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locdog film review: return of the king

someday, a bored film student snoozing in a darkened classroom will be jolted from his lethargy by the following words:

"...and that was battleship potemkin by eisenstein. next we have jackson's lord of the rings trilogy."

return of the king is the third and final installment in peter jackson's epic retelling of tolkien's beloved masterwork--just in case you've been living in saddam's rathole for the past two years. in some ways, it is the final three hours and twenty minutes of a single, ten-hour motion picture, and in other ways it is a cinematic landmark in and of itself.

[insert obligatory plot summary here...moving on, then]

by itself, the film presents some of the most visually arresting images you will ever see on screen. with king, jackson has made a serious case for mention alongside of kurasowa when it comes to battle scenes. contrast the nobility and grandeur of jackson's wars with the pervasive nihilism of saving private ryan's normandy scene or the shocking dualality of kurasowa's warrior-peasants in the seven samurai and you'll realize that jackson is no less an auteur. plus it's just plain cool to watch. armies of extras and CGI nasties slam into one another with remarkable plausibility. when orlando bloom's legolas attacks a giant elephant thingy, scaling arrows shot into its tree-trunk legs then swinging from back to front on the creature's harness, you're along for the ride as the camera swoops and darts with invigorating speed. there are mind-boggling changes of scale, one in particular takes you from the face of a human soldier operating a catapult to a gods-eye view of the entire battle as you soar along with the projectile to the face of the individual orc target below. it's more than delicious eye-candy, it connects you to the battle, draws you out of a world of scientific reason and into the fantastic realm of middle-earth. it does what a movie is supposed to do. the matrix revolutions and its battle for zion was no less of a spectacle, but to the opposite effect: it was a distant, alienating piece that took as much out of the film as it put into it.

battles aren't the only thing to see here, however. we've got some of the most legitimate usage of CGI i've ever seen in film. (george lucas, call your office.) andy serkis' gollum is a genuine marvel. one of the most remarkable effects shots in the entire film is a simple close-up of gollum's sleeping face a few seconds before he awakes and delivers a crucial soliloquy (is it a soliloquy if you're literally speaking to yourself?) but for those few seconds, you'd swear they dug a real, live emaciated hobbit out of a cave somewhere and stuck him on screen. the giant spider shelob captures the cunning and skittery movements of an arachnid so perfectly that its brief but pivotal scenes come off as a little horror film within the film. having read the books beforehand, i anticipated the shelob scenes with a sense of dread, fearing a detour into camp at a moment when tension was requisite to a successful climax, but jackson, a veteran of camp horror, knows when to smirk at the viewer and when not to. then there are the costumes, the sets, the wedding-cake city of minas tirith, the look of an individual sword or someone's can lose yourself for an hour in a single frame. it helps to keep the third film as fresh as the first--a herculean effort that is worth a moment's appreciation.

one of the challenges jackson faced after completion of the awe-inspiring battle for helm's deep in the two towers was the need to revisit much the same material one installment later. you could view king's capstone sequence, the siege of minas tirith, and the helm's deep battle side by side and come away thinking that you'd twice seen a big castle-thingy stuffed with lots of people fighting against lots of monster-thingies who are trying to break in. and you'd be right. but instead, you come away with the impression that, somehow, you've seen something entirely new and wondrous. the feel of the battles is so precisely modulated that it never gets old. whereas helm's deep built tension up from wave after wave of orc crashing upon the walls, the minas tirith sequence had a visceral, kinetic quality that reminded me of the road warrior and, dare i say it, the empire strikes back. just go see it and tell me if those giant elephants don't make you think of imperial walkers a little bit.

as with its predecessors, return of the king does justice to little and big alike. there couldn't be more contrast in style between the aragorn/gandolf war story and the road movie played out by frodo, sam, and gollum, but both are equally rewarding. you never get annoyed with the cuts between the plots because you care about the outcomes of both. a lesser filmmaker, one with jackson's talent but not his restraint, could have easily gotten swept away by his own movie, but jackson sweats the small stuff. one amazing sequence has the orcs bashing the castle gate with a giant boar-shaped battering ram. you see it first from the outside with huge, lumbering trolls working the ropes (this film is big on showcasing the inner-workings of its siege-engines, and to great effect), then from the inside, where you see the individual faces of palpably terrified human guards, quaking in their expensive-looking armor. the boar's head bursts through the door, flames spilling from its wickedly-grinning maw, melding the two worlds in one sudden, catastrophic moment. but the camera cuts to ian mckellan, who brings at once a zen-like serenity and a churchillian resolve to gandalf. "remember that you are soldiers of gondor," says gandalf "and stand your ground no matter what comes through that door." what's about to come through are all the demons of hell, but goodness, how you will wish you were there to stand with him.

mckellan's turn is oscar-worthy, but the rest of the cast does a fine job as well. king easily exceeds fellowship and towers in terms of demands on actors, but it makes quota and then some with some startlingly nuanced performances. i've never quite understood why anyone would put sean astin in a movie, but his performance as frodo's never-say-die companion sam is rich and moving. he's the one you'll feel for as he aches for his suffering friend. elijah wood's frodo carries the weight of the world on a little chain around his neck on his weary trudge up calvary hill, and one look in his eyes will tell you it's for real. andy serkis deserves an oscar for best supporting actor--and gollum, all things considered, is one of the most amazing characters in the history of film. dominic monaghan and billy boyd are given opportunities to expand from their single-character-trait molds as merry and pippin, and they excel. liv tyler's milquetoast arwen is shoved off the screen by miranda otto's spitfire eowyn, who captures the attention of her people, jackson, the audience...pretty much everyone but aragorn. no accounting for taste, i guess.

the film's length might be a bit off-putting to casual fans, but most won't even notice. i didn't really begin fidgeting until the film's rather protracted twenty-minute farewell, and judging by the rustles i heard around me, i wasn't alone. still, i can't imagine someone walking out of the theatre and not feeling satisfied with the ending.

the lord of the rings trilogy is the star wars of this generation, the sort of thing that comes along once every thirty years or so. (one could offer no sadder commentary on the decline of george lucas, by the way, than a simple side-by-side of his lamentable prequel trilogy and the lord of the rings.) that was clear from the conclusion of the first film, but after the different-but-equally-good second, fans could not be blamed for fearing a jedi/godfather III was in the works. all i can say is that return of the king should exceed your highest expectations. when i left the theatre, i felt profoundly sad that it was over--not saddened by the bittersweet ending per se, but by the knowledge that i might have to wait another thirty years--or forever--to participate in such a glorious adventure again.

locdog's $0.02



let iraq try saddam

the new york times joins democratic presidential hopefuls, saddam hussein's daughter, and doubtless the ace of spades himself in their hopes for an international trial.

the trial, argues the times, "must do several things at once." it must "Educate iraqis and the world," as to what life under saddam was like, it must "adhere to the highest international standards of fairness," and it must "provide a mechanism for appropriate punishment," (and no, i didn't see anything in there about "justice," either.) the best fit would be a "tribunal inside Iraq under United Nations authority, staffed by Iraqi and international judges and prosecutors." after all, says the times, a purely iraqi court couldn't possibly grasp the "complex legal issues posed by this trial."

didja get all that, folks? according to the new york times, the united nations needs to educate iraqis on the atrocities of the hussein regime--i'll continue when you've picked yourselves back up off the floor...ok--the united nations needs to ensure that dealings with saddam are handled fairly, and the united nations needs to dole out fair punishment. as for that last one, handing saddam over to the recently created iraqi tribunal with its perfectly reasonable willingness to put the deposed tyrant to death "will make many specialists in human rights and war crimes issues reluctant to take part."

what, no specialists--oh won't somebody please think of the children! who but "specialists" could unpack the nuance, the delicate interplay of international legal precedent and prevailing political currents required to fathom the "complex legal issues" raised by the odious saddam? you know, subtle, sophisticated concepts like "saddam has tortured, raped, and murdered hundreds of thousands if not millions of people." and more importantly, who but they can ensure saddam does not get the death he has so thoroughly earned, thus guaranteeing a never-ending reign of terror with saddam's release as its sole object?

the new york times considering "united nations" and "legitimacy" synonymous merely establishes that they have no idea what justice is all about. big shock. what, saddam is to be tried by the organization that did everything they could to keep him in power--that spent the last three decades enabling the very atrocities they're now supposed to "appropriately" punish by kindly looking the other way or, at best, passing resolution after impotent resolution which, when push came to shove, they flatly refused to enforce? the avenger of iraq is to be the same gaggle of gutless cowards that turned tail and fled after their first sip of the horrors iraqis have been gulping down for thirty years? i could go on for days, but i think i'll simply refer the times to their own paper, which gave iraqi foreign minister hoshyar zebari's thoughts on the united nations just yesterday:

Settling scores with the United States-led coalition should not be at the cost of helping to bring stability to the Iraqi people.

Squabbling over political differences takes a back seat to the daily struggle for security, jobs, basic freedoms and all the rights the U.N. is chartered to uphold.

One year ago, the Security Council was divided between those who wanted to appease Saddam Hussein and those who wanted to hold him accountable.

The United Nations as an organization failed to help rescue the Iraqi people from a murderous tyranny that lasted over 35 years, and today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure.

The U.N. must not fail the Iraqi people again.

to that, locdog can add nothing



if dean is elected the terrorists win, or: why campaign finance reform sucks

ominous music rolls out of your tv speakers as a picture of bin laden on the cover of time appears on your screen. the camera tightens on the terrorist mastermind's eyes as the voice-over warns you that "Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience..." phrases like "dangerous world," and "no experience" flash into view, punctuating the denunciation at the appropriate points.

the RNC, you think has hit a new low.

"...And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy. It's time for Democrats to think about that — and think about it now," the announcer concludes. wait a minute, why would the RNC be warning democrats about howard dean's prospects in the general election?

that's a good question. the answer, of course, is that they wouldn't. we republicans are delighted with howard dean and are eagerly anticipating the upcoming general election. no, this ad was paid for by a group calling themselves "Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values."

this sure ain't your father's Grand Old Party.

Americans for Jobs, it turns out, is a democratic organization chaired by "the honorable" edward f. feighan, the disgraced ex-democratic representative who is perhaps best known for his role in the house banking scandal. together with david jones (former gephardt fund-raiser) and robert gibbs (former kerry press secretary), feighan has assembled a series of "republican-like" attack ads challenging dean's credibility as a commander-in-chief and as a true progressive. (the gephardt and kerry campaigns deny any involvement.)

"A new Democratic group that is running advertisements against Howard Dean and has not yet disclosed its sources of financing has introduced by far the toughest commercial of the primary election season," whines the new york times. "Though the advertisement, which began running on Friday in South Carolina and New Hampshire, is paid for by Democrats, it offers a taste of a likely Republican strategy against Dr. Dean should he win the presidential nomination." you gotta hand it to the times. it's not easy to turn the implosion of the democratic party into a black eye for republicans, but they sure give it the old college try. think of it this way: while republicans are certainly going to play up bush's foreign policy strengths vs. (presumably) dean's weaknesses, no bush strategist in his right mind would suggest such a blatant exploitation of post-9/11 fears--but the times gets to bash them for it anyway.

while the new york times sucks their thumb and whimpers over mean old republican-like democratic attack dogs in editorials passed off as news, the generally liberal cleveland plain dealer actually does some reporting:

Americans for Jobs registered Nov. 14 with the Internal Revenue Service under IRS Section 527 provisions, saying it would "engage in election-related activity for the purpose of supporting jobs and health-care issues."

So-called 527 groups can make independent expenditures and accept unlimited contributions. Because 527 groups are not tied directly to candidates' campaigns, they are not bound by Federal Election Commission rules. The IRS does not require disclosure of donors until the end of January, which is after the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary.

"If you're going to attack fellow Democrats using Osama bin Laden, you should at least stand up so people know who you are," said a dean spokesman.

boo-frickin-hoo! says Americans for Jobs. they don't have to say diddly squat until the end of january, and have promised that they won't.

i'm tickled pink by these ads for various and sundry reasons, not the least of which is their ruthlessly kitschy daisy-girl appeal. i think my favorite moment comes in the second ad, where dean is blasted for not being pink enough. he's joined bush on this and sided with the republicans on that, and, the piece de resistance, did you know that dean got an A rating--an A rating!--from the NRA? that last little tid-bit is accompanied by a dramatic, slow-mo shot of some redneck emptying an AK-47 on full-auto from his hip.

$500,000 soft-money dem-on-dem attack ad? priceless.

it goes without saying that these hopelessly inept ads can do naught but aid dean in his quest for the nomination, which is all the more reason to love them.

but beneath the tingles of ecstasy i get from the above, there's a rich, resonant joy that fills me like warm brandy as i sit and ponder how, once more, liberalism has gone off like a loaded AK-47 in the faces of those who believe in it most. you people fussed and moaned over the admittedly woeful state of campaign finance law, then fought the fire by throwing a bucket of gasoline on it. now the evil rich can donate limitless funds with impunity, completely circumventing the so-called campaign finance reform act and exacerbating a problem that was bad enough to begin with. big money has been granted greater influence and less accountability than ever before, a lovely state of affairs that dean himself sought to exploit when he reneged on earlier promises to accept federal matching funds. enjoy your ads, dean fans. you made them possible.

locdog thanks you for the laughs



the REAL iraq story

saddam shmaddam. right now, haliburton is charging the u.s. army slightly less per gallon of gas delivered to a war zone than your average californian motorist pays on any given summer's day. isn't the timing of this so-called "surprise raid" a little TOO convenient, people?

locdog won't be fooled

p.s. DRUDGE: John Breaux to retire!


is this not great babylon

The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?

While the word was in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, saying, O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee.

And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field...


i can't stop thinking about how they found saddam hussein. how he'd burrowed into the earth like an animal, living only to draw another breath, with nothing but darkness and the ghosts of his victims to keep him company. some say he almost seemed relieved when he was captured. i'll bet. a lot of demons can fit into a bottomless pit.

starring out into the darkness, could he see families staggering up and down endless rows of exhumed corpses, searching desperately for their loved ones, or was it only rats scurrying among the rocks? did he feel the hands of those lusty, ravening spirits grasping for him, or was it the spider and centipede coming to welcome him to his new kingdom? could he hear the screams of a thousand fathers who saw their wives and daughters raped before their eyes, a thousand dissidents dissolved feet first in boiling acid, a thousand mothers clutching their lifeless children, or were the shrieks his own? or perhaps his was a different madness, with the worms sliding through his hands the delicate caress of a lover, the stone gnawing into his back the playful nuzzle of his horse, the blackness that consumed him shining in his eyes like the desert sun.

saddam is a student of history, a man who once fancied himself the champion who would resurrect the glory of great babylon by the might of his power, for the honor of his majesty. amidst the endless howls of rage, did he catch the mad cackling of old nebuchadnezzar?

locdog likes to think he did