Fantasy, Reviews

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Return of the King

Copyright © 2003 by New Line Cinema

Story
The final installment to this highly successful franchise, the defeat of Sauron’s alliance, Saruman (Christopher Lee) sees the Dark Lord targeting Gondor as his next conquest. To prevent this catastrophe, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) sets out to seek Denethor, the Steward of Gondor (John Noble) and warn him about the attack. When word is sent of Gondor’s need for military assistance, King Théoden (Bernard Hill) gathers any remaining forces to help protect its capital, Minas Tirith from falling while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) searches for the army of the Dead to fortify its numbers. However, they realised that they cannot win the war as Sauron’s troops are far too huge and the only chance they have now of ever vanquishing him for good lies in the hands of Frodo ((Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin).

Review
A triumphant return to the top of the charts, the conclusion to Peter Jackson’s masterpiece of three has set a few significant milestones along the way to its global success; it is the second film to earn $1 billion worldwide, the biggest Oscar sweep by winning in all the nominated 11 categories thus tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most wins and the first fantasy film and second sequel to receive the ‘Best Picture’ award after ‘The Godfather Part II’. Overrated much?  Yes and no.

It is only if you read and hear the heaps of praises from critics and moviegoers all quadrants of the world piling onto the epic’s already lengthy accolades. It may also be the Academy’s way of making up to Jackson for his previous ‘losses’ in the first two parts of this tale, especially the equally deserving ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. A rather unfortunate time to be pitted against ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and not being the favourite going into the Oscar race surely must have limited the potential to grab a couple more statuettes beyond the movie’s technical realm.

Strip away all that and assess ‘The Return of the King’ on its own merits, you will find that it truly warrants all the love it is bestowed upon. Hands down the most exciting of the lot, the prologue begins with a back story of how Sméagol (Andy Serkis) comes into possession of the One Ring and his transformation into the loathsome Gollum. Within minutes, the innocence quickly turns deadly and puts in motion the depravity of his actions on Frodo and Sam to seize back the ring for his own selfish gains.

The ring’s hold on Frodo continues to deteriorate him physically and mentally, a fact Gollum uses to his advantage; Frodo is led to think that Sam will betray him for the ring. When Frodo is finally on his own to face a creature more threatening than the one in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, he soon realises of the trickster’s true intentions. What ensues is an intense survival of the fittest in a spidery labyrinth. Astin is in fine form and Sam’s finest qualities are only rivaled by the future king of Gondor himself, Aragorn.

While Mortensen is understated and ruggedly charming during his more tender moments, it is when he begins to accept his role as the heir to the throne that he is less impactful as compared to Hill’s Théoden whose stirring speech to his Rohirrim army is believable and inspirational for a seemingly grim outcome. His heroic actions are well contrasted with the cowardly Denethor who is driven insane after witnessing the apparent death of his second son, Faramir (David Wenham). Noble is vile but is redeemed via his love for his children, albeit a slightly underwritten character and Wenham’s performance this time around resembles more closely to the book.

Improvements also can be seen in Merry (Dominic Monaghan), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Éowyn’s (Miranda Otto) characterisations. Deemed the comedic duo, they definitely have earned the right and respect to determine a new fate in this final war between good and evil. In ‘The Two Towers’, many of Otto’s scenes were trimmed down for the theatrical version which made Éowyn’s transition to the big screen unremarkable. In the latest interpretation, more emphasis has been placed on her ongoing conflict to be the dutiful ‘daughter’ whose main desire is to fight alongside with her brothers-in-arms.

An impressive feat for Otto when she gets to actively participate in the attack on Minas Tirith. Her segment is just one of the many well edited sequences that culminate into another top-notch climatic battle no purists or casual fans can fault upon. As it draws to an inevitable end (the multiple conclusions may perplex some), it is without a doubt Jackson has masterfully crafted a coherent and singular vision that will stand the test of time, a distinction shared with its equally cherished source of inspiration.

Rating
Entirety: A+
Acting: A
Plot: A

Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images

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Fantasy, Reviews

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Two Towers

Copyright © 2002 by New Line Cinema

Story
‘The Two Towers’ picks up immediately from where the first chapter left off. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have been taken hostage by the Uruk-hai, followers of Saruman (Christopher Lee) while in pursuit are Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom). They learn that the two Hobbits have escaped from their captors and are now in the company of Treebeard (John Rhys-Davies), the leader of the Ents. Both sides will join forces to relinquish Saruman of his mighty army; the former takes the fight to Saruman’s doorstep and the latter, joined by the Elves will battle at Helm’s Deep with the citizens of Rohan, led by King Théoden (Bernard Hill). Meanwhile, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are still on their quest to destroy the One Ring with the aid of an unexpected source, Gollum (Andy Serkis) himself.

Review
The highest grossing film 0f 2002 does what many sequels fail to achieve; to massively entertain and emotionally resonate with moviegoers of all ages. Being the most difficult portion to put on film that does not have a beginning and still cannot conclude, the result is remarkable; a character-driven piece with a whole lot of heart which climaxes with another well engineered battle sequence to be remembered as one of the most elaborate ever presented on screen.

Through the opening shot where we are treated to a glimpse of how Gandalf (Ian McKellen) fell in the mines of Moria, it says it all of what should be anticipated in the movie’s remaining running time – pressurised tension, mind-blowing action and heartfelt emotion. The pace moves along quickly once the star of this episode emerges, Gollum, a repulsive hobbit-like creature suffering from schizophrenia. In possession of the ring for so long as the prior owner, it gave him unnaturally long life and degraded his physicality fitting of the ring’s corruptive supremacy.

Serkis is in fine form here and easily steals the show as one of the most realistically portrayed computer-generated characters ever rendered by a special effects team. The staff of Weta Digital have definitely outdone themselves in capturing the complexities of this very tortured soul and his essence is brought out by a soulful performance from Serkis. His commitment to the role has him not only providing Gollum with a voice but also his movements via a motion capture suit.

It could have gone annoyingly wrong with such an over the top persona en route to replicating another Jar Jar Binks of the ‘Star Wars’ fame but Serkis’ firm understanding on Gollum’s treacherous motivations help him deliver a balanced turn as this sometimes sympathetic guide to Frodo and Sam. Together, they form a unique partnership to Mordor. As Frodo begins to comprehend the effects of the One Ring, we are able to witness him spiralling into the dark side.

Wood is especially engaging and conveys his emotions well through his expressive eyes. His change from naiveté to a self-absorbed loner is well contrasted with Astin’s always optimistic and fiercely protective friend, Sam. Another noteworthy relationship is of Elrond, Elven lord of Rivendell (Hugo Weaving) and Arwen (Liv Tyler). A truly heartbreaking moment to see a father having to part with his beloved daughter as Aragorn’s true love is convinced of leaving the world for good.

As much as I like the film’s three-hour long theatrical cut, it could have still been longer (thankfully, there is the extended version). Attention to newcomers in Rohan (King Théoden, Éowyn – Miranda Otto, Éomer – Karl Urban and Gríma Wormtongue – Brad Dourif) Fangorn (Treebeard) and Ithilien (Faramir – David Wenham) are adequate but more expository information would have improved their overall presence. Among the many mentioned, only Hill’s Théoden manages to imbue the majestic resonance – a feat which the others seemed to be trailing behind.

Nevertheless, these shortcomings are too miniscule to rob of the enjoyment for pure spectacle with a continuous exploration on the human psyche and the challenges that lie ahead for our heroes to face in these dire times. A larger and more sprawling production it may be, but under the reins of Peter Jackson, it never veers into Michael Bayesque mayhem and is a perfect setup for ‘The Return of the King’ to claim its box office throne successively.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting: A
Plot: A

Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images

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Fantasy, Reviews

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Fellowship Of The Ring

Copyright © 2001 by New Line Cinema

Story
The first in the series of three based on the bestseller from J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ is about the One Ring in possession by the Dark Lord Sauron to conquer Middle-Earth. In his battle against the Elves and Men, Sauron’s body was destroyed but his life force lives on in the ring. The ring has to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom where it was made. Known to corrupt its wearer, the ring remains dormant for another 2,500 years until it is found by Gollum (Andy Serkis), who keeps it with him for the next few centuries. After a chance meeting with Gollum, it finally ends up in the hands of a Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). 60 years later, he passes the ring to his nephew, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). As Frodo learns the truth, he sets out with eight other companions on a journey to the very same volcanic mountain to stop this evil from returning.

Review
‘The Lord of the Rings’ has been hailed as one of the greatest trilogies in the history of film and the most acclaimed fantasy epic to date. It is a sweeping take on an all-encompassing tale about the quest to vanquish pure malice contained in a ‘precious’ accessory. And only a true fan such as Peter Jackson and his committed crew can bring the pages of this beloved classic to life. It clearly shows that years of research have been put into this labour of love even before filming began.

It is no wonder then that New Line Cinema took a chance and green lit Jackson to film the entire trilogy in one go. It is unprecedented and remains so until his next ‘trio’ of ‘Hobbit’ movies come along a decade later. And to think that he was turned down by a few other distributors before he finally got his funding for not one but a three-part deal. The risk paid off with hefty pay checks going to all whom were involved with this colossal project. Just hypothetically curious, should the introductory chapter fail, wonder what would happen to its continuation?

Guess the film makers would still have to proceed with the release of their investments. Thank their lucky stars, what is being presented is a marvel to behold; a densely written fable about the corruption of ultimate power and the repercussion it has on many of the rich-filled characters which crosses path with it. The marketers may have you think this is just another fantasy escapade with postcard-like scenic locations, swashbuckling sword fights and mythical creatures (they are all in the check list) but it is so much more than that.

The real magic comes from the flawless casting for its chief characters. Wood and Ian McKellen (Gandalf the Grey) strike a right dose of screen chemistry as the unexpected ring bearer and his wise wizard friend respectively whilst Frodo’s gardener, Samwise ‘Sam’ Gamgee (Sean Astin) and Dúnedain ranger, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) are both loyal with huge dollops of valour to boot. For comic relief to lift the sense of imminent doom, we get in the form of John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Billy Boyd (Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took) and Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc ‘Merry’ Brandybuck).

Ambiguity is also used to underline some of its players’ motivations. We are never exactly sure of the actual intentions of Galadriel, Elf Queen of Lothlórien (Cate Blanchett) and Boromir from Gondor (Sean Bean) when each is tested by the ring’s dominance. The former manages to resist its temptations while the latter gradually descends into irrationality but redeems himself after an ‘invisible nudge’ with reality.

Notable mention goes out to Christopher Lee as Saruman the White and Liv Tyler whose role as Arwen has been greatly expanded to provide a stronger female presence in an otherwise male dominated adventure. Being the only other woman (for now), Jackson’s re-imagination of Arwen is every bit capable of handling any situation as her counterparts while still looking fabulous doing it. Easily one of the best rescue missions ever brought to life, it is chilling and magical all at the same time. Even Lee’s Saruman gets to flex his combat prowess mano a mano with Gandalf.

Girls (and guys) everywhere will sure to remember Orlando Bloom as the next heartthrob to ogle at. His well chiseled features blends seamlessly with the picturesque beauty of New Zealand. Only gripe is his portrayal is a little one dimensional. It is merely nitpicking though to a superb production that seemed impossible to be brought to the big screen a while back.  By the time the credits appear with the calming voice of Enya, my only Christmas wish is for ‘The Two Towers’ to be released the very next day.

Rating
Entirety: A+
Acting: A
Plot: A

Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images

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Reviews, Science Fiction

Gravity

Gravity

Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Story
Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her maiden space mission in the Shuttle Explorer along with her crew are charged with the maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope when they receive distressing news from Mission Control in Houston that a cloud of space debris is heading towards their direction. It is a reaction caused from a Russian missile strike on an unused satellite. They attempt to abort the mission but the debris comes hurtling in killing Stone’s entire team except Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who manages to retrieve Stone after she is separated from the ship. Together, they will need to devise a plan to safely return to Earth.

Review
Here is a description to ‘Gravity’ in a word again; Astounding! The universal praises that have been piling by critics and audiences alike are certainly justified by what yours truly have witnessed personally. Since its release, it has always been the frontrunner for consideration in all major film awards. Come awards season, it has already won several of them for its maestro, Alfonso Cuarón and is a main contender in the upcoming British Academy Film Awards and Academy Awards. I do hope that Cuarón continues to dominate his reign in the ‘Best Director’ category as how pundits would like to put it – it is his year.

He rose to critical acclaim with his interpretation of ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (which many still considers as the best in the series) and he followed it with indie darling ‘Children of Men’, a political thriller set in the distant future, starring Clive Owen. In his latest offering, he fuses intimate storytelling with big budget spectacle. The end result? A marvel not seen since ‘Avatar’ came charging in all its blue glory. Going in without knowing what to expect exactly, I had thought it will spend most of its screen time exploring ways for Stone to return to Earth safely after her space mission had gone awry (it still does precisely that).

The difference though is how Cuarón takes us on this thrill ride that never slips into tedium. From the film’s opening, the magnificence of Earth as seen from the eyes of our space crew is so realistically integrated, it draws the viewers in immediately, experiencing every emotion firsthand. Not long after the obligatory introduction of our cast and their mission, the film jumps right into the action with its first debris hit (it is devastating but the more spectacular one comes later in the middle of this tale of survival).

Clocking in at 90 minutes, the story zips along swiftly and by the time it is over, you would wish that our protagonist is still trapped in her shuttle. It definitely shows in the final cut that Cuarón’s vision has not been tampered with as funding, writing and editing duties belong to him also besides assuming the director’s position. The premise certainly brings ‘Cast Away’ to mind but like the Oscar nominee, it is the character details and our lone survivor’s motivations to live sprinkled throughout intelligently which provide ‘Gravity’ with plenty of gravitas.

Considering it is Bullock’s best performance since her breakthrough in ‘Speed’, it is an interesting piece of trivia to note that she was only selected due to scheduling conflicts which prevented Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman from accepting the role. I have no doubt any of these fine actresses will step up to the challenge as how Bullock did, but her second Oscar nomination for ‘Best Actress’ in a leading role is well deserved. She completely disappears into the character and it is a side of her rarely seen on screen. She tapped into this vulnerability in ‘The Blind Side’ and ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ but the range showcased here is amplified exponentially. Her funny self is still there but it is challenges like these actors seek to redefine themselves professionally and artistically.

It may be a bit part for Clooney yet Kowalski is extremely significant to Stone’s survival. His vast experience over the years gives credibility to handle such an explosive crisis. Interestingly, it is his cool and suave persona that provides most of the lighter moments in an otherwise very bleak situation. Understandably Robert Downey, Jr. was the original choice, nonetheless Clooney’s charm and banter with Bullock are more than enough to power through his brief appearance.

For the action and sci-fi enthusiasts, ‘Gravity’ is never short in awesome effects as well. The meticulous attention to realistically generate such a massive catastrophe in space has to be seen to be believed. Clearly, hours of research has been put into ensuring its technicality is down to a tee. While that is vital to up its e-value, ultimately, it is the human drama that matters most once you strip it down to the movie’s core. It would not be defying gravitational box office slides if it had been done any other way.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting: A+
Plot: A

Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language

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