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Guilty Pleasures

The Lord of the Rings: 
The Return of the King 


Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: J.R.R. Tolkien (The book), Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (screenplay)

Main Cast:

Frodo Baggins - Elijah Wood
Gandalf the Grey - Ian McKellen 
Bilbo Baggins - Ian Holm
Samwise "Sam" Gamgee - Sean Astin
Aragorn - Dominic Monaghan 
Saruman the White - Christopher Lee
Peregrin "Pippin" Took - Billy Boyd
Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck - Viggo Mortensen
Arwen Undomiel - Liv Tyler
Galadriel - Cate Blanchett
Gimli - John Rhys-Davies 
Legolas Greenleaf - Orlando Bloom
Lord Elrond - Hugo Weaving 
Theoden - Bernard Hill 
Gamling - Bruce Hopkins
Witch King/Gothmog - Lawrence Makoare
Denethor - John Noble
King of the Dead - John Noble 
Eowyn - Miranda Otto
Gollum/Smeagol - Andy Serkis 
Arwen - Liv Tyler
Eomer - Karl Urban
Faramir - David Wenham 

Rated PG-13  

To sum up: If it can be said that the Fellowship got lost cause they were all men and didn't ask for directions then it should be safe to say that based on what I've seen at the jewelry store this past Christmas, it's a good thing that there were no women in the Fellowship cause that Ring would have gotten nowhere near to being destroyed.

“Is there any hope, Gandalf, for Frodo and Sam?”
“There never was much hope. Just a fool's hope.” 

     It's the end. Gandalf (Ian McKellen ), Aragorn (Dominic Monaghan ) and the rest of the crew have just won the battle of Helms Deep but the bigger issue is about to start as the Dark Lord Sauron begins his conquest of Middle Earth. One thing stands in his way, the human kingdom of Gondor. And so the fate of Middle Earth rests on the shoulders of men, that frail and corrupt race who is so weak. They know they can't stop Sauron's armies but the hope is that they can hold on long enough for Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) who are sneaking into to Mordor to destroy the One Ring and thereby destroy Sauron and free Middle Earth. Can two Hobbits accomplish what rightfully should take an army to do?

     The journey was fascinating. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Enlightening. Exciting. It was every other "ing" word you can imagine (the good ones, not the bad). Now it is finally over. The characters only went through it once, but at 1,500+ pages, 12+ hours, and who know how many rereads and repeat viewings, we are finally here. It is the conclusion to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For those who haven't bothered to read the books, it's a chance to see how the story ends. For those of us who have, it's the opportunity to see visually, in all it's big screen splendor, what only our imaginations had been able to provide. It's a chance to see how Peter Jackson will translate what has previously been in print. It's a chance to see whether it will live up to expectations or fail to satisfy.

     Let me say that Jackson has succeeded wonderfully. He has made a film that, on its own, is an incredible achievement, with enormous spectacle while at the same time overflowing with strong acting and wonderful character arcs. That alone would be quite an achievement but Peter Jackson has done something more, he has maintained a level of creativity that no other director has achieved for a film trilogy. The third film more than matches the previous two. To my knowledge and viewing experience, that has not really been done. The reasons are threefold in my opinion. First is the fact that the project was green lighted with three films in mind. It was a large  story that would take at least three films to tell well (although Jackson originally thought he would get at most 2 permitted). It wasn't a trilogy conceived after they realized how much money the first one had made. It is more like a large miniseries for the big screen. The second reason is that I believe that since all three films were filmed at once (with minimal reshoots later), Jackson was in a groove creatively. Like an athlete having a great season, Jackson was focused on what he wanted to do from the beginning to the end. He didn't have time to let the success of his films cause him to second guess and therefore make a lot of bad decisions. Thirdly - it seems to me that Jackson was stubbornly focused on telling a story that was true to the books he had loved for so long. I don't feel that he was willing to bow to studio or public pressure and was able to make the films that he wanted. He maintained his creative integrity. 

     To fans of the books, it is not a perfect word for word, description for description adaptation. Nor could it be. To follow the books precisely would produce a large uneven film, too often going down roads that would cause the film to lose focus. If history could repeat itself or another telling is later attempted, I'm convinced that a better film adaptation could not be made.

     What is amazing is the emotional punch of this film. While the spectacle is great, it's not the big, broad, sweeping epic shots nor the incredible battles that impressed me the most (though they are great). No. While the film is visually some of the most amazing moments I've seen put on film, it's the characters that have the biggest moments. They are the center and far outshine the spectacle. One includes a futile attack on Osgiliath which the Orcs have just taken. The arrogant and close-minded steward of Gondor, Denethor (John Noble), has sent his son to lead this attack. He has no care for his son, nor the futility of the attack and sits there stuffing his face in a "kingly meal". He turns to Pippin (Billy Boyd), the foolish Hobbit who has pledged himself to the steward's service, and bids him to sing a song. Pippin produces a movingly sad rendering (nicely done by Boyd), and with only this on the soundtrack, we see the riders approach Osgiliath. In the city we see twenty, fifty, then hundreds of Orcs rise up and prepare for the assault, ready to let fly with arrows. When the arrows do fly, we are not presented with yet another thrilling battle, but a simple image of Denethor biting into a tomato and it's blood red juices trickling down his chin; perfectly representing the slaughter that has just occurred. Jackson has learned to masterfully say things without the necessity of showing it and it is both clever and poetic.

      By far the biggest emotional punch for me was the lighting of the beacons of Gondor to call for the aid of it's neighboring kingdom of Rohan. "What's a beacon?" you say? Well essentially the are great big piles of firewood spread across the country, used to call for the help of the neighboring kingdom. When one is lit, the nearest one to it sees it and lights their own, until they are all lit and that call goes across the country. Who new that lighting a fire could produce the same emotional fervor in me that singing the Marseilles did in "Casablanca"? But I've seen this film three times and I tear up every time that the beacon is lit. It's a thrilling, majestic panorama across the country as beacon after beacon comes afire. In the book it's just mentioned as Gandalf is traveling to the kingdom of Gondor. But here Peter Jackson turns it into one of the most thrilling moments in the film.

     Those poor Hobbits, Frodo and Sam have been traveling across Mordor covertly inching ever closer to Mount Doom and the fires therein where they can destroy the One Ring. But I had to laugh. For every hill whose summit they reached, every view they had, whether it the castle Cirith Ungol, the plains of Mordor, Mount Doom itself, and finally the doorway to said mountain, it appeared that they had another TWENTY MILES TO GO. I've never seen so many in the distance shots of a journey where even though the characters were walking and I could see them moving, it sure didn't feel like they were getting very far.

     As I've said, it is the central characters and character moments that are the focus of the film. It is also wonderful that the characters produce the strongest emotional moments of the film. Of all of the characters, four stand out for me. One is Ian McKellen formally known as Gandalf the Grey but after going through fire and death as well as a bleach cycle is now Gandalf the White. All of this info given you in the second film "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers". Ian gets much more screen time in this film and deservedly so. For it is he more than anyone that is the mover and shaper of destinies. In short, without his stalwart aid, guidance, and simple interference Middle Earth would crumble under the onslaught of Sauron and his minions. No one else could have played Gandalf as well as Ian McKellen. It's a role he was suited to and a role he has molded into his own. I think he is the perfect realization to the character in the books. A welcome sight to me also was his showing a little more kindness and affections towards the Hobbits, particularly Pippin (Billy Boyd). I didn't always enjoy his lack of patience and annoyance with him. I always thought it came off a bit meaner than their relationships in the books. After all Gandalf supposedly loved Hobbits but was quick to anger with Pippin, who, to me, embodied a typical Hobbit more than the others. Maybe Pippin is more incompetent than the normal Hobbit but I wanted to tell Gandalf to not be so grumpy. So what is it was because of him that you ultimately ended up getting killed in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring". Lighten up. But there were moments where we get to see Gandalf enjoy the singing and dancing of the Hobbits as well as a comforting moment or two with Pippin during the dangerous battle. In all Ian McKellen has created a wise old sage and brought to the performance humor, grace, authority, wisdom, and respect, bringing to life a legendary character.

     Next is Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee. Before the series Sean was known to me as Rudy, the Hobbit sized  guy who wanted to play football for Notre Dame in the film with the same name. Indeed, when I watched him in "Fellowship" I kept rooting for him under my breath saying, "Rudy. Rudy. Rudy." Now, when I see him I will think of Sam (and Rudy). Watching his character evolve from the simple Hobbit to the most loyal character in the films was, well, a pleasure. From the beginning your heart warmed to him. Sean's performance was incredible to me as his character experienced all levels of trials, sorrows, and pains while strongly maintaining his love and loyalty to Frodo no matter what happened. Frodo was almost literally going into hell and Sam was going to be there no matter what, aiding him and, at times, carrying him. His performance is great because no matter what he was experiencing he was able to portray it in such a way that it was projected to the audience. An example is Sean's sadness when he is turned on by Frodo. The grief that he projects carried so well that there were very few dry eyes in the theater as well. We could feel what Sam was going through as he reached within himself and did more than he thought he was capable of while never really changing from the simple Hobbit he was at his core who wanted nothing more than to marry Rosie Cotton (Sarah McLeod). If Gandalf is the brains of the film then Sam is its heart.

     Third was the brilliant performance by Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. Watching this character evolve from being so full of life to the shell of a person he is at the end is amazing. The longer Frodo carried the Ring the larger toll it took on his soul. It drained him, exhausted him, and very slowly transformed him as it possessed him in ever larger sums, so much so that the fate of the Ring being destroyed, even by such a good person as Frodo, hangs in the balance. It is the acting of Elijah that shows all of this. We see the transformation in his posture, his walk, his face, and, most importantly, his eyes. The very nature of his performance shows that he is almost without control of himself being pulled in several directions but finding it hard to muster his own strength of will. Frodo is becoming a prisoner of the Ring wanting to let it go but ever so slowly, wanting to possess it for himself. It is only a question of who will win, Frodo or the Ring. And Wood comes off as such a nice guy, in real life as well as in the film, that it's hard to believe that he can pull of the transformation as well as he does.

     If an acting Oscar is supposed to represent a performance that is above and beyond the norm, if it supposed to represent an actor who reaches deep within himself and produces a performance that elevates a character beyond what he was originally intended to be, if it represents acting so realized that it is difficult to imagine another performer doing that  role, then Andy Serkis as Gollum surely deserves an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Since we know that the Oscars don't work like that it's almost certain that he won't get recognition for his work (and it has since been confirmed, no Oscar nom for Andy). And that's a shame too cause Andy has taken a roll that was really supposed to be a simple voice performance and due to his skills has transformed the part. Serkis created a voice for a computer generated character to be sure but he was so good in his facial expressions and body mannerisms that the filmmakers expanded the amount of work he was to do. Serkis was so good that they used him for the motion capture system to help animate the character. He was so good that he was the one to don an all white body suit (jokingly referred to as "The Gimp Suit") and prance around the set with the actors or alone so that the scenes could have a proper feel to them when he was later removed and the Gollum creature animated in. He was so good that they used his face to be a reference point for the animation of the facial expressions that the character, even going so far as to redesign the character so that it looked more like Andy. In short Andy gave his all, and it is certain to say that without his incredible amount of work Gollum would not have been nearly as effective as he was.

     We have film history here, folks. Something rare has been accomplished where everyone has decided to create something that is both literate and compelling while still being as entertaining as hell. They set aside the business mentality (for the most part) and let the joy of creating something meaningful take over; giving the world a film trilogy that will be remembered for a long time. They've also managed to save the possible best for last.

     This one rings true. 

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