A Return To Middle-Earth, Part II: Liveblogging ‘The Two Towers’ on Blu-ray

Sorry we missed the second night, but a horrifying stomach flu raced through the McWeeny household over the last 36 hours or so, and last night was my turn to transform into some sort of horrifying Slurpee Machine From Hell.  Now that we’ve conquered that and banished the illness, it’s time to dive back in with a second round of liveblogging our Return To Middle-Earth.

Two quick notes.  First, I promise to spell Ian McKellen’s name correctly tonight.  And second, I am startled to realize that I remember very little about the way these next two films actually work.  I know I’ve seen them, I know I’ve reviewed not only the theatrical but the Extended cuts before, and I know the general shape of things.  But when it comes to remembering the specific beats and scenes, I’m drawing a bit of a blank…

… and I LOVE that.

I love that these return viewings are fresh for me.  As fresh as possible, anyway, considering how many times it feels like I watched everything the first time around.  In this case, they’re so massive that it feels like I’m wading into something new all over again.  I’m excited.  And now the disc is in the player and here we go…

We just wrapped up a Film Nerd 2.0 screening of “The Muppet Movie,” and the boys are irritated that they have to leave the room now.  I love that they’re excited about these movies, and they know the time is coming that they’ll see them.  But this time through is all about me enjoying them anew and getting a better sense of them as movies, something that’s been a long time coming.

The beginning of this, for example… don’t remember it at all.  This is the hardest movie, structurally, and now, as the sounds of Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog come creeping in, I remember that this was a really bold way to jump into the second film.  And it’s always good to get another look at the Balrog, which remains one of the craziest movie monsters of all time.

I love that this time, we follow Gandalf down and see this epic mind-bending battle between him and this creature of Shadow and Fire.  It’s such a hard thing to visualize, and Jackson brought it to life in such a  kinetic, gorgeous way, each of these images frame-worthy.  That long shot as they enter the cavern, the sounds of Shore’s score swelling… bliss.

And then the cut to the main title, and we’re back with Sam and Frodo, and that jump from extreme loud to very quiet really works, reminding us that while this is indeed an epic story, its focus is very personal.

I like the way we start to get a sense of the geography of Middle-Earth now, as Sam and Frodo work their way towards Mordor.  And I also think it’s great that we start quiet so we get a little bit of the evolving dynamic between Sam and Frodo, which is such an important part of how these next two films are going to work, along with a hint that Gollum’s getting closer.

In a way, I feel like the characters don’t really emerge as characters until this movie.  The first film sets up the stakes and the world and the way things work, and we see the start of connections, but it’s not until everyone is driven apart that we start to get a real sense of them in all their eccentric glory.

Gollum’s introduction works in no small part because of how physical it is, how completely we have to believe that these two are actually dealing with something that has weight and heft.  When I went to Lightstorm a few years ago for their big demonstration of post-converted 3D, this introductory scene was the one we saw from “Lord Of The Rings,” and what struck me is how much more real it made Gollum feel because all of a sudden, you could see Sam on one plane, Frodo on another, and Gollum right there, holding a very real space between them.

The real magic trick of Gollum isn’t technical, though.  I’m still amazed at how extreme a choice Andy Serkis made with the voice, and how well it works.  He’s funny, he’s pathetic, he’s scary, he’s upsetting… and somehow, he can play all those notes in the character side-by-side.  From the moment he starts speaking in this film, he is fully-realized and impossible to look away from, and remains a key part of the success of the series.

Merry and Pippin are a good example of what I mean about the characters really coming into focus here.  They’ve got a few great moments in “Fellowship,” and they’re used for punctuation in a few places, but their friendship is etched so much better in this film, since they’ve only got one another to bounce off of for much of the movie.  The same is true of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they pursue them.  The gentle teasing from Legolas to Gimli, the authentic physicality of Mortensen as Aragorn… these are things that only start to emerge as we see them together on the cusp of Rohan.

“The world is changing.”  Second time we’ve heard that in the series, but this time, it’s Christopher Lee, and I like how Jackson drops in an actual explanation of what “The Two Towers” the title refers to are.  For the purpose of the movie, Saruman defines it as the alliance between his tower at Isengard and Sauron’s tower in Mordor, a union that threatens the fabric of Middle-Earth.  Jackson’s timing for making these films was impeccable, and as a result, he caught Christopher Lee at the exact moment between old and elderly, when he’s still commanding as a physical presence, but gaunt with age.  I’m so glad he got to do these movies, and they benefit from having him in place as a dark answer to McKellen’s warmth.

Jackson really pushed up against the hard edge of what a PG-13 film can do, which is inevitable when dealing with material like this.  It’s so grim, so dark at times, that even when you pull back on the graphic nature of the violence, it’s still hard to take at times.  This introduction of Eomer, for example, has to show the aftermath of war, and even toned down a bit, Jackson still includes enough mud and blood to make it feel dirty.

And speaking of dirty… helloooooooooooo, Miranda Otto.

How old is Brad Dourif?  What supernatural entity did he make a deal with in order to stay perpetually the same basic age?  And if someone’s name is Wormtongue, isn’t that sort of a giveaway that you shouldn’t listen to them?

Oh, Grima, I don’t blame you.  I’m totally smitten with Otto in the film as well.  And I love the way Jackson introduces the politics at play in Rohan, such an important part of the mechanics of the series.  Karl Urban is great, and it’s little wonder he was one of the guys who got a huge bump out of being in these films.  And Bernard Hill as Theoden (not John Noble as Denethor — excuse me for my temporary madness) breaks my heart every time we see him, so feeble and worn down that he can barely move his lips.  In one quick scene, we learn so much about this family and this land and the rot that’s eating away at them.

“What about their legs?  They don’t need those.”  Horrifying.  It’s important that Jackson lets his horror movie sensibilities come out at times, because we’ve seen a lot of generic bad guy beasties in films over the years, and for the Orcs to register, they needed to be tactile and filthy and gross, and this scene with Pippin and Merry certainly plays that up.

Showing the way Aragorn pieces together what happened is Jackson’s “CSI: Middle-Earth” moment, and I’ve always really loved the cutting here, the energy as Aragorn realizes they’ve survived, and then the hesitation when they realize the Hobbits ran into Fangorn Forest.

Richard O’Brien hasn’t aged a day since “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” really.  Oh, wait, that’s not him, that’s the Orc chasing Pippin and Merry again.  Excuse me.

We’re thirty-nine minutes in, and here comes probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen in a giant blockbuster.  The introduction of the Ents is a huge leap, one of the most extreme and unique ideas in the series, playing directly into the themes of anti-industrialization that Tolkien felt so strongly about, and I think Jackson knew that this is one of those moments where you risk having your mainstream audience let out a giant collective “What in the hell is happening?!” if you do it wrong.

Again, we’re still under an hour into the film, and it already feels like we’ve covered major ground.  There is so much incident, so many moments, and it feels to me like no time is wasted here.  Each cut brings us into a new scene, with some new idea, or some new character, or some new place, and even in moments like seeing the Hobbits and Gollum stuck in the bog, which is all about tedium, the energy is impressive, and I love Gollum’s performance here, the growing antagonism between him and Sam.

I see UGA brought up the idea that Jackson used Jonathan Rhys-Davies as both Treebeard’s voice and Gimli, and I agree that it’s one of the few weird missteps in the series.  I like his breathy, strange work as Treebeard, but he does sound like Gimli, distractingly so, and there’s nothing you can do to disguise it.  He’s got such a rich and recognizable voice.  I hope the same thing doesn’t happen with Benedict Cumberbatch playing both the Necromancer and the voice of Smaug in “The Hobbit.”

Another reason Gollum is so fascinating is because of the way Jackson constantly refuses to play him as strict bad guy.  Him saving Frodo from the marshes, and the creepy conversation they have that night about Smeagol, it all works to make Gollum complex, which makes him more disturbing if anything.  The idea of seeing the toll that the Ring takes written in the very skin and bones of a character is a great one, and there’s nothing Lucas did in the “Star Wars” series that treats the Dark Side of the Force with anything like that level of emotional complexity.  In “Star Wars,” it’s sort of a light switch.  You’re good or you’re bad.  But here, you can be a good person, and it doesn’t matter.  Once the Ring has its hooks in you, it’s like cancer.  It will spread, and it will eat you, and there’s little or nothing you can do about it.

Even if you knew the truth about the White Wizard before this reveal, it is beautifully handled, and McKellen’s return is important to the series.  I like that Jackson just flat-out cheats, laying in some of Christopher Lee’s voice when we still can’t quite see Gandalf’s face, so that when he finally steps forward, it’s wonderful.

Then back into that crazy battle, and these have to be the closest things we’ll ever see to a living Yes album cover, strange and surreal and beautiful.  Gandalf’s acid trip is a nice, simple way to suggest the larger cosmic forces at play here, and we get the sense that this really isn’t the same character.  McKellen is so good that he makes you believe this is a different person, only glancingly familiar with the memories and moods of the original Grey model.

I like that Jackson just used a real horse as Shadowfax instead of a CG creation, and McKellen’s reaction to him is beautiful.  He’s lighter, warmer, quicker to smile as Gandalf The White.  He’s been recharged by his death and rebirth, and it seems important for him as he tries to bring together the forces that will be required to stop Sauron.

Okay… just in case you’re at all confused by the first hour, Gandalf is nice enough to do a little recap for us here, and he also underlines the fact that the shell game they’re playing has had the desired effect of keeping the Ring totally hidden from Sauron.

All things considered, they make it to the Black Gate pretty quickly, don’t they?  This is over now, right?  They’re just going to stroll on up and drop it in and then we can all go home… right?  It’s almost cruel the way we see Sam and Frodo get this close this fast.

Every now and then, there’s a shaky composite like that shot on the top of the gate as it starts to swing open, but then the shots just before and just after it are so great, so striking, such a nice blend of practical shooting and CGI, that I can’t imagine anyone really getting hung up on it.

Ooooh… those looks exchanged by Sam and Frodo when Frodo chooses to follow Gollum’s advice over Sam’s are just amazing.  You have to sow the seeds carefully if we’re going to believe the split between the friends later, and Jackson is careful in the way he has Gollum slowly earn Frodo’s trust.

As I mentioned, I’m not really sure about each new shot layered into the Extended Editions, but all of this stuff with Pippin and Merry is definitely new, and I’m struck as I watch them play together that I don’t see Dominic Monaghan here at all.  On “Lost,” or in person at Fantastic Fest this year, he’s not this guy.  Not at all.

The flag of Rohan on the wind?  Not the most subtle moment in the film.

Gandalf’s so good at pretending frailty.  The “walking stick” thing is great.  This is one of my favorite sequences, the way Dourif is just nakedly puppeteering his King, and the moment Gandalf comes face to face with him, it’s on.  Gandalf doesn’t have to use brute force here, which makes it convenient that he’s got his entourage in tow, but rather uses his own version of power to try to reach Theoden, buried deep inside this wizened husk of a king.  Jackson turns this into his very own mini-remake of “The Exorcist,” and the moment when he knocks Saruman out of Theoden is just plain awesome.

Yikes.  I just deleted a bunch of stuff by mistake.  Got distracted by the kids.  I wanted to talk about (A) how stunning Miranda Otto is on Blu-ray, and how much I love the dressed down look, with so little visible make-up.  Watching her watch Theoden awake, she’s what really sells it.  I love the make-up moment, the way they bring up the light in his eyes, but it’s the tears that spill from hers that really sell the moment for me.  I also wanted to talk about (B) the way pity and mercy are so closely related in the films, and how Theoden’s failure to kill Wormtongue is the second direct mention of this in the films.  It’s important because it shows that it is not one big choice that defines our heroes, but rather this accumulated weight of all the small choices that give them a real moral high ground in the story.

The funeral scene is one of the last quiet moments Jackson affords the characters before things start to accelerate again, and it’s one of the surprising emotional crescendos in the series.  Again, you can’t overstate how important McKellen’s work is in this beat.  He gives each of his big speeches a real sense of music, and he also finds the emphasis that turns them into sledgehammers.

Creepiest thing about Saruman?  Those disco coke fingernails of his.  Yeeeeesh.

Oh, Aragorn.  You’ve got the most beautiful Elf in the world waiting for you, willing to give up eternal life, and yet I understand the difficulty here.  She’s good with a sword, she fears not death or pain… come on, Eowyn’s pretty much the whole package.

The surround mix on these Blu-rays, by the way, is awesome.  It sounded like Gollum just belched behind my couch.

Sam doesn’t get it.  He really doesn’t understand what’s happening to Frodo.  He knows it intellectually, and he can see the impact on Frodo, but he doesn’t really get it.  And that’s why Frodo’s feelings for Gollum are so disturbing.  Elijah’s history as a child actor informs the way we react to him in these films as we watch him play a creeping darkness we’d never seen from him before.

The staging of this late-night debate between Gollum and Smeagol is one of the most inspired moments in the entire trilogy.  By making his internal struggle external with simple camera language, Jackson really underlines that this isn’t an act.  This is a genuine war being waged inside this sad creature, and Serkis is so beautiful in his joy that I still have a hard time believing we’re looking at pixels, not flesh and blood.

“What’s taters, precious?”  Both Sam and Gollum make me cackle in this scene.

Oliphaunts are the same thing as Heffalumps, right?  Seems like a good place for a break between the discs, and I’m going to take a quick break.  Watch Twitter so we can countdown the start of the second half of the film in about ten minutes.  As the armies gather, I’m going to go storm my bathroom and get something else to drink.


A lovely little bit of Dwarf humor to kick off the second half of the film, and it makes me excited about what we’ll see of Dwarven culture in this next film.  I’d also like to point out that I can count every freckle on Eowyn’s face on the Blu-ray.  God bless technology.

Man, I hope I look as good as Aragorn at 87.  I’m willing to trade a limb or an organ if necessary.

All kidding aside, this dream of Arwen coming directly after his moment with Eowyn is important to underline that this is the romantic couple we are rooting for.  “The heart of the Eveningstar does not wax and wane.”  Liv’s so pretty she’s like a special effect anyway, and hearing that little bit about Aragorn’s advanced age shows why they can work as a couple.  She may live longer, but at least she’ll have more time with him than with a mortal man.  She also wears the heck out of those ears.

One thing I think makes Mortensen’s work special in these films is something I’ve pointed out about Mark Hamill in the “Star Wars” films… he believes in the details of this world.  Watching him deal with the props and the costuming and the world around him, I always feel like Mortensen is an organic piece of what we’re watching, something carved by WETA.  His physicality sells the idea that he lives here, that these things are familiar to him even if they’re strange to us.

Oh, look… Wargs!

The Warg attack is one of the few set pieces in the films where I feel like the effects pushed right up against the bleeding edge of what WETA could do and fell a little short.  They are probably the least organic of the major creature creations in the films, and part of that is because they’re big shaggy beasts, which can be very hard to get right.  Maybe if they were the only things that WETA had to create in the film, they could have really nailed them, but the combination of the type of movement, the nature of the beasts, and the kinetic quality of the sequence is enough to make me wince a little now.

I feel like Jackson cast Otto for those huge eyes of hers and her ability to fill them with tears with ease, and then got lucky because she’s credible in the action scenes and has a rough-hewn beauty that feels like she fits into the world perfectly.  Her reaction to the news that Aragorn is dead is one of those moments where it all comes down to a look, and she nails it, just as Dourif does when he sees the army that Saruman has assembled outside Isengard.  Yes, the way Jackson used MASSIVE here to create his giant CGI armies was impressive when we first saw it, but it’s the tear that escapes Wormtongue that seals that scene.

“Now he has a mind of metal… and wheels.”  Time and time again, some turn of the phrase jumps out of these movies with an elegance that raises them above any of the imitators.  Even the filmmakers adapting the Narnia series haven’t taken full advantage of their source material to try and preserve the lyrical, playful prose that Lewis was often capable of producing.  I don’t think the Narnia books are as dense as the “LOTR” series, but I think the opportunity was there, and intentionally ignored in favor of a more modern tone that grounds the films in the time they were made.  With these movies, they don’t really feel modern or old or anything to speak of.  They have their own pace, their own energy, and definitely their own language.

Sorry… real life intruded there for a moment.  I’m still watching, though, and that entire stretch of film we just went through is a significant one, and it’s fleshed out substantially here.  David Wenham’s Faramir is set up in a very different way than his brother Boromir was, and his moral journey is maybe the most compelling of the series.  There are so many reasons for Faramir to give in to temptation, and really only one reason he shouldn’t:  because it is wrong.  By making it a true challenge, Tolkien raises questions about any use of might in the world, and they’re questions we’re still grappling with now.  That moment where Gollum has no idea how close to death he is, singing his happy fish song, is oddly endearing, and yet within moments, we see that Smeagol has not truly banished Gollum.  Not at all.

While I may be able to nitpick a few of the composites or digital effects in the films, a shot like that first moment where Aragorn sees Helm’s Deep across the way looks absolutely real.  If you told me that the building actually was in New Zealand, real and simply repurposed for the films, I would believe it.  The great thing about a movie like “Star Wars” is that we’ve never seen any worlds like those, and we never will.  I’ll never actually see a city that takes up an entire planet, and so it’s a thrill to see it realized on film in some way.  With Middle-Earth, this is meant to be a possible past of our own planet, and so the challenge is making it feel fantastic and grounded at once, new and yet completely familiar.  Jackson is very good at mixing his sets and locations and keeping you off-balance just when you’re sure you know what you’re looking at.

For great action scenes, you need a sense of geography and you need to understand the stakes, and the way Jackson builds to the assault on Helm’s Deep is a class in how to create a major, major set piece.  He explains the way the city is laid out, he shows us how it works, and he makes sure to explain that the Uruk-Hai are not just the regular Orcs we’ve already seen.  As a result, the tension that’s building at this point is already tough to take, and it’s only going to get more brutal by the time the battle begins.

The casting of the warriors around Aragorn and Legolas is also key to making this feel compelling.  “Most have seen too many winters.” “Or too few.”  This is not a fair fight, which makes them even more heroic.  They know there is a strong chance they will all die, and yet as Theoden suits up, as we see everyone taking their weapons, as we see helmets placed on children, it is obvious that there is no other choice to make.  You stand.  You fight.  You do it because it must be done, not because you want to.  And you know that you will have to fight harder than the enemy because they are stronger.  And even so, no one balks.  No one complains.  There are nerves, and there is some fear given voice, but still.. they prepare.

The boys are frothing at the mouth right now.  They are so desperate to be in here to watch the Helm’s Deep battle.  They can hear the build-up to war shaking the walls of the house, and they’ve found at least three excuses to step in here and look at the screen.  I love that they’re going to have those few glimpses bouncing around in there without context for a while.  It gives them something to wait for and look forward to.

People love to lump Jackson’s films in with the glut of fantasy movies made in the wake of the success of “Lord Of The Rings,” but you can’t watch the staging of Helm’s Deep and compare this to anything else in recent memory.  This isn’t even the climax of the series, but it’s staged as if it is the single most important battle ever fought, which is just as it should be.  For these people, this is it.  There’s nothing else.  And he makes sure there is impact to the swordplay, makes sure that when arrows hit, they hurt.  Like I said, he pushes the PG-13 further than I think anyone else ever has, and it’s hard to keep any rating in mind as I watch this play out.

Notice how it’s gunpowder that suddenly makes everything unfair during the battle?  And not some special magic spell that someone casts?  It is no accident that the Shire is more lush and green than anything else we see in Middle-Earth, and that Rivendell is held as this ideal as well.  The older I get, the more I long for a permanent getaway where I can detach myself and get, as Joe Banks once said, “away from the things of Man.”  Gunpowder is so unexpected that it instantly shifts the balance of power, and considering what Tolkien must have witnessed on the fields of World War I, it is little wonder he had no faith in the role that technology would play in future wars.

It makes it even more resonant when Merry and Pippin finally convince the Ents that they have to participate, that they have a stake in this war as well.  Their frustration is palpable, and each time Jackson cuts away from the battle to show the Hobbits trying to convince the Ents, I’m just as frustrated by the edit as Merry seems to be by the debate that’s taking place in super slow motion.  I want to see what’s happening at Helm’s Deep, and I want the Ents to shut up and get in the game.  That’s exactly what we’re supposed to want, of course, and it’s another case of the running time playing into our emotional investment in what’s happening.

By the time Gimli looks up at Aragorn and says, “Don’t tell the Elf” just before getting tossed, it works as a joke because we’ve had time to see their interplay, and it works as a real character beat because we’ve grown to like both of them so much.  I think Rhys-Davies had a terribly difficult job, playing through what looks like 100 pounds of make-up, often involved in some sort of trick shot or effect, and yet somehow having to give this character dignity and strength and a sense of humor that reads through the costume and the tricks.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected that Jackson could get this much weight and heft out of Merry and Pippin emotionally based on the way they’re used in the first film, but by this point, as they’re talking to Treebeard, and as he sees the ravaged hillside where no trees still stand, there’s nothing “funny” about them.  Yes, Jackson can still earn a laugh with them, but they’re not jokes anymore.  He gives them real heart and soul, and Monaghan and Boyd are perfectly paired, as lovely a match in chemistry as that between Wood and Astin.

The sight of the Ents gathering, ready to fight now, is one of the strangest in the movie, and god bless WETA for pulling it off.  I would have been terrified as a visual effects artist to have been on that team.  “You need to make walking trees look badass.”  That entire sentence is insane, and yet… there they are.  Walking trees.  And they look suitably badass.

Hey, Faramir, your brother died because he was a dick.  Don’t be a dick.  I forgot how tense this stuff was, staged there amidst a crumbling Gondor, Nazgul coming in from above, Sam and Frodo desperate to keep Faramir from making the wrong choice.  And just as their hope fades, new hope starts to kick in for Theoden and Aragorn and those who stand at Helm’s Deep, and Shore’s score really goes into overdrive in this whole stretch of the film, growing and growing and growing, somehow sustaining this sense of building crescendo for something like an hour of film.

To make everything pay off together, with the Ents at Isengard just as Gandalf rides in with the Riders of Rohan to save Helm’s Deep, everything paying off together, is one of the great juggling acts I’ve ever seen in a film like this.  It never feels like he’s cheating or holding off on anything just for the sake of the payoff.  It all makes sense, and it feels organic that it would all come to a head at the same time.

Then to make that choice and drop all the sound out and give us that crazy near-silent moment between Frodo and the Nazgul, and to see how close Sam comes to death because he won’t let Frodo go, it brings it all back to the personal, just as the beginning of the film did.  While the battles may have been won, none of that may matter because Frodo’s reached a breaking point, and he does not see any way to continue.

Sure, this is a moment that almost breaks the third-wall, Sam talking about the nature of great stories, but Astin’s earnestness is what you need to sell a speech like that, and the imagery is so grand that it feels right.  Also, Jackson’s acknowledging that we’ve still got a long way to go, and he believes that the good in this world is worth fighting for.  It’s not just some corny thing some actors say.  Remember when these films were arriving in theaters, and the mood around the world in the wake of 9/11.  Someone had to say these things, even if they were completely on the nose, and to hear these ideas given such clear voice was valuable for us as an audience, just as it seemed valuable for Jackson as an artist.

Even now, though, a decade removed from those events, the heartfelt nature of those moments rings through, and Jackson lets a little bit of light shine through, even giving Pippin and Merry a big barrel of longbottom leaf to enjoy their brief respite before the darkness drops back onto everyone, sending us out of the theater feeling like a victory has been won even if it’s just for this one moment.

It’s also impressive how Jackson drops the seeds for the next film without showing any sort of specific trailer or without being too overt.  Just the barest hint of Shelob and a reminder of the battle being waged inside Gollum is enough to make the wait for “Return Of The King” a hard one.

Thankfully, we don’t have a year to wait.  The Battle for Helm’s Deep is over.  The Battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin.  And I’ll see you here tomorrow night at 6:00 PM PST to wrap it all up.

In the meantime, as we listen to Not-Bjork, I’m going to look up my original reviews of the theatrical and Extended versions of the films, and I’ll link them here.  I’m curious to see how over the top my ardor was in 2001 and 2002, and I’m surprised to see how little that ardor has faded in the decade since.

You can read the liveblog I did for “Fellowship” right here.

You can read my original “Fellowship” review here, and my Extended Edition review here.

You can read my original “Two Towers” review here.

You can read my original “Return Of The King” review here.

And while I know I reviewed each of the Extended Edition discs, I can’t find those reviews right now, a genuine and ongoing issue with my work at Ain’t It Cool.  I’ll keep looking, though.

See you tomorrow.