Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Two Towers


At long last, we held the wrap party for my mammoth musical extravaganza, Goodfollies, in which I play legendary lady mobster, Toni Soprano. It's been a very rough shoot, what with the location work and then weeks in the studio but I think the end results will be worth it. I expect it to be a major summer release, giving all those little people out there in the dark a true choice opposite those bloated action epics that permeate the hot months. I'm sorry to say goodbye to the crew and cast that have become a second family to me through all these weeks - all but Margo Channing. I won't miss her in the least. 

Margo had one of her 'Fasten Your Seatbelts' nights tonight at the party. She downed at least four apple martinis while most of us were still waiting for bar service and then decided to entertain us with her big number from Christine: The Musical, that wreck of a Stephen King piece in which she had the title role a while back. To make it all the more dramatic, she did it from the top of the bar but could not keep her balance on those stiletto heels she insists upon (as if the world didn't know she's shorter than Linda Hunt). She kept falling over and some of the chorus boys, who seem to idolize her, kept propping her back up so she could launch into another verse. Not to be outdone, I rigged a quick toga from a tablecloth and a headdress from the floral centerpiece and did my big tap number, Chow Down Boys, as Tamora, Queen of Goths, from my musical version of Titus Andronicus, The King and Eye for an Eye. It brought the house down as Margo had to be poured into her limo in a drunken stupor. 

After the party, the gospel choir who backed me in one of the films more sensational production numbers, and I decided to take in the premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers at the Loew's Westwood on our way home. Those lovely African American ladies put on their best church hats and off we all went to sit in the front row to cheer on Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, and the other heroes in the second part of Peter Jackson's epic visual translation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic. A great Hallelujah (in B-flat minor) would go up from our section when one of the familiar characters reappeared. 

The Two Towers picks up where the first part, The Fellowship of the Ring, left off. No recap of the events of the first film is made and either a viewing of the previous film or a familiarity with the source material is highly recommended. The first film had a single narrative through line and a good deal of exposition. This film, following Tolkien's novel, intercuts three different stories which follow the members of the now sundered fellowship. Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood), who carry the evil ring of power with them, are hopelessly lost in the wilds as they try to find their way to Mordor in order to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom. On the way, they meet Gollum (CGI voiced by Andy Serkis), a previous owner of the ring who has been totally corrupted by it and driven mad. Gollum is a little slimy thing with a taste for raw fish and a bad case of divided personality but who swears obedience to Frodo as the ring's current master. He also knows the lands around Mordor and becomes the hobbits' unlikely guide toward the black land. On the way, they eventually run into Faramir (David Wenham), brother of their deceased companion Boromir and the ring starts to work its unhealthy magic on him, as it did on his brother. 

In the meantime, our other two plucky hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) have been carried off by orcs. They escape when the orcs are surprised by a party of the riders of Rohan led by Eomer (Karl Urban). Running from the carnage, they stumble into the ancient forest of Fangorn and run into the ent (think walking talking tree), Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies). After befriending him, they succeed in rousing the half forgotten ent people into action against the treacheries of the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). 

Saruman has meanwhile unleashed a diabolical army against the kingdom of Rohan, intending to enslave it to his will and not understanding that he is simply a dupe to the wiles of Sauron (a flaming CGI eye), the real lord of the rings. Rohan is ruled by king Theoden (Bernard Hill) who has been poisoned by the magic of Saruman administered by his noxious advisor Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). In his madness, he banishes Eomer, his nephew and natural successor, leaving only Eomer's sister Eowyn (Miranda Otto) to stand by him. At this time, the uncrowned king of men Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his companions the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), wander through chasing Pippin and Merry. They meet up with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who is not dead (it takes more than a Balrog to do in a wizard) who assures them the hobbits are safe so off they go to heal the king and save the people of Rohan by taking refuge in the fortress of Helm's Deep where they have a chance of withstanding Saruman's invading army. 

The cross-cutting of these three complicated, but interlocking stories, is deftly accomplished. Director Jackson knows how to build each element for maximum suspense and none of the jumps seems particularly forced. In trimming the tale down to three hours, as with the first film, there is by necessity removal of chunks of narrative and plot. Certain things happen very quickly and matter of factly that Tolkien allows to develop at leisure. This leads to some moments, such as the healing of Theoden or the rallying of the ents to come a bit out of left field and seem a bit choppy. If there is an extended DVD cut as there is with the first film, these moments will probably flow better. Jackson and his screen-writing team also take some liberties with plot in order to make the material more cinematic and to raise the stakes emotionally as the various stories come to a climax. While these changes are likely to offend Tolkien purists, they do make for a better film and are in the spirit of the author. 

The true star of the film remains the ravishing scenery of New Zealand doubling for the legendary middle earth. Shot after shot is exquisitely gorgeous with rocky plains, snow capped mountains, winding rivers and volcanic rock giving the film a real sense of place. This is also born out in the costume and set designs. The armor is worn and nicked. Theoden's palace looks lived in and used. The only miscalculation is a non-Tolkien side trip to the ruined city of Osgiliath. Its crumbling towers and domes look faked, unlike most of the rest of the film. 

The familiar characters from the first film have grown and deepened. I have a few quibbles. Gimli should not be quite so much a figure of comic relief as he appears to be in this film. There are a couple of unnecessary cameo flashbacks to give Liv Tyler's Arwen, Hugo Weaving's Elrond and Cate Blanchett's Galadriel something to do and to justify their billing. The Pippin/Merry storyline gets short shrift as it's the most static of the three. Ian McKellen gets in some great moments as Gandalf, but not nearly as many as in the first film. Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn becomes more a man of action and less a brooder. Elijah Wood's Frodo has the trickiest transitions as the ring begins its work on his hobbit soul but he does reasonably well by them. My favorite character, however, has to be Gollum who, even though CGI in nature, feels as real as any of the other players (actor Serkis performed his movements on set and approached the role as character rather than special effect). 

The films will become known over time for their action set pieces and there are a couple of classics. The climactic battle of Helm's Deep in which a handful of men attempt to hold off a howling mob of orcs takes up over half an hour of screen time but never lags or feels stretched. It's put together in such a way that the pulse and blood pressure ratchet up another notch with each stage of the battle. An early battle with warg (evil wolf things) riders (a Jackson invention) is also brilliantly staged. 

As the film is the middle act of a three part story, it has no clear beginning or full resolution, but I and the good gospel ladies had a lovely time and sang out a loud 'Amen' (in F-sharp major) as the end credits rolled. Only twelve months to go before part III. 

Evenstar pendant. Underwater ghosts. Raw rabbit eating. Rampaging Oliphant. Orc decapitations. Orc disembowellings. Barbecued orc. Gratuitous dwarf tossing. Nick of time rescues. Flash floods. Glowing wizard. Elf surfing. 

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