THE HOMESMAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content, some Disturbing Behavior and Nudity

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Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley Oliver

(based on the novel THE HOMESMAN by Glendon Swarthout)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfield, Tim Blake Nelson & William Fichtner

On paper, THE HOMESMAN sounds like a cinematic recipe for success. This is a dark Western with a cast full of A-list talent and an interesting premise behind it. I was quite excited to watching this promising film and that makes the lackluster end result so much more underwhelming. There are good qualities in HOMESMAN, but the film betrays its characters and wastes a solid period setting. By the time the credits roll, the whole experience feels pointless and dreary.

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In pioneer populated Nebraska, three women have gone insane. Mary Bee Cuddy is a spinster (woman past the typical age of marriage) with an independent attitude. She bravely volunteers to take the three crazy women to Iowa, in spite of scorn from those around her. Before Mary can begin her journey, she comes across George Briggs, a claim jumper about to be hanged. Mary frees George in exchange for his services in aiding her journey. The territory is filled with bandits, harsh elements, and Indians. George and Mary must face overwhelming odds to get these three mentally damaged women to safety…as well as themselves.

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Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and acts in this Western. He pulls off the role of George with a passable performance. Jones doesn’t necessarily make this character his own though. This “bad man with a good heart” type of character is a familiar stereotype. Hilary Swank is another story. She seems to be trying way too hard as Mary. When she says certain comic relief lines, they feel stiff and lifeless. However, when she tries to be deadly serious (including an over-the-top bit of sobbing), she becomes unintentionally laughable and not convincing in the slightest. James Spader is a welcomed presence, but barely has any screen time. Tim Blake Nelson also seems suited to his one-scene scumbag, but comes off as wildly cartoonish…again, eliciting unintentional laughs from a scene that should be intense. Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and William Fichtner are forgettable as brief side characters. Meanwhile, the crazy women themselves aren’t given enough personality to resemble actual people as opposed to human cargo.

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In spite of all the flaws, THE HOMESMAN gets a couple of things right. The music is good, as in it feels like it belongs to a far better film. There is also attention to details of the time period that can be cool, though the overall production values resemble a made-for-TV movie. Aside from mixed acting and so-so technical work, THE HOMESMAN really drops the ball in the screenplay department. The script is based on a 1988 novel that I haven’t read, but this plot feels very disjointed and muddled. There is a character decision about halfway through that betrayed everything that was shown up until that point. There’s also a nasty streak of the story being dark merely for the sake of being dark. We already understand that the Old West was a dangerous and rough time, but this film feels the need to do things just for unnecessary shock value. This is especially notable in James Spader’s sleazy character. He’s one of the best things about this movie, but his scenes feel like they were only added for edginess and pointless violence.

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Westerns are a tough sell, especially in this day and age. I appreciate certain aspects about THE HOMESMAN, including a few well-executed scenes, a solid soundtrack, and two good performances. However, I can’t help but be let down by the forced bleakness (which didn’t add much to the story), an overall unfocused narrative, and poor performances that seemed as if everyone is trying too hard to sell themselves in a role as opposed to bringing an actual character to life. THE HOMESMAN is disappointing to say the least.

Grade: C-

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 LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 59 minutes

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

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE TWO TOWERS by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Brad Dourif & Karl Urban

FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING may have introduced audiences to the incredible cinematic take on Middle Earth, but it did have a couple of shortcomings. TWO TOWERS more than makes up for those flaws in a middle chapter that’s far more exciting, interesting and action-packed than its predecessor. While FELLOWSHIP was focused on characters and kicking off the quest, TWO TOWERS hones in one the battles and war springing to life around the one ring to rule them all. This second installment in the RINGS trilogy is also darker than the rest of the other Middle Earth saga.

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Picking up shortly after the conclusion of FELLOWSHIP, Frodo and his trusty companion Sam are continuing on their journey towards Mount Doom. They’re lost when they encounter the ring’s former owner Gollum. Though he appears to have a nasty streak to him, Frodo decides to trust the insane and gauntly Gollum as a guide, which may lead the two hobbits into even further danger. Meanwhile, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli (aided by a familiar face thought lost) try to save the people of Rohan (one of the few remaining kingdoms of men) from Sauron’s rising orc army. This climaxes in a huge battle to protect the confined fortress of Helm’s Deep. While all this is going on, the comic relief from the previous film, Merry and Pippin, try to provide further aid with an ent (living tree) leader named Treebeard. All of these three plots are interwoven throughout each other and provide a stellar fantasy epic that far outweighs anything seen in FELLOWSHIP or THE HOBBIT trilogy.

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The main advantage that TWO TOWERS obviously has is that the main character introductions are over and done. This frees up the story to center more around the actual warfare and how the forces of good are trying to turn the tide against the forces of evil. TOWER’s slightly optimistic ending comes after a whole lot of darkness. Most of the threats (whether they’re ring wraiths riding on winged creatures, fellowmen, or cursed locations themselves) are the creepiest things that this trilogy has to offer. One of these villains comes in the welcome presence of Brad Dourif as the slimy toadie of Sauron, Grima Wormtongue. Another danger comes in the form of one of the scariest locations in LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. This would be the Dead Marshes (that Frodo and Sam are forced to cross in the first third) littered with the drowned corpses of unlucky men and an eerie atmosphere that still gives me goosebumps multiple viewings later.

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New creatures are highly enjoyable too. There are more orcs and Uruk-hai (a stronger breed of orc) this time around, but the addition of the ents are very cool. These tree giants can look a little too over-the-top at times, but they (Treebeard, especially) have a huge part to play before the movie is over. The biggest accomplishment that TWO TOWERS offers is in the iconic character of Gollum. Through a motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis (who later went on to play Cesar in the new PLANET OF THE APES series) and amazing computer animation that holds up extremely well, this schizophrenic skin-and-bones character is the stand-out of the film. He provides most of the comic relief to be had, but that never lessens his fragile emotional state to the viewer and he’s always a tad creepy. What’s better is that there is a side of him that will warrant sympathy from many viewers (myself included), so he’s a complex character who hovers between good and evil in this film. However, one cryptic bit of dialogue near the end (where Gollum mentions a mysterious “her”) makes the viewer immediately curious to see what’s in store in the final film. After first watching the film in theaters back in 2002, I mercilessly bugged one friend, who had read the books, to reveal who or what the “she” Gollum spoke about was.

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The battles are fantastically structured with a stellar scene in the opening of Pippin and Merry escaping from the orcs. This is only one of many great action-packed moments. Another in a field of orc riders (orcs on the top of massive wolf-like beasts) is also phenomenally well-done. Then there’s the climax being the Battle at Helm’s Deep. Considered to be one of the absolute best on-screen battles of all-time by many, this almost hour-long conflict doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Creative steps are taken to keep things interesting without ever becoming absurd or too clichéd. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli do seem to be invincible, which doesn’t offer much suspense for their well-fare. This being said, plenty of other bodies pile up and it’s awesome to behold.

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In lesser hands, TWO TOWERS may have suffered from feeling like the middle piece of a larger story. Instead, it’s an excellent fantasy epic that guides the viewer through the more dangerous areas of Middle Earth with a likable group of heroes. The mixing of three different plotlines are perfectly paced to ensure that the viewer’s attention is never focused on one more than the other and never gets bored. Gollum is the stand-out of the film, but everything else is phenomenal as well. THE TWO TOWERS might be my favorite Middle Earth movie (that decision will be determined by my re-watch of RETURN OF THE KING).

Grade: A

I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action and Violence throughout

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Directed by: Stuart Beattie

Written by: Stuart Beattie

(based on the graphic novel I, FRANKENSTEIN by Kevin Grevioux)

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney & Kevin Grevioux

Mary Shelley’s classic gets the UNDERWORLD treatment in I, FRANKENSTEIN. The end result looks like an iffy idea somehow was granted a budget and thrown into wide theatrical release. It received bad publicity from critics, worse word-of-mouth from audiences, and was a domestic flop (it has barely made its money back from foreign markets). I, FRANKENSTEIN is damned with the fate of eventually airing on the Syfy Channel repeatedly and it deserves every second of that demise. However, there’s also a trashy sense of fun that comes with this territory. It’s ridiculous, ludicrous, stupid and yet a few elements of the film somehow managed to get something (however fleeting it may be) right. This is a bad movie, but it’s not a total failure, mainly due to a fast pace and a cool landscape.

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After an extremely condensed montage of Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (some details being removed so certain scenes can make sense later on), we witness Frankenstein’s creation burying his deceased master only to encounter a few demons in a graveyard. Frankenstein kills the demons and is captured by a band of gargoyles to discover that a war has been waging between the two for centuries. Reluctant to join with either side, the creature now named Adam (one of the few creative decisions that actually makes any sense) takes to the wilderness. Cut to a near future, Adam has returned to the city to hunt some demons hunting him. He finds himself caught right in between an escalating war between the hellish legion and the heavenly gargoyles. His life can be used as a weapon for either side. You do the math as to what happens next.

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The world of I, FRANKENSTEIN admittedly looks good. I’m not talking about the monster effects (those are downright laughable), but the setting itself is neat. I dug the atmosphere the movie had, even if it gets lost in a fray of chaotic fantasy-battles along the way. I’ve seen a lot worse than I, FRANKENSTEIN and enjoyed it on a bad B-movie level. It is very much still a bad B-movie though and suffers from a lot of problems. The main one being that the script here is a total disaster. Nothing makes much sense and it’s all kind of stitched together in the same sense that the title monster is. The actors don’t seem to be putting any effort into their performances. I can’t really fault them on this though given the material they’re working with. If I had to rank one cast member as the most entertaining to watch, it’s definitely Bill Nighy. He’s reprising his role as the evil vampire lord from the UNDERWORLD series, but is given the different title of Demon Prince and keeps the same hammy villain characteristics.

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Some classic horror stories were meant to be left in their original state and Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN appears to be one of them. The UNDERWORLD style doesn’t suit the wooden creature and the everything involving the heavenly war seems completely out-of-place. It’s unfortunate that the entire movie revolves around those ideas, because there might have been a cool “sequel” to the tale of science gone wrong if a few creative juices injected into the mix. Instead director/writer Stuart Beattie liberally rips off parts of VAN HELSING (an even worse monster mash than this flick), but that also might be attributed to the graphic novel is adapting.

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It seems pointless to talk about everything that’s wrong or mediocre with I, FRANKENSTEIN in lots of detail. At this point, most people already know if they even want to bother with this horror-action-fantasy. Judging from the box office numbers, not a whole lot of people did. Which all suits the film just fine. This belongs on Syfy Channel and I almost mean that as a bit of a back-handed compliment. It’s a guilty pleasure in some senses and not nearly as awful as it originally appeared. There’s something to be said for lowered expectations, but the movie’s pacing (only a 92-minute run time) seems as frantic to get everything over with as the audience watching the movie.

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I, FRANKENSTEIN is quite dumb, but it’s never boring or dull. As convoluted and stupid as the plot is, I was never infuriated by the film. I also had never imagined in my wildest dreams that Frankenstein’s monster would be seen on the big screen (or really anywhere) battling winged gargoyles through crumbling buildings or taking on a demon prince in a laboratory. Hey, I guess it exists. It’s a bad movie, but there’s some campy entertainment value to be seen in it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if it were on the Syfy Channel and I had friends over at the time, then I wouldn’t mind switching it on for a few good laughs. It’s that kind of movie. Take that as you will.

Grade: D+

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