Sunday, 25 September 2011

A Surprise Guest Appearance from the Missing Author

I am currently three weeks into a job in teaching, and am neck high in work-related stuff, so, as you've guessed, the blog's semi-hiatus is once again full on. Sorry guys, I'll try and keep things ticking over when I can, but that might not be for awhile yet.

In other news, Tony Nunes and Dreaming Genius blog have very kindly included me in their initiative and cross-posted June's Joystick Cinema essay. Please do check out the rest of their blog, as it spans all sorts ranging from music to film to literature. It's a cracker.

Also, I'm in print! Why not buy issue 2 of New Empress Magazine if you like what I have to say, or want to read the (far greater) words of others who say what you and I like to hear.

I'm going back in my hole now. Bye.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Case Against 'The Lord of the Rings'

Following on from the previous post, courtesy of Rob Keeling, here is my response to the LOTR trilogy. Those of you who agreed with Rob might not as keen on what I have to say...

I’m well aware that I’m fighting on the losing side when it comes to picking a brawl against Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series (2001-2003), going against a formidable force made up of everything from the casual movie watcher to the die-hard fantasy fan, all of whom will no doubt vouch for the sheer power of the films – the audience who really felt the magic of the series. Like a lost orphan cat wondering the streets however, I am not amongst them. No, I prowl around the phenomenon, occasionally popping up to nibble at some little scrap before moving on, detached from the core proceedings, perhaps scratching my back against a dying Orc’s armour plating as I do so. Maybe playing with a trinket hanging from an Elf’s head dress while the fate of the world is decided in a New Zealand forest. If I’m really lucky I get to eat a wee crumb of Lembas bread Samwise carelessly dropped on his way up to Mordor, but that’s really a rare opportunity. It’s a hard life. The point is, I’m not totally engaged, and I’m not too sure I have a solid reason beyond personal taste (or seeming lack of?). I would genuinely rather watch Footloose again. Maybe even She’s the Man. Nevertheless, over the next few paragraphs, I’m going to try and offer up my opinion on why the Lord of the Rings films just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, possibly relying / deflecting on to King Kong (2005) more than is really necessary along the way.

I was about eleven when I first found out a Lord of the Rings series was being made. I’d read The Hobbit and had been informed on a vague synopsis of the epic sequel by a friend at school – the idea that Bilbo’s little old invisibility ring was actually the One Ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them seemed pretty awesome to little old me. It certainly sounded a lot edgier than The Hobbit, which, though fun, had some seriously anodyne moments. Surely an epic full of battles would offer nothing of that sort though, right? So we fast-orward another year or so, and it’s time to go see The Fellowship of the Ring with the folks, a film that was going toe-to-toe with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in my mind as the ultimate Christmas movie of 2001 EVER. Needless to say, Fellowship did of course win hands down (even then, Daniel Radcliffe’s closing lines of “but Hagrid, we’re not allowed to use magic outside of Hogwarts” sounded like a hostage reading from the kidnapper’s cue card for ransom).  

is still my favourite of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is a film I could happily watch again and again. From the opening prologue on the War of the Rings up until that final cliffhanger with the Fellowship already divided (I distinctly remember a kid at school vehemently complaining that the film had been released unfinished to anyone who applauded it in the playground), its seat of your pants stuff. What that guy at school said is in fact rather ironic, as to my mind Fellowship actually feels to be the most complete of the three films that make up the trilogy – it’s probably the only one you can watch and enjoy as a self contained unit if you so choose, having as it does an accomplished narrative arc that carries a sense of immediate progression that comes to a conclusion of a sort in the wake of the Uruk-hai attack at Parth Galen and Boromir’s death. This is no doubt largely a result of the “road-trip” set up that characterises the film; Frodo and gang travel across the landscape of Middle Earth, forming a growing unit of warriors along the way and having distinct, episodic adventures along the way (Bree, Rivendell, the Mines of Moria etc). All the while, the group are pursued by the Ringwraiths, a formidable lot who are set up to be a constant, nagging presence throughout the trilogy...and then they’re not, replaced instead by the Uruk-Hai, who in turn sort of stop mattering so much after they’ve dusted off Boromir. Indeed, when the Nazgul King finally shows up in Return of the King, his overdue arrival is a bit lame – like, 80s puppeteer fantasy level lame. But I’m getting ahead of myself – plenty of space to gripe on that movie a bit later...

A year later, Frodo’s adventures continued with The Two Towers, and the problems with the trilogy began to crack through the polished veneer. With our Fellowship split up, the story now spreads itself between three core threads; Frodo and Samwise taking the ring to Mordor, Aragorn and co. heading to the Saxon settlement of Rohan to gather support and...Merry and Pippin sort of flouncing around trying not to get caught and generally acting as filler material. Well, can’t have it all I guess. But wait! After the initial intrigue of King Theoden’s possession by Wormtongue, it all seems to start descending into making the necessary on-screen moves to get everyone prepped up for the Battle of Helm’s Deep etc, acceptable in that the battle is a rather fitting way to end the film, but after the watertight, relatively compressed storytelling of Fellowship, that sense of urgency that the former ended on just isn’t quite there any more, no matter how hard Jackson and gang try and fake it. This wouldn’t be so bad usually – the midpoints of most stories, epic or not, rely upon a sort of spring-cleaning and manoeuvring before the endgame may take place, but then Return of the King happens...

The day I saw Return of the King in the cinema was the day I realised how similar to an isolation cell a screening room can be. Promises of a return to the succinctly loaded narration of the first film are offered in the pre-credits sequence providing the origin of Gollum with flare, but then it all goes Two Towers 2: Electric Boogaloo by just becoming a random mess of disparate battles and tying-up-of-threads for three hours. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jackson, Bay, or whoever, just because actions scenes are good doesn’t mean that piling them up one on top of another makes good storytelling. Somewhere along the way, what we’re invested in begins to get lost in the background (please don’t kill me this is just my personal opinion). Return of the King is in fact the only film in the trilogy I’ve been unable to watch the whole way through beyond my first encounter; when we first bought the DVD, just looking at it made me feel cold, tired, and in need of a good lie down with some Whitney Houston ballads playing in the background to calm me down. Return of the King, for me, highlights everything that’s wrong with the trilogy as a whole, and indeed my major gripes with Peter Jackson’s career post-gore-fest-Brain-Dead days. On the surface, everything’s there for a major blockbuster; action, adventure, and a strong cast of performers doing a sturdy job. But underneath it all, there’s an odd lack of soul and a gnawing sense of tedium that I swear everyone just pretends they can’t feel because “goodness me haven’t WETA done a great job!” (And they really have – if nothing else, the trilogy provided us with a special effects house so accomplished that it’s only topped by ILM). It’s there in 2005’s King Kong too, a remake that somehow managed to play out the length of the original 1933 classic twice without offering a whole lot more depth in doing so. Jackson’s Kong is absolutely interminable, and I feel awful for saying that because I can feel the love put into the painstaking recreation of the era, but it’s bloody boring, even if it does contain a barely-fictionalised version of Orson Welles (if he’d happened to find a giant gorilla...). Things rack up similarly for Return of the King; I can see the technical achievement, but for me there’s nothing beyond it.

“But what about the Extended Editions, Tom? Maybe they’ll show you the light!” I hear you cry! And for a time, I entertained that notion too. I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Extended Editions for the first time, however, and I am sorry to say that it merely exacerbated my condition rather than curing it. Seeing a meatier Fellowship was an absolute delight, a lengthier Two Towers felt a bit like a TV mini-series plodding along to make the necessary episode limit, and – guess what – I didn’t even make it the whole way through Return, opting instead for a nap / morphine. The additions of the scenes merely highlight the lack of real structure in the latter two films, the final film particularly seemingly just drifting along to its conclusion by way of battle after battle. I have heard that it is a popular activity to watch all three of the Extended cuts in a marathon, a process that equates to 682 minutes of viewing time – or, 11 hours, 22 minutes. In that time, a whole day has been lost. Here are a number of other activities that may have been carried out instead in the same time:
  • ·         A Godfather trilogy marathon
  • ·         A day trip to somewhere you’ve never been before - perhaps a spa visit.
  • ·         Eleven hour long baths. Eleven. With time to quickly dry off between each one.
  • ·         Running up and down the stairs one thousand, three hundred and sixty four times. Think of all the calories burned.
  • ·         You could have finally got through on that customer services call that kept putting you on hold.
  • ·         682 issues of Hello! Magazine (assuming you take your time with each issue)
The possibilities beyond even those mouth-watering delights are near endless. At least to me. Given the above tirade, it might strike you as more than a little bit odd that I’m actually looking forward to The Hobbit. Hopefully the simpler story will catch me onboard. Plus, a dragon voiced by ol’ Benedict – the stuff dreams are made of right there. For those of you versed in videogames however, part of me feels like I’m just letting myself in for another Halo style disappointment (yes, Halo fanboys, I don’t care for your stinkin’ franchise either you precious little bunch of sniffling noses. I’m a Sonic the Hedgehog man, shitty games be damned!). We must wait and see, secure at least in the knowledge that Guillermo del Toro’s “thorns for Thorin!” type designs didn’t make the cut, and hopeful that the brisk pacing of Fellowship will return once again. I know I won’t have won anyone over with my rant, and have probably made a lot of enemies, but I can’t be the only soul who secretly thinks The Lord of the Rings films are a bit boring, right? Please, if you’re out there, contact me. I’m cold and alone.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Case for 'The Lord of the Rings'

 This post comes from fellow cinephile, blogger, and New Empress writer Rob Keeling. Seeing that we had divergent opinions on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the pair of us have made our arguments clear for you to concur or condemn. Rob's proLOTR article lies below. Have a gander over at his blog Cinema Paradiso to read more of his thoughts on film. My...less enthusiastic response to Jackson's epic series can be found there also.

Before I wax lyrical about Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy I feel I must first make a confession. *Deep breath* I didn’t absolutely hate either the Matrix sequels or the first two Pirates of the Caribbean ones. They are undeniably deeply flawed films and are never going to trouble any of my ‘best-of’ lists, but I still found myself able to watch and enjoy them. I mention this because it emphasises an important point that I should make clear at the outset....I am a sucker for a trilogy. 

To be honest, even if I had absolutely detested the first of these much maligned follow ups, I wouldn’t have been able to avoid the last one as I need the cinematic closure.  Predictably, my love of trilogies dates right back to an early obsession with Back to the Future, Star Wars and Indiana Jones (these last two can definitely be classed as trilogies by the way, lets not sully their good name by classing the latter day cash-ins as anything but that). The intricate plots and captivating action of these three trilogies was only amplified by their expansion to three solid movies. Obviously these classic films work just fine on their own as stand alone outings, but put together, they are arguably greater than the sum of their parts. They become a much broader story which allows you to develop an even greater attachment to the central characters. 

“What does this have to do with Lord of the Rings?” I hear you cry. Well, put simply, since Star Wars came along and changed the face of popular cinema, I would argue that no other trilogy has so capably created a fantasy world in which the viewer can truly submerge themselves.  That, to me, is a large part of what the appeal of Lord of the Rings is; a full fledged cinematic world which is so complete and comprehensive in its attention to detail, undeniably in part thanks to its gargantuan runtime, that you can’t help but get lost in it. It is escapism at its finest. 

Even without my pre-existing love of a good trilogy, I would still argue that great credit is due to Peter Jackson for all three of the LOTR movies, as each one is highly entertaining in its own right. Jackson was the driving force behind the entire Rings saga, championing it with various studios who couldn’t grasp the Aussie’s grand vision. Turning my attention to each individual film for a moment, I’d say that Fellowship is a very strong start and definitely the most family friendly of the three. Even this is not without its darker moments though. The Nazgul’s relentless stalking of Frodo and the Fellowship’s fierce battle with the orcs in the Mines of Moria particularly stands out. The bond of the Fellowship grows rapidly on their perilous journey and very soon the great strength and importance of Aragorn becomes clear to see. 

The Two Towers is my personal favourite, if for no other reason than the battle of Helms Deep which remains one of the few unequivocal successes of large scale CGI. That battle is, to use a technical term, the balls. Every time I watch it, when the rain starts to pour and the Uruk-Hai begin to march towards the keep’s walls, I settle down into my chair and prepare for the exhilaration that is to come. It never disappoints. But this is however the film where Sam and FrodoOsgiliath, Aragorn’s first rendezvous with the ghost army and Frodo’s run-in with Shelob all stand out in my mind.

The whole trilogy is packed with memorable moments and Jackson proves himself especially adept at handling the large scale set piece. That first opening swoop over the ancient battle on the slopes of Mount Doom never fails to impress. He also keeps the dialogue and acting just the right side of cheesy and, while there is undoubtedly the odd cringe worthy line, most of them delivered by Orlando Bloom, and the odd cheesy moment of faintly homo-erotic melodrama, all of them delivered by Sam and Frodo, there are far more hits than misses. Viggo Mortensen and Ian Mckellan are spot on as Aragorn and Gandalf and, despite being landed with some of the schmaltzier moments, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin do sterling work as Frodo and Sam.

The vast crew that helped make the sets, costumes and CGI shots so seamlessly authentic also deserve high praise. On a film franchise this vast and far reaching, it could so easily have crumpled under its own ambition and got the seemingly simple things wrong. Luckily however, sets such as the picturesque village of Hobbiton and the bustling narrow streets of Minus Tirith are both impeccably designed. It’s this great attention to detail that makes the films so easy to just sit back and enjoy without noticing the join where obvious sets and props were used.

Cinema on such an epic scale has very rarely been attempted since the days of David Lean and Cecil B. De Mille and has even more rarely been achieved successfully. Whilst ‘epicness’ (this may well be a word I just made up) alone is not enough to make a trilogy great, it can certainly work in its favour when handled right. They may not be the most intricately plotted movies or the ones with the punchiest dialogue, but the three Lord of the Rings films work together superbly as a whole and offer the viewer an immersive cinematic experience that few others can truly offer. I may be a sucker for a trilogy, but this is one that truly raises the bar and can rightfully stake a claim as a landmark piece of cinema.