Film Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Release Date: December 1st, 2003 (Wellington, New Zealand premiere)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee (Extended Edition only), Brad Dourif (Extended Edition only), Bruce Spence (Extended Edition only), Sean Bean (Extended Edition only)

New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, 201 Minutes, 254 Minutes (DVD Extended Edition), 263 Minutes (Blu-ray Extended Edition), 192 Minutes (DVD Widescreen Edition)

Review:

“Hold your ground, hold your ground! Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!” – Aragorn

Having taken a break from seeing this for several years helped me look at this film, and the two before it, much more objectively. I loved this film when it came out and I watched the Extended Editions of all three films almost monthly for a few years. But I actually haven’t seen this now since before the first Hobbit movie came out in 2012.

My biggest takeaway from seeing it now is that this is a perfect film, at least in the form of the Extended Edition. There’s nothing I would change, add or take away from it. It is a great adaptation that took a few liberties but all those liberties worked and made this a richer story in a cinematic sense.

The acting is superb and everyone in this film was at the top of their game. But really, there are two actors who carried this film, Viggo Mortensen and Sean Astin. Mortensen was the perfect choice for Aragorn and if you aren’t willing to follow him into battle after watching this movie, you might be dead inside.

However, Sean Astin is the real star of this chapter in the franchise. As Samwise Gamgee, he is the true hero that sees things through. When Frodo, the one chosen to bear the burden of the ring is emotionally and physically drained, it is Sam who carries on, getting Frodo to the finish line by literally carrying him on his back up a flaming volcano. It’s one of the most badass and touching moments in motion picture history and really, all the credit has to go to Astin for just how damn good he was in this film. Where the hell was the Oscar nomination? I know that this was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won all eleven but it was short one for Astin’s performance.

I also can’t deny the greatness that was Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in this chapter.

The special effects are still top notch and at the time that this came out, this film had the best effects of all-time. Everything was great over the course of all three movies but the grandiose scale of this epic picture called for a massive amount of effects work. Everything was executed masterfully and it’s almost unbelievable to think that these movies came out just a year apart from each other.

This is a story about friendship, honor and loyalty and it’s hard to think of a better example of these things in any other film. The Return of the King knocks it out of the park in that regard and is pretty inspirational because of it. It taps into the best qualities of human nature, overcomes immense adversity and sees hope and goodness succeed in the face of enormous and seemingly unconquerable darkness.

Again, The Return of the King is a pillar of perfection. It’s so good that I wish I could give it an 11 out of 10 rating.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other two Lord of the Rings films, as well as The Hobbit trilogy.

Film Review: Empire Records (1995)

Also known as: Rock & Fun, Empire (working titles)
Release Date: September 22nd, 1995 (limited)
Directed by: Allan Moyle
Written by: Carol Heikkinen
Music by: various artists
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Maxwell Caulfield, Debi Mazar, Rory Cochrane, Johnny Whitworth, Robin Tunney, Renée Zellweger, Liv Tyler, Ethan Embry, Coyote Shivers, James ‘Kimo’ Willis, Brendan Sexton III, Ben Bode

Regency Enterprises, Warner Bros., 90 Minutes, 107 Minutes (Special Extended Edition)

Review:

“We mustn’t dwell… no, not today. We can’t. Not on Rex Manning Day.” – Mark

Empire Records was not a hit when it came out in theaters but it had a pretty limited release and when it did expand into more theaters, it still didn’t get into a lot of them. In fact, I never even heard of the movie until it came out on VHS in 1996 while I was working at a video store. I checked it out and liked it but I never imagined that it was something that many people would see or that would gain a pretty good cult following.

I think that it resonated with me because I was the same age as the characters, I worked in a video store and a music store and it felt a bit more like an ’80s teen comedy, which were movies I grew up on and had an impact on me as a kid.

Sure, the film is pretty hokey and very goofy but with that it has a lot of charm and an innocence about it, even if it delves into some more serious subject matter. At it’s core, it just follows a day in the life of an indie record store but it is a well crafted coming of age movie.

It is almost fantasy in how it is presented and in that way, it kind of reminds me of Clerks. They’re not even close from a tonal sense but both movies cram a bunch of crazy stuff into a single work day in a way that isn’t realistic but works for these type of films because all of these things could actually happen, just not on a single day.

The acting isn’t great but this does feature some people that would go on to have pretty good careers. It also stars Anthony LaPaglia as the only real adult in the film and the glue that keeps things together and a bit more grounded than the film would be without him.

I can’t say that this has aged well and maybe I still like it because of the power of nostalgia but it’s just a great film to throw on, once in awhile, when you need to be taken back to a simpler time and a simpler life before being buried in adult problems and worries.

I also love how musical it is and how fun it is. You actually do care about these characters and you want a happy ending for all of them. Because they’re all just kids and most of us have been where they are.

Plus, without this film, we never would’ve had Rex Manning Day.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other teen comedies of the ’90s.

Film Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Release Date: December 5th, 2002 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Peter Jackson
Based on: The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean (Extended Edition), Andy Serkis, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill

New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, 179 Minutes, 235 Minutes (DVD Extended Edition), 228 Minutes (Blu-ray Extended Edition), 171 Minutes (DVD Widescreen Edition)

Review:

“From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth… Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountain side… Darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time… The stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as a life age of the earth… But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I’ve been sent back until my task is done.” – Gandalf

I have seen all of these movies probably a dozen times but it has been several years now since revisiting them. From memory, I always thought of The Two Towers as the weakest of the trilogy but it is still a masterpiece and a perfect film for what it is: a bridge between the beginning and the end.

It also ups the ante quite a bit and is more epic in scale, as the two final battles alone are bigger than anything we saw in the first film, apart from the intro that showed the fall of Sauron millennia earlier.

But, really, the climax to this motion picture is absolutely amazing. If you are a fan of epic battles, this does not disappoint. If you are a fan of fantasy, this should definitely satisfy your palate.

All the key players are back and that includes Sean Bean’s Boromir, who died in the previous movie. Granted, he is only in a couple of flashbacks in the Extended Edition but it’s great to see him and to get more context in regards to how Gondor is run and the relationship between Boromir, Faramir and their father.

The return of Gandalf and the shift in power away from Saruman and to him is a really great moment that helps turn the tide towards the light. Ian McKellan was superb and his character’s evolution was incredible. The continuation of his battle with the Balrog is one of my favorite cinematic moments of all-time.

It is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show, however. While he was great in the first picture and was perfectly cast, he truly shines here and anyone watching this film would want to follow him, which is great considering what his role is in the goings on of Middle Earth and how this series ends in the following film.

If you are going to watch these films, you should always watch the Extended Editions, as they provide more story, better context and a heftier helping of the meat and potatoes. The Extended Edition of The Two Towers offers a lot of extra footage that isn’t in the original theatrical version. It isn’t so much that it makes it a different film but it certainly makes it a better one.

The Two Towers is perfect. It is a masterpiece like the other two pictures in the trilogy. It is the weakest, sure, but I’d rather be the weakest film in this trilogy than the best film in the Transformers series.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other two Lord of the Rings films, as well as The Hobbit trilogy.

Film Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Release Date: December 10th, 2001 (London premiere)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Sala Baker, Peter Jackson (cameo)

New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, 178 Minutes, 208 Minutes (DVD Extended Edition), 228 Minutes (Blu-ray Extended Edition), 171 Minutes (DVD Widescreen Edition)

Review:

“[Gandalf is standing on the bridge, in front of the Balrog] You cannot pass! I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Udun! Go back to the shadow. You shall not pass!” – Gandalf

This was a definite treat to revisit, especially since I just revisited The Hobbit trilogy beforehand. I wanted to watch them in chronological order for the first time but having now seen this again, a film I have probably seen a dozen times already, I have an even greater appreciation for it, as it’s truly perfection.

Unlike those Hobbit movies, The Fellowship of the Ring and its two sequels, didn’t have identity issues. It has a consistent tone throughout and it knows exactly what it needs to be and how to accomplish that. This was Peter Jackson at his absolute best and this is a timeless movie and will continue to be for generations.

Being that this was the first major live action adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, makes its level of perfection something truly special and a feat that proves that the impossible can be possible. I should state, though, that the Soviets and the Finnish did their own live action adaptations before this but no one has really seen them and they weren’t done with the resources and budget that allowed this story to really live and breathe the right way.

I’ve tried to think of negatives for the sake of this review but the acting is superb, the directing and cinematography are flawless and the special effects are better than anything else that predates this film. Also, the issues that exist with The Hobbit films don’t exist with this one.

We have real human beings in prosthetics and makeup as the orcs and goblins. Also, the film isn’t afraid to rely on some other practical effects. Sure, there is CGI galore but the film doesn’t default to it and it’s why this looks better than The Hobbit films, which started coming out 11 years later.

The best thing about this film is its spirit. You immediately care about these characters, all of them, they mesh well pretty exceptionally, and none of them look stupid like most of the dwarves in The Hobbit. Gimli, the main dwarf in this story, looks like a real character and not a cartoon caricature.

Also, you care about the journey and how it is taking a toll on everyone in the party. You feel their emotions, their stress and their burden in seeing things through no matter what the cost.

The action is stupendous and the big battle at the end of the film is incredible. Also, the wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman is incredibly badass.

Howard Shore, who scored all of these Tolkien pictures, did a much better job at creating the themes for these films than The Hobbit trilogy. The music here hits the right notes and it’s all become pretty iconic.

There is a reason why this film gave birth to Tolkien Fever in the early 2000s. Everything about it was just right and it was a real example of filmmaking and storytelling perfection.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other two Lord of the Rings films, as well as The Hobbit trilogy.

Film Review: The Strangers (2008)

Also known as: The Faces (script title)
Release Date: May 29th, 2008 (Russia)
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Written by: Bryan Bertino
Music by: Tomandandy
Cast: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton

Vertigo Entertainment, Mandate Pictures, Intrepid Pictures, Rogue Pictures, 86 Minutes, 88 Minutes (unrated cut)

Review:

“Since we’ve been here, I haven’t heard a dog bark… or a car pass. Nothing. Just us and them.” – James Hoyt

This was a film ruined by its marketing, which is why I never wanted to see it in the theater ten years ago and only decided to finally check it out because it was on Netflix and less than 90 minutes.

But the reason this film was ruined for me before I even saw it was due to one of the trailers where Liv Tyler’s character asks the psychos, “Why are you doing this to us?” And one of them simply says, “Because you were home.”

That killed this picture for me because I knew that those lines were the big reveal of the “mystery” within the film. The shocker moment; the money shot. And I also knew that if I saw this film, that answer was all I was going to get. So I didn’t need to see it, really. Because I’ve already seen home invasion and psycho slasher movies a billion times.

A user review on IMDb refers to this as “stupid people being tormented by stupid killers” and that’s probably the best description of this that there is.

This was a poorly written plot where it relied completely on the psychos just having good luck. It also made them have unnatural stealth abilities, which can only be explained if they were ex-Navy SEALs or trained in the ninja arts.

But seriously, the psychos were stupid, the victims were stupid and I kind of just wanted an asteroid to smash the house and kill them all.

Look, you have two people, holed up in a house with a shotgun and a shitload of shells. Outside are just three people armed with handheld tools from the family shed. How in the hell do you not just blow their f’n brains out in 2 minutes and order a pizza while waiting for the cops to show up.

And then, the only person to get their brains blown out was Dennis from Always Sunny, who just dropped in to say “hey”.

This movie was so painfully stupid that it hurt me physically.

There isn’t much else to say about it, really.

Rating: 4/10
Pairs well with: Probably the sequel I have no interest in seeing, as well as VacancyYou’re Next and the modern remake of The Last House On the Left.

Film Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Release Date: June 8th, 2008 (Gibson Amphitheatre premiere)
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Written by: Zak Penn
Based on: Hulk by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Music by: Craig Armstrong
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, William Hurt, Robert Downey Jr., Martin Starr, Lou Ferrigno

Marvel Studios, Valhalla Motion Pictures, Universal Pictures, 112 Minutes

Review:

“[Preparing to finish the Hulk off] Any last words?” – Abomination, “Hulk… SMASH!” – The Incredible Hulk

A few months after the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with Iron Man, we got the second film in the now massive Avengers franchise. I feel like people actually forget about this movie now, as there has never been a sequel to it and the character of the Incredible Hulk was recast by the time 2012’s Avengers rolled around. Edward Norton, like Eric Bana, only got to play the Hulk once. Granted, Bana’s Hulk film is not a part of this continuity.

The Incredible Hulk is pretty decent as an introduction to this version of the Hulk character. It benefits from not being bogged down by an origin story, as that was covered in that earlier, unrelated Hulk film and the two movies are only separated by five years. However, the details or a rundown of the origin should have been mentioned, as opposed to just giving the audience a flashback scene cut into the opening credits.

A problem with this film and it being a part of the larger MCU canon, is that everything that happens in it doesn’t really matter to the bigger picture and really, this could be removed from continuity and no one would notice. In fact, I feel like it should be non-canonical.

One, the Hulk role was recast and given to Mark Ruffalo. Two, where the hell has General “Thunderbolt” Ross been since this movie? He had a meeting with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark but for what reason? Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross has also never resurfaced in favor of Marvel switching Hulk’s love interest to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Where are these two people who were so important to the Hulk’s story? Also, Tim Blake Nelson is exposed to magic Hulk juice and was turning into the Hulk villain, The Leader. Seriously, where the hell is The Leader? I want the f’n Leader! I love The Leader!

Granted, they’d probably ruin The Leader, as Marvel doesn’t do anywhere near as good of a job developing their villains as they do their heroes. Which is a big bone of contention for me in regards to the larger Avengers franchise.

Time also hasn’t been kind to this film and watching it now, when there’s like two dozen more MCU films, makes it feel even more out of place.

And while I’m speaking of time not being kind, the CGI is less than impressive and the film is pretty slow because it doesn’t have the flow that the later Marvel movies have. While I did like the slower pace in Iron Man, that film managed its time better and developed its plot and its characters very effectively. The Incredible Hulk doesn’t develop much of anything, it just relies on you knowing these characters based off of the unrelated Hulk film from 2003. But even then, the characters here still have a different personality. Norton’s Hulk is different than Bana’s and the same goes for Liv Tyler in the role Jennifer Connelly played and William Hurt taking over from Sam Elliot.

The Incredible Hulk is far from a bad movie and it’s decent as a standalone story but it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the MCU and relies on knowledge and history that the film doesn’t actually give you. The actors did a good job with the material but it was still a weak effort, overall.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Iron Man and Iron Man 2, as its wedged between the two. Also, Avengers, as that’s the next time that the Hulk is seen.