The Lord of the Rings, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto

People throughout the world have adored The Lord of the Rings ever since J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy epic trilogy was first published over half a century ago. The popularity of the story about a hobbit named Frodo Baggins and his quest to rid Middle Earth of the One Ring expanded even further when Peter Jackson's enormously successful film adaptation came out in three installments earlier in this decade. Now The Lord of the Rings has been produced for the stage, premiering at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre in March. The creators of the theatrical production faced multiple obstacles, the most obvious being how to present all the essential elements of the plot in a reasonable amount of time and how to visualize the story's more fantastic aspects in a live stage setting. Neither of these challenges would be simple to conquer, and the potential for the play to turn into an expensive disaster certainly existed. Thankfully, while the stage adaptation isn't perfect, it does succeed more often than it fails, and as a whole it is an entertaining and enjoyable experience.

The script writer Shaun McKenna did as well as could reasonably be expected in maintaining a coherent plot despite many abbreviations. Yes the play runs over three hours in three acts, and all the essential elements and almost all of the relevant characters of Tolkien's original story make it into the play. Faramir and Éomer are missing, and Wormtongue is merged with the Bree scoundrel Bill Ferny. Tom Bombadil, just as in the movies, was seen as too much of a diversion from the main story to include in the play, although he at least gets a mention from Gandalf. The Shire does get scoured this time around, happily, even if in a somewhat abbreviated form. Only when the scenes at Bree and Weathertop get blended together does the story line get confusing. Also, a few of the lesser characters that are included are not well enough defined. For example, neither Éowyn nor Théoden received enough dialog to clarify their roles in the story to anybody who might not already know them. It's also never made clear who the Black Riders really are. These are minor points, however, as Frodo's journey is laid out for the audience in ample detail, and his struggles in the aftermath of his quest's successful completion are actually presented better here than in the film version of The Return of the King.

Given the play's large budget, the producers of The Lord of the Rings banked on the play being made or broken largely by the impact of the visual effects. As was true with the script, the play mostly but not completely succeeds in this regard. Rob Howell's breathtaking sets effectively transport the audience into Middle Earth, and the many revolving and moveable layers and platforms on the stage convey a clear sense of distance and elevation. The performers playing the ents had to walk on very high stilts, but pulled it off in a convincing fashion. The orcs used springy stilts below their legs and walking aids as appendages on their arms; these enabled the actors to engage in all sorts of acrobatics across the stage during the fight sequences. A few critics dismissed the fight and pursuit sequences as too much wandering around in the dark, but I honestly felt that that they concisely and clearly portrayed the action of several of the books' more important chapters. The visual highlight of the show, though, was the phenomenal puppetry that animated the Black Riders' horses and the giant spider Shelob, making them every bit as terrifying as Tolkien had originally intended. Unfortunately, the visuals tended to fail in the play's climactic moments. The rushing waters of the ford at Rivendell just weren't all that convincing. After watching the Moria scene close out the first act, I couldn't help thinking that it would have been more dramatic to leave the balrog unvisualized. Gandalf at Moria and Gollum at Mount Doom are essentially swallowed up by the moving layers of the stage; allowing gravity to do a little bit of work instead in those two scenes would have been much simpler and infinitely clearer.

The cast of actors included James Loye as Frodo, Peter Howe as Sam, Brent Carver as Gandalf, and Evan Buliung as Aragorn. Everybody handled their roles reasonably well; none of them distinguished themselves, but nobody brought the show down with them either. The biggest ovation was reserved for Michael Therriault as Gollum. While he gave a solid performance, he didn't really add anything to the character beyond what Andy Serkis did in the movie series.

The theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings distinguishes itself the most from previous adaptations of the story in its use of music. Tolkien included many songs in the text of his books, and the play incorporates several of Tolkien's pieces. Bilbo and Frodo sing about the road going ever, ever on, Gimli sings about Moria, and Frodo and the other hobbits do a rousing version of Tolkien's take on "Hey Diddle Diddle" in The Prancing Pony. In this sense, the play captures an important part of the spirit of Tolkien's work better than the movies did. Most of the music in the play, created by Indian composer A. R. Rahman and the Finnish band Värttinä, serves as background for the different scenes. While many of the pieces were given more showy arrangements, for better or worse, the music incorporated a lot of world music elements as well. The Black Riders theme included an eerie hint of Tuvan throat singing; this worked so well that it ought to have been incorporated into more scenes beyond the first act. Predictably, given the connection between the elvish language and Finnish, the music at Lothlórien and Rivendell bears a strong Nordic stamp. Lothlórien is introduced with a bit of kulning, or very high-pitched female vocalizations developed by Swedish cattle herders, and Galadriel sings in a form of traditional Finnish lilting. The musical highlight of the show comes when the Fellowship is established at the Council of Elrond, with a song featuring soaring vocal harmonies in Värttinä's trademark style.

The creators of The Lord of the Rings took on a very difficult task and produced a worthwhile adaptation of Tolkien's great work. They could have easily settled for a sanitized, commercialized version of the story, or even simply parroted what was done in the movies, but they deserve much credit for taking their share of chances with the production. A couple of things could have been done better, but I found the experience very pleasing to both the eyes and the ears. Fans of the books will find the play to be worth the trip, and at least some Tolkien novices (the group of people sitting to my immediate left had never read the books or seen the films) will be lured in by the story, the fantasy, the visuals, and the songs.

Overall Grade: B+

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2006 The Green Man Review

An Unfinished Life

An Unfinished Life stars master actors Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. The film also features "triple threat" Jennifer Lopez who restricts herself to acting duties. While I hadn't heard much about this film, the cast intrigued me enough to bring it home from Blockbuster.

This film is a character study in unresolved issues. Redford plays Einar, a rancher in Wyoming that has not moved on from the unexpected passing of his son. J Lo is the daughter-in-law down on her luck. The two can't get along, but need to learn to live with each other.

Providing counterpoint is a bear (played by Bart the Bear). The bear figures in the story, and has some symbolic value, but is a lot of fun to watch strolling into town. The scenery of rural Wyoming is also beautiful and adds to the enjoyment of An Unfinished Life.

If you're looking for a strongly acted film, that showcases the characters as much as the plot, then An Unfinished Life is the film for you. I enjoyed it very much.

Overall Grade: B+



The writing duo of Preston and Childs has a whole series of novels that are real page turners, and redefine the thriller category in their attention to detail. Previously, we looked at Mount Dragon. Since that novel, I have been looking forward to reading another by them. Today we look at Thunderhead, and it is also excellent.

Thunderhead focuses on a young archaeologist, Nora Kelly. She is stalled in her career, and parentless. Both her personal, and professional lives are overcomplicated and going nowhere fast. A mysterious letter arrives from her deceased father, also an archaeologist. He may have discovered a secret city of the Anasazi Indians known as Quivira. This is perhaps the famed "City of Gold" that the Spanish explorers of yesteryear sought, and has the potential to be the greatest find in all of American archaeology.

Faster than we can say petroglyph, Kelly finds herself leading an expedition into the Utah badlands by the "four corners" region of the American Southwest. While the account is fictional, it is sprinkled with a hefty serving of authentic archaeological details. The prose is also excellently written, and reads quite smoothly. The characters are also quite believable, each with an ego the size of Texas.

As in their previous novels, what starts as a routine matter, goes awry in every direction. What begins as a quest ends as a desperate test of survival. There are more than enough plot twists and turns to keep you riveted to the novel. Be warned, you may forgo sleep and other basic biological needs to finish Thunderhead as soon as possible.

I enjoyed this novel very much. I have seen the petroglyphs of the Anasazi Indians firsthand in my travels, and I found most of the novel quite believable. If you want to delve into a novel that takes you on a journey of discovery, then Thunderhead is for you.

Overall Grade: A

Also reviewed by these authors:

The Codex

Mount Dragon


The Broker

John Grisham is quite well known for his series of legal novels. A few have been made into films like The Firm, and The Pelican Brief. The Broker represents a departure from his previous works.

The Broker is kind of a "thriller lite." The novel has the plot of a thriller, but it never takes itself that seriously. I consider it a refreshing change from some of the recent novels I have read.

The principal character is Joel Backman. While he is an attorney, he makes a living as a power broker (hence the title) among Washington D.C.'s elite as the lobbyist weilding the ultimate in influence- for sale at a hefty price. Backman's "wheelin' dealin'" lifestyle lands him with a prison sentence, which is unexpectedly truncated at an eleventh hour Presidential pardon for a CIA plan.

Backman then ends up laying low in Italy. He enjoys the local cafes, and struggles with learning the Italian language aided by his team of tutors. Of course, he is constantly looking over his shoulder behind him as he had made more enemies than friends in his previous powerful position.

There is a little high tech gadgetry, including the ultimate satellite surveillance system of unknown origin. The bulk of The Broker centers around Backman's experiences in Italy. Grisham's rich descriptions of Bologna go a long way to lending realism and credibility to the tale.

The Broker is the thriller equivalent of an espresso enjoyed at an outdoor cafe. Sip by sip, we, the reader, leisurely saturate our senses with a unique experience. This is the perfect book to pack on your next trip to the beach.

Overall Grade: B+


Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (Anti, 2006)

Over the past five years, Neko Case has built a strong following among fans of alternative country and folk rock, due to her powerfully alluring voice and her intriguing, often cryptic songs. With her latest effort Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, Case aims for even more mystery and a deeper ambiance. Most of the album floats along on a sea of echo and reverb; the surface may seem tranquil, but some dangerous, disturbing undercurrents lurk beneath. Even the album's artwork conveys the same dark mystery that the songs do. Only the rousing traditional gospel song "John Saw That Number" breaks from the overall feel of the disc. The moodiness of the album will definitely please some more than others, but songs like the title track and "Dirty Knife" have an undeniable potency to them, and the layers of complexity in the lyrics and melodies reward repeated listenings.

Liking Fox Confessor Brings The Flood requires both an attention span and a willingness to let your mind venture through some dark places. The journey is made easier, at least, by some great performances on the disc. Case's voice remains superlatively strong, and her greatest selling point. She also has suurounded herself with a small group of close friends who also happen to be great musicians, including guitarist Paul Rigby, backing vocalist Kelly Hogan, the members of the Canadian retro-rock band The Sadies, and The Band's legendary keyboardist Garth Hudson. The dark feel that permeates Fox Confessor Brings The Flood makes it hard for me to recommend it to everybody, but those who find beauty in darkness will find much to like about it.

Overall grade: A-



It's no secret that I'm a big fan of movies and novels that involve the military. However, Jarhead falls quite short of the mark on all counts.

This film stars Jamie Foxx as the Staff Sergeant charged with training a squad of Marine scout snipers. Predictably, he is the wise man that yells in the recruit's faces and orders the pushups. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Anthony Swofford, the new recruit to the squad.

After the boot camp scenes, we find ourselves in Kuwait. It is the opening days of the first Gulf War. We see the difficulties of operations in a 112 degree desert.

Jarhead simultaneously takes up the themes of Marine camraderie, the senselessness of war, fighting for a cause you not only don't believe in, but you don't understand, and losing your mind on the battlefield. Superimposed on top of this is the theme of even though you leave the war and the killing, it doesn't leave you.

Somewhere in the over two hours of film might have been a film worth watching. Unfortunately, it was quite elusive. The long extended desert scenes, with no dialogue, only prolong the boringness of the whole affair. OK, I get that they're marching along, we don't need to show every sand dune on the Arabian peninsula!

The constant grittiness of the film does nothing to enhance it either. Most of it is there for shock value anyway, and does little to advance the plot or characters.

The film doesn't even come together at the end. Were they trying to carry through the war is senseless theme? It leaves me feeling that Jarhead is equally senseless too.

In case you're wondering, a jarhead refers to a Marine's head with their very close hair cut. It also implies an empty head without a brain. I'll use it in a sentence: you'd have to be a jarhead to think that this was a good film.

Overall Grade: D-


Dangerous Ground

After immensely enjoying Day of Wrath by Larry Bond, I couldn't wait to read another novel by this author. Dangerous Ground was an equally enjoyable experience. This novel manages to combine the self doubting protagonist of the David Poyer "tales of the modern navy" novels, with the submarine knowledge and action of the Patrick Robinson novels. The mix is excellent and a real page turner.

The story focuses on Jerry Mitchell, a junior grade lieutenant in the US Navy. After an unfortunate accident during flight school, Mitchell is forced to retart in the Navy. Against all odds, and with some political string pulling, he is able to secure himself a spot in the Navy's "silent service," on a submarine. The rest of the crew is less than thrilled to have him on board, and they let him know it at every opportunity.

Also on the discontented boat are several other crew members. Captain Hardy, a veteran sub commander, is slated for an easy shore command, but gets pressed into duty one more time on an aged sub that was supposed to be decommissioned. The second in comand, the XO named Bair was due to get his own comand, and he's upset to be working under the strictest captain since Ahab. As if this wasn't enough, the chief working under Mitchell can't stand him either, and resents his presence. Just for good measure, and to grit the gears even more, two woman scientists are on board as well, and they think they're calling the shots. Could you ask for a more motley crew of discontents?

Poor Mitchell has the weight of the world on him as he constantly has to make up for lost time, and work on getting his qualifications done to earn his submarine dolphins (pictured left). This is all going on while the sub is on an "environmental reconnaissance" mission deep into Russia's waters.

Add in to this they have a new experimental device on board. It's called a "Manta" and it's a remote controlled type of mini sub. This is cutting edge technology by anyone's measure. If the Navy doesn't have one of these yet, they should order up a few after reading this novel!

Most of the novel takes place on the soon to be decommissioned sub, the USS Memphis (pictured left). Interestingly, there is a sub by that name, and it is active. I'm not sure why Bond chose this name for the boat in Dangerous Ground. The novel is filled with so many technical details of the inner workings of the sub, that you can tell that the author has devoted considerable time and effort to unraveling the inner workings of a modern nuclear powered submarine. This greatly enhances the realism of the novel, as well as keeps it an informative read as well.

If you are looking for a well plotted, and superbly charactered novel of the sea, this is a true winner. Larry Bond has written a great military novel, and well done technothriller in Dangerous Ground. It is well worth a read, and I hope the start of a longstanding series of novels as we trace the progress of Lt. Mitchell rise through the ranks!

Overall Grade: A+


Red Eye

The scariest thriller to take to the skies since Flightplan, is Red Eye. The movie is expertly acted by lesser known Rachel McAdams, and Cillian Murphy. The director is Wes Craven, who is well known for the Scream franchise of films.

McAdams plays Lisa, a young executive for a swanky Miami hotel that is busy climbing the corporate ladder. A seemingly chance encounter with Rippner, played by Murphy, sets the stage for what follows. The plot then unfolds as the two are seated next to each other on an overnight flight at 30,000 feet.

Red Eye was designed to be a character driven thriller. This succeeds very well, as there is more involved here than some zombie with a chain saw running through the house. To me, this was far creepier, and held my attention a lot more. The even scarier thing is that the entire plot is plausible. By methodically filling in the details of the character’s lives, Red Eye has a lot more impact, as we can identify with the characters substantially more closely.

Don’t think that for a minute that this is not an action film. While it takes a little while to build, before we know it, we are racing down the runway and beyond. The end features some well done special effects for a film of this budget.

Red Eye is also supported by some subplots that contribute to the realism and provide a counterpoint. My favorite of these is the complaining couple of tourists in the hotel, and there are a few more of strong quality. The way they are carried through points to a well done screen play.

If you want an edge of your seat thriller, put your trays in the upright position, and load up Red Eye. I’m sure you’ll enjoy being “creeped out” as much as I did.

Overall Grade: A-

Inside Man (Universal Pictures, 2006)

Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is having a rough day. Four hooded, masked criminals have taken control of a major New York City bank and are holding hostages. Yet somehow, this does not appear to be a typical bank robbery. The head robber (Clive Owen) appears to be motivated by something more than just money, and deftly manipulates Frazier, the police, and the hostages so that nobody can figure out what he's up to. Elderly bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), considered a pillar of the community, acts as though he has something to hide. Complicating things even further is the presence of smug, smarmy Madeline White (Jodie Foster), who does "favors" for the rich and powerful and is hired by Case to make sure his interests are protected.

This is the backdrop of Spike Lee's thriller Inside Man, an excellent new take on the concept of the "perfect crime." Every breakthrough Frazier makes in the case poses more questions than it answers, and only at the very end do most (but not all) of the pieces fit together in a tidy fashion. Lee keeps the film very well paced from start to finish, inserting a handful of moments of levity (the best of which involves a young child explaining the point of a rather violent video game to an appalled Owen) to lighten the otherwise constant tension. All of the blue ribbon cast of actors perform to their reputations as well. The payoff comes as the details of the crime and the true motivation of the perpetrators are uncovered, revealing a brillianty thought out plan that's plausible enough to satisfy any sticklers for detail.

Inside Man
is well conceived, well executed, and thought provoking, with a carefully designed plot that holds strong throughout the two-hour length of the film. It's been a while since I've seen as good a movie in the suspense genre.

Overall Grade: A-