Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


 

The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Ring

Now there’s an idea for the Kentucky Derby – arm the jockeys with swords.

(2001) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Marton Csokas, Andy Serkis, Sarah McLeod, Peter McKenzie, Harry Sinclair, Sala Baker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

There was much concern when it was announced that the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy was going to be made into movies that it be done right. Anything less than a classic movie would be heartbreaking to the millions of readers who love Tolkein’s work, let alone the smaller but very vocal crowd of the Middle Earth-obsessed.

Middle Earth is threatened by a grave power. A prologue shows us how, thousands of years prior to this story, a wizard king named Sauron (Baker) crafted a ring to dominate all the races of the land – human, elf and dwarf – and give Sauron ultimate power over Middle Earth. The bravery of Isildur (Sinclair), a human king, defeats Sauron’s plans; Isildur’s greed, however, causes the ring to escape destruction and allow Sauron to eventually return. The ring ultimately falls into the hands of an adventuresome hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Holm) who brings it home to Bag End, in the village of Hobbiton, where it remained dormant.

Now, it is many years later and Bilbo is readying for a massive party to celebrate his 111th birthday. His old friend Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), a powerful wizard, arrives to celebrate with a wagon chock full of wonderful fireworks, and is greeted by Bilbo’s nephew, the bookish Frodo (Wood). Bilbo is worn out, although he looks much younger than his years would indicate. He wants to see the Misty Mountain again, and dwell among the elves in peace so he might finish the book he is writing of his adventures, “There and Back Again.”

At the party, Frodo’s friends Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), get into mischief involving Gandalf’s fireworks, setting the tone for their roles in the tale. Bilbo makes a sudden and startling departure at the party’s conclusion, using the ring to become invisible. The wizard immediately realizes that there is much more to Bilbo’s ring than even he had realized. He confronts Bilbo and convinces his old friend to leave the ring to Frodo. Gandalf warns Frodo, “Keep it secret; keep it safe,” then rides off to find out the truth of this ring.

When Gandalf returns to Bag End it to urge Frodo to flee. Nine ghastly riders, the nazghul, have been dispatched to retrieve the ring, which by Gandalf has determined to be THE ring. Frodo’s friend, gardener Sam Gamgee (Astin) overhears some of the discussion and is confronted by Gandalf, who asks what he heard. “N-nothing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a dark lord, and something about the end of the world, but please, Mr. Gandalf, sir, don’t hurt me. Don’t turn me into anything… unnatural.”

Sam is sent to accompany Frodo. The hobbits run into Merry and Pippin, who are pilfering vegetables from a farmer. The reunion, however, is brief; the hobbits are nearly discovered by one of the terrifying and mysterious riders nazghul.

In the human town of Bree, they meet the ranger Aragorn (Mortensen), who saves them from a disturbing attack from the nazghul, and sets out to lead them for the elven settlement of Rivendell. However, the nazghul catch up to them at Weathertop, an ancient fortress, where Frodo is stabbed with a poisoned blade. Aragorn drives off their foes and steps up the pace to go to Rivendell, desperate to save Frodo. They are met along the way by Arwen (Tyler), an elven princess and daughter of Elrond, who puts Frodo on her horse and rides a thrilling race against the murderous nazghul. Gandalf, in the meantime, has been imprisoned by Saruman (Lee), head of his order, whom he had gone to consult. Saruman, believing that Mordor cannot be defeated this time, has decided to ally himself with Sauron. Gandalf finally manages to escape, using a giant eagle to fly from Isengard, the wizard’s tower which is Saruman’s base, but not before learning that Saruman is breeding an army of Uruk’hai, a crossbreed of orc and goblin that have none of the weaknesses of either race and many of the strengths.

Elrond calls a council to determine the fate of the ring, and after some deliberation, decides to send a small party to Mordor, to Mount Doom itself, to destroy the ring. This despite the objections of Boromir (Bean), son of the Steward of Gondor, the ruler of that land in the stead of a king who is lost – a king who turns out to be Aragorn, who doesn’t want the job.

There is much arguing and distrust among the races as to who will bear the ring, but finally Frodo speaks up and declares that he will carry the ring to Mordor, though he doesn’t know the way. Gandalf pledges to assist him, as does Aragorn and Boromir, as well as an elven prince named Legolas (Bloom) and a warrior dwarf named Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Sam, Merry and Pippin also proclaim that they are going wherever Frodo goes. Thus is formed the Fellowship of the Ring (cue dramatic orchestral music).

On the eve of their departing, Arwen presents Aragorn with a token of her love; Aragorn begs her not to give it to him, knowing she would give up her immortality for his love, but she gives it to him nonetheless. The fellowship then departs for Mordor.

The way is hard. In a snowy mountain pass, Saruman attacks them magically, forcing them to go the one way Gandalf didn’t want to travel; underground, through the mines of Moria, where Gimli’s cousin rules.

After surviving the attack of a hideous kraken at the gates of the mines, the Fellowship travels into Moria, and it becomes obvious that the entire colony of dwarves has been massacred. They are attacked just then by orcs, goblins and a massive cave troll and when it appears they will be surrounded, something frightens the thousands of orcs and goblins off; it turns out to be a balrog, a fire demon from the depths of the earth. Gandalf fights off the balrog, but then is yanked off a precipice, and is lost to the Fellowship.

Disheartened, the survivors of the fellowship make their way into Lothlorien, stronghold of the high elves, where they are greeted by King Celeborn (Csokas) and the ethereal Queen Galadriel (Blanchett), who allow the weary travelers rest. After receiving gifts of elven cloaks, waybread and other items, the Fellowship resumes its journey, now by river.

At camp they are ambushed by the Uruk’hai, Boromir is confronted by his own weakness, and the Fellowship is broken, with one member giving his life in battle.

The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring is a captivating, compelling movie that is only the first step in a journey that will take us to the eventual fate of the ring, of those who bear it and of those who seek it as well. Given the performances here, it is easy to care very much about who gets there and in what shape they are in when they arrive. It is a journey we can all take together.

The visuals are stunning, jaw-dropping at the time this was released. The elven communities of Rivendell and Lothlorien are beautiful in an alien way, blending naturally with their forest environments. Hobbiton in the Shire, where Bilbo and Frodo live, looks exactly as I imagined it, calm, peaceful and rustic but with a hint of the English countryside implicit in every nook and cranny. The ruins of ancient kingdoms, statues of forgotten kings and warriors dot the journey’s landscape, giving the world an old and lived-in appearance. The attention to detail in establishing each individual place in the movie, each with its own specific character and feel, is nothing short of astounding.

Jackson has an epic palette to paint his picture, and he uses every color imaginable. The bright colors of the Shire contrast with the dark, stormy terrain of Mordor; the Elven territories are in a perpetual autumn, as their race prepares to leave Middle Earth, lending a further poignancy to the tale. Jackson obviously holds the source material in high regard, and stays as true to Tolkein’s words as is possible.

Wisely, the various characters are developed slowly, becoming who they are during the course of the movie. There is not a disappointing performance throughout; Mortensen carries a quiet intensity as Aragorn, McKellen a grandfatherly presence as Gandalf. The extras are well-cast, helping set the background tone in each location; folksy and a bit comic in Hobbiton, suspicious and tense in Bree, graceful yet sad in Lorien.

What makes this so successful a movie is what I would call a sense of place throughout; the architecture, scenery and characters all contribute to the overall mood. Middle Earth becomes a living, breathing place because of it, and the rich textures of Tolkein’s world come to life before our very eyes.

Overall, this can only be called a labor of love, and that love can clearly be seen on the screen in every frame. Jaw-dropping special effects and eye-popping scenery from the wilds of New Zealand dazzle at every turn. Howard Shore’s haunting score serves to enhance the film, and having Enya contribute a pair of vocalizations to the movie is a wise move; her ethereal voice is perfect for it. When this was released back in 2001, it not only met the high expectations of those anticipating (myself included) but exceeded them. It has, with its successors, become a true classic, a movie that I happily watch over and over again and enjoy almost as much as the first time I saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing spectacle, faithful to the book and exciting and heartwarming all at once. A modern classic that still bears repeated watching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re not into fantasy, you’ll surely hate this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scary images and an epic battle sequence that depicts plenty of hacking and chopping.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most major films have from time to time more than one unit shooting simultaneously, generally just two or three. There were occasions when this production had as many as ten units shooting at once.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $871.5M on a $93M production budget. The movie was a gigantic blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Straw Dogs (2011)

Clash of the Titans (2010)


Clash of the Titans

Liam Neeson is all aglow as he releases the Kraken.

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Mads Mikkelsen, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas Hoult, Polly Walker, Elizabeth McGovern, Alexander Siddig, Danny Huston, Vincent Regan. Directed by Louis Leterrier

One should be grateful to those who gave us life, but if those who gave us life are then cruel and capricious towards us, should we not then rise against them?

Spyros (Postlethwaite) is a simple fisherman, his ship drifting in a storm when he comes across a coffin-like box. When he opens it, he finds a beautiful woman, dead and an infant, alive. He decides to raise the boy as his own with his wife Marmara (McGovern). The boy grows up to be a handsome, strong man named Perseus (Worthington). Perseus loves his parents, but still understandably has questions about who he is and who he is meant to be.

However, all is not perfect. The Gods of Ancient Greece, led by brothers Zeus (Neeson), the King of the Gods, Poseidon (Huston) the God of the Sea and Hades (Fiennes), the Lord of the Underworld, had overthrown their parents the Titans mostly due to Hades creating the Kraken, a fearsome beast, from his own flesh. Zeus created men to worship and love the Gods who are in turn made powerful and immortal by the prayers of men. Hades, tricked by Zeus, lives on the fear of men.

However, men are chafing at the often capricious and cruel behavior of the Gods. Kepheus (Regan), the King of Argos, has declared war on the Gods at the urging of his wife, Queen Cassiopeia (Walker). His troops pull down a gigantic statue of Zeus, which earns the notice and wrath of Hades, who wipes out most of the troops at the statue. Unfortunately, Hades notices Spyros’ ship floating by and in a moment of pique sinks it with all aboard drowning. All aboard, that is, save Perseus.

The survivors of Kepheus’ army pull Perseus from the water and take him back to Argos, where Kepheus is declaring victory. Draco (Mikkelsen), Kepheus’ general, is less sanguine about the loss of most of his men but in the midst of Cassiopeia’s boasting that they, the royalty of Argos, are the new gods and their daughter Andromeda (Davalos) is more beautiful than Aphrodite herself, Hades appears. He ages Cassiopeia to death and warns the assemblage that Argos will be destroyed ten days hence during an eclipse unless they sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken.

He also identifies Perseus as the son of Zeus. Perseus doesn’t believe it at first but Io (Arterton), a demigod herself, confirms it, telling him that he is the son of Zeus and the wife of King Acrisius (Flemyng), who also rebelled against the Gods. Driven mad by the despoiling of his wife, Acrisius orders the newborn and his mother thrown into the sea but Zeus disfigured Acrisius and sent Spyros’ ship to rescue Perseus.

Only the Stygian Witches have the knowledge to destroy the Kraken but only a demigod would have the strength and endurance to make the journey there and back in time to save Argos and Andromeda in particular. Draco and a few good men, including Eusebios (Hoult) and Io – okay, a few good men and a woman – accompany Perseus. Hades, aware of Perseus, enlists Acrisius (who now goes by the name of Calibos) to stop him, infusing the mad disfigured King with his essence.

Perseus is given a gift of a sword by the Gods, but he refuses, saying he wants to accomplish these feats as a man, not a God. Draco puts the sword in his pack, hoping Perseus will come to his senses. They then encounter Calibos, wounding him in the process but giant scorpions spring from his blood.

They make it to the Witches’ lair, but they inform Perseus that in order to destroy the Kraken they must get the head of Medusa (Natalia Vodianova) whose gaze turns any living flesh to stone, including that of a God. However to get to Medusa they must first cross into the Underworld and nobody has ever emerged from Medusa’s lair alive.

This is a remake of the 1981 film reviewed in this blog yesterday, and it is faithful only in that there is a Perseus and a Kraken in it (there is also a mechanical owl, Bubo, from the first film, a cameo only but done in a clever way as a nod to fans from the original). Director Louis Leterrier has amped up the special effects and made it far less comedic. This is strictly action and eye candy and both are of the highest order.

Sam Worthington is turning into a fine leading man. He carries the movie effectively, continuing his run of successful roles in Terminator Salvation and Avatar. He makes a more muscular and military Perseus than Harry Hamlin did in the original, Hamlin being a bit of a pretty boy. Worthington’s Perseus is less starry-eyed and more stubborn than the 1981 incarnation.

The special effects are what are worth the price of admission. The monsters are nightmare-inducing and all look realistic. Particularly in the case of the Medusa and the scorpions it was hard to tell that it was all CGI. Considering this is an action movie, there are some pretty fine performances, particularly from Mikkelsen and Postlethwaite.

This is solid, fun popcorn entertainment. It isn’t brain surgery and it isn’t rocket science but it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination to make a movie with the kind of intricate effects this one has. Director Leterrier, fresh off The Incredible Hulk, is proving to be a serious talent in that department. While there’s a little more cheese in the dish than I usually like, it is nonetheless all a lot of fun for the entire family except for those who are easily given to nightmares by the very realistic-looking monsters.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects and Worthington proves himself a solid leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Although in many ways a more serious film than the original, it still has a certain amount of cheese in the recipe.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of fantasy violence and some horrifically gory scenes but it is the monsters that make this not for small children or those given to nightmares. Fine for teens, though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Harryhausen, co-producer and special effects designer of the original film, was invited to participate in this one but declined, citing that he had retired in 1981 and intended to stay that way.

HOME OR THEATER: Theater definitely, preferably with a big tub of popcorn in your lap.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: How to Train Your Dragon

Clash of the Titans (1981)


Clash of the Titans (1981)

Calibos is bummed that he couldn't get tickets for the Duran Duran concert.

(MGM) Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Jack Gwillim, Burgess Meredith, Susan Fleetwood, Sian Phillips, Tim Piggott-Smith, Flora Robson, Neil McCarthy, Donald Houston. Directed by Desmond Davis

Among sci-fi and fantasy film geeks the name Ray Harryhausen is spoken in a reverent whisper. He was the stop-motion special effects guru responsible for such films as Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He worked with the great director George Pal on Mighty Joe Young and brought to life the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The last film he worked on as an active special effects producer was this one.

Zeus (Olivier) is plenty peeved at King Acrisius (Houston) who is attempting to drown his daughter Danae and her infant son Perseus. It has been foretold that Acrisius would die if Danae would give birth to a son. In addition, she had the child out of wedlock, a big no-no in ancient society. However, unbeknownst to Acrisius Zeus himself is the father and as we all know it’s generally a bad idea to piss off a Greek God. Zeus orders Poseidon to unleash the Kraken, a Titan with a very nasty temper held captive by the Gods to be used to do their dirty work. The Kraken levels the King’s city and Zeus himself punches Acrisius’ ticket to the underworld, ironically fulfilling the prophecy that he was trying to avoid. Karma is a mean mo-fo and you just can’t get away from it.

Zeus arranges for mother and son to wash up on gentler shores, but things aren’t going to go much better for the two there. Hera (Bloom), the wife of Zeus, is pretty hacked off that her husband’s been stepping out on her and, now wanting to suffer the wrath of her husband, decides to take things out on Danae and her son.

Some years later infant Perseus is now strapping young man Perseus (Hamlin). In order to make a name for himself he must return home to Joppa whose Queen Cassiopeia (Phillips) has pledged her comely daughter Andromeda (Bowker) to Calibos (McCarthy), the son of the goddess Thetis (Smith). Once a handsome prince, he has been cursed by the gods to become a hideous misshapen grotesque. In order to secure his prize, he sends a prehistoric bird to fetch Andromeda’s soul in a gilded cage. To win Andromeda, Perseus must combat Calibos and solve a riddle posed by Cassiopeia herself or risk immediate execution. Love was sure tough back in the day.

In order to follow the bird to combat Calibos, he needs a flying horse. The only one for the job is Pegasus, and Pegasus is being kept by the loathsome Medusa, a snake-headed monster whose gaze can turn a man to stone. Perseus lops off the head of the monster and uses Pegasus to fly to the lair of Calibos, whom he defeats in combat. Calibos, humiliated, pleads with the gods for justice; the angry Thetis warns Cassiopeia that the Kraken will be released on Joppa unless she sacrifices her daughter. Can Perseus, who has by now fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Andromeda, save the day?

Even in 1981, this was an old-fashioned movie. Many of Harryhausen’s aficionados consider this an inferior work, despite that he had the largest budget he ever worked with and the movie would be the biggest hit of his career. Still, it’s a throwback to the movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, relatively bloodless but entertaining. There is none of the gore that movies of the ‘80s were already awash in which may have worked against it. Despite the movie’s success, fanboys groused that the movie was too mild and boring.

Personally, I found such accusations immature and baseless. The movie is entertaining from start to finish, full of the kind of magic that first drew me to the movies to begin with. It has an absolutely dazzling cast, and some of them are having a grand old time. Olivier, in one of his last roles, still manages to command attention as Zeus; while his breathing is clearly labored (he suffered from pleurisy and a variety of respiratory ailments) he remains stentorian, a lion amongst lesser predators.

Hamlin, pre-“L.A. Law” is sufficiently callow and handsome. He makes a fine classical hero, and is matched very nicely to Bowker who sadly didn’t have the career afterwards that Hamlin did. The remainder of the veteran cast, from Meredith as a shabby poet to Andress a Aphrodite, elevate the proceedings above a typical “B” movie.

Still, the attraction back then was the fantastical creatures Harryhausen brought to life. Even in 1981, stop-motion animation was a bit of a dinosaur, as optical effects had taken over much as computer graphics have now. By today’s standards the effects are dated and a bit clumsy, but the care that went into them is easily apparent.

The recent Blu-Ray edition of the movie seems little more than a means of promotion for the remake. While the film has been cleaned up digitally somewhat, the effects shots remain grainy. Also, as Da Queen put it, there is a distinct smell of cheese throughout, particularly in the mechanical owl Bubo, who while Harryhausen claimed was conceived in the early 70s, still seems to be a sort of R2D2 by proxy.

The old master is still alive and will turn 90 this June 29. While the success of Clash of the Titans led to several offers, those films would never come to fruition; shortly after the release of Clash Harryhausen announced his retirement. He appears from time to time doing vocal work on animated features, or in retrospectives of his own work. Is Clash of the Titans his best work? I think it has some of his best work in it (the battle with Medusa for example) but it probably isn’t the best movie he ever made. Still in all, it’s the kind of movie they really don’t make any more, even back when it was made. It has a sweetness and charm to it that is all but lost to Hollywood, and was made by someone with the heart of a child. It is a reminder of an era and a storytelling style that is more or less extinct, but thanks to the magic of DVD and Blu-Ray we can still revel in it anytime we pop the disc into our player.

WHY RENT THIS: Clash has a place in cinematic history. It has the kind of fresh-faced energy that modern CGI films lack. The cast is amazing, considering the budget.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The look of the film is grainy even after the digital clean-up it received. There is a cheese factor that at times overwhelms the strength of the performances. Bubo the Mechanical Owl is clearly meant to appeal to the R2D2-obsessed kids on the block.

FAMILY VALUES: Very clean by modern standards; the monsters are for the most part not terribly scary compared to the computer-generated nasties of current cinema.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kraken is not a beast from Greek mythology but rather from Scandinavia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 2002 interview with Harryhausen that comes from the original DVD release but surprisingly (considering the hugely hyped remake coming out shortly) little more.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Clash of the Titans (2010)