Trilogy of Trilogies: The Lord of the Rings (for Alternate Ending)

I’m writing a three-part series for ‘Alternate Ending‘ exploring blockbuster movies of the 2000s. It’s a trilogy about trilogies! A new entry comes out the first Thursday of the month from now until June.

Allow me to make the case for the first decade of the twenty-first century as the peak of American blockbuster cinema. I know what you’re thinking: this dude’s tripping on his own nostalgia. But consider the fact that, while there great blockbusters were made before and after, the turn of the millennium provided the perfect circumstances for big studio spectacles to flourish both commercially, and more importantly, creatively. Movies have only gotten bigger, more expensive, and fuller of visual effects since, but except for a couple of movies here and there, the personal touch of the director has pretty much disappeared from blockbuster cinema.

In this Trilogy of Trilogies series, I want to explore not only the way that these movies excelled at being the best blockbuster cinema has to offer, but how their success ended up paving the way for their own demise. This first entry focuses on the Lord of the Rings trilogy as re-imagined for the screen by Peter Jackson. The second will focus on The Matrix movies, and the third on the infamous Star Wars prequels. Looking back on these trilogies, it becomes clear exactly how a short era of artistically driven, commercially successful blockbusters led to the current landscape of corporatized franchise entertainment.

If you are still on the fence about my claim, I have identified three criteria that make the movies of this period stand out from what came before and after…


Brief Memories of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

In December 2011, I travelled to New York for the first time. My father had moved here for a job about a month earlier, so the rest of the family was coming over for a couple weeks to spend the holidays with him. We spent most of the time visiting museums, tourists attraction, and doing some aggressive shopping, but I was most excited about the possibility of seeing movies that were surely never going to play theaters back home in Peru. The closest movie theatre to my dad’s apartment at the time was the now defunct Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and I ended up watching all four movies playing there at the time.

The Lincoln Plaza wasn’t the best theatre in New York by almost any metric, but it had its charm. It catered to an audience of elderly Upper West Sider, so it tended to play whatever middlebrow movies were being praised by the New York Times at the time. Woody Allen movies were a staple at this joint; had I visited the city a few months before I did, I would’ve been able to see Midnight in Paris there.

Speaking of problematic men, one of the movies I saw was Roman Polanski’s Carnage, which interested me for being an adaptation of of Yazmina Reza’s play God of Carnage. I had been in a production of Reza’s play Art the previous year. If you’re wondering what I was like as a teenager, the fact that I pressured my high school into letting me put up a production of Art – a play about three middle-aged men who have a fight over an all-white abstract painting – starring myself and two other 18 year-olds should tell you all you need to know. I was ultimately disappointed by Polanski’s adaptation of Reza’s play. I have forgotten almost everything about the movie, though I read God of Carnage again last year and came to the conclusion that I don’t the play is all that interesting. It focuses on two bougie couples who come together to talk about an incident involving their children, and end up having a big fight about it. It’s supposed to reveal something dark about upwardly mobile people, but it works best as a showcase for four actors to chew into some fun material. I would’ve loved to see the Broadway production of the play, which starred one of my all-time favorites, James Gandolfini.

The only one of the four movies I’ve rewatched since then is Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which went on to win an Oscar for Foreign Language Film. I remembered very little of my original viewing: the ending, a particularly tense scene involving an oxygen tank, and than that I arrived about 5 to 10 minutes late to my screening. The occasion for my rewatch was that we covered the movie on The Criterion Project, and I was very glad to find that it’s a pretty great movie. Like every Farhadi movie I’ve seen, it’s an intricately plotted morally complex drama in which two families are embroiled in legal trouble, and where the more details you know about the characters, the harder it is to determine which side is right. Underneath it all lies a somewhat subtle critique of the ways the Iranian government forces people to behave in amoral (or outright immoral) ways in order to survive. Not necessarily a cheery watch, but like I said, a pretty great one.

I am not really interested in revisiting Carnage, but I’d be curious to see how the remaining movies I saw hold up. My favorite at the time was Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, a twisty thriller about changing identities and revenge. Almodóvar seemed to be working on one of two modes at the time: loving melodramas about women, and sleazy noirs about men – this movie falls decisively in the second category. Antonio Banderas plays a mad scientist who is experimenting with new synthetic skin. It sounds like a lot of fun, and I remember it that way, but I am also worried the movie’s portrayal of its trans characters hasn’t aged particularly well. I don’t remember the details, but what I do remember makes me suspect it might not be up to the 2021 standard. I’m curious to either confirm or deny this some day soon.

So, the last movie. My mother is a psychoanalyst, which is why I was able to convince the whole family – including my thirteen year-old sister – to go see David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method saying it was a movie about Sigmund Freud. Not only is the movie more focused on Carl Jung than Freud, it is very much interested in his relationship with Sabina Spielrein, and the role sado-masochism, sexual repression, and the enactment of sexual fantasies played in it. You know, the stuff that a good family christmas is made of! I was also a bit disappointed with this movie, since I was expecting something more along the lines of Cronenberg’s previous two movies (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). Why exactly I would expected a movie about Freud and Jung to feel like those violent mob movies is beyond me. In any case, I think I’m ready to revisit this one now that I’m an actual adult.

Once we actually moved to New York, about a year later, this became my mother’s favorite theatre and she took up the mantle of watching everything that played there (she also loved the carrot cake they served at the concession stand, which I agree was quite tasty.) When the theatre closed its doors due to spiking rents, she was both saddened and incensed. She signed a bunch of petitions and for a long time would re-assure me that there were plans to bring back Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in one way or another. I suspect the pandemic might have put an end to those plans. By the time I first visited New York, the city was well on its way to scrapping all of its personality and becoming a playground for the rich, but that fact doesn’t make me think of this funky little place any less fondly.

Foreign Invader: Genndy Tartakovsky

Animator Genndy Tartakovsky was born in Russia, and emigrated to the U.S. when he was only seven years old. He’s now what I would traditionally call a “foreigner,” but the place he holds in contemporary American animation makes him stand out as a bit of an outsider. Throughout his television career working on shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, and most importantly Samurai Jack. He has developed a unique style that makes him a genre onto himself and one of mine and Trevor Wallace‘s favorite animators.

Stuff Mentioned in This Episode:
Genndy Tartakovsky: Reading the Action
Tartakovsky’s Popeye

Robots vs. Dinosaurs: King Kong (2005)

Robots vs. Dinosaurs host Louis Gaudio and I have started a bit of a podcasting bromance. You heard him recently in the Foreign Invader episode about that mustachioed plumber Mario Mario, and I am very excited to make – after our career defining discussion of Steven Spieberg’s masterpiece A. I. Artificial Intelligencea triumphant return to the RvD podcast. This time, we’re talking about Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong, the passion project that he had been dreaming about since he was a kid, that he got the money to make after the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, and that might have broken his career beyond repair? Listen below (or wherever you get podcasts) if you wanna hear me make a case for this as a movie in which Jackson works out deep guilt for wanting to make violent monster movies.

The Criterion Project: Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!

In a very special Apirl’s Fools episode of The Criterion Project, I am joined by Louie G, host of the Robots vs. Dinosaurs podcast, to talk about a true hidden gem and one of my favorite movies: it’s Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! Now, make no mistake, the fact that this is an April’s Fools episode does not mean that we are here to dunk on this independent “backyard” style movie. It’s the absolute opposite, we wholeheartedly love this movie, and we believe it should be regarded as one of the great movies of our time. What’s more, this episode includes a great cameo by the star of the movie, the legend Matt Farley himself!

Foreign Invader: Kylie Minogue

In a career spanning more than thirty years, Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue has sold 70 million records, become a fashion icon, and influenced a whole generation of pop stars, including Kim Petras and Dua Lipa. She is huge in the UK, Australia, all across the world… except in America. So, what gives? In order to answer this mysterious question, I am joined by theatre critic, host of the Token Theatre Friends podcast, and Kylie superfan Jose Solís.

Music played in this episode:
Can’t Get You Out of My Head
Better the Devil You Know
Never Too Late

Criterion Project: The Lady Eve

Hard to believe it’s already been tow years of The Criterion Project. We are closing our second season by returning to our favorite genre: screwball comedies! The Lady Eve is one of the most famous movies by writer-director Preston Sturges (one of the first Hollywood directors to be allowed to both write and direct their movies.) It also features an absolutely electrifying performance by Barbara Stanwyck, but I’m getting ahead of myself. You should listen to the episode to hear the rest of our thoughts. Also, you should check out the rest of our second season if you haven’t already! We had so many incredible guests this year, and we talked about a pretty wide variety of genres, countries, and time periods.