Collector’s Corner: Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Extended Editions)

Greetings, readers! Continuing my look at my favorite items in my film collection, this week’s selection is The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A few years ago I invested in the Blu-ray set of the extended editions. And it was worth every penny! You get Peter Jackson’s amazing film version of Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy. And the transfers to the Blu-ray format make the already phenomenal movies look and sound better than ever before.

Each film in the trilogy includes added scenes (30 minutes for Fellowship, 43 minutes for The Two Towers and 50 minutes for Return of the King). So if you already love these movies as much as I do, these are the definitive versions. My favorite bit of added footage is in Return of the King. Cut from the theatrical version was the death of Saruman (Christopher Lee). It’s not only an important part of the story, but filming the scene is how director Peter Jackson learned about Christopher Lee’s work as a spy during World War II in the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. This is how Lee knew what sound a man made when being stabbed in the back. Lee’s life is worthy of its own movie IMHO.

The discs are loaded with bonus content, including commentary tracks from some of the actors, the production design team and director Peter Jackson. One of the bonus features from The Two Towers that I particularly appreciated was the interactive atlas of Middle Earth.

What Peter Jackson and his cast and crew did bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen is one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema. While not every single part of Tolkien’s books made it to the screen, this is as faithful of an adaptation as we could have hoped for. Film technology finally caught up to Tolkien’s sweeping vision. What sets The Lord of the Rings apart from other big budget fantasy/action movies is that the filmmakers used CGI intelligently. It never feels overdone or for mindless action. It all serves a specific purpose and helps build the vast world that Tolkien imagined in his books. All the bonus content makes you appreciate what a labor of love this really was.

Pro tip: If you’re a hardcore fan, watch the extended editions together all in one day. I mean, how do you watch one of the movies and not feel obligated to watch the others?

Collector’s Corner: Blade Runner

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Happy New Year, readers! To start 2020, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the favorite things from my own movie collection. This week’s pick is the Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Blade Runner. Released in 2007 to commemorate the landmark science fiction movie’s 25th anniversary, it’s loaded with behind the scenes info and comes with a lot of paraphernalia that is sure to satisfy hardcore fans of the movie.

The set comes in a snazzy Deckard briefcase.

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After opening the case, one side contains the movie itself. And this set features not just one cut of the movie. No. It has five cuts of it, including the rare workprint version, which ran 113  minutes and was shown to test audiences in Denver and Dallas. Negative responses to that version led to the modifications for the film’s theatrical cut. The positive reactions led to a successful push to release a director’s cut years later. Why are there so many versions of Blade Runner? Mostly creative differences between the studio and director Ridley Scott. I prefer the director’s cut from 2007. One of the biggest changes is that it drops the voiceover narration. I know that gives the movie a futuristic film noir feel. But it explains way too much of the story and doesn’t let the audience experience it as they should.

In addition to having multiple cuts of the movie, this set has a fascinating behind the scenes documentary called Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. This for me is one of the best making of docs I have ever seen. It gives viewers a good look at what went on behind the scenes of the famously troubled production. It gives you the good, the bad and the ugly of filmmaking and pulls no punches. One of the best little touches is archival footage showing some of the reactions to the film by Philip K. Dick, whose short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was what Blade Runner was based on.

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The set also comes with some neat collectibles. There’s a replica of the movie’s iconic flying car, a unicorn figurine (a memento of the movie’s wildly debated ending) and lots of artwork prints to honor Blade Runner’s incredible visuals. This set is a must for movie lovers, especially those who love science fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Movies From The Dark Side: Krampus

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This week in my look at darker Christmas movies, I will be covering Krampus. The movie came out in 2015 and I was intrigued by some of the ads for it. But, for whatever reason, I just never got out to see it. Yesterday I finally gave it a watch. And I’m very glad I did. It belongs in the sharp holiday satire category of movies alongside another favorite of mine, Gremlins.

Right from the opening credits, it’s clear that Krampus is not going to be a typical Christmas movie. Cheery music plays over people backed into a store going through the insanity of Christmas shopping. Then we get to meet Max (Emjay Anthony) and all his quirky family members. His mom, Sarah (Toni Collette) is preparing the house for the whole family to visit. This is far from a happy family. Aunty Dorothy (Conchatta Ferrell) is critical of everything Sarah does, including the food she has prepared for the family. Jordan (Queenie Samuel) and Stevie (Lolo Owen) steal Max’s letter to Santa. They proceed to read the letter out loud at the dinner table, putting all of Max’s angst about his family into the open. Furious, Max tears the letter up and throws it out the window. Max wants Christmas with the family to be happy like it used to be.

Then a blizzard hits, knocking out the power and trapping the dysfunctional family in the house. Beth (Stefanie LaVie Owen) ventures out to be with her boyfriend and see if anyone in the neighborhood has power along the way. When Beth doesn’t make it back, Tom (Adam Scott) and Howard (David Koechner) go out and look for her. They are unsuccessful. But on the trip they find signs of what we later learn is the work of Krampus and his minions. Krampus, as Omi (Krista Stadler) later explains, is the demonic version of Santa. Where Santa comes to reward good kids at the holidays, Krampus comes to punish the naughty ones.

One of the first signs of Krampus and his crew is when a gingerbread man is lowered in through the chimney. When Howie Jr.  (Maverick Flack) pulls it off a hook hanging over the fire,the gingerbread man comes to life and Howie Jr. is pulled up through the chimney. This is the beginning of Krampus’ reign of terror, as he and his minions try to pick off Max and his family one by one. Howard gets attacked in the kitchen by more of the demonic gingerbread men. Meanwhile, Linda and Tom go looking for Jordan and Stevie who go upstairs together and don’t come back. The family is attacked by one creepy clown, a demonic teddy bear, and what looks like a possessed Erector set.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect walking into Krampus. But it’s one of the most original movies I’ve seen in a long time. The design of Krampus and the other evil creatures is wonderfully twisted. The production design is a wonder to behold. I liked that this movie doesn’t just give us a dysfunctional family where everyone has one thing to work through and by the end they’re all holding hands and singing Kumbaya. The family does learn a lesson. But it evolves naturally out of the progression of the story. None of it feels forced or formulaic. Krampus is not a mindless slasher movie. It has something deeper to say about family and the ritual of meeting up for the holidays, even when some of them are people you see once a year for a good reason. The screenplay, which was co-written by director Michael Dougherty, is a clever and has a sharp edge to it. The writing balances satirical humor and horror elements very well. And the ending is sure to leave you discussing it.

One last thing I want to mention. It was great to see Toni Collette getting work again. I loved her as the mom in The Sixth Sense. In Krampus, she holds the family together much like she did in The Sixth Sense. The vulnerability of her character is downright heartbreaking at times. And I love her scenes with Max in particular.

Krampus is dark, quirky, scary and has some scenes of good humor when the family members get out in so many crazy situations. I recommend it if you’re looking for an inventive horror movie this holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Movies From The Dark Side: The Nightmare Before Christmas

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‘Tis the season for Christmas movies. I’m more of a Halloween person myself. With that in mind, this month I’ll be covering Christmas movies with a darker edge to them. And the first movie will be The Nightmare Before Christmas. There is an ongoing debate as to whether this is a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie. It has elements of both. But, for purposes of this blog entry, it’s a Christmas movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas opens with Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon with a singing voice of Danny Elfman) leading Halloween festivities. Jack is the Pumpkin King, leader of Halloween Town. The town is populated by creatures associated with the holiday. While on the surface Jack is enjoying the annual Halloween celebration, privately he is tired of the same routine. He wants to bring something new to the town. The morning after Halloween, Jack stumble across trees in the woods that contain doors which are portals to the other holiday-themed towns. Jack goes into Christmas Town. He is captivated by the whole idea of Christmas. When he travels back to Halloween Town and tries to explain Christmas to the residents, it goes right over their heads. Jack studies up on Christmas all he can. Then he has an idea. Why should Christmas Town be the only place to celebrate Christmas? Jack decrees that Halloween Town will take over the Christmas festivities this year.

All of the Halloween Town residents are assigned different Christmas tasks, including singing carols and building a sleigh to be pulled by a skeletal reindeer. Sally (voiced by Catherine O’ Hara), who is secretly in love with Jack, has a vision that everything will end in disaster. Jack dismisses it and carries on as planned. Jack enlists three of Halloween Town’s trick-or-treaters to abduct “Sandy Claws” and keep him safe. Unfortunately, they turn him over to the villainous Oogie Boogie. Sally tries to save Santa, but is captured herself. Meanwhile, Jack sets off to deliver Christmas presents. But the gifts are more Halloween inspired and terrify the recipients.

News gets out of what happened to Santa and that a Santa imposter is on the loose. The military shoots down Jack’s sleigh and he is presumed dead. But he survives, and then goes off to rescue Sally and Santa, followed by trying to salvage Christmas.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton, who also was one of the movie’s writers. This is a delightfully twisted animated tale that bursts with imagination in every frame. The whole idea that each holiday has its own town is a very intriguing one.

The real star for me in The Nightmare Before Christmas is its rich visuals. Stop motion animation has become a lost art. But this movie uses it on a scale that you’ve never seen before. Right from the film’s opening song This Is Halloween, it’s clear we’re about to see something we haven’t seen before. Every monster has its own unique personality, including the monster crawling under the bed. The Nightmare Before Christmas has a boundless animation that is refreshing in the age of prequels, sequels and remakes. And, since Tim Burton dreamed up the concept, it has a wicked edge to it. This is not some light, mindless kids movie. It may frighten younger children. But that’s okay. Back in 1939 kids had nightmares about the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. This is a clever and entertaining movie for kids as well as adults.

While the visuals of The Nightmare Before Christmas are often what gets the most attention, Danny Elfman’s work deserves credit. His score and songs make this into a fun and memorable musical. The Nightmare Before Christmas to this day is one of the most imaginative movies I have ever seen. It’s worth checking out at Christmas as well as Halloween.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noirvember: Se7en

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Noirvember comes to an end on my blog this week. But I’ve saved one of the best neo-noir films for last. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of David Fincher. His movie Zodiac has also been covered on my blog. Fincher has a real knack for making taught thrillers. And my selection this week is a great example of that. The movie is Se7en. Some consider it a horror movie, others a crime movie and then there’s a few of us who believe it’s a neo-noir. I fall into the last category.

Seven follows two detectives as they track down a serial killer who uses Dante’s Inferno and the Seven Deadly Sins to choose his victims. The veteran detective on his last case is Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and the rookie is Mills (Brad Pitt). The movie takes us right down into the world of Dante’s Inferno as they go from one crime scene to the next. Every victim is sermonized by the killer, who justifies his actions by the fact that people today are ignorant of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, the victim who has gluttony written across the wall across from his body is shown face down in a bowl of spaghetti. He was forced to eat himself to death.

Seven is not a movie for the faint of heart. It shows every grizzly detail of the murders. To this day I’m surprised it wasn’t given the NC-17 rating. That being said, it is also a meticulously crafted piece of cinema. Yes, the murders are portrayed in graphic detail. But it never feels like it’s done purely for shock value. That’s what sets it apart from what has become known today as torture porn. The gore is to show how twisted the killer is, not simply to make the viewer queasy.

While Seven has been out for many years, I will not spoil the ending. Because it packs one heck of a punch. But I will discuss some of the movie’s merits that I admire the most.

One of the things that surprised me the most about Seven was the great chemistry between Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. I like them both a lot, but was skeptical of them being paired together. Seven doesn’t fall into the trap of recycling buddy cop movie cliches or using the same grizzled veteran vs. young punk tropes. Freeman and Pitt are absolutely convincing as crime solving partners.

Another great thing about Seven is how it gets us involved in the process of tracking the serial killer. We have CSI and so many of its pale imitators on TV now. But this is still one of the best movies about detective work and the science involved with it that I’ve ever seen. It’s a thinking crime movie and not merely a gory serial killer movie.

Finally, I absolutely love the look of this film. It’s set in modern times, but it looks and feels like its right out of the 1940s. The costumes, especially Moran Freeman’s stylish ensemble, scream film noir. A lot of people argue you cannot make film noir in color. I disagree. Seven is a great example. David Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji give us one of the grittiest and most effective looking modern noir films ever made. The images really stay with you, and they’re not just the bloody murder scenes. One in particular that has stayed with me to this day is how the sloth victim’s murder scene was photographed. The detectives enter an apartment to see Christmas tree air fresheners hanging everywhere and beams of blinding sunlight entering the room almost so the sunlight resembles glistening needles. There’s an eerie vibe that haunts every frame. Fincher is truly a master at establishing mood.

Seven is dark, twisted and also an exhilarating experience. David Fincher is a master of not only telling thrilling stories, but giving us great characters to take us on the journey through their myriad twists and turns. Many serial killers have been made in the last decade or so. But Seven remains one of the best.

Noirvember: Memento

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Continuing my look at neo-noir films in honor of Noirvember, this week the spotlight will be on Memento. Made back in 2000 by an up and coming director named Christopher Nolan (who made an impression with his first feature film from 1998, Following), it’s a fascinating mystery that has kept me enthralled upon repeat viewings.

The premise of Memento seems simple enough at first. Leonard (Guy Pearce) sets out to solve his wife’s murder. But, there’s a twist. Leonard has short-term memory loss. He sustained head trauma when attempting to stop the murder of his wife. Since Leonard is unable to form new memories, he has to leave himself daily detailed notes and take plenty of photographs. One other thing Leonard does to carry on his investigation is to tattoo clues all over his body. The mystery unfolds in a fascinating use of nonlinear time. Pieces of the puzzle are unveiled in both color and black and white. The black and white scenes are put together chronologically and some of the color ones are shown out of sequence, echoing the mental state of the protagonist.

Memento is an absorbing look at grief, memory and revenge. Guy Pearce has never gotten the credit he deserves for being a solid actor. Two of his best performances came in neo-noir films: Memento and L.A. Confidential. Pearce shows us his full range as an actor in Memento: grief, anger and vulnerability. His supporting cast is solid too, especially Joe Pantoliano as Teddy, a contact Leonard makes during the course of his investigation. There’s also Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie, a bartender who he becomes friendly with after seeing a note about her in his clothes.

In addition to the stellar performances, Memento is a triumph of editing and writing. Editor Dody Dorn does a masterful job of piecing together the parallel storylines in a way that, while disorienting at times, keeps the viewer intrigued as to how the mystery will be resolved. It’s great that the color sequences gives us a window into the mind of a person with short-term memory loss. All of this is aided by the movie’s screenplay, co-written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan (the latter wrote Memento Mori, the short story that Memento was based on). The screenplay and editing fittingly earned nominations.

Memento is a movie that takes multiple viewings to figure out. And, even then, you’re likely to still have some questions. The answer to the mystery isn’t the movie’s only point. It’s the journey that director Nolan and his talented cast take us on that makes Memento a modern classic. It’s a labyrinth mystery that keeps us guessing and involves us in its gritty atmosphere as we try to sort out who are the good and bad guys, much like the noir classics of old. Memento was what made critics and audiences take notice of its director. And, seeing it one time or ten times, you can see why.

Noirvember: Miller’s Crossing

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It’s November. But to lovers of film noir it’s Noirvember. I thought about focusing on classic noir. But then I decided it would be fun to show that noir is still alive and kicking today. So neo-noir films will be this month’s blog focus. The Coen brothers are masters of modern noir. Their debut, Blood Simple, is a great example. But I thought this week it would be fun to revisit their noir gangster movie Miller’s Crossing.

Miller’s Crossing centers around Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), who is the chief advisor of mob boss Leo (Albert Finney). Tensions have been building between Leo and rival mafia boss Johnny (Jon Polito). This all comes about because of the activities of bookie Bernie (John Turtorro). Tom tries to get Leo to give Bernie up to Johnny to prevent an all out war. What follows are revelations one after another. There are secret affairs, betrayals, shifting loyalties and power plays. All of this is set during the Prohibition era. Thats fitting, since many of the early noir films were set during that era. White Heat and The Public Enemy are great examples. Bootlegging and gangsters represented a perversion of the American dream, a theme that runs through classic and neo-noir.

Miller’s Crossing is equal parts noir, gangster picture and melodrama. And all of it comes together in riveting movie that looks sleek and modern while paying homage to the noir of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Special credit should go to future Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld for his gorgeous cinematography. This is still one of the best photographed movies I have ever seen.

The movie is loaded with incredible actors, including the late great Albert Finney, gifted character actor John Turtorro, Marcia Gay Harden and Gabriel Byrne who is great as the movie’s anchor. All of them are up to the juicy roles they’ve been given. Co-director’s Joel and Ethan Coen also penned the movie’s sharp script, working from Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and Glass Key. If you’re going to make a modern noir, start with material from one of the best noir writers who ever lived, right?

Miller’s Crossing not only looks great, but is filled with brilliant performances from its stellar cast. Is it violent? Yes. But it never feels gratuitous. That’s something other modern crime pictures should take note of. It pays tribute to classic gangster and noir movies while being a great movie of its own era.