Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

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Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


 

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

An olliphant never forgets.

(2003) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, John Noble, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee,Thomas Robins, Hugo Weaving, Paul Norrell, Lawrence Makoare. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

After a long wait at long last the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s version of the epic J.R.R. Tolkein-penned trilogy The Lord of the Rings came upon us, and it was everything we hoped it would be – although had it come out 10 years later it would have been split into two movies in order to maximize profits although in this case I wouldn’t have minded so much.

The movie opens with a flashback, as we see how Smeagol (Serkis) took possession of the ring (or vice versa), murdering his friend Deagol (Robins) for it. Smeagol slinks into the wilderness, gradually losing his soul and becoming the creature known as Gollum.

Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) are being led for a secret way into Mordor by Gollum unaware that the wicked creature intends to lead them into a trap. The lembas bread which has sustained them is running low, and Sam is rationing it. They need to climb a nearly vertical rock face in order to enter the tunnels that will take them into Mordor. However, Gollum displays his treachery, using the ring’s hold on Frodo and some strategically placed lembas crumbs to drive a wedge between Frodo and Sam, which leads to Frodo telling the weeping Sam to go home.

Meanwhile, the other heroes of the fellowship have no time to rest on their laurels after the events which crowned The Two Towers. Gandalf (McKellen), Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) ride for Isengard to take on Saruman (Lee), only to find out that the Ents have done it for them. They discover the hobbits Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), happily smoking their beloved South Farthing pipeweed and munching away on the spoils of Isengard’s larder.

Once again, the group separates, with Gandalf and Pippin going to the city of Minas Tirith to assist Gondor in the battle to come. Aragorn, Legolas, Merry and Gimli return to Rohan to await word from Gandalf and also convince King Theoden (Hill) to aid Gondor in their time of need, although he is loathe to do so since Gondor provided him with no assistance when his people needed it. When Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Gondor, Gandalf warns Pippin not to tell Denethor (Noble), the Steward of Gondor, of the death of his son Boromir (Bean) which Pippin witnessed.

However it turns out that Denethor already knows and the news has unhinged him. Pippin offers up his services to placate the half-mad ruler. Denethor refuses Gandalf’s plea to light the signal fires to call on aid from Rohan, but Pippin lights the fire anyway, and Theoden determines to go to Gondor’s aid. Eowyn (Otto) pleads to go with her uncle, but he refuses, asking her to stay behind to lead Rohan if he doesn’t return (he doesn’t expect to, knowing the numbers of warriors he brings will be inadequate). She disguises herself as a man and goes anyway, as does Merry, whom she pledges to look after.

Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham) can do no right in the eyes of his father, which is further complicated when Osgiliath, the fort he is charged to defend, is overrun by a numerically superior force of Orcs. Denethor orders Faramir and his company back to retake the fortress, even though Faramir knows that neither he nor his men will survive the attempt. That proves to be the case, as Faramir’s body is returned to Minas Tirith and Denethor completely loses it, extolling his men to abandon their posts and flee for their lives as an enormous army of orcs and mercenaries riding elephantine war beasts reach the gates of the city and begin to knock on the gates. To Pippin’s further horror, Denethor becomes determined to cremate Faramir’s body, even though as Pippin discovers, Faramir is still alive.

In the mountains of Mordor, Gollum springs his trap on Frodo leading the defenseless hobbit into the lair of a giant spider named Shelob, who attacks Frodo and at last, poisons him with her venom, wrapping the hapless hobbit in web for eventual dining. Fortunately Sam arrives in the nick of time to fight off Shelob, but can’t stop a small band of Orcs from taking Frodo’s inert but still-living body. Sam manages yet another dramatic rescue and the two emerge from the mountains, only to find that there are at least 10,000 Orcs encamped between them and Mount Doom.

As the force from Rohan encamps in the mountains, Elrond (Weaving) appears, bearing the re-forged sword of the King that had once defeated Sauron and gives it to Aragorn, urging him to take up the role he had been born to play: King of Gondor, heir to Isildur and the great kings of legend. Knowing that his love Arwen (Tyler), daughter of Elrond, is dying as Sauron grows stronger, having refused to leave Middle Earth with the rest of elvenkind, Aragorn reluctantly accepts the mantle he has avoided all his life. He, Gimli and Legolas go into the mountain to persuade an army of the dead to assist them. This army, led by the King of the Undead (Norrell), once broke oaths to the King of Gondor and were cursed for it. They will respond only to the King of Gondor, and when Aragorn reveals his sword, he has the allies he seeks.

Not a minute too soon, either. Minas Tirith is in the process of falling, despite the heroics of Gandalf. The mercenaries, orcs and nazghul are in danger of overrunning the city when Theoden and the Rohirrim arrive. They are able to hold off the hordes, but at great cost. Aragorn’s arrival with the army of the dead, however, saves the city. Once this is done, Aragorn releases the dead to their final rest.

All is not over, however. Aragorn knows that Frodo cannot hope to succeed with all the Orcs still encamped in Mordor. The forces of the Fellowship must make a desperate attempt to give Frodo and Sam the time they need to make it to Mount Doom and destroy the Ring in the fires that it was forged in. But Frodo may not want to destroy the Ring after all and Gollum is still lurking about with a part to play in the final dénouement.

As with the first two movies, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is absolutely breathtaking visually. The city of Minas Tirith is like a wedding cake in concrete, beautiful and imposing. On the flip side, the computer-generated Shelob is terrifyingly realistic; you could almost imagine her crawling around the dark places in your home town. A lot of sensitive people are going to have some nasty nightmares as a result of her.

The battle scenes are impressive in their scope. Thousands of computer-generated warriors move in tandem with the real actors and extras that were employed in the battles of Pelennor Field and of the Black Gate. Even the most jaded of moviegoers will be amazed and enthralled by what Peter Jackson has brought to life onscreen.

Mortensen gives a performance for the ages; his charisma and rugged good looks would earn him further starring roles, although I daresay he’ll probably always be remembered as Aragorn. Still, in many ways this movie is Sam’s story more than anyone else’s. He shows growth as a character, becoming the equal of any of the heroes who have garnered more press. It is Sam who provides the movie’s emotional payoff.

Elijah Wood’s Frodo is a curious case. Although ostensibly the focus of the movie, Wood is curiously detached. It’s very hard at times to fathom who Frodo is, although, to be fair, Frodo is undergoing drastic changes at the hands of the Ring. It’s hard to imagine being less interested in Frodo than you are in Merry or Pippin, but that is the case here. Wood does a pretty good job, but that’s not good enough to stand out in a cast that performs so magnificently.

Orlando Bloom also showed the makings of a big star, although Legolas is not really at the fore much in the trilogy; when Legolas is given the spotlight, however, Bloom shines. Andy Serkis provides Smeagol and Gollum both with humanity; although treacherous and conniving, you wind up feeling the pity for the character as both Frodo and Bilbo had, which is crucial for the story. The supporting cast of Wenham, Otto, Urban, McKellen, Monaghan and Boyd in particular all added luster to their résumés here.

Roger Ebert criticized Return of the King and the trilogy overall as having a “silly story,” which is one of the few times I have disagreed with him quite this vehemently. The story of the trilogy is the story of man’s own ability to grow and change. Written at the dawn of the atomic era, it ascribed hope that we could overcome the desire to use an awesome weapon, and conquer the forces of darkness and despair. Not silly at all, I find it a powerful story that has as much meaning in my everyday life as do some of the smaller films Ebert prefers.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has an honored place in cinematic history for groundbreaking visuals, and passionate vision. Return of the King is the best of these movies, not only because it should be, as the payoff of the trilogy, but because it also is so well-made and the performances well-given. Once you get past the eye candy, all you are left with is the performances and in that, you will not find a better ensemble than this one. It is to date the only movie nominated for more than ten Oscars (eleven to be exact) to win every award it was nominated for, and deservedly so. It is one of three films to win eleven Oscars, the most in the history of the award. I don’t know how much more honored a film can get.

I viewed the conclusion of this beloved trilogy with a mixture of awe, wonder, sadness and satisfaction. I am sorry the trilogy is now complete, but look forward to the works of Peter Jackson, Viggo Mortensen and the rest of the cast. There is an emotional epilogue in which some of the main characters of the trilogy take their leaves – not only from the tale, but from those of us who have followed the story from day one. It is a most satisfying ending.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing piece of film-making; it earned every Oscar it got and more. It will stand as one of the first true classics of the 21st century.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You find this a “silly story.” Roger Ebert, shame on you!

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are pretty grisly in places but I cannot emphasize enough just how frightening Shelob is as a creature. If you have a fear of spiders or are particularly sensitive to monsters, be warned that Shelob is as scary a creature that has ever been put to film.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Peter Jackson has an irrational fear of spiders and modeled Shelob on two of the species he fears the most.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1B on a $94M production budget; the movie made ten times what it cost, easily a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Iron Man

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers


 

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Gandalf sure knows how to make an enterence.

(2002) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Karl Urban, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, Brad Dourif, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Craig Parker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

The second installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy picks up where the first left off, with the Fellowship broken and the quest very much in peril. Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) have struck out on their own, knowing that the evil of the Ring would eventually corrupt all of them. They are heading for Mordor, but quickly become lost. Apparently nobody thought to call the Triple A.

They are ambushed by the creature that has been stalking them all along, Gollum (Serkis). They manage to subdue him, but Frodo feels pity for the creature, who offers his services as a guide. Although Sam has misgivings, they allow the creature to lead them to the Black Gate of Mordor, which turns out to be heavily guarded. It’s obvious they won’t be able to get to Mount Doom that way. Gollum offers to lead them to a secret way into Mordor, one even the Orcs don’t know.

Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd) have been taken captive by the nasty Uruk-hai, who mistakenly believe that these two are the Ring Bearers. The Uruk-hai turn out to be testier than anybody thought, with a faction all for killing and eating the two hobbits, which was expressly forbidden by their creator, Saruman (Christopher Lee). A fight breaks out and things look bad for the hobbits.

Meanwhile, Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (Rhys-Davies) have pursued the Uruk-hai who kidnapped the Hobbits relentlessly for days. They run into the Rohirrim, who are led by the valorous Eomer (Karl Urban) who tells them that they have in fact massacred the entire band of Uruk-hai. The trio reach the site of the battle, only to discover through Aragorn’s tracking skills that the two hobbits escaped into the forest. They follow the tracks into the reputedly-haunted Fangorn Forest where they are met by a wizard in white — Gandalf (McKellen).

Merry and Pippin had indeed escaped into the Fangorn Forest in the confusion of the fight. There, they meet Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies), an Ent – a walking, talking, sentient creature that looks like a tree. Treebeard rescues the two hobbits from a stray Uruk-hai, then takes the two of them deeper into the forest.

As for the astonishing appearance of Gandalf, there was something of an explanation; having fallen into shadow in the mines of Moria, Gandalf has somehow been reborn and made more powerful. Now clad in white, Gandalf is a formidable wizard indeed. He somehow knows that the kingdom of Rohan is in dire peril, both from within and without. Gandalf leaves Merry and Pippin with Treebeard, and rides the king of horses, Shadowfax, with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to reach Rohan.

Theoden (Bernard Hill), king of Rohan, is ill. Weak and feeble, most of the governance of his kingdom has fallen to an advisor, Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). His niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto), sister to Eomer, is powerless to help and moreover is the object of the sleazy affections of Grima. Theoden has become so bewitched that even when his son dies while out on patrol, he is unable to react.

Eomer is banished from the realm by Grima, who sees Eomer as a threat. Eomer takes loyal warriors into the wilderness to protect Rohan as best he can, but things look dark for the kingdom of the horseclans. The arrival of Gandalf changes all this. The white wizard breaks the spell and restores the king to full vigor. Grima is sent packing with a boot to the behind and a warning for Saruman.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum make their way back for Gollum’s hidden entry into Mordor when they stumble onto a battle of Mordor-allied mercenaries and soldiers from Gondor, who capture the three of them. Their leader, Captain Faramir (David Wenham) is brother to the slain Boromir, and wants details of his brother’s death. Frodo, suspicious of everyone, is loathe to tell Faramir much. A battle occurs in which they are attacked by nazghul on terrible dragon-like creatures. Eventually, Farmair is convinced to let Frodo, Sam and Gollum continue on their way.

Theoden thinks that Rohan cannot stand against the army Saruman is sending against them. He orders his city evacuated and the people are taken to Helm’s Deep, a fortress that has never been breached in thousands of years. Gandalf leaves to gather allies to defend Rohan. As the Rohirrim begin the journey to Helm’s Deep, it becomes obvious that Eowyn is developing deep feelings for Aragorn, who continues to harbor a great love for Arwen (Tyler). The elves are almost gone from Middle Earth, leaving for the Grey Havens to travel by ship to the far shores. Elrond (Weaving) urges Arwen to go as well, but she is torn between her love for her father and her love for Aragorn. At last, knowing that should she stay she would only see her love age, wither and die before her eyes, she agrees to leave.

The Rohirrim meet up with an orc patrol, traveling on bestial wargs, and a battle ensues. Gimli and Legolas begin a friendly competition to see who kills more of the enemy, and their friendship begins to deepen. However, disaster strikes when Aragorn is swept over a precipice and into a swift-flowing river. Saddened, the Rohirrim complete their journey to Helm’s Deep without him.

Like Gandalf before him, Aragorn survives and manages to limp back to the fortress. As the fortress prepares for siege, elves under Haldir (Parker) arrive from Rivendell to assist, and the defenders of Helm’s Deep need every one of them, for the army that faces them is vast and merciless. Despite the heroism of its defenders, the walls of Helm’s Deep are breached and it looks like there will be a massacre the likes of which Middle Earth has never known.

Gollum leads Sam and Frodo on the way back to Mordor, but his mind, already twisted and demented by the influence of the Ring, has become further warped at the perceived betrayal by Frodo that led to his capture. He means to do away with both of the hobbits, but knows he cannot do it himself. However, there is a way…

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The second part of the trilogy is visually magnificent, as was the first. Of particular note is the character Gollum, who was build of Andy Serkis’ physical performance and some brilliant computer imaging on top of that. Gollum is as real and lifelike as any one of the flesh-and-blood actors (in fact, Gollum has more expression and range than Keanu Reeves, but that’s another story), but the nasty wargs and the magnificent Ents (partially real, partially computer-generated) are nearly as good.

Viggo Mortensen shows flashes of major stardom here. His charisma carries much of The Two Towers. Sean Astin also gives a riveting performance; his speech that is meant to inspire Frodo when his friend despairs of surviving the journey is one of the best you will ever see. It’s a memorable moment, and one you should have handy the next time you are depressed.

The problem with The Two Towers is that it feels like there really isn’t a beginning, middle and end; it’s all middle. Of course, that’s a function of the fact that it is the middle chapter in an epic story, but seen on its own it’s not quite as satisfying as The Fellowship of the Ring. It is also much darker in tone. Still, the performances are excellent from top to bottom; in addition to those previously mentioned, Legolas is a swashbuckling hero as portrayed by Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies brings gruff humor to the part of Gimli. Ian McKellen brings great presence to Gandalf, and Wood does a nice job bringing the torment of Frodo to the fore.

Howard Shore’s score was one of the critical attributes to the success of the first film of the trilogy for me; he continues his impressive work, but none of the various vocalists who contribute to the soundtrack (including Liz Frasier, formerly of the Cocteau Twins) really add up to Enya’s impressive work on the first soundtrack.

Despite its minor flaws, “The Two Towers” is still a classic. The battle scene of Helm’s Deep is beautifully done, and overwhelming in scope. The siege of Isengard by the Ents is an astonishing visual, and although I was a bit disappointed by the Congress of Trees, it is still a feast for the eyes throughout. This is not a disappointing work; quite the contrary. It leaves the viewer champing at the bit for the trilogy’s conclusion. More importantly, it is a tremendous movie in its own right, regardless of what came before or what is to come. The Two Towers, quite frankly, shouldn’t be overlooked as a movie.

WHY RENT IT: The themes of the trilogy become much more developed here. Mortensen and Astin shine. Great visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks beginning and end; those unfamiliar with the first movie will most likely be lost.

FAMILY MATTERS: The Battle of Helms Deep has plenty of battle savagery. There are some pretty frightening images and the very young or those who are sensitive should be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: As the Orcs have black blood, it was thought the inside of their mouths should also be black. All extras who played Orcs had to swill a licorice-based mouthwash in their mouths before filming in order to achieve the effect.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $926.1M on a $94M production budget; the film was another massive blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eragon

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Beaver

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


 

The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Ring

Now there’s an idea for the Kentucky Derby – arm the jockeys with swords.

(2001) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Marton Csokas, Andy Serkis, Sarah McLeod, Peter McKenzie, Harry Sinclair, Sala Baker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

There was much concern when it was announced that the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy was going to be made into movies that it be done right. Anything less than a classic movie would be heartbreaking to the millions of readers who love Tolkein’s work, let alone the smaller but very vocal crowd of the Middle Earth-obsessed.

Middle Earth is threatened by a grave power. A prologue shows us how, thousands of years prior to this story, a wizard king named Sauron (Baker) crafted a ring to dominate all the races of the land – human, elf and dwarf – and give Sauron ultimate power over Middle Earth. The bravery of Isildur (Sinclair), a human king, defeats Sauron’s plans; Isildur’s greed, however, causes the ring to escape destruction and allow Sauron to eventually return. The ring ultimately falls into the hands of an adventuresome hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Holm) who brings it home to Bag End, in the village of Hobbiton, where it remained dormant.

Now, it is many years later and Bilbo is readying for a massive party to celebrate his 111th birthday. His old friend Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), a powerful wizard, arrives to celebrate with a wagon chock full of wonderful fireworks, and is greeted by Bilbo’s nephew, the bookish Frodo (Wood). Bilbo is worn out, although he looks much younger than his years would indicate. He wants to see the Misty Mountain again, and dwell among the elves in peace so he might finish the book he is writing of his adventures, “There and Back Again.”

At the party, Frodo’s friends Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), get into mischief involving Gandalf’s fireworks, setting the tone for their roles in the tale. Bilbo makes a sudden and startling departure at the party’s conclusion, using the ring to become invisible. The wizard immediately realizes that there is much more to Bilbo’s ring than even he had realized. He confronts Bilbo and convinces his old friend to leave the ring to Frodo. Gandalf warns Frodo, “Keep it secret; keep it safe,” then rides off to find out the truth of this ring.

When Gandalf returns to Bag End it to urge Frodo to flee. Nine ghastly riders, the nazghul, have been dispatched to retrieve the ring, which by Gandalf has determined to be THE ring. Frodo’s friend, gardener Sam Gamgee (Astin) overhears some of the discussion and is confronted by Gandalf, who asks what he heard. “N-nothing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a dark lord, and something about the end of the world, but please, Mr. Gandalf, sir, don’t hurt me. Don’t turn me into anything… unnatural.”

Sam is sent to accompany Frodo. The hobbits run into Merry and Pippin, who are pilfering vegetables from a farmer. The reunion, however, is brief; the hobbits are nearly discovered by one of the terrifying and mysterious riders nazghul.

In the human town of Bree, they meet the ranger Aragorn (Mortensen), who saves them from a disturbing attack from the nazghul, and sets out to lead them for the elven settlement of Rivendell. However, the nazghul catch up to them at Weathertop, an ancient fortress, where Frodo is stabbed with a poisoned blade. Aragorn drives off their foes and steps up the pace to go to Rivendell, desperate to save Frodo. They are met along the way by Arwen (Tyler), an elven princess and daughter of Elrond, who puts Frodo on her horse and rides a thrilling race against the murderous nazghul. Gandalf, in the meantime, has been imprisoned by Saruman (Lee), head of his order, whom he had gone to consult. Saruman, believing that Mordor cannot be defeated this time, has decided to ally himself with Sauron. Gandalf finally manages to escape, using a giant eagle to fly from Isengard, the wizard’s tower which is Saruman’s base, but not before learning that Saruman is breeding an army of Uruk’hai, a crossbreed of orc and goblin that have none of the weaknesses of either race and many of the strengths.

Elrond calls a council to determine the fate of the ring, and after some deliberation, decides to send a small party to Mordor, to Mount Doom itself, to destroy the ring. This despite the objections of Boromir (Bean), son of the Steward of Gondor, the ruler of that land in the stead of a king who is lost – a king who turns out to be Aragorn, who doesn’t want the job.

There is much arguing and distrust among the races as to who will bear the ring, but finally Frodo speaks up and declares that he will carry the ring to Mordor, though he doesn’t know the way. Gandalf pledges to assist him, as does Aragorn and Boromir, as well as an elven prince named Legolas (Bloom) and a warrior dwarf named Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Sam, Merry and Pippin also proclaim that they are going wherever Frodo goes. Thus is formed the Fellowship of the Ring (cue dramatic orchestral music).

On the eve of their departing, Arwen presents Aragorn with a token of her love; Aragorn begs her not to give it to him, knowing she would give up her immortality for his love, but she gives it to him nonetheless. The fellowship then departs for Mordor.

The way is hard. In a snowy mountain pass, Saruman attacks them magically, forcing them to go the one way Gandalf didn’t want to travel; underground, through the mines of Moria, where Gimli’s cousin rules.

After surviving the attack of a hideous kraken at the gates of the mines, the Fellowship travels into Moria, and it becomes obvious that the entire colony of dwarves has been massacred. They are attacked just then by orcs, goblins and a massive cave troll and when it appears they will be surrounded, something frightens the thousands of orcs and goblins off; it turns out to be a balrog, a fire demon from the depths of the earth. Gandalf fights off the balrog, but then is yanked off a precipice, and is lost to the Fellowship.

Disheartened, the survivors of the fellowship make their way into Lothlorien, stronghold of the high elves, where they are greeted by King Celeborn (Csokas) and the ethereal Queen Galadriel (Blanchett), who allow the weary travelers rest. After receiving gifts of elven cloaks, waybread and other items, the Fellowship resumes its journey, now by river.

At camp they are ambushed by the Uruk’hai, Boromir is confronted by his own weakness, and the Fellowship is broken, with one member giving his life in battle.

The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring is a captivating, compelling movie that is only the first step in a journey that will take us to the eventual fate of the ring, of those who bear it and of those who seek it as well. Given the performances here, it is easy to care very much about who gets there and in what shape they are in when they arrive. It is a journey we can all take together.

The visuals are stunning, jaw-dropping at the time this was released. The elven communities of Rivendell and Lothlorien are beautiful in an alien way, blending naturally with their forest environments. Hobbiton in the Shire, where Bilbo and Frodo live, looks exactly as I imagined it, calm, peaceful and rustic but with a hint of the English countryside implicit in every nook and cranny. The ruins of ancient kingdoms, statues of forgotten kings and warriors dot the journey’s landscape, giving the world an old and lived-in appearance. The attention to detail in establishing each individual place in the movie, each with its own specific character and feel, is nothing short of astounding.

Jackson has an epic palette to paint his picture, and he uses every color imaginable. The bright colors of the Shire contrast with the dark, stormy terrain of Mordor; the Elven territories are in a perpetual autumn, as their race prepares to leave Middle Earth, lending a further poignancy to the tale. Jackson obviously holds the source material in high regard, and stays as true to Tolkein’s words as is possible.

Wisely, the various characters are developed slowly, becoming who they are during the course of the movie. There is not a disappointing performance throughout; Mortensen carries a quiet intensity as Aragorn, McKellen a grandfatherly presence as Gandalf. The extras are well-cast, helping set the background tone in each location; folksy and a bit comic in Hobbiton, suspicious and tense in Bree, graceful yet sad in Lorien.

What makes this so successful a movie is what I would call a sense of place throughout; the architecture, scenery and characters all contribute to the overall mood. Middle Earth becomes a living, breathing place because of it, and the rich textures of Tolkein’s world come to life before our very eyes.

Overall, this can only be called a labor of love, and that love can clearly be seen on the screen in every frame. Jaw-dropping special effects and eye-popping scenery from the wilds of New Zealand dazzle at every turn. Howard Shore’s haunting score serves to enhance the film, and having Enya contribute a pair of vocalizations to the movie is a wise move; her ethereal voice is perfect for it. When this was released back in 2001, it not only met the high expectations of those anticipating (myself included) but exceeded them. It has, with its successors, become a true classic, a movie that I happily watch over and over again and enjoy almost as much as the first time I saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing spectacle, faithful to the book and exciting and heartwarming all at once. A modern classic that still bears repeated watching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re not into fantasy, you’ll surely hate this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scary images and an epic battle sequence that depicts plenty of hacking and chopping.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most major films have from time to time more than one unit shooting simultaneously, generally just two or three. There were occasions when this production had as many as ten units shooting at once.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $871.5M on a $93M production budget. The movie was a gigantic blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Straw Dogs (2011)

I Sell the Dead


I Sell the Dead

There are many things out there much worse than grave robbers.

(2008) Horror Comedy (IFC) Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman, Angus Scrimm, Eileen Colgan, John Speredakos, Brenda Cooney, Heather Bullock. Directed by Glenn McQuaid

Perhaps one of the worst professions ever conceived by the ever-fevered mind of man is that of grave robber, those who steal human corpses for use by anatomists, doctors and whoever is willing to pay for them to dig one up. However, as bad as they are, there are worse things out there.

Arthur Blake (Monaghan) is a grave robber and he and his partner Willie Grimes (Fessenden, who also wrote and produced the film) are about to be executed for their crimes. While Arthur awaits his turn at the guillotine, he confesses his sins to Father Duffy (Perlman) who comes in to give the boy absolution.

Instead, Arthur tells the tale of his apprenticeship with Grimes and their slow make-over from run-of-the-mill body snatchers to those specializing in, well, special cases. Their penchant for turning up vampires, aliens and zombies runs them afoul of Cornelius Murphy (Speredakos), head of a rival gang.

Burke and Hare…I mean, Blake and Grimes are used to running afoul of people. They have a business relationship with Dr. Quint (Scrimm) to provide corpses for dissection but that doesn’t do the good doctor any good if the damn things won’t stay dead.

The movie has an off-the-scale silliness factor which actually adds to the charm. I honestly didn’t expect much from this one, which got such a limited release that most of its cast never knew it actually got one.

McQuaid, a fine cinematographer in his own right, shot this on a micro-budget mostly in the United States (substituting for Ireland, which its often mistaken for) and has a nice sense of flair for the homage. He seems to have been greatly influenced by the Hammer horror films of the 70s which is what this movie most resembles.

There are also some nice little touches, such as Scrimm, who played the Tall Man (a mortuary worker) in Phantasm, here as (wait for it) a mortuary worker. (TA-DAAAAAAAA!) It shows a deft touch not often found in horror directors these days who prefer to bludgeon the viewer with gore and effects make-up to the point where old fashioned horror movies with great premises are an endangered species.

Not if McQuaid and Fessenden have anything to do with it. Fessenden, although ostensibly a supporting player, actually steals the show in many ways. He appears to be having the best time of any in the cast, and plays his character with an air of jaded disbelief that helps move the comic timing of the movie quite nicely.

Monaghan, a genre favorite for his work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as the cult classic television show “Lost,” makes do with a part that probably could have used Ricky Gervais instead. Still, he’s got a beguiling charisma that audiences just naturally gravitate towards; he’s got a great shot at a political career if he ever decides to go that route.

Quite frankly, this is low budget and it shows in the sets as well as in the set pieces. To be fair, McQuaid wasn’t looking to reinvent the wheel here and he uses a lot of conventional genre tricks in getting his point across, relying more on practical effects than in digital ones. He also has a good script, a solid cast and a fair amount of talent of his own; there is an economy of energy here that allows the actors to underplay things a bit so it doesn’t descend into parody (a la the Scary Movie franchise) or cheesiness (the Abbott and Costello classics). From that standpoint, you have to be impressed with the talent behind the camera as it’s pretty difficult to pull off that kind of feat. Certainly I’ll be looking forward with anticipation for further projects from McQuaid.

Horror fans are going to get a kick out of this one, which shows off impressive genre chops that give props to everything from the Universal monster pictures to soft-core porn. Doesn’t sound compatible, I grant you but then that kind of imaginative genre-bending is part of why this charming and witty film works.

WHY RENT THIS: It has a certain off-beat charm that’s infectious. Monaghan is extremely likable and Fessenden is having a jolly good time with this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely suffers from a Grade Z budget with A-list aspirations. Film is disjointed and drags early on.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly ghoulish themes and images, as well as a smattering of foul language and a bit of horror violence make this suitable only for those of legal drinking age or greater.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A huge hit on the festival circuit (particularly at Slamdance where it was nominated for a cinematography award), IFC picked up the movie for a (very) brief U.S. run before sending it off for home video, on demand and eventually, cable release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes with a comic book version of the movie done in the style of the animations that appear periodically in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,050 on an unreported production budget; the movie certainly lost money here, but overseas may have made enough to at least break even, or maybe not.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

X-Men Origins: Wolverine


Two guys I'd think twice before shaking hands with.

Two guys I'd think twice before shaking hands with.

(20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Ryan Reynolds, Dominic Monaghan, Lynn Collins, Taylor Kitsch, Will.i.am, Kevin Durand, Daniel Henney, Scott Adkins, Tim Pocock, Stephen Leeder, Peter O’Brien. Directed by Gavin Hood.

One of the truisms of storytelling is “begin at the beginning.” That’s not always possible, but sometimes once we become involved in a story, we want to know more about what preceded it.

James Logan (Jackman) is a mutant. Born in the mid-19th century, he and his brother Victor Creed (Schreiber) are virtually indestructible, their wounds healing literally before our very eyes. Born with the mutant gene of instant regeneration, they are virtually immortal. In addition, they have the weapons to defend themselves; Creed has sharp claws that retract into his fingernails, Logan bony spikes that retract into his knuckles when he’s not using them.

They are born literally to battle, and they move from war to war, starting with the Civil War and all the way to Vietnam, fighting alongside each other but as time goes by, Victor becomes more bloodthirsty, less civilized. After he melts down and decapitates a senior officer, they are sentenced to death by firing squad. That has the same effect as all the other bullets that have passed into them over the decades.

While rotting in their cell, they are visited by Major William Stryker (Huston), an ambitious black ops sort who is putting together a team of specialized individuals, each with their own unique talents; Blob (Durand), a superstrong Southerner with an eating disorder; Wraith (Will.i.am), who can become invisible at will and can seemingly teleport from place to place; Bolt (Monaghan) who can influence electrical devices with his mind, as well as communicate telepathically; Agent Zero (Henney), who can make astonishing leaps that would do any gymnast proud, and also is absolutely deadly with any firearm – and Deadpool (Reynolds), who is awfully talented with a sword and also has the same regenerative ability the brothers have (he also can’t stop talking, which annoys the heck out of his teammates especially Stryker).

Logan is becoming increasingly appalled with the methods the team will go to, and when they massacre an African village, he walks out on them. Victor, on the other hand, revels in the carnage and has found a home and a purpose at long last.

Logan flees to a small town in the Canadian Rockies, where he takes a job as a lumberjack and moves in with a beautiful schoolteacher (Collins) who tells him native stories of the moon and her lover, banished to the Earth for leaving the spirit world, never able to touch again. The lover is the wolverine, howling in despair at the sight of his lost love. Logan is at last at peace, or as at peace as he gets – he is haunted by nightmares of horrible deeds, some of which he’s participated but some, disturbingly, seem to be being committed by his brother.

Logan’s peace is short-lived and the past comes calling, leaving him to cradle his lover’s body in his blood-soaked hands. The animal is awakened in him and he sets out on his path to become Wolverine – Weapon X, one of the most dangerous men on the planet. God help those who stand in between Logan and his revenge.

Director Gavin Hood actually has some pretty good films on his resume (including Tsotsi) and this is his first real major effect-laden blockbuster. There are definitely signs that Hood isn’t as comfortable yet with that kind of film. Granted, he’s also hampered by a very weak script that doesn’t really do the story justice.

There are two main problems here. The story is the first; there is a profusion of characters, some which exist only to give X-fans an a-ha moment. Fanboys are screaming that this isn’t anywhere near canon (and for those familiar with the backstory of Wolverine in the comics, that’s a legitimate gripe) but in all honesty, I’m less interested in slavish adherence to graphic novel continuity than I am with telling a good story, and this ends up not being a very good one. It’s maddening all the more because there are some elements that really work here and it’s a shame that the writers couldn’t maintain that level of quality throughout the two hours; it feels a little padded to be honest.

Second and more egregious are the special effects. Quite frankly, they’re horrible in places and it distracts from the movie. I expect major summer tentpole releases to have at the very least adequate special effects, but the CGI here ranges from ludicrous to downright astonishing (in a bad way). Wolverine’s claws often look fake, which considering this is his fourth appearance in the movies should never happen. There’s a shot near the end of a group of young mutants walking towards a helicopter that is so very obviously green screened, but done so poorly that you wonder if the shot wasn’t done thirty years ago and then shoehorned into this movie. I get the distinct impression that the effects work was assigned out to the various subcontractors far too late in the post-production process and that they were rushed to get them completed in time to make the release date. That’s inexcusable in this day and age.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some plusses in this movie. Jackman has got Wolverine down pat, and Schreiber is a truly menacing Sabretooth (that’s Victor Creed’s supervillain name for all you non-fanboys) who is much more of a threat than the Sabretooth played by Tyler Mane in X-Men. Reynolds makes a really fine Deadpool in his few brief moments in the movie, and I look forward to seeing him in his own movie, said to be getting much attention at Fox. And while the special effects were below par, the same can’t be said for the physical stunts and action sequences which are nicely done.

Overall, the movie is a bit on the disappointing side. I might have hoped for it to be a bit better written and definitely I would have hoped for better effects. Still, it is not without merit. It certainly hits many of the marks that you would expect a big summer action movie to hit, and if you’re looking for mindless entertainment you can certainly do worse. Overall, I’d rate it as sufficiently entertaining to go and see, but I don’t think it got the kind of repeat customer box office it might have gotten with some tweaking. This isn’t Iron Man by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it isn’t Elektra either.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackman makes a compelling Wolverine, and he and Schreiber have some great scenes together. Lots of great action sequences with fight scenes to satisfy the cravings of all summer action movie junkies jonesing for their first fix of the season.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing is uneven whose good moments are outweighed by cliches and shortcuts. The special effects are surprisingly bad, and one gets the impression they were hurried and not planned out properly.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and scenes of human experimentation can be fairly intense for more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman and Patrick Stewart are the only actors to appear in all four X-Men films (Stewart has a cameo near the end of Wolverine). Also, there were two post-credit scenes shown during the movie’s theatrical release; one showing Wolverine drinking in a bar, the other set at the rubble of the film’s final battle. Which ending audiences saw depended on what showing they went to.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: A fascinating conversation with former Marvel Comics head Stan Lee and Wolverine creator Len Wein.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days