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)

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Kill Bill: Vol. 1


Kill Bill Vol. 1

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

(2003) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Michael Bowen, Jun Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is hipper than just about everybody, and he knows it. That’s OK, though; the guy knows movies. He understands the art that is the “B” movie, the kind of stuff at which most critics turn up their noses, or use to play the trash hip.

Kill Bill is Tarantino’s magnum opus, a loving tribute to movies he loves and admires, from Japanese samurai flicks to film noir to anime to blaxploitation to Hong Kong martial arts movies. And he delivers it with impeachable visual sense and a crafty sense of humor. The movie is so long and complex that it was divided into two separate movies and released a year apart. While that can be absolutely fatal for certain films that have tried much the same thing (I’m looking at you, last two movies of the Matrix trilogy), the two Kill Bill films each stand on their own.

The story: The Bride (Thurman) used to be Black Mamba, a lethal assassin and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, but has decided to leave the business and get married. Bill (Carradine, whose face is never seen in the first film), her former employer, disagrees and appoints her former cohorts Copperhead (Fox), Cottonmouth (Liu), California Mountain Snake (Hannah) and Sidewinder (Madsen) to send his regards. After a savage beating of the Bride and her Groom, Bill delivers the coup de grace – a bullet to her head – personally.

Fast forward four years. The Bride awakens to find everyone she loves murdered and her life over. Having been an assassin, she decides to put her talents to use against those who wronged her, leading up to her former employer. As she goes after each member of the squad, she is aided by a retired Japanese sword maker, Hattori Hanzo (Chiba), who makes her a special weapon to use in her quest.

The story is not told sequentially; it begins at the second name on her death list and goes from there. Tarantino’s jumping around in time makes sense; the first name on the list, Cottonmouth – otherwise known as O-Ren Ishii, is the more spectacular and difficult “hit” of the two presented here, and makes a far more fitting finale for this volume than would the second, which is almost anti-climactic.

Tarantino also divides the movie into chapters, with each in a different genre; from the Samurai style (the sword making sequence) to anime (the Cottonmouth backstory), blaxploitation (the Copperhead sequence) and a good, old-fashioned Hong Kong swordfight (The House of the Blue Leaves sequence that closes the film).

At each turn, Tarantino pays tribute to heroes and genres of the ’60s and ’70s, from the casting of Carradine, Liu and Chiba to the use of Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit (from his final film Game of Death) in the House of Blue Leaves chapter (of course, it’s not the actual tracksuit).

Part of the mandate for Tarrantino here is to inspire people to see the second portion of the movie, and he does that. There are interesting twists, and the fight sequences are nothing short of astonishing, particularly the House of Blue Leaves portion, and the one-on-one dual between Liu and Thurman that follows immediately thereafter. There is some wire work, yes, but it’s kept to a minimum.

The violence is gratuitous and often graphic, although sometimes almost cartoonish in nature. There are a few moments that will make squeamish sorts squirm (particularly the aftermath of the Blue Leaves portion) but the blood that fountains out of the Bride’s victims is thinner than water, for what may be a subtle joke by the filmmaker.

Thurman is almost wooden, which I think is purposeful. Her beauty and glamour are stripped away in favor of a soulless killing machine, for whom revenge has become the single point of life. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the actors either join Thurman in emotion-free fashion (Liu) or are so over the top you’d think they were making an assault on Everest (Hannah, Fox). Veterans Chiba and Carradine give restrained performances. Chiba shows why many consider him to be a gem of cinematic history. Liu, who often shows up as the old wise man with flowing white eyebrows in chop sockey films, plays much the same part.

This is a movie I admire more than I like, although I like it a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. Da Queen said that she felt like she was in a room full of master painters — Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, Rembrandt — and she had only crayons. Tarantino’s massive knowledge of film is put to good use here.

This isn’t so much a tribute, or homage as an attempt to wrap all these diverse styles into one coherent story to make a new art form, and it works most of the time. One of the calculated risks Tarantino took when he agreed to splice his film in two is that some may wind up liking the first volume only after seeing the second, and some may wind up confused or overwhelmed enough by the first to completely skip the second. That would be a shame. There will be more on the second volume in a future edition of Cinema365 but let’s just say that both movies work best in tandem with one another and while each stands alone on their own, it’s like having peanut butter without jam on your sandwich. Good, but could be better.

If you love exploitation films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, or even if you don’t, this is one of the finest action movies to come out in the first decade of the 21st century. The more often I see it, the more I like it and that certainly marks it as a classic film.

WHY RENT THIS: House of Blue Leaves sequence one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. Tarantino’s extensive knowlege of genre films is utilized perfectly. Seeing faded action stars like Chiba, Carradine and Gordon Liu does the heart good.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the acting is a bit wooden. The dizzying array of styles may be too much for most.

FAMILY VALUES: This is as graphically violent and bloody a movie as you’re likely to see. There are a few bad words and some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The start of production was delayed due to Uma Thurman’s pregnancy. Tarantino never considered recasting; the part of The Bride was intended for her and her alone.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos by The 5s, 6s, 7s, 8s, the Japanese band that played during the House of Blue Leaves sequence.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster through and through.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Game of Death

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Snow White and the Huntsman


Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron was really hoping for “A Game of Thrones.”

(2012) Fantasy (Universal) Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Stewart, Sam Claflin, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Izzard, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Stephen Graham, Lily Cole, Sam Spruell, Vincent Regan, Liberty Ross, Noah Huntley, Jonny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Rachael Stirling. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Fairy tales have a reputation for being sweetness and light, stories for children that are suffused with happy endings. In truth, fairy tales are dark things for which happy endings are often a matter of perspective.

The kingdom of good King Magnus (Huntley) is a kindly and prosperous place, where justice reigns and the people are content. All adore in particular the beautiful child Snow White, who has hair dark as a raven’s wing, lips red as rose petals, skin pale and flawless as alabaster. But one particularly cruel winter, the queen (Ross) dies, leaving Magnus bereft.

Shortly thereafter a mysterious army attacks his kingdom and Magnus leads his army out to defend his subjects. They are victorious and amidst the carnage they discover a wagon with a beautiful woman in it. She is Ravenna (Theron) and seems to have been a captive of the evil army that Magnus has vanquished. She is beautiful and slightly timid and Magnus is immediately taken by her. In a matter of days he proposes and the kingdom rejoices; it will have a queen once again.

Ravenna and Snow White are friendly; the latter is thrilled that her father will be happy once again, the former insisting that she has no plans to replace her mother. The wedding is joyous and solemn, and for a night things are perfect. However in their wedding bed, Ravenna’s true nature reveals itself; she has poisoned her new husband and stabs him through the heart to seal the deal. Then she opens the gates and allows in her real army to massacre everyone inside.

Count Hammond (Regan) escapes with his son William and leave for their own castle, thinking Snow White dead. She is very much alive, however, and grows to adulthood (Stewart), imprisoned in one of the towers of the castle. Ravenna, who is a powerful sorceress, is bleeding the land dry. She has a magic mirror (which moves, Terminator T-1000 like, into a puddle of liquid silver to take shape as a cowled man) who reassures her that she is the fairest one of all. To insure that, she steals the youth from many maidens in the kingdom including Greta (Cole), keeping her young and vibrant.

Then her mirror tells her that the only threat to her reign is Snow White, who is alone capable of killing and defeating her (not necessarily in that order). However, if Ravenna kills Snow White and takes her still-beating heart, Ravenna will live eternally and reign forever. Ravenna then sends her brother Finn (Spruell) to fetch Snow White but she manages to escape, finding her way into the Dark Forest, where even the bravest of the Queen’s soldiers don’t dare go.

The Queen enlists a Huntsman (Hemsworth) who is grieving the death of his wife. His qualifications: he has entered the Dark Forest and survived, returning to become a bit of a tosspot. He is unwilling to help the Queen for whom he holds no love but when promised to be reunited with his love, he goes even though he doesn’t trust the Queen or her brother.

His instincts prove to be true and he manages to not only avoid the trap set for him but to find Snow White and become her ally. He guides her to the forest to a town made up mostly of women whose men have gone to war for the Queen. They have scarred their faces in order to protect themselves from having their youth taken by Ravenna’s magic. However, this proves to be a brief respite as Flynn and his men arrive, searching for Snow White.

With Flynn is William (Claflin), the son of the Duke and Snow White’s childhood friend. He’s hunting her too but for a different reason than Flynn – he wants to rescue her and take her back to the castle where she would be the symbol that the people of the kingdom need to rally behind and rise up against the evil of Ravenna. However, the Huntsman and Snow White escape into an enchanted fairy forest where dwell eight dwarves, including Beith (McShane), Muir (Hoskins), Gort (Winstone), Nion (Frost), Duir (Marsan), Coll (Jones), Quert (Harris) and Gus (Gleeson) capture them.

Beith and the Huntsman apparently have a past which is none to friendly but the blind Muir persuades the band to take Snow White under their wings, which proves to be a smart decision when she is blessed by the Great Stag, indicating that she is destined to dethrone the Queen and allow nature to return to the Kingdom. But how will she do this, chased by the Queen’s deadly magic against a magic army in an impenetrable castle?

While the basic outline of the story is the same of the beloved fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, this ain’t your momma’s Snow White – and it certainly isn’t Disney’s either. Sanders – a British commercial director, makes his feature debut with a splash, creating a vision that is both ugly and beautiful, magical and authentic. There are medieval battles as well as the gorgeous fairy forest, where mushrooms stare back at you, fairies ride mossy turtles and butterflies combine into a giant stag.

As good as the visuals are, Charlize Theron is better. As the evil Queen she is more than just a cold-hearted bitch that other movies relegate evil queens to. She is evil, but with a personality; she is dreadfully in fear of losing her youth, and possessed of an intense hatred of men who have used her for her beauty throughout her life. She is evil as a means of taking control, and punishes women for being younger than she, men for being…well, men.

Also of note is Hemsworth who has achieved stardom through his portrayal of Thor. His work here convinces me that he is going to be an able leading man and not just a one-dimensional superhero. This Huntsman is grief-stricken and looking for something to believe in, finding it with Snow White. While some of the mead-drinking shenanigans are reminiscent of his work in Thor, there is enough here that is new that leads me to believe that the man’s career will have staying power.

Less successful is Stewart. Legions of her fans helped give this an impressive opening weekend, but she never really convinced me of her authenticity here. Not so much as a princess – any little girl can play that – but as a leader and as someone people would want to follow. Stewart also overacts a little bit in places, particularly when she’s called upon to make a stirring speech. She’s beautiful, sure – but fairer than Charlize Theron? I don’t think so.

I would have liked the movie to meander a little bit less. The battle sequences were also far less convincing than the magic, and I think the movie would have benefitted from leaning more in that direction than it did. Still, the visuals are so striking and Theron’s performance so compelling that I can recommend this even to non-fans of Kristen Stewart – and the anti-Twilight legions will probably want to give this a miss (with good reason) but you’re missing some solid summer entertainment if you do.

REASONS TO GO: Theron is deliciously evil. Hemsworth shows signs of being a terrific leading man. Some of the special effects are lovely.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit jumbled. Stewart overacted a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kristen Stewart had to overcome a childhood fear of horses in order to do the battle scene which called for her to ride one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mirror Mirror

CELTIC ALPHABET LOVERS: The dwarf names are based on Ogham, the ancient “Tree Alphabet” of the Celtics in which letters are associated with certain trees and assigned a symbolic value; for example, Beith equals “B” which equals birch which stands for new beginnings.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Harrison Ford tries to get away from Shia LaBeouf who is convinced he’s Marlon Brando.

(2008) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine, Alan Dale, Joel Stoffer, Neil Flynn, VJ Foster, Sasha Spielberg, John Valera, Ernie Reyes Jr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

It only took 19 years but Indiana Jones did return to the big screen. Fans have been eagerly waiting the fourth installment of the series ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wrapped but was their patience rewarded with a movie worthy of the scruffy fedora and bullwhip?

It is the 1950s and the Cold War is raging full-bore. At a secret army base in the Southwest, a group of men dressed as U.S. Soldiers take over, led by an ice-cold femme fatale Soviet named Irina Spalko (Blanchett). With her are captured American agents Mac McHale (Winstone) and the legendary archaeologist Indiana Jones (Ford).

She is after a strange artifact Jones had dug up years earlier – a crystal skull, one of only 13 in the world. The Soviets are after it with the idea of using it for mind control. Indy of course wants to prevent this from occurring. He makes a game attempt to steal the Skull but Irina and her cohorts are too well-armed, too well-organized and too many for Jones to make a clean getaway – plus there is the little matter of a double agent.

Indy manages to escape from the Soviets by the skin of his teeth. When he returns home, he is accused by the FBI of being a double agent. He is allowed to go free because nothing can be decisively proven, but he is forced to go on an indefinite leave of absence from his job at Marshall University (to avoid being fired) because of the incident.

At a train station, Indy is stopped by Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), a greaser who tells him that Indy’s old colleague Professor Oxley (Hurt) had been kidnapped after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.  He also gives Indy a letter from his (Mutt’s) mom, also held captive, that contains a riddle written by Oxley in an ancient Incan language.

After being chased by Soviet agents, Indy realizes that this might be the clue he needs to recover the Skull from Irina and maybe just save the world again, so he goes down to Peru to find the Skull. Also hot on its trail is Irina and she’s holding both Oxley and Mutt’s mom hostage. But when Indy goes to rescue them, he discovers to his shock that Mutt’s mom is Marion Ravenwood (Allen) – his old flame. Now it becomes a race between Indy and the Soviets to find the secret of the Crystal Skulls with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

This was one of the most highly-anticipated movies of recent years and in some ways it was a victim of its own expectations. I don’t think anyone seriously thought that the newest Indy would be at the same level as Raiders of the Lost Ark but at the same time there was hope it might at least be better than the last one.

I think that for the most part it was perceived as a disappointment and I recall being disappointed at the time it came out. Coming back at the movie from a fresh perspective some four years after it was released, I have to say that it’s much better than I remember it being. Some of the stunts, like the swordfight on the moving jeeps, are among the best of the series.

There’s also some cringe-inducing moments, such as when Indy survives a nuclear warhead test by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator. That one stretched incredulity to the breaking point. Still, by comparison this movie holds up well compared to the others despite the differences in style (more of a ’50s B-movie than a ’30s serial) and tone.

Ford steps back into the role of Indiana Jones without missing a beat and even 20 years later still has the physicality to do many of his own stunts. One casualty of the years is his chemistry with Karen Allen which I never thought was particularly strong in the first place, but they seem awkward together here, like a couple of people who had a fling years ago but have both moved on.

Worse yet is LaBeouf. He was the object of most of the complaints for those who criticized the movie and I do understand some of those issues – he feels out of place here. I think it’s because he’s trying too hard to do a Marlon Brando impression from The Wild One and it just seems silly. I don’t know that I would have cast LaBeouf as Indy’s son – but then who do you cast in a role like that? At least he has some understanding of big action films from the Transformers series.

Better though is Blanchett who as Irina makes up the best villain of the series, better than Mola Ram even. While Ram was evil and had the ability to pull your heart from your chest, he wasn’t a physical presence. Blanchett can shoot, kick, fight, swordfight and is at least as brilliant as Dr. Jones. She is a formidable opponent.

I think if you take this at face value there are some radical differences from the original trilogy, but then you have to expect that since everyone involved has gotten older. There’s more CGI here but it’s used really, really well. In fact from a technical standpoint this is one of the better movies of the last five years. It also adequately captures the spirit of the Indiana Jones movies – the wisecracking, the insane action – but doesn’t regurgitate it. It’s not a classic like the first and third movies are but it is certainly a solid movie I can easily recommend to just about anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Again, it’s Indiana Jones. Blanchett makes an excellent villain. Fine turns by Hurt, Broadbent and Winstone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: LaBeouf seems a bit out of place here. Chemistry between Ford and Allen not as strong. Concept somewhat weak as Indiana Jones films go.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some Indiana Jones-style violence and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Indiana Jones series was always intended to be five films; however after Last Crusade Spielberg felt that he’ d reached a logical end to the series with the iconic final shot. However, after his son asked when the final two films would be made, Spielberg once again became interested. After Ford stated in a 2006 interview that if the movie wasn’t made by 2008, there would not be a fourth film in the series, Spielberg began fast-tracking the development of the script. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of the real crystal skulls as well as a fairly fascinating but ultimately incomplete story of the movie’s 14 year trek to the big screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $786.6M on a $185M production budget; despite being a critical failure the movie is considered to be a big financial hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Lovely Molly

The Princess Bride


The Princess Bride

True love's kiss always comes complete with horse and sunset.

(1987) Romantic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Peter Cook, Mel Smith. Directed by Rob Reiner

 

Some romances have a fairy tale quality to them – brave princes, fair princesses, monsters and magic, quests and daring rescues. Okay that doesn’t happen much in real life but sometimes we all love to feel as if our romance is fairy tale-esque.

Buttercup (Wright) is the daughter of a simple farmer who has the farmboy Wesley (Elwes) wrapped around her finger. It isn’t too long before they fall deeply in love with one another. However, Wesley cannot marry Buttercup as a farmboy, so he sails across the sea to seek his future. His ship is taken by the Dread Pirate Roberts and sent to the bottom of Davey Jones’ locker and Wesley with it.

Buttercup is inconsolable. However she attracts the eye of Prince Humperdink (Sarandon), heir to the throne of Floran. She becomes engaged to marry him but remains sad and unhappy. She will marry him but her heart belongs to the late, lamented Wesley.

Then one day while she is out for her daily horseback ride she is abducted by three men – Vizzini (Shawn) the Sicilian mastermind, Inigo Montoya (Patinkin) a Spanish swordsman looking to avenge his father who was murdered by a six-fingered man some years back, and Fezzik (Andre), a giant from parts unknown.

They ride for Gilder, the sworn enemy of Floran with the Prince and his right hand man, Count Rugen (Guest) hot on their heels. Also right behind them is a mysterious man in black who catches up with them and in turn dispatches Montoya, Fezzik and Vizzini. He then takes Buttercup who guesses him to be the Dread Pirate Roberts – which turns out to be correct. But in her attempt to escape she discovers he is also Wesley, who has assumed the identity of Roberts when the pirate using that name retired.

But with the Prince right behind them, they run into the Fire Swamp to evade capture. Sadly, although they survive the Fire Swamp, they do not evade capture and they are taken  back to Floran where the Prince prepares for his wedding and the Count prepares to torture Wesley. Will true love win in the end? Only with the help of Miracle Max (Crystal) and his buttinsky wife Valerie (Kane) will the heroes save the day, rescue the princess and allow true love to triumph. That and a holocaust cloak.

Let’s start out by saying this is one of my very favorite movies of all time. Not a single misstep is made, nothing feels wrong from the framing device of the devoted grandfather (Falk) reading to his sick grandson (Savage) to the haunting score by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.

Reiner assembles an impressive cast who all inhabit their characters impressively and the fact that they are given a marvelous script full of great dialogue helps immensely. Who can forget Mandy Patinkin repeating “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” as he fights Count Rugen, the six fingered man, to the death. Who can forget Wesley begging Buttercup “Gentlyyyyyyy!” as they are reunited or his regular “As you wish” whenever she asks something of him.

There is a certain cheese factor in the somewhat low-budget special effects and sets. This is meant to be a Grimm’s Fairy Tale with a slightly modern twist, pre-Shrek but minus the pop culture references. The cast is without exception top-notch with Elwes giving a career-defining performance. Wright made her film debut here and has since gone on to a long and acclaimed career of 25 years.

Patinkin, one of the more versatile actors out there, channels Errol Flynn (down to the moustache) and has a genuinely affectionate chemistry with the late Andre the Giant, who remarked later that he had never felt so accepted as he did on the set of this movie. You can feel the camaraderie of the cast come through onscreen – this is the type of movie that leaves you with as good a feeling as it is possible to come away with from a movie.

This should definitely be at or near the top of the list for romantic movie night viewing. This is a movie that understands love, understands its magic and is able to translate that to the screen. If you aren’t in love when you start watching this film, you will be by the time it’s over.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most romantic movies ever, with great wit, panache and Andre the Giant.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You are freaked out by Rodents of Unusual Size.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few items of mildly crude humor and a few scary moments of Andre the Giant flambé but this really is perfectly fine for kids of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Max and Valerie are named for original author William Goldman’s parents. And by the way, the Dread Pirate Roberts was a real person – Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart. He was a very successful 18th Century Pirate. Inconceivable, no?

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There have been several DVD releases of the film, including a Special Edition (2001) which includes home movies taken on set by Elwes and a Dread Pirate edition (2006) that includes that and a featurette on the real Dread Pirate Roberts, a featurette about fairy tales and their similarities, a tourist brochure for Floran and an interactive trivia game. The 20th Anniversary edition (2007) strangely contains none of these things but does have featurettes on the swordplay in the movie as well as a bit on how folklore is incorporated into The Princess Bride and how it compares and contrasts to other books in a similar genre. All of these are available on the Blu-Ray release (2009) which makes it the best choice for extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.7M on a $40M production budget; the movie was unable to recoup its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: An Affair to Remember

Conan the Barbarian (2011)


Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Film reviewers piss Conan off....

(2011) Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Said Taghmaoui, Ron Perlman, Leo Howard, Steve O’Donnell, Raad Rawi, Nonso Anozie, Bob Sapp, Milton Welsh, Laila Rouass, Nathan Jones, Morgan Freeman (voice). Directed by Marcus Nispel

There’s something about a barbarian in a loincloth that fires up the imagination. It brings to mind swords dripping with blood and gore, scantily clad damsels in distress, terrifying monsters guarding hordes of fabulous treasure and ancient cities surrounding a wizard’s citadel. Ah, fantasy…

The swords and sorcery genre was more or less created (or at least popularized) by Robert E. Howard back in the 1920s and 1930s with his character Conan the Barbarian (in the same way J.R.R. Tolkein essentially created or at least popularized the high fantasy genre). In 1982, the John Milius movie based on the Howard character launched Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom. Will this 2011 version do the same for Jason Momoa?

Conan is born on a battlefield, literally ripped from the womb of his dying mother by his father Corin (Perlman) who cuts open the belly of his wife, yanks out the squalling baby and holds it before the eyes of mommy, who hangs around long enough to name him before expiring. Corin raises his son to the heavens with a roar which might be the only time Conan is ever going to be associated with a Disney animated classic (see The Lion King for reference).

Years pass and Conan grows into a young boy (Howard) who is taught by his blacksmith father how to fight. When the youths of the village are able to run a course in the countryside with a birds egg in their mouth without breaking it, they are considered worthy of becoming warriors for the clan. On such a day, they are attacked by a group of other Barbarians (these who are apparently mute and make a hideous animal roar) but young Conan takes out four of them without scarcely breaking a sweat let alone an egg. For this his father forges him a magnificent sword.

Unfortunately, Conan never gets a chance to use it. The tribe is attacked again, this time by the army of King Khalar Zym (Lang) who is after the shard of a magical mask that gives the wearer unspecified but unlimited power. With the help of his sadistic sorceress daughter Marique (McGowan), the shard is found and Khalar decides that Corin needs a molten iron facial. His son tries to save him but winds up failing.

Flash forward a decade or so and Conan has grown up into a big strapping man (Momoa). He roams Hyboria thieving and wenching with Artus (Anozie), an irascible pirate who is something of a mentor to Conan. When the bar Conan and Artus are drinking in are raided by the local constabulary, Conan notices that the man leading it was one of the soldiers who destroyed his village and helped murder his father. After Conan gets the information he wants, he rescues a thief named Ela-Shan (Taghmaoui)  and heads out to a monastery where Khalar is apparently looking for a virgin of the True Blood (i.e. descended from ancient sorcerers) to sacrifice in order to activate the mask.

Said virgin is Tamara (Nichols) who the abbot Fassir (Rawi) sends away in a desperate attempt to save her, even though the monks and monk-ettes are massacred. Khalar’s baddies are about to capture Tamara but Conan saves the day. The two take an instant dislike to one another which in Hollywood-speak means that they’re going to be madly in love by the end of the picture.

Still, Khalar will stop at nothing to get his hands on the girl. Conan will have to battle through every manner of deadly creature, both man and beast, in order to save the girl and finally get his revenge.

Conan is one of the most enduring characters in pulp literature. Howard’s stories and novels have been in print nearly continuously for over 80 years, and his mythos has been added to and expanded upon by nearly every medium imaginable, from graphic novels to videogames to movies. He represents the primal male attributes, as he shrugs “I live. I love. I slay. I am content” at one point in the movie.

Momoa is going to inevitably be compared with Schwarzenegger and he acquits himself surprisingly well. Those who saw him as the brutal, brooding Khal Drogo in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” might be surprised at his range. His Conan here is a little bit more easygoing than Drogo; to be honest I’ve always pictured Conan as more like Drogo; dark, quiet, likely to let his actions speak louder than his words. This Conan is engaging and funny. Momoa doesn’t quite have Arnold’s natural charisma, but he certainly has potential to be a big star.

His supporting cast blows hot and cold.  Lang gives an over the top performance that borderlines on the ludicrous, while Perlman, who is forced to wear the most ludicrous beard in cinematic history, does a fine job as Corin. Young Leo Howard does a nice job as young Conan and is literally spectacular in his own fight scenes. In some ways he outdoes Momoa.

Nichols is uncommonly pretty, although she looks a little more modern in some ways. I think she was just a little bit miscast here, but she makes a good effort. McGowan is terrifying as the witch which is what she’s meant to be but sometimes she seems almost TOO crazy.

Most of the problems I have with the movie is that they don’t really capture the spirit of the Conan stories. Howard’s stories are generally dark and dank, with monsters that are beyond imagining. Here the monsters are rather pedestrian; there are sand warriors that reminded me of similar creatures in The Mummy Returns and an octopus like creature that is all tentacle and CGI mayhem. Nice enough but not particularly groundbreaking.

This is entertaining enough, but it isn’t the movie it could have been. I would love to see more direct translations of Howard’s work to the screen but it hasn’t happened yet. As to those critics who wonder if the world needs an another Conan movie, the answer is far more than we need another quirky indie romance. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against indie films of any sort. It’s just we have had plenty of great indie films and no great Conan movies yet.

And there’s a need for them. Good entertainment is hard to find, for one thing. The swords and sorcery genre has yet to live up to its potential, but there is a lot to explore there. This movie tells me we’re not ready to yet, or at least Hollywood isn’t. I guess I’ll just have to wait awhile longer for my Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser movie.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is actually awfully likable and charismatic. Early fight scenes are well-staged.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie loses momentum in last third. Doesn’t capture feel of Howard’s stories.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect there is a whole lot of violence, blood and gore; there is also a fair amount of nudity and sexuality as well, and some disturbing monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ron Perlman, who plays Conan’s father, voiced Conan in a videogame and also the unreleased animated feature Conan: Red Nails.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the vistas should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Fright Night (2011)