November 30, 2010
Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Film
DVD, Extended Edition, Film, film music, Howard Shore, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Noble, Lord of the Rings, movies, Peter Jackson, picture, review, score, Sean Bean, soundtrack, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Return of the King, The Two Towers, Tolkien, Tom Bombadil
This is a review of the 2003 4-disc Extended Special Edition. For my review of the cinematic cut click here.
Living up to the expectations set by its predecessor, Peter Jackson and Co’s presentation of “The Two Towers” in its extended form, is an absolute mammoth of a picture. Coming in at 223 minutes (compared to the 179 theatrical cut), both Tolkien and film fans will be delighted to be able to explore the canvas of the story and its making in awesome detail. Just like the films continue to set new standards for cinema, so have these extended DVD sets defined just how these “director’s cuts” should be made. Jackson has argued that “director’s cut” is not in fact the right term to describe this extended edition as it is simply a different and longer interpretation of Tolkien’s source text.
And as has been noted when reviewing “The Fellowship of the Ring” Extended Edition, several sequences have been restructured to accommodate the extra material although in this second chapter it is, most of the time, a case of extension and insertion rather than reediting. These extra scenes add a bit of everything: There’s more battles, blood and gore with a sequence at the gap of Rohan where Theoden son was fatally injured, more humour, largely through Merry and Pippin with a neat little Tom Bombadil tribute at Fangorn. For purists and obsessive fans there’s also some great back-story scenes, mainly enlarging Faramir’s part through his brother’s victory at Osgiliath and subsequent departure for Rivendell. Thus Sean Bean gets another chance to make his mark on the series, his part of Boromir cut short by some Uruk arrows at the end of “Fellowship” and we get our first glimpse of John Noble’s Denethor. His father role will of course come to fuller development in “The Return of the King”.
In certain places however, the extra material confounds the different plot strands. The pacing is slowed even more in a film that was already a little slow in it’s middle section. There’s even more walking around endlessly in Emyn Muil for Frodo and Sam, never getting any closer to Mordor whatsoever. If you’re prepared to sit out the awesome running-time however, you will be truly rewarded at the end as Jackson has in no way lost his talents for storytelling. The score too, is seamlessly incorporated into the existing material. Never before has a composer gone back to rewrite and rerecord portions of his score to suit a special edition. And Shore’s job is by no mean a cut and paste one, the new music sounds like it was always meant to be there. All this combined makes for a truly mouthwatering finale and climax in “The Return of the King”.
Non-fans will probably complain at its length but really this is moviemaking at its glorious best. Offering more of everything, this box-set deserves its place in our collections alongside the trilogy’s bookends and among the greatest fantasy films of all time. No fantasy films do it better.
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.
October 9, 2010
Adventure, Fantasy, Film
Andre Lesnie, Bad Taste, Billy Boyd, Braindead, David Cronenberg, Dominic Monaghan, Elijah Wood, Enya, Favourite Film, Film, film music, Fran walsh, Harry Potter, Howard Shore, Ian McKellen, John Williams, London Philharmonic, Lord of the Rings, Miramax, movies, New Line Cinema, New Zealand, Orlando Bloom, Oscars, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, picture, review, score, Se7en, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Silence of the Lambs, Star Wars, The Complete Recordings, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Frighteners, The Philosopher's Stone, The Return of the King, The Two Towers, Tolkien, Viggo Mortensen, Warner Bros.
The trivia and lore surrounding the making of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy are almost as expansive as Tolkien’s mythology itself. The sheer love and passion with which the filmmakers approached the epic trilogy are reason alone to name it the most meticulously made motion picture series of the decade and to safely book its place among the top films of all time. Considering then that “The Fellowship of the Ring” is merely an (albeit three hour long) opening act, the bar is set very high indeed. Because from the moment that Galadriel’s voice comes drifting out of the dark, whispering in elvish, we are drawn into a fantasy world unlike anything seen before: Forget Star Wars, forget Harry Potter, forget that cutesy 1978 animated version. This is serious, hardcore fantasy, a world rooted as firmly in the reality of a European dark age long forgotten as in its very faithful adaption of the source material. This is the one Middle Earth to rule them all.
In the mid-nineties Peter Jackson was a director best known for extremely gory and disturbing splatter horror pictures, from his home-grown “Bad Taste” to “Braindead” and “The Frighteners”. Definitely not a household name, and most definitely not the guy Hollywood would choose to direct a blockbuster franchise like “Lord of the Rings”. But then, Hollywood can’t really take credit for this franchise because it was born and bred in New Zealand by Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. After a financial fiasco at Miramax which would have seen the trilogy made as a single movie, Jackson was able to find another suitor for his mammoth undertaking in New Line Cinema, a division of Warner Bros. who thankfully agreed to provide the budget for three full films. Beginning principal photography in late 1999, it was perhaps the greatest shoot ever, three films being shot back-to-back over 274 days with often as many as six or seven units all filming in different places across the two islands which had been cast as the principal character, namely Middle Earth. Had this been attempted in Hollywood, the project would surely have been doomed from the start.
What is extremely significant is that in between all the statistics and the action, Jackson manages to keep a firm grip on both characters and plot, never loosing sight of the human elements within the story, something that can only come from knowing the text inside-out, being truly passionate about the subject and the hallmark of a very talented director. Because at heart, “Lord of the Rings” is a story of very simple values: friendship, courage in the face of overwhelming odds and the destruction of nature. The plot, just in case you’ve been living on Mars or in Mordor, concerns a Hobbit by the name of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who inherits a magical ring from his old uncle Bilbo. However when the wizard Gandalf (played by the venerable Sir Ian McKellen) discovers that this is in fact the One Ring which was created millennia ago by the dark lord Sauron to rule all of Middle Earth, Frodo along with some Hobbit friends sets out on an epic quest to destroy the ring and thus evil once and for all. He is accompanied by a fellowship of actors extremely respected in their fields but (at the time) largely unknown in Hollywood – Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean – and also some new talent – Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd – all of which combine for some absolutely fantastic character acting.
And for those that might have feared that their vision of the beloved novel might be torn to pieces, those fears soon evaporated with almost every corner of fantasy fandom praising the adaption. Tom Bombadil gripes aside (seriously, he would have been totally out of place in the film), any changes that have been made are entirely justified: The romance between Aragorn and Arwen is given actual screen-time, the threat of Saruman is made real and present early on, and in general the narrative flows much more freely than in the novel. Some newcomers might well wonder at some of the plot turns but thankfully things like combining Rivendell and Lothlorien were avoided. While it might have made sense from a classic plot point of view, never does the story suffer from it. And very importantly we feel like we’re in these places, thanks largely to Andrew Lesnie’s soaring (and Oscar winning) cinematography. Enjoying the best of both worlds between location and visual effects wizardry, the camera swoops effortlessly through Isengard and Moria. Just as it should be, no one visual effect jumps out of the screen shouting look at me! They’re incredibly impressive but never obtrusive, the Moria sequence perhaps the best example of live-action, miniature photography and CG mixed flawlessly into one thrilling sequence. We do feel that this is the highlight of the action and the actual ending of the film is a bit on the small side in comparison. But it should also be noted that “The Lord of the Rings” is one long story, not three individual books, and is meant to be viewed as such. So the conclusion at Amon-Hen is the perfect set-up to lead us into “The Two Towers”.
Canadian composer Howard Shore may too have been an odd choice to many in the industry as he was known largely for his horror scores (“Silence of the Lambs”, “Se7en”) and David Cronenberg collaborations. However Shore spent several years thoroughly researching the text for his music, visiting the sets in New Zealand and eventually recording with the London Philharmonic, a huge choir and several speciality instruments. The results is perhaps on of the greatest achievements in film music ever (so much so that a book has been written about it!): An approach that is thematically interesting and consistent over the three films. Like the films it’s an approach to fantasy scoring rooted in real music and avoiding many of the clichés so often to be found in regular writing in the genre. It can certainly compare with John Williams’ “Star Wars” for scale and depth. “The Fellowship of the Ring” serves very much as the firm ground on which Shore can build his themes, the development of the main Fellowship theme (nine notes, one for each character) clearly traceable throughout the film. Even themes that would only come to full statements in “The Return of the King” such as the Gondor theme can already be heard, completely formed, at the council of Elrond when Boromir speaks. What is also fabulous is that the score has found some mainstream following. Two versions of the score exist, the regular album release which seems to focus more on Enya’s contribution to the film (which in reality is minimal) and an expanded, four disc set titled “The Complete Recordings” which presents all the music in the film in full. It’s an expensive treat but a treat it most certainly is and is well worth shelling out for.
Graced with 13 Oscar noms and four wins (including one for the score), “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the opening chapter of the most remarkable film story of the 2000s and one of the greatest trilogies in history. Never before has something as grand as this been attempted and probably it will never be attempted again. It gained instant following from millions of fans, critical praise and made quite a taking at the 2001 box office – almost as much as the film that was supposed to be the film of the year, namely “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece in every department from story-telling to acting to costume and visual effects. And it remains my favourite film of all time!
How does this film rank in your Top 10? Please tell me about it and comment! Also please follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Until next time then I wish you all the best!