in this movie. They’re not necessarily brilliant, but a lot of the film is about creating a distraction so Frodo and Sam can slip into Mordor and destroy the ring when no on is looking. That’s the big spectacle, so it makes sense to focus on that more. However, there is one moment in the Frodo and Sam story that is so frustrating that it brings the movie to a screeching halt.
Gollum steals some lembas bread and frames Sam for it. Frodo, being corrupted by the ring (and just sorta dumb too), immediately believes the vile creature instead of his best friend, and tells Sam to go home, even though they’re on the outskirts of Mordor. Question time.
The three of them only have a little bit of food left. Sam is Frodo’s best friend. Even if Frodo thinks he stole some food, he is planning to send him back to starve. How is a “good” character that cold?
What has Gollum done to prove himself trustworthy? Sam has been suspicious of him and Frodo knows Sam is the wise one.
The friendship between Sam and Frodo has not been gradually growing apart, not even in the slightest. Frodo has a been a bit more trusting of Gollum than Sam has, but that’s it. The two of them are incredibly tight, so why this sudden turn?
This separation only exists to kill time and make the two enter Shelob’s lair alone, but it doesn’t even cover that much time. Sam just kinda walks back, sees that Gollum lied, and goes back into the cave. Couldn’t you have been a better steward of time, Jackson?
Frodo gets attacked by Shelob until she is ultimately killed by Sam, and Frodo fights with Gollum, seemingly killing him. With all the fake-out deaths in this series, this one actually works. We believe Gollum is truly gone and don’t see him again until Mount Doom.
Once Frodo and Sam are reunited, their scenes in Mordor are effective. Frodo has been very weak the whole time, but his weakness is justified as he draws closer to Mount Doom. I just wish Mordor itself stood out a bit more visually. This is a hellish land of darkness and evil, and we’ve seen it from a distance since the first film, but unfortunately, it just looks kinda gray up close. We see a bit, but in this case, less is not more.
Even the Rankin/Bass cartoon got this aspect right.
The Mount Doom sequence is changed a little bit, in that instead of Gollum falling during a celebration of reclaiming the ring, he falls due to Frodo lunging at him for it. It’s a small change that’s understandable, but then they fake out Frodo’s death again by having him fall of the edge and hang on for dear life. It’s the most important moment in the whole story! Why do we need more forced drama?
Everyone in the world has talked about how this movie takes too long to end, so I’ll be brief. The only major issues I have with the endings are 1) They’re mostly fake-out endings. It looks like the credits are constantly about to roll every time and 2) The missing scenes of The Scouring of the Shire… but I already talked that to death here.
Apparently a Faramir/Eowyn wedding scene was shot but does not appear in the extended cut or deleted scenes. As much as I do love these two characters in the book and mostly in the films, I understand removing it. At least we do get a little bit of their romance, which is such a pleasant diversion in the book.
The scene at the Grey Havens is gorgeous, and I’m glad that the filmmakers didn’t shy away from Frodo’s trauma. He doesn’t just get a tacked-on happy ending, and the scene at the Grey Havens is his first real sense of relief after the journey.
Look at that shot. You could just frame it as a painting. The movie is a visual marvel, and if the Mordor scenes were more imposing, it would be one of the most visually interesting movies of all time.
Ultimately, yes the extended edition is a lot better than the theatrical. There are dumb moments, but it doesn’t just feel like endless battle sequences. I still don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but there are more moments of greatness than I had remembered. Let’s check out the final score.
Adaptation (36/50 Points)
The Gondor stuff is really well-handled, a few exceptions aside. It’s actually amazing how well the Army of the Dead story works, and while the Frodo and Sam portion isn’t genius, it mostly works alright. The stuff cut at the end still hurts.
Cast (14/25 Points)
John Noble brings down the movie a lot, but I actually think Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan really bring a lot to their scenes as Pippin and Merry. I still don’t care much for Legolas and Gimli, as they’re too stoic and goofy respectively.
Experience (23/25 Points)
It’s a gorgeous film, and most of the issues from the previous two are cleaned up. Visually, it’s the best of the three, no question.
FINAL SCORE: 73%
It’s not as good as Fellowship, because there’s not a performance that sticks out like Sean Bean’s Boromir, but it’s more consistent than Fellowship. While I don’t consider it as great as most viewers do, I can see some of what they see in it. It really is a well-made film.
Next time, I’ll take a look at my final thoughts on the series.
No, you didn’t read that wrong. Yes, I am taking another look at one of the lowest-scored films I have ever reviewed—Roman Polanski’s mysteryish-horrorish film The Ninth Gate.
So what made me want to take another look at The Ninth Gate at all? Well, for one, it at least felt like a film that was trying to say something. As cheap as the ending felt, the rest of the film seemed like it was trying to raise some questions (if not answer them). Obviously Roman Polanski has made some of the greatest films of all time, and there is a small group that calls this a very underrated film. I discovered some essays and videos trying to discern meaning in this film, and while I wholeheartedly disagree with 95% of what was written, a few of the ideas made me consider that maybe there was more here than met the eye. So was there a whole bunch of stuff I missed the first time? Is this a masterpiece on the level of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby? Was I very wrong about this film? Well, in order: Yes, No and Maybe.
Disclaimer: This is not going to be a review of the whole plot of the film. If you haven’t seen the film or read my original review, I would recommend doing at least one of those first.
My biggest criticism of the film in my original review was the ending. Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) discovers that one of the nine engravings Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) used in his attempt to summon the Devil was a forgery. He has sex with The Girl (Emmaneulle Seiger) as Langella’s corpse burns inside the castle, finds the true engraving and walks into the castle. Fade to white.
I wanted to see what happened when Corso entered the castle, of course, but that was far from my only issue. I made a comparison with Reepicheep from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and suggested that in that book, we don’t need to see him enter Heaven, because it’s all about his desire to enter it. Since Corso seemed to have no desire to enter the ninth gate until the third act when it was convenient, you couldn’t claim this was about a hero’s journey, right? You have to show us what’s in the ninth gate to give us some kind of satisfaction.
When someone seeks enlightenment of any kind, how do they achieve it? Well, if it’s religious enlightenment as with Reepicheep, it is achieved by faith, patience or traditionally being good. If someone seeks intellectual enlightenment like Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it comes, obviously, through using one’s brain. Entering the ninth gate is not a form of traditional enlightenment, because it is an attempt to summon the Devil. So how does one achieve this form of enlightenment?
When Corso arrives in Europe, he visits the book shop of The Ceniza Brothers (José López Roder).
They tell him about Aristide Torchia, the author of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, who allegedly co-authored the book with the Devil. Corso suggests that this is ridiculous, leading the brothers to tell him that Torchia was burned at the stake for his beliefs. One of them then says what may be the most important line in understanding this film, “Even Hell has its heroes.”
So what would a hero look like in Hell? Who would truly be worthy of entering the ninth gate? Both Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) and Boris Balkan feel they are worthy for different reasons. Telfer is the head of The Order of the Silver Serpent, a sect that meets once a year to read from The Nine Gates, worship the Devil and participate in an orgy. This is the closest thing to Hollywood’s traditional portrayal of Satanism in films such as Eye of the Devil, The Devil Rides Out and (to a lesser extent) Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby.
However, this kind of Satanism is looked down on by both Balkan and Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), the owner of a different copy of The Nine Gates. Kessler criticizes the Order for simply turning it into an excuse for sex, which is why she herself has left the order. She also dislikes Balkan for being a coward and sending hired men to look at her copy. Balkan criticizes the Order for similar reasons, believing they do not take their Devil worship seriously enough. He insists that he alone has cracked the code and he alone can enter the ninth gate.
So why is Liana Telfer unworthy? Is it merely because their meetings have turned into sex parties and they just aren’t serious enough? Well no, because if Balkan was right about everything, he would be a worthy candidate to enter the ninth gate. Both Telfer and Balkan reflect a conflict that exists in most every religion or belief system. They both have different ways to worship their god, but perhaps it’s not the way they’re worshiping, but rather the fact that they’re worshiping at all.
Most religions involve worship of a god or gods, sure, but why on earth would people who respect the Devil worship him? Tradition dating back thousands of years (it’s not explicitly in The Bible.) tells that Lucifer was banished from Heaven for refusing to worship God and leading a revolt to overthrow Him. Why would a religion centered around a usurper who refused to worship involve people gathering around to worship that very usurper? Yet Liana leads a bastardization of a Catholic mass (the standard type of Satanic service we often see in film, sans the human sacrifice), where everyone gathers to worship him. What kind of sense does that make?
That’s not to say Balkan is any better. Sure, he doesn’t hang out at Black Masses, but he is still a Devil worshiper. He believes himself to be the only one to whom the truth has been revealed, a fundamentalist or even potential “cult” leader. However, he still refers to Satan as “Master” over and over, and is very reverent and subservient.
When I first watched this film, I was livid that one of the nine engravings just randomly turned out to be a forgery, as this seemed to be a cheap way to kill of Balkan and let Corso enter the ninth gate instead. I mean, Frank Langella just looked silly lighting himself on fire and claiming he was immune to the flames as he burned up. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it looks silly, because that’s the point. It makes perfect sense that this engraving is a forgery, because why would a Satanic ritual involve being covered in fire and not burning? If Hell is the intended goal, why would burning and not being scorched be the ritual? Doesn’t this sound more like a Christian (or at least a person who knows The Bible) trying to guess what a Satanist would believe? It is reminiscent of the story in the book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into the furnace and not burned. Of course it looks silly when a man attempting to enter the fires of Hell claims the fire is not burning him.
So then who is worthy to enter the ninth gate? Who is a hero of Hell, if it does in fact have them? Let’s look at what we know about Aristide Torchia, the author of The Nine Gates. He successfully summoned the Devil and apparently collaborated with the Devil on the book—the word “co-authored” is even used at one point. This does not suggest that Torchia was a servant, but rather a cohort of the Devil. He refused to worship him, but by seeing himself as an equal, was worthy of summoning him.
So who in The Ninth Gate falls into that category? Yes, I’m obviously pointing towards Corso, the main character who I criticized endlessly in my original review. Corso may not seem like a Satanist at all, at least not the kind we’re expecting, but really look at the guy. Does he have one traditionally sympathetic quality? He is constantly engaging in some vice, whether it’s smoking…
Or having sex.
He’s also slovenly, lazy, selfish and incredibly greedy. Balkan even praises him, saying “There’s nothing more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for hard cash.” I don’t think Corso does one sympathetic thing in the course of the whole film, which I now believe is the point. He shows no grief when his co-worker Bernie (James Russo) is found dead, only fearing for his own life. He lets Liana Telfer seduce him in exchange for the book, but ultimately knowing it’s locked away somewhere and never intending to give it to her. As he did with Bernie, Corso only fears for his own life when he finds the owners of the other two copies dead.
The only thing resembling a sympathetic act is his mercy kill of Balkan, but is it really? He obviously cares more about the engravings, making sure to snatch them all up before shooting Balkan. Also, look at his face while aiming the gun. It looks pretty wrathful to me.
Sure his expression changes a bit once he sees what the flames are doing to Balkan, but it’s not really that sympathetic. Wouldn’t most people be uncomfortable having sex outside a castle someone’s corpse is incinerating in? It’s incredibly clear Corso lives for absolutely nothing but hedonistic pleasures.
In terms of what the audience expects from a spiritual enlightenment story, Corso checks none of the boxes, which is why the film is such a frustrating watch the first time. However, since “Even hell has its heroes,” Corso seems to check all the boxes there. He resembles Lucifer more than any of his followers, because he refuses to be a follower at all. Heck, even Balkan, who would be seen as a traditional “Big Bad” in this kind of story has more sympathetic qualities than Corso, not only saying he has a soft spot for him, but also showing it more than once. He could have easily framed Corso for the first two murders, but after Corso follows him to the castle following the murder of Liana, Balkan simply tells him to pick up the check at his New York office, actually paying him for the job he was hired for. This is pretty unexpected in such a dark film, especially with the enormous check that he is implied to have promised him (At one point, he mentions adding a zero to it.) Even after Corso says he wants more than money, Balkan says “Kindly leave,” and even when he doesn’t and gets stuck in the floorboards, Balkan still does not kill him. Since this is a ritual Balkan has been hoping to do for a long time, he obviously does think he’s giving Corso a privilege by watching.
On the other hand, Corso tells Balkan he is the “only apparition” he’ll see that night. Corso is not the Devil literally (OK some have theorized he is, but that’s taking it too far), but he is the closest to the Devil in terms of personality. He has ignored the rules put into place by everyone who insists on some kind of order in their Satanism, and he is not a Devil worshiper in any sense. This is why Corso alone is allowed to enter the Ninth Gate into whatever lies there.
So is The Ninth Gate a brilliant film? I would still say that’s a stretch. It’s intriguing in a film like this to take a look at what one of Hell’s heroes would look like, but it also leads to very few sympathetic characters. I still argue that the only truly sympathetic characters are Willy Telfer, who dies in the opening scene upon discovering his wife is a Satanist, and Victor Fargas, the owner of Copy #2 of The Nine Gates who merely likes it for the literary value. I may have been a bit hard on the performances, as Frank Langella makes Boris Balkan a truly towering presence, and I now understand more of what Johnny Depp was going for. The pacing still has some serious issues, as it really drags in places, but upon closer inspection, The Ninth Gate is a good film, a very good one. It raises questions that other films wouldn’t dare to, and I have to give it serious credit for that.
Before the review of The Return of the King, let’s take a look at one final adaptation snub, and it’s the biggest of them all (at least in my opinion)—The Scouring of the Shire.
What is it?
After the destruction of the ring (um… spoiler I guess) and Aragorn is crowned king (Oh come on, that’s the title!), the Fellowship finally departs Gondor. They make various stops along the way, including Rivendell to visit Bilbo. While for some writers, this sort of ending would fell drawn out and overlong, Tolkien obviously still has a story to tell. He obviously knew how to be concise—just look at The Hobbit where the return journey is briefly skimmed over in the last chapter.
Upon stopping in Isengard, Gandalf discovers that Treebeard has fallen to Saruman’s trickery and has let him go. The company later discovers him on the road, a pale shadow of the powerful wizard he used to be, traveling like a beggar with Grima Wormtongue, who he continues to treat horribly.
After visiting Bree and finding that it was not unaffected by the war, Gandalf departs the company of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin and goes to visit with Bombadil. Gandalf warns them that the Shire may not be as it was when they left, but that they too have changed and will be ready for it.
Upon returning to the borders of the Shire, the hobbits learn that the Shire is under new leadership. No one is admitted after dark, hobbits are now either in submission to the new leadership or in jail, everything is rationed and the simplicity of before is gone. Bill Ferny, a mysterious man of Bree is now in league with the evildoers, and everyone speaks of a mysterious “chief” and the ruffians that work for him. Everyone assumes this chief is Frodo’s wily cousin Lotho Sackville-Baggins.
Finding refuge in the house of Tom Cotton…
Finding refuge in the house of Farmer Cotton, the hobbits learn of what has happened, and Merry and Pippin lead a fight against the ruffians, banishing them and winning The Battle of Bywater. An intentional point is made to not spill hobbit blood, as the hobbits merely fell victim to a greater evil. Frodo, now mostly reserved and suffering from his wounds (emotional and physical) is the one insisting on this throughout. It would have been easy to put Frodo back to square one, or at least relieved that he is now done with the ring, but he never fully recovers and is mostly out of focus in the battle.
Coming finally to Bag End, Frodo and company find out the true identity of the Chief—Saruman. Even still, Frodo doesn’t attempt to harm Saruman, telling him simply to leave. He starts to leave with Wormtongue, but stabs Frodo unexpectedly. However, the stab is stopped by Frodo’s mithril coat and Frodo again offers Saruman to go, even telling Wormtongue he can stay, as he has done no evil against hobbits. Saruman then reveals that it was Wormtongue who murdered Lotho (and even implies that he might have eaten his corpse), upon which Wormtongue murders Saruman and is immediately shot dead by hobbit archers. Sure, the Shire is eventually rebuilt, but things will never be the same.
It’s an absolutely fascinating part of the story, and I’d probably even call it my favorite portion. It refuses to just have a traditional happy ending with all the hell the characters have been put through. The ring has been destroyed, but it brought so much evil to Middle-earth, and not all of that can be undone. More than that, it is the final pathetic act of a desperate villain. Saruman has fallen so far that this is clearly just an act of petty revenge, something he even admits after Frodo refuses to raise a hand against him. It’s just so vain to beat Frodo to his own home and try to defeat him there, and it’s a perfect arc for Saruman.
Also, it continues Tolkien’s theme of evil eventually self-destructing. Saruman isn’t brought down in some huge battle or heroic siege, but by his own put-upon servant. His own cruelty has finally caught up with him, and the hobbits even pity him upon his death.
Why Is It Cut?
Because the filmmakers don’t know good writing when they see it.
Okay seriously, on the surface, I could see someone wanting to cut this because the destruction of the ring is what the story has been leading to… but for me, that’s the kind of the point of this chapter. It’s hinted at, but it’s not entirely expected. It’s one of the many things that elevates The Lord of the Rings above other great journey stories. The characters aren’t the same and home is not the same. Plus, it’s a perfect wrap-up to Saruman’s story.
Ralph Bakshi never made the second half of his adaptation, so who knows what he would have done? The Rankin/Bass adaptation doesn’t even feature Saruman, so this obviously isn’t there (gotta fit those 15 songs in there). Peter Jackson shows destruction of the Shire in Fellowship when Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel, but she does not guarantee he is seeing things that will happen. There is no Scouring of the Shire in his Return of the King, but at least in the extended cut, we get a wrap-up of Saruman’s story.
An early scene in Return of the King shows Gandalf, Aragorn and others riding to Isengard, where they find Merry and Pippin and confront Saruman, now imprisoned in the tower that was once his. This is inspired by a scene that was in The Two Towers book, but it mixes some of the Scouring chapter in there too. After Gandalf commands Saruman’s staff to be broken, Grima stabs Saruman from behind, causing him to plummet onto a set of spikes… because EXTRA DRAMA. Alright, it’s overly dramatic, but it’s still a very well executed scene.
What I find odd is that Legolas immediately shoots Grima dead after this. Just a minute ago, Theoden was talking with Grima and giving him another chance, and then Legolas just kills him. What was the point in that? Maybe it was going with the theme of the book where Frodo doesn’t want Saruman’s blood shed regardless, but why not tell us this?
Sadly, it’s not a Scouring of the Shire scene proper, but at least we get to see what happens to Saruman. It’s unquestionably Christopher Lee’s best work in the trilogy, as he uses his voice to win power over people instead of merely telling armies to fight. I’ll even admit the fall from the tower looks pretty great.
Still, it’s a shame this interesting little story never got adapted to film. There is a BBC radio adaptation that included it in the story, but that’s really the only one. Losing the chapter cuts a lot out of Merry and Pippin’s stories, which is a shame too, because maybe Peter Jackson could have made them something more than comic relief (but probably not).
Next week, it’s my review of The Return of the King.
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen
Well, I was fairly kind to The Fellowship of the Ring, but will I come around to the second film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy as well? Let’s find out.
My Original Thoughts on Two Towers
As I said in my review of Fellowship, I probably had the least individual issues with this one in the past, even though I considered Fellowship the better film. Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum has always been a stand-out of the whole series for me, and his scenes with Frodo and Sam stick out in my memory.
My Thoughts Today
In regards to structure, The Two Towers is the hardest of the three volumes to adapt. It has a structure, sure, but it is the middle portion of a very long story. For one, The Two Towers is divided in half, with the first half covering the adventures of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin and (spoiler) Gandalf, and the other half covering the journey of Frodo and Sam.
Unless you’re going to make two separate movies, the only option is to cut back-and-forth between these two halves, which is what Jackson opts to do. However, Jackson doesn’t adapt all of the book into this film, seeing as how the first chapter was the climax of Fellowship, and the last chapters work their way into Return of the King. I understand wanting to make the Battle of Helm’s Deep the climax, but it cuts out so much and forces way too much into the next installment. It takes the middle chapters of The Two Towers and, even though there is a lot to adapt, still manages to pad them.
We start with scenes of Gandalf fighting the Balrog, because Jackson doesn’t know how to foreshadow subtly.
It’s a cool enough sequence, but it’s like Jackson can’t help but say “See? See? Gandalf’s coming back!” I’m not even saying it’s supposed to be that big of a twist, but between this and not seeing the face of the White Wizard that Treebeard brings Merry and Pippin to later, any chance at surprise is lost.
The Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli scenes have a lot of room for potential, and the landscapes sure are gorgeous.
These should be great scenes, as we’ve got a strong man, a strong elf and strong dwarf coming together to look for Merry and Pippin. However, even with all of this going for it, this movie just doesn’t know what to do with Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).
Gimli just becomes the laughing stock of the group… it feels insulting to call him comic relief because he isn’t funny and it’s never relieving. He’s just annoying.
Let’s take a look at some Gimli lines from this film:
I’m wasted on cross-country! We Dwarves are natural sprinters, very dangerous over short distances.
This new Gandalf is more grumpy than the old one.
Talking trees. What do trees have to talk about, hmm… except the consistency of squirrel droppings?
See? These lines aren’t funny…they’re just painful attempts to be funny. Either actually make him funny or don’t bother with the comic relief angle, but make him competent too. He doesn’t seem cut out for this journey at all, which doesn’t really make any sense, as Fellowship painted him as a valiant dwarf warrior.
Now, once the actual battle does come along, he is a great fighter, and I even like the way he snarks during the battle. That works as a way to lighten the mood and make him a character to cheer for. Make him funny, don’t just make him an idiot.
Legolas, on the other hand, has no character at all. I’m not saying the character has a lot to do besides befriend Gimli and be a skilled fighter, but he was perfectly memorable in Bakshi’s version. Orlando Bloom’s Legolas seems aloof and pretty uncaring towards everything. Show an emotion now and then, please.
When you put these two with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who is a great character but for some reason still can’t decide if he wants to be king, it leads to some bland scenes.
They do finally meet up with the aren’t-you-surprised-he’s-alive-no-not-even-a-little Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen)…
On Casual Friday apparently. Come on, what’s with that sweater?
Unfortunately, one of the book’s most interesting scenes is cut from the film. One night (before meeting the reincarnated Gandalf), Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are sleeping out in the woods and see a mysterious old man they assume to be Saruman. However, once Gandalf comes back, the reader assumes this was Gandalf the whole time… except Gandalf later says it wasn’t. I just love the way it toys with our expectations—first leading us to think they’re in danger of Saruman, then convincing us they never were, but then revealing that yes it was Saruman all along. It also gives a chance to see more of Saruman instead of just a powerful wizard in a tower. Maybe I’m the only one who misses this scene, who knows, but it might have made an interesting addition to the film.
Saruman (Christopher Lee) should really have his chance to shine in this film (especially because his best moments in Return of the King don’t get adapted properly). However, instead of the interesting character of Tolkien’s book who clearly intends to have the ring for himself, this Saruman basically acts as Sauron’s top general. Christopher Lee still makes the most of his scenes, because he’s Christopher Lee, but he really got the short end of the stick in terms of interesting moments.
Instead of just having Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) give him villainous council, Saruman fully possesses King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill).
It’s an attempt to make the book’s events more dramatic for the screen, sure, but if Saruman is fully controlling Theoden’s body, what’s the point of Grima Wormtongue at all? If Saruman is possessing a vessel, can’t he just make all his decisions for him?
While in the book Gandalf merely banished Grima from the court of Rohan, here he performs an exorcism of sorts to cast Saruman out of Theoden.
Once Saruman is expelled from the king’s body, Theoden goes from this…
In a matter of moments. Did Gandalf work some magical hair coloring spell into that exorcism? It sure seemed to take a lot out of him, so working extra spells in was probably unnecessary. Did he work in a shave and a haircut spell too, because Theoden goes from unkempt hair and scraggly beard to flowing locks and trimmed goatee? Does being possessed by Saruman activate The Santa Clause or something?
So much of the film is spent with the people of Rohan preparing for battle…preparing, preparing and then preparing some more. Miranda Otto adds some heart as Eowyn, one of the brightest points in the film, but there just isn’t a lot going on here. Eomer (Karl Urban) on the other hand doesn’t have a lot to do, except fight. It’s ultimately just a runaround to get to the climactic battle.
Worst of all, we get an absurdly long fake-out death on the part of Aragorn. Look, obviously you’re not going to kill off this character at this point in the story, but you’re really going to try and make us think you will. The greatest weakness of these screenplays is the attempts to force drama into scenes that work just fine as they are. There was some of it in Fellowship, but it’s in full force here, and it is not for the better.
I’m glad they try to develop the romance of Aragorn and Arwen (Liv Tyler), as it’s pretty downplayed in the book until the very end and the appendices, but what’s with the whole “This is her last chance to sail across the sea” thing? It’s obviously NOT her last chance, because Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is the one telling Aragorn this! He goes across the sea at the end of the next film.
Meanwhile, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are caught up in an actually interesting plot line. After escaping the Uruk-Hai, they get picked up by Treebeard (John Rhys-Davies), who is debating whether or not to attack Isengard.
It’s a slow moving plot (which makes sense at the speed the Ents talk), but it’s a lot more interesting than just walking to battle…and more walking to battle…and preparing for battle. I still don’t care for the way Merry and Pippin are portrayed. It’s incredibly childlike, which is weird because in this version they’re the ones who convince the Ents to attack Isengard. So what, in between their juvenile game of Who-Can-Get-Taller-By-Drinking-Ent-Draught they’re planning battle strategies?
I have to admit that the Ent meeting…
And ultimately the Siege of Isengard…
Are great scenes, with the siege standing out as one of the best in the whole trilogy. It’s just such a visual marvel as the trees overthrow the fortress of Saruman.
Meanwhile, our other two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, are on their way to Mordor. I explained in my piece on Faramir just how silly the Faramir scenes are in this film, as he takes them all the way back to Gondor just to let them go and get back to where they were. However, the scenes before that with Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) are quite nice. There hadn’t been a great portrayal of Gollum up until this point (Brother Theodore in the Rankin-Bass The Hobbit was the closest), but Andy Serkis is pitch perfect as both Smeagol and Gollum. He is constantly fighting with himself and we see all the tumult on his face. These were groundbreaking CGI effects and they still hold up marvelously. It’s hard to read the books now without hearing Andy Serkis’ distinctive whimper.
The scenes are a little more over-the-top than they were in the book, but they are still pretty effective. When Frodo, Sam and Gollum are at the gates of Mordor, instead of just seeing that it’s a suicide mission to go in, Sam trips and falls almost into full view of the army and Frodo has to save him.
It’s somewhat overblown, but nowhere near as bad as the rest of the forced drama Jackson throws in.
The Faramir scenes had potential to be great… but I’ve ranted enough. The flashback scene with Boromir and Faramir might be the greatest in the film, though. I’m just glad there’s more Sean Bean.
The Nazgul no longer ride horses and have instead mounted flying beasts… and the screech is terrifying. They’re actually the best villains in this film just because of that screech (unless we’re counting Gollum). Oh not Sauron, you say? No because they make him a literal eye and it’s stupid.
Come on…. you’re better than this, Peter Jackson (maybe).
The climax comes at 1) The Battle of Helm’s Deep, 2) The Ents Siege of Isengard and 3) Faramir freeing Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Even though the buildup to Helm’s Deep goes way too long, the actual battle is a pretty effective sequence.
I do love the blue light it’s shot in, and we get the feeling of how hellish the battle is, almost immediately after it starts. Haldir (Craig Parker), an elf from Lothlorien, brings an army of elves to help in the battle and is almost immediately slain.
The elves don’t join in the battle in the book, but I actually enjoy this change, as the elves can seem somewhat aloof and prideful otherwise. Now granted, Craig Parker would have been a far better Legolas than Orlando Bloom, as he does a fantastic job with just a few minutes of screen time, but like the elves, I have to pick my battles.
Ultimately, The Two Towers is a fine film, but for something based on quite a long text, it really pads way more than it should. The Faramir stuff is really unpleasant (except that one scene) and there are goofy scenes like Aragorn not liking some stew Eowyn offers him or Gimli just being dumb. These don’t develop the plot at all, and they even make some characters unlikable. Let’s check out the final score.
Adaptation (30/50 Points)
Do I blame the stuff it leaves out on this or Return of the King? Some of it’s saved for the next film, but it drags the film down considerably. For all the buildup, there’s just not enough payoff (The Ents siege is spectacular though). However, the Faramir changes are the most egregious.
Cast (15/25 Points)
Andy Serkis is the stand- as Gollum, with Sean Astin as Sam not too far behind. Miranda Otto is great as Eowyn, and Brad Dourif is rightfully creepy as Wormtongue. Sadly, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the White doesn’t have much focus, and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas is even more boring than before. Most of the others are about the same as the last film.
Experience (20/25 Points)
The good news is all those silly close-ups are gone. The bad news is there are a lot less interesting things to film here. The Ent scenes look pretty great though, and of course the music is wonderful.
FINAL SCORE: 65%
There are definitely more issues than Fellowship looking at this again, but it’s bad… it’s just not all that great. It just is very obviously the middle installment of a trilogy where the most interesting events happen in the first and third.
Before we officially declare a song to be the Worst Song Ever, let’s take a look at the 25 worst lyrics from the songs in this tournament. Just like with the voting, some of these choices were difficult.
Shove a gerbil in your ass through a tube (repeated endlessly)
24. No Means No
But I really wanna hit it girl/No means no/I can do it for a minute girl/No means no
23. Rico Suave
My only addiction has to do with the female species/I eat ’em raw like sushi
22. Indian Outlaw
You can find me in my wigwam/I’ll be beatin’ on my tom-tom/Pull out the pipe and smoke you some/Hey and pass it around
Got some more Native American stereotypes for us, Tim?
21. Mambo No. 5
Anything fly, it’s all good let me dump it/Please set in the trumpet
20. Ascension Millennium
Times are hard and this is true, but you can edit it to you/Cause this reality is only temporaripermanently
Corey Feldman’s career has lasted temporaripermanently.
19. Disco Duck
Flapping my arms I began to cluck/Look at me, I’m the disco duck
Ducks don’t cluck. I believe I’ve made my feelings on this clear.
It is chocolate starfish keep on rollin’ baby move in
17. Seasons in the Sun
But the stars we could reach Were just starfish on the beach
Moral of the story: Don’t write songs about starfish.
16. Summer Girls
New Kids On The block had a bunch of hits/Chinese food makes me sick
15. Havin’ My Baby
The need inside you, I see it showin’/Whoa, the seed inside ya baby, do you feel it growin’
Look, the whole song makes me nauseous, I just had to pick one.
14. Accidental Racist
If you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag
13. Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./Cause we`ll put a boot in your ass, it`s the American way
Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers put a boot in the ass of… yeah, no, not the American way.
12. The Christmas Shoes
I knew that God had sent me that little boy to remind me what Christmas is all about
Yes, Christmas is all about contrived sob stories and oversung vocals. You’ve nailed it, NewSong.
11. Just the Way You Are (Drunk at the Bar)
I like you just the way you are, drunk as shit dancing at the bar/I like it and I can’t wait to get you home, so I can do some damage.
I did it all for the nookie, the nookie/So you can take that cookie and stick it up your, yeah!!
One of the worst rhymes in music history.
9. Honky Tonk Badonkadonk
Got it goin’ on like Donkey Kong/And whoo-wee shut my mouth, slap your grandma
8. MacArthur Park
Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don’t think that I can take it/’Cause it took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe again
Should I save the recipe? Nah, I don’t think I’ll need it.
But what if you leave the cake out in the rain?
7. Where I Come From
This tall lady stopped and asked if I had plans for dinner/Said no thanks ma’am, back home we like the girls that sing soprano
It doesn’t even try to rhyme… which would be fine, except the rest of the song does.
6. He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)
He hit me and it felt like a kiss/He hit me and I knew he loved me
5. Get Down
Gonna make you come tonight… over to my house
Prime Dewey Cox writing… terrible writing from anyone else.
4. Smart Girls
Wouldn’t it be nice If they gave PhD’s/For strokin’ me with hypotheses
Painfully rhymed, vomit-worthy, and it ruins a classic Beach Boys song. Anything else you’d like to add?
3. Figured You Out
And I love your lack of self-respect while you passed out on the deck/I love my hands around your neck
This is probably what Nickelback calls a love song.
2. Accidental Racist
If you don’t judge my gold chains/I’ll forget the iron chains
1. Summer Girls
When you take a sip you buzz like a hornet/Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets
This is a song that randomly throws in lines just for a rhyme, but this doesn’t rhyme! Not only does it make no sense, the words don’t rhyme! What’s the point of this?