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.

 

 

To a Pulp (King Solomon’s Mines, 1985)

King_Solomons_Mines_PosterTo cash in on Indiana Jones, Cannon Films produced this film based on the pulp works of H. Rider Haggard.  King Solomon’s Mines has been adapted more than once, both before and after this 1985 version (mainly TV and direct to video).

Allen Quartermain is an adventurer and fortune hunter hired by Jesse Huston to find her missing father in the African Jungle.  She believes he disappeared during an expedition to locate King Solomon’s Mines.

They brave all sorts of obstacles to reach the mines, including Germans and African tribes.

The film is definitely going for the feel of Indiana Jones, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The film even cast John Rhys-Davies (Sallah in Raiders) as one of the villains.  The end result though?  Not very good.  It misses the mark in its performances, it’s action scenes and general tone.  The effects are cheap imitations of what we get from the ILM produced adventures.

What really hurts the film above all though?  It’s extremely dated sexism and racism.  At no point does it appear to have occurred to the film makers that Jesse might actually be interesting if she…well, did stuff.  Jesse exists solely to get in trouble, be saved and scream a lot.  She never shows the strength or smarts to be part of the resolution.  This was four years after audiences met the fiercely independent Marion Ravenwood.  Even Willie Scott had more presence.  Adding that Sharon Stone just lacks any charisma in the role, Jesse is forgettable and is just a pretty girl for Chamberlain’s Allen Quartermain to win.

And the racist choices.  O.M.G.  Rhys-Davies has clearly been painted a shade of brown.  It is distracting and embarrassing to watch.  The African Tribes are the worst of primitive stereotypes.

The end result is a film that just cannot compete against other pulp based fare, and lacks any charm on its own.

Choose Your Adventure Wisely (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989)

Indiana_Jones_Crusade_PosterAfter the criticism of Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg opted to return to Judeo Christian artifacts.  This time was far more myth, in that they search for the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper and gifted with the power of eternal life.  They brought in Jeffrey Boam, writer of two Lethal Weapon films and the Lost Boys, to provide the Screenplay.

The film opens in Indiana Jones’ teen years.  While out with his scout troop, he stumbles across treasure hunters.  He grabs an artifact and they start to chase him.  While the sequence is fun and generally exciting, it also suffers from a ridiculous amount of fan service.  For reasons I cannot fathom, they decided they needed to explain…well, everything.  Indy’s fear of snakes, how he got the scar on his chin, how he got his whip, how he got his hat.  It is just absurd.  Who really wanted to know how or when he got that scar?  He is an adventurer…he got it on an adventure. They also establish where the name “Indiana” comes from.  It is not great.

The film then jumps to 1938, where Indy has found that same artifact.  He reclaims it and returns to the college where he is employed as a Professor.  There, he is introduced to Walter Donovan, who was working with Indiana Jones’ father, a noted Grail expert.  His father has disappeared, so Jones flies to Venice with Marcus Brody and they meet up with Elsa, who was also working Indy’s father (also named Henry, so his dad keeps referring to Indy as Jr.).  They discover he is being held by Nazis…

Everyone gets divided up, Indy and his father escaping the Nazis, Marcus and a returning Sallah heading for the location of the Grail.  They do eventually meet up in an action packed finale.

And the film does entertain, but then also tries to over compensate with background…wholly unnecessary background.  Sean Connery as Indy’s dad is certainly a fun casting choice.  He is not impressed at all with Indiana’s exploits.  In one scene, they are riding a motor cycle.  After he dispatches Nazis, he looks to his father with a big smile…and his dad is just indifferent.  The look on Ford’s face as his ego is deflated is amusing.

The film really ramps up the jokes.  Where humor complimented the prior films, this one seems almost more of a comedy.  Marcus Brody and Sallah, two fairly dramatic and competent characters in the first film are played for laughs as bumbling fools.

The film does have some nice character moments for Ford and Connery where they try and reconnect after years of a strained relationship.  The twists and reveals, on the other hand, feel heavily telegraphed.

The Last Crusade is often treated as a strong return to form, but I cannot say it is any better than the Temple of Doom.  It is certainly tonally different (and admittedly, a lot of the jokes actually work, especially between Indy and Henry).  But it has its weaknesses.

The Adventure Begins (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

Indiana_Jones_Raiders_Poster1981 was the meeting of two titans.  Steven Spielberg had thrilled the world with Jaws and two years later George Lucas had started to take over the world with Star Wars.The two teamed up to create the ode to pulp novels and action serials of yore.

Dr. Henry Jones, nicknamed Indiana is a professor of Archaeology and adventurer.  He is not a treasure hunter, at least not in the traditional sense.  He locates artifacts in the belief that they should be shared with the world for education and discovery.

Jones is contacted by the Government regarding the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.  Teaming up with an old flame, Marion Ravenwood, Indy must stop Nazis from getting their hands on the Ark.  What follows is a series of exciting near misses at getting the Ark.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a roller coaster ride of a film.  It has the adventure, heart, and humor that engages the viewer throughout. Indiana Jones instantly has an iconic feel.  He is rough around the edges, without being a neanderthal.  He is good at thinking on his feet (especially handy in attempts to escape sticky situations.  But he is not alone here.  Marion is the daughter of his mentor Abner, and she is every bit the adventurer.  She is smart and clever, Indy’s equal.

Of course, in a story like this, villains matter.  Indy is really dealing with two foes.  One is Belloq, who is his greedy counterpart.  Belloq is a fortune hunter and seeks the Ark for his own lust for power.  He has teamed with the Nazis, led by the creepy Major Toht.  The Nazis, of course, seek the Ark to consolidate their power.

Lucas tends to be good at ideas, but a bit goofy on execution, so giving the story to Lawrence Kasdan to write and having Spielberg direct brings all their unique skills together to create one of the best adventure films of film history.  It brings the sense of the old serials to a vibrant modern life with terrific characters fighting near impossible odds.

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