Underworld: Blood Wars


Never tell Selene that her catsuit makes her look fat.

Never tell Selene that her catsuit makes her look fat.

(2016) Action Horror (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, Charles Dance, James Faulkner, Peter Andersson, Clementine Nicholson, Bradley James, Daisy Head, Oliver Stark, Zuzana Stivinova, Brian Caspe, Jan Nemejovsky, Sveta Driga, Dan Bradford, David Bowles, Rostislav Novak, Tomas Fisher, Eva Lavoire. Directed by Anna Foerster

 

Sometimes audiences don’t need a whole lot to be happy. They don’t need a coherent plot or character development. They just want to sit back, relax and shut their brains off for a couple of hours. It’s not much to ask. In other words, sometimes a concept is enough to satisfy an audience. This explains why the Underworld franchise has confounded critics by surviving 13 years and five movies without any letup in popularity.

A lot of the reason behind that is Kate Beckinsale. She plays Selene, a former member of the Death Dealers, an elite squad of vampires who exterminate their mortal enemies the Lycans (a.k.a. werewolves). These days, Selene is a renegade, on the run from both Lycans and vampires alike. She is aided only by David (T. James), son of Thomas (Dance) who at one time was Selene’s enemy but is now her only ally on the Eastern coven council.

The war isn’t going well for the vampires and in their dogged pursuit of Selene has led them to fighting a war on two fronts. Their Death Dealers have been depleted and while they are training new ones, the coven is vulnerable. Council member Semira (Pulver) realizes this and entreats Thomas to convince council leader Cassius (Faulkner) to revoke the exile of Selene and bring her back to train the Death Dealers.

Meanwhile, the Lycans have grown more powerful led by Marius (Menzies), their leader who has united the Lycan clans like nobody else ever has. They want Selene’s daughter Eve whose blood contains both Lycan and vampire elements along with human – she is the key to victory for both sides. Selene however doesn’t know where Eve is which is the way she wants it to protect her daughter. That doesn’t stop the machinations of various parties within both the Lycan and vampire communities who will betray anyone and stop and nothing to find Eve – and to do so they all believe they must control Selene. But can Selene be controlled?

As I said earlier, the plot is convoluted and often senseless but that’s unimportant; what matters is vampires vs. werewolves and there is plenty of that, plenty of carnage (including spines being ripped out and bodies being cleaved in half) and of course plenty of Beckinsale in skintight leather. Say what you want to about the franchise but there is no doubt that Beckinsale has made Selene one of the more formidable female action heroes of the 21st century. Critics however lament that the extremely talented actress who showed her abilities in Love and Friendship last year has been slumming by appearing in these films. Paychecks like the ones she gets from the Underworld series are what allow her to appear in less lucrative but more substantial roles like the one mentioned.

Beckinsale is as always the best reason to see these movies and while she seems a little more restrained here than in previous incarnations of the franchise, she has a presence nonetheless that keeps the focus on her every time she’s on the screen. There are those who grouse that the catsuit she wears is demeaning to women but I hear nobody complain that the ripped shirts (and occasionally shirtless look) that male action stars often wear are demeaning to them. Sex appeal remains a big selling point for action movies.

Like most of the Underworld films the lighting is dim which looks cool enough but makes some of the action sequences hard to follow which becomes a particular problem given the accelerated reflexes of the two warring factions. Again, the vampires are portrayed as indolent Eurotrash while the Lycans come off as kind of grunge chic. Also as usual, other than Selene and maybe David there is little in the way of character development, leading to all the various supporting roles to kind of blend together.

Then again, that scarcely matters. What the audience for these films are looking for are right here in great quantities. First-time feature film director Foerster (who cut her teeth on the Starz Outlander series) clearly demonstrates an understanding of the wants and needs of the audience and if she doesn’t apply much of a stamp of her own to the franchise is more likely due to the producers wanting to keep thematic and tonal continuity between the various films more than anything. I’m actually interested in seeing how Foerster does with other action, adventure and genre films in the future; I suspect she would supply a much-needed female voice to what is largely a male-dominated profession. After all, women like a good brainless action and/or genre film just as much as the next guy.

REASONS TO GO: It’s really more of the same, so if you like the same…
REASONS TO STAY: …and if you don’t…
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of violence, quite a bit of blood and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was initially believed to be the final film in the series, producer Len Wiseman has confirmed that a sequel is in the planning stages with Beckinsale returning as Selene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost Boys
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Elle

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Rashomon


Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

(1950) Drama (RKO) Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Kato. Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the grand masters of cinema and the greatest director to come out of Japan ever, possibly from all of Asia as well. Rashomon is one of his masterpieces, a movie that is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

It is based on two short stories; one, the titular Rashomon is used as a framing device; a priest (Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Shimura) are taking shelter in the half-ruined Rashomon Gate during a deluge of a rainstorm. A commoner (Ueda) joins them. The first two are feeling a little depressed and mystified after witnessing a trial earlier that day. The commoner asks them to explain what is bothering them.

The second short story, In the Grove (both were written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by the way) depicts a nobleman (Mori) and his wife (Kyo) set upon by the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Mifune) who lures the nobleman into a trap with the promise of swords he’d discovered, surprising him and tying him up. He then lures the wife to the same grove by telling her that her husband has fallen ill. Once he has her there, he rapes her in front of her husband.

That’s when things get interesting. All we know is that the husband gets murdered but during the course of the trial, the story changes significantly depending on whose telling it. The bandit, who proudly proclaims that he did the nefarious deed, has a reputation as a fearsome killer to uphold. The wife, shamed by her actions but even more so by her husband’s reaction to her dishonor, claims she did it. The husband, speaking through a medium (Honma) has his own version which makes him look truly victimized. And there is a surprise witness at the end who has a completely different story, albeit one possibly tainted by their own self-interest.

This is a story about the human condition and asks the basic question asked by philosophers and theologians from the beginning of time – is man basically good or intrinsically evil? Kurosawa uses an ingenious method of storytelling in order to explore the question and refuses to spoon-feed the audience a definitive answer. You are left to decode the truth for yourself.

The acting is over-the-top in places and is definitely more in the Eastern tradition. Mifune stands out as the arrogant bandit who becomes inflamed by desire for the beautiful young noblewoman. Mifune, one of the most respected actors to ever come out of Japan, was better known for his samurai persona in films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai as well as the American television mini-series Shogun but most experts agree that this is one of his most compelling performances. Mifune modeled the body language and movements of Tajomaru on that of lions, footage of which he studied intently before taking on the part.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer for the film, developed with Kurosawa several lighting techniques that made the forest look incredible with diffused lighting through the trees as well as the pouring rain which was made more visible by adding black ink to the water in the rain machine.

Kurosawa also used different styles of filmmaking for the three distinct portions of the film. For the framing narrative at Rashomon Gate, it’s fairly standard straight-on camera angles. For the trial sequences, the camera is set low, looking up at the actors. For the grove sequences, the camera is often high, looking down on the action and turning the audience into observers.

This is one of my mother’s favorites and one of mine as well. It is a movie that bears up under repeated viewings – it is so rich in detail and so amazingly layered and full of depth that you are constantly discovering new things each time you see it. Rashomon has appeared on a number of best lists, including 22nd on Empire magazine’s top 100 films of World Cinema of all time and has influenced directors from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Simply put, it is an amazing achievement that everybody who considers themselves a film buff or even a casual film junkie should see at least once, if not more often.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the great classics of cinema. Is the kind of movie you’ll be thinking about for days after seeing it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You don’t like foreign movies or you don’t like movies period.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes may be a little bit more than the youngsters can handle. There is also a depiction of a rape and a murder.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is often cited as the reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. The category didn’t exist when Rashomon was released so the film was given an honorary award instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The recently released Criterion Collection includes interviews with director Robert Altman on the influence of Kurosawa on his own films as well as with surviving members of the cast and crew talking about the film and it’s impact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outrage (1964)

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Looking for Palladin

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

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

300


300

Gerard Butler wonders why with the budget the film had they couldn't afford more than underwear and capes.

(2006) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Fassbender, Stephen McHattie, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Giovani Antonio Cimmino, Kelly Craig.  Directed by Zack Snyder

This is not like anything you’ve ever seen or are likely to see ever again. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley that is a fanciful, highly stylized account of the legendary stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the movie starts with a narrator (whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end of the movie) who explains the rigors of life in Sparta. Starting from birth, where babies that are considered weak, inferior or deformed are killed, the children are born to a life of cruel discipline, constant fighting, strength, honor and respect.

Leonidas (Butler) is born to this world and he takes to it like a politician to a photo-op. Now the King of Sparta, he is visited by an emissary from Persia demanding Sparta’s submission to their rule. Persia, a vast sprawling empire that encompasses hundreds of nations and a slave-driven army of more than a million, is ruled by Xerxes (Santoro from TV’s “Lost”), a decadent, corrupt ruler who believes himself to be a God. Leonidas, enraged by the implied threats, executes the Persian contingent.

Knowing that this will provoke Persia into attacking Greece, he seeks the blessing of the Ephors, grotesque inbred priests who select the most beautiful young women in Sparta to act as Oracles (Craig), which involves a lot of writhing around while semi-nude and speaking in tongues. Leonidas is aware that the Persians will arrive during one of the most sacred religious festivals on the Spartan calendar, and he wants to be able to make an exception to the law and march his army to a narrow chasm called the Hot Portals, or Thermopylae. There, the overwhelming numeric advantage of the Persians will be rendered useless. The word from On High is that the Gods will protect the Spartans as long as they honor their religious commitments. That’s not the answer that Leonidas wanted to hear.

Powerless to bring the entire Spartan army to defend his people, he must settle for his own personal guard, which includes his Captain (Regan), the Captain’s son Astinos (Wisdom), the affable Stelios (Fassbender) and the taciturn Dilios (Wenham). They march off to battle, while members of the council, led by the politically savvy Theron (West) debate whether to send aid at all which boils the blood of their fierce Queen (Headey).

The Spartans are met by a vast host of the multi-cultural Persian Army and the over-the-top King Xerxes himself. No matter what the Persians throw at them, the hard-edged Spartans repel every attempt to defeat them. They are doing the impossible – holding the pass against an overwhelming force. However, those who know the story of the 300 know that the status quo will change and the stuff of legends will be born.

This is a gritty, ultraviolent movie that director Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake) keeps remarkably faithful to Miller’s graphic novel vision. The movie is largely filmed with green screen, rendering epic vistas and impossible sights, while allowing them to mute the lighting so that the movie seems to be filmed entirely at dusk in a kind of sepia-toned veneer. He brings the grotesque creatures of the graphic novel to life in a way that makes them seem realistic while keeping with Miller’s vision, a very difficult line to walk (if you’ve seen any of Lynn Varley’s artwork, you’ll know what I mean). The visuals are spectacular throughout.

Butler, who had theretofore hinted at stardom with impressive turns in Phantom of the Opera and Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life here does a star turn. His dialogue is delivered at full volume, and his face much of the time is contorted into a primal snarl (and for the ladies, he spends most of the movie wearing a black leather speedo), but he carries himself with a presence that commands your attention every moment he’s onscreen. Leonidas is king, yes, but he is also a man and his interactions with his wife and son give the movie it’s very few quiet moments. This is a starmaking turn and propelled Butler into the upper echelon of the Hollywood star hierarchy.

Headey makes a great foil for Butler, as strong and charismatic as he himself is. Her Queen Gorgo takes on Dominic West’s Theron without blinking an eyelash and shows herself to be as admirable a Spartan as any man. Santoro’s Xerxes is decadent, corrupt and a little bit fey. Regan, Wisdom, Fassbinder and Wenham do fine jobs as Leonidas’ inner circle – they’re Spartans all through and through. They go full bore and hold nothing back. In fact there are very few things that are anything less than the very highest volume. There are a few moments that are about the three quarter mark, particularly early on.

Otherwise this is a movie that was filmed at 11, and is meant to be played back at 11 (to use a Spinal Tap analogy). It is an overwhelming sensory experience that will release a surge of testosterone in all but the most non-masculine sorts and give women their opportunity to access their inner man. This isn’t the most historically accurate epic you’ll ever see, but think of it as a surreal dream version of history and that might salve the conscience of sticklers a little bit. So go, see the movie, and then go out and beat somebody up, preferably with a sword. If you’re wearing a leather speedo, so much the better. 

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning, innovative visuals and a star-making performance by Butler. Takes a graphic novel and cranks it up to “11.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The amount of testosterone flowing through this movie might be off-putting to someone who doesn’t like their movies quite so over-bearing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some really graphic battleground violence, a bit of nudity and a little sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The quote attributed to Stelios here “Then we shall fight in the shade” when warned that the rain of Persian arrows will blot out the sun was actually spoken historically by a Spartan soldier named Dionekes.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature examining the historical license taken by Miller and by the filmmakers, comparing the events of the movie to what actually happened at Thermopylae. There is also a featurette on Miller, his early years and the writing of the original graphic novel. On the Blu-Ray edition is the original test footage Snyder used to sell the Warners executives on the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Bridesmaids

Your Highness


Your Highness

As proof of the disintegration of etiquette, an epidemic of pointing has broken out in Hollywood.

(2011) Fantasy Comedy (Universal) Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, James Franco, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Charles Dance, Toby Jones, Damian Lewis, Simon Farnaby, Deobia Oparei, B.J. Hogg, Charles Shaughnessy. Directed by David Gordon Green

Have you ever wondered what The Hangover would be like set in a world of Dungeons and Dragons? Wonder no more.

In the Kingdom of Mourn, King Tallious (Dance) rules wisely with two sons – the heir apparent, Prince Fabious (Franco) who lives to go on quests, is good and noble and pure, and is loved by the people as a handsome and model prince. His brother Thadeous (McBride) not so much – he’s overbearing, selfish, whiny and more interested in chasing women, weed and drink than dragons.

Having botched an alliance with the High Dwarves, he returns home to find his brother Fabious returning in triumph, having slain a Cyclops and bringing home a bride for good measure, the lovely Bella Donna (Deschanel) – putting a big crimp into the plans of the evil wizard Leezar (Theroux). Fabious, being Fabious, asks his jealous brother to be the best man at the wedding. Thadeous, being Thadeous, blows it off to get wasted and chase sheep.

A good thing too, or else he would have been caught when the evil wizard Leezar showed up at the wedding to steal back Bella Donna and inform all assembled that he intends to use the virginal Bella Donna as his bride in a ritual that will give birth to a dragon and give Leezar control of the entire world.

Naturally that’s not a good idea, and Fabious wants to go rescue his bride understandably but there’s no way he can go it alone. The King decides that Thadeous should accompany his brother who he is understandably reluctant, but when the King threatens to banish him if he doesn’t, well, Thadeous really has no choice.

Along the way there’ll be vicious amazons, perverted amphibian wizards, a five headed hydra and Isabel (Portman), a warrior who might be better than even Fabious who has her own grudge against Leezar and is not to be trusted by those who might get in her way.

From the team that essentially brought you Pineapple Express comes this send-up of fantasy films ranging from 80s B-movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer to more modern entries like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is not quite as bad as the guys that brought you Vampires Suck and their ilk, but it isn’t very good either.

Portman just won an Oscar and Deschanel is one of my very favorite actresses but they don’t really have much to do but act as adornments for the guys. Franco was nominated for an Oscar but here he really is kind of personality-challenged. In his defense, it’s hard to do a character that’s so perfect without making him seem bland, but still he doesn’t really have much spice to him at all and he could have used a little.

McBride has developed a niche for himself going back to The Foot Fist Way and through movies like the aforementioned Pineapple Express and Land of the Lost which this is roughly analogous to in terms of quality. He plays the somewhat arrogant and stupid selfish guy in most of his movies and to his credit he does that role well. Hopefully one of these days we’ll see him stretch a little.

This is not that movie – even though he’s supposed to be somewhat romantic (all the chicks dig him, after all – many of them topless) he’s no romantic lead and in a sense, that’s one of the more funny aspects of the film.

The effects are decent enough although chintzy in places (and I think that was done on purpose) with plenty of lights and lightning bolts to light up the screen, as well as a minotaur penis (don’t ask) to darken it.

The problem is that while there are some very funny moments, there aren’t really enough of them. Repetition is only funny in small doses guys and some things are rammed down our throats until they are no longer funny even retroactively to the first part. Dropping F bombs in a medieval setting may be big yucks for the stoner crowd but even they will stop laughing by the fortieth or fiftieth time.

Now I have nothing against stoner humor or the like, even though I’m not able to partake (I’m allergic) but I’ve heard from friends who do that even they found it a bit too much. Give me a Cheech and Chong movie any day.

REASONS TO GO: Some fair special effects. A few good laughs here and there.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on shtick. Not enough funny moments for a comedy. Too much oafishness and too many “Thines” and “Mines.”

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of crude humor, some violence, a bit of foul language, plenty of drug use, some nudity here and there and a heavy dose of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was a script, director David Gordon Green noted that nearly all of the dialogue was improvised; only a plot outline and written notes were used on set.

HOME OR THEATER: Despite everything, the scale and the special effects are big screen-worthy

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The House Bunny