Nothing But Star Wars Episode Three (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, 2005)

Revenge_Of_the_Sith_PosterAnd finally…we see how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader!

Spoilers are about to slice through here like a lightsaber through butter!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spoilers! Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-*cough* *wheeze*

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Opening in the tail end of the Clone Wars, we begin in the middle of a heated space Battle.  The Jedi and the Clone Army are trying to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine from the Separatist leadership of Count Dooku and General Grievous.   Anakin and Obi Wan end up in Grievous’ ship.  The fight Dooku, who again knocks Obi Wan out quickly (Obi Wan is looking pretty incompetent here). This time, Anakin gets the upper hand, and at the encouragement of Palpatine, beheads Dooku.

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Remember my complaint about how they killed Darth Maul in the first film? Revenge of the Sith does sort of do my suggestion. Christopher Lee has a great expression of fear on his face as he realizes Sidious (Palpatine) is wanting him to be killed by Anakin.  Except, it occurs at the beginning of the film, making it not a special line being crossed.  Sure, it indicates Palpatine’s growing influence, but it is not that last step before accepting the role of Darth Vader.  And Dooku has not been a character really built up.  We barely got to know him.  I believe he appeared a bit in the Clone Wars cartoon on the Cartoon Network, but in the movies, he never gets to be a major heavy.  Like Mace Windu, he is primarily earning credibility via the face in the role.

General Grievous, a character introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon, escapes in a lifeboat, while sending his warship plummeting down towards Corsucant’s surface.  Anakin and Obi Wan manage an amazing crash landing.

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Padme reveals that she is pregnant.  Though worried about people discovering their secret relationship, Anakin is overjoyed by the news. However, he is soon beset by nightmares of Padme dying while giving birth.

Anakin is asked to spy on Chancellor Palpatine for the Jedi Council while Obi Wan checks on a lead for General Grievous. Anakin is uncomfortable with this, as Palpatine has taken on a mentoring role and even a father figure for him.  Palpatine starts to drop hints about the power of the Dark Side, especially the power to save and even resurrect life.

Obi Wan finds and confronts Grievous.  Grievous is actually kind of a neat character.  A bit of a proto-Darth Vader, he is an alien cyborg.  Like Obi Wan said of Vader, Grievous is more machine than man.  He collects lightsabers of fallen Jedi, and his arms split from two to four.  This creates a pretty cool visual where he spins his arms while holding four lightsabers.

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Obi Wan manages to send Grievous packing into the great galaxy beyond.  Meanwhile, Anakin is troubled by the realization that Palpatine is a Sith Lord. Palpatine has control of the Republic and is secretly leading the Separatists.

After learning of the news from Anakin, Mace brings several Jedi to take Palpatine into custody.  He surprises them and manages to kill all the Jedi except Mace.  Mace proves far stronger, and has Palpatine’s back (literally) against the wall.

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While trying to use his force lightning against Mace, Anakin arrives.  Palpatine begs Anakin for mercy.  Windu is ready to kill Palpatine, stating there is no other option, but Anakin states he should face trial, not merely executed on Mace’s whim.  Mace refuses and as he goes to strike, Anakin chops off Mace’s hand.  Sidious takes this opportunity to fire another Force Lightning blast and launch Mace out a window to his death.

Now, I always assumed that the Emperor’s appearance was him being old (there was also once a version that he was constantly cloning himself, and the clone bodies were breaking down, but this is no longer canon).

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Apparently, however, it is a result of expending ridiculous amounts of energy.  He anoints Anakin as Darth Vader.  He sends out the secret Order 66, which commands the clone soldiers to kill any Jedi they are with.

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Now, Ben Kenobi told Luke how Darth Vader hunted down and slaughtered the Jedi.  But it turns out he was not the frontline for this.  Instead, he is sent to the temple looking all tough and scary…

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To kill a bunch of little kids.

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And while that is monstrous, it also makes Vader seem like less of a threat in general.  He kills the easy prey, while the Clones are killing fully trained Jedi. Darth Vader is then sent to the Mustafar system, on a volcanic planet to remove the separatists. Obi Wan and Yoda survive the attempts on their life.  Obi Wan and a very pregnant Amidala go to find Anakin.

Yoda takes on Darth Sidious in a powerful battle, leaping around and dodging Sidious’ attacks.

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Yoda ultimately slips away and meets with Senator Bail Organa. Both Sidious and Vader proclaim the Jedi have attempted a coup, forcing Organa and Yoda to flee.  When Obi Wan and Amidala reach the volcanic planet, they try and talk Anakin down, so to speak.  But he believes they are betraying him, and starts to force choke Amidala.  This results in a dramatic life and death lightsaber duel in the middle of flowing rivers of lava.

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Obi Wan delivers one of the dumbest lines of the entire franchise. “Only Sith deal in Absolutes”.  It makes a certain amount of sense regarding Obi Wan’s attitudes towards facts in the original trilogy. But it is just a dumb line, as we saw Jedi dealing in absolutes just…heck…twenty minutes earlier.  As the fight concludes, Obi Wan cuts off Anakin’s arms and legs.  There is a lot of dramatic but weird dialog.  Obi Wan laments that Anakin was his friend, he was supposed to bring balance to the force, yadda yadda yadda.

And then he leaves Anakin to slowly burn to death.

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The Emperor pops over and picks up Anakin.  Then we get scenes of Amidala giving birth, while Darth Vader is encased in his new suit.  Amidala dies as she looks upon her twins.  They give Leia to Organa and take Luke to Anakin’s half brother Owen Lars.  Because if you want to hide a kid from his dad, his family is probably the best place.  And you know, don’t give him the last name of Owen or anything. And seriously, Amidala died why? Other than she had to as a plot contrivance?  They seriously don’t have the technology to save her? She appears to have died of a broken heart.  Really?

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And speaking of Amidala? She is practically set dressing in the film.  Poor Natalie Portman is sidelined the majority of the film to be Anakin’s plot device.

I really found the prequel film rules about the things like the Rule of Two, which states there are only two Sith Lords at a time.  A master and an apprentice.  This makes no real sense, and the original films had no such implication.  The idea that there would only be two Sith in comparison to endless Jedi seems bizarre. Within the legends (books and comics, mostly), this is also challenged by Darth Plagueis, who was the master to Palpatine. But the rule makes no real sense, because it is not a notion that there is like a single Sith Emperor over all other Sith…It is literally that there are two Sith at a time.

Nobody has any real chemistry in this film.  It just feels like everyone is delivering their dialog so they can be done with it.

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In spite of this, Revenge of the Sith (a title meant to recall the original working title of Return of the Jedi) is far from the worst of the prequels.  The first twenty minutes are terrific.  The various action sequences that follow are quite good, especially the Mustafar battle.

I also like how the technology of the world feels fresh and shiny, like this is everything at it’s heights.  Contrasting that with episodes four through six where everything seems old and broken, like the rule of the Empire has crushed any sense of beauty and design and left only the most industrial sense of design.

But unfortunately, the entire prequel series was obsessed with answering questions nobody had. And this one is no different, making a mad rush to pack in stuff we don’t really need.  The film takes place twenty years before a New Hope.  And we get a shot of Gran Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader watching the beginning of the Death Star.  Now, is the idea it could take twenty years to build the Death Star is not implausible.  But they built a second Death Star with totally different specs in a couple years. Infant Leia sees Amidala, while infant Luke’s eyes are closed.  Why? Because in Return of the Jedi? Leia tells Luke that she remembers her mother’s smile. Luke cannot remember anything about her.  It is like Lucas sat down and watched the original films making a list of things he thinks have to be in the new films.

However, the three prequels just never meet the goal of being a great new trilogy, because they are bogged down in weird choices of storytelling and fan service.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing But Star Wars Episode Two (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, 2002)

Attack_of_the_Clones_PosterThe Star Wars machine keeps plugging on.  Episode one had a rather mixed reception, but it made money.  It would have taken a catastrophic return to derail new trilogy.

The film would make a jump and start to try and “right the ship” so to speak.  As much as Lucas tried to defend Jar Jar Binks, his role gets diminished greatly in both this and the next film.

And let us go back on our spoilerific journey!!!! Send in the clooooooones!

 

 

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Picking up around ten years after the Phantom Menace, Amidala is now a Senator.  This is, funny enough how they move Jar Jar out of the picture…he is a representative for Naboo. But anyways, after an attack on her ship as she arrives on Corsucant, the Jedi Council sends Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker to protect the Senator.

Anakin apparently still has his crush on Amidala, who is shocked to see Ani went from nine year old boy to a good looking teenager. They plan to stand guard in her apartment as they also try and determine how best to investigate the attempt on her life.

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The investigation gets a boost though when a second attempt is made by letting to poisonous bugs into her bedroom.  Artoo derails the attempt by alerting the Jedi.  They pursue the shadowy killer through the skies of Corsucant (the skies are full with levels of traffic).

This leads to an exciting chase sequence with Anakin being incredibly reckless.

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Really, it is a pretty enjoyable scene.  It ends with them crash landing in a seedy part of town.  They follow their target into a bar.  It turns out she is a shape shifting bounty hunter.  She starts to confess, only to be shot with a poison dart, dying almost instantly.

The Jedi Council formulate a new plan.  Anakin will accompany Amidala undercover to a remote part of Naboo, while Obi Wan will focus on the investigation. Obi Wan starts by focusing on the dart.  But he really cannot connect it to anything.  He visits a friend who runs a dive restaurant who tells him that the dart belongs to the Cloners of Kamino.

This starts a new mystery, as Kamino does not appear in any star maps he can find.  With Yoda’s help, he locates his destination.  When he arrives, he is surprised to find that they were expecting a visit.  Not from Obi Wan, but another Jedi Master who Kenobi reveals died several years before.

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He discovers that the previous Jedi master had hired the Kimino people to create an army of Clones.  He is introduced to Jango Fett, a bounty hunter who is the basis of the clone army.  Jango had one requirement, and that was a clone untouched by the Cloner’s programming to raise as a son (can you see where this is going?). Lucas actually added actor Temuera Morrison’s voice as Stormtroopers and Boba Fett in the original trilogy.

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There is a fight and Jango escapes with Boba, but Obi Wan follows them to the planet Geonosis.  There, Obi Wan discovers the Separatist army, led by Count Dooku.  Dooku is an ex-Jedi (and gets cool points because it is Christopher Lee).

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Meanwhile, Anakin confesses feelings for Amidala.  At first she pushes back due to her career and the Jedi rules against love and marriage. Anakin argues they can love, and follows the Jedi tradition of loopholes.  But he becomes distracted by nightmares of his mother in trouble. He returns to Tatooine.  He discovers that his mother was sold to the Lars family.  However, rather than keep her as a slave she has married the farmer.  She was kidnapped by Sandmen.  Anakin locates the Sandmen village and discovers his dying mother.  In a fit of rage, he slaughters all of the folks in the village.

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As they ready to depart, they get a message from Obi Wan.  Anakin and Amidala head off to Geonosis (taking C-3PO, who was with the Lars family,  with them). When they arrive, they are instructed to wait, but Anakin gets impulsive and they enter a factory making a droid army.  Elsewhere, the Galactic Senate gives approval to the Clone army.

Obi Wan has already been caught, but Anakin and Amidala are fighting their way through the factory, dodging the automated machines building droids. Instead of saving Obi Wan, they end up captured as well.

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After getting caught, the three are brought into an arena to fight to their deaths against three very unique monsters.  In the midst of this battle Amidala gets a totally implausible rip to her uniform…like, comically implausible.  Just as it looks like the Separatists will when, the other Jedi arrive along with the Clone Army.

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There is a big fight in the arena between the separatists and the Jedi and Count Dooku runs off.  Everybody takes chase after he and the retreating droid separatists. Anakin and Obi Wan reach Dooku’s lair.  Dooku manages to incapacitate Kenobi, but Anakin puts up more of a fight.  Dooku manages to sever Anakin’s hand and get the high ground so to speak.  Suddenly, before he can dispatch the two Jedi, Yoda walks in and they have the fight nobody knew they wanted.

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Once Dooku realizes he probably won’t win this fight, he retreats to his ship and escapes to fight another day.  The Clone Wars have begun.  Anakin gets his robot hand and secretly marries Amidala.

The film ends one this note, with a rather weak cliffhanger.  The Empire Strikes back ended on the note of the big reveal.  Here there is no big reveal really. “Luke, I am your father” drives discussion and anticipation for the nextr installment.  Here it is just…”Well, there is one more!”

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So…about the whole romance.  Amidala was about fourteen when she met Anakin.  And generally I would not balk at a five year age difference. But as they are tied together by her time where he was just a cute kid…it seems like the intended romance might have been able to spring more organically had they started out more like a year or two apart (her sixteen and him fifteen or something). Christiensen and and Portman also lack any chemistry to sell the fast moving relationship. The relationship just feels so rushed it is hard to buy it ever happens.  And again, had they been much closer in age in the Phantom Menace, the seeds could have been laid much more organically.

This film is really the first to make a big show about the Jedi rules forbidding marriage and attachments.  Frankly, it is a dumb and terrible rule that calls into question the concept of the Jedi as an organization.  How is not having attachments going to make you a better protector? But then, we have seen that the Jedi are pretty sketchy.

To a certain extent, I don’t see this concept as bad.  The original films gave us only Obi Wan’s portrayal of the Jedi as noble Knights who fought oppression and stood for Justice in the galaxy.  That the prequel films are revealing a far more political organization is not a problem…but how it pulls it off is leaving a lot to be desired.  It is kind of dull, and in spite of their ineptness, it is pretty obvious we are supposed to be rooting for the Jedi.

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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) Directed by George Lucas Shown: Hayden Christensen (as Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (as Senator Padmé Amidala), Samuel L. Jackson (as Mace Windu), Ewan McGregor (as Obi-Wan Kenobi)

The whole subplot with Boba Fett is really pointless.  It is, in fact, one of the most pointless fan service moments of the franchise.  Jango is killed, beheaded by Mace Windu in front of Boba.  We see young Boba holding his father’s helmet to his face.  And, this might have been a powerful image had Boba Fett been a major player who we saw a lot of in the original trilogy.  But he has, like, three lines including a scream before he dies Between Empire and Return of the Jedi.  This gives us no insight, and frankly, undermines part of what made him popular.  He was mysterious.  Things in Star Wars that needed no backstory? C-3PO and Boba Fett.

One thing that stands out is how lazy the world building is. In the original trilogy, things that paralleled our world still felt unique.  When Obi Wan is offered an illicit substance, he refers to it as “Death Sticks”.  I know there have been cigarette brands with ironic names like that…but really? Obi Wan’s friend with the diner? The diner looks just like a fifties diner.  And they have drinks like “Jawa Juice”. It just feels like there was no effort put into this world.

In spite of my complaints, this is a step up from the Phantom Menace.  We get some cool lightsaber duels, for one. Seeing Yoda in action turns out to be surprisingly fun.

Lastly, remember how I said Amidala gets an implausible rip in her outfit?  A cat monster things takes a swipe at here…this is the result:

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A Battling We Will Go (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014)

The_Hobbit_Battle_PosterThe Battle of the Five Armies is a very long and busy film. From it’s opening moments, it is all about trying to out do Return of the king.  Dragon fights! Giant battles against orcs! Wizard Battles!

Bilbo and the Dwarves had failed to stop Smaug who attacks Lake Town.  As the citizens try and escape his wrath, the Bard seeks to fulfill his family’s promise and slay Smaug. After ending Smaug, the citizens make their way to the ruins outside the the mountain fortress of the Dwarves.

Thranduil arrives with an elven army to reclaim what he feels the elves are owed by the dwarves.  However, Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone.  To make matters worse, he seems to be falling pray to paranoia.  Unknown to the dwarves, Bilbo has found the stone. Concerned that Thorin is being spiritually poisoned by his obsession, he slips out to give the stone to the Bard as a bargaining chip.   This only makes matters worse.

Eventually, the armies must unite against the armies of orcs and other evil that sets upon the mountain. This culminates in a battle royale between Oakenshield and Azog.

The Battle of the Five Armies is really a culmination of the desire to recreate the Lord of the Rings.  The changes of the first Hobbit were not really needed, but mostly harmless.  But the snowball started in the Desolation of Smaug. And here, the battle is the focus.  And everything is gigantic. It consumes a large part of the time, and it gets kind of confusing.  And everybody starts to blur together.

So many things feel like calls back to the Lord of the Rings.  And granted, this is a prequel to those films.  The book the Hobbit came before the Lord of the Rings books. But the films are a prequel.  And it is expected to see some loose connections.  But here, it feels like nothing can stand as it’s own.

This all makes for a rather disappointing final.  I did not hate the movie, but I don’t think it comes close to, say, Jackson’s very flawed but still well done King King. The flaws make the good stuff harder to enjoy here.

I don’t hate these movies quite as much as some.  This may in part be due to the fact that I don’t have a real tight connection to the series.  I did not read the Lord of the Rings books until after I saw the films, as I was nearing thirty.  I did not read the Hobbit until after I started watching the films in 2012. So, I never entered the films with presumptions of what I would see, beyond vague memories of the Rankin Bass cartoon from the late 1970’s.

But unlike the Lord of the Rings films, I do not feel the strengths overcome the flaws.  And so the Hobbit trilogy is nowhere near as satisfying a watch as the Lord of the Rings films.

To Rule Them All Thrice (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003)

LOTR_Return_PosterAll stories must conclude.  Some just take longer than others.  A lot longer. But more on that later. Sauroman is defeated, Aragorn and the people of Rohan have defended Helms Deep and Frodo, Sam and Gollum are at the door of Mordor.

Te film actually opens by jumping back several hundred years before the story we have been watching where we see hobbits Sméagol and Déagol fishing in a small boat.  After being pulled into the water, Déagol finds… The Ring. Both are gripped by obsession for the ring, resulting in murder.

Aragon and the others make their way to Gondor to unite the armies of men against Mordor and it’s seemingly endless forces.  We see most of our characters reunited.  Sam and Frodo’s relationship is tested by the duplicitous nature of Gollum.

Without question, the visual effects, costume and set design are top notch.  There really is not much to say here that I have not recognized in my previous reviews.  Sure, there are minor slip-ups (hobbits that are clearly height doubles wearing masks of the actors) and a few of the “Legolas being amazing” sequences in battles are surely CGI.

Faramir and the hobbits all get better deals here. Both Merry and Pippin get to be more than comic relief, with downright heroic moments and emotional moments.  There is a scene between Pippin and Gandalf where they say nothing, but share a look of great heart break from across the room, as if Gandalf knows Pippin is about to face some truly unfair tests.

Gimli, unfortunately, has never recovered from the Two Towers and remains embarrassingly frustrating comic relief.

Elijah Wood tells the story of how Jack Nicholson told him he left after the first ending. And this film has, like the book, several endings.  Though, most lamented is the scouring of the Shire, which the extended edition and theatrical cuts never included (the first film paid tribute to it in a vision with Galadriel). Here, the extended cut moves the unceremonious end of Sauroman from the scourging to earlier in the story.

But the frustrating part is that each “ending” feels somewhat necessary. Each gives a certain sense of closure to the tale. For all their flaws, the trilogy comes together and has far more to love than hate.  The strengths of the performances, the overall writing, the effects, the set design, the costumes…brings together one great epic.

Two Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)

LOTR_Two_Towers_PosterPicking up in the aftermath that split the fellowship apart, the Two Towers has a lot on it’s shoulders. Frodo and Sam are now on their own, making their way for Mount Doom to destroy the ring.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are trying to rescue Merry and Pippin, who are believed to have been kidnapped by Orcs.

We quickly learn that Merry and Pippin found escape from the orcs on their own.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are diverted by Gandalf who directs them to Rohan.  Gandalf realizes the time has come to prepare the armies of men for an epic battle against Sauron and his forces.

Rohan is under the influence of the Wizard Sauroman.  Their king is in a sickly trance, poisoned by Wormtongue, the agent of Sauroman.  Upon arrival, Gandalf excises the presence of Sauroman and chase out Wormtongue.  They warn the people there of the coming danger, and all agree they must make their way to an old fortress to protect everyone.

Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin discover the ancient race of Ents.  The Ents are ancient and sentient trees.  Pippin becomes determined to convince Treebeard and his fellow Ents to fight against the advancement of Sauroman and his orc army before it can join Sauron’s army.

And of course, there is Frodo and Sam.  Theirs is a somewhat less exciting route, as they are trying to avoid being seen.  Frodo confronts Gollum, who has been shadowing he and Sam in his attempt to get the ring back. Frodo takes pity Gollum, and chooses to take him along as a guide.

In the first film, we only had glimpses of Gollum.  This character presented a huge challenge and still stands as a monumental achievement in CGI effects.  Coupled with a terrific performance by Andy Serkis, Gollum comes to tragic and frightening life.  Serkis takes on a voice that can seem almost painfully childish and monstrous…sometimes at the same moment.  The film has a great moment using reflections and camera angles in which Gollum argues with himself over serving Frodo faithfully versus betraying him and stealing the ring back.

In the book, the stories are separated into two parts.  The first half follows Frodo and Sam and the second half follows the other characters. In one way, this does allow some interesting storytelling moments.  Frodo and Sam’s story will reference them seeing stuff we only see played out in the second half of the book.  But it also can make the Two Towers a tough read.  It does not break up the story enough.

Gimli continues his slide into little more than comic relief and Legolas even ends up having plenty of his swashbuckling antics coming off as comedic and cheesy (using a shield as a surfboard).

The film also undermines the character of Farimir, brother of Boromir.  In the book he is not tempted by the ring in any way.  He is a strong and confident man in ways his older brother was not.  Unlike Tom Bombadil, this not being tempted is an effective statement of Farimir’s character.  The film makes him much less sure of himself.  He is haunted by the ghost of his brother and his father’s greater love for Boromir. He does, of course, make the choice he makes in the book, but the overly wrought drama of giving him severe daddy issues works against the character in frustrating ways.  Yes, it allows Sam to be a dramatic voice of reason…but it really is an unnecessary detour that also makes Farimir come off as needlessly cruel at times.

The Two Towers does start to feel a bit meandering at times.  The extended cut suffers from this even more, though some of the additional scenes are quite entertaining.  While not quite an Empire Strikes Back (which is a bit leaner storytelling) it still is a pretty impressive film.

To Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

LOTR_Fellowship_PosterJohn Rogers, one of the writers of the abysmal Catwoman film once also wrote “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

And the Lord of the Rings is definitely one of those book series that had legions of admirers.  Ralph Bakshi has adapted the three books into two animated films in 1978 and 1980. And there were a lot of false starts until the late 90’s.  The first plan was to try and make one film…then they thought they could convince a studio to do two…but somehow, Peter Jackson convinced New Line the only proper way to do the film was to adapt each novel and film them back to back.  They then took it a step further and released the special edition DVDs.  These sets were expanded to include many scenes not used in the theatrical releases.  My reviews will be of the Expanded Editions.

The story of the Lord of the Rings is that long ago the evil Lord Sauron tricked the leaders of the Elves, the Dwarves, and Man, creating powerful rings for them all…secretly creating the one ring that would rule them all.  In a battle between Sauron and the final alliance of men, dwarves, and elves, Sauron was defeated.  Instead of destroying the ring, Isildur keeps it for himself. He is eventually killed.  The ring was then lost to time.  It was found by a creature who hid with it in the mountains.  It eventually fell into the hands of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins. He has had it ever since.  The Fellowship of the Ring is the beginning of the final push to destroy the ring.

The wizard Gandalf the Gray calls upon Frodo, nephew of Bilbo for this task. He sends Frodo on, promising to meet in a small town.  Frodo is accompanied by his friend Samwise (or more simply, Sam).  Soon after leaving, they are joined by fellow Hobbits Merry and Pippin.  As they go on their journey, they pick up help from the mysterious ranger Strider (Revealed to be Aragorn, a descendant of Isildur).

When Frodo is wounded by a Ringwraith (the souls of the original nine kings of men who were enslaved to Sauron), he is whisked away to the Elvish city of Rivendell. There they meet up with what are to be the final members of the Fellowship of the ring, the Elf Legolas, the Dwarf Gimli and Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor.

They find themselves constantly under attack, primarily from Sauroman, a wizard like Gandalf, but having chosen to serve Sauron. Using magic and a new generation of Super Orcs he tries to stop them at every turn.

Filmed in New Zealand, almost every shot of this film is awe-inspiringly beautiful. The Hobbit Shire has been carefully created bringing the environments of the book to life in a vibrant way.

Along with the sets, the film’s costumes are incredible.  Everything has power and weight.  The craftsmanship of the weapons and costumes immerses you into this world.

The visual effects have withstood the test of time.  A lot of Weta Workshop’s work is a combination of digital and practical.  But unlike far too many movies, the digital is groundbreaking and almost never distracting (except in it’s dedication to looking natural).  The Fellowship of the Ring broke new ground in its digital work to create massive armies that seemed to move without being duplicated.

The film also uses a lot of practical tricks to create the illusion of different heights.  Both Hobbits and Dwarves are supposed to be significantly smaller than the rest of the cast, and in spite of actors who are as tall as anyone else in the cast, using perspective tricks, smaller actors as stand-ins they manage to create a nearly seamless illusion.

And then there is the cast.  Some scoffed when Elijah Wood was cast as Frodo.  The books describe Hobbits in a fashion that insinuates, they are naturally a bit hairy and pudgy.  But Wood (and really the other hobbit actors) are rather attractive.  But They all do quite well.  And Wood and Sean Astin really sell the deep and heartfelt friendship between Frodo and Sam.  Frankly, I love the fact that the films capture this love.  Films featuring male relationships can often be quite superficial.

Ian McKellen, so compelling as Magneto in the X-Men films carries great weight here as the wizard Gandalf.  He is warm, yet can seem stern and menacing when necessary.  And he brings a sense of grandeur so necessary for such a character.  Viggo Mortenson brings a quiet nobility to Aragorn.  And Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel as an unearthly and elegant beauty.

This is not to suggest there are no flaws.  While not as large of an issue here, Gimli can often be reduced to comic relief (the same with Pippin and Merry). On the other hand, the storytelling is more expedient than the books. Often, Tolkien can seem a bit obsessive in his world-building, with sudden diversions into poetry and legends and language of Middle Earth.  The filmmakers wisely cut the Tom Bombadil sequence.  While this is a fairly loved section of the book, the screenwriters are correct that it undercuts the narrative of the Ring to suddenly have a character who is not impacted at all by it.  Especially so early in the story.  Personally speaking? I don’t care for that section of the book, and so I did not miss it within the film.

The Fellowship of the Ring is s very strong adaption of the book, full of epic adventure. It was a risky venture that paid off quite well for the filmmakers and the studio.

 

 

Generation Clash (the Wicker Man, 1973)

wicker_man_poster_orange1973’s the Wicker Man, starring the late Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee is one of those hard to classify films.  For one, while it is considered horror, it’s a movie lacking much carnage.  The horrors center around the mystery and the struggles of young, repressed Police Sergeant Howie.

Beware of dreadful Spoilers…

Almost immediately, Sgt. Howie finds himself at odds with the locals, who initially refuse him access to Summerisle, a rather isolated Scottish island, as it is private property.  Once he provides his reason, a letter he has received indicating a child has gone missing from the isle.

Howie is revealed to be a devout Catholic.  He prays fervently, as we see flashbacks to him reading scripture and partaking in communion.  This leads to one of the films more…silly…but memorable moments.  Willow (Britt Ekland) lies in the room next to Howie’s singing a song to tempt Howie, putting his purity to the test.  Howie struggles in his room to fight the temptation.  Did I mention Ekland performs the entire scene naked?

Howie seeks to try and continue his investigation.  When he goes to the local school, he becomes appalled (Howie is like a one man Catholic League).  The teacher (Diane Cilento) is telling the children of the meaning of the penis in their worship.  Howie runs into trouble when people claim the young girl never existed in the first place.

When Howie goes to the Summerisle library, the Librarian shows him the death records, but Rowan is not among them.  He decides it is time to meet Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) at the Lord’s mansion.  Howie is surprised to hear he is expected.  While waiting, he looks out the window to see a small Stonehenge like set up where young people are frollicking naked.  Summerisle enters and asks if Howie finds them refreshing, of course, he does not.  Howie becomes more and more incredulous, asking how they function with a false religion.  Know they nothing of Jesus?  But Summerisle proclaims Jesus dead, and the old gods still living.

Howie can barely stand the things Summerisle tells him, giving the history of the island’s citizens turning from Christianity to the old pagan ways.  That evening, when they go to exhume the body of Rowan so Howie can bring it back to determine the cause of death, they discover her casket contains, instead of the young girl’s body, that of a dead rabbit.  The groundskeeper reacts not in shock, but laughter.  Enraged, Howie returns to Summerisle.  Miss Rose tries to say that the rabbit is Rowan.  This further angers Howie.

Howie goes through pictures and is able to locate the missing image from the previous May Day celebrations.  Unlike the other photos (all a young woman surrounded by the Harvest), Rowan is sitting sans harvest.  Howie does some research and comes to a new conclusion.. Rowan is not dead, she is going to be the Mayday sacrifice because the crops failed.

Howie plans to take his plane to the mainland and bring back reinforcements.  But his plane doesn’t start.  He starts to search the island and spies the town members preparing for their May Day celebrations.  They proclaim that the evening will bring a sacrifice.  Howie decides to conduct a house to house search.  The townspeople are surprising cooperative, but his end results are less than he had hoped for.

It is this clash of religions that makes the film so effective.  The joyous celebration of Lord Summerisle and his people as their sacrifice burns is a frightening juxtaposition.  The film is a mystery, with a heavy sense of dread pervading it.  Is Rowan real?  Is she dead?  Watching Howie struggle to find the answers, and also dealing with his temptations, never realizing that he is being played for a fool creates a compelling tale.  Woodward plays Howie both sympathetically and with a repressed rigidity that really sells the character.  His devoutness is never in question.  This is not the typical “Christian Hypocrite” of mainstream film.  Howie is dedicated to his job and faith, and the film never makes light of this.  Of course, not being some terrible hypocrite is really the point of the story.  Even when he is angry, Howie maintains a sense of cool.

On his opposite is Lord Summerisle, whom Lee portrays as always calm.  I am not sure he ever even gets angry, to be honest.  He is a calm, gentle and confident man.  It’s effective watching him and Howie, as Howie never seems able to offend him, but he can kindly get under Howie’s skin.

The three women most prominently featured in the story, seem to represent different ideals of the religion.  Willow is the siren, Miss Rose is the educator and the Librarian the religion’s administrator.

Also notable is the use of music, you could easily argue this is a musical.  The music is fun and folksy, very tied to the folk music of the British isles.  It’s far more effective than one would expect, as these cheerful songs cover a dreadful truth.

One of the reasons the 2006 “re-imagining” of the film starring Nick Cage is such an abysmal failure is it does away with the fight between Paganism and Christianity.  They replaced it with a poorly realized battle of the sexes and a tortured and flawed “hero.”  Howie needs to be less “flawed” and more pure.  Otherwise his character does not truly stand out from the citizens.

In the end, I consider this one of my favorite films, because it is horror, dark and foreboding without relying on cheap thrills and scares.  It’s beautifully filmed, well acted, written and directed.  It’s a film worth checking out.

One final note, but I am blocking it because it is a massive spoiler.

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