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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Rated: PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images
Runtime: 3 hrs 34 mins
Genre: Science-Fiction/Fantasy
Theatrical Release:Dec 18, 2002 Wide
Worldwide Box Office: $921,600,000
Reviews :
The start of the film was a bit of a surprise for a press screening: there was no pre-amble (unless you count dimming the lights as a preamble), no introduction from anyone, not even the usual film censor warning - we were straight into a very familiar New Line logo followed by black background title with Howard Shore's ominous music starting up behind it. The real opening shot for the movie was possibly the most jaw-dropping sequence in the whole movie. One of those "This is good. Oh! My! God! It's getting better. Oh Lord! It's getting even better. Sheeeee-it!!" shots! For those that don't know, there is no recap other than that of Gandalf's fall, told in an inspired and inventive way which allows the movie to dive straight into showing what happens during Gandalf's fall at Moria. I would never have believed this fight with the Balrog could be filmed. It was. And it works (well, it works as long as you're not one of those interminable 'Do Balrogs have wings?' debaters!)! The atmosphere was electric and I was obviously not the only one completely spellbound by this jaw-dropping introduction.

Now before going any further I should first explain where I am coming from in attempting to give my review of this movie: I am not a Tolkien Society purist - Yes, I left my first viewing of "Fellowship Of The Ring" disappointed with many of the changes, but not all of them because many made sense in a film. A page-by-page film copy would make a very dull movie and the source material is difficult. Nor am I one of those rose-tinted "Peter Jackson can do no wrong and anyone who drops even a hint of criticism is a fool and has no brains" fans that I recall encountering this time last year all over the official Decipher fan club boards. I like to think I lie somewhere in between the two extremes - a big fan (eventually!) but also one aware of where things could have been better and knowing that the first movie was somewhat flawed by some of the more crass changes that must have Tolkien turning in his grave. So that's my going-in point as a reviewer! I should also add that the hypocrisy of the "must get in on the latest fad" reviews of this second movie in the British press today astounds me.

The critics are unanimous: this is a million times better than the first film in the trilogy (you'd think the first film was an unmitigated disaster, reading some of these guys!) - everyone wants a piece of the record-breaking action it seems, and to claim they helped make it so! The gross hypocrisy of people like Alexander Walker who slated the Fellowship movie last year at a time when the whole franchise could have been jeapordised, is frankly astounding. Last year's 'technically good but oh-so-dull' movie this year spawns pathetic brown-nosing guff like 'It has a grandeur that it's not hyperbole to call Miltonic', references to 'Tennysonian images of eerie beauty' and ' the greatested battlepiece composen for the screen since Eisenstein'. Pretentious? Moi?!

Personally, I trust TORn reviewers more than a press who thinks Tolkien wrote some funny book about fairy stories or something! Many of TORn's volunteer reviewers from the New York screening have not been happy about changes from the books in this second movie. Most often touted is the change to Faramir. Next the crassness of Gimli's comedy lines, with the same unfunny "toss" reference from the first movie allegedly being repeated ad nauseum in this second movie. And the concensus seems to be that the ents don't quite work. These were not the biggest problems for me after my first viewing - which left me, to be blunt, disappointed, and wondering how on earth so many people could be saying it's a "better" movie than the first (don't worry, stick with me because I revised some opinions after my second viewing later that day, but will the general public get a chance to do that too?!). A couple of things stood out though and I really haven't revised these much even after a second viewing (which, thankfully, DID have me leaving the cinema thinking 'Heck, it's a good movie'). Firstly, despite some marvellous setpieces (most already featured in the trailers) the film is confusing to anybody who doesn't know the books. My overall impression was "Man, they really ran out of time in trying to edit this stuff together properly or doing reshoot work". On the one hand we have Edoras - which looks like some kind of "Kingdom" that has about 20 citizens and some scenes that frankly look like they had the filming budget of a half-price Xena TV episode. On the other we suddenly have thousands of warriors at Helms Deep with an obvious budget and attention to detail that is awe-inspiring. What is going on? Secondly, whoever decided to have John Rhys-Davies do Gimli AND Treebeard has made a huge mistake of unbelievably amateur proportions. John keeps slipping between a Scottish accent and a Welsh one - it annoyed me about his Gimli in film one but I got used to it. It now annoys me about Gimli AND Treebeard in film two! It's obvious that Treebeard and Gimli are the same person (or, rather, the same voice) - how confusing is that on a big-budget movie? Don't get me wrong - John makes a great Treebeard overall, and a great Gimli overall, but NOT both together. This is madness!

OK, moving quickly on, here are some sound-bite quick comments to other reviews or concerns people have raised with me via email. Is Faramir different? Yes, but he had to be to work in the film. Is his sudden change of heart towards the end out of character and inexplicable? No. It's quite clear. He is not totally committed to the view he initially takes, overhears a moving speech from Sam to Frodo (one so obviously manufactured that I half-expected the words 'written in light of September 11th' to be flashing in large neon above Sam's head while it was delivered) and makes an immediate decision based on that. Faramir did not upset me. Nor did the Gimli humour. There is one "Toss me" line - Do the makers really not realise the extremely crass double-entendre of that expression?, I wonder. The Toss me line, like several others, screams out "Tolkien didn't write me" in a way that nothing in the BBC radio series ever did - it's crass writing, pure and simple, which I guess can be explained away as a cheap laugh for the modern dumbed-down audience but makes me wonder why they didn't go the whole way and have Legolas calling everyone 'Dude' and describing Rivendell as 'Cool'. All that being said,the second movie is no worse than the first in this respect and despite what old farts like me think "Let them eat man flesh" and "Let's hunt orc" appear to still be two of the most quoted movie lines, so what do I know anyway?! I digress. Back to the initial critiques and my comments on them.... Are the ents crap? No, they're not. They're a bit too Harry Potter/Disney-esque compared with everything else in the movie but by the time we get to the destruction of Isengard (a scene I would have sworn was unfilmable) they're working very nicely. There's one rather long, bad blue-screen shot of Treebeard walking with Merry and Pippin in his branches (which sticks out like a sore thumb because there are other shots of the same thing that look perfect) but heck, if this was the price of getting such a brilliant CGI Gollum I guess I can live with that.

With the questions/other people's critiques out the way, let me summarise the highlights. First the things I didn't like (I want to end on a positive note so bad news first!): afore-mentioned 'pretend there are thousands of people when it's blatently obvious there are less than 20' scenes; the score (sorry Howard, but too much of this sounded like a direct lift of the Fellowship score with nowhere near enough new material - no oscar this year!); waste of Karl Urban and Craig Parker's acting abilities (they don't really get a chance to shine in this movie); un-scary wraith on winged steed vs Frodo scene (oh look a single puny arrow to a massive thick neck scares mammoth beast away in agony - puhlease!); complete lack of direction for Christopher Lee in the 'Ents attack Orthanc' scene (how long is one man expected to just look bewildered and keep pacing back and forth? Give him something to do given the way he's been built up as a mean villain!); Aragorn/Arwen love scene (has this been edited from the end of the much-rumoured 'show them having sex' scene? - It sure looks like it); Aragorn's "resurrection by horse" scene; the impressive but too long Helm's Deep scene; and undoing all the good that's been done on making Frodo darker with a final cutesy Sam and Frodo joking 'back to old Frodo self' scene at the end of the movie.

And the good stuff, the stuff I did like?: every scene with Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto or Brad Dourif in it; expansion of Gimli, Merry and Pippin characters - at last some character depth!; Sam getting some more material to deliver (and conveying his real relationship with Frodo); Gollum and Smeagol and both of them together - it's a toss up (oh damn! that word again) as to whether Gimli or Gollum get the best comedy lines; Frodo and Sam hiding at the Black Gate; the storming of Orthanc by the Ents; Faramir (well acted); wargs ("large Rottweilers on speed" they make the threat of the nazgul look like a cuddly toy); oliphaunts; Gandalf vs the Balrog in valley and on mountain; New Zealand scenery (even more breath-taking than the first movie - oh my!); Elrond and the original book's Appendix material on Aragorn and Arwen; innovative ways of dealing with 'Is it Saruman or is it Gandalf?' descriptions in book (loved the Theoden being cured by Gandalf scene too) and the Dead Marshes.

So, overall? If you didn't like the first movie, you'll not like this. If you came to love the first movie do yourself a favour - book TWO viewings of this movie so that you can get to see it as I suspect the director wanted you to see it and saw it as he was putting it together (on your second viewing). I suspect my third viewing at some future date will be the one where I decide I love the second movie the way I came to really love the first after initial disappointment.

I left this press screening, not disappointed, but more worried about what the 'regular cinema goer' (as opposed to fan club member) would make of it. I don't think the over-hyping of the movie in the press helps anyone - it can only raise expectations to an unreasonable level. A friend (Hi Sindarleaf!) waiting for the celebrity premiere stopped me and asked what I thought and I had to hesitate before giving a reply which should really have been 'I need to see it again before I comment'.

Picking up where the first film left off, Peter Jackson's THE TWO TOWERS throws the remaining members of the Fellowship into the scattered chaos of Middle-earth, now fully under siege by the forces... Picking up where the first film left off, Peter Jackson's THE TWO TOWERS throws the remaining members of the Fellowship into the scattered chaos of Middle-earth, now fully under siege by the forces of Sauron. While Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) journey to the dreaded Mordor, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are held captive by orcs, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) search for their abducted companions. Soon Frodo and Sam are joined by the sulking and duplicitous Gollum (portrayed by the voice and motion-captured acting of Andy Serkis), who becomes their guide through the barren lands leading to Mount Doom. Meanwhile Merry and Pippin encounter the looming Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies) and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli find themselves in the land of Rohan, accompanied by an old friend. As the tale continues, each scenario becomes more perilous, and fierce battles erupt at both Isengard, home of the treacherous Saruman (Christopher Lee), and the massive Helm's Deep. After masterfully setting up the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, Jackson continues the trilogy with the increasingly dark and battle-filled TWO TOWERS without skipping a beat. Although the director takes a few more liberties in adapting the second installment, he skillfully cuts from one scenario to the next, creating a tightly woven tapestry with the various storylines. Joining the impressive cast this time around are Miranda Otto as Éowyn; Bernard Hill as her father, King Théoden; Brad Dourif as the aptly named Grima Wormtongue; Karl Urban as Éomer; David Wenham as Faramir; and Serkis under the remarkable CGI facade of Gollum. An intense epic that features one jaw-dropping sequence after another, THE TWO TOWERS more than carries its weight as the crucial centerpiece of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, Liv Tyler, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Cate Blanchett
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriter: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Producer: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Tim Sanders
Composer: Howard Shore
Studio: New Line Cinema



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