When I launched my mini-reviews page, the intention was for me to re-upload the original reviews from my old freewebs website, although I started discussing other movies as well. Over time, the mini-reviews section has become bloated and unwieldy, so I’ve decided to archive my original works as a separate entity. They will be divided between martial arts and horror, with the ‘mini-reviews’ being dedicated to new critiques. If you remember my ancient writings, I went through a lot of bizarre phases. My earliest works were crude and they eventually turned derivative of other online critics, before I adopted a ‘longer is better’ trend. Everything posted here will be an abridged, polished version of my original writing. I might re-watch some of my original subjects and have entirely different thoughts. I’m chronically embarrassed by all of my old contributions to film criticism, so I don’t count a lot of these as ‘official reviews’ anymore.
Hence, the title-
“THE CORPSES OF DEAD REVIEWS: MARTIAL-ARTS”
Try not to be morbid and gawk!
King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads 300 Spartans to face the entire army of Persia, who seek to conquer the entirety of Greece, in this fictional version of the historic battle. I remember being unimpressed with the trailers for “300”, as it looked incredibly hokey, but the early reviews managed to get me a little pumped up. I was still not expecting this to be one of my favorite films of 2007 and it seemed like all of my fellow plebeians agreed with me, as we quoted all of the lines to the point where they quickly went from ‘cool’ to ‘obnoxious’. Furthermore, who didn’t apply ‘spray on abs’, run around in their underwear and occasionally kiss Hercules?
Er, um, that’s not the point! “300” had a huge impact on pop culture and I swear I don’t own a copy of “Meet the Spartans”. I swear! As popular as this movie was though, I remember it received a backlash for its historical inaccuracies, as if the Spartans defending their realm against zombies, Mortal Kombat rejects and an assortment of freaks didn’t already reveal the filmmakers intentions when it came to authenticity. I am assuming that these same detractors went on to criticize “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” for it taking liberties with the real story, for every fool knows that the Union were the vampires, while the confederates were the werewolves. “300” is all about testosterone fueled posturing, bad-ass visuals and quotable lines, but it also takes the time to make you invested in the characters. Maybe I should be a little disturbed that I cheer whenever the Spartans do something especially twisted to their enemies, but hey, these mad men are very charismatic. The cast all deliver their lines with passion and intensity, but their chemistry holds the narrative together, so I was invested even when swords weren’t making sweet love to flesh. The choreography is excellent though and Zack Snyder uses slow motion incredibly well, making sure we see the gory details and the slick maneuvering when we need to, without the action ever becoming redundant for it. The score is perfect for this kind of flick, as it pumps you up and makes you want to join the battle itself, but it’s also unique- especially in the context of 2007. Snyder stylizes every visual as if it’s a comic book come to life, so the digital aesthetics really do work. The special effects serve his vision, although the grotesque makeup for the hunchback looked pretty phony to me. “300” is not for everybody and you might condemn it for trying too hard to be cool, or maybe you just think it’s silly. For me, it’s just a thoroughly entertaining action flick that I can sit down and watch at almost any time, although I still need to purchas- Okay, I admit it! I own a copy of “Meet the Spartans”! I don’t know why! IT JUST HAPPENED! I’M SO SORRY!Rating: 3.5/4
10,000 BC (2008)
Apparently set in 10,000 B.C, a bunch of tribes are harassed by a much larger tribe. When his love is captured by this tribe, a hunter must become a warrior and travel through the desert…a lot, to save her. “10,000 B.C” is another big budgeted blockbuster from Ronald Emmerich and even though everyone seems to hate the guy, I have always been indifferent towards his body of work. They’re fine if you just want state of the art effects and eye popping visuals, with the story only existing as a template to promote the effects and visuals. But if you want anything of substance, then you should probably criticize yourself as much as Emmerich, because you should know what you’re getting into right now…and that’s probably why I dislike “10,000 B.C”, because all of Emmerich’s weaknesses are on display, while his strengths appear to be largely absent.
The CGI in “10,000 B.C” is merely…adequate, if not uneven. The only special effect I can honestly remember is the Sabre-tooth Tiger and that was only because it looked really bad. Everything else is…fine, neither worth praising or condemning. I think Emmerich was trying to broaden his horizons as a filmmaker, maybe trying to focus on substance over spectacle? That’s the only reason I can fathom why he’d choose this setting and story, as his specialty is destruction and buildings worth destroying hadn’t been built during this time period. The visual style is underwhelming, although it occasionally becomes distracting when Emmerich is ripping someone else off (“300”, “Apocalypto”). The actors are all glaringly miscast. Steven Strait (D’leh) isn’t a bad actor, but he lacks the charisma to carry this kind of role, so is rather boring to watch. Camilla Belle (Evolet) has absolutely nothing to do except look pretty and that is also kind of the problem. These leads are far too…attractive? Modern? They just don’t look like they belong in this kind of period piece! Instead of viewing them as characters from 10,000 B.C, I saw them as actors dressed up as characters from 10,000 B.C. Maybe the makeup and costuming department are more to blame, as the movie lacks any sense of authenticity and the actors sometimes look comically out-of-place. Once again, Roland Emmerich is usually reliable when it comes to casting charismatic performers who are allowed to have as much fun as they want with their roles. This might lead to some hammy and ridiculous performances, but they balance out the effects and can be fun. Maybe Emmerich was trying to be taken seriously and restrained his actors, because only a few of the supporting cast members seem to be enjoying themselves. Everyone else just looks bored, like me when watching “10,000 B.C”.
Speaking of which, was it just me or did it seem like there were a lot of scenes of just people walking through the desert…Maybe he was trying to channel “Lawrence of Arabia”, but the digital aesthetic keeps the cinematography from standing out as exceptional. Most of the big visuals are computer generated, while what made “Lawrence of Arabia” special was that we were seeing real locations. The script suffers from a lot of the usual cliches, such as the hunters being easily overcome by the baddies during the first battle, but our hero pretty much being able to take out their entire army in the next. The ending is safe, the characterizations are thin and the dialogue is cheesy, but in a stale, crusty kind of way. The action scenes aren’t as plentiful as you would think, but even the ones we get are bogged down by excessive shaky camerawork and tight editing. I couldn’t make out a lot of it. “10,000 B.C” is just not an entertaining movie, even by Roland Emmerich standards. Yet it’s just as dumb, especially by Roland Emmerich standards. I say it’s not worth your time or money.Rating: 1.5/4
I don’t know how much “Avatar” actually cost to produce, as I remember hearing numbers ranging between $200,000,000 and $300,000,000, but I do recall all the hype focusing on how it was the most expensive film of its time. This would’ve been one of the rare cases where this was deliberate, as director James Cameron required new technologies in order to bring his vision to life, especially when it came to the 3-D. His gambit paid off and while not everyone was impressed with the story, everyone agreed that “Avatar” was one of the best looking films of all time. The CGI was not only convincing, but enhanced the vibrant color scene and every visual was designed to immerse you into its world. The 3-D wasn’t so much of a gimmick as much as it was part of the atmosphere, giving audiences a unique experience that 2-D or previous 3-D ventures couldn’t offer. The movie became the highest box office success of all time, a title it still holds as of 2017 and everyone was convinced that a new era of cinema was about to unfold…until studios realized they could convert 2-D features into a similar- yet significantly suckier- style of 3-D and over-saturated the market with so much garbage that it burned audiences out on the concept…who had already begun to realize that “Avatar” was telling the same story that “FernGully” did many years prior…8 years later, “Avatar” seems to have fizzled out of peoples minds, but I still think it’s a good film that ‘seemed’ great at the time.
Cameron boasted that he created an actual language for his new alien race, but even at the time, I wondered why that would matter if the story itself seemed so…generic? We have seen identical plots in “The Last Samurai“, “Dances with Wolves“, “FernGully” and every other ‘white guy is brought into foreign land’ story ever made. In the future future, Earth has been depleted of its resources and humanity realizes their salvation is in minerals on a moon known as Pandora, that are fiercely guarded by a tribe of ‘aliens’ (Na’vi). They are stronger and faster than us, but the Government has found a way to create ‘avatars’, replicas of their alien bodies that humans can transfer their minds into. Jake (Sam Worthington) is assigned to be an avatar and infiltrates the tribe, only to start questioning his loyalties once he makes a personal connection to them. “Avatar” goes through the exact same motions as all of these kinds of films, offering very little that separates it outside of its visual appeal. Cameron’s politics are also an issue, as it feels weird that we’re supposed to be rooting against our own race, as they make a point requires these ‘minerals’ for the planet to survive. Yet despite the familiar storytelling, “Avatar” thrives for the sheer power of its spectacle.Rating: 3/4
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
(The following is a cleaned up, re-uploaded version of my original writing. I have updated my feelings in my ‘Compulsive Franchise Disorder: The Marvel Cinematic Universe‘ review series)
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a frail-but-passionate, young adult who wishes to serve during World War 2, but can never pass his physical. Yet his courage makes him the subject of scientific experimentation and he becomes a super soldier in the process. But the Nazi’s have acquired an advanced level of technology, throwing the war into further chaos. Can one man make a difference? “Captain America: The First Avenger” is not a great movie. In fact, it’s barely even a good movie if it’s a good movie at all. But I still find myself applauding it. You see, I never thought a movie based on Captain America would work. Everything about the character is too cheesy and over-the-top, which I couldn’t see appealing to audiences of “The Dark Knight” generation, which now found even the Tim Burton “Batman” features to be campy and ‘uncool’. Of course, they had tried to make a “Captain America” movie back in 1990, but few people saw it and fewer people liked it. So at least a reboot would have THAT going for it. After all, “Batman Begins” was probably so highly received because all it had to do to be moderately successful was be better than “Batman and Robin“. Is “Captain America: The First Avenger” better than its 1990 counterpart? I dunno. I never saw the original one. But I imagine so because “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a decent film. It’s not one of the better entries within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but stylistically it is the most unique amongst them.
The problem with “Captain America: The First Avenger” is that the script is too…..breezy? Unfocused? It does a good job at establishing the titular character. Steve Rogers is very likable and Chris Evans plays him well, although his (too deep) voice doesn’t sync with his scrawny body. His desire to enlist is so earnest that it’s hard not to like him. Unfortunately, when he becomes Captain America, he loses all traces of being a character. Instead, he just beats up the villains and when they do try to ‘deepen’ him, they rely on stale cliches. You know a certain character is going to die, because those kinds of characters always die in these movies, but they aren’t in “Captain America” enough for us to care. You know that Cap’ is going to fall in love with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), because the gods of narrative formulas demand such a subplot exist. There’s even a scene where a girl suddenly kisses Rogers and OF COURSE Peggy will walk in, because that’s how these kinds of love stories play out. Padding is bad enough, cliched padding is far worse.
Furthermore, Captain America is TOO good of a hero. While Weaving is intense as Schmidt, the villain himself was never threatening enough. It seems like Captain America ALWAYS wins with only modest difficulty. The film, especially in its 2nd half, is literally just about Captain America kicking ass. Yet the worst fault of the film is that it poorly manages its time, a criticism I seem to be using a lot lately. In a sense, I’m reminded of “The Green Hornet” in that the first half seems largely devoid of action (there is one action scene), so we’re forced to endure the film showcasing the people we don’t care about while ignoring the more interesting characters (I wanted more Neal McDonough). Then the film becomes too action oriented and all of the characters lose their texture. They are now props, designed to make things go boom. I’m not a fan of erratic pacing and “Captain America” starts off too slow, then suddenly hits the gas and flies forward at full speed. It’s exhausting! The script does contain some impressive substance though and I really liked how the namesake and outfit were utilized. The idea of Captain America selling war bonds is funny, but also justifies the inherent cheesiness of the gimmick. I even bought it when Rogers decides to continue playing ‘the character’, even after he stops being the mascot of the U.S military.
But for all of the problems I have with the movie, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE how “Captain America: The First Avenger” differentiates itself from the rest of the pack. The films’ visual style feels more akin to a classical war story than a comic book adaptation, using a grittier color scheme, bleak cinematography and a more somber tone. The action feels very old fashioned, containing more traditional choreography and practical effects, which has become a rarity within this genre. There is still quite a bit of CGI, but it usually is only used when the context absolutely requires it. Generally, the battles surround Captain American throwing his shield, kicking people and sometimes using a gun. The spectacle just felt toned down, which means “Captain America: The First Avenger” might underwhelm you, but at least it’s different and this gives the film its own identity. “Captain America” is just an OK flick, but it is unique and more importantly, made me take the character seriously- something I never thought was possible. Steve Rogers would become more compelling in subsequent flicks, so “Captain America: The First Avenger” was merely a starting point for the character.Rating: 2.5/4
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD (2008)
A bandit (Song Kang-ho) and a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung) form a shaky alliance as they hunt for buried treasure, while shaking off the Japanese army, bandits, and a dangerous gunslinger (Lee Byung-hun). This Korean homage to spaghetti westerns is a lot of fun, even though its references to some of the genre classics (such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) sometimes forces you to draw comparisons…and “The Good, the Bad and the Weird” is no “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Nevertheless, the movie is armed with an unlimited supply of awesome set pieces, incredible stuntwork, effects, cinematography, direction, sound design, editing and catering…Okay, I don’t know if the catering was awesome, but everything else within the action scenes were awesome, so I have to assume the catering was awesome too! My original review was a lot longer, but I defied by #1 rule by spending the entirety of it nitpicking, before conceding that I actually enjoyed it…and I hate those kinds of critiques. “The Good, the Bad and the Weird” was directed by Kim Jee-woon (“I Saw the Devil”) and while it’s not as memorable as the majority of his other works, it is a thoroughly entertaining spectacle.Rating: 3/4
THE HIDDEN BLADE (2004)
I am a little embarrassed about my original review of “The Hidden Blade“, because it’s…pretty fucking bad by my current standards, even though I guess it’s a little better than my earliest works (faint praise). My critical vocabulary must’ve been very limited, as I keep repeating words and phrases, although this could’ve been forgivable if my writing didn’t feel so choppy. My sentences did not flow well together at all…But what causes me to cringe the most is my apparent compulsion to critique “The Hidden Blade” as an actioner. The movie is a romantic drama that simply chose the Samurai era to tell its story, so I shouldn’t whine about the lack of sword fighting- even if the title is a little misleading. I did acknowledge in my previous critique that its intentions and my expectations had little chemistry, but I was somewhat dismissive towards its strengths, with my tone implying disapproval because there weren’t any decapitations. “The Hidden Blade” is good, boasting strong performances, complex characters, a moving score, gorgeous cinematography, sharp direction and intriguing thematic material surrounding the end of an era. But the tone, visual style and methodical pacing are too reminiscent of the directors’ previous masterpiece, “The Twilight Samurai“. When I saw this in 2010, I kept thinking about how similar this was even before I realized they were both directed by Yoji Yamada, but “The Twilight Samurai” is just…a better drama and period piece. I think “The Hidden Blade” is a little too long and a little too slow, while “The Twilight Samurai” managed its running-time more smoothly. Yet I acknowledge that this isn’t really my preferred kind of samurai flick and “The Hidden Blade” has won enough accolades to overcome anything bad I have to say about it. But my old review was just me whining about the lack of sword fighting, so only read it if you’re curious.Rating: 2.5/4
Theseus (Henry Cavill) is a peasant who has spent his life as a low class outcast due to being the product of a gang rape. He’s skilled with a sword, but prefers to live the simple life with his ‘family’, instead of joining the army to fight King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke)- who seemingly wishes to destroy everything. Yet this is a movie, so he’s obviously going to get dragged into the war. “Immortals” is like the “Clash of the Titans” remake, viewed through the lens of “300”. The script is very derivative, but the movie relies more on its visual style. I remember being disappointed that the marketing campaign played up the more fantastical elements in the trailers, making “Immortals” seem like it was going to be crazier than it ultimately was. Yet I really enjoyed the over-the-top violence and the use of color (predominately gold). The action scenes are really slickly choreographed and edited, while the costuming department had…maybe a bit too much fun designing these flamboyant outfits…Yet it’s that kind of excess which keeps “Immortals” fun. Silly, shallow, stylish fun.Rating: 2.5/4
Dave (Aaron Taylor Johnson) is an ordinary high school student who dreams of being a super-hero and eventually he decides to create an alter ego named ‘Kick-Ass’…and then gets his ass kicked when he tries to fight crime…He nevertheless becomes a local celebrity and catches the attention of two legitimate crime fighters, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his young daughter Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz)- who have declared war on the local Mafia Boss (Mark Strong). Despite being billed as a comedy, I was taken aback by how well written the characters and their relationships were. Everyone has a certain amount of depth to them and the Father-Daughter dynamic of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl was touching…as was the surprisingly warm interactions between their nemesis Frank D’Amico and his son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The cast does great, balancing comedic timing with enough sincerity that you take their plights seriously. The action scenes are plentiful and highly stylized, whether they’re gun fights, fist fights or knife fights. They’re incredibly violent, but the brutality and splatter always worked within the context of the scene, whether it’s trying to be funny or dramatic. “Kick-Ass” might not be a famous comic book property, but it was adapted into one of the best comic book films.Rating: 4/4
THE LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY (1979)
Kao’s (Kong Lau) wedding is interrupted by the nefarious Pak (Hoi Sang Lee), who slaughters the majority of his friends and family. Unable to take vengeance himself, be befriends Chang (Pai Wei) with the intent of manipulating him into getting revenge for Kao. This won’t be easy, as Chang has promised his dying Mother that he won’t get into a fight, even though he’s being harassed by a vicious swordsman named Pray (Hark-On Fung). All of these manipulations and desired bloodshedding attracts the attention of Green (Damian Lau), a failure of an assassin who finds his own motivations to join the fray. “The Last Hurrah for Chivalry” was an early John Woo film and remains one of my favorites. The choreography starts out relatively standard, but each fight becomes more elaborate, complex and fast paced. When we get used to the sword play, the villains will start adopting strange-but-exciting gimmicks to increase the stakes. The stuntwork that accompanies these battles might not be as flashy as what Jackie Chan could do, but the timing, skill and risk required to pull these maneuvers off makes them just as impressive. Even though “The Last Hurrah for Chivlary” is action packed, the cinematography, direction and score are also top notch for this kind of production. I thought the characters were incredibly well written and I enjoyed how they played off of each-other. Kao in particular stands out as fascinating, because even though his character development follows a darker path, he’s a tragic figure who could easily have become a force for good.
“The Last Hurrah for Chivalry” is also really, really, really…gay…With men constantly touching each-other, frollicking in romantic gardens together, giving each-other meaningful expressions and snubbing their alleged female love interests to spend time together…John Woo makes sure the camera captures the intimicy of all of their homoerotic interactions and just when you think the movie can’t get any campier, the main villain starts dressing up as Dracula and breathing heavily as he stalks our make heroes, so he could penetrate them with his sword…Oh my…Rating: 3.5/4
LEGEND OF THE RED DRAGON (1994)
A Rebel (Jet Li) and his son (Miu Tse) must protect five young boys when it’s discovered that pieces of a treasure map have been tattooed to their backs…and bad guys want it… “Legend of the Red Dragon” is pretty hokey, but THIS MOVIE IS F@CKING AWESOME! It somehow takes its flaws and recycles them into strengths. If you watch the original language version, you might get some enjoyment out of it, as “Legend of the Red Dragon” does have a morbidly dark and twisted atmosphere, which is complimented with stellar fantasy-fu fight scenes. But I had a blast with this because of the deliberately bad dubbing. The dialogue is bizarre and the delivery of these lines is often rediculously deadpan, which made me laugh so much. You can tell those responsible for the English language version were not taking themselves seriously, but they aren’t being lazy about it either. There is a dry wit to the lines they’ve concocted, so who says dubbing can’t be an artform? I’ve heard people complain about the dub, claiming it ruined the movie. But I’ve also heard people complain that the movie was pretty lifeless without it. I’m not sure I can be objective, because I do think the film is imagineative and nicely choreographed, but the hilarious voice work stole the show for me.Rating: 3.5/4
LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982)
Ti Hau (Hsiao Ho), Fang Shao (Kara Hui) and Ti Tan (Gordon Liu) are warriors from different clans, but have been tasked with killing the enigmatic Lei Kung…and might have to kill each-other first…”Legendary Weapons of China” is in my Carnosaurus opinion, one of the best kung fu flicks ever made. The film somehow managed to be action packed, tell an interesting story and have complex characters. The plot demands your attention, as it’s easy to get a little lost in all of these twists and turns, but I loved how you aren’t entirely sure who the heroes and villains are. Betrayal and redemption accompany seemingly everyone, keeping the viewer on their toes. The choreography is very diverse, showcasing a variety of weapons styles, mixed in with the fanciful. People will fight with swords, fists…voodoo…It gets pretty bizarre, but every movement is swift, precise and stylish. “Legendary Weapons of China” is a must-see for genre fans and functions as a potential gateway drug for newcomers.Rating: 4/4
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)
The “Lord of the Rings” saga takes place in the fictional setting of Middle Earth, a mystical land full of Elves, Wizards, Goblins and an assortment of other fantastical beings. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a hobbit, which is an isolated race of little people, who’s forced to go on a perilous adventure when he’s given a ring has the power to unleash a terrible evil unto the land. A group of heroes and friends form a fellowship in order to escort him to the ‘fires of mount doom’, the only place the artifact can be destroyed. Danger lurks around every corner, but the real threat is the corruption that the ring can bring out of people, including young Frodo. Unfortunately, I currently cannot find my original review of “The Fellowship of the Ring“, but I’ll keep looking! In summation, I LOVED this f@cking movie, which can be exciting, terrifying, soothing, whimsical, funny, tragic and adventurous, journeying through all of these various tones masterfully. This world is imaginative, the colorful and epic set pieces are stunning, the score is memorable, the special effects have aged reasonably well and the cast adds depth to characters who were somewhat flat in the source material. Despite the long running-time, I was left wanting more! “The Fellowship of the Ring” is a personal favorite of mine, probably even having a place in my list of ‘Top 10 Movies of All Time’.Rating: 4/4
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)
One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to ‘critiquing’ is when the critic spends the entirety of their video or essay complaining about the subject, only for them to seemingly retcon their own opinions and admit that they were a fan all along. I bring this up because even though I consider that to be garbage reviewing, I myself will be guilty of this critical sin for my writing of “The Two Towers”- the second entry of the acclaimed trilogy. I simply cannot view or discuss this film without using it to prop up my enthusiasm for “The Fellowship of the Ring”, which I find to be vastly superior in every way. Every time I’ve watched “The Two Towers”, my mind will automatically start comparing and contrasting these works, leaving me unable to judge “The Two Towers” for its own merits. The dilemma is that…I think it’s a good movie, but the arch of this review won’t be “Why “The Two Towers” is a good film” as much as it’s “Why “The Two Towers” isn’t AS good as “The Fellowship of the Ring””. So if it feels like I’m complaining too much and you don’t like that, then take solace in knowing that I agree with you.
The Two Towers” was obviously a grand production, boasting creative set and creature designs, an emotionally driven score, convincing special effects, exciting choreography and epic battle sequences, with Peter Jackson’s direction being stylish yet moody. The tone has become a lot bleaker thanks to the edgier material and grim cinematography, although I’d say the cast are primarily responsible for selling me on the darker content. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was incredibly well acted, but I think “The Two Towers” had the strongest performances, because the characters are put in multiple, seemingly hopeless situations and you can see it in their faces. “The Fellowship of the Ring” and even “The Return of the King” balanced the scales of good and evil, with the emotional highlights being the inspiring speeches and the conquering of inner demons. “The Two Towers” gives evil the clear advantage, while the ‘good’ seems resigned to the likeliness that they’re probably going to fail. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) spend the entire film at the mercy of other beings, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) leads the remainder of the alliance into a desperate final stand against a much greater force. The exception is Frodo (Elijah Wood) befriending Gollum (Andy Serkis), which offers a ray of hope for the redemption of the latter, but doesn’t necessarily end on a happy note. Gollum is easily the most memorable part of the trilogy, as he’s a complex, pitiful character brought to life by the combination of phenomenal motion capture technology and a powerful performance that shines through the CGI. But I think the acting stands out as superior here because the script challenges the cast a lot more than the other films did. So there is a lot of good to be found, but where does “The Two Towers” struggle?
The Two Towers” focuses more on the human lands, which are less interesting than the most fantastical settings of the Dwarves and Elves. “The Fellowship Of the Ring” felt like it took place in Middle Earth, while “The Two Towers” feels like it takes place in New Zealand, even though we still get plenty of beautiful scenery and some cool sets. This is arguably a petty criticism, but sometimes I found myself wondering if the filmmakers were cutting corners, as the forests and plains resembles normal forests and plains this time around. To be fair, this is a problem with adapting the book, as “The Fellowship of the Ring” spends a large chunk of its story taking place in its world’s more exotic locations- from Rivendell to to the Shire. It wouldn’t make sense for Rohan to carry the same majestic aura, so this is a flawed complaint, but it’s a reason why I found the first film to be a lot more interesting. These sets and locales just aren’t as imaginative, but if they were, that would screw with the story. It should be noted that the majority of critics don’t seem to agree with me, as they apparently to find this film to be even more visually arresting than its predecessor, so take that as you will.
The Fellowship of the Ring” had the tightest narrative of the trilogy, as the story followed Frodo, whose group is constantly expanding and falling apart, but the focus was always on him. His entourage had their personalities fleshed out and many even undergo character development, but it was always Frodo’s story. “The Two Towers” was always going to be difficult to adapt, as the fellowship splits up and now the narrative has adopted an ensemble format, trying to balance its time amongst them all. If memory serves, the book more cleanly separates these story threads, with the second half being dedicated to Frodo, Sam (Sean Astin) and Gollum, while the first half surrounds the remainder of the cast. This wouldn’t have worked for a movie format, as the battle for Helms Deep is too much of a climax to appear at the half way point, which would’ve made the remainder of the movie tedious to sit through. Peter Jackson and his screen-writers did the best they could with adapting the source material and for the most part, I agree with the changes. But the problem is that there is too much going on, as there are now three groups of characters instead of one, each participating in their own quests and encountering different people. There just isn’t enough time to flesh out the new characters, so when one of these quests relies on the new additions, they aren’t quite as interesting. Sometimes this would even cause friction within the narrative, as some of these POV’s are a lot more compelling than others, which hurts the pacing. “The Fellowship of the Ring” was so compact and focused that by the end credits, I couldn’t wait for more. “The Two Towers” eventually runs out of steam and I started to become impatient with it, but what could’ve the filmmakers done differently? I have no idea, as “The Two Towers” is just not as friendly to the movie format as “The Fellowship of the Ring” was. The only way to ‘fix’ the narrative is to drastically change the plot of the book, which would’ve been significantly worse.
The Two Towers” expands upon the world and lore of Middle Earth, but because there are so many stories and the overarching conflict has escalated, it becomes difficult to process a lot of this information. I read the books, but never studied them so even I couldn’t remember a lot of the names or locations. There are also some plot holes within the timeline, presumably because they had to condense a lot of these events. Are all of these segments supposed to be taking place at the same time? Am I really going to believe that Frodo and Sam will be taken to Osgiliath that quickly? Was their progress in Mordor that slow? Is Isengard right next door to Helms Deep? How else can an army of 10,000 foot soldiers reach them in a day? The book can afford to take place over a long period of time, as new chapters can indicate that months have passed, especially when the POV has changed. You can’t really do the same with movies, although the Faramir (David Wenham) conflict was added exclusively for the film, as Frodo and Sam needed some sort of climax. Speaking of Frodo, Sam and climaxing, there was some serious sexual tension going on there. It’s sometimes hard not to snicker at their interactions, because the homoerotic subtext was obviously not intended…or was it?
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” is a good movie. The acting is great, the characters likeable, and the visual effects were ground breaking for 2002 (and they’ve aged nicely). But “The Fellowship of the Ring” is a lot better. This one is paced very erratically, so I’m wary to revisit it whenever I’m in the mood to experience the trilogy once more. I want to emphasize that I do still like the movie, but I also think it’s the weakest of the three. Amusingly, “The Two Towers” is my favorite of the book trilogy, but some books just don’t want to be adapted into movies. I will end this review by complimenting the cast and crew for ultimately overcoming this obstacle, as “The Two Towers” is still a worthy sequel and many viewers even consider it to be an improvement over its predecessor. I strongly disagree, but that’s just my opinion and what matters is “The Two Towers” shares in the acclaim of the trilogy.Rating: 3/4
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
I remember back in 2003, when “The Return of the King” concluded the “Lord of the Rings” saga, I had difficulty getting up from my chair. I had to hold back a sniffle and wipe a tear from my eye, as I tried to catch my breath. You see, few films can have awesome, mind-blowing effects, creative set pieces and yet STILL manage to connect with you on an emotional level like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy did. I was clearly showing the physical repercussions of its visual and emotional impact…or maybe the 3 and a half hour long running time was finally getting to me, but either way, it was a good movie.
I actually got a lot of flack for preferring “The Fellowship of the Ring” over the other two sequels, while everyone else generally believes that each one was a slight improvement over the last. But personally, I think the first explored the more compelling parts of Middle Earth, had the steadiest narrative because it follows a small group of people and was the best paced, maybe because it’s also the shortest. Each sequel got bigger in scale and the action scenes reflected that, with the climaxes surrounding epic battles between armies. But I prefer the more intimate battles where the focus is on a smaller group of participants, because it’s easier to become emotionally invested in their struggle. “The Return of the King” is so big that it arguably becomes bloated, but these are still incredible set pieces, with the CGI being at its most polished and the action scenes at their most stylized. Peter Jackson and his editor do a great job at balancing the wide shots- which emphasizes the spectacle on display- and the close ups- so we make a connection with the characters during the battle. The designs of the orcs and other creatures were top notch and it’s nice that the villains are finally showcasing personalities. The locations are also a step up from “The Two Towers”, as Gondor is a much more interesting looking Kingdom than Rohan was. The costuming department excelled as well, providing some memorable outfits to even the extras. The music continues to be incredible and “The Return of the King” possibly even gets more out of its score than the previous two films did. Even though the cast of characters is far too large by this point, I did experience an emotional catharsis with how their fates are handled. I teared up when someone whom I previously did not care about perished and shared in their joys when they would achieve victory.
The problem with “The Return of the King” is that it’s just too damn long, with far too many false endings, presumably because they wanted to be as faithful to the book as possible. The source material is actually at fault for a few of the flaws, as Tolkien relied on some cheap writing devices to move his story forward. I’ve always hated the arrival of the Eagles, but to Jackson’s credit, he does make a valiant attempt to foreshadow their presence, lessening the contrivance. But the ‘Army of the Dead’ subplot was silly, robbing a major set piece of its suspense and feeling shoehorned in. Jackson apparently agreed with me, but didn’t cut it out in fear of alienating the fanbase of the books and I can’t blame him, for this would’ve certainly happened. But despite the obese running-time, the army of false endings and contrived subplots, they f@cking edited out the resolution to the Saruman (Christopher Lee) storyline! That bothers me to this day. Nevertheless, “The Return of the King” might be excessiveness incarnate, but I do think it’s a worthy conclusion of the trilogy. I believe these films are meant to be enjoyed as a trilogy, not necessarily as individual entities. This one gives a firm pay-off to its predecessors, but I only watch it when I’m in the mood for all three.Rating: 3/4
(The following is a cleaned up, re-uploaded version of my original writing. I have updated my feelings in my ‘Compulsive Franchise Disorder: The Marvel Cinematic Universe‘ review series)
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the arrogant god of Thunder, is cast from his realm onto Earth, where he must find redemption amongst ‘lowly’ humans. But his enemies are conspiring against his Kingdom…I have to confess, I thought “Thor” was going to blow at one point. There were many trivial things which worked against it, such as me being against the idea of a god being a superhero. Wouldn’t he be significantly more powerful than the Avengers? They would make this aspect work in subsequent entries within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but back in 2011, “The Avengers” was barely entering production. I also found the trailers to be underwhelming, but it always seems to work that way, doesn’t it? When the trailers feel ‘meh’, it’s possibly a sign that the movie will be good. But when the trailers look good, it’s a sign that the movie will be ‘meh’- ironically, a fate suffered by “Thor 2”. My hopes were raised when the reception was enthusiastic, and I began to anticipate the film more and more. This lead to a mild case of ‘hype backlash’, as I thought “Thor” was pretty solid, but not great.
The first act of “Thor” was amazing, primarily because the Kingdom of Asgard itself is such a…marvel (pun tots intended yo)…to behold. The eye popping colors, the epic sense of scale, the otherworldly design and uncannily polished CGI unite to create a realm worthy of celestial beings. This is scenery porn at its finest and while Marvel would go on to produce bigger, better films, I don’t think any of them achieved the breathtaking imagery present during the first 30 minutes of “Thor“. The sweeping cinematography only enhances the power of the visuals. The action scenes during the first act are also phenomenal, showcasing unique battle styles, cool monster designs and exceptional CGI effects. I even found the campy characterizations to be highly entertaining, so I was looking forward to watching their eccentric dynamics unfold. The problem is the first act is so impressive that it becomes impossible for the remainder of the film to live up to its greatness. Once Thor is cast down to Earth, we move from the jaw dropping Kingdom of Asgard to…an old, desert town…riveting. A lot of time was set up establishing Thor’s powers, but because he has been stripped of them, the action scenes never feel quite as explosive or awesome. To aggravate things, they will occasionally cut back to Asgard and these brief scenes only made me miss the location that much more when the story would return to Thor. Director Kenneth Brannagh keeps things stylish and even experimental during the first half, but the 3rd act feels lazily directed and the cinematography is surprisingly flat. There is still enough intensity to keep me engaged, but the drop in quality is very noticeable. My guess is they were either running out of money or time.
Story-wise, “Thor” tries to build a mystery, but if you have seen any movie ever made, you will be able to tell where it’s going. Thor’s companions from the first act are demoted to extras, wasting all of their personalities and they are replaced with less interesting human allies (who aren’t boring, but aren’t as fun). The romance was pretty mediocre, but Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Natalie Portman (Jane) at least have decent chemistry. Thor’s character development was…alright. The problem is that “Iron Man” was still fresh on our minds in 2011 and that film did such an excellent job of showing us how Tony Stark evolved over the course of the film. Thor changes in a single scene, although Hemsworth’s acting did ultimately sell me on his transformation. His personality is very inconsistent though, as he alternates between brash and sweet even before he undergoes character development. Finally, was it just me or did “Thor” draw a disturbing amount of inspiration from “Masters of the Universe“- the Dolph Lundgren flick? I noticed A LOT of similarities within the narrative, which sometimes became distracting. But for all of these flaws, I did think “Thor” maintained a great sense of humor. I loved the ‘fish out of water’ gags, yet I also teared up at some of the drama. There is a great cast here who probably are responsible for their underdeveloped roles being so interesting. Chris Hemsworth was the perfect choice to portray the titular hero and this made him a star…sort of…He’s yet to really break the box office or blow our minds outside of this franchise, but at least we know who he is. He’s got presence and Thor brings out the best of his charisma. I never felt that “Thor” ever fell beneath OK-ness and usually it was pretty good, but the first 30 minutes set my expectations way too high. The sting of disappointment nearly upstaged the remainder of the film! Overall, this was a solid- if really uneven- Marvel flick.
URBAN JUSTICE (2007)
Steven Seagal plays a Steven Seagal, calling himself Simon Ballister, whose son is killed in a drive-by shooting. This means that some bad guys are about to get Steven Seagaled and Steven Seagal is just the Steven Seagal to Steven Seagal them! “Urban Justice” is a strange appeal to Urban Youth, as it takes place “in the streets” and allows Steven Seagal to use slang that would normally come out of the mouth of a young white kid pretending to be black. The movie also shamelessly fellates his ego, with lines such as “He’s bad-ass” and “He’s one cool Motherfucker. That’s gangster“, possibly to put him over with the target audience. These laughable elements spice up what is otherwise a bland, dull, forgettable recipe. The choreography is the same as it always is, surrounding Seagal slapping and throwing people around, with his only real challenge being the obvious stunt double. The plot is predictable, the characters are predictable, the reveals are predictable and even the filler is predictable. Of course there will be a scene where Seagal beats up some racists, because how else will black audiences accept him as one of their own? Oh yeah, that ‘blank, dull and forgettable recipe’ might have had some flavoring, but someone added urine to the dish with the incomprehensibly dark lighting. I hate spending the majority of the movie not being able to clearly see what the f@ck is happening! Anything positive to say? Outside of lacking lighting equipment, the production values are OK for a direct-to-DVD Steven Seagal flick. There is a decent car chase and the supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces, such as Danny Trejo and Eddie Griffin. “Urban Justice” isn’t the worst of Seagal’s unflushed turds, but it’s still pretty bad and is only worth viewing if you’re a Seagal completest- AKA: A masochist. Seriously, get help!
And help me too while you’re at it!Rating: 1.5/4
Wesley (James McAvoy) is a loser, trapped in a crappy job, relationship and life, but everything changes when he learns that his Father was part of a league of elite assassins, before he was murdered by a traitor. The same league recruits Wesley, who vows vengeance. In the context of 2008, I wasn’t a major fan of Timur Bekmambetov, whose works I found to be somewhat incoherent and self indulgent, but his “Wanted” ended up being one of my favorite films of its year. The movie has all sorts of zany visuals and solid special effects, with Bekmambetovs’ creativity and imagination elevating the action set pieces to mind blowing levels. I also found myself attached to the story, which occasionally enters unpredictable territory, while providing well-written characters. I was moved by some of the characters’ decisions, because I was so invested in their development. The humor also won me over with its energy and wit. There were a lot of amusing, memorable situations and lines.
The cast deserves credit for making “Wanted” more than just spectacle, as their interactions and dynamics were a lot of fun to behold. James McAvoy (Wesley) is spectacular, being convincingly insecure and weak, but also selling me on his development into a bad-ass. Angelina Jolie (Fox) emphasizes her mysterious and physical presence, but there is nuance in her delivery. Morgan Freeman(Sloan) is always classy, and he’s no exception here. Thomas Kretschmann (Cross) is awesome in his limited screen time. Fans of “Night/Day Watch” should be pleased to see Konstantin Khabensky (The Exterminator) in a supporting role. He played Anton in those films. Overall, “Wanted” is an exciting, exhilarating action flick that boasts style, imagination, a cast with great chemistry and a strong script. It’s only regrettable that it was saddled with such a generic title like “Wanted”, although this is because it’s adapted from a comic of the same name. I eventually read the source material and was taken aback by how different it was, as the league of assassins was originally a league of…super villains(!?)…who have conquered the world and all of its super-heroes. That version of Wesley was NOT sympathetic in the slightest either, so the “Wanted” movie could’ve probably just changed all of its names and functioned as an original story. Nevertheless, I prefer the movie, as I found myself wishing that every character in the comic would die- even though it’s technically well made itself.Rating: 4/4
THE WAY TO FIGHT (1996)
Takashi Miike directs this Japanese coming-of-age story about two brawlers and the people around them. There isn’t really much to say about “The Way to Fight”, other than…solid film! I had grown attached to Miike because of his forays into exploitation and horror, but he also knew how to handle drama. “The Way to Fight” is funny, touching and the story kept me interested. The characters are well-written, played by strong actors and Miike injects just enough style to give the film its identity. But he also shows restraint, usually allowing the emotions of the characters to carry the narrative. There are fight scenes, but they are just brawls, so don’t expect a lot of elaborate choreography. The finale was awesome thanks to the score, which just fit so perfectly and I’m disappointed that I can’t find it online. If I have any complaints, it’s that the DVD transfer sucked so badly that the subtitles occasionally stopped working, so hopefully there are more pristine prints out there. “The Way to Fight” isn’t necessarily an exceptional film and I have to remind you that this is a coming-of-age drama, not the normal Takashi Miike fare. But I still thought it was good and it’s a shame that even his fans often don’t realize how diverse his body of work is.Rating: 3/4
WUSHU WARRIOR (2010)
“Wushu Warrior” might be a kung fu flick that takes place within Chiba, but it is also a movie made by white people…about white people in China…We know this because the Caucasians get the vast majority of prominent roles, including both the protagonist (Tod Fennell) and antagonist (Matt Frewer), while the Asians get to be the usual caricatures that Hollywood likes to stereotype them as. I can accept Matt Frewer’s presence as the dastardly Lord…Lindsey…who I presume is dastardly because his name is Lindsey, because his character is surprisingly well written and Frewer excels in the role. He’s such a doting Father that you could almost buy a redemption arc, until you remember that this is the same monster who won’t only have you executive for threatening to expose him, he’ll go after your children as well. Frewer was a great casting choice, balancing sophistication, menace and charm, being over-the-top just enough to steal your attention without derailing the tone. But Todd Fennell lacks the charisma to carry the film as our protagonist and it doesn’t help that he’s playing a flat anti-hero with a stale character arc. He’s also the victim of the majority of the script’s cliches, from the ‘mighty whitey’ trope to the awkward confrontation when your love interest walks in on you kissing a girl. The supporting cast isn’t very good either, with the performances ranging from too hammy to too wooden, with those kids and small Chinese roles standing out as especially terrible. The audio doesn’t do anyone any favors though, as it sounds like everyone was dubbed, but it’s neither a good dubbing or an amusingly bad dubbing. The lip syncing is OK, but the post-production line delivery seems more over-the-top than their body language and mannerisms suggest, so it just seems ‘off’.
From a production standpoint, the cinematography is passable, occasionally stumbling upon an impressive shot. The fight choreography is fine and Fennell might lack the screen presence to be a lead, but he handled himself well enough with the physicality of the role. But the direction is mostly uninspired and there isn’t a single memorable set piece. The CGI in particular sucks and “Wushu Warrior” has this ‘made-for-TV’ aesthetic, as if it was produced for USA or the Scyfy channel, albeit before TV productions started becoming respectable. The pacing is pretty clunky too, sometimes moving too fast, sometimes moving too slowly, sometimes gliding at the right speed and sometimes just stopping dead into its tracks. The climax is very unsatisfying, so the overall pay-off just didn’t seem worth it. With all of this said, I’m not sure I would describe “Wushu Warrior” as a bad film. It’s simply so generic and mediocre that it might as well be bad, because nothing about this viewing experience is worth your time, money or attention…except maybe Matt Frewer as the evil, Terrible, MONSTROUS Lord…*snickers*…Lindsey! When I reviewed this back in…2010?…I gave this a 2/4 star rating, because I’m partial to kung fu adventures and an overdose of Steven Seagal movies caused my tastes to drop during that time period…But looking back at my original review, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was too soft. Maybe “Wushu Warrior” isn’t especially bad, but it’s bad enough.Rating: 1.5/4