The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

LOTR Movies Retrospective: Return of the King

Return of the King is my favorite Rings flick, but it gets off to a shaky start. Even though we don't need a Gollum origin story---we've gotten two movies into the trilogy without one---Peter Jackson decides we need one. Now, he could've started off in Isengard, with the death of Saruman, which they actually filmed, and which you'll find in the extended version; in spite of the fact that the whole Saruman strand has been very prominent, Jackson figures that we don't have to find out what happened, and that this would somehow prevent us from "cracking right into the story." Of course, instead of cracking right into the story, we get a Gollum flashback from a thousand years before, and a slighting of the Saruman material that left Chris Lee quite justifiably fuming. Just weird.

As for the flashback itself, it seems like an afterthought, and rather a cheapo one. If you were going to do this stuff, it should've gone into Fellowship anyway, where it was located in the book. Smeagol and Deagol, wearing sweaters (!), are sitting in a boat in a nondescript pool....Deagol snags a fish, which drags him into the water, and right off, there are very peculiar scale (no pun intended) problems with the fishy special effects. I think these arose because they were trying to depict an undersized person and oversized fish, and just got confused. The quarrel between Semagol and Deagol is creepy, but the murder doesn't work. It just seems kind of abrupt and arbitrary. And the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum is simply bad. As you know, I love Andy Serkis's Gollum elsewhere, but having him writhing on rocks, and pretending to have bronchitis, and pitching a fit in a little tiny set to simulate his ostracism by the other proto-hobbits and his descent into loonyville just doesn't make it. Nor does the close-up FX transition from Serkis-puss to Gollumface. I for one was waiting for the movie to just get going...crack into the story, as it were.

We cut to Sam and Frodo and Gollum; they've been freed by Faramir, and are heading down towards the crossroads that will take them to the Morgul Pass. It's a just a small bit of three-way interaction, but it works to re-establish the characters...Frodo's more obsessed with the ring than ever, Gollum's just as annoying, Sam hates him, it's getting unnaturally dark. Fine.

From there, we get a nice smooth transition into the story's other strands, which are skillfully interwoven almost immediately, at least for the time being. In the extended version, it's much more clear that Isengard has been hemmed in with Huorns...liked that. Merry and Pippin are waiting for Gandalf and Co...they've been inside the ruined, flooded stronghold, and have plundered a bunch of choice supplies and pipeweed. In the original theatrical version, Pippin, who had a mouthful of salted pork or something, declared that he and Merry were "sitting on a field of victory," although that came out as "shitting on a field of victory," and in the extended DVD, that seems to have been attended to.

There are some impressive views of Isengard all flooded out with ents stalking around in the water...Treebeard shows up...we get the Voice of Saruman scene, but there isn't enough of it. It is, however, nice to see Saruman plummet off the top of Orthanc after being knifed by Grima Wormtongue,...since we weren't going to have the Scouring of the Shire no matter what, Saruman really needed to be exterminated here, and I'm glad he winds up on a spike on a wheel that slowly rotates down into the dirty water. Really, keeping this stuff would've been better than putting in the Gollum origin story, especially since we have Pippin finding the Palantir, a matter which figures prominently later on...if you don't have it being chucked down by Wormtongue, what is the thing doing in the water anyway?

After this, we're back to Edoras. Dead heroes are saluted at a feast, and then Merry and Pippin perform a musical number for the Rohirrim, who find it inexplicably amusing. Then there's some more goddamn Gimli-funniness, in this instance, a drinking contest between him and Legolas, in which we get to hear a lovely Gimli-fart. Yeesh...although, after Pippin squeezed out that lembas-poot in Fellowship, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Later on, we have the thing where Pippin sneaks the Palantir away from Gandalf...I like the fact that Gandalf sleeps with his eyes open. But Pippin's encounter with Sauron via the seeing-stone is a lost opportunity...we could've had some sort of visualization of Sauron aside from the big flaming eye; instead, we mostly get Pippin rolling around and screaming with the stone putting out cartoony animation. In addition, it's all in blurry afterthought slo-mo, because they don't seem to have filmed it in slo-mo to begin with. Surprisingly cheesy.

Gandalf decides to take Pippin to Minas Tirth with him...the farewell between Pippin and Merry works pretty well; there's a lot of gorgeous NZ scenery with Shadowfax speeding through it. We cut from this stuff to Arwen and a group of solemn elves (including Brett from Flight of the Conchords!) heading for the Grey Havens through a forest...Arwen has a vision of a son she's going to have by Aragorn. This isn't in the book, but it works anyway...she decides to blow off the whole Grey Havens thing and return to Rivendell and get hitched to Aragorn...we're glad. And it's nice to see Narsil reforged finally, into Anduril, for Aragorn...should've happened back in Fellowship, but better late than never.

Gandalf and Pippin reach Minas Tirith. Just like Jackson's renderings of Helm's Deep and Edoras, it incorporates just about every detail that Tolkien talks about, including the big blade of rock that bisects the city. And even though Tolkien didn't specify the architectural style,the design choices---namely Romanesque/Italian Rennaissance, mostly in a kind of sad white marble, really click. When Gandalf tells Pippin not to say anything to Denethor, it's a good bit of comedy (actually, I think all the Pippin/Merry funny stuff in the films is genuinely funny). The great Hall of the Steward is a wonderful Romanesque basilica, and even the statuary (which has been largely inept in the rest of the trilogy), is reasonably good. Denethor on his seat, with Boromir's chopped horn across his lap, is a most effective image of grief and despair.

John Noble does a good job with Denethor's quasi Shakespearean dialogue, which is largely drawn directly from the book...he doesn't look like Tolkien's Denethor, but Jackson said they'd had enough old guys with beards, and that's okay. Pippin being suddenly moved to swear fealty to Denethor is moving...John Noble's expressions are pretty wonderful. Sparks really fly in the clash between Denethor and Gandalf over Aragorn and the restoration of the monarchy. When Gandalf storms out with Pip in tow, he delivers a brief disquistion (drawn from Tolkien's appendices) about Minas Tirith's decay that was cut from the theatrical version, more's the's some of the best stuff in the movies, and really sets up Denethor's madness later on.

It's back to Frodo, Sam and Gollum...Sam gripes that it would be teatime in decent places, but Gollum reminds him, "We're not in decent places." They arrive at the crossroads that leads to the Morgul Vale...we have the bit (cut from the theatrical version), where they see the statue of an old king that has been decapitated by the bad guys, a stone sheathed in metal bars sitting on the shoulders...quite unsettling. But then they see the statue's actual head...a last ray of light strikes it, showing that it's got a crown of flowers. Most affecting, although I wish Jackson had left in the line about "they cannot conquer forever" before the shadows cut off the sun.


As Frodo et al. approach Minas Morgul, Pippin and Gandalf are watching the Mountains of Shadow from a balcony in Minas Tirith...the mountains look like they're maybe fifteen miles away, which is too close, but okay. There's a stupid bit in the extended version in which Gandalf seems to be getting lung cancer or at least bronchitis from smoking his pipe...eminently losable. However, the conversation with him and Pip gives us some worthwhile exposition, notably regarding the Witch-King of Angmar (we get a shot of the Nazgul Lord armoring up, and his helmet is bitchin'). and the whole thing is most evocative of "the Deep breath before the plunge." There's a palpable sense that the shit's really about to hit the fan...from this point on, the stuff with Fordo and Sam and Gollum, as they sight the Witch's King's city, is intercut with Gandalf and Pippin material, and it works just fine.

Once again, Minas Morgul, with is evil corpse glow, is right out of the book...I would've liked to have the nasty fungusy Morgul flowers, but maybe most people aren't quite so fond of such things as yours truly. Love the shaft of evil light that shoots up behind the walls, as a signal...Gandalf and Pip see it from Minas Trith, nice touch...the Witch-king landing on the Morgul battlements on his flying mount is awesome (rather better than having him ride out on a horse, as in the book), and the orcish horde that comes marching out with this wierd crippledy-twitchy-reptilian gait is appropriately grisly. I appreciate the differences in armor and gear between Saruman's orcs and these guys...Saruman's Uruks were obviously more state-of-the-art and modern, while Sauron's orcs are more fucked up and old-school. Everything about them is crappier, although there sure are a lot of them...

The hobbits and Gollum ascend the secret stair, and their steady progress upwards is impressively depicted...I particularly enjoyed the changing angles and distances as we get farther and farther above Minas Morgul...Jackson does a superb job with dizzying heights, and this stuff is even more vertigo-inducing than the yawning gulfs in Moria. Gollum is being sneaky, and Sam gets right up in his face. There are some fabulous expressions on the skank, where he's letting Sam know that he knows he's got a protector in Frodo, and that Sam really can't do's unbelievably hateful. Actually, the nastiness in Gollum has been coming steadily to the fore, with his facial characterizations depicting it quite chillingly.

After this, we have Sauron's army gliding across the river towards Osgiliath on some improbable medieval Higgins Boats. The action as they overrun the city isn't particularly interesting...I don't really like the depiction of the orcs as larger and more formidable than, well, orcs would be...they should seem rather more like a flood of cockroaches or ants, bringing heroic men down through sheer numbers. I also don't buy the Gothmog character, the hideously deformed orcish colonel or general or whatever he the book, there's a brief reference to a Gothmog, Lieutenant of Morgul. But really, that Gothmog would've been a human being in all likelihood...Sauron's top dogs seem to be Black Numenoreans, relatives of the Corsairs. Oh well.

But as things go south at Osgiliath, we get another of the trilogy's best sequences: the lighting, against Denethor's wishes, of the beacons along the summits of the White Mountains. There's nothing much like this in the book, and it's splendidly shot and stirring, complimented by Howard Shore's rousing music. I could grouse about about scale problems with the beacons in the distance, but...I won't. Love this part. Great, great cinema.

We shift to Rohan...Theoden decides to answer the call, although having it as an issue to begin with is rather silly. The muster is decreed; the king heads out with his troop from Edoras, after a good speech from Eomer which foreshadows Theoden's much more powerful speech later on at the Pelennor fields.

Meanwhile, the defenders are driven out of Osgiliath...Faramir and his guys retreat headlong towards Minas Tirith, pursued by winged Nazgul, and would obviously be toast if Gandalf didn't ride out to save them. Why Gandalf would have Pippin on his saddlebow, I don't know (actually, it's so Faramir can see him later and Gandalf can find out that Faramir's seen Frodo)...there's an amazing use of motion-control as the camera swings back towards Minas Tirith, which looks completely real, even though most of it, perhaps all of it in that shot, is digital.

As I've already mentioned, Faramir sees Pippin and is startled...he tells Gandalf and Pip that Frodo and Sam are alive, welcome news...we can really sense their relief...then Faramir goes in and has a confrontation with his father, who is immensely pissed that he didn't bring the ring to him. The scene is faithful to the original, but very shortly, the characterization of Denethor will pretty much go to bits for a while. On the other hand, Faramir is finally becoming the guy we really loved from the book.

Back on the Secret Stair, Gollum gets a glimpse of the ring, snatches at it while Frodo is asleep...Sam sees this and goes after him...Frodo wakes up and reprimands Sam. More and more we get the feeling that Frodo and Gollum really do have this horrible rapport, because they're both ring-freaks, and it's kind of like a private club, or a shared perversion. Sam's an outsider. While this is effective, Jackson winds up taking it way too far, though...more on that later.

Okay, back to Minas Tirith.

Denethor sits down for a huge meal as he orders Faramir, most ill-advisedly, to try and retake Osgiliath. This is peculiar, seeing as how he wouldn't summon the Rohirrim. But when Faramir asks him if he wishes that he'd been killed in Boromir's stead, and Denethor says yes,the scene works, and Faramir becomes even more like the actual Faramir from the books. Still, it's hard to get into the exchange because Denethor is already starting to eat disgustingly (it's just a ridiculous cheap shot at a character who doesn't really deserve it) and there's going to be way more absurd Denethor-gluttony later on.

High up in the Mountains of Shadow, meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are asleep as Gollum plots some evil...needing to put Sam out of the picture once and for all, he scatters some lembas-crumbs on him to make it seem as though Sam is pilfering. When Frodo wakes up, Gollum points out the crumbs, Sam goes ballistic, and Frodo tells Sam to leave. Sam heads back down the steps.

Now this is all wrong. It's even wronger than the characterization of Faramir. Sam is Tolkien's next-best character after Gollum (I suppose one could argue that he is the best), and in some ways he's the emotional heart of the story, more important even than Frodo. He's kind of the ultimate batsman (a batsman being an officer's assistant in the Brit army during WWI), and having him leave Frodo to Gollum's tender mercies when his master is clearly out of his mind is simply preposterous. Worse yet, this nonsense means that we don't get one of the strongest scenes in the book: namely, the thing where Gollum, moved by the sight of Frodo's sleeping face, is really thinking of repenting. It just strips a layer off Gollum, and for the life of me, I don't know Jackson and his writing team decided to take this approach.

Back at Minas Tirith, Faramir has gathered a troop and his heading out to try and retake Osgiliath. Gandalf tells him that Denethor loves him, and will remember it before the end, but...Denethor's volte face about Faramir later on will simply seem incoherent. As Faramir rides out, Denethor is still eating...cherry tomato-juice drooling over his chin, he asks Pippin to sing him a Shire-song, all this intercut with Faramir's company charging Osgiliath on if you'd try to take a city with cavalry. Needless to say, the attack fails...and Denethor just keeps on eating. It's one of the low points of the film.

The Rohirrim muster at Dunharrow. Pippin gets armored up, but it's plain that no one plans to let him fight. Actually, their reasons are pretty good, but of course, if you've got the novelist or the screenwriter on your side, you're going to make out just fine in the battle, even if you're three feet tall. I suppose I really can't complain...I myself have written characters in and out of dicey situations they wouldn't survive. Similar feelings regarding Eowyn...she speaks up in defense of Pippin's martial ambitions, obviously standing up for herself in that regard as well. It would be easier to take if she seemed more like an actual I've mentioned, I would've preferred a more valkyrie-like take on the character. Miranda Otto does indeed carry most of her scenes, but it's mainly because she's so cute, and you wish people would let her do what she wants and not be mean to her. Actually, I do wish Aragorn would just give in and wind up with her...I like her better than I like Liv Tyler, because Miranda doesn't look like Steve Tyler.

Did you ever notice, by the way, that Nastassia Kinski looks like her father Klaus? Also, that Klaus Kinski looks almost exactly like Robert Kennedy? Oh damn, better get back to Return of the King...

Where were we?

While everyone's waiting about, Aragorn gets a visit from Elrond, who brings him Narsil reforged, and informs him that Arwen, for some reason, is dying. This invention by Jackson is simply mystifying...apparently he felt the story just wasn't dramatic enough...either that or it was an attempt to inject more Liv Tyler into the thing. But it's simply worthless, and the time could've been spent on something else.

Theoden tells Eowyn she's got to stay behind...Miranda Otto looks incredibly unhappy; we feel for her, we really do, and it's not just her performance and cuteness...the scene is well-written, and Bernard Hill does a good job too.

Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas head on into the Paths of the Dead...back at camp, everyone's upset that Aragorn is leaving. We learn the muster is insufficient, and that the Sauron's forces are going to win down in Gondor. However, Theoden, to cheer everyone up, says, "We will meet them nonetheless." This is particularly silly; I guess it was an attempt to capture the whole Byrtnoth, Northern Thing, "as our Strength lessens" sensibility, but having my king uttering such stuff would simply be a downer, rather similar to that bit in Two Towers where Aragorn blurts out, "Then I will die beside them!" in front of all the desperate Rohirrim before Helm's Deep.

Aragorn and Co. approach the Paths of the Dead through that strange patch of NZ badlands, with steep vertical sides and gulleys, where Jackson filmed the opening of Dead Alive, you know, the place where the Sumatran Rat Monkeys hang out. It's very creepy looking. Not what Tolkien had in mind, I think, but...the whole Dunharrow-Paths of the Dead sequence is one of the vaguest,  most ill-thought out sections in Tolkien's trilogy. He gives you no real sense of the topology (odd for him), and everything about the ghosts is rather indefinite. Yeah, they broke faith with Aragorn's ancient relatives, and yeah, he has the right to call them up, but we don't get any concrete idea of what they're like now at all. Also, it's sort of problematic that Aragorn uses them on the Corsairs and then just holds their oath fulfilled, instead of using them at Minas Tirith later....Jackson's Aragorn at least retains their services at the Pelennor Fields.

This is not to say that Jackson fixes things by rendering them more concrete and superficially more logical. His Paths of the Dead Sequence is just kind of juvenile, with a lot of walking on scary skulls, and Gimli freaking out, and ghostly fingers picking at his nose and making him sneeze. The King of the Dead and his guys are nifty in a comic-bookish kind of way, and they live in a cool ghost city, but they're not scary...I would've gone for something rather more J-horrorish, like that black apparition you get towards the end of Kairo,the one who's out-of-focus except for his eyes. But the whole Dead sequence could've been a whole lot more annoying...Jackson actually did a scene where the ghostly city bursts open in a flood of's just peculiar and arbitrary, and removing the thing out for the theatrical version was a good idea.

Back at Dunharrow, the Rohirrim are pulling out...Theoden tells Pippin he can't go. Pip's really bummed, but then a mystery rider comes and picks him up...turns out it's Eowyn. We're happy that both of them are going to get a chance to put their necks on the line.

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli emerge on the banks of the Anduin...even though they've been copiously skulled, they don't seem to have the Dead Army with them. The Corsairs of Umbar show up, heading for Minas Tirith on the river. The boats and the water effects in these shots are not very convincing...the water in particularly is very lackluster and dull, and the boats don't look like real objects. The rare scenes in the Trilogy with bum special effects real stand out, because the standard on the rest is so high...generally, when there's some unsuccessful stuff, I try not to let it take me out of the movie, although I feel justified in bitching here.

Sauron's forces finally arrive at Minas Tirith. Once again, the military dispositions are ridiculous...all the baddies (and there sure are a shitload) just park themselves in front of the wall and stand there in formation. In Tolkien, they got there and laid seige, set up camp, dug trenches, etc. I suppose the idea here is that they're just going to prevail immediately with their seige engines, army could comport itself this way. It is impressive visually, though...I think you could make an excellent case that Return of the King is the most incredible movie spectacle ever.

It is odd, however, that arrow-riddled Faramir could've been dragged by his plodding horse all the way from Osgiliath without the malefactors, who are apparently only a few hundred yards behind him, taking an interest. Even more inexplicable is Denethor's reaction when Faramir is brought to him...after freaking out about his son, he takes a look over the battlements and sees Sauron's army, which, apparently, he hasn't taken a peek at before. Once again, it's like that bit with Brad Dourif in Two Towers at Orthanc...the shot of the assembled legions is pretty awesome, but I'd like it better if things made sense.

We get this kind of dumbed-down visualist stuff, by the way, because of the evil influence of numbnutssimus George Lucas. It's all his fault. But I digress.

Anyway, Denethor freaks out even more, and Gandalf has to bonk him with his staff and take over the defense of the city. The movie has Gandalf being a whole lot more active during the battle than the book does, that's perfectly reasonable cinematic license...unlike changing Denethor from a proud dignified ruler at the end of his rope to a tomato-juice drooling, overly complicated nincompoop.

Sauron's forces commence the assault by catapulting a bunch of severed heads into the city...very glad that detail was retained. There's a catapult-vs.-trebuchet duel that's quite wonderful...the assault towers are pushed up by trolls...the state of the art FX mayhem from this point on is simply so stunning and well directed that you stop thinking about problems for long stretches. I love the fact that the defenders are trebucheting great big chunks of marble buildings into the enemy ranks; the scenes with the winged Nazgul swooping in and out and snatching up little guys and dropping them from tremendous heights are simply tremendous...kinda makes you wish you were a Nazgul.

In a scene that's not from the book, a seige-tower lets down its ramp and Gandalf and Pippin find themselves up to their eyeballs in orcs. It's exciting and well-staged, and even if it's sort of hard to believe that Pippin could save Gandalf's bacon in such a situation, we're glad he does.

A battering-ram is applied to the gates, but doesn't achieve anything...Gothmog orders his lackeys to bring up Grond. If I'd been Gothmog, I'd have started with Grond right from the gitgo, but whatever. Grond is wonderful, a giant ram with a ravening wolf's head at the business end. I don't think you'd want to have the business end hollow and full of fire, because that would lessen the impact and make the ram more liable to collapse, but it all just looks preposterously cool...

Right about here, the first disc ends and you have to put on disc two.

That opens with Aragorn and his chums going down to speak to the Corsairs as they sail by. When the Corsairs don't turn around, we learn that the Dead have been following Aragorn, and that they can just go rolling out over the water...the Corsairs are overwhelmed. I do wonder what it was like for Aragorn and co. on board those ships afterwards...were the dead going up in the rigging and singing yo-ho-ho? Drinking rum? Did Aragorn and the King of the Dead sit down and have a heart to heart? Did Gimli amuse the ghosts with farts and pratfalls? Golly I hope so.

As for Frodo and Gollum, they arrive at Shelob's Lair. It's nothing like Tolkien's version, which was pitch black...after the fashion of most movie caves, Jackson's version is quite nicely lit, and really, in a movie, as in real life, completely black blackness is rather a problem. The spider arrangements are quite horrible to look at, and that's justification in itself, although they don't make any least, not unless there were some other, smaller spiders than Shelob about. After all, Shelob's this big monster, and Jackson's version seems to have deposited silk into every nook and cranny in the caves, going back and forth in ways that would have, among other things, torn up her own webs. Shelob herself is based on some sort of really deadly NZ spider that apparently apparently terrifies the shit out of Jackson, although she should've been more black-widowish...also, as per usual, Jackson substitutes running around for actual fear. In the book, you have a bunch of highlights on Shelob's multiple black eyes as she approaches, and Frodo has to use Galadriel's luminous vial to back her the movie, he stumbles and screams and gets caught in an improbable web, the scene a rather blatant rip-off of the spider-gremlin bit in Gremlins 2, I kid you not.

Anyway, he slices his way out, and, in a bizarre trackway that seems to have been smoothed by Shelob's bulbous gut, has an encounter with Gollum, who's most put out that Her Majesty didn't kill the Hobbit...he gets chucked down inside a fissure...Frodo continues on towards the pass of Cirith Ungol.

The Rohirrim, meanwhile, are heading towards Gondor...there's a good scene between Eowyn and Merry....In Minas Tirith, Denethor decides he's going to burn himself alive and take Faramir with him onto the pyre. From this point on, the Denethor strand is much more like the book, and ultimately it'll get pretty potent.

Climbing down the Secret Stair, Sam finds the lembas that Gollum tossed over the side, and decides to go back up and save Frodo...given the fact that Sam would've known all along that it was just a trick, I don't know why finding the Lembas would've made any difference. As for Frodo, he doesn't realize that Shelob's still after him...she gets him too...when she stings him in the stomach, Elijah Wood's expression is somewhat comical, but the stuff where she wraps Frodo up is really really ghastly, and Sam's eruption onto the scene is thrilling. In the book, the spider-fight consisted largely of Sam hacking into her eyes and then having her trying to crush him and coming down on his get all that in the movie, although the fight itself goes on much longer. I didn't mind though...Shelob's a great special effect, and the action is vigorously directed. Frodo looks deader than hell when Sam rips open the webbing and takes the're quite thoroughly horrified, and really empathize with Sam. And when a bunch of orcs from Cirith Ungol show up, Sam hides, they take Frodo, and we find out that Frodo's merely zonked from venom and not dead, we're even more horrified.

For what it's worth, this material works rather better in the movie than it did in the book...Tolkien had a very complicated cave-setup, involving multiple tunnels and a door with a gap between its top and the lintel, so that Sam could hear the orcs, and at a very long distance too. Hate to say it, but Tolkien really wrote himself into a corner with the Shelob's lair-Cirith Ungol stuff, and had to tie himself in knots to keep our protagonists alive...Jackson's logic here is far less tortured.

Back at Minas Tirith, Grond is making hash of the main gate...Gandalf tries to organize a defense, but a horde of trolls busts in. In the book, the besiegers never get into the city, but here they do, and it's genuinely terrifying, featuring amazing motion-control bits where we just catch little shaky glimpses of the monsters beyond this or that corner. Pippin comes and tells Gandalf that Faramir's alive, and that Denethor is going to burn him...Gandalf heads on up to put a stop to all that. As he's approaching the tombs where Denethor is about to start these festivities, Gandalf is intercepted by the Witch-King, although this confrontation is interrupted when day breaks and the Rohirrim arrive. This sequence, which corresponds to the bit in the book where the gate is broken and the Witch-king rides in briefly, was cut from the theatrical version, and I'm ambivalent. It's a good scene, although the geography makes no sense, given what's already been established about the city...I don't expect most people pay attention to things like that.

But as I said, the Rohirrim have arrived at last, and what comes next is super. Interestingly, when I was younger, I used to do all these really complicated Tolkien pictures with India ink or Bic pens...some of these things wound up with Tolkien himself, and God knows what became of them. Most of the ones I still had were destroyed when my house burned a while back, but I've still got one of the last pictures, a Panavision shot of the Riders lined up and ready to go, diagonal composition...aside from the fact that I had the sky being quite black, the picture is extremely similar to a lot of Jackson's shots along the Eorlinga front ranks.

When Merry and Eowyn first clap eyes on the forces arrayed against them, there are some fine reaction of the things I really love about these movies is that the people will see things like the Balrog, or a giant Mordor-host, and really look scared. But everybody gets rousingly bucked-up by Theoden's speech, which is straight from the book, and really does capture the whole Northern thing ethic quite beautifully; as the Riders charge, Howard Shore's music swells powerfully. For the movie to be any good, this sequence had to be tremendous---when C.S. Lewis read Tolkien's original, he said, "That's as good as anything in Homer," and he was dead right. Well, Jackson truly nails brings tears to the eyes and makes your throat catch...great, great stuff, with unusually visceral CG when the riders go crashing in among the orcs and riding them down.

After all that, the story shifts back to Denethor, and while you might think it would lose some pressure, it doesn't at all...Tolkien's version was quite nightmarish, capturing the horrifying pagan despair that Denethor was lapsing into, and Jackson, once again, does quite the job. John Noble seems exactly like Denethor at this only quibble is Denethor catching fire, running a very long distance, and flying over the battlements, a human torch. But then we're right back into the primo carnage below.

The Rohirrim, needless to say, are cutting quite a swath through the orcs, but they don't get things all their own way...where Tolkien had a bunch of cavalry-on-cavalry stuff between the Eorlingas and the Haradrim, Jackson serves up a counterattack by Oliphaunts, which I have to say, were underemployed by Tolkien. Here were have some of the most eye-popping giant monster biz imaginable...the oliphaunts are extremely memorable designs, brachiosaur-sized titans with multiple tusks and great big shuddering castle-like howdahs on their backs, filled with nasty painted southrons...I don't believe for one moment that the Rohirrim could've brought any of these things down, but you really get swept away by the imagery as they ride in and under the beasts, shooting arrows and spearing their legs. You feel somewhat sorry for the monsters when they do come crashing to earth, but boy, they do crash impressively...I particularly like the way the howdahs shudder and slip and come splintering to peices.

And as if all this is not enough, the Witch-King, who's apparently been biding his time somewhere, finally descends into the fray! Theoden's horse is killed, and he gets crushed under it...Eowyn steps up to protect the dying king...the Nazgul's mount lands, and we finally get a good look at its's rather better here. Anyway, Eowyn chops it off pretty shortly, and the big decapitated corpse collapses, with the Witch-King rising up out of the wreck. The design on the Nazgul boss is rather better here than it was in the book...Tolkien's Witch King just had a crown floating atop an invisible head, with a couple of red-glowing eyes hanging between...Jackson's Nazgul Lord has that fabulous mean spiky helmet filled with just plain's better.

However, just as things are warming up between Eowyn and the Witch-King, we cut away to the river, where Aragorn's captured corsair-ships are pulling in. Sauron's troops come up to greet the vessels, not knowing that they're full of living dead guys...Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas jump off, are met with scorn by the baddies...and then the ghosts come swarming out. It's funny and cool, although...interrupting the Eowyn/Nazgul action is very poor judgement, rather like the intercutting you get at the climax of that American version of The shouldn't cut away from Sadako coming out of the TV, and you shouldn't come between the Nazgtul and his prey.

Again, Miranda Otto is compelling in the scene, more because she's cute and frail-looking than because she's a convincing her little beaky helmet, she looks rather like an adorable baby budgie. However, The Lord of the Nazgul unships a huge wicked morning star whose head looks like it weighs about a ton, and we don't want to see the budgie get bashed...he clocks her in the arm, and gloats about how no man can kill him, and prepares to finish her. However, Merry gets in behind him and stabs him behind the knee, and Eowyn, most dramatically, flips off her helmet, reveals her long blond locks, screams, "I am no man!" and sticks her sword right into the Nazgul's helmet. In Tolkien's book, the Nazgul's clothes merely deflated as his clothes emptied out; in Jackson's version, the Witch-King spazzes and crumples in on himself... I prefer Jackson  here.

As the dead sweep across the battlefield, Aragorn and his buds slaughter a bunch of Orcs...Gothmog gets dismembered. Gimli kills a lot of orcs, but Legolas gets the most spectacular exploit: he climbs aboard an oliphaunt, gets up into the howdah, shoots the shit out of the Haradrim manning it, and then brains the big beast with a point-blank arrow through the skull, leaping off as the monster comes thundering down. A lot of the earlier scenes with Legolas doing superhuman Elvish stuff, such as the thing with him sliding down on the shield in Two Towers, really didn't work, in my opinion...but his climactic elephant execution blew me away. It's yet another amazing piece of business in a battle sequence chock full of them.

The dead guys swarm into the city and clean out the orcs and trolls guys...wonder what the inhabitants made of that. Afterwards, Aragorn meets up with the undead king and holds his oath fulfilled, over Gimli's objection. Eowyn and Theoden have one last affecting scene before he finally dies. Then Eowyn gets packed off to the Houses of Healing and is cured by Aragorn; could've done without the song. Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield and gets him to the medics. In the extended version, we get the beginning of a hospital romance between Eowyn and Faramir...we're glad for them, and including this stuff is better...they show up together at the end of the theatrical version, after all.

We cut back to the Frodo/Sam material. Frodo's been taken to the fortress that guards the pass of Cirith Ungol. The shot which begins this scene is startlingly awful...the camera swoops in on a window at the tippy top of the tallest tower, and we see Frodo on the floor, and that's okay, but...the problems with scale are amazing. Frodo's about the size of the Fifty Foot Woman.

Things improve after that, though...the fortress is nicely rendered, a Gondorian fortress that's been captured and turned into an orcish pigsty. Now, even though the chain of events that lead up to Frodo getting free are fairly implausible (they were in the book), it does seem important to have our protags actually penetrating and escaping an enemy stronghold. Of course, what you really want is to get inside Barad Dur and have Sauron actually come onstage; but of course, if Sam and Frodo had actually gotten into Barad Dur they wouldn't get out. It just would've been stupid. Now, in an earlier draft of LOTR, Tolkien actually had Frodo being captured and taken into Minas Morgul...he wrote some of that stuff up...but I guess he decided that the hobbits wouldn't have gotten out of there, either. Nope, we have to settle for Cirith Ungol, sigh.

The film's version is pretty much what you have in the book...the orcs fall to fighting each other over Frodo's mithril-shirt...Sam sneaks in to find most of them dead. Some of the survivors see his shadow and assume he's much huger than he is; he kills a few and the rest flee...then he goes up to get Frodo, killing one last hideous orc-bastard. Frodo is relieved to find out that Sam took the ring, but immediately wants it back...Sam's reluctant, but gives it over...once again, someone relinquishes the ring, further undermining Jackson's rationale regarding Faramir. Damn I hate that Faramir stuff!


Frodo and Sam get into some enemy armor and go out into Mordor. Given the way the orcs have been depicted up till this point, I don't know why anybody would believe the Halflings are orcs, seeing as how the orcs are all about man made more sense in the book.

Back at Minas Tirith, the victors have a council of war...Seeing as how Gandalf was resurrected after his death and sent back by God Himself at the "Turn of the Tide," Gandalf is oddly defeatist now. He sits and sighs and stares and says, "I've sent Frodo to his doom." But Aragorn peps everyone up with a wild suggestion: why not march the army up the Black Gate, and thus distract Sauron and give Frodo a better chance? In the book, this is mainly Gandalf's idea...having Aragorn propose it kinda beefs up Aragorn'e role, I suppose, and after all, he is the titular king. Still, Gandalf being all morose is just incoherent characterization, and one more example of Jackson's incurable tendency to take dialogue from one person and give it to another.

As part of the distract-Suron campaign, Aragorn shows himself in the Palantir...Sauron responds by giving him a vision of Arwen on her deathbed. As I said earlier, I just don't know what to make of this dying-Arwen strand...the movie would be better without it.

There is, however, a whole bunch of consistently great stuff after this. As the allied host heads out from Gondor, Frodo and Sam make for Mount Doom, and the two story threads are much more rapidly intercut. The Hobbits get swept up in one of the orc-columns that's on the move to the black gate; there's a particularly horrendous mutilated orc-chieftain who takes an interest in them; Frodo and Sam pretend to start a fight, and all the orcs, quarrelsome creatures that they are, swiftly join in, giving our guys a chance to bug out. Afterwards, it's a slog across some very nasty stony desert, lensed in some well-chosen NZ volcanic landscapes. We have the scene with Frodo and Sam dropping their armor (along with Sam's beloved cooking gear) into a fissure, some paranoia about being spotted by the Eye, and Sam seeing the star far overhead, reminding him that there's some true untouchable beauty in the heavens...finally they reach the slopes of Mount Doom.

Aragorn and crowd, meanwhile, have arrived at the Black Gate; when Aragorn demands that Sauron come out, the mega-hideous Mouth of Sauron appears, at least in the extended version. Orginally, apparently, Jackson was going to have Sauron himself show up, in the guise of an angel of light; they even did some animatics of this, I believe; but they decided, wisely, to can the idea. Why would Sauron come out, after all? On the other hand, I wouldn't have axed the Mouth of Sauron; grotesquely made-up gob enlarged by special effects, he's a true apparition, played by the Road Warrior's gyro-pilot, Bruce Spence. I really liked the crack below his lower lip---obviously his great big teeth caused the skin to split. Jackson decided not to go with this because of the change in structure between the books and the film; since the Frodo/Sam strand wasn't interwoven with the other material in the books, we didn't know that Frodo had escaped from the orcs; in the film, having the Mouth of Sauron come out with Frodo's Mithril-shirt just didn't add any suspense, because all this stuff was being intercut with Frodo and Sam reaching Mount Doom. Aragorn and crowd might be demoralized, but we aren't. But I knew how the story turned out going in, and I bet most of the audience did too, and I'd rather have retained Bruce Spence's collossal maw. Also, I liked it when Aragorn chopped off his head. That wasn't in the book, but I am a fan of decapitations, simulated ones, at least.

Aragorn delivers a speech. It isn't as good as Theoden's speech before the Pelennor fields, probably because Tolkien didn't write it. Aragorn's is kind of a riff on Henry the Fifth, and doesn't really make bit, about everybody fighting here, "on this good earth" is mystifying...good earth? Before the gates of Mordor? What were Jackson, etc all thinking? It's rather like that bit in the Welles Macbeth, in which Duncan, arriving in Macbeth's dank dark barbarian-age stone pile, full of gibbetted corpses, says, "This castle has a pleasant seat."

But Aragorn's speech doesn't last too long and the final battle starts...our guys rush headlong into the enemy ranks (in the book, they stayed up on a couple of hills, rather more sensibly) but I don't mind one more charge. Jackson was going to have Aragorn hacking and hewing at Sauron himself, but didn't, thank God; a bit of Sauron animatic actually made it into the film though, during the fight between Aragorn and that troll.

All this has been interleaved with Frodo/Sam biz, which has been getting more harrowing...the thing where Sam carries Frodo up the slope is genuinely excruciating, and the part where Sam gets his first view of the entrance to the Cracks of Doom is simply awesome cinema, given a gigantic boost by some great Howard Shore biblical epic music. Then we get a vicious clash with Gollum, who's looking even more venemous and wicked than ever...Sam knocks him off Frodo with a rock, then finds himself fighting him tooth and nail, finally driving him off with a sword-slash to the ribs, as Frodo stumbles on up into the side of Mount Doom.

The interior of the Cracks of Doom is impressively hellish...I love the outhrust stony projection that hangs over the lava. When Frodo decides to take the ring for himself, it's one of the rare moments when Elijah Wood is actually effective...he looks extremely evil (actually Elijah generally works better as an evil little creep, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Sam's reaction is perfect, although just about everything Sean Astin does in this movie is spot-on...anyway, this particular scene is intensely horrifying, and once we get the shot of Sauron reacting to Frodo donning the Ring, and his eye turning towards Mount Doom, and the Nazgul at the Black Gate turning towards Mount Doom themselves, we truly feel like everything in the whole damn world is teetering on the brink.

Gollum bopping Sam on the head and then advancing on Frodo works well, although having Gollum floating in midair with his legs locked around Frodo's invisible body does not. Yeah, the basic idea is immediately apparent, and interesting, but the image is funny and cartoony...having Gollum fighting with his feet planted would've been just plain better. However, when Frodo got his finger bitten off, it made my hands hurt. I would've preferred Gollum just dancing on the edge and going over, seeing as how, if Frodo had grabbed him and they both went over together, it's almost inconceivable that Frodo could've snagged anything to hold addition, he's just as crazy as Gollum about the ring at that point, and probably wouldn't have relinquished his grip on him. However, that long shot staying with Gollum all the way to the bottom is very cool, and so is the inscription on the ring lighting up from the heat just before the circlet melts.

Of course, the volcano science throughout is all wack; Gollum would've been a proto-halfling torch long before he actually hit the lava; moreover, while he might've splashed a bit, he wouldn't have sunk in, seeing as how he wouldn't have been remotely as dense as the liquid stone...not sure if anyone should care about this, though.

I was quite taken , however, with Sauron's reaction to the ring's destruction...loved his eye getting all white-hot and dysfunctional and losing its form...the collapse of Barad Dur is just as wonderful as it needed to be, as is the crumbling of the Towers of the Teeth, and the giant explosion that blows the top off Mount Doom. It's extremely persuasive when the good guys before the gate display all kinds of elation, then realize that Frodo must've gotten zorched, and slide right then into terrible grief.

But we know that Frodo and Sam are still alive, even if they're way out on a crag, surrounded by lava; Sam revealing that he would've liked to have married Rosie Cotton is great, as is Frodo's declaration that he's glad to have Sam with him, "here, at the end of all things." And just when you think things couldn't get any more moving, the eagels come swooping in! There's a bit of a crib from the Road Warrior,, namely the thing where we're looking down on Frodo as he's going along in the eagle's's plainly derived from that shot of Max after he's been rescued by the Gyro-Pilot. But it's exactly the shot to crib..fade out to a bedroom in Minas Tirith.


The scene where Frodo wakes up and everyone comes and bounces on his bed and laughs for no reason simply sucks. After a while, as more and more people come to visit, it begins to remind one of the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera. I can't say I cared for Aragorn's coronation much either. Viggo Mortensson's song stylings seem rather stiff and uncomfortable (Miranda Otto's Old English warblings were much better), and his kiss with Liv Tyler just seemed wrong. Still, we're glad to have final glimpses of Elrond and Legolas and Gimli.

The return to the Shire is just fine. Love Frod and Sam and Pippin and Merry riding up in their foreign duds and the other hobbits looking at them as though they've all got two heads. It's a pity we didn't get the Scouring of the Shire, but I understand why we didn't. The scene where our heroes are sitting, unappreciated, in the Prancing Pony while an Andy Serkis hobbit is lionized because of a giant pumpkin that he's just hauled in is priceless. We're delighted by Sam and Rosie's wedding; and we feel a considerable pang when we realize that Frodo can't re-adjust to the Shire because he was damaged so badly by his struggle with the ring. When Gandalf shows up with the wagon with Bilbo in it, the makeup job on Bilbo is rather too thick and obvious, but we're happy to see Bilbo again, even if we're shocked that he's aged so much. The Grey Havens don't quite make it as a special effect...they're rather too gingerbready and golden (they should, of course, be grey) but then again, Tolkien doesn't give us much to go on. Frodo's farwell to his friends is, again, quite touching, particularly the line about how "the Shire has been saved, but not for me." The shot of the ship heading out is none too convincing, but the movie had earned sufficient goodwill at this point (for me at least), that I put up with it.

First time I saw the film, though, I was worried right up until the end that Jackson was going to tamper with the last line, Sam returning and saying, "Well, I'm back." Well, as you already know, that wasn't messed with, and I've been a bit more relaxed about everything every since.

The end credits, with some nifty Alan Lee artwork, are very nice...I was particularly interested to note that, whenever a New Line Exec's name comes up, it's accompanied by a picture of Sauron, a Nazgul, an orc, or some other kind of baddy. Which brings me to our final summation and scorecard...I think at least fifty percent of the blame on the stuff that doesn't work probably should be laid at the feet of New Line. They had a lot of crummy ideas that introduced all sorts of distortions into the final product even though Jackson sometimes succeeded in ameliorating them. On the other hand, New Line did put up the money, and decided to pay for three pictures, when Jackson was only expecting two..that's something.

As far as the characters go, Gollum is perfect; Gandalf, Sam, Bilbo, Boromir, Legolas, Saruman, Legolas, Eomer and Wormtongue are about as good; Elrond, Merry, Pippin and Treedbeard are pretty successful; Faramir, Denethor, and Theoden are all well-cast and played, although they're let down by the screenplay. I don't think Viggo Mortenssen clicks; he doesn't seem like enough of a craggy weathered badass. Liv Tyler looks like her dad, as I've said for the third time now, and Kate Blanchett looks swell but talks too slow, and her big scene is really ill conceived. Gimli is right at the bottom of the barrel...the idea of thirteen Jackson-style dwarves in The Hobbit is rather chilling.

Overall, the effects are fantastic; the movie is one of the greatest FX films ever, and in that respect, hasn't aged a bit since it came out, Gollum being the single finest achievement. The music by Howard Shore is simply wonderful...vaults right into the front ranks of classic film scores...huge number of tracks and a host of wholly different themes. The screenplay is variable, oddly schizophrenic...for the most part, it works best when it sticks to Tolkien, although there are any number of moments when it improves on the original, or opens things out in a perfectly desirable way. The photography starts off okay, but improves steadily...good-looking movie on the whole. As for Jackson's direction, it's almost always good, and rises to some pretty awesome heights when it needs to.

So there. Man, I sure have run off at the mouth about these movies.

Bit of a postscript. There is a certain amount of stuff that Jackson didn't mine...I presume that whoever holds the rights could just go in and make some other films, look into the matter, at any rate. You could make a scary little wierd eighty-minute long Tom Bombadil movie, for example. Just assume that the audience knows who the Hobbits are, and why they're on the run (maybe even have some black riders at the beginning and the end), and have them plunging into the Old Forest. Spend about the first third of the film on steadily creepier tree-horror, climaxing with old Man Willow and our guys getting bailed out by Tom. Have him be fairly bizarre...he should be played by a slightly porked-out Ewan Macgregor, or maybe Kenneth Branagh. He takes the Hobbit to his house, we meet Goldberry, and thing are tres odd. The middle third of the movie is Tom describing some of his exploits....I guess you might have to secure the rights to Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Then the last quarter or third of the film could be the Hobbits out on the Barrow-Downs, running afoul of some very creepy wights, and being rescued by Tom...might even see him facing down the Black Riders as the Hobbits escape into Bree.

You could also do a Scouring of the Shire movie...might lend itself to adaptation rather easier. Have Frodo and crew departing, then zero in on Rosie Cotten et. al as Saruman's slimebags infiltrate the place, facilitated by Lotho a real slow burn and make it really unsettling and rather painful, with more and more of the Shire being ruined. Then, long about halfway, or perhaps two-thirds along, our heroes return, and put everything to rights in a series of ambushes.

Anyway, I would like to see either of those movies...actually you could film them very successfully in Delaware and Maryland, believe or not, in White Clay Creek, Middle Run, the Judge Morris Estate, and Fair Hill. Seriously, we have stuff around here that beats the NZ Shire locations all to hell...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

LOTR Movies Retrospective: The Two Towers

Okay, I'm 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.

So then...

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 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'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 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, can't really make out the 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 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 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'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 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'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 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, 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 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....

Monday, January 2, 2012

LOTR movies Retrospective: Fellowship

I'm a huge Tolkien fan, corresponded briefly with the guy when I was a teenager (I was trying to acquire the movie rights to The Hobbit!), and I think I've read Lord of the Rings at least forty times...I love the Silmarillion too, and have championed it vigorously against those who don't appreciate it sufficiently. So...I was about the worst possible audience for a movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings, and I was kind of amazed---in a good way---by Peter Jackson's achievement. Was very impressed by the movies when they first came out, and my appreciation only deepened when I watched the appendix material on the DVD's...given all the crap that Jackson had to contend with at New Line, and the fact that he was shooting all three movies simultaneously, I thought he and his team managed something that was very nearly miraculous.

I was looking forward to his remake of King Kong, although, as I heard more and more about it, I got increasingly worried. In the original movie, Carl Denham (who's kind of an amalgam of Merrian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) is an absolute son of a bitch, but he's pretty damn cool, too. In the remake, Jackson decided to play him as a evil idiot, and the result was a big sopping loogie in Cooper and Schoedsack's faces...I think they would've hated Jackson's movie. I sure did. But it wasn't just the treatment of Denham. Everything about the film was coked-up, wildly overdone, stupid, stupid, stupid, verging on Stephen Sommersish. Even the monsters were frequently ill-designed.

Anyway, I got really mad at Peter Jackson, and the Kong remake sorta began to poison my memories of the LOTR movies. The Lovely Bones didn't help either...I thought everything with Stanley Tucci worked very well indeed, but when we got to special effects non-heaven, I thought the film completely spazzed out, becoming something like an even more bombastic and arbitrary version of What Dreams May Come. The end was preposterously anticlimactic too. Don't know how much of that was Jackson's fault...I've never read the book...but the final product was extremely messed up.

Okay then. This summer, since the last Harry Potter movie was coming out, me and the family decided to do a Potter movie crawl, watch every installment and then go see Deathly Hallows Part Two. Well, we had quite a good time. I don't think the series quite hit its stride until the second movie, but it was apparent right from the gitgo that the casting was excellent; one of the coolest things about the films was the way they employed virtually every nifty character actor in Britain. Also, the adaptations were about as good as could be expected, probably due to the influence that J.K. Rowling was able to exert over the films; in fact, the movies were frequently better than the books, in my opinion. I would even go so far as to say that they were better adaptations of Rowling than Jackson's LOTR was of Tolkien...they simply treated the source material more respectfully. For the most part, when Jackson tampered, he did so at his peril.

Since we had such fun with our Potter crawl, we decided to do a LOTR movie retrospective over Christmas...just watched the extended edition of Fellowship, and I'm happy to report that the experience wasn't colored too much by Kong at all. Fellowship still stands up extremely well. I had some reservations then, and still have them now...but nothing too serious.

First off, the adaptation is efficient and gets the big stuff right. The initial setup, with Sauron and Isildur, works real well, and makes all the relevant points pretty spectacularly. You watch it, you relax, feel confident you're not going to see your favorite book mangled. You see the little snippet of the Bilbo and Gollum biz, and you say, yeah, Ian Holm is exactly right...he will, as a matter of fact, prove to be one of the most dead-on bits of casting in the film.

The Shire stuff in the theatrical version was good, but the extended version is a big improvement. We get a much better idea of what Bilbo's sloppy bachelor pad is like...Bag End is superbly realized. The additional material from "Concerning Hobbits" is very welcome. Elijah Wood's Frodo is one of the weaker aspects of the film, but when Ian McKellan's Gandalf shows up, you say, yep, that's Gandalf all right. Bilbo's Birthday party is genuinely's nice to have the bit with the horrid Sackville Bagginses...the introduction of Merry and Pippin is a bit dodgy, but Bilbo's speech and disappearance work perfectly. McKellan really really really becomes Gandalf in the scene where he partially reveals his true nature and scares Bilbo into handing over the ring.

Sean Astin's Sam is yet another of the film's casting triumphs; totally nails the character. Once Bilbo leaves the ring and departs, we get a whole lot of compression---in the book, the stuff after the party, when Gandalf is out investigating, covers about ten years---but films don't work like novels, really, and the squeeze is a good idea cinematically. It's nifty to get a glimpse of Minas Tirith...when Gandalf returns and lays the whole Sauron angle out to Frodo, the exposition is well handled, and there's a palpable sense of gathering dread. Having the stuff between Gandalf and Saruman onstage, and inserting it so early in the story is rather a departure, but it moves things right along, and Chris Lee's Saruman is yet another dead-on characterization. Very good to see the old guy in such a juicy role...his best part since Lord Summerisle, maybe better.

But things go downhill somewhat after Frodo and Sam head out onto the road. In the extended version, the scene with the departing elves is a definite improvement, but Jackson can't really do a good job on the Shire, in my opinion; I don't think there's really any genuinely Shire-looking stuff in New Zealand. The trees are mostly southern hemisphere evergreens, and even though Bilbo, earlier, was going on about wanting to see mountains, the Shire is apparently ringed by some pretty big ones. We don't get Farmer Maggot or Tom Bombadil (he might've been real problematic), and the reintroduction of Merry and Pippin is extremely clumsy. The scene where the hobbits hide from the first Black Rider that shows up is fairly effective, although the bugs are over-the-top. Things head further downslope as our heroes evade the Black Riders in some improbably lit piney-wood night scenes...the black riders are extremely inept.

Bree is no good either. In the book, Bree is a fun place where Hobbits and people co-exist and have a real good time at an inn called the Prancing Pony. In Jackson's version, the Prancing Pony is dark and nasty and populated by filthy-looking medieval scumbags with grease all over their faces, like evil Mexicans in an Italian Western. I have to say I don't like Viggo Mortensson's Strider either, although I generally like Viggo in other stuff...he just seems too young and small. Actually, I think Sean Bean would've been better, but more about him later.

The attack by the Nazgul in the Hobbit's chamber works reasonably well, although the wierdly stylized scene with Butterbur cringing as they slide by, apparently on casters, is pretty silly. Things improve, though, as we get out into the wild, especially in the longer version...we get the Neekerbreekers, and the addition of the Beren and Luthien material is a good thing; pretty much all the comedy with Merry and Pippin is genuinely funny. But once again, the Nazgul aren't scary enough...they're ridiculously incompetent on Weathertop, and when one of them gets a flaming brand stuck into his hood, I was reminded of those horned snooded fellows in the Justified and Ancient video.

In the extended version, we get to see the petrified trolls from The Hobbit, and I appreciate little as I like Elijah Wood, I think he does pretty well as a desperately ill halfling who's been Morgul-bladed. As for Liv Tyler, I think she's got rather a thankless role and looks way too much like her father; sticking her in for Glorfindel is just plain silly (what would she be doing out there in the waste by herself, anyway?)and in general, the attempt to punch up her part in the proceedings---for completely doctrinaire PC reasons---is simply foolish.

I liked the chase with the Nazgul, though, even though it's hard to imagine they couldn't catch her, seeing as how they get so close...the flash-flood is dramatic and cool...enjoyed the special effects. The sojourn in Rivendell is a mixed bag, but in some respects it's an improvement on Tolkien, who really doesn't give you the slightest idea what the place is like. Jacksons's Rivendell might seem like a frou-frou cross between the Village in The Prisoner and a wierd Jersey Shore resort town called Ocean Grove, but at least it's concretely visualized, and the landscapes with all the waterfalls are impressive. Hugo Weaving is well-cast as Elrond, even if his hairdo is funny...the screenplay requires him to come out with some bum usage ("he has shown extraordinary resilience to its strength") but he skates right over it like a pro. It's excellent to see Bilbo again, and the romance stuff with Aragorn and Arwen, now that it's in its proper context, is satisfactory.

Still, a lot of the trappings in Rivendell are goofy; the statues are badly done, although not as godawful as Alan Lee's mural of Sauron vs. Isildur---come on! The guy's figurework is totally for shit. And the initial encounter between Sean Bean's Boromir and Aragorn is a bad idea...for one thing, the screenplay has Boromir dropping the shards of Narsil on the floor and leaving them way.

The Council of Elrond is both efficient---and perfunctory. The bit with Gandalf uttering Black Speech is one of the few things in the extended edition that I would've left out. But Boromir gets his first good scene, and the introduction of Orlando Bloom's Legolas (he's the film's best elf) and John Rhys Davis's Gimli (he's well cast, but the role as written sucks) serves to set up the overall friction between elves and dwarves, and the Legolas/Gimli rivalry-then-friendship.

Finally, when the Fellowship hits the road, we get a bunch of fairly uninterrupted good scenes. The New Zealand locations are just right for the Misty Mountains, and the attempt to cross the pass of Caradhras is frightening, even though a lot of it is at variance with the book...I'd rather have had the stuff about the mountain himself preventing the crossing, rather than Saruman, although the shot of Saruman dispatching the storm is simply great. I've actually seen that weather effect (over Pike's Peak,) and let me tell you, it's something.

The approach to Moria is the broken aqueduct. Don't know why they changed certain the book, Gandalf wants to take the road into Moria. Having Gimli think the place is going to be a functioning dwarf-kingdom is simply absurd...but a lot of things just start conspiring to force your suspension of disbelief. The whole Moria sequence is a triumph of special effects, production design, and atmospherics.The Gates of Moria and the luminous carvings are just great, and the Watcher in the Water is one of the best movie monsters ever. The CG water is superb too. Once we get into Khazad-dum, the visuals, which are a combination of minatures, sets, and CG, are just stupendous...great rocks and cavernous chambers. The Great Hall of Dwarrowdelf is awesome, and right out of the book. Balin's Tomb is effectively forlorn and gruesome, and the fear mounts nicely as Gandalf reads from the book of Mazarbul. The bit with Pippin and the well is transferred to this sequence and tweaked, but it sure is funny---and scary. The orcs mount their attack way too quickly, but we don't care. The fight in the tomb is way longer and more spectacular than the one in the book, but what the hell. I would've preferred less shaky cam, but it sure combines with excellent CG to produce a very convincing troll. The Goblins are really creepy, and I appreciated the extra violence in the extended version.

When our guys flee from the chamber, I didn't like it when the orcs came flooding out of the ceiling...orcs can't do that, and Jackson should've controlled himself. For one thing, none of the orcs later seem to have this ability...remember all the siege ladders at Helm's Deep? Still, the coming of the Balrog is quite frightening...I particularly appreciated the lighting effect, where's he's apparently one row of columns over. I also loved the fact that everybody seemed genuinely freaked out, that Gandalf seems like he's about to have a heart attack...Orlando's Bloom's there's-a-Balrog-coming-look is everything such an expression should be. The sequence where the Fellowship descends those piers and stairs is pretty unnerving, even though it's not in the book...we get some of Howard Shore's best LOTR music. I really don't have the slightest idea why everything's on fire (it wasn't clear in the book, either) or why there's an ongoing earthquake...the physics in the sequence, with their oscillating stone constructions, are rather hard to take. Even so, the use of dizzying heights and yawning chasms is undeniably vertigo-producing, and I went with it.

We finally see the Balrog...he's an excellent design and a very good special effect, most terrible and intimidating. Gandalf's stand on the Bridge of Khazad Dum is powerfully depicted...the film really rises to the occasion, and that's absolutely vital, because that sequence is maybe the strongest in the whole damn trilogy. And when Gandalf falls, we're truly put out; the reaction of the various characters intensely moving; I can't think of another scene in the whole of fantastic cinema that's remotely as involving.

Of course, you just know that the subsequent stuff isn't going to be as compelling, and even in the book, the Lothlorien sojourn was primarily a breather. Jackson's crew do a pretty good job with Tolkien's locale, although I don't know why, exactly, they made everything silvery rather than golden. The guy they've got playing Haldir is almost hilariously epicene, but his scene served to show how paranoid the elves were about letting anyone into Lorien, and re-established the whole dwarf-elf enmity. Also, dropping Morgoth's name was a good idea...injecting a bit more mythos almost always is.

Martin Csokas and Cate Blanchett are well-cast as Celeborn and Galadriel, Cate especially. But even though their dialogue is right out of Tolkien, Jackson makes them members of the Slow Talker's Club, and the effect is pretty stilted and silly...these elves seem simply weird, wierd, wierd in a way that, let's say, Legolas and Elrond do not. Moreover, the special effects when Galadriel reveals the scarier side of her nature really don't make it...she just looks like she's got big hairy eyebrows. It would've been much better if she'd been allowed to let her acting to speak entirely for itself. I have no doubt that Cate would've managed it.

However, the scene where our guys depart from Lorien is nicely the theatrical version, I really missed the giving of the's nice to see a scene in which Gimli isn't played for laughs. Actually, I think Jackson's handling of Gimli is one of the very worst things about the films; he gets the character completely wrong, and I really took offense; I always felt like Gimli was one of my friends. Turning him into Mr. Lout Blowhard Pratfall was profoundly stupid. The proper archetype is that of the Chivalrous Dwarf, a stock character from medieval romances...yeah, he's short and ugly, but well, he's noble, etc.

The scenery in the trip down the Anduin is spectacular, although the river isn't wide enough; the addition of the bit where they spot Gollum on the log is good; the additional fleshing-out with Borormir is also welcome. In fact, just about everything with Boromir is an improvement on Tolkien's version.The Argonath sequence is fabulous, really awe-inspiring. Having the little interlude with Saruman and his brand-new Uruk-Hai badass isn't in Tolkien, but I approved...after all, we learn that the orcs are derived from elves (which is of course from Tolkien, although he changed his mind later and decided they were made from humans), and just about Chris Lee scene in the films is great.

The part where Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo really clicks, although I have a problem with Aragorn turning the ring down...isn't in the book and shouldn't have been. For one thing, it kinda infringes on Faramir later on. One of the things I really hated about the adaptation of Two Towers was the way it abused Faramir. Jackson and his screenwriters got this idea into their heads that someone besides Boromir had to try to take the ring, because, well, the ring makes you try to take it. But...Bilbo gives it up, and Gandalf passes on it, and so does Galadriel, and so does Aragorn, and so does Sam later, and...oh hell, you get the idea. Sometimes you just gotta roll with the absurdities in your own plots, try not to call attention to them, and...

Not abuse Faramir.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

The final slaughterfest with the Uruks is pretty damn nifty; I liked it much better than the fight in Balin's tomb; seemed to me there was less shaky cam and more emphasis on well-staged stunts. Don't know why Aragorn would've saluted the orcs when they show up, but...we move pretty rapidly into some excellent hacking and hewing. Having Boromir's arrow-riddled last stand on screen is yet another way in which the film surpasses the book. The extended flick has better violence, but even in the theatrical version, the violence was pretty choice...I particularly like the bulge in the orc chieftain's thigh where Aragorn's dagger is shoved through it, and the climactic orc-decapitation. Boromir's final speech and death improve on the book too.

The wrap-up, with Frodo and Sam heading off by themselves, works just fine, although I could do without Aragorn saying, "Let's hunt some orc." Liked the final shot of the Emyn Muil...the movie definitely leaves you wanting more. I would say I enjoyed this viewing at least as much as my first viewing...when I went to the midnight show, I really couldn't let down my guard, because you never know when a movie's going to tank. Luckily, I'm way past that, and the only fantasy movie I like better than Fellowship is Return of the King... I suppose I might've sounded pretty crabby about some things just now, but I can be much crabbier when the situation calls for it, as it does with most other movies, let me tell you...