The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

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Read about Cleo and the Lovely Em's travails getting in to see the movie here

Cleolinda: ****

Starring (deep breath) Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Otto, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Andy Serkis, David Wenham, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and a whole lot of other people

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

Previews (yours may vary): A Man Apart, Old School, Final Destination 2, X-Men 2, Pirates of the Caribbean

I have a theory about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. He says he tried to make each one a stand-alone--but that really, you should think of the time between their releases as "a year-long popcorn break." See, that to me indicates the reality of what he's trying to do with these movies. This isn't about making Two Towers better than Fellowship, topping the one that came before or whatever--it's not like the filmmakers came back seven years later and tried to pick up a cold scent to make a sequel. These movies were filmed concurrently. To me, it's like breaking up Gone with the Wind into three "separate" movies instead of installing a nice long inter-mission: what, are you going to complain that you don't like the burning of Atlanta as much as the barbecue at the beginning? Ask where the bucolic plantation gran-deur went, and why everything has to be more action-oriented now? Because that's not the point--the point is to continue a single story through to its end. There's more action because that's what happens next. So it seems pretty counterproductive to argue whether this is a better movie than Fellowship--because that isn't what the movie is trying to accomplish.

The thing I think you could take issue with, if you felt like it, is the sheer number of changes Jackson and company made from the books. (Keep in mind, it's been a year since I've read them, so my take on this is a lot more general than more hardcore fans of the books.)  Correspondent Vladimir and I have argued the point, but from my perspective, a lot happens in
Return of the King, yes, but--there's about half the number of pages in that installment. The other half's appendices (from which, by the way, the whole Arwen-Aragorn romance comes, so it's not made up out of whole cloth, either). I really liked the Arwen/Glorfindel conflation in Fellowship--it was more economical, more meaningful, and worked for me. Here... well, so many things are changed here that the story might come loose from its moorings. Or so I feared. But having seen the movie, I can say I understand why they did it. In a nutshell, here's why: It's no fun to have a character show up and say, "Actually, you're right, I agree with you totally." Théoden has to resist Aragorn's suggestions and advice, even though that renders him rather different from the Théoden of the book; Faramir has to start out determined to take the ring back to Minas Tirith in order to make his about-face more poignant. Not that the book itself isn't well-written; it's just that a lot of Aragorn and Éowyn's "relationship," for example, takes place in their own heads ("Wow, I love him"; "Uh-oh, she's looking at me that way again..."). The conflicts are internal, yes; but you have to find a way to visualize them externally, and while it's not the way I might have done it, you end up with Éowyn becoming sort of a temptation, for example. Not so much in preference to Arwen, but as a means of doing the right thing by each woman--letting one go and standing up for the other. In other words, I see why they changed what they did--to fill out the plot/character arcs.

(Also: who are these people complaining that there are too many "pointless" Arwen scenes? And that shot of the Elves leaving Rivendell? Dude, that was some of the best stuff in there. Man, when she told her father she loved him, too, I was just about on the floor. Also, as the Lovely Em and I agreed, any excuse to get Viggo Mortensen in multiple kissyface scenes is all right by us.)

I think the one element that's so stunning about this movie, though, is the balance of character and action. The movie roars along like a speeding train and yet it's crammed with character development the whole way. And you know what the best part is? None of it is announced or declared. Théoden never says, "I resist your suggestions because I feel guilty about shirking my own duties as a king." You just guess that that's the reason. And so you're left watching all these people interacting--a tear rolling down Wormtongue's face, Aragorn hugging a surprised Haldir, Éowyn bonding with Gimli--and it's just presented as what it is without a lot of Oscar-bait grandstanding. The one part that I found a little obvious was Sam's Big Poignant Speech at the end of the movie, mostly because I wasn't expecting sentiment right at that moment.

Nonetheless, Sean Astin gives a really touching performance, so it's no slam on him. Everyone was wonderful--particularly Brad Dourif as a surprisingly conflicted Wormtongue (note the tear he produces upon seeing Saruman's army) and Miranda Otto as a warrior trapped in a princess's body. I'm not sure I would have written Théoden quite so stern, but Bernard Hill does an excellent job with it. And I really, really want to see where Elijah Wood is going to take Frodo in the third movie. Of course, Orlando Bloom is in fine form as preternaturally bad-ass Legolas, and Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn rocks my world, but I'm pretty sure that goes without saying. And John Rhys-Davies really gets to shine in this installment, although I kinda wish they'd gotten someone else to do Treebeard's voice--he's great, but it's aurally distracting to cut from a scene with Gimli to a scene with Treebeard. Speaking of Treebeard, the Ents rock. The effects aren't seamless, but then, I'm not really sure I care. After all, when you've got a scene like the enraged Ents lurching out en masse towards Isengard, you don't really care if they look photorealistic. (And at the end of the day, is it possible that creatures of fantasy like that
could look photorealistic?) And seriously, Gollum blows Jar Jar out of the water. You want to know why? Not because the effects are better (although damn, they're mostly fantastic)--but because he comes to life as a piteously tortured soul--he's got twice Jar Jar's character. Which I think is the real-world moral of these movies: If you write it well, they will come.

Man, this review turned awful scholarly, didn't it? Well, it's hard to talk about the movie right now, because I'm still sort of in awe. I'm having a hard time articulating my thoughts on the movie as a three-hour whole (it
feels like an hour long, not three, by the way)--I just keep remembering dozens upon dozens of little moments--well, and big moments, too--that I loved. Suffice it to say that it's certainly the best movie I've seen all year, and I'm going back to see it again.

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