A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

HistoryViolence poster

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: Josh Olson

(based on the graphic novel A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE by John Wagner & Vince Locke)

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill & Stephen McHattie

David Cronenberg made waves with his unique brand of body-horror (SHIVERS, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME) and a number of dark psychological thrillers (DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, SPIDER). This filmmaker seems most comfortable when he’s making difficult films that are sure to be a hit on the art-house circuit, but won’t likely connect with the general public. However, Cronenberg has also crafted a handful of mainstream hits. Next to his remake of THE FLY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE just might be his most accessible movie. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, VIOLENCE isn’t a bloody shoot-em-up from start to finish as its name implies, but rather a dark drama with spurts of graphic bloodshed. Those expecting a simple action thriller will find themselves disappointed, while those hoping for something deeper will be rewarded.

MCDHIOF EC030

Tom Stall has made a good life for himself in a small peaceful Indiana town. He is a loving husband, a devoted father to his two children, and runs a little restaurant. One night, everything changes when two convicts attempt to violently rob Tom’s diner. With quick reflexes and a steady trigger finger, he kills both men. This has him lauded as a local hero by the townsfolk and news, but Tom is the quiet type and neither wants credit, nor the attention. There might be a reason for Tom’s reserved manner about the incident as some shady people, including a dead-eyed man, show up claiming that Tom is actually someone named “Joey.” As the Stall family’s encounters with these threatening men begin to reach a frightening peak, it’s clear that Tom might not actually be who he says he is.

MCDHIOF EC035

HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is definitely a story with pulp conventions. As a result, there are some clichés (e.g. a kid being used as collateral), bits of cheesy dialogue, and the plot doesn’t exactly head in areas that we couldn’t correctly guess from miles away. However, the way that David Cronenberg treats this familiar material makes all the difference. More an examination of violence rather than just another action-oriented gangster tale with gun fights and explosions, there’s a dark emotional honest core at the center of VIOLENCE. The film takes its time to examine not just the restaurant incident’s effect of Tom (who’s slowly becoming a more confrontational individual), but also how his teenage son’s escalating conflict with a bully as well as Edie, Tom’s wife, watching her picture-perfect life crumbling around her.

MCDHIOF EC015

As Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen transforms into a small town guy with a dark secret. Once his character’s shadowy past comes to light, Mortensen does a brilliant job in showcasing Tom’s (or is it Joey’s?) darker side in a natural way that doesn’t feel out-of-place in the context of the story. Maria Bello is excellent as Tom’s wife and not simply a damsel in distress, but a woman faced with a life-changing revelation and must make difficult decisions as a result of that. In the villains department, the movie showcases great talent. Stephen McHattie (the smallest of the bad guys) has a memorable three-scene role as the thug who holds up Tom’s diner. Ed Harris is downright frightening as the dead-eyed man who’s stalking the Stall family. William Hurt doesn’t reveal himself until the final third of the film, but more than makes up for that with a sinister performance.

MCDHIOF EC021

Though it’s far more restrained than those expecting a blood-soaked action flick might hope, Cronenberg delivers graphic gory visuals in his real-world approach to the pulpy material. When someone gets a bullet through their skull, we get a brief shot of their face blown halfway to hell and them choking on their blood. In another instance, someone’s nose is beaten to a gory crater. These scenes definitely don’t make up a majority of the story, which is all about build-up and the effect that these violent incidents are having on the lives of the Stall family, but they exist. The only moment that really felt exaggerated and silly to me was an unrealistic sex scene that comes right the hell out of nowhere during the second half. Otherwise, Cronenberg executes this somewhat clichéd material with a steady hand, heavy atmosphere, and careful attention to detail.

MCDHIOF EC037

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE might disappoint some people in not being a violent action-packed tale from start to finish, but instead being a dark slow-burn drama with shocking bursts of bloodshed. Cronenberg might not have made a straight-up genre picture or psychological head-trip this time around, but he told a story that seems all too frightening and relevant in our current times. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE examines just how thin the barrier between a calm simple day and bloody chaos really is, as well as the life-shattering effects that violence can have on both victims and perpetrators.

Grade: A-

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

ReturnKing poster

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).

MCDLOOF EC141

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.

MCDLOOF EC093

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!

MCDLOOF EC147

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.

MCDLOOF EC265

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.

MCDLOOF EC154

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

TwoTowers poster

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.

MSDLOOF EC048

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.

TwoTowers 2

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.

MSDLOOF EC047

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.

TwoTowers 4

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.

TwoTowers 5

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

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 58 minutes

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

FellowRing poster

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm & Andy Serkis

In 2001, Peter Jackson released a first chapter in the most ambitious undertaking in the history of fantasy film. LORD OF THE RINGS exploded into a cultural phenomenon and went on to receive universal acclaim from both critics and audiences alike. The original Middle Earth trilogy ranges in its quality, but all three films are notable in their own way. If I had to pick a least favorite entry though, it would be FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. While this first epic introduces the viewer into a world of magic and wonder, the lengthy run-time and formulaic storytelling are a couple of kinks in an otherwise steady beginning to one of the most celebrated cinematic trilogies ever constructed.

MSDLOOF EC014

Middle Earth is a land populated by different creatures and filled with magic. Times weren’t all bright and cheerful as a dark era has long since past. Something survived from those bleak times. That wicked survivor is the spirit of the Dark Lord Sauron. A powerful ring exists that, if Sauron were to posses again, will lead to the destruction of Middle Earth. This ring was lost for thousands of years but somehow landed into the possession of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. The tiny object has now been passed onto his nephew, Frodo. Frodo and a group of individuals are charged with getting this one ring to the fires of Mount Doom (the only place where it can be destroyed). This fellowship of the ring (as an elf leader prolifically puts it) includes four hobbits (Frodo included), Aragorn (a man with a mysterious past), Legolas (an elf and master bowman), Gimli (an axe-wielding dwarf), and Gandalf the Grey (a powerful wizard). The fellowship begin their quest and find that many perils lie at the start of their journey.

MSDLOOF EC032

FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a beautiful film to look at. Peter Jackson brings a world only thought possible in the pages of a book to life. Through gorgeous New Zealand locations and stunning effects, Middle Earth is right in front of the viewer’s eyes the whole time. Talented actors become their roles as well. The best of which is definitely Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies almost form a three musketeers sort of trio as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. The only real weak links come in Elijah Wood as Frodo. He comes off as a wussy protagonist, especially when compared to every interesting person around him. It might be argued that this was required for his character, but his delivery still seems a little forced in moments.

MSDLOOF EC035

One arguable problem is clear in FELLOWSHIP’s formulaic storytelling that becomes apparent in the second half. The plot pretty much moves into a rinse, lather, repeat mode of the group encountering one threat and then moving on, where they only encounter another threat. In this sense the viewer is moving from set piece to set piece. This isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but it does get distracting when it’s so obvious that it’s being used. The dangers are creative, including my personal favorites of an almost invincible cave troll and a towering demon, but other threats almost seem like throwaway monsters. This is especially seen in one sequence with an octopus-like beast that randomly pops up from a lake for the sole purpose of causing a little havoc.

MSDLOOF EC021

While I don’t find the film to be the masterpiece that most diehard fans claim it is, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a technical masterwork in the sheer nature of bringing a mystical world to life in the most detailed way imaginable. The beginning of any trilogy usually suffers from the syndrome of leaving the viewer wanting more, which can be both positive (wanting the story to continue) and negative (wanting a more satisfying conclusion). FELLOWSHIP has a couple of issues that might detract from the overall awe-inspiring factor of it thanks to storytelling and a so-so protagonist, but remains a very good film that has stood the test of over a decade of time passing. Fantasy fans who haven’t checked this out (I can’t imagine there are many), would do well to introduce themselves to Middle Earth with FELLOWSHIP.

Grade: B+

PRISON (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Prison poster

Directed by: Renny Harlin

Written by: C. Courtney Joyner

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lane Smith, Kane Hodder, Chelsea Field, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Tom Everett & Arlen Dean Snyder

I originally discovered PRISON from Fangoria’s 101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen (a fun read for any fans of the genre). It took over two decades for the film to receive a proper home video release in the USA. Though not the greatest slasher of the 80’s and containing the usual pitfalls that a body count film usually has, PRISON is a cool little gem from the 1980’s that doesn’t get enough attention. Far from just a group of kids stranded in the woods or being stalked by a madman (which the majority of 80’s slashers were made of), PRISON mixes the prison genre with a ghost story and infuses a high number of sick kills that are among some of the most creative I’ve seen in an 80’s slasher. Besides featuring Kane Hodder in a largely off-screen role as the phantom killer, PRISON also showcases an early performance from Viggo Mortensen.

Prison 1

The Creedmore Prison has reopened after 20 years of abandonment. Burke (Mortensen) is among many inmates shipped into this decrepit building run by the crooked Warden Sharpe. After opening a walled-up execution chamber, a mysterious force is unleashed on the prison and the body count begins to rise. Neither prisoners nor guards are safe from this invisible killer offing people using what’s around them at the time (be it pipes, a confined metal room, or a roll of razor wire). It’s up to Burke and the other inmates to find out what’s really going on behind the killings and if the shady Sharpe has anything to do with it.

Prison 2

The really neat thing about PRISON is that it doesn’t play out like a traditional slasher for the most part. If I didn’t know better going in to it, I would have initially thought this was just an overlooked (but rather good) prison film from 1988. About a third of the movie sets the build-up for the story and develops the characters in entertaining ways. Though I wouldn’t say that I deeply cared for anyone, I was bummed when a few of the likable people bit it in fairly horrifying ways. The prison movie vibe lends itself to a smarter and more diverse group of possible victims (as in no dumb jocks, nerdy virgins, or slutty bimbos to be found here). These are hardened criminals (some of the extras were real inmates at a prison) and power-abusing guards biting it left and right. Thus mixing two well-known formulas into something fun to watch, though it does have a very significant set of problems in its final act.

Prison 3

The final 20 minutes of PRISON are a bit of a let-down. The momentum and tension built for nearly the entire movie is brushed off in a silly twist (that’s never fully fleshed out) and a rushed finale. After all the insane kills (one of which actually got an audible “Holy Shit!” from me), I wanted a huge climax loaded with nasty thrills. However, the best parts of the movie are the death scenes and those are mainly sprinkled through the middle. Though the ending is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise very cool movie, the kills are a ton of fun to watch (with practical effects that hold up well today).

Prison 4

PRISON is entertaining in the way that only a cheesy 80’s slasher can be. You should already know by now if this movie is for you. There’s an attempt to have a more imaginative story at work, but everything cool plot-wise is swept up far too quickly in an ending that rushes through what should have been the film’s finest moment. The prison setting makes this ghostly slasher something out of the ordinary from tons of other silly body count flicks from this time period. It was neat to see Viggo Mortensen as a tough guy prisoner in an early role. Kane Hodder (known for playing Jason Voorhees in the later FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels) is briefly glimpsed as the specter responsible for the murders. The kills are gruesome and creative (which is what counts in making a fun movie of this type). Though it’s flaws weigh it down, PRISON is a cool and unusual supernatural slasher in an original setting.

Grade: B

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑