THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Epic Battle Sequences and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE RETURN OF THE KING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Ian Holm & Marton Csokas

When Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was announced, everyone in the fantasy circuit probably went crazy. This sounded like a movie deal that was too good to be true. After all, this was a three-year laid out in advance. While all three films were shot simultaneously, they were distributed for three consecutive Christmases in a row. FELLOWSHIP was a solid start to the series, but lacked a natural flow and felt like an obligatory introduction in areas. TWO TOWERS is my favorite of the trilogy with the most exciting and dark material being covered from the entire Middle Earth saga. However, RETURN OF THE KING is the film that walked away with 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture). Though it remains more of a technical achievement than any of the other films, KING fumbles in the home stretch with a running time that feels too drawn out (made worse by an ending that can’t decide what it wants to be).

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The journey is drawing to a close as the ring of power nears possible destruction and peace for Middle Earth is becoming a real possibility. Frodo, Sam and (the not so trustworthy) Gollum are getting closer to the fires of Mount Doom. As Frodo becomes slowly corrupted by the ring, tensions between him and Sam grow. Gollum enacts a diabolical plan to get his precious ring back. While all of this is happening, the last battles are upon those few who remain from the original Fellowship and Aragorn is mustering up what it takes to reclaim his crown at one of the last kingdoms of men. This all leads to, of course, epic battles and a conclusion that will decide the fate of Middle Earth once and for all.

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TWO TOWERS delivered in bringing one of the best battle scenes ever in Helm’s Deep. That hour-long conflict would be hard to beat in a follow-up film, so Jackson’s solution is simple. He’s pretty much stretched out a majority of this three-plus hour film into two separate battle sequences. Scenes of Frodo and Sam trying to make it to Mount Doom are intercut, but the battles themselves are quite awesome. Adding another layer of tension is a crazed Steward who doesn’t want to give up his position of power for Aragorn as the rightful ruler. KING has plenty of moments that seem tailor-made to get the viewer to cheer and they work effectively. It’s nice to see cocky villains who you’ve been pissed at for most of the trilogy (or just this movie) get their comeuppances. One specific scene caused the entire theater to burst into applause when I first saw this back in 2003 and that moment still holds up perfectly to this day!

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This final film is loaded with appropriate pay-off for the whole trilogy. It’s nice to see story-arcs that have been building for over 6 hours (when you combine the running time of the previous two films) turn out to be worth the wait. The best of these lies with Frodo, Sam and Gollum though. The identity of the mysterious “she” that Gollum mentioned in his cryptic dialogue with himself at the end of TWO TOWERS comes to fruition in a scene that features probably the scariest creature of the entire series (which is saying a lot). This long suspenseful sequence also gets one of the biggest applause-worthy moments in its final minutes.

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Peter Jackson keeps an epic scale fully in tact for this finale to his original Middle Earth trilogy (way before three-film adaptation of  THE HOBBIT was even announced). This also contributes to the only problem that keeps RETURN OF THE KING from perfection in my eyes. The running time is unbelievably bloated and that all comes in the final 40 minutes. Spanning over three hours in length, Jackson feels the need to throw 5 different endings into the conclusion. It’s almost like he didn’t want to end the story, so he kept filming different final scenes and decided to loop them all together in the actual movie. Some of these details are so minute and insignificant (including Bilbo’s departure to the elf paradise and even going as far as Sam’s wedding) they become annoying. In this sense, Peter Jackson slightly wears out his welcome. When you’ve got 40 minutes of wrap-up scenes, there’s a big issue with the storytelling at hand.

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I don’t love RETURN OF THE KING as much as most other RINGS fans and the reason why might be considered a relatively simple complaint. The film slightly overstays its welcome in its (multiple) ending(s). The battles definitely up the action from the stellar Helm’s Deep sequence in TWO TOWERS and scenes that almost seem guaranteed to receive an applause in the theater still hold up flawlessly. It has been a lot of fun to watch character arcs develop and play out naturally over a 9-hour-plus trilogy (which is one hour shy of one season of GAME OF THRONES). Perhaps, the overlong climax is a prime example of too much of a good thing that ultimately becomes a problem. In the end, RETURN OF THE KING is a highly satisfying conclusion to a supremely successful trilogy of fantasy epics.

Grade: A-

THE EQUALIZER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence and Language throughout, including some Sexual References

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Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Written by: Richard Wenk

Starring: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman & Melissa Leo

Based on the 80’s TV series of the same name, THE EQUALIZER feels like it belongs in the 80’s as a very fun and surprisingly classy action-thriller. I’ve been seeing trailers and behind-the-scenes clips for this film nearly every single time I went to a movie theater for the past three months. In this sense, it’s almost kind of a relief to finally have seen this film and not watch the same promotional material over and over again. It’s also good that THE EQUALIZER is really enjoyable too. This is a simple story that’s a popcorn flick in the best way.

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McCall is the nice guy and goes through his everyday life in carefully calculated routines. He goes to work, helps his friends, drinks tea at a diner during the night hours, and is making his way through 100 notable books. After McCall befriends a troubled young prostitute and she gets beaten close to death by her Russian pimp, he takes justice into his own hands and does away with these Russian gangsters. Turns out that the guys he took out are well-connected to an even bigger crime syndicate and the sinister hitman Teddy (with a not so sinister sounding name) arrives in the city looking for McCall. A cat and mouse game begins between this highly trained do-gooder and the cold assassin. This struggle also leads to a lot of over-the-top violence and a high body count.

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What you see on the surface going into THE EQUALIZER is really what you get. The plot isn’t complicated and shouldn’t necessarily need to be. Everything boils down to a good old-fashioned tale of good vs. evil. The good guy here happens to be extremely talented in the art of kicking ass and taking names. The evil happens to be an unfeeling lunatic connected to the Russian mafia (arguably one of the worst nationalities of organized crime). Though the mafia uses guns a plenty, I don’t think Denzel really went to town on a guy with a conventional firearm (with one exception). The film runs at over two hours and is well paced. There is time given to setting up our hero and showing why he’s the kind of person who would go to these lengths to dish out justice. Another refreshing quality is that he always gives his potential victim a choice between continuing down their current path or doing the right thing. The climactic final showdown is awesome and since the violence in mainly inflicted on gangsters, you don’t have to feel bad about them getting hurt.

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The cast lends a lot of credibility to a plot that seems like it was ripped right out of the 80’s (makes sense since that’s when the series aired). Denzel Washington has played this kind of character before and does it well again here. Chloe Grace Moretz has a brief side role, though she’s set up as the catalyst for Denzel Washington kicking ass and winds up forgotten for the rest of the film. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo have a couple of scenes with Denzel that come off as entirely pointless (more on this in the next paragraph). It was cool to see David Harbour (who was terrifying in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES last weekend) return as a far more cowardly henchman. The real stand-out is Marton Csokas as Teddy. He steals every scene he’s in and I loved him as the bad guy. Csokas relishes in the his character’s unflinching evil and is a blast to watch.

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As entertaining as THE EQUALIZER is, there are also a handful of distracting issues. The film does get excessive to say the least. Denzel’s McCall is almost a magical figure, because he’s always able to outsmart the baddies around every corner and has a limitless amount of knowledge that makes him a genius capable of pretty much anything. It’s fun to watch this badass take down all of these scumbags, but he’s never really given a full-blown challenge. Everything works out for him, no matter how many things are stacked against him. Slow-motion and the central character walking away from an explosion also find there way into this film. Both are played straight-faced, but elicited laughs from myself and my fellow moviegoers. The script also neglects potentially cool plot threads in favor for pointless moments. I feel this movie may have been even more enjoyable if it had just focused on Denzel going up against the Russian mob, but the side threads introduced come off as filler.

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Sometimes it doesn’t cover the most potentially awesome parts of the story and the material is far from anything original, but THE EQUALIZER is a lot of fun in an old-school kick-ass action movie way. It’s cheesy, silly, clichéd, but also highly enjoyable. There’s a whole lot of grisly violence inflicted on people who deserve every bit of pain that’s given to them. Denzel Washington is as great as he usually is. Marton Csokas is the big stand-out as the central bad guy. It’s a blast to watch them play off each other. This is as solid a movie as you might expect about a guy with a mysterious past taking down Russian gangsters in action-packed ways.

Grade: B

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Stylized Violence throughout, Sexual Content, Nudity, and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller

Written by: Frank Miller

(based on the SIN CITY graphic novels by Frank Miller)

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie King, Juno Temple, Marton Csokas, Jamie Chun & Julia Garner

The original SIN CITY was one of my favorite movies during high school and hopes were high that Frank Miller’s amazing crime anthology would play out with the two sequels as a trilogy. Announcements for big name talent (including the original cast and the likes of Johnny Depp) were made and then the much-anticipated sequel was placed in development hell. Almost a full decade later, the second installment has finally been released and it was not worth the ridiculously long wait. Ironically, another Frank Miller sequel released this year bears some strong resemblance to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. That film would be 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. Both sequels are forcibly trying way too hard to duplicate what the filmmakers think fans liked about the originals and neither of them succeed well at it. DAME TO KILL FOR is a mixed bag in every way.

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A DAME TO KILL FOR follows the same format as the original SIN CITY. It’s a crime anthology with four noir tales that have recurring characters and an interlocking timeline. While the first film felt open and vibrant with every single detail being paid close attention to, this sequel feels confined and cheaper in many ways. The production values range from sometimes gorgeous to mostly corny. I don’t mean corny in the sense that things feel too far over-the-top (some intentional cheese works well), but corny in the sense that the world around our actors is fake looking. The visuals of 2005’s SIN CITY hold up well to this day and made me feel like I had entered a dangerous city filled with criminals. DAME TO KILL FOR feels like I’m watching a bunch of actors pretend in front of a green screen with silly looking CGI backgrounds around them. It feels like less attention was being placed on detail and more on pumping this thing out fast, but that’s not the real case because this had a nine-year-long production. The stories are as follows…

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JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT: Marv (from HARD GOODBYE in the original) wakes from a drunken stupor surrounded by crashed cars, corpses, and blood. He tries to piece together what happened to put him in this situation from hazy memories. This opener lasts less than 10 minutes and introduces the vibe that things are more forced this time around. Some dark comedy is present and I had fun watching the style in which this tale played out, but the writing was okay at best. Marv’s make-up looks ridiculous on Mickey Rourke this time around and it hurts that he appears during every single story in some way or another. It should have been an early sign for disappointment that the memorable character with the most disturbing tale in the first film was in a campy opener this time around. B-

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THE LONG BAD NIGHT: This first full-blown tale is the best segment in the film and up to the caliber of the original flick. I wouldn’t call it only good, but pretty awesome as a whole. Johnny is a gambler with a superb winning streak who visits Basin City (a.k.a. Sin City, duh) to play the most powerful poker game in town. He finds himself in over his head when he goes up against the corrupt Senator Roark (family member to a twisted priest, a cannibal serial killer, and a yellow-skinned pedophile in the first flick). Roark doesn’t take kindly to losing and Johnny finds himself against odds that he didn’t foresee when he leaves for a night on the town.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a welcome newcomer to the cast as Johnny and Powers Boothe (briefly glimpsed in SIN CITY) takes center stage as the slimy Roark. It’s easy to hate the gambling villain and the story was fairly predictable, but a few twists did take me by surprise. I liked a reveal midway through that wasn’t so much of a shock but a nice direction to take the story. The ending of this tale is fantastic. It’s a poetic conclusion to the best story of the sequel. Also production values felt far better in this single story than they were in the rest of the entire film. A

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A DAME TO KILL FOR: The story is where the ride begins to get really bumpy. Dwight (from BIG FAT KILL in the first film) is a private investigator specializing in incriminating photos. When a femme fatale from his past contacts him about her abusive husband, Dwight becomes infatuated with the sexy Ava Lord and comes to find too late that the situation isn’t as simple as he expected. This tale was as by-the-numbers as one can get. There aren’t any unexpected twists and some lengthy side plot threads go nowhere.

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This also happens to be a tale where two recurring characters from the 2005 film are recast. The hulking bodyguard, Manute, was originally played by Michael Clarke Duncan (who passed away), but Dennis Haysbert doesn’t necessarily do a bad job of filling the part. He’s a hulking baddie who serves his purpose. However, Josh Brolin is terribly cast as Dwight, a role that Clive Owen owned. Brolin has none of the charisma or charm that made the character so damn enjoyable to begin with. Eva Green (who served as the best performer in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE) bares it all here (literally), but isn’t much of a character. She merely plays out as means to an end. The worst part about this second-to-last tale is that it takes up a majority of the running time, so much so that this sequel is titled after it. C

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NANCY’S LAST DANCE: Picking up shortly after YELLOW BASTARD from the original film, Nancy Callahan is looking to avenge her dead lover/protector John Hartigan. To do this, she hardens herself and aims to kill Senator Roark. Her plan encounters some difficulties along the way. DAME TO KILL FOR commits the worst sin any anthology can by ending on its weakest note. This tale with direct ties to one of the best stories from the first film is dull, sloppy and anti-climactic. It was so bad that I was hoping the movie would just get to the final scene that everyone knew was coming. Nothing more can really be said about this story other than it’s poorly acted, written and played out. D

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To say SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR is underwhelming would be an understatement. The main returning cast members from the original come in Bruce Willis (showing up for an extended cameo), a few side characters (including a gloriously wasted Rosario Dawson as murderous hooker Gale), Mickey Rourke as a silly looking Marv, and Jessica Alba shakily trying to take on a lead role in a dark segment. It speaks volumes that the most interesting character (Dwight) only appears for one segment, while the wooden Nancy is throughout every single one of them. Marv, one of the most colorful characters from the original, is turned into a dull brute and that’s all the personality he’s given. After a nine-year wait, I sat in a theater with about six other people on opening night. When the movie ended, a person behind me exclaimed “That’s it?!?” Those two words are likely to summarize most fans’ responses to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, including mine.

Grade: C+

NOAH (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images and brief Suggestive Content

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Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel

Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins, Douglas Booth, Frank Langella, Marton Csokas, Madison Davenport & Nick Nolte

Biblical epics are nothing new. Since the art of filmmaking has been around, talented (and not so talented) directors have been putting scripture stories into cinematic form. It’s odd that the story of Noah’s ark has only been brought to film twice before. I have yet to see the 1929 silent film and the 1999 made-for-TV movie looks embarrassingly bad. Darren Aronofsky’s film version of the tale is sure to be a divisive one. Instead of staying completely word-for-word true to the source material, Aronofsky plays everything as a sort of fantasy epic. It is ironic that the people who might enjoy the film also might condemn it on sight. I’m not speaking of religious people, but atheists. There are admittedly stupid decisions here and there in Aronofsky’s storytelling (one of which definitely knocks this movie a notch down on my grade factor), but I found NOAH to be a stunning piece of work that stays true to the themes and overall message of the Bible story, even if it’s not close enough to the material for many viewers’ comfort.

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For those who have utterly no knowledge of the tale (despite it being prevalent through many different religions), Noah is a good man in a world of wickedness. He has visions from God (or as they only refer to him in the film: The Creator) that inform him of the impending destruction of the world. The Creator plans to wipe everything clean with a massive flood that will cover the entire planet. With the help of fallen angels in stone form (more on that in a moment), Noah constructs a massive ark that will carry two of each animal safely through the watery doom. The evils of man pose a threat as the king (descendant of Cain) plans on taking the ark from Noah by force when the flood arrives.

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One thing should have immediately stuck out from that previous paragraph that is vastly different from the Bible story and that’s the rocky fallen angels helping Noah out. These beings looked like the Rockbiter from NEVERENDING STORY (big strong hands) and the fact that they do talk in gravely voices made it even more awkward to watch. The first 15 minutes featuring these beasties front and center are a bit shaky to say the least. However, it does get to a point where they are merely means to an end in the background. I did like what they resolved these creatures with as well. There are other fantastical elements added as well, but I thought these other ideas were integrated very well into the story.

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The really interesting stuff comes after those first 15 minutes. The film is the Noah’s Ark story, but new ideas have been thrown into the mix that make Noah a much more fleshed out character. He’s portrayed as very flawed and faces tough choices before the flood arrives and while on the ark. The supporting cast of Noah’s family includes familiar faces too. Jennifer Connelly is great as Naameh (Noah’s wife) and delivers some really heart-wrenching emotional moments. Logan Lerman (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) plays the rebellious son named Ham and does it well. Meanwhile, Emma Watson is nothing short of amazing as Ila (an adopted daughter of sorts to Noah’s family). Anthony Hopkins also appears in about four scenes as Noah’s wise grandfather. Ray Winstone is a gruff and intimidating figure in his most notable roles. As King Tubal-Cain, he shines. This is the arch-enemy of Noah and there’s more to this character’s story than meets the eye. I really liked where director/writer Aronofsky took things with this plot-thread. Finally, there’s Russell Crowe himself as the title character and he gives a powerhouse performance as Noah. You feel his desperation, his struggle, and see where he’s coming from (even if you don’t agree with some of his actions).

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Effects-wise the film is absolutely amazing to behold. This is spectacle done almost perfectly. It’s a movie made to be seen on the big screen and it certainly adds power that the story’s so compelling. For all the mistakes in the opening that hint at an awkward experience shown in the beginning, NOAH gripped me more as the film went on longer. Once the flood comes and the family is aboard the ark with all the animals, you’d think the film would slow down. Instead, it went in a much more human-nature oriented direction that I imagine a lot of Bible purists won’t approve of, but I found it to be very deep and profound. The flood sequence itself and the battle leading up to it are awesome. There is a stark raw brutality around the film that must be respected too. The Bible had uplifting messages in its stories, but plenty of them weren’t pretty and the same can be said of this film adaptation. There were a couple of scenes that really shocked me at how dark Aronofsky decided to go with this material.

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Even though this story has been given almost a sort of LORD OF THE RINGS epic treatment, the message is still at the heart of this film. The concepts of sin, repentance, human life as a gift, giving thanks for blessings, and things happening for a reason are all examined in a respectful way. It’s ironic that atheists might enjoy this film a lot more than most Christians. The religious relatives I saw the film with thought it was boring and just not very well made. I heartily disagree. There is one dumb decision (those lame rockbiters), but everything else is absolutely awesome. It’s a slightly flawed biblical epic that I plan on revisiting many times in the future. Worthy of seeing on the big screen!

Grade: A-

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