Saturday, January 21, 2012
LOTR Movies Retrospective: The Two Towers
Okay, I'm back...got locked out of the blog for a while there. Turned out to be rather a strange thing...I was told I had conflicting accounts and needed to open a new one. But when I went through the necessary steps, I was told that a certain email was being forwarded to a particular email address that I didn't think I had. Well, it turned out I didn't have that address...the hint they kept sending me was the second half of my temp account address, and I simply didn't didn't know what to make of it.
Anyway,that the was the main reason I didn't write a Two Towers installment till now...since I couldn't work on the blog and wasn't sure I'd ever be able to get back in, I just sat down and did a second draft of Cainville.
I'll say right up front that I think Two Towers is the weakest movie in the trilogy. There's a whole lot of wonderful stuff, but the middle third/third quarter really starts to wander in a very undesirable way. A lot of the trouble is caused by lack of fidelity to the source material, and some of that was the result of meddling by New Line, as nearly as I can make out; but some of it, like the horrific maltreatment of Faramir, falls squarely on the shoulders of Peter Jackson and his screenwriting goombahs. I dunno, maybe they were simply exhausted or something, seeing as how they were shooting all three movies at once.
The version I just watched was the extended cut, by the way, and some of the extra material is really good, but some of it isn't. There's rather more eminently lose-able extra stuff in this extended version than there was in the extended Fellowship...but more on that later.
The film, of course, is structured very differently from the book, but it's sort of unavoidable...in the book, you had the Aragorn/Legolas Gimli strand, and then the Merry/Pippin biz, with intercutting between those two storylines, but not with the Frodo/ Sam material...the movie interleaves all three strands, and some Rohan/Saruman stuff as well. But it's hard to see how it could be handled otherwise.
Movie gets off to a cool start. Nice to have the Gandalf/Balrog underground fight onstage...it's an improvement on Tolkien, although we did get a brief account by Gandalf there, which Jackson employs later on. The switch to Frodo and Sam in the Emyn Muil, in which Frodo is awakened by a nightmare about Gandalf's subterranean battle, is nicely handled. The Emyn Muil is perfectly visualized, with very convincing fake rocks, and the added-back-in scene where the rope detaches itself of its own account because it's Elvish is welcome. There is an unintentionally funny bit, however, when Sam says he smells something like a nasty bog, and Frodo, apparently in response, says, "We're not alone," as though Gollum just cut one. It's sorta amazing that no one noticed this and changed it.
Just about everything with Gollum is outstanding, though. In some respects, Jackson nails him more clearly than Tolkien did...Tolkiens's descriptions, starting with the ones in The Hobbit, are frequently incoherent. Is Gollum like a frog, or like an old skanky hobbit? Is he black or white? Well, the movie Gollum is an old white skanky hobbit who moves rather like a tree-frog. I've actually seen tree frogs clambering around like that, and I suspect the animators were looking at froggies too. The effects are startlingly good...they haven't aged a bit. Gollum looks like a real object much of the time, and interacts real well with the real stuff, even when he's wrassling with the hobbits. Skin texture's great, and there's some of the best motion capture ever, much of the credit for which has to go to Andy Serkis, who wore the mo-cap sensors. But there's also a lot of just plain wonderful animation...Gollum's face is astoundingly expressive. Serkis knocks it out of the park with the voice, as well. Also, for the most part, the writing hews very close to Tolkien, and Gollum is maybe his finest creation. Bottom line: Gollum is one of the best movie characterizations ever, which is all the more jaw-dropping when you remember he's not real.
The story shifts skillfully to the Merry/Pippin strand...they're being carted to Isengard by the Uruk Hai, who run into a bunch of Mordor orcs. The differences between Saruman's state-of-the-art-troops and Sauron's shittier ones are well portrayed...the make-up jobs by Richard Taylor are extremely unusual and most effective. I particularly like the way the Mordor-orcs look rather like crummy vile Englishmen.
Then, of course, we have Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, who are tracking the Uruks at some distance...Gimli is ostensibly funny a lot. The Rohan locations aren't really what Tolkien was describing...Jackson himself has said he'd rather have had something like South Dakota. There isn't any genuinely Rohan-like stuff in NZ, I believe. But the scenery is still gorgeous and it works fairly well because of it.
We cut to the always-great Christoper Lee doing Sarumanic biz at Isengard and talking to Sauron via palantir. Isengard looks awfuller than ever as we get some necessary exposition...Saruman describes how he's going to go after the Rohirrim, and we see him recruiting some wild men who don't figure later on. We get some shots of his legions attacking a town. Jackson tries to humanize this bit by introducing a mother and her kids, although this is a waste of time...the kids escape, and later on at Edoras, we find out they .made it to Edoras, but we don't care. Jackson does this sort of thing a lot, and it takes time away from stuff from the book that we could've gotten but don't get. Introducing ciphers to punch up this or that odd bit of business is just lousy storytelling, at least when Jackson does it.
We're introduced to Eomer, the nephew of King Theoden. Eomer is played by Karl Urban, who makes all his scenes count and should have become a bigger star. He finds the king's son Theodred after a battle, brings him back to Edoras, the King's citadel, still alive. Things are very bad there...Theoden's evil councillor, Grima Wormtongue (the wonderful Brad Dourif, who would've also been a good live-action Gollum) has been driving Theoden into early senility on behalf of Saruman; Wormtongue's being opposed by Eomer and Theoden's niece Eowyn, (Miranda Otto), but his cowardly slimy advice prevails, and Eomer is banished. This stuff is all pretty well handled,and I find Mirando Otto most winsome, although I would've cast a bigger, more commanding woman as Eowyn, rather more valkyrie-like, Giselle Bundchen type, maybe.
We switch back to Aragorn et all....they still haven't caught up with the uruks...then we get some beautifully-lit nighttime scenes as the Orcs take a breather and debate whether or not they should eat pieces of Merry and Pippin. The make-up jobs on the orcs here are alarmingly effective. Ultimately some of the Mordor orcs get killed and eaten instead of the hobbits..then a band of Rohirrim descend on the orcs, and Merry and Pippin get loose...
It's back to the three companions after that...they meet Eomer and get to see a bunch of really cool Eorlinga-armor. Some of it is flat-out anglo-Saxon Viking period stuff; the more sumptuous suits could only be described as Viking age plate armor. I would've had the Rohirrim look rather more like Normans, but I was happy enough. Eomer tells the three hunters that he and his troop killed a bunch of orcs and that the halflings are almost certainly dead...Aragorn and friends head on off to the border of Fangorn forest, where Aragorn's preternatural tracking abilities lead him to conclude that Merry and Pippin escaped the fight and got into the woods.
We return to Merry and Pippin through some skillfull flashback intercutting stuff. Fangorn doesn't look much like Tolkien's version...in the book, either Merry or Pip says he rather likes the place, and this endears them to Treebeard, who's listening. In Jackson's version, Fangorn looks rather like a dark dank jungle out of King Kong, so much so that I suspect Jackson felt he needed to come up with a totally different look on the forests in his Kong remake, rather to the detriment of that film.
In the movie, Merry and Pippin are being chased by one of those ratty English-looking Mordor orcs...they get bailed out by Treebeard (voiced well by John Rhys-Davies), and it's hard to tell why he wouldn't have killed them outright, since he thinks they're some sort of orcs themselves. Anyway, he takes them to see "the White Wizard' and we assume it's going to be Saruman, although we don't actually see the wizard's face...of course, since we find out later later that he's actually Gandalf reborn, that makes Treebeard's subsequent reluctance to fight Saruman all the more peculiar...what did Gandalf tell him, anyway?
Okay, it's over to Frodo and Sam and the Dead Marshes after that. Apparently they don't have any marshes in NZ, so they had to build one, but Jackson's crew did a pretty good job. The faces under the water are a little too concretely realized for my tastes, though, and I wish Jackson had resisted the temptation to have Frodo fall in and be special-effected at by the ghosts. There is, however, some very good Gollum stuff after that...we get a conversation between Frodo and and the skank, and then Gollum being freaked out by the approach of a winged Nazgul. I didn't like the design on the Nazgul's mount, however...you can't really make out the head...it looks strangely decapitated. The body's rather too heavy looking as well.
We head on back into Fangorn, although this time with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli...we learn that the forest is really angry, and suspect that there are tree-ish things less sympathetic than Treebeard. Legolas also informs us that the Elves woke the trees up long long ago. But just as we're getting into this Huorn- foreshadowing, some awful Gimli funniness intrudes, with him muttering about trees debating "the consistency of squirrel-droppings," things like that. Jackson has watched too much Monty Python and his imitations of it are lousy.
The scene where they encounter the white wizard and discover that he's Gandalf really clicks, though...we're extremely glad to have Ian McKellan back, although we also get a bit of Chris Lee at the start, because, as Gandalf the White informs us, he's "Saruman as he should've been," literally Saruman's replacement in the incarnate-angel pecking order. We also have some more of the Gandalf vs. Balrog donnybrook, including the stuff where Gandalf fights him all the way up out of the tunnels and onto a mountain top, where he says, "I smote his ruin on the mountainside." He recounts his own death, and then describes how he's been sent back "at the turn of the tide...." Quite moving. Then he summons Shadowfax, and everybody heads off to Edoras, although...
Not before one more limp dollop of Gimli-laughs.
Merry and Pippin, meanwhile, are being carted around by Treebeard..the special effects, with them lurching about in front of green-screens of treetops, are among the worst in any of the movies, with the foreground characters looking flatter than pancakes. Perched on what it guess is some sort of big animatronic thing, the actors look most uncomfortable, like their butts really hurt and they're just about to puke. And while I generally like it when Jackson tries to cram in some extra stuff from the book, having Treebeard reciting some long-winded love poetry isn't a very good idea, even though we do get to hear about the entwives.
It's back over to Frodo and Sam and Gollum after that...they arrive before the Black Gate of Mordor, which is a very impressive piece of design, powered by trolls in harnesses on a big walkway-thing. The gate (apparently on wheels) swings open to admit some scary wierdly-helmetted easterlings. To Gollum's deep distress, Frodo decides to try and charge on in...to dissuade him, Gollum reveals that there's a different way into Mordor. Sam doesn't trust him at all, but Frodo overrules him. The interaction between CG Gollum froggy fingers and Frodo's sleeve (he's pawing at it) is simply priceless.
In Fangorn, Treebeard leaves Merry and Pippin alone for some reason...they quaff some ent-draughts that make them taller, and there are some cribs from the Tom Bombadil chapters in Fellowship that don't really work, although the Old Man Willow CG rooty stuff is fun.
Gandalf's party, meanwhile, approaches Edoras...great location...sitting up on top of its hill, the stronghold of the Rohirrim looks like Jackson was simply hallucinating the book. For my money, the movies are worth the price simply for some of the visualizations of the settings; when Jackson and his team really try to subordinate themselves to the descriptions, as with Edoras, Helm's deep, and Minas Tirith, they knock it clear out of the park.
I liked the scene with Grima trying to seduce Eowyn with icky empathy. True, he gets some of Gandalf's lines about Eowyn, but they work oddly well coming out of his mouth. But I hated the healing/exorcism of Theoden. Brad Dourif is good, but when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli start knocking the guards around, it's simply assinine. Also, it turns out that Theoden (cool creepy old-age makup on him, with really horrible cataracty eyes) is actually possessed, somehow, by Saruman...which renders Grima rather redundant and doesn't make any sense in a number of ways. The whole scene is an exercise in incoherent over-the-topness.
The funeral of Theodred is is good, however, and It's cool to hear Miranda Otto intoning that dirge in Anglo-Saxon...afterwards, in the part where are Gandalf and Theoden are standing beside the grave, we really feel Theoden's grief. But this is just about where things begin to go seriously wobbly with the movie. Gandalf tries to convince Theoden that he needs to buck up and fight Saruman; for some reason, even though Saruman was possessing and undermining him, and is actively attacking his kingdom, Theoden, idiotically, "will not risk open war." Huh? Instead of meeting Saruman headon, he decides to take everyone from Edoras to Helm's Deep. This is a clear instance of Jackson making hash of Tolkien's logic. Fact is, Tolkien was an actual soldier, and when you mess with his military dispositions, you do so very much at your peril. In the book, our guys ride out to hold Saruman's army off while the Rohirrim can complete a full muster. They get penned at Helm's Deep and Saruman's army tries to finish them there. Now later on, in Return of the King, Jackson gives us the muster, but...where were all those guys in Two Towers? It's all pretty puzzling.
Wormtongue escapes to Isengard...in the longer version, there's some good material with him talking to Saruman...once again, anything with Chris Lee is welcome. Wormtongue tells Saruman about Aragorn, and Saruman thinks Gandalf thinks he's found Isildur's Heir, that is, the heir to the Kingdom of Gondor. I'm not sure why we needed this particular piece of exposition, since it really doesn't concern Saruman, but it's engaging nonetheless.
Guided by Gollum, Frodo and Sam reach Ithilien. This is the "Herbs and Stewed Rabbit" chapter, and I wish there was more of it...it's maybe my favorite chapter in the books. Still, we get what is maybe the best scene in the whole movie trilogy..the wonderful, utterly-screwed up Slinker/Stinker Gollum interior debate, in which Gollum's schizophrenia comes front and center, and the bad and worse sides of his personality have it out. believe this scene was written and directed by Fran Walsh, and it's amazingly dead on...the animation is top-notch, and Andy Serkis's vocals and motion-capture work do utter justice to the character...or should I say, characters?
The rabbit-meal the next day is good too, and we have the classic "po-tay-toes" exchange between Sam and Gollum. Hard upon follows the arrival of a column of Haradrim, and the sight of of some giant "Oliphaunts." The Haradrim get attacked by men of Gondor, and Faramir (David Wenham) is introduced. But we kinda of cringe, at least I do, because I know what a mess is going to be made of the character later on.
Back with the Rohirrim, we get still more Gimli mirth ('Gimli's constant pratfalls,' as my son says) and find out (in the extended edition) that Aragorn is real old, but that scene is badly botched by some stupid comedy about Eowyn being a lousy cook and Aragorn pretending he likes the food. There are some flashbacks with him and Arwen at Rivendell, and that's fine, but then...
Some warg-riders from Isengard attack, and one says to oneself, "what the fuck?" This set-piece is obviously intended to keep things moving along during the draggy middle part of the film, but it's just an awful idea. For some reason, the wargs aren't wolves, but things that look rather like a cross between hyenas and Stitch from Lilo And, and we get another big dose of the worst special effects in the trilogy. The wargs don't look even remotely like they inhabit the actual landscape (Jackson himself notes this in the commentary), much of this having to do with with the fact that there are terrible problems with scale...the wargs go from being buffalo-sized to about thirty feet high. They're badly designed, and they look pretty boneless.
To complicate matters further, you've got some egregious nonsense with Aragorn falling off a cliff, and landing in a river and flashing back to some more biz with Arwen. The flashbacks themselves are good...the scene, where Elrond tells Arwen what she can expect when Aragorn dies and she lingers on immortal is really piercing. But..when Aragorn wakes up on the riverbank, we go from a dream/flashback where he's smooching with her, and then being nuzzled by his horse, and we're left with the distinct impression that the reason he was thinking about kissing her was because his horse was rubbing its snout on him. Also, how did his horse find him? It's just dopey.
Well, while's he's suffering no ill effects from his tumble down the cliff, Saruman is screwing around the gunpowder, and shows Wormtongue his assembled army...how Womrtongue managed to miss the fact that something like a Nuremburg rally was gathering outside Orthanc, I can't guess, but the CG cast-of-zillions stuff is great.
Interwoven with this is a some completely unnecessary exposition involving telepathic chatting between Galadriel and Elrond...it's padding combined with a clumsy attempt to shoehorn Cate Blanchett into the proceeedings.She and Hugo Weaver engage in some slowly-pronounced discussion of geopolitical matters that we already understand.
And there's even more pointless exposition when we return to Ithilien and Faramir, kicking off the most infuriating segment in the trilogy. This stuff with Faramir really, really, really bites. According to the commentary with Jackson and his partners in crime, they had to turn Faramir into a borderline heavy because otherwise, you just wouldn't feel the evil power of the ring. You see, when he finds out about the ring, he wants to turn it over to his dad Denethor the Steward of Minas Tirith, who'd like to use it against Sauron. But there's a real problem with Jackson's meddling..namely, there was no problem to begin with, or rather, the problem is so deeply engrained in the story that it's way too late to do anything about it now...as a matter of fact, if people were always completely overmastered by the ring, you couldn't have the story. This may be incoherence on Tolkien's part, but...no point worrying about it halfway through the book. It's kind of like worrying about how Sauron got defeated to begin with if he had the ring, or why Gandalf just didn't ask the eagles to carry Frodo to Mount Doom. Bilbo gives up the ring. Gandalf gets it from him and passes it to Frodo. In the book, of course, Tom Bombadil couldn't care less. Galadriel has a shot at it and passes on it. So does Aragorn. Boromir does try to grab it, but later on, Sam takes it from Frodo when he think's Frodo's dead, then gives it right back to Frodo. Jackson's contortions only call attention to the whole matter.
Also, Goddammit, Faramir is one of my favorite characters in the book, and Jackson's counterfeit is just an abortion. No matter that he gives us a pretty good flashback in Osgiliath where Faramir and Bormor meet their father, and we get an admirable depiction of the dynamics between the two sons and their dad. Nope, Faramir is a genuinely good person, and Jackson should've kept his sticky fingers off Tolkien's basic conception.
Legolas and Gimli and Theoden get to Helm's Deep, where the women and children have already gotten. Helm's Deep is maybe the single finest recreation of one of Tolkien's settings, right out of the book...the blending of VFX with sets is about as seamless as it could be...looks absolutely like a real place, and the little digital extras wandering around on it are super. However, when Aragorn shows up, there's a whole whole lot of wheel-spinning...Jackson seems to think it's a great idea to have mucho buildup at this point, but it's way too far into the movie for that, and some of the stuff, with Legolas and Aragorn bellyaching about the situation while a bunch of Rohirrim overhear them, is really terrible.
Also, the appearance of the elves from Lorien is rather laughable, in my judgement...Glorfindel is well, really Fay in a way that Legolas and Elrond are not, the way the elves march would have the Uruk-Hai fall down laughing, and the horned helmet hood-things just make the elves look like the snooded submarine guys from that video of Justified and Ancient, the Mu-Mu Land song, you know, the one with Tammy Wynette. However, all of this could've been vastly worse, because New Line wanted a bunch of PC bullshit, which is to say, having Arwen as the buttkicking leader of the contingent. Some Liv Tyler battlement antics were actually filmed apparently, but Jackson decided she didn't work and forced his opinion on New Line...they still needed to incorporate the Elvish reinforcements, however, I guess because they'd blown some money on Elvish footage.
Now, when the battle of helm's Deep finally starts, however, it's super. In the book, it didn't take up nearly so much space, but...oh well. On the one hand, I'd be happier with a more faithful adaptation, with less emphasis on spectacle....on the other hand, you have all that spectacle. Also, Jackson was confronted with a structural problem...in Tolkien's chronology, the stuff where Frodo and Sam find themselves in Shelob's lair is actually going on at the same time as various events in Return of the King...Jackson, given his schema, had to put that material in the third installment, and couldn't intercut it with Helm's Deep. As a result, you wind up with rather less material for a middle movie...having a longer and more bombastic Helm's Deep battle goes a long way to solve that problem.
The battle more or less follows Tolkien's version. The churning-sea-of-orcs effects are mucho well done, and tricky problems with nighttime lighting are neatly finessed. The Uruk-Hai horde is plenty intimidating, and I like their siege ladders and giant grappling-hook crossbows. When the big spiky mine blows up in the culvert and destroys a whole section of wall, the blast is maybe the very best movie explosion ever. All the hacking and hewing is well-staged and quite convincing...great stuntwork. The amped-up violence in the longer version is a good idea. I would've liked to have seen more emphasis on the orc-count between Legolas and Gimli, but it's sufficient as is. Could've done without the dwarf-tossing...once again, I hate the approach that Jackson et al took to Gimli. However, the battle just builds and builds, pretty effectively. The scene with Theoden and crew riding on down the causeway is stirring and a pretty novel piece of cinema, even if the Rohirrim are down to a ridiculously small number of guys. Gandalf's appearance with Eomer is, of course, most dramatic...Eomer would've called his guys Eorlingas and not Rohirrim, but I don't expect anyone cares about that...the charge down the way-too-steep hillside is both ludicrous and exciting, and would've been pretty lethal for our guys if they were thundering straight into eighteen-foot-long sarissas, but, we're just relieved they've showed up.
Wonderful rousing Howard Shore Rohirrim music by the way.
Now all the while this stuff's been going on, Merry and Pippin have been trying to persuade Treebeard and the Ents to go after Saruman...there are some pretty terrible problems with the chronology, unless Treebeard's realm is only about a couple of miles wide....he sure can cover a lot of ground. The other ents at the Entmoot are rather better designs than Treebeard, but all the Ents are really stupid...I presume Jackson decided he really needed to punch up Merry and Pippin's roles. But this is done--egregiously---at Treebeard's expense. Ultimately, contrary to the book, the Ents decide not to go to war; and here we get a very bizarre piece of business, namely, Pippin suddenly growing a brain, and tricking Treebeard into taking him and Merry close to Isengard, where, for some reason, Pippin knows there's a bunch of forest that's been devastated by Saruman---Pippin expects this to set Treebeard off, and it does, of course, but...this makes Treebeard seem more like an idiot than ever, since this was all happening on his doorstep and he was apparently unaware (although Pippin figured it out). This becomes even sillier when Treebeard lets out a huge booming hoom, and the other ents just show up, immediately, once again enforcing the impression that the whole area is simply tiny...or that Ents travel at warp speed.
Once the Entish army descends on Isengard, it's all gold. Lot of really fabulous Ent-vs-orc sadism. It would seem that you don't have to worry about an R-rating if it's just orcs being pulverized. Fantastic use of little tiny moving figures in digital or miniature backgrounds, tiny guys falling off platforms and into pits, etc. The scene with Quickbeam getting napalmed or whatever is right out of the book, although he gets put out later on when other Ents break the dam and flood the place. In the book, the flood was rather less dramatic, with the water kinda crawling in rather like the flood in New Orleans, and flowing down into the pits, raising big jets of steam...we still get those, but Jackson's flood comes in much more violently and spectacularly, and that's fine...the scenes with the Ents bracing themselves against the flood waters by apparently rooting themselves to the stones are the kind of cool that just makes you laugh out loud and nod your head.
Great Howard Shore Ents-descending-on Isengard-and-trashing-the-place music, by the way.
Unfortunately, the Isengard sequence is interwoven with yet-more ill-thought out Faramir stuff involving him trying to get the Hobbits accross the river at Osgiliath, and a flying Nazgul attack. This has no basis in the books at all, and it's just plain no good, at least partially because the treatment of Faramir has been so screwed up. The depiction of Osgiliath itself is most impressive, but once again, there's no reason it should be in the film. The whole sequence seems to exist primarily to give some sort of climax to the Frodo/Sam/Gollum thread because Shelob has been moved to Return of the King. But this is just doctrinaire Hollywoodish thinking, and Sam's ill-written inspirational speech doesn't cover it up at all.
Some of the wrap-up in the extended version, with Faramir letting the hobbits go back across the river, is rather odd...why would you have a sewer under a river? But then we have the exchange between Frodo and Sam about characters in the best stories, and that works, and that's followed by one last thing with Gollum all upset and vengeful about Frodo letting Faramir catch him earlier. Film ends with a shot of Mordor over the mountains,and Bjork singing a song about Gollumness. I wouldn't have bjothered with it.
As you may have gathered, I think the film's a much more mixed bag than Fellowship...when it works, as with the Gollum stuff, it has some of the best material in the trilogy, but there are a lot of misfires...I think the extended version is actually worse than the theatrical version, on balance. Certainly it makes it longer, and in the case of that dreadful third quarter, that's not a good idea. Overall, though, pretty good, and the final installment more than makes up for it...Return of the King might well be my favorite movie ever....