November 29, 2010
Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Film
Andy Serkis, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Brad Dourif, David Wenham, Dominic Monaghan, Elijah Wood, Film, film music, Fran walsh, Gollum, Hardanger, Howard Shore, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Rhys-Davies, Karl Urban, Lord of the Rings, Miranda Otto, movies, Orlando Bloom, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, picture, poster, review, score, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, soundtrack, The Complete Recordings, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Return of the King, The Two Towers, Tolkien, Viggo Mortensen, WETA
Even while “The Fellowship of the Ring” was still on it’s theatrical run in late 2001 and early 2002, loved by critics and audiences the world over and almost instantly finding its way onto most best film lists, we were quick to realise that this awesome three-hour epic fantasy was but an opening salvo. The true scale and the real battles of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy would only become apparent in the second two chapters. And while any doubts in Peter Jackson’s filmmaking talents were quickly cast into Mount Doom, “The Two Towers” is still considered the somewhat difficult middle chapter, lacking both the strong opening and conclusion present in the trilogy’s bookends.
Launching us straight into the action, with literally no introduction or summary of what has previously happened, Jackson treats the film exactly as it should be: One long story, simply subdivided. And from the outset it becomes clear that the continuation is altogether more complex and considerably darker. Where “Fellowship” functioned as a road movie of sorts, “The Two Towers” sees our heroes take on separate journeys. And unlike the book where the plots are clearly separated, it makes sense to have the different strands be intercut. Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin) continue their long journey towards Mordor, tracked and then joined by the twisted and deceitful Gollum, played to perfection by motion capture pro Andy Serkis. Thus, using a combination of performance, voice and computer magic courtesy of Weta, Gollum aka Smeagol is without a doubt Jackson’s trump card for “The Two Towers”. Not only does the gangly creature look and behave in a manner that is photo-real, it is also the sort of pioneering work that has permanently changed the parameters of what is possible. And while the technical aspects of Gollum’s inception will be praised by most, it is important to note that like the rest of the trilogy, Jackson never gets carried away with a gimmick like this: Gollum is a fully fledged character, and one of the trilogy’s strongest pulling points in terms of different emotions. All kudos to Serkis here – it’s an utterly fantastic performance. The One Ring also is growing more powerful. It begins to take hold of Frodo who sees, in Gollum, what he may become if he should fail in his task.
Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) meanwhile, after managing to escape captivity, find their way into Fangorn forest and befriend one of Tolkien’s greatest creations: a walking, talking tree. Not a tree technically, an Ent. The Hobbit duo still provide most of the film’s humour but are now forced to fend for themselves, no longer are the other heroes around to protect them. Together they must persuade the Ents to go to war and aid their friends, a task proved difficult by the fact that Ents are by nature very slow and thoughtful. It’s in these scenes in particular that “The Two Towers” sometimes loses the edge and exhilarating sense of adventure that “Fellowship” possessed. The pacing is slowed right down, through the Ent bits but also through Frodo’s encounter with Faramir (David Wenham), brother to the deceased Boromir (Sean Bean). There’s a lot of walking hither and thither, without ever getting any closer to destroying the Ring. Jackson is being highly faithful to the book of course, which isn’t a bad thing and viewers will be so caught up in the story, that the three-hour run-time will still fly by. “The Two Towers” is by no means above criticism in this regard but the problems are minor and it should be remembered that with a film before and after it, it fulfils its purpose excellently. In fact keeping these meandering storylines in check is testament to the writing genius of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
Finally, we follow the journey of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli who track the Uruk-hai holding Merry and Pippin captive and are thus introduced to the world of men, namely the kingdom of Rohan. Aided by the new and improved Gandalf (Ian McKellen returns from his “death” in Moria as Gandalf the white), they travel to Edoras to aid the besieged Rohirrim in their battle against Saruman’s ever growing threat. Several new faces join the cast here including Bernard Hill as King Theoden, Karl Urban as Eomer, Miranda Otto as Eowyn and the ever creepy Brad Dourif as Wormtongue. It’s an outstanding ensemble. Development comes also with the introduction of a love-triangle of sorts, with Eowyn making eyes at a Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who is troubled ever by his love left in Rivendell who, if Hugo Weaving has anything to say about it, will sail to the Undying Lands and be parted from him forever. Fans of the book (and the appendices in particular for most of the love story was mined from there) will eagerly lap it up. As a result, the pacing the the middle act slows somewhat before it all culminates in the all-action battle of Helm’s Deep when all minor problems will be forgiven. Like Gollum, there are some really jaw-dropping effects and pure cinema on show here, really upping the ante and raising the bar higher yet again. We didn’t think that was possible but well, we have been wrong before…
As everything in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is consistent, so is its music, composed by Howard Shore. There are not enough superlatives out there to describe just how good, well researched and executed his music for the series is. Taking the the very solid and Oscar winning base of music from “The Fellowship of the Ring” Shore develops these themes and adds in new ones as well. There is a theme for Eowyn, another for Gollum and, perhaps most significantly, Rohan’s signature theme: As the whole Rohan society is based around ancient Scandinavian cultures, Shore writes for the Hardanger fiddle and a beautiful theme that soars above the images. It just feels like the music was always there, belonging to that world. The action music is developed further also: Isengard’s 5/4 pounding is relocated even further into the bass and some of the Lorien themes reappear for the elves at Helm’s Deep in a much more militaristic manner. Once again, there are two versions of the soundtrack available: The regular album and the Complete Recordings four disc set. While the casual listener may be satisfied with the single disc offering, film score fans should really shell out for the Complete Recordings which presents all the music in the film – there’s plenty of material that didn’t make the cut on the regular album.
Unlike the first chapter “The Two Towers” has a few minor problems, which are all ironed out by the end. In overall consideration however, these will make little impact on “The Lord of the Rings’” place among the greatest trilogies and films of all time. And because it is all one story, “The Two Towers” does an excellent job of building on “Fellowship’s” opening and sets us up perfectly for “Return of the King’s” dramatic finale. Genius filmmaking.
How does “The Two Towers” rank in the LotR trilogy for you? If you have any thoughts on my review or anything at all please do leave a comment, follow me on Twitter and subscribe to the RSS feed. Much appreciated – thank you! Until next time, all the best.
November 14, 2010
Action, Film, Thriller
007, Barbara Brocolli, Casino Royale, CG, Chris Cornell, Daniel Craig, David Arnold, Desmond Llewelyn, Die Another Day, Eva Green, Film, film music, freerunning, Goldeneye, Gollum, Ian Fleming, James Bond, James Bond Theme, Jason Bourne, John Cleese, Le Chiffre, License to Kill, Madagascar, Mads Mikkelsen, Martin Campbell, Michael G. Wilson, Moneypenny, Montenegro, Monty Norman, movies, picture, Pierce Brosnan, Poker, Q, Quantum of Solace, review, Roger Moore, score, Sebastian Foucan, shower scene, soundtrack, spy, The Sunday Times, The World is not Enough, Tomorrow Never Dies, Venice, Vesper, Vesper's Theme, Vodka Martini
Despite being the longest running and one of the most successful franchises in movie history, the tried, tested, retried and retested James Bond formula was wearing more than a little thin. Even a revitalisation at the beginning of the Brosnan era had petered out by the 2002 entry “Die Another Day”, a film with many creative ideas but a real lack of focus. The fans were leaving, tempted away by the grittier Jason Bourne series which saw its inception around the same time, and even the most hardcore fans must have been regularly plagued by flashbacks of Roger Moore dressed as a clown. And while decent action flicks like “The World is Not Enough” were fun in their own right, from a critical perspective, the world’s most famous spy needed more reinvention than revitalisation, a little shaking or stirring certainly wouldn’t go astray. “Casino Royale” makes changes as producers Barabara Brocolli and Michael G. Wilson saw fit, not only introducing us to new, blonde Bond Daniel Craig but guiding a general shift in the Bond universe. Ironic perhaps that sourcing the very first of Ian Fleming’s novels (and the only which had not been adapted as an official Bond film), “Casino Royale” takes us back to the spy’s roots, many components of which had been long abandoned by the film series.
It’s an origin story, introducing us to James Bond just after being promoted to his “double-O” status and his first mission with a license to kill. Opening with a powerful, black and white, almost noir style scene, the producers’ intent is clear: This Bond takes a much darker route. He bleeds for example, he makes mistakes, gets poisoned and quite literally has his balls whipped. It is the tale of how Bond attained the identity of the ruthless and heartless killing machine we know him to be. This was met with apprehension from some fans but after the post-opening-credits chase scene at the very latest, any doubts in director Martin Campbell’s (who was previously responsible for “Goldeneye”) ability to handle the film will be forever dispelled. Comparisons with Bourne are legit in a way, the action is more realistic compared to previous films, but “Casino Royale” finds it’s own middle ground between realism and the fantastic, take the awesomely assembled Madagascar chase: Sebastien Foucan’s acrobatics known as “freerunning” were all done for real (CG only used to remove safety wires).
The plot’s main focus however is a man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), private banker to the world’s terrorists. After loosing hundreds of millions of Dollars, betting on a disaster Bond manages to prevent, he organises a high-stakes Poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro for a refund, all the while hunted by his angry clients not exactly pleased that their money is gone. This too is an interesting premise. There’s no grand plan, no giant evil lair where the forces of ill prepare to dominate the world, there’s only poker. Le Chiffre is therefore as much in danger of losing his life as Bond, but how do you make a thriller out of a card game? The games themselves are not exactly fascinating but Campbell punctuates them at repeated intervals with well-staged action set-pieces, some graphically violent, others full of intrigue and suspense, others in turn are heartfelt and moving – the shower scene is one of the most powerful moments in a Bond movie, ever. It’s the balance of these different elements which will really keep you glued. The requisite Bond-girl too is different, Eva Green’s portrayal of Vesper sticks remarkably close to the novel, she’s feisty and holds a terrible secret. Her beauty is perhaps more subtle than some of the helpless incarnations of the past but it’s an excellent role. She manages to pull off something only one girl has managed before: To have Bond fall in love with her. And really, it’s easy to see why he would.
But what of Craig? He had his fair share of criticism both before and after the film’s release, some of it being downright cruel (The Sunday Times stated he looked like Gollum’s younger brother). If you’re going to gripe about the colour of his hair or about his swimming togs, you should really know better because Craig’s interpretation of the most suave of the suave is quite simply excellent. The cold, emotional detachment from his job, the armour he wears while at the same time being an arrogant and vulnerable mess is portrayed very well indeed. He even wisecracks from time to time (best line: when asked if he’d like his martini shaken or stirred he returns “Do I look like I give a damn?!”), and plays cool when needed. The scenes shared with Green have particular sparkle. While it’s a shame that Bond regulars like Moneypenny and Q (even if John Cleese could never replace Desmond Llewelyn) were left out, it makes sense in this, more serious storyline. Only other negative criticism that can be made is that the exterior shots of the house in Venice at the film’s climax just look horribly fake. It’s a combination of model photography and CG apparently but could have been made a lot better.
One of the elements of the “old” Bond that remained intact for “Casino Royale” is composer David Arnold who has provided consistently good scores for the series since “Tomorrow Never Dies”. The 2006 score is his best yet for the series. Not dominated by electronics like “Die Another Day”, the soundtrack here is both pulsating with orchestral and percussive force for the action but is counterbalanced with a beautifully elegant yet mournful piano theme for Vesper. This theme alone allows it eclipse many of the previous scores. Another intelligent decision was Arnold’s restraint with Monty Norman’s oh-so-famous James Bond theme. As Bond’s identity is not yet completely formed, the theme is hinted at in places throughout the score, only exploding with full force at the very end to the words “Bond, James Bond!” The title song is sung by American rocker Chris Cornell and was (annoyingly) released separately from the score album. The song itself is adequate but nowhere near the series’ best. Particularly because the title sequence is one of the very best, this is a disappointment. The music however is without question, Arnold’s most mature and best Bond score.
“Casino Royale” is fantastic both as a Bond movie and as an origin story. It is the reinvention the franchise required and sets up infinite possibilities for future continuations. Unfortunately this good thing was screwed up almost beyond repair in “Quantum of Solace” two years later. If you can view this movie without having the direct sequel in mind, “Casino Royale” will rank in the top ten if not top five Bond movies of all time.
Do you consider “Casino Royale” as top a Bond movie as I do? Whatever you’re opinion, you’re welcome to comment with feedback or anything else. Please also follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Thank you for reading – you’re the best!