Spoiler-Free Review: “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” (Episodes 1 & 2)

Epic drama set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-Earth. -Synopsis from Amazon Prime

Episode 1: A Shadow of the Past

Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is disturbed by signs of an ancient evil’s return. Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) makes an unsettling discovery. Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is presented with an intriguing new venture. Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) breaks a deeply held community rule. -Synopsis from Amazon Prime

This show (which started streaming on SEPT 1st on Amazon Prime) is the MOST expensive ever made! Much money was spent on getting the rights to some appendices written by J.R.R. Tolkien. The showrunners (J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay) are relative newcomers to Hollywood; they’re long-time friends (and fans of Tolkien) who grew up in religious households in the DC suburbs. J.A. Bayona is a Spanish film director who made the films: The Orphanage (2007), The Impossible (2012), A Monster Calls (2016), and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. He directed the 1st 2 eps of this show. There will be other directors also at the helm of future eps. I’m a BIT of a “late bloomer” when it comes to the fantasy genre. I loved the LOTR movies (which I was re-watched recently) and think The Hobbit trilogy had some good parts, too.

The story starts out w/ a narration of past events, NOT unlike what was heard in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In Middle-Earth, an evil being, Morgoth, was defeated before the current time period (the Second Age). Sauron (briefly seen in that spiky helmet/imposing armor, as in Peter Jackson’s trilogy) is somewhere out there. As most creatures don’t live as long as elves, they’ve come to forget Sauron/his dark magic. As a child, Galadriel looks up to her older brother, Finrod (Will Fletcher). Years later, she is a “commander” leading a group of elves as they hunt for Sauron (after a long war which left MANY elves dead). Galadriel explains that she has searched for hundreds of yrs; those under her command are almost ready to give up. The High King, Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker), calls Galadriel back from the North; he declares that it’s time for peace. Galadriel tells Elrond (now in role of a “herald”) that she is NOT ready to stop fighting. Elrond cares for Galadriel; they have friendly banter.

We meet several original characters (OCs) who are NOT in Tolkien’s works. The Harfoots (meaning “hard of foot”) are ancient Hobbits; they’re migratory creatures who believe in community and staying out of the concerns of others. Eleanor “Nori” Brandyfoot and her friend Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) come upon a Stranger (Daniel Weyman). The characters seen in the Southlands are also OCs. A Sylvan elf, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), and his company of elves have been in this region for MANY yrs. There are several types of elves (as some of you may’ve recalled from LOTR). Legolas is a Sindarin Elf from the Woodland Realm of Northern Mirkwood. His father, Thranduil, is the King of the Silvan Elves living in that realm, making Legolas the Prince of Mirkwood. Haldir is guard of the borders of Lothlórien and guides the Fellowship while they are in his forest. We also meet a single mom/healer, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and her teen son, Theo (Tyro Muhafidin). The people of this community are NOT friendly to elves; we will learn why that is so.

This ep was quite slow, which will put off those viewers who were expecting the show to start out w/ a bang. There is one action scene, BUT it happens quickly (and some viewers thought it was unrealistic). I thought that the scenery (S1 was shot in New Zealand), CGI, music, and costumes were interesting. I wasn’t blown away w/ any aspect, BUT will continue to watch. I really hope the dialogue gets a LOT better! Some viewers (active on Twitter, YT, or on podcasts) are discussing who the Stranger could be.

Episode 2: Adrift

Galadriel finds a new ally. Elrond faces a cold reception from an old friend. Nori endeavors to help a Stranger. Arondir searches for answers while Bronwyn warns her people of a threat. -Synopsis from Amazon Prime

Elrond travels to another region (Eregion) and meets w/ Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), a master smith among the High Elves. In the near future, Celebrimbor plans to “create something great,” BUT needs help to build a giant forge. Elrond goes to Khazad-Dun and meets w/ an old friend, Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur), thinking that perhaps dwarves can contribute. The music used for the dwarves is really cool! We get to see the kingdom of the dwarves at its height (unlike the ruin that it was in LOTR). We see how the relationship is between elves and dwarves. We learn that Durin’s wife, Princess Disa (Sophia Nomvette), has a bubbly personality. King Durin III (Peter Mullan- a Scottish veteran character actor) appears briefly; I’m curious to know more about him.

The Southlands could be facing a great threat; Arondir goes to check out a nearby town (and Bronwyn joins him). Theo had found a broken weapon under his house, from which comes whispers (maybe Black Speech); he keeps it hidden from his mom. There MAY be other dangers lurking! This ep raises the action; there are 2 action-oriented scenes which MAY be scary for younger audiences.

Galadriel ends up in the middle of the ocean; she had decided NOT to go to Valinor (Heaven for the elves). She comes upon a rickety raft w/ a small group of humans who are dirty, tired, and angry. They’d recently been attacked- we soon see from what exactly. After facing more threats on the water, Galadriel and one man, Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), come out as survivors. They will have to trust and rely on each other now; they face a violent storm! Some viewers think that Halbrand will turn out to be Sauron (in disguise); others think he’ll be like Aragorn (a reluctant hero and future king). Hmmm… keep on watching to find out more!

“Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952) starring Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, & Anne Bancroft

SHE’S DYNAMITE! It Opens the Door on the Screen’s Most Exciting New Personality- MARILYN MONROE -A tag line (on the movie trailer)

An airline pilot, Jed (Richard Widmark), stays at the NYC hotel where his gf, Lyn (Anne Bancroft- just 20 y.o.) is a singer. Some guests have lived in this hotel for yrs (and call it “home”); others are visiting for a short time (business/vacay). Some employees have been around a long time also; Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.) has been an elevator operator for 7 yrs. Jed notices a young woman (wearing a black kimono) across the courtyard on the opposite side of the hotel. They start out flirting by playing w/ their window blinds, then he calls her on the phone. They decide to meet-up in her room. As they drink and talk, Jed comes to realize that this woman, Nell (Marilyn Monroe at 25), is NOT as uncomplicated as she looks. I’m NOT going to reveal more, as I don’t want to spoil the surprises!

Jed [to Nell on the phone]: Are you doing anything you couldn’t be doing better with somebody else?

The screenplay was written by Daniel Taradash, based on the novel- Mischief– by Charlotte Armstrong, published in 1951. I had never heard of the director, Roy Ward Baker, before; he worked in small-budget Hollywood films for a time after (before returning to his native England). There is nothing showy re: the style; it’s understated (NOT unlike an ep of a TV show). The acting is well-done when it comes to each role, incl. the minor ones that add flavor to the story. We get the (rare) chance to see Widmark (star of many noirs) as a regular (and mostly relatable) guy! He shows a lighter (and charming) side. Bancroft is beautiful, mature beyond her age, and sings V well.

I learned that 1952 was a great year for Monroe; she made her mark in Clash by Night (acting opposite Stanwyck), Monkey Business (I still need to see), and this film. She’d played small roles in 2 great films released in 1950: the much-acclaimed All About Eve and the noir classic The Asphalt Jungle. The (iconic) actress commented that this was one of her fave roles. Some fans noted that Monroe’s hair/make-up is much more natural than in her later film; she’s gorgeous (of course). However, when you see the fine quality of her acting, you’ll be wow-ed even more!

Marilyn Monroe wanted to be this great star, but acting just scared the hell out of her. That’s why she was always late- couldn’t get her on the set. She had trouble remembering lines. But none of it mattered. With a very few special people, something happens between the lens and the film that is pure magic. And she really had it. -Widmark on his co-star

“Hollow Triumph” (1948) starring Paul Henreid & Joan Bennett

His scar marked them both!!! -A tagline for the film

John Muller (Paul Henreid) is an educated man-turned-criminal (he dropped out of med school yrs ago) who plans a holdup that goes wrong. Soon, he’s being followed by goons who work for a powerful/vindictive gambler (to whom he owes money). Hiding out, John stumbles onto a chance to assume a new identity, that of respected psychiatrist Victor Bartok, who happens to be his virtual double (aside from a scar on the left cheek). John gets close to Bartok’s secretary, Evelyn Hahn (Joan Bennett), in order to learn more about her employer.

[regaining her composure after mistakenly kissing Muller, thinking he was Dr. Bartok]

Evelyn: What can I do for you?

John: What more could any reasonable man ask?

I learned about this movie on the film noir pod- Out of the Podcast. This is a “Poverty Row” production; this is a slang term used to refer to Hollywood films produced from the 1920s-1950s by small B movie studios (as my noir-istas will know). While some Poverty Row studios had a brief existence, releasing ONLY a few films, others operated on more-or-less the same terms as- if on a smaller scales from- major film studios (MGM, Warner Bros, and Paramount). Though Steve Sekely is credited as the director, Henreid (uncredited) ended up directing the film mostly on his own! Director of Photography John Alton had a prolific career; he wrote one of the 1st book on cinematography. Alton worked on many noir films, incl: He Walked by Night, Witness to Murder, and The Big Combo. He collaborated w/ Spencer Tracy on several films: Father of the Bride, Father’s Little Dividend, and (most notably) The People Against O’Hara.

John: What happened? Did he hurt you?

Evelyn: Do I look hurt?

John: I should say you do.

Evelyn: Well, don’t fool yourself. You don’t get hurt these days.

John: No?

Evelyn: No. It’s very simple. You never expect anything, so you’re never disappointed.

John: You’re a bitter little lady.

Evelyn: It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.

When you imagine film noir villain, Paul Henreid is probably NOT in your list -LOL! Henreid (blonde, 6’2″ tall, and best known for Casablanca) decided to produce this film himself, so that he could play a bad guy for once. As my classic film fans will know, Henreid was an immigrant to the US who became a success in Hollywood; he was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire (now a part of northern Italy). I recently learned that his father was an aristocratic banker of Jewish heritage; he changed their last name from “Hirsch” to “Hernreid.” I was skeptical, BUT he makes a compelling character. Henreid (looking posh in his suits) reveals a cold/dangerous side, BUT also keeps some charm/sophistication. You can watch this movie free on YouTube, as it is now in the public domain; the alternative title is The Scar.

Jerry [to John at the garage re: his dream to become a ballroom dancer]: My height, right? Being short isn’t as insuperable a handicap as you might think. If your personality is powerful, you can project the illusion of height.

[1] This is a well-directed, sometimes brutal, atmospheric thriller which is something of a lost classic. It is now available on DVD under its alternative title of ‘The Scar’… Joan Bennett was really made for these films, as she proved in ‘The Woman in the Window’ and ‘Scarlet Street’ for instance. There is something ambiguous about her, something hard that is soft, you can’t quite figure her. That’s just right for noir. You should never be able to figure noir, everything should stay in the shadows where it belongs.

[2] …it sure does raise my opinion of Henreid, who I’ve seen to somewhat underwhelming effect in “Of Human Bondage,” “Casablanca,” and “Meet Me in Las Vegas.” I’ve always felt like he’s just eye candy for the ladies, but in this film he really carries the story with a lot of screen presence and authority. He’s in a very different role from some of those milquetoasts- here he’s a daring, ruthless criminal who steals another man’s identity after a botched casino robbery…

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Nobody Lives Forever” (1946) starring John Garfield & Geraldine Fitzgerald

G.I. Nick Blake (John Garfield), a successful con man in pre-military life, has just received an honorable discharge from the Army. Rather than return to his old life, he plans to settle down in NYC (his hometown) w/ his blonde/glamorous/singer gf, Toni Blackburn (Faye Emerson; also daughter-in-law of FDR), and the money he amassed before WWI: $50,000. When that plan doesn’t pan out, Nick decides to head to LA w/ fellow con man/pal, Al Doyle (George Tobias- the comic relief), and live it up at the beach for a while. He is informed by Pop Gruber (Walter Brennan), his aging former mentor (now running small street cons in L.A.) of a potential big mark. A former associate, Doc Ganson (George Coulouris- one of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players in Citizen Kane), has found a Midwestern widow worth $2M vacationing in town, Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald; also Laurence Olivier’s wife in Wuthering Heights). Doc doesn’t have either the bankroll or the charms to carry out this con himself. Nick agrees both to bankroll and carry out the con, negotiating 2/3 of the take for himself, leaving Doc and his 2 associates w/ a minimum of $30,000. Doc doesn’t like the conditions, but he accepts the offer, being desperate for a score. The con becomes complicated as Nick must also deal w/ Gladys’ business manager, Charles Manning (Richard Gaines), gets recognized by people from his past, and grows to genuinely like Gladys (who is young, kind, and pretty).

Unlike in The Postman Always Rings Twice (which was also released in 1946), the romance here is more demure. […] The bad guys have more mirth than menace. -Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley (TCM)

Garfield (as filmmaker Sydney Pollack commented) was a Method actor and a bridge between the classic Hollywood studio actors and those actors who changed acting forever- Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. This is one of Garfield’s lesser-known films (a blend of noir and romance). Nick is a charmer who lies effortlessly; it’s easy for him to ingratiate himself into Gladys’ lonely life. They swim at the beach, eat fine meals, and share some convos. I esp. liked their day trip to the mission (a historical church w/ beautiful grounds); Nick is filled w/ regret and reveals some truth about his past. Despite thinking he won’t change, he does end up in love w/ Gladys and can’t bring himself to steal her money. The actors have nice chemistry, though it’s more sweet than steamy.

The screenplay is by W.R. Burnett, who also wrote a number of film crime classics, incl. Scarface, Little Caesar, High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle. Burnett’s dialogue is sharp and tough, and he displays insight (and even sympathy) for the criminal mind. Director Jean Negulesco knows how to create a mood. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson (Casablanca; Frankenstein) make this mood memorable and visually appealing. Though it lags at times, if you like the noir genre, it’s worth watching!

[1] Many films from the mid-40s deal w/ men struggling to readjust to their civilian lives after their wartime service. This film offers a twist: the hero’s pre-war career was as a successful con artist. He doesn’t have any trouble getting his job back, but does he still want it? WWII is a source of anxiety and moral confusion in many postwar noirs, but this film (set during the war) suggests that a stint with Uncle Sam can straighten out a crooked guy.

[2] The stars are lovely together, and the film has a rich atmosphere throughout, each setting clearly defining the moment. The nightclub scenes evoke the ’40s postwar feeling, the California scenes are bright and sunny, and the scenes on the pier are spooky and dense with fog. A very good film.

[3] The movie contains many elements of noir, as well as the fine cast. Despite these positive elements, Negulesco’s slow, deliberate pacing is more consistent with a romantic or psychological approach than with a crime drama.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“The World, the Flesh, & the Devil” (1959) & “Z for Zachariah” (2015)

Introduction

Post-apocalyptic sci-fi is set in a world/civilization after nuclear war, plague, or some type of disaster. I found a V long list of movies (on IMDB); here are ones I’ve seen so far: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Children of Men (2006), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Matrix (1999), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1990). While dystopian fiction usually explores social or political struggle, society has NOT yet collapsed (BUT might be on the brink). In apocalyptic fiction, the focus is more on the characters or on man vs. nature.

The World, the Flesh, & the Devil (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, & Mel Ferrer

Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) is a miner trapped for several days after a cave-in somewhere in Pennsylvania. When he finally manages to dig himself out, it looks like civilization has been destroyed in a nuclear incident. He drives to NYC and finds it deserted. Making a life for himself in a luxury high-rise apt bldg, he’s shocked to eventually find another survivor, Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), a 21 y.o. blonde socialite. They start to rely on each other and form a close friendship. Some time later, they hear of another survivor who arrives via his small boat- Ben Thacker (Mel Ferrer). Ralph gives Ben an injection that saves his life; Sarah takes care of him while he recovers. In time, tensions start to rise as Ben and Ralph vie for Sarah.

Ben: I have nothing against negroes, Ralph.

Ralph: That’s white of you.

This unique/lesser-known movie showed up under recommendations on Amazon after I watched Z for Zachariah (see review below). The director here, Ranald McDougall, worked for Warner Bros. from 1944-50; he got an Oscar nom for his screenplay of the noir classic Mildred Pierce (1945) starring Joan Crawford. From the mid-’50s, he was primarily active in TV and worked on lower-budget films. Belafonte (who does sing a BIT here and looks gorgeous) was at the top of his career at this time. Though perhaps known more as a singer and civil rights activist, he acted in several V fine films and even had his own production company! So far, I’ve seen Belafonte in Carmen Jones (1954) w/ Dorothy Dandridge, Island in the Sun (1957)- which also contains a interracial love story, and the noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) w/ Robert Ryan.

The first 40 mins of the story is ALL about Ralph; we see a lonely (yet positive-minded) Belafonte navigate the empty/eerie streets of Manhattan. I hadn’t seen the acting of Stevens (a Swedish-American w/ a tragic life/early death) and Ferrer (Audrey Hepburn’s 1st husband; born to a Cuban father and American mother) before; they do fine in their roles. Race is a big issue here; a Black man and white woman wouldn’t be seen as equals or allowed be a romantic pair onscreen (in a segregated society). In one pivotal scene, we see the sexual frustration of both Ralph and Sarah as he gives her a haircut. Even on her birthday, Ralph doesn’t sit down to dinner w/ her, as Sarah wants, but provides the music and food. He acts like it’s OK when Ben and Sarah start to go out alone (on dates). The ending wasn’t quite what I expected, BUT it was intriguing! I think fans of classics will enjoy this movie.

[1] This movie will grab your interest and exercise your moral fiber. Race, prejudice and pride are but minor subplots in this excellent film. […] Black and white has never been so colorful.

[2] Belafonte is terrific especially in his early scenes and Miss Stevens registers quite strongly during their tense exchanges. Most of all, director Ranald MacDougall captures a barren, decimated-looking New York City to awesome, jaw-dropping effect.

[3] A very thought provoking movie that was not accepted at the time, but in retrospect, way way ahead of its time. In a racially charged world, it put forth the premise that race, in the final analysis, is superficial and meaningless. Once you strip away the layers of conditioning and socialization, you find, at the core, good and evil and the age old struggle as to which will prevail. A simple story, told directly and honestly.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Z for Zachariah (2015) starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, & Chris Pine

After the end of the world she thought she was alone. She was wrong. -A tagline for the movie

A woman in her early 20s, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie- an Aussie), lives w/ her dog (Faro) on a farm in the Appalachian Mtns, sheltered from radioactivity by rocky hills and a clean underground water supply. After about a year of being alone, Ann encounters John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor- a Brit), a research engineer who (aided by meds and a HAZMAT-type suit) walked from a govt bunker to her valley. Unknowingly, John bathes in a contaminated waterfall, so quickly gets V sick! He is nursed back to health by Ann in her house; she is a Christian and prays to God to save him (thinking he’s a good man). John regains his strength and starts to improve their lives w/ his ideas/skills. They become friends and- eventually- think of pursuing a romantic relationship. Before that can happen, about 42 mins in, Faro runs ahead of Ann to another survivor- Caleb (Chris Pine- an American)!

This movie is based on the sci-fi book Z for Zachariah (1974) by Robert C. O’Brien; after his death, his wife and daughter crafted it into a YA novel. The “love triangle” was added in by the screenwriter (Nissar Modi- a Brit); only Ann (a 16 y.o. farm girl) and Loomis (a middle-aged engineer) are protagonists in the novel. The books has many convos btwn the characters re: religion vs. science, as a few readers have noted. The director (Craig Zobel- an American) recently gained some attention for HBO’s Mare of Easttown (starring Kate Winslet). Tobey Maguire (who served as a producer) and Amanda Seyfried were originally cast in the lead roles, BUT both had to drop out. The title recalls a children’s book that John takes off a shelf: A is for Adam. As some viewers noted, Zachariah is the prophet murdered between the temple and the altar (the last of the prophets killed) in The Bible.

This movie was shot on location in New Zealand; the main set was about 40 mi. from the nearest town. Zobel commented that it “felt like a Summer camp” working w/ his small cast and crew. He and the 3 actors had a week of rehearsal; they did some improv while shooting (as I learned from watching a few interviews from Sundance film fest). Ejiofor (now in his mid-40s) is an actor I’ve admired since seeing his debut role in the indie Dirty Pretty Things (2002). He can express a LOT w/ little (or no) words; he has large/expressive eyes and was classically-trained (as many British actors). After Ejiofor was cast, one line was added in re: race (one of the funny moments). Speaking of great eyes… Pine (now in his early 40s) does quite well w/ his role here; Caleb knows how to use his sex appeal/charm on Ann. Robbie does well also: she (now just 31 y.o.) achieved a LOT of success at an early age. I learned that she just also started producing- V smart move. Check this movie out IF you’re looking for something thoughtful!

[1] Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a compelling performance. It was so real, I think the majority of us would understand what he’s going through. I was shocked by how outstanding Chris Pine was in this movie, just perfect. Margot Robbie was amazing as well, just a solid piece of acting by all.

It made for the perfect emotional love triangle. Even though only three people appear in this movie, it said so much about us as a society.

[2] This is probably the quietest and most understated post-apocalyptic movies you’ll ever see, but deep down, it is truly fascinating. With great performances, impressive directing and an intriguing plot, this film is massively engrossing and surprisingly simple to understand from start to finish.

…a fascinating study of humans in their most basic state: survival and animalistic desires, relating itself almost to Adam and Eve and biblical theory.

[3] Some films make you cry, some films make you laugh and some films just amaze you. Well, this one will make you think and digest information that you will see. Z for Zachariah may not be the most romantic film nor may it be an adventure, but hours after watching it, I was still thinking about what this film represents.

-Excepts from IMDb reviews

Cast interview with Rolling Stone
Cast and director interview with The Wrap