The Rock Horror Picture Show

Director: Jim Sharman

1975

Richard O’Brien‘s unusual stage musical was translated onto the big screen in 1975, and on its initial release it flopped. However, when a New York cinema began to show it at midnight screening word soon spread about the odd spoof sci-fi/horror film. It became cult viewing” (592, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) One of the things on my bucket list is to catch a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in New York!  It’s become majorly iconic much in the same way Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) has – everyone knows the “Time Warp” even if they’ve never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show before. Everything about this film screams cult following! The songs are toe-tappingly catchy and easily remembered; there’s the group dance number (“Time Warp”) easy enough for anyone to do that always gets an airing at any big social event … it’s not a party unless you’ve done the “Time Warp”; gorgeous costumes that are instantly recognizable and lend themselves perfectly to costume parties and fancy dress. “It is easy to see why the easy-to-remember songs and quotable dialogue have been such a hit with fans” (593)

“The mixture of brazen sexuality, tongue-in-cheek humor, outrageous clothing, and double entendres are not quite like anything else ever committed to film.” (593) Everyone is stunning in it especially Tim Curry as Frank ‘N’ Furter – there is a bizarre sexuality to him and he looks damn good in those costumes. It’s a shame that I’ve heard Tim Curry really doesn’t like tis character now but then I suppose when you consider yourself a serious actor the last thing you want to be most remembered for is an alien transvestite in a cult phenomenon. Indeed I saw him on stage last year when he was, briefly, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and I couldn’t help but burst into song (in my head of course) every time he came on. A sense of debauchery surrounds The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Somehow it makes sexual diversity palatable although there are of course negative consequences to the kind of lifestyle Furter leads – “It’s all over. Your mission is a failure. Your lifestyles too extreme.” He sucks Brad and Janet … and to some extent the audience too … into his alternative lifestyle. And its easy to see why, Curry oozes sex even in makeup and women’s underwear.

I’ve been a big Richard O’Brien fan since my childhood thanks to the legendary The Crystal Maze (1990-1995). He is so deliciously bizarre as Riff Raff not just in terms of looks but character as well. Brad (Barry Bostwick) is actually pretty attractive despite the oh so sexy y-fronts. Meatloaf is brilliant as Eddie with one of my favourite songs in the whole film – Hot Patootie – and believe me it’s hard to choose, they’re all so good. It’s so melodramatic with over-the-top acting best evidenced in Susan Sarandon’s Janet but that totally fits the film. There’s a knowledge and love of B-movies with a number of references throughout the film especially King Kong (1933) – mentions of Fay Wray and Rocky’s demise at the end of the film.

Glee doing Rocky Horror brings the film to an entirely new audience ensuring that its cult status will continue for a long, long time. I love that all the characters are present at the wedding before it all gets just a little bit weird. I introduced it to my sister and her group of friends – perhaps a bit earlier than I should have as she was only just in her teens – and it became a fast favourite. I’m determined to try to see the stage version when it its the road again (on its 40th Anniversary Tour don’t you know!!)  The vignettes of the seduction scenes with Janet in red and Brad in blue following pretty much the exactly the same script ties the two scenes together. There is a voyeuristic element with not only Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia watching all that goes on but we the audience are too. I love the red lips that open the film – I’m still trying to work out how they so perfectly and completely managed to remove the rest of the face all these years later.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show may not be one to watch with Grandma, perhaps, but it’s a terrific exercise in kitsch fun nonetheless.” (593) It’s not a film you take seriously. You kind of have to just accept it and go along for the ride no matter how strange it may be! It’s one of the films I put on if I’ve had a particularly awful day (like today when I’m so full of cold the only option is to curl up with my dog and watch films) Without fail it always cheers me up.

 

 

 

 

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Good Morning Vietnam

Director: Barry Levinson

1987

Robin Williams is very much the focal point of film playing “real-life U. S. Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer, who broadcasts his irreverent, wisecracking jokes […] and Motown music from his base in Saigon to the troops fighting the Vietnam War” (746, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die) and drives the entire film with his unique comedy. This really is a film that showcases Robin Williams’ talent and as Berry says “the real joy is in watching Williams deliver his manic monologues. many of them were ad-libbed, and director, Levinson made the wise decision to sit back and let the camera roll to capture each and every energetic outburst.” (746) That’s not to say that he is the only talent in Good Morning Vietnam – Forest Whitaker is actually pretty funny as the aide, with the rather unfortunate surname of Garlick, attached to keep an eye on Cronauer. Some of the higher ranking officers, Hauk and Dickerson in particular, become the stereotypical jobs worths with no sense of humor and a rigidity about them, especially when it comes to rules and regulations, and that in itself transforms them into comic characters forever inadvertently opening themselves up to ridicule. In the case of Hauk he has a completely unfounded faith in his own comedy, resulting in a particularly uncomfortable scene when he attempts to cover Cronauer’s show. The ginger twins in charge of censorship are just fab. There is something just inherently wrong about Dickerson abusing his power to send Cronauer into compromised territory just because he doesn’t like his personality or how he approaches things. I’m always really glad that he gets is comeuppance and is relocated to Guam.

I love Good Morning Vietnam. I have a fascination with the Vietnam War and have watched pretty much every American-made Vietnam War movie that’s out there, and Good Morning Vietnam is definitely one of my favourites. It’s definitely a different kettle of fish compared to the heavy nature of the majority of films concerning Vietnam with its light-hearted feel. There is a completely different quality to Good Morning Vietnam. And there is pretty much no fighting seen in the movie although there is still a Viet-Cong presence. It does feel a bit strange laughing out loud at a film set against the backdrop of a conflict as horrific as Vietnam and yet the purpose of Cronauer being there was to raise the morale of the troops slogging in out in a seemingly unending war in crap conditions in the jungle. There are moments when Cronauer becomes stifled by the censorship following the bombing of Jimmy Wah’s resulting in his suspension from the radio and a brief period of despondency.

Aside from the rather obvious shout of “Good Morning Vietnam” that became Cronauer’s opening trademark, it would be hard to mistake the war for any other period. There are enough shots of river vehicles and helicopters (made famous by that scene in Apocalypse Now [Francis Ford Coppola, 1979] … you all know which one I’m talking about!) that you automatically recognize the setting and place the conflict in its correct time in history. Saigon is suitably chaotic and vibrant. However Saigon is not always a safe haven with a series of bombings shattering the peaceful bubble the reserve troops are currently tenuously living in. The bombing of Jimmy Wah’s brings the reality of the conflict exploding back to the forefront of the audience’s mind, quite literally.

Robin WilliamsMusic is an aspect of the film that is equally as important as the comedy, packed to the brim with all the popular music of the era, songs which are now classics from bands like The Beach Boys. It’s an excellent soundtrack. Wonderful juxtaposition of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” over scenes of violence and despair of life in Vietnam.

Good Morning Vietnam is hilarious and I especially love the Vietnamese English class. There is a joy about their various personalities and attempts to learn English under the dubious tutelage of Williams’ Cronauer. Unlike the majority of the combat soldiers stationed in Vietnam, Cronauer fully immerses himself in the Vietnamese culture – he sees the Vietnamese as people rather than just some elusive enemy, and as we see the film from Cronauer’s perspective we too see them as individual people with their own unique personalities. As Joanna Berry says “this is one of the few American-made movies set during the Vietnam War that portrays the Vietnamese as real people.” (746) Cronauer develops a genuine friendship with Tuan after initially befriending him to get to his sister. It makes the  betrayal at the discovery that Tuan is actually Viet-Cong all the more cutting. However comedy is such a part of Robin Williams, it’s in his blood, that even after confronting Tuan he is still cracking jokes; it’s his coping mechanism. The softball game with his English class is the perfect way to end the movie. The ugliness of the Viet-Cong is pushed out of your mind by the images of US soldiers and Vietnamese sharing in something as simple as smacking fruit with a stick. It remind the audience that the Vietnamese are people too, a rarity in Vietnam centric films.

Rebel Without A Cause

Director: Nicholas Ray

1955

From the career of one reluctantly iconic, short-lived actor to another.  Rebel Without A Cause is without question the film that James Dean is most remembered for. The two are forever in-twinned together – you say Rebel Without A Cause and people invariably say James Dean. Another splendid actor who not only had a tragically short life but one which ended at the real beginning of a promising career, with a mere three films under his belt. As with the films of River Phoenix there is a pervasive melancholy attached to Rebel in part because of the subject matter and highlighted by his untimely demise. “One reason why he and Dean were made for each other; it wasn’t just the actor’s style but his whole body that gave dramatic life to the turmoil within. Seeing Dean’s Jim is witnessing a character being born, growing from moment to moment before our eyes. That, of course, is fitting for Rebel‘s subject matter, but it also complements Ray’s direction in terms of how its acute physicality expresses the tormented vitality within.” (314, Geoff Andrew, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Dean is roguishly handsome and suitably troubled as the protagonist Jim Stark. It’s not hard to see how he become the superstar he was and remains to be today. Jim is struggling with universal themes of trying to find out who he is and coming to the realization that parents are fallible human beings with their own problems. It’s themes like this that keep a classic like Rebel Without A Cause relevant to today’s audience.

Rebel remains by far the best 1950s film dealing with the then-new phenomenon of teenage delinquency.” (314) Right from the off we know that the characters in the film are going to be delinquents of some sort having had our initial introduction to the main trio at the police station, with all three there for some sort of misdemeanor. The trio of Jim, Judy and Plato become this odd dysfunctional family with Jim and Judy taking on bizarre parental roles in Plato’s mind. Plato seems much more invested in their friendship than Jim does; he is much more intense in his feelings. Jim in particular becomes a strange sort of father figure to Plato, with the latter even calling Jim his father at times. Plato’s description of Jim, “You have to get to know him. He doesn’t say much. But when he does, you know he means it. He’s sincere” closely resembles that of James Dean.

“The often luridly expressionist hues and Ray’s typically fraught CinemaScope compositions evoke the feverish nature of adolescent experience.” (314) The colours are so vivid and seem all the more so when a large number of the images from the film are so often seen in black and white. It’s always a bit of a shock when I start watching Rebel because I forget that it was actually filmed in colour. Ray uses really interesting compositions mixing up the conventional shots in the way he places the actors. It gives the film and interesting visual dynamic. The chickee run is exhilarating with fatal consequences that end up certain events in motion. There is added tension to the race due to the real life demise of the star at the hand of a horrific car crash.

“Ray understands how, especially when young, we view our lives as drama. His immaculate sense of colour, composition, cutting, lighting and performance enhances the importance of the action.” (314) Plato becomes the third wheel to Jim and Judy’s burgeoning relationship and it’s one that develops remarkably quickly much like many relationships when you’re a teenager. Jim really understands Plato – he says exactly what Plato needs to hear in order to defuse the volatile situation; he turns out to be a fairly skilled negotiator even if the end turned out rather worse than anyone intended. The costumes are wonderful but then I have a nostalgic love for all 1950s fashion. In some ways Ray is subtly questioning, or mocking depending on how you chose to read the scene, the masculinity of Jim’s father by having him wearing an apron over his business suit while having a conversation with Jim over what it takes to be a man. Ray creates a visual representation of how Jim initially sees his father as being a weak figure in his life, unwilling or unable to stand up for his own son. Dean gives such an adult performance that you forget Jim is only actually 16. There isn’t a happy ending per se but something good comes out of tragedy of Plato’s death – Jim reconnects with is father. They end the film with a much better understanding of each other and have moved onto a new stage in their relationship as parent and child.

My Own Private Idaho

Director: Gus Van Sant

1991

“But in explicitly thematizing homelessness, homosexuality, and teenage prostitution; by offering up a protagonist who suffers from narcolepsy and romanticized memories of a mother who abandoned him as a child; and in paying extended homage to Orson Welles’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, Chimes at Midnight (1965), via a self-consciously anachronistic use of bardspeak in several key scenes, no one can claim that Van Sant was unwilling to alienate – even incurring the wrath of – unsuspecting middle-American audiences.” (800, Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The cinematography is wonderful with the feel of vintage photographs. I am a Gus Van Sant fan – his films are always well thought out and perfectly executed and I like the fact that he doesn’t really compromise his vision for the sack of the audience. He’s a filmmaker that assumes the audience is smart enough to work out what’s going on and follow the narrative. There are some magnificently bizarre sequences like the trick obsessed with the boy of Dutch cleaner. It’s a fairly frank look at the reality of teenage prostitution with various characters telling their stories directly to the camera giving the audience no opportunity to ignore their tales of woe. It’s a clever way that Van Sant presents the sex scenes. Rather than filming them gratuitously which would have been all too easy to do in a film where one of the themes is teenage prostitution he instead presents them as strangely stylish vignettes.

“Scott is actually the rebellious son of a well-to-do Portland family who has chosen this lifestyle largely as a means of humiliating his father.” (801) In this regard Scott is very much like Hal in Henry IV although Mike is far from cast in the role of Falstaff, that role is reserved for Bob played brilliantly by William Richert. Keanu Reeves is actually a pretty good actor – it takes seeing him in films like this (and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Stephen Herek, 1989) to remind you of it. There’s a protectiveness to his relationship with Mike. He takes care of him during his episodes. I love the inclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry IV but then I am a bit of Shakespeare nerd girl – I could always listen to anything by Shakespeare! Mike and Scott have an unconventional relationship but then nothing about My Own Private Idaho really is all that conventional. “With Mike, on the other hand, what you see is definitely what you get: a quiet, dreamy, gentle boy who is in love with his best friend, falls asleep at the drop of a hat – frequently at inopportune moments, a trait the director taps for both humor and pathos – and is obsessed with finding his long-lost mom.” (801) River Phoenix is spectacular as Mike. There is always a sense of melancholy attached to his performances due to his tragic end at a young age just on the cusp of a truly incredible career. Plus he is beautiful, especially in his vulnerability. River does lost and vulnerable so well, there is an innate sadness to his performance. And he is mesmerizing, especially when he is the whole occupant of the screen – he just draws all your attention to a focal point.

“It is this latter quality that provides the impetus for the film’s rambling (but never slow) road trip of a plot, as Scott accompanies his always-endangered buddy on excursions ranging from Idaho to Italy in search of a myth of maternal love that the audience sees as the scratchy home-video footage of Mike’s mind.” (801) Mike seems entirely lost without Scott following their trip to Italy. There’s something adorable about his haphazard journey to find some sort of love from a woman who seems incapable of loving him. My favourite scene in the whole film comes on this crazy quest when Scott and Mike are around their campfire. It’s such a touching scene with Mike laying his unrequited love for Scott bare. And Scott, rather than being cold, or even worse mean about it gives Mike the limited comfort he can give when he doesn’t return Mike’s feelings.

“In this tender yet unsentimental picture, Van Sant succeeds as few other filmmakers have in conveying the subjective experience of troubled, disaffected youth.” (801) I always feel slightly unsatisfied at the end of My Own Private Idaho. Not because of Scott’s journey, which so parallels Hal’s in Henry IV, as he does exactly what he says he will  and throws off his current degenerate lifestyle once he comes into his inheritance following his father’s death. He cuts the ties to his former life so completely. It’s Mike that I end up wondering about – what becomes of him without Scott around to look after him during his episodes? Who is it that takes him off the side of the road and do they actually look after him? To me there is just this unresolved feeling to Mike’s story.

Groundhog Day

Director: Harold Ramis

1993

Following on from the epicness that was my blog on The Lord of the Rings yesterday (Hobbit Day don’t you know … see what I did there?) I present you with a much more manageable blog on the subject of … you guessed it … Groundhog Day (I know the title kind of gave it away didn’t it?)

“It’s a terrific conceit (one that is never explained, which makes it even better) that first causes the scheming Phil to take advantage of the situation.” (819, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) It’s a conceit that’s been picked up by some of my favourite television shows like Life Serial in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon, 1997-2003), Buffy is forced to relive her day in the Magic Shop multiple times and Mystery Spot in Supernatural (Eric Kripke, 2005- ) when Sam has to watch Dean die over and over again. Both of these episodes were more exciting and entertaining than Groundhog Day was.

I do like that Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are back together again. I have never found Bill Murray all that funny before, aside from in Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984), there is only so many times you can watch the same type of performance. And more often than not he does the surly and cynical humor thing. I do wonder what it must have been like for the cast (especially) to film the same moment over and over again with the slightest tweak.

“In between, there are delicious running gags including waking up to the same banter and Sonny and Cher song (“I’ve Got You Babe”) on the radio; seeing Stephen Tobolowsky in a superb turn as irritating insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, and knowing what is going to happen before it does.” (819) The repetition of “I’ve Got You Babe” starts out funny but oh so very quickly becomes jarring and ends up setting my teeth on edge. I came to dread the clock changing to 6am because I knew Sonny and Cher would start warbling away.

The film takes a melancholy turn once the initial novelty has worn off. Phil becomes increasingly unstable as he continues to relive the same day over and over again, with his behaviour becoming ever more erratic – when he kidnaps Phil the Groundhog before his string of suicide attempts. Eventually however he uses the time productively and betters himself learning new skills like playing the piano, learning a new language or becoming an ice sculpture artist. And slowly he becomes less self-centered and more involved with the inhabitants of this small American town, going around getting to know and help people, his efforts to save the old homeless guy repeatedly are particularly endearing.

Despite the fact that Phil uses Groundhog Day to manipulate Rita and her feelings there is still something romantic about his wooing of her. He takes a lot of time and effort to get to know her and actually cares quite deeply about her. I found Phil surprisingly sappy but only really when it came to Rita. It takes Phil finding inner happiness to finally break the monotony of living Groundhog Day countless times over and Rita is a big part of that.

I really don’t agree with Berry when she says “Groundhog Day is both wonderfully clever and hysterically funny – comedy is rarely this perfect.” (819) I found myself bored more than anything by the repetitive nature of the film. And I didn’t laugh out loud once let alone 3 times which is the Kermode-an minimum for a film to be considered a comedy. I also don’t find the subject of suicide one suited to comedy – there is nothing funny about suicide. Comedy is such a subjective thing and clearly this just isn’t my sort of comedy. It must be a nightmare trying to come up with a comic film that has a wide-reaching appeal. It was an alright way to spend a dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon (which today really was!!) but I wouldn’t say it was the perfect comedy. I have watched much funnier films than Groundhog Day.

The Lord of the Rings

Director: Peter Jackson

The Fellowship of the Ring 2001

The Two Towers 2002

The Return of the King 2003

Happy Hobbit Day!! And what better way to celebrate Frodo and Bilbo’s birthday than with an admittedly monstrously long blog about the epic creation of that master of cinema, Peter Jackson … and of course J. R. R. Tolkien. I apologize in advance for the length but bear with it; it’s worth it I promise. And anyway that would be in keeping with the epic trilogy that Peter Jackson gifted to the world.

The Lord of the Rings holds an incredibly special place in my heart; it made me want to make movies. I wanted to be part of something as obviously magical and special as the filming of Lord of the Rings was. There is magic seeping through every single aspect of these films – the only thing that even comes close is the Harry Potter series. Just a quick aside to say that I only ever watch the extended cut of the films rather than the theatrical cuts. I will try to keep the gushing to a minimum but I can’t promise how successful I will be at that. Also they seem to run together in my head as one story rather than three installments. I tried writing about The Lord of the Rings in installments but just found it too difficult. And as Philip Hal says “Like J. R. R. Tolkien’s original three-volume book, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is best seen as a single – albeit very long – work. Watched back-to-back, the trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring [2001], The Two Towers [2002], and The Return of the King [2003]) flows together almost seamlessly, from spectacular prologue to the suitably epic final closing credits.’ (898, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

The prologue is stylish, elegant and effective. In 10 minutes we get a much-condensed history of the Ring that will be the centrepiece of this epic trilogy. A Ring that has a number of its own close ups – it’s as much a character as any of the human actors. Cate Blanchett’s voice over is haunting and ethereal and I love that it starts in Elvish before transforming into English. I also like that none of the films are identified as a Peter Jackson film at the start; he lets them stand on their own merit, only taking credit during the closing credit sequences.

Equally as important to the enduring success of the trilogy is the truly beautiful and evocative score provided by Howard Shore. While getting ready to write this mammoth installment of my blog I had the DVD on the home screen with some of his score playing and all the emotions came flooding back. And this is a set of films that I get quite emotional about no matter how many times I watch them. You can easily distinguish between the different races. The music for the Hobbits is light hearted, fun and carefree – a musical representation of the characteristics so common throughout their race. The elves are mystical and ethereal in their score, complimenting their grace and natural beauty.

The maps are beautiful. The Shire is idyllic and reminiscent of old English countryside. The techniques used to film the Hobbits in particular are so clever and seamless. At first glance they appear human sized. It is only when you see them next to the livestock or amongst the other races that you realize the size difference. There is a wonderful laziness to the Shire almost like the feeling you get on a sleepy summers day. The texture in the film is so tactile and the level of attention to every miniscule detail is mind-blowing! Bag End looks so cozy with books strewn around the place in teetering piles. Lit softly in warm colours, all soft edges due to the round shape of the house. And of course there is the gorgeous iconic green hobbit hole door.

Sir Ian McKellen is perfect as Gandalf with the exact amount of twinkle and mischief in his eye. I often think that he would have made the perfect Dumbledore had he not been in Lord of the Rings. It’s actually pretty easy to forget that he is much more than the genial old gentleman he appears to be. He is an extremely powerful wizard and that makes those moments when his displays his power all the more memorable. And he has such a wonderfully gravelly voice. Gandalf is the voice of wisdom and the guiding force of the Fellowship. Following the events that take place within the walls of Moria you feel his absence keenly.

Now on the subject of Frodo – he is not my favourite character in the film by far. But that’s not to say that Elijah Wood doesn’t do a splendid job playing him because he does. It’s a blinding performance made all the more impressive when you think that he was only 18 when he began this mammoth journey. I just prefer the stellar cast surrounding him and the different ways they all interact with him. Elijah’s eyes are mesmerizing really drawing you into his character and performance.

Ian Holm is wonderful as Bilbo and I cannot wait to see how Martin Freeman will tackle the character in the forthcoming Hobbit films … also by the Middle Earth genius that is Peter Jackson (to say I am excited about them is a MASSIVE understatement!!) The effect the Ring has had on Bilbo is played so subtly – the constant, almost unconscious, light touches to the pocket and the glimpses of darkness when he thinks Gandalf wants it. There is a surprising strength to Bilbo when he relinquishes the Ring. And yet it quickly becomes obvious that this strength is inherent in all Hobbits over the course of the trilogy. Bilbo’s reaction to seeing the Ring again in Rivendell shows echoes of Gollum or rather the transformation from Sméagol to Gollum.

The party is brilliant with all the things that epitomize Hobbits – food, drink, music and laughter. And then there are the jaw-dropping fireworks with the piece de resistance being the dragon! The Hobbit children are adorable with their big eyes and joyful happiness. It’s a gentle start to a trilogy that gets darker and darker as it moves towards its conclusion. The songs and laughter ever present in the Shire gradually die off as the story progresses. There is a pureness to the Hobbit race. It’s that which lends so much strength to their character and allows them to resist the corrupting nature of the Ring.

Merry and Pippin, played to perfection by Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, have one of the best entrances – pilfering one of Gandalf’s most spectacular fireworks. They are immediately cast as the comic duo forever getting into trouble, though never intentionally going about it. Mischievous pair they quickly became, and remain, my favourite Hobbits – though I do love Sam … you just can’t help but love him. I adore the relationship between Merry and Pippin. They are more like brothers than friends … indeed they often remind me of the Weasley twins from Harry Potter. You can always rely on them to bring light and laughter to the darkest of situations. Pippin’s penchant for touching things he shouldn’t results in disaster for the Fellowship – awakening the beast outside the walls of Moria and then dropping the helmet down a well, eliciting one of my favourite lines “Fool of a Took” and awakening the fearsome Balrog.

Sean Astin gives his best performance ever; some might say career defining, as the ever faithful and loyal Samwise Gamgee (and that’s saying a lot coming from me as I have this deep enduring love for him as Mikey in The Goonies [Richard Donner, 1985]). You couldn’t want for a better companion then Sam and he is every bit as important as Frodo. If it wasn’t for Sam there is every possibility that Frodo wouldn’t have made it to Mordor and completed his mission, something even Frodo admits when he says “Frodo wouldn’t have got very far without Sam”. He starts as quite a bumbling character more at home gardening or cooking then on an adventure. He’s the worrier of the group – always looking after Frodo, putting his needs before his own. Sam takes the job entrusted to him by Gandalf very seriously – almost drowning in order to keep his promise “Don’t you leave him Samwise Gamgee. And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.” Sam’s an endearing character and Sean Astin should definitely have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. There is an extreme core of strength hidden within Sam – a hardness born of his protectiveness of Frodo that emerges when he threatens Gollum on the stairs in The Return of the King. Sam is eternally optimistic, an ever-present light to Frodo’s increasing despair and gloom. He is Frodo’s anchor to the real world against the temptation of the Ring.

“Almost as memorable as the characters is the scenery in the films. The trilogy was shot in Jackson’s native New Zealand, and little digital magic was required to create the stunning landscapes.” (898) The scale of the film is enormous with vast sweeping vistas, especially Minas Morgul when the riders emerge and when Gandalf arrives in Gondor. The landscapes and scenery are arresting in their beauty, and become more magnificent with each successive film. These breathtaking vistas have cemented a long-standing love affair that I have with New Zealand (one that began with my admiration of the incredible All Blacks!) despite the fact that I have never been there. Indeed New Zealand is first place on my bucket list and Matamata, now forever known as Hobbiton, is a must!

Isengard is almost unrecognizable when Gandalf visits Saruman in the Fellowship of the Ring, a lush fertile land with the impressive tower Orthanc at its heart. In some ways Isengard looks almost unnatural surrounded by this sea of greenery completely at odds with the harsh look of Orthanc. The Orcs are suitably creepy and impure. Isengard takes on an industrial feel during the creation of a new race of Orcs – the Uruk-Hai – due in part to the desecration of all the nature in the surrounding area. It becomes a dark and fiery production line of armour and bodies. Amazing shots plunging down from the lofty top of Orthanc down through the earth to where the Uruk-Hai are being created and armed. They have been bred to destroy things – their very first instinct is to kill! There is no redeeming feature to them what so ever.

Saruman has this darkness about him despite being the White Wizard. He is much more angular and harder than Gandalf, evident in their staffs – Gandalf’’s is a branch, part of nature and organic while Saruman’s is more metallic and angular with sharp peaks echoing the design of Orthanc. He is power hungry which makes him dangerous especially as he wields an enormous power. The fight between the two wizards is one of the more spectacular scenes in the Fellowship of the Ring with an incredible image of Gandalf spiraling upwards towards the top of this immense tower. There is no denying that Christopher Lee has a powerful voice but there’s a coldness to it where as Ian McKellen’s holds a warmth to his. There is a crazy glint in his eyes.

The Elves are beautiful, ethereal and other worldly and yet at the same time very real and very much part of this world that Tolkien began and Jackson finished. They are the most elegant of the races. The best word to describe elves is enchanting, highlighted when Gimli is overcome with wonder at having met Galadriel, surmounting all the prejudices that exist between Dwarves and Elves. Their language is glorious and I so wish I could speak it! It is much more prevalent in The Two Towers with some scenes held entirely in this beautiful, yet entirely fictional, language. The cast speak it flawlessly – a dedication on their part to learning a new language in order to provide an authenticity to Middle Earth.

I remember going to see a midnight screening of The Fellowship of the Ring with my mum and sister. I admit that having just seen Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001), a magical world I had grown up with brought to life in glorious technicolor, I was adamant that nothing could top that film. My mum was like ‘Just wait and see, wait and see’, and within the first half and hour I was made to eat my words. This initial comparison would be one I held onto for many years and even became the focus of my dissertation. You may remember me saying I had a love-hate relationship with the Harry Potter films due to the decisions made during the adaptation process. Well this is far from the case with The Lord of the Rings – in my eyes it is about as perfect as an adaptation can get. Yes not everything was included and some things were created for the film but Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens managed to maintain the tone of Tolkien’s original story and that’s what makes it so special. “Even more remarkable is the fact that most hard-core fans of the book also loved the movie.” (899) There are nods to the Tolkien fans throughout the trilogy with lines like “It’s a shortcut […] to mushrooms,” the title of a chapter, the appearance of the Bilbo’s trolls, both from The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) and mentioned at the party, and “The eagles are coming” from The Hobbit. Jackson never forgets the fans mainly because he is a fan himself and these films were a real labor of love for everyone involved. I think part of the success of Lord of the Rings can be credited to having John Howe and Alan Lee as part of the creative department. By having the two most renowned Tolkien artists in the world as conceptual artists ensured a link between already existing images from Middle Earth and those being created through the film.

The chase of the Hobbits by the Nazgûl is electrifying especially after the peace of the Shire. The films take on a different tone from there on out. The world of Men is grimy, dark and somewhat oppressive in the Fellowship of the Ring but then we are seeing it from the view of the Hobbits. And yet they still take pleasure in the simple things like food and booze … “What is that?” “This is a pint.” “It comes in pints? I’m getting one” The four Hobbits play so well off each other fitting together as a group naturally. I think this is mainly due to Jackson’s decision to have them work together on their own for nearly a month when they began filming allowing that bond and relationship to develop without any influence from other cast members.

Viggo Mortensen is enthralling as Strider (later discovered to be Aragorn, the lost King of Gondor). He has such a presence about him and gives an incredible performance, which grows and grows as the trilogy goes on. He becomes one of the most powerful allies the Hobbits have not only at the start but also throughout their entire journey. There is a grace and beauty to his fighting style, a hint to his time spent amongst the Elves, yet he always moves with a deadly purpose. I cannot comprehend anyone other than Viggo playing Aragorn – it was definitely a blessing that the original actor did not last. And let’s face it he’s just as sexy as hell!! He even manages to pull off wearing such a delicate and feminine necklace as the Evenstar, gifted to him by Arwen. Aragorn understands Frodo – he shares a similar unwieldy task of overcoming the history of his lineage and becoming the King he was destined to be. Only once throughout the whole trilogy does Aragon give up and it’s a very brief moment – he is an incredibly strong character.

There is a bravery and fierceness to the Hobbits – they enter situations regardless of their size like when Aragorn removes Frodo from the bar at the Prancing Pony, when they try to defend Frodo from the onslaught of the Nazgûl at Weathertop (albeit rather ineffectually) and when Merry and Pippin draw the attention of the Uruk-Hai allowing Frodo’s escape … and that’s all only in the Fellowship of the Ring. Their bravery knows no bounds.

Liv Tyler is stunning as Arwen and powerful with it as one of the few women in the films. She is very sure of herself and her heart. Arwen has such exquisite costumes, all the female characters do but there is something so deliciously sumptuous about hers. I especially adore the red and blue dress she wears when the shards of Narsil are being re-forged in Rivendell. Rivendell is magnificent and a place of calmness after the excitement that occurred on their journey there. It’s very silver and blue and grey and yet warm despite being full of cold colours. Organic shapes and carving throughout. It’s also the home of an important piece of history – the broken shards of Narsil, the blade that separated Sauron from the Ring in the first place.

The forming of the Fellowship is a pivotal moment pulling all the key characters together for the first time. You see that the different races do not always get on and have their own agendas when they all arguing about what to do with the Ring. It is a potent moment when Frodo offers to take the Ring to Mordor – you can see the weight of that decision on Gandalf’s face, simple yet effective. And once again the Hobbits provide a much needed relief in tension by joining the party … “You need people of intelligence on this mission, quest, thing […] where are we going?” Flashes of the lidless eye when Gimli tries to destroy the Ring show how it has already forged a connection to Frodo. As does the moment when the arguments fade into the background while the Ring grows more prominent with the Black Tongue of Mordor speaking over the top that only Frodo can hear.

There is limited trust between the races when the Fellowship forms (especially between the Elves and Dwarves) something you witness change over the course of the trilogy, most obviously through Legolas and Gimli. By The Two Towers the tension between Legolas and Gimli has completely dissipated evident when our trio meet Éomer and have the following exchange:

“I would cut off your head, Dwarf, if it stood but a little higher from the ground.”

“You would die before your stroke fell!”

Gimli and Legolas begin a competition over who can kill the most in The Two Towers, indicating how firm their friendship has become, which continues into Return of the King. Gimli has a telling line, “may the best Dwarf win,” which shows how far their relationship has come. From mistrusting one another entirely when the Fellowship was formed Gimli now sees Legolas as an equal.

Sean Bean as Boromir (a precursor to his role as Eddard Stark in The Game of Thrones [David Benioff, 2011]) is troubled and tormented but ultimately does the right thing and sacrifices himself in so noble a manner that all is forgiven. And I just love that gravelly Northern voice of his – I could listen to him for hours! Boromir and Aragorn are always at odds – Boromir displays the weakness and vulnerability inherent in all men while Aragorn displays the valor and strength of character all men can possess. There is respect between the two men of Gondor eventually.

The love between Aragorn and Arwen is never overplayed and avoids becoming sickly sweet. It is one of the strongest bonds throughout a trilogy where astounding bonds are formed between all the characters. The evenstar is just beautiful. And when you think about it they are an inter-racial relationship so have to contend with the difficulties that go with it.

Gimli while being a gruff character is also a surprisingly comic one – something only hinted at in the Fellowship of the Ring with the classic line “Nobody tosses a Dwarf”. He is just comic genius during the battle at Helm’s Deep providing some much need laughter along with the return of the Dwarf tossing joke. It is in The Two Towers that Gimli’s comedy comes into its own with some classic one-liners, generally about acts completely at odds with the physique of Dwarves. You can always rely on Gimli to provide some laughs – him ineffectually trying to blow away the ghostly arms of the army of the dead is hilarious.

The costumes are exquisite. I especially love the lived in feel Aragorn’s clothes have – they suit his character perfectly. I actually think he looks wrong in all his finery on his coronation day, but then that’s just me. Ngila Dickson did a beautiful job with all the costumes managing to create costumes that compliment each other while keeping an individuality to them. Each race has their own style of clothing which differs again from region to region … the Rivendell Elves are slightly different to the Mirkwood Elves while maintaining some similar motifs. Gondor have their White Tree of the King motif while Rohan uses a horse motif and Aragorn combines the two as a unifying character between the two realms of Men.

Moria is another reminder of the sheer scale of the films. The mimes are gigantic with vast echoing chambers and roofs disappearing far above the point of vision. And yet it is a place that has lost all its grandeur and fallen into ruin becoming a shadow of its former glory. Balin’s tomb takes on a whole new poignancy now that we have a face to go with the name tanks to the upcoming Hobbit films. Moria also sees the first big battle that the Fellowship have to face – one that is quickly dwarfed in size as the trilogy progresses. Sam shows us to never underestimate the damage you can do with a frying pan long before Tangled (Nathan Greno, 2010) did. Weta did a marvelous job with the computer-generated characters, not just Gollum (though he is clearly the shining star in Weta’s history) but also the cave troll in Moria. Peter Hal says, “The characters in his film are all very human.” (898) and I agree there is something strangely human about even the cave troll … I also feel oddly sad that the Fellowship have to kill him. The Orcs of Moria have become more insect like in both their armor and behavior. Their scurrying and scratching are some of the more spine chilling noises with their resemblance to cockroaches. You know the Balrog must be something truly monstrous to have creatures like Orcs fleeing in terror from it. The artwork and creation of the Balrog is superb with this menacing hulk of rock and fire literally filling the screen.

The fall of Gandalf remains one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the trilogy as it is the first time the Fellowship loses a member, and one as powerful as Gandalf at that. Aragorn becomes the leader of the Fellowship taking on the immense responsibility of trying to guide Frodo to Mordor. Peter Jackson is a director who understands the power of silence – having the sound leech out of the flight of the now broken Fellowship. Their reactions are so emotional. I find Legolas’ the most affecting. Elves do not die, unless in battle, ad therefore he doesn’t know how to process what’s just happened.

Lothlorien is sumptuous and just oozes magic. It’s an extremely organic place with the Elves having developed a tree top city amongst the trees, in harmony with the earth. There is an inner glow, effulgence, to Lothlorien. While it’s undeniable that Cate Blanchett is stunning as Galadriel there is something about her that makes me slightly uneasy. Maybe it’s that kernel of darkness that she has within her – exposed when she is tempted, however briefly, by the Ring. She hints at the importance of Sam and his loyal heart for the success of their quest while at the same time increasing the burden of said quest. The mirror gives us a glimpse of the Scourging of the Shire, rightly left out from the final installment and yet still included for the fans of the book. Frodo makes the decision to leave the Fellowship in Lothlorien and begins trying to distance himself unsuccessfully from Sam.

Jackson takes a different approach to The Two Towers as he now has to juggle three different storylines. Opening on Gandalf’s fall serves to remind us of a key moment from the first film. It also launches you into the action of the middle installment – sometimes regarded as the filler film in trilogies. There is no gentle start to this film but then we are no longer in a gentle place within the story.

Gollum is not yet a fully formed character in the Fellowship of the Ring being rarely seen. However once we do get introduced to him in The Two Towers you quickly realize what a remarkably feat of cinematic wizardry he really is. “Based on the motion tracked performance and vocals of actor Andy Serkis, the Gollum on-screen was totally computer-generated, yet still totally believable as a real character.” (898) Gollum really is a remarkable creation. Andy Serkis is outstanding as the schizophrenic, Ring obsessed creature. And although he is a fully cg character e fits completely into the world of Lord of the Rings – even now more than a decade later the cg still holds up remarkably well. He has a very real and solid feel about him thanks to the way Jackson decided to film Serkis’ performance, using groundbreaking methods at the time. Through Sméagol you get glimpses of who Gollum must have been before being poisoned by the Ring. “It is perhaps this that encapsulates Jackson’s greatest achievement: to remember that spectacle and technical wizardry aren’t enough to make a great movie.” (898) (You hear that James Cameron?!?!) The scene between Gollum and Sméagol is brilliant – his two sides going against each other with clearly defined characteristics of both personalities. There is a very clear definition between Gollum and Sméagol in the way they speak and facial movements. I love the way they have managed to convey his schizophrenic nature with the conversations his two personalities have with one another. While there are more human aspects to Sméagol ultimately he is just as duplicitous as Gollum is … “Sméagol lied.” Gollum brings out the worst in Sam, partly because Sam, rightly, sees Gollum as a threat to Frodo and his wellbeing. His presence creates a rift between the two Hobbits that only intensifies as the films progress. Frodo forms an unlikely and unwelcome, in Sam’s eyes, connection with Gollum. And becomes increasingly dependent on the foul little creature. I love the pleasure Sméagol gets from killing a fish – his little song and dance are kind of adorable. His capture by Faramir’s men is a turning point. Sméagol sees it as a betrayal by Frodo and it’s at this point that Gollum makes his reappearance.

The hold the Ring has over Frodo is continuing to grow with Frodo exhibiting more obsessive behavior like stroking the Ring while in the Dead Marshes. “Tolkien spent time in the trenches during World War I, where many of his friends were killed, and it is hard not to draw parallels between his experiences and the ultimate tone of melancholy that surrounds the trilogy’s conclusion.” (899) Nowhere is this sense of Tolkien’s war experience more visually evident than in the Dead Marshes with all the fallen bodies entombed within watery graves. It automatically brings to mind the images of fallen soldiers in shell holes throughout the ravaged space of No Man’s Land.

We are introduced to a new realm of Men – the Rohirrim, horse-lords of Rohan. There is a Viking quality about them with their long halls. I love the horse motif that is evident in every aspect of the Rohirrim from their armor to the sumptuous carving on the buildings in Edoras. With this new realm come new characters and players in the quest to save Middle Earth. Éomer, the headstrong young warrior wrongly cast into exile, yet forever loyal to his King. Théoden, King of Rohan, ruler to a kingdom besieged by Isengard. Initially held under the spell of Saruman the Théoden we first meet is little more than a corpse doing Saruman’s bidding. A far cry from the strong and majestic King that emerges later in the film. It’s a flawless transformation from the old decrepit Théoden to the Théoden free of Saruman’s influence. It is with a heavy heart that the first thing Théoden has to do once he regains his own mind is bury his son, “No parent should have to bury their child” which strikes a chord with me every time.

Éowyn joins the small group of women in The Lord of the Rings. Another feisty independent woman and an excellent role model for young girls. I would so do the same as Éowyn and sneak off to join the battle. Why shouldn’t women be allowed to fight? And she proves to be invaluable in the war – being the only one able to vanquish the Witch King of Angmar (with a little help from Merry) Perfect response “I am no man” before destroying so powerful an opponent. She fights against insurmountable odds to protect the ones she loves – something I fully understand!

And then there is slimy Grima Wormtongue (not to be confused with the equally slimy Wormtail from Harry Potter) He is so deliciously creepy – an agent of Saruman’s placed within the Rohirrim, always skulking in the shadows. Grima has a greasy sallow complexion almost that of a corpse.

Merry and Pippin’s capture by the Uruk-Hai is one of the most shocking events as they were by far the freest of the Fellowship, always laughing and joking around. Though it does allow Pippin to discover his courage. Aragorn’s reaction to the supposed fate of Merry and Pippin is so raw and visceral – you really feel his pain though that could be because Jackson used the take where Viggo broke his toe.

The frenzied race of the Uruk-Hai on the hunt is inter-cut with the calm journey the Fellowship is taking on the river (in elegant wooden boats crafted by the Elves) a technique Jackson uses in the subsequent films as well. Again there is clever use of inter-cutting between the Hobbit’s escape and Aragorn’s discovery of it – links the two events and groups together.

Fangorn forest is as far removed from Lothlorien as you can get. Whereas there is a natural order and light to Lothlorien and a feeling of safety, Fangorn is its opposite. It’s dark and chaotic and claustrophobic with a feeling of menace. Having said that there is still good in Fangorn in the shape of the magnanimous Treebeard and the Ents. And of course there is the reappearance of the new and improved Gandalf. The mystery surrounding the White Wizard is well done with the clever blending of Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee in both voice and face – keeps the audience guessing up until the last moment when Gandalf reveals himself. Gandalf the White is pure unlike Saruman who has the streak of black in his hair and beard, the streak of darkness and evil. Gandalf’s return does indeed “mark a change in the tide.”

The Ents are glorious, each one individual and yet still recognizable as whichever type of tree they are. My favourite one is the one who extinguishes his head in the flood during the battle of Isengard. Don’t mess with Mother Nature – the Ents may be peaceful creatures but they are fearsome when roused. And the breaking of the dam demonstrates the power of water – it completely clears Isengard of all the foulness the Orcs created, trapping Saruman within his tower. Merry and Pippin may be small but they prove to be mighty and have a key role to play in The Two Towers. Their coming to Fangorn awakens the Ents who turn out to be a force to be reckoned with and become instrumental in the downfall of Isengard and Saruman. It’s Pippin – the fool of a Took – who has the idea to show Treebeard the destruction Saruman has wreaked upon Fangorn thus igniting the fight within both him and the trees. He also unwittingly sends aid, in the shape of trees, to those steadfastly defending Helm’s Deep. It’s a very Shakespearean image, the trees descending on the Orc army outside the stronghold of Rohan bringing to mind the forest moving in on Dunsinane in Macbeth. Trust Merry and Pippin to discover the pantry full of food after the fall of Isengard! It’s almost as if they’re back in their natural habitat … almost.

While Aragorn is moving towards his destiny, the prospect of becoming King of Gondor still weighs heavily on him. Aragorn grows and grows as a leader throughout The Two Towers. You see glimpses of the great King he is going to become. He is a natural born leader yet only now is he beginning to accept that is who he is meant to be.

Mordor is immense and creates an overwhelming sense of doom – there are absolutely no soft edges to anything near Mordor. Everything is black and sharp and has an industrial feel. There is nothing living surrounding the Black Gate. It’s at the Black Gate that we see that Saruon has men fighting on his side as well – these men have a more exotic, oriental feel to them in the look of their armor and weapons.

Along with the introduction of the Rohirrim we finally get to meet more of the men of Gondor in the shape of Faramir, brother to the fallen Boromir. They have managed to create a familial likeness between Boromir and Faramir, both in looks and costume, although Faramir’s are not so fine as Boromir’s what with him being the second son and all. Faramir’s memory provides a starting point for us in terms of the relationships between Faramir, his brother and their father, Denethor. The two brothers have a good relationship with Boromir being generous in the praise. However Faramir is always looked down upon by his father. It puts tremendous pressure on him to be worthy of his brother. And yet it turns out that Faramir has more strength of character than Boromir did and is able to relinquish the Ring. He knows Frodo’s task is more important than saving Osgiliath. You have to wonder if Boromir’s attraction to the Ring would have been as strong had his father not so vehemently demanded it be brought back to Gondor. Faramir’s light armor adorned with the White Tree of Gondor, an image that signifies all those from Gondor and one Aragorn took up when he donned Boromir’s arm sheathes at the end of Fellowship of the Ring.

Aragorn’s fall during the Warg attack is yet another blow for the already depleted Fellowship. Quiet moment between Legolas and Théoden highlights the practicality of war, which can come across as cold and uncaring. Jackson doesn’t include things just for the sake of adding something – everything is connected. The scene where Aragorn calm’s Théodrin’s horse and releases him may seem insignificant when actually the horse ends up saving Aragron’s life and allows him to see the oncoming Uruk-Hai army – vital information for those preparing to defend Helm’s Deep. The massing of Saruman’s army resembles scenes from the Nuremberg rallies. Helm’s Deep is an immense fortress carved from the very bowls of the cliff face and very much the centerpiece of The Two Towers. The grueling period of night shoots that the cast underwent during the filming of Helm’s Deep adds to the authenticity of the battle. Aragorn’s return sees one of the most memorable images of the trilogy fro me – when he pushes open the double doors to the King’s hall. I don’t know what it is but there is just something about that moment. Aragorn and Legolas often share a quiet moment with much passing in a look rather then words.

For all Théoden tries to keep up the morale of his limited army there is something within him that has already given up. He is stubborn and proud and it’s this that stops him from calling to Gondor for aid. The caves within Helm’s Deep are stunning. Again Jackson uses only the soundtrack to convey the emotion of the men going to battle. And once again Gimli provides some comic relief during the preparations for battle appearing in a chain mail shirt far too large for him. Inter-cuts of the Uruk-Hai marching and Théoden ruminating on how they arrived at this moment while his inadequate army of boys and old men are arming. There is a melancholy surrounding the whole of Helm’s Deep – Aragorn is the only one stubbornly clinging to the hope that they will survive the impending battle. The appearance of the Elven army is momentous and their sacrifice is one of enormous magnitude for death in battle is one of the very few ways Elves can die. The battle for Helm’s Deep certainly ups the ante. When you think back to the only real battle the Fellowship faced in Moria it seems minuscule to the odds they now face.

Jackson and his creative team broke so much new ground with this immense trilogy, creating new technology to handle the scale of the films, particularly the battle sequences with the programme, Massive, allowing a more natural flow to the vast numbers of computer-generated warriors. Once the battle begins Théoden finds his mettle. He isn’t a bad King, just one who has suffered innumerable hardships to his Kingdom and is loathed to subject his people to more. There are moments during the battle where the hoards of Isengard seem insurmountable and all will be lost. And then … just when all hope seems lost and the fortress is being overrun Gandalf returns, cresting the horizon like a white knight on his steed with the rising sun framing him. It also marks the return of Éomer and much needed fighting men. The final charge is a valiant one that turns the tide of the battle into one of victory. Good rightly triumphs over evil.

I love the way Jackson uses silence when Frodo and Sam are in Osgiliath. Sound fades away to nothing as the Ring’s call becomes stronger only to come rushing back in one fell swoop during the mists of an ongoing scrimmage. Yet again Sam comes to the rescue of Frodo, breaking the link between him and the Ring. However each time it takes longer and is harder for Sam to get through to Frodo. Sam is eternally happy or rather hopeful, and that’s where his strength comes from. He truly believes there is good left in the world worth fighting for.

“It’s all wrong, by rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you that meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr Frodo, I do understand why. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding onto something.” While this appears to have been adapted by Jackson it has the tone of Tolkien – you could see the experience of someone who has endured war. I think it’s more fitting than the actual excerpt from the book; there is more resonance to it.

The Two Towers is admittedly a bit confusing if you haven’t seen the Fellowship of the Ring but that’s not to say that it couldn’t stand on its own. There is enough action to keep the film interesting in its own right while at the same time setting the scene well for the epic conclusion. As Gandalf says “The battle for Helm’s Deep is over. The battle for Middle Earth has just begun.” You get the feeling the best is yet to come with the ferocity of each battle increasing almost exponentially.

With each film we move further away from the idyll of the Shire and Hobbiton and closer to the horror of Mordor and fiery Mount Doom. Return of the King opens with the history of Sméagol, how he found the Ring and his transformation into the creature Gollum. And we finally get to see Andy Serkis in the flesh rather than just his computer animated performance. It’s a flash of green lush plantation in a film that for the majority of its running time is full of bleak, dark, rocky, harsh landscapes.

The path Frodo and Sam are on becomes increasingly hostile understandably so as they draw ever nearer to the dominion of Sauron. And thanks to the guidance of Gollum it’s a treacherous one. Sam and Frodo’s journey up the stairs is definitely one of the most arduous parts and has almost disastrous consequences for Sam at the hands of Gollum’s deceit. My heart breaks at the moment when Frodo dismisses Sam. And yet Sam holds true to his promise, refusing to give up on Frodo, a decision that saves not only Frodo but ultimately Middle Earth entire.

Isengard sees the reunion of several factions of the Fellowship with Merry and Pippin rejoining Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf, albeit a brief reunion. As usual Merry and Pippin are indulging in food and pipe weed. Saruman is manipulative until the very end and once removed of his staff becomes somewhat lost while never losing that sense of dangerousness. His downfall comes at the hands of his overlooked servant Grima Wormtongue. Jackson’s love and knowledge of the horror genre becomes evident with Saruman’s death greatly resembling his death as the infamous vampire, Dracula. The celebration back at Edoras is one of the few shining moments in Return of the King with the Hobbits singing and dancing and Legolas being the surprise victor in a drinking game with Gimli. Once again Pippin accidently sets things in motion with his insatiable need to touch things he shouldn’t. this time it’s fairly costly and results in re-splitting the Fellowship and separating Merry and Pippin. He unwittingly sees something of Sauron’s intentions in the palantír allowing the Fellowship to take the right steps towards preparing for the battle. Merry and Pippin’s departure is one of the most emotional for me – they have always been my favourite characters and work best when bouncing off each other.

“One of the most memorable scenes from the spectacle-laden final movie is the lighting of the beacons; as the music soars, the camera simply tracks from mountaintop to mountaintop as signal fires flare up against the sky, and it is stunning” (898) 

We finally get our first proper introduction to the impressive city that is Minas Tirith, the heart of Gondor. With Minas Tirith we also meet Denethor, the Steward of Gondor and father to Boromir and Faramir, a completely unforgiving man. Driven mad by grief Denethor makes all the wrong decisions forcing Gandalf to meddle – something he excels at. Unwilling to relinquish the rule of Gondor even though it is rightfully Aragorn’s, power has corrupted Denethor. Pippin enters the service of Gondor in an attempt to give something back for the sacrifice Boromir made. He becomes a reluctant warrior bedecked in Gondorian armor with the White Tree of the King. Minas Tirith is the polar opposite of its neighbour Minas Morgul – as light and white as Morgul is dark and black. Minas Morgul reminds me of the lair of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) with its unnatural green glow and the legions of soldiers being disgorged from within its bowls. The Witch King of Angmar presents a formidable opponent impervious to all attempts by man to slay him.

The battle for Osgiliath is but the entr’acte for the main event. That’s not to say that Jackson just plows through it. It is an exciting and visually creative battle fought amongst the ruins of Gondor’s river defenses. One that results in a truly dramatic end (well almost) for Faramir. I feel for Faramir as no matter what he does he will always be in the shadow of Boromir, the lesser son. In Denethor’s eyes there is nothing he can do to even come close to the prowess Boromir had. He’s forever having to defend his actions. Return of the King sees all the different groups of Middle Earth pulled together towards one spot with one single purpose – to defeat the evil of Sauron. While Pippin enters the service of Gondor, Merry enters the service of the Rohirrim – the two most innocent and naïve of our Hobbits are the two who stand on the front lines of this terrible war. I mean sure Frodo and Sam have the enormous task of passing through behind enemy lines in order to reach Mount Doom but their journey is one of sneaking and subterfuge while Merry and Pippin are in the thick of the fighting. There is something so haunting about the song Pippin sings for Denethor (composed by none other than Billy Boyd himself) It’s beautiful and fits the mood of the piece perfectly – a hopeless defense of a city overrun with Orcs. A very somber moment.

Once Return of the King hits the halfway point the tension ratchets up and I become quite emotional at times. You are so invested in the characters by this point having spent hours (upwards of 6 if like me you watch the extended cut!) watching them struggle on this epic quest that you can’t help but become emotional. Elrond provides Aragorn not only with the newly forged Andúril (formerly Narsil) but with information about a second force aiming for Gondor and a way to bolster their numbers.

Loyalty and strength of companionship are key themes throughout Lord of the Rings, most obviously in Sam but also in the brilliant moment when Gimli and Legolas join Aragorn on the Dimholt road. No matter how many times one of the Fellowship tries to distance themselves from the others the stubbornness of the others ensures that no one carries their burden alone – not even Frodo! That is the sign of true friendship and something that everyone can relate to. The path of the dead is so cool – the arm of those long dead a brilliant and formidable force. I like that although they are effectively ghosts they display their decomposition but also that they bear a slight resemblance to the Nazgûl – more evidence of Jackson’s background in the horror genre. There is a very definite moment when Aragorn decides to finally accept his true destiny as King of Gondor when he gains corporeal hold over the King of the Dead. Gone is the unsure and reluctant leader and in his place stands a mighty King, a real force to be reckoned with. The sheer number of skulls in the avalanche of destruction in the way of the dead is pretty gruesome yet hints of the number of men, for lack of a better word, at their disposal. I love that the Corsair sailors are mainly made up of the creative team responsible for bringing Middle Earth to life … and that Peter Jacskon gets shot by Legolas! Wonderful cameos for all their many years of hard work.

The burning of Denethor is such a spectacular scene with an epic plunge from the very height of Minas Tirith sheathed in flames. Pippin’s bravery comes to the fore when he rescues Faramir from a gruesome death atop a flaming pyre, no mean feat for a little Hobbit.

All the previous battles pale in the shade of the battle of Pelennor Fields. There is the sense that everything has been building up to this moment. And it does not disappoint – one of the most spectacular cinematic battles ever seen that benefits enormously from the use of Massive, creating an exciting and natural feel to a battle mostly created within a computer. Plus there is Grond who is mighty with his flaming core! Théoden’s pre-battle speech may be short but it’s effective. The charge of the Rohirrim sees the Orcs break ranks, they actually show some fear unusual for their murderous race. Jackson places the audience right in the think of the battle; we are surrounded by the fighting. The arrival of the mammoth Oliphants, most recognizable as elephants despite the additional tusks, sees the battle turn towards defeat … that is until Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arrive with the army of the dead close behind, at the optimum moment.

War is unpleasant for anyone but there is something particularly upsetting about seeing Merry killing Orcs. Maybe it’s because of his childlike stature or the loss of innocence. Théoden’s death is touching and echoes back to when he awakens from Saruman’s spell in The Two Towers “I know your face … Éowyn.” Merry becoming a casualty of war always leaves a lump in my throat especially because it is Pippin who finds him. For once it is Pippin looking after Merry instead of the other way round. The aftermath of the battle sees Jackson once again pulling back on the sound – only having Éomer’s tortured scream at discovering Éowyn. I love the addition of the healing rooms as it shows the beginning of Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship, a uniting of Rohan and Gondor. They finally find happiness in each other.

Shelob’s lair is so intensely creepy as is the enormous spider herself. Not a good moment to be an arachnophobic at all. She is extremely lifelike just on a massive scale and makes my skin crawl every time!! Frodo’s frantic escape, or rather escape attempt, is one of the few uncomfortable moments within the entire trilogy for me but then I’m not a big fan of our eight-legged friends. And my whole body reacts, even now when I know it’s coming, when Shelob pierces Frodo. Sam’s such a determined little thing and so pure of heart. Despite beginning a Ring bearer, even if only for a little while, he immediately hands it back to Frodo. The Ring has a physical presence becoming heavier the closer to Mordor they get, creating welts on Frodo’s neck.

Aragorn’s speech is rousing and reminds me of the glorious Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V (Shakespeare) but then that could be because I saw Henry V rather a lot this summer! Philip Hal says, “For many, the heart of the film lies not with any bravura action scene, but in a quiet moment when Gandalf comforts Frodo, who despairs that he was born to see such terrible events. “So do all who live to see such times,” Gandalf says. “But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” It is moments like this that elevate Jackson’s film from movie blockbuster to genuine masterpiece.’ (899) For me this moment is during a brief respite from the fighting when Pippin laments about how the end is turning out and Gandalf comforts him. “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path … one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it. White shores. And beyond. A far green country under a swift sunrise.” The imagery in those words is beautiful and peaceful. Gandalf manages to quell the fear of dying and what come after if only for a brief moment. Indeed this very moment has comforted me when having to deal with the loss of someone. It’s a quiet, simple moment between two beloved characters in the midst of the chaos that inevitably surrounds those at war.

An absolutely stunning vista with Frodo and Sam almost getting lost in the side of Mount Doom. Of course Sméagol had to reappear to throw a spanner into the works because Frodo and Sam ad it so easy up to this point. They make it all the way to the centre of Mount Doom only for Frodo to finally succumb to the Ring. Ironically it is Gollum who actually destroys the Ring. And then after all the fighting is done we return to normality and I get really sappy and emotional. I know many people feel that the conclusion drags on and we didn’t need so many endings but I am of the opinion that Jackson, as usual, judged it perfectly. We need to see all the various stories tied up for the story to feel complete. You just know that had Jackson not ended the films the way he did people would have complained about that too – there’s just no pleasing everyone.

The mark of respect shown to the courageous Hobbits during Aragorn’s coronation is heart-warming as is Aragorn’s reunion with Arwen. The Hobbits reunion, well indeed the Fellowship’s reunion is joyous and full of love and laughter with Sam and Frodo linked for all time by their shared experience. “Despite the vast canvas upon which Jackson was painting, at its heart this film is about people, their relationships, and the decisions they make. Friendship and self-sacrifice figure strongly, as does a pervading sense of mortality; the final scenes make it clear that victory can be noble and yet still come at too deep a personal cost.” (899) The Hobbits return to the Shire, miraculously untouched by the war. Although they have survived none were quite the same as when they set out from the Shire. Frodo, understandably, the most deeply affected having gone through things no one else could possibly comprehend – a reflection of what it must have felt like for all those returning from, not just the First World War, but all war.

I think potentially my favourite scene (and believe me it’s hard to chose there are so many) is when Frodo finishes his book and says to Sam “There’s room for a little more.” I loved it from the very first time I saw it and I love it even more now knowing that it was the final shot ever filmed in this remarkable endeavor in filmmaking. It’s a wonderful touch having the gorgeous drawings of the actors attached to their credit, coupled with the mesmerizing “Into the West” by Annie Lenox which incorporates the words of Gandalf. It brings that touch of magic and love to the end of the film as well.

No matter how many times I watch The Lord of the Rings (and I have lost count of how many times I have watched it!) it never gets old or tiring or cumbersome. My love for these characters grows and grows. Their hardships become more difficult to witness while their joys more wonderful to behold. It has taken root in my heart and will remain there always. And that to me is the mark of an excellent film – one that stays with you long after you leave the cinema.

Downfall

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

2004

In case you hadn’t guessed by now I’m a film fanatic. I will watch anything and everything with very few exceptions. I may not always like everything I watch but you never know if you will unless you try. This means I am quite content to watch foreign films that as subtitles. Sure you have to concentrate that little bit more but then that’s actually a plus as you immediately become more engaged with the film. There is a purpose to this ramble by the way and that purpose is … don’t be put off by a film because it’s in another language. You never know what brilliance you may be missing out on.

Now I’m gonna use the word authenticity – a much abused word when it comes to films of a historical nature but one for all intents and purposes fits this film. The fact that Downfall is a German film lends it authenticity. It is more believable and therefore more dramatic than if the demise of the Nazi regime and those at the very heart of it had been shot in English or even worse given the Hollywood treatment and Americanized! (Just an aside to say I have nothing against Hollywood. I’m not a film snob. I love Hollywood as it introduced me to the magical world of movies and I continue to love it today!)

Although the film is about the downfall of Hitler (and ultimately the Nazi regime) the film centers of two lesser characters, a doctor and Frau Junge, a young girl hired as one of Hitler’s secretary. Indeed the film opens with archive footage of Frau Junge talking in an extremely frank manner about some of the decisions she made. it links reality with the fictional account. Hirschbiegel also closes the film with Junge discussing events which gives the film a sense of completion. “This disorienting matter-of-factness is the key to Downfall‘s brilliance.” (908, Mark Holcomb, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Downfall begins fairly late on in the war, starting in 1942 and jumping to 1945 within the first 5 minutes, but then that makes sense given the subject matter. There is little to no music for the majority of this film which is actually something I enjoyed. Rather than music you get the sound of shells, bombs and artillery rounds falling in the background more often than not as Berlin begins to fall under the Russian advance. The music begins to emerge at about 45 minutes in. As seems to be the case with war films the music is very emotive which usually works. However for me it didn’t in this film as it made me feel for characters that I really didn’t want to feel for.

The cinematography is wonderful with little details such as the Nazi emblem on the china ware giving it that feel of realism. The color palette is a cold one made up predominantly of blues and grays and could be seen as a visual reflection of the cold nature of some of the most iconic figures in history. There are also splashes of red throughout the film most noticeably in the flags but also picked up in the carpet in the bunker. The film has iconic settings such as Hitler’s bunker and of course Berlin city centre with the eagle emblazoned on buildings. Hirschbiegel uses lots of empty frames to show the abandonment of Berlin, a once thriving and bustling city. In contrast to that the shots of the underground network of bunkers are crowded with those surrounding Hitler in those final weeks. There is little natural light which adds to the enclosed and sometimes claustrophobic feel to the film due to the majority taking place underground. The scenes of a devastated Berlin, a city ravaged by continual bombing, are beautiful.

The costumes are gorgeous – there is something elegant and sophisticated about the uniforms, particularly those of the SS, despite the association now forever intertwined with them. There is something disturbing about the Hitler Youth, seen here manning the anti-tank weapons, maybe due to the loss of innocence. The film becomes slightly morbid with frank discussions about the best way to kill yourself when the Russians arrive.

“Hitler, Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), and the rest are assuredly human here; but the point is that the truly monstrous usually are.” (908) It must have been really difficult to play not only the part of Hitler but those of the core group of Nazis within the inner circle. Maybe even more so for German actors. I can’t imagine the places they will have had to get into the right mind-set. There is dissension in the ranks which becomes more obvious throughout the course of the film. As does the sense that some are lacking confidence in Hitler’s decisions and leadership. And yet there is also this blind, unswerving loyalty to the man … a concept that is completely foreign to me. How was he able to command such loyalty and powerful feelings?

Eva Braun comes across as being a bit batty and delusional. The casting got it right, especially with Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels, his emaciated face and soulless black eyes, and Bruno Ganz as the megalomaniac Hitler, who has the characteristics of the man spot on. I like that the tremor in his hand becomes more pronounced throughout the film as the war takes its toll on his health. Seeing Hitler disintegrate as victory slips from his grasp is an interesting moment and one that is surprisingly poignant and quiet, despite being preceded by one of his infamous rants. I do have a bit of an issue with the following line “But, gentlemen, if you believe I am going to leave Berlin, you are seriously mistaken. I’d rather blow my brains out.” This is just my own interpretation and I’m probably wrong but to me it makes him seem noble, a captain going down with his ship as it were and I still believe he took the cowards way out. Everyone who committed suicide did. If you can order and carry out the atrocities committed during World War II have the courage to accept the consequences of your actions!

I don’t really understand the desolation causing people to take their own lives but then this could be because I have never really experienced war (Afghanistan and Iraq are too distant to directly affect me) and I have never lived under occupation. Downfall makes you think about the war overall rather than just one aspect such as the Holocaust. Having said that it also makes me more directly angry especially when Hitler says “What I am proud of is that I openly confronted the Jews and I cleansed the German lands of Jewish poison.” There is an actual person saying that whereas in films like Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg) and The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski) Hitler is more of an abstract figure rather than a physical presence. 

Hirschbiegel presents the events as they happened with no sense of judgement.  No where is this more evident than when Frau Goebbels murders her own children (something Goebbels doesn’t have the stomach to do himself!) He includes info titles paired with their filmic counterparts at the end of the film which tell the audience the fate of all the characters still alive at the end of the war. Another way of linking the reality to the fictional account and adding to the sense of completion.  It seems wrong to say I enjoyed Downfall and that probably isn’t the right word but I am glad I watched it. I knew Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels family committed suicide but that was about it and now I feel better informed about what happened at the end of the war whereas before I only had the vaguest idea. Downfall is well worth watching even with the German, and sometimes Russian, subtitles.