Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Lord of the Rings

Year: 2001 (Fellowship of the Ring), 2002 (Two Towers), 2003 (Return of the King)
Running time: 208 minutes (Fellowship of the Ring), 223 minutes (Two Towers), 251 minutes (Return of the King)
Certificate: PG (Fellowship of the Ring), 12 (Two Towers, Return of the King)
Language: English
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, Return of the King), Stephen Sinclair (Two Towers)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Sean Bean, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Marton Csokas, Lawrence Makoare, Craig Parker, Sarah McLeod, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Bruce Hopkins, John Noble, Bruce Spence

Gandalf: Frankly, fucking kick-ass.
A quick note before we go on. As mentioned here, these things are nothing but some bloke wittering on about one of his favourite subjects: film. Just because these films are, probably, my favourites, it doesn't mean they are the best-made pieces of cinema ever. It just means I like them a lot.

When the news first broke that Peter Jackson of cheap splatter-movie fame was going to undertake the filming of this complicated but much-loved story, I don’t imagine anyone dared hope that the result would be quite this phenomenal. The fears that too much of the essence of the story would be lost in the transfer turned out to be unjustified (and the people that still complain about the absence of Tom Bombadil, the lack of The Scouring of the Shire and Frodo’s relative youth are missing the point entirely), as although changes have been made, and details have been lost, this film is undoubtedly imbued with the spirit of J.R.R.’s classic story. One of the main reasons for this is the extraordinary lengths the filmmakers went to in creating the detail of the world behind the main story (just like Tolkien himself did with The Silmarillion and other books on the history of Middle Earth, all unreleased notes until son Christopher brought them to light after his death). Most of the detail passes unnoticed until it’s pointed out to you (which, thanks to the most comprehensive collection of extra features imaginable you are able to explore in forensic detail), but it all helps to create an overall effect of history and depth.

Pursuing ringwraiths.
Jackson works hard to keep you wrapped up in the world and invested in the story and characters, and barely a moment goes by when he doesn't succeed. He doesn't do it all by himself however; credit must go to the cast for creating characters from the page that must have already been so firmly set in other people’s minds. It’s true that not every character is exactly as I imagined before the film, but it could never have been as everyone imagines these things differently, and every cast member does a nigh on perfect job. Every set, every scene, every moment is gloriously filmed, taking every opportunity to show off the spectacular New Zealand landscape, all put to music that compliments the tone of the story perfectly. The fact that this was compared to Harry Potter is beyond ridiculous and unfair on the boy wizard, as very little comes close to this in terms of scale and execution.

Sauron, being evil, hatched a long-running scheme to destroy or dominate all life on Middle Earth by fashioning magic rings which would allow him to inflict his will upon the leaders of the free folk - men, elves and dwarves. He then manages to go and lose his master ring - the one to bind and rule the others. Well, when I say lose, it is more like he gets his hand chopped off. Still, that's what you get for being an evil overlord wannabe. The ring finds its way to a little fellow (or hobbit, if you prefer) called Sméagol (Andy Serkis), who promptly falls under its spell and murders for it, steals it, and lives for half a century in a dank dark cave fawning over his 'precious'. Following some random chance and some Riddles in the Dark (see The Hobbit), Sméagol, now known as Gollum, due to the odd damp coughing noise he makes, loses the ring to a much nicer hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who takes it back to his cosy rural home Bag End in the Shire. And that's kind of where we come in at the opening of Fellowship. As noted above, Tolkien invented a staggering amount of detail - thousands of years of history, countless other characters, places, peoples, languages that are not even a minor part of either the book or the film, but the makers know it is there and it gives the book and film a sense of weight unmatched in fiction.
Hero pose #16.
In an attempt to banish the newly powerful Sauron, a company of nine - the eponymous fellowship - take on a quest to destroy the ring in the only place it can be - Mount Doom, the volcano in Sauron's back yard where it was originally forged. Bilbo's favourite nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) is given responsibility for the ring, and is joined by friends Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Peregrine 'Pippin' Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan). Also along for the ride are the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).

The whole thing comes together beautifully; writing, acting, cinematography, soundtrack, art direction and visual effects (including the use of digital colour grading which helps to give each frame a unique look, be it vibrant green for Hobbiton grass or otherworldly silver for Lothlorien). As wonderful as Fellowship is, it is largely a road movie, so the challenge for Jackson and the others would be to successfully up their game for the larger scale Two Towers and Return of the King.
Gandalf brings victory with the sunrise at Helm's Deep.

What’s one of the highlights of a classic Bond movie? It’s the insane action sequence at the start, right? Well, The Two Towers’ opening scene of Gandalf following the Balrog of Morgoth into the depths of Moria manages to trump every single one of 007’s openers with ease, and is the perfect way to get yourself re-acclimatised with Middle Earth for the second and middle part of Peter Jackson's stonking trilogy. The second part of your standard trilogy is usually the weak link (apart from the noticeable exception of The Godfather Part 2), and this is due to the story being dragged out to fill the hole left in the middle of the plot. The first part usually sets up the story and characters, and the finale has the climactic moments and the sense of completion, leaving the middle part to simply bridge the gap. Well, The Lord of the Rings has no weak links. Instead of serving as simply a link, The Two Towers expands the scope of the story dramatically, introducing us to new major characters and countries without losing any of the tone of the first, much like The Empire Strikes Back, only, much better. Obviously a big part of this is down to the filmmakers working on all three films at once, allowing them to keep the feel of the story intact - a gamble that has paid off in spades.

The most notable part of the second piece is the battle at Helm’s Deep, in which a few straggles of men and elves take on the might of Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) Uruk-Hai army. Taking a cue from Zulu, and serving as the final third of the film, it really has to be seen to be believed; in particular, the sight of 2000 horses galloping full throttle down a mountainside will leave you a gibbering puddle of awe and wonder.

The music deserves a special mention; Howard Shore has created some wonderful themes, especially the lovely Rohan theme and the accompaniment to the last march of the Ents. But more than this, there are little snippets here and there that come in at just the right moment and are never heard again, three examples being the moment from Fellowship when Frodo first sets out from Rivendell, then in Two Towers when Gandalf and the others are riding to Rohan on Shadowfax and also when Aragorn is making his way towards Helm’s Deep; these small moments of music take the breath away and can bring tears to the eyes.
Oliphants at war.

The third and final slice of Jackson’s Middle Earth epic somehow manages to outdo even the two that have gone before, although how this is possible is difficult to fathom. This film goes so far beyond original expectations it’s mind-boggling. It should be noted that these are reviews of the extended cuts of the films available on DVD as opposed to the versions originally seen at cinemas, as these are more definitive cuts of the films (although the Blu Ray extended editions, which I do not yet own, are seemingly longer still). It is particularly important in the third piece, because it includes the demise of Saruman, a moment which was strangely absent from the cinematic release. With this scene reinstated, we quickly move on to the most astonishing set of the entire trilogy, and the unveiling of the seven-tiered mountain-high Minas Tirith; following Gandalf as he gallops to the top accompanied by the triumphant Gondor theme is an incredible vertigo-inducing moment that increases the huge scope of the story even further. The film continues to one up itself in this fashion throughout. Gandalf's arrival at Minas Tirith is followed by the explosive unveiling of Sauron's army marching out of the sickly corpse-light green gates of Minas Morgul right past the terrified Frodo. Next comes the sequence of the lighting of the beacons, where Minas Tirith calls for help from Rohan (much against the will of steward Denethor (John Noble)), in which fires are lit across a mountain range, Jackson's camera glorying in its eagle-eyed view of yet more incredible natural New Zealand scenery. Pippin's frightened singing soundtracking Faramir's (David Wehnam) heart-breaking charge to almost certain death, King Theoden (Bernard Hill) making a stirring call to arms before the charge of the Rohirrim, and on and on until the viewer is left dazed and in a perpetual state of unbelieving amazement. That this was done by a home-grown Kiwi director and his home-grown Kiwi production company must have ILM and Hollywood green with envy.

Despite the title referring to Aragorn, the real star of the third part of the trilogy is undoubtedly Sam, played to perfection by the under-rated Sean Astin, managing to carry Frodo the last few feet on his back after the ring bearer loses all strength. Elijah Wood also does a magnificent job and when at the very end of his quest, Frodo loses his fight and claims the ring for himself, your heart is left broken and you can hardly bear to watch as Frodo’s mouth turns into a twisted smile and his unblinking eyes reveal nothing of the innocent and joyful hobbit you remember from the opening of Fellowship 11+ hours ago. Thankfully, Frodo is saved from himself by the unsung hero of the piece, Gollum.
Frodo is finally broken.
Gollum is such an incredible feat of acting / animating that it is not possible to over-estimate the impact it has on the success of the story. Jar-Jar Binks he ain’t. You feel so much pity for the unfortunate Sméagol that you cannot bring yourself to hate him even after he betrays the characters you love. Andy Serkis and Weta Digital have genuinely worked technological miracles, paving the way for the almost photo-real CGI in Avatar.

The bittersweet ending (which is not too long for me, despite the numerous criticisms it received) may be hard for some to bear, but the fact is Frodo was never going to recover, and to pretend otherwise would have been an injustice to the noble hobbit, and the anti-climactic way in which Sam utters the final words is perfectly in keeping with the story. Quite simply, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is among the most astonishing achievements in the history of film and is the film I would always choose to watch before all others.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: 10/10
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: 10/10
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: 10/10

Empire magazine is also a big fan of this franchise, judging by these reviews by Colin, Caroline and Alan, as is Ram. Roger Ebert's take on the trilogy is a little less overwhelmed: Fellowship, Two Towers, Return of the King.