Napoleon (1927)

aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

2016 #184
Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

Napoleon

At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

Epic

Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

5 out of 5

That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

Ben-Hur (1959)

2016 #143
William Wyler | 222 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English | PG / G

Oscar statue1960 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 11 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, Best Music.
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay.

All that you have read about Ben-Hur, all that you have heard about Ben-Hur, is surpassed by the actuality.

Ben-HurSo claims Ben-Hur’s 1961 trailer. They were cocky back then, weren’t they?

The third (of, to date, six) screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 version is certainly the most famous, in part because it was the sole holder of the title “winner of most Oscars” for 38 years (until Titanic equalised, followed by Return of the King just six years later), and also because of its chariot race climax — which comes almost an hour before the end, because it’s also really bloody long (over 3½ hours even without counting the overture, intermission, and entr’acte). It’s also really rather good, though it’s a tale that would be better without the Christ.

Although it begins and ends with that Jesus fella, it’s really the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 26AD. When Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah’s childhood friend (and, possibly, lover — I’ll come to that), returns as head of the city’s Roman garrison, he asks for Judah’s help in capturing dissident Jews. Judah refuses, his loyalty more aligned to his faith and countrymen than the glory of the Roman Empire. Consequently, a spurned Messala uses a slip-up during the arrival of the region’s new governor as an excuse to arrest Judah, condemning him to slavery. Cue a couple of hours of desert treks, rowing, sea battles, ethnic dancing, a blackface Sheik, gambling, that chariot race, leprosy, and Jesus getting crucified (spoilers!)

I’m being flippant, but most of this is suitably dramatic. It’s a proper epic, a grand story with huge set pieces and world-changing events, and it’s executed with a scale suitable to that narrative. Despite the length, it’s almost constantly engrossing. I had planned to split it over two nights at the intermission (despite the imbalance that causes — Part One is an hour longer than Part Two), but was so invested that I stuck with it regardless. There are things that have aged poorly, be that the model effects in the sea battle or using a white actor in heavy make-up to portray an Arab, but I think you have to take these things with a certain element of the spirit of the era — I’m sure no offence was intended (see also: Lawrence of Arabia).

More harmful to the film’s quality is the Christ element. I guess this is seen as an integral part of the story by some people: it’s the subtitle of the original novel and the 1925 film; this version includes it on screen right after the title card; and both this film and the novel have received rare approval from the Vatican. Knowing this, I was prepared to be open-minded about it. At times, it’s fine. Jesus’ life is going on at the same time as Ben-Hur’s, and occasionally it intersects in ways that bolster the film’s story or help reflect some of its themes, like forgiveness (or otherwise). The problem comes at the end: the story climaxes, and then the narrative toddles on with what you might kindly call an extended epilogue that sees Judah realise Christ’s importance as he witnesses the crucifixion. Perhaps this could work in itself (though, without wanting to spoil developments, the way it’s used to solve some problems is incredibly pat), but it runs on too long with too little direct relevance. Apparently director William Wyler, who was Jewish, was keen to make a film that would appeal to all faiths, and insisted that it was the personal story of Judah Ben-Hur that was largely responsible for the film’s enduring success. I think he’s absolutely right about that: the story — the actual story — is wrapped up about half-an-hour before the film itself ends. It doesn’t prevent what comes before from being highly enjoyable, but it’s so tangential and long-winded that it becomes a problem. Ultimately, I knocked a whole star off because of it.

This Christian aspect contrasts sharply with the other subtext I alluded to earlier: the possibility that Judah and Messala were once lovers. The claim originates with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who may or may not have written some or all of the screenplay that was used for shooting. According to Vidal, he and Stephen Boyd discussed the idea before shooting began, and then Boyd played the scenes with it in mind. However, it was kept hidden from Charlton Heston because he’d never agree to it, and when the notion was put to him later he naturally denied there was any homosexual subtext. Whether this tale is true in the literal sense of that subtext being written into the screenplay and Boyd choosing to incorporate it into his performance, I don’t know, but the content of the film makes it easy to believe — the scenes between Messala and Judah, especially when they’re first reunited, absolutely play like there’s a romantic history between them. Bear that in mind and it seems to reoccur later, too: when the story returns to Jerusalem after several years, Messala seems particularly close to his deputy; and there are a couple of shots of Judah being chummy towards a random stableboy (I mean, they’re not much, but if you watch it with the assumption that Judah is gay or bi…) What does this signify? Perhaps not a great deal. I’m sure you can choose to completely ignore it. I imagine some would passionately deny even the possibility it’s there. Personally, I think it adds something to the characters’ relationship.

Believe that subtext or not, Boyd is excellent as Messala. He was overlooked at many awards in favour of Hugh Griffith as the aforementioned Sheik. Not that Griffith is bad, but there’s far more nuance, variety, and power to Boyd’s performance. He’s much more deserving of a gong than Heston, even, who’s a very capable leading man type, but I’m not sure his performance has the kind of depth that would pass muster for Best Actor today. That said, Mike at Films on the Box makes a good case for his defence! Either way, the technical awards the film scooped up are certainly merited. The cinematography is fantastic, with the landscape shots making particularly excellent use of the extra-wide frame. As for the chariot race, it stands up as an incredible action sequence even today, driven by thrilling camerawork and editing, and showcasing some daring stunt work.

When it’s dealing in this kind of material, the actuality of Ben-Hur does indeed surpass its reputation. It’s a shame there’s that other stuff that spoils the party.

4 out of 5

The new, sixth screen adaptation of Ben-Hur is released in the UK later this week.

Ben-Hur was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

2016 #55
Ridley Scott | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Exodus: Gods and KingsFor his most recent historical epic, Ridley Scott tackles the story of Moses. It’s easy to nitpick, depending on your proclivities: whitewashed cast; lack of adherence to the Bible; Ridley’s typically flexible attitude to historiography; it was even banned in Egypt for the negative depiction of both rulers and slaves.

Those aside, it’s visually sumptuous and impressively mounted, with well-imagined semi-plausible versions of the tale’s fantastical elements. However, despite the epic length (and four screenwriters), it never gets inside characters’ heads — they’re just going through motions dictated centuries ago.

Primarily one for those already amenable to its genre or creators.

3 out of 5

Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Martian, premieres on Sky Cinema today. My five-star review is here.

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53—55
Peter Jackson | 685 mins | New Zealand & USA / English & Sindarin | 12 / PG-13

For obvious reasons, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is usually listed as the three separate films it was released as. But in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien considered it one long novel that had to be split up for the sake of publication, so too the movies work well — best, one could even argue — as a single 11½-hour experience.

Having inducted the trilogy’s individual instalments into my 100 Favourites series over the past week (and a bit), I’ve covered most aspects of this epic moviemaking endeavour pretty thoroughly already, so here are links to each of my previous entries:



The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #55

The Journey Ends.

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 253 minutes (extended edition)* | 201 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13
* 263 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 17th December 2003 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2003

Stars
Liv Tyler (Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk)
Miranda Otto (Love Serenade, War of the Worlds)
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Blue Jasmine)
John Noble (The Monkey’s Mask, Risen)
Ian Holm (Alien, Hamlet)

Director
Peter Jackson (The Frighteners, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (Heavenly Creatures, King Kong)
Philippa Boyens (The Lovely Bones, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)
Peter Jackson (Braindead, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
The Ring’s evil influence over Frodo intensifies as he and Sam allow Gollum to lead them on a difficult path into Mordor. Meanwhile, Aragorn and Gandalf try to unite the world of men against Sauron’s forces, hoping to at least buy Frodo and Sam the time they need…

Our Heroes
It’s an ensemble cast so there are heroes aplenty, but this is the film where Sam really comes to the fore. Although wronged by Frodo, whose Ring-induced confusion allows him to be convinced by the machinations of Gollum, Sam repeatedly comes through to rescue his friend. “I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”

Our Villains
With Saruman out of the picture, the focus falls back on the Big Bad big eye, Sauron. In the extended cut we’re also treated to his rather disgusting Mouth. Special mention also for the Witch-King of Angmar, who reckons he can be killed by no man. Of course, despite Tolkien’s reputation, not every character is a man…

Best Supporting Character
Women get short shrift in Tolkien’s world on the whole, but Miranda Otto’s Éowyn gets a relatively strong role through Two Towers and Return of the King, here riding into battle (in disguise) and (spoiler alert!) avenging the murder of her uncle, the king.

Memorable Quote
“My friends, you bow to no one.” — Aragorn, to the Hobbits.

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Fool of a Took!” — Gandalf

Memorable Scene
With the Ring destroyed and Sauron defeated, the film takes the necessary time to walk us through the ultimate fates of the surviving characters. For the conclusion of an eleven-hour story, The Return of the King has a proportionally appropriate number of endings. Stop bloody whinging.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore completes his fantastic score. This time, memorable moments include The Realm of Gondor (in Ascension), heard best as Gandalf rides into and up the city of Minas Tirith; and The Edge of Night, sung by Pippin (Billy Boyd) as Faramir leads a futile charge on Osgiliath (another strong contender for Memorable Scene, that).

Technical Wizardry
The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the films that pioneered digital grading, a process which pretty quickly became standard (and now is fundamentally unavoidable, what with digital photography being the primary movie production format). Return of the King demonstrates the full power of the form, however: After the final battle, Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield. In the theatrical cut, the scene takes place during the day; in the extended cut, new and rearranged scenes means it takes place at night. It’s the same footage, graded differently, and it works seamlessly in either cut.

Truly Special Effect
Creating the trilogy’s many epic battle sequences required the ability to computer generate hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting, a gargantuan task and a problem that hadn’t had to be solved in filmmaking before. This is what led to the creation of MASSIVE — short for Multiple Agent Simulation System In Virtual Environment — a computer program which creates thousands of characters who are capable of acting as individuals, responding to their surroundings through the use of pre-programmed actions and animations. The kit has been used in many sci-fi/fantasy films since, including Avatar.

Letting the Side Down
I’ve never really bought all the stuff with the ghost army, and apparently Peter Jackson agrees. Although he hated it because it was so unbelievable, he kept it in so as not to disappoint fans of the novel.

Making of
Although most of the trilogy was filmed as part of one massive shoot before the first film was even released, pick-ups and additional filming were later done for both parts two and three. Ultimately, the final day of filming for the trilogy (to get one additional shot for the extended edition of Return of the King) actually occurred not only after the final film had already been released, but after it had swept the board at the 2004 Academy Awards, too. Apparently it amused Peter Jackson to be shooting footage for a movie that had already won the Best Picture Oscar.

Previously on…
The story began in The Fellowship of the Ring and continued in The Two Towers, of course.

Next time…
Jackson and co returned to Middle-earth to adapt prequel tale The Hobbit in three parts, which has a framing device that places it… before Fellowship. So this remains the chronological end of the line.

Awards
11 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Makeup, Score, Song, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Audience Award)
8 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor, Director, Music, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Make Up/Hair)
9 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Elijah Wood), Supporting Actor (Sean Astin), Director, Writing, Music, Make Up, Special Effects, DVD Special Edition Release (for the extended cut))
5 Saturn nominations (Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Supporting Actor (both Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis), Supporting Actress (Miranda Otto), Costumes)
7 Teen Choice Award nominations (including Choice Movie Liar and Choice Movie Sleazebag (both for Gollum))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“the invisible wizard Peter Jackson makes use of every scene to show us the meaning of magnificence. Never has a filmmaker aimed higher, or achieved more. The third and last installment of the screen epic based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic redefines — steeply upward — the very notion of a major motion picture. […] To write about this culminating chapter of The Lord of the Rings is to risk gushing in a public place. Still, I’ve never seen a movie like it, or been so struck by a filmmaker’s generosity and the prodigality of what he has done. Yes, the running time is long, and yes, those many endings in a slow, dreamy coda left me feeling spent — better spent than I can ever remember.” — Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“When I talk about any of the Middle Earth films, I’m referring to the extended edition because, despite Jackson’s dissembling, they’re the movies he always intended to release and are uniformly better than the theatrical cuts. Nowhere is this more true than with The Return of the King which, despite winning Best Picture, was made infinitely better by its extended cut, which does clock in at a whopping four and a half hours. It’s a wonderful end to one of the most epic tales in all of fiction (and if I hear anything about the “five million endings” I’ll reach through your screen and slap you unless you can tell me how you would have ended an 11 hour film better).” — David Yaeger, Killing Time

Verdict

Return of the King is widely regarded as the best Lord of the Rings film, which is an opinion I can’t agree with. At its simplest: there’s nothing I’d change about Fellowship to improve it, whereas RotK could stand to lose the Army of the Dead and (were it not for the fact it comes from Tolkien) no one would mind. Still, that element aside, this is a fantastic conclusion to Tolkien/Jackson’s epic saga, bringing numerous plots and characters to their conclusion, and rounding out one of the most impressive feats of filmmaking we will likely ever see. There are very few things I could imagine watching for 12 hours straight (without it feeling like a chore, anyway), but The Lord of the Rings is certainly foremost among them.

#56 will be… ロストイントランスレーション。

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #54

The Journey Continues

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 224 minutes (extended edition)* | 179 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13
* 235 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 18th December 2002 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2002

Stars
Andy Serkis (Burke & Hare, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
Bernard Hill (Titanic, Franklyn)
Christopher Lee (Dracula, The Wicker Man)
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, V for Vendetta)
David Wenham (The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, 300)

Director
Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Lovely Bones)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (The Frighteners, The Lovely Bones)
Philippa Boyens (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Stephen Sinclair (Meet the Feebles, Braindead)
Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, King Kong)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
Frodo and Sam continue on their way towards Mordor, guided by the duplicitous Gollum. Meanwhile, the surviving members of the Fellowship attempt to bring the kingdom of Rohan into the fight against the hordes of orcs Saruman is assembling.

Our Heroes
As the Fellowship go their separate ways, you could argue that The Two Towers is where Aragorn really comes into his own: the self-exiled royal unveils his leadership qualities as he persuades the people of Rohan to abandon Edoras for the safe haven of Helm’s Deep, and leads the defence of that stronghold.

Our Villain
Once-good wizard Saruman is lent villainous credence by Christopher Lee — really, who else could it be? In one of Jackson’s few missteps, he deleted Saruman’s defeat from the theatrical cut of Return of the King… but the extended cut restores it, so that’s alright then.

Best Supporting Character
Although he’s covered by CGI in the final film, it’s Andy Serkis that really brings Gollum — and his alter ego, Sméagol — to life. It may have led to Serkis becoming the go-to expert in performance capture, but it’s also a great acting performance, full of light and shade, and creating sympathy for an ultimately villainous character. (See also: Truly Special Effect.)

Memorable Quote
“Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?” — Theoden

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“Po-tay-toes! Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew.” — Sam

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“My precious…” — Gollum

Memorable Scene
The climactic battle of Helm’s Deep is surely one of the greatest battles ever put on screen, as thousands of orcs attempt to storm a fortress defended by a small force of soldiers supported by a ragtag gaggle of old men and boys. Like the ninth episode of a season of Game of Thrones, it plays out over about an hour, but doesn’t flag because it’s so well realised.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore’s excellent score continues to evolve and develop, with the stand-out theme this time being for the realm of Rohan. Also of note is the track that plays over the credits, Gollum’s Song, hauntingly sung by Emilíana Torrini.

Technical Wizardry
Although Lord of the Rings features expanses of excellent CGI, much of it was also created with miniatures — or “Bigatures”, as production nicknamed them, due to the massive scale of some that they built (the largest was 9 metres tall). It lends the final images a physicality and realism that demonstrates why a combination of multiple techniques is often the best way to create a superb end result.

Truly Special Effect
Just a couple of years after The Phantom Menace featured the first major all-CGI character, Weta perfected the form with Gollum, a fully believable creature and an essential part of the narrative. (See also: Best Supporting Character.)

Letting the Side Down
The problem with being the middle part of a series is the story can lack a beginning or an end. Two Towers handily makes up for the latter with the epic battle of Helm’s Deep and the Ents conquering Isengard, but the former is an issue — the film takes a while to get up to speed.

Making of
The prop gate of Helm’s Deep was so well built that a real battering ram failed to knock it down. The door had to be weakened to get the required shots. On the film’s commentary track, Peter Jackson notes that if he ever had to defend a castle he’d want Weta Workshop to build the door.

Previously on…
The story began in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Next time…
The story ends in The Return of the King.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound Editing, Visual Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound)
3 BAFTAs (Costume Design, Visual Effects, Audience Award)
7 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Sound, Make Up/Hair)
4 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Andy Serkis), Costumes (tied with Star Wars: Episode II), Make-Up)
6 Saturn nominations (Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Younger Actor (Elijah Wood), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
1 Broadcast Film Critics Association Award (Best Digital Acting Performance (Andy Serkis, obv.))
4 MTV Movie Awards (including Best Virtual Performance (Gollum, obv.), Best Action Sequence (Helm’s Deep))
1 Kids’ Choice Award nomination (Favorite Male Butt Kicker)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Gollum is a wonderful creation: voiced by Andy Serkis, and given the most heartbreakingly expressive face, he’s far more than a digital effect: he’s really there, taking up space, displacing air (part of the impact comes from the meticulous care with which all the creatures of Middle Earth are scaled relative to one another). Gollum is a vile mixture of servility and malice, yet watching him being beaten, throttled, kicked by almost everyone he encounters is as distressing as watching a child being hit. Frodo, for all his faults, is kind to Gollum, seeing in him his own disturbing likeness; Sam, for all his virtues, is cruel.” — Suzi Feay, The Independent

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“The tricky thing with being the second film in a trilogy is that there is no beginning and end. It is almost as if the entire story arc is getting sidetracked by some other battles and new creatures and characters to be met. The film is a intense adventure film but the emotional pull of the two main characters and their journey is out on hold. What makes the Fellowship of the Ring one of the most completely amazing films is because there is a both an emotional and a physical journey the characters take. In the Two Towers we are constantly being told by an assortment of characters that a real war is coming and what they are experiencing are just small skirmishes. Are the filmmakers deliberately teasing us with the excitement of the next film or attempting to do the story its rightful justice?” — Brian Baumann, brianbaumannmoviereviews

Verdict

I was less than impressed by much of The Two Towers when I first saw it — the first hour or so drags, and the intercutting of the deathly dull Entmoot slightly hampers the momentum of Helm’s Deep. Nonetheless, there’s an awful lot to commend it, and the pace becomes less jarring with multiple revisits (when the Extended Edition first came out I even watched both cuts back to back on the same day, which is very unlike me). Some of the trilogy’s best characters first appear here, bringing with them plenty of plot developments that make my notion it was all almost done at the end of Fellowship seem suitably foolish. And, of course, the Battle of Helm’s Deep can’t be beat.

A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship… but it is not in #55.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53

One Ring To Rule Them All

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 208 minutes (extended edition)* | 178 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: PG (“Battle violence and fantasy horror may not be suitable for under 8’s”)
MPAA: PG-13
* 228 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 19th December 2001 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2001

Stars
Elijah Wood (The Ice Storm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Ian McKellen (Richard III, X-Men)
Viggo Mortensen (G.I. Jane, Eastern Promises)
Sean Bean (GoldenEye, Black Death)
John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale)
Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Kingdom of Heaven)
Sean Astin (The Goonies, The Colour of Magic)
Dominic Monaghan (I Sell the Dead, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
Billy Boyd (Urban Ghost Story, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)

Director
Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, King Kong)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (Meet the Feebles, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Philippa Boyens (King Kong, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
Legend tells of a ring, created by an ancient evil that gave its wearer the power to enslave the world. Believed lost for centuries, it has now been found… in the possession of one Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire. With an evil force thought long-defeated on the rise, and hunting for the Ring to cement his power, Frodo will do what few of his kind have ever done: venture beyond the confines of their homeland. Joined by eight companions, they must travel across Middle-earth to destroy the One Ring once and for all.

Our Heroes
Frodo Baggins lives a quiet life in the countryside idyll of the Shire, where the greatest drama is stopping his relatives from stealing the cutlery. When a dangerous artefact is found to be in his possession, however, the honest and good nature of his people comes to the fore. On his quest, he has eight friends and protectors: his best friend / bodyguard / gardener, Samwise Gamgee; two rambunctious but pure-hearted Hobbits, Merry and Pippin; the powerful wizard Gandalf the Grey; a mysterious ranger from the North, Strider, aka Aragorn; from the world of Men, warrior Boromir; elf Legolas, a skilled archer; and an axe-wielding dwarf, Gimli.

Our Villains
The Dark Lord Sauron is an almost intangible threat, though his manifestation as a giant flaming eye atop an imposing tower is pretty freaky. Of more immediate danger to our heroes are his armies of orcs, as well as former allies who may have been converted…

Best Supporting Character
In many ways the strongest character arc of this first film belongs to Boromir. From the kingdom of Gondor, who are on the front lines defending the world from Sauron’s forces, Boromir is understandably frustrated by the lack of support his people have received, and is eager to use the Ring — a power he is denied, because it is too dangerous. But the Ring’s temptation is hard to resist… At one point a threat from within, which ultimately tears the fellowship asunder, Boromir comes through in the end with a helluva death scene. (He’s played by Sean Bean, of course he dies.)

Memorable Quote
“One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” — Gandalf

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“He is seeking it, seeking it, all his thought is bent on it.” — Gandalf (well, I use it all the time…)

Memorable Scene
In the Elven city of Rivendell, representatives from Middle-earth’s various kingdoms and races gather for a council to decide what to do with the Ring. Concluding it must be destroyed, they bicker over who will make the dangerous journey into Mordor to do so. As the arguments grow louder and more heated, a small voice pipes up: to Gandalf’s dismay, but not surprise, Frodo offers to carry the Ring.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore’s score across the trilogy is incredible, a well-considered and developed work of art that he’s even turned into a symphony. There’s at least one memorable motif in each film, but the first has the best of all: “The Fellowship” theme, which naturally resurfaces regularly throughout the film, is (for my money) one of the greatest pieces of film music ever composed. (For more information on the score, try this dedicated Wikipedia article.)

Technical Wizardry
The production’s dedication to creating the world of Middle-earth is extraordinary. It’s not just the faultless design work, which perfectly imagined the locations, costumes, weaponry, creatures, and so on, but the amount of effort that then went into realising those designs: they produced over 19,000 costumes, including linking 12.5 million plastic rings by hand to create all the chainmail; 48,000 swords, axes, shields, and other pieces of armour; 500 bows and 10,000 arrows… the numbers go on. Also, because Hobbits walk around barefoot, shoe-like fake feet were created for the actors — of which they got through 1,800 pairs.

Truly Special Effect
One of the biggest challenges for realising The Lord of the Rings on screen are the heights of the various races — Hobbits are under 4-foot tall, dwarves are a little taller, and men are… well, man-sized. Jackson and co achieved this by employing various techniques, including forced perspective, body doubles, and split screen, which of course necessitated building two versions of some sets, one of which had to be a precisely scaled up/down version of the other. Fortunately, all of the Hobbit actors were quite short and Gimli actor John Rhys-Davies is quite tall, so they were able to lump the Hobbits and Gimli together as being the same scale. On screen, the results are seamless.

Making of
Viggo Mortensen Method-ed his way through playing Aragorn, including living in his costume outside of filming, insisting on doing his own stunts and using a real steel sword instead of the significantly lighter aluminium and rubber duplicates, bonding with the horses before filming, and having the script revised so that more of Aragorn’s lines were in Elvish.

Previously on…
The Lord of the Rings was adapted as an animated movie in 1978, which I think has its fans but generally isn’t that well regarded. For various reasons it didn’t tell the whole story, either, leading to a TV movie adaptation of The Return of the King being produced in 1980. On radio, it was adapted by the BBC in 1955-6, in the US in the ’60s and again in the ’70s, and, most notably, by the BBC again in 1981. That last adaptation was so acclaimed that Jackson has said it was an influence on his film version.

Next time…
The Two Towers and The Return of the King complete the story. A decade later, cast and crew returned to adapt Tolkien’s preceding novel, The Hobbit, as a prequel trilogy. There are other Middle-earth books, but their film rights reside with people who aren’t fans of Jackson’s films, so that’s probably that for Middle-earth on the big screen.

Awards
4 Oscars (Cinematography, Score, Makeup, Visual Effects)
9 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Editing, Song, Sound)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Director, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair, Audience Award)
8 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Ian McKellen), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director)
6 Saturn nominations (Writing, Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Male (Orlando Bloom))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Jackson has given himself a mountain to climb in tackling Tolkien’s obsessively multi-layered fantasy (intricate back-stories, made-up languages and all). On the whole he copes beautifully. The Fellowship of the Ring honours the text without being enslaved by it. The explanatory dialogue may creak on occasion, but the action scenes have a snap and pace that suggests a film-maker not scared to bring his own touch to the material. Physically, too, the film is a triumph: an art-department’s dream during its lovely interior sequences and a potent advert for the New Zealand tourist board when it heads into the great outdoors. […] Jackson’s serious, high-minded approach looks defiantly out-of-fashion; worlds away from kid-friendly Harry Potter (the season’s other big fantasy film about wizards). Instead, The Fellowship of the Ring boasts some more unlikely influences. At times, Jackson’s film could almost pass for the Anglo-Saxon cousin of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; lacking the dark, liquid exoticism of Ang Lee’s Chinese-language epic, but compensating with old-school blood-and-thunder and a rash of fairytale monsters.” — Xan Brooks, The Guardian

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“everything about the film is of the highest quality. Both the visuals and audio blend together so well, to create an incredible onscreen world. The set designers did a wonderful job; iconic locations from the book became iconic film locations, such as the rolling green hills of The Shire, pulling you in like a dream, or the mystic and elegant Rivendell or the deep dark of Moria. All of these places and more truly are another world, and no matter what you think of the film the images of these places will stick with you forever.” — Ben Foster, BFFRAP

Verdict

Now that it’s fêted as one of the greatest film trilogies ever made, it’s easy to forget what a gamble a three-film, $300 million adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfilmable novel seemed back when production started in the late ’90s; especially as it was to be made by a director whose track record was low-budget horror films, with a cast mostly without star names, filmed on the other side of the planet, where little news leaked out to the wider world, and with all three films shot at once — no backing out if the first flopped. Then it was released and became an instant global phenomenon.

Watching it for the first time, unfamiliar with the story in all but the broadest sense, was an incredible experience. I remember it ending and having no idea how there could be two more films — it felt like Frodo and Sam were almost at Mount Doom already! Oh, how naïve I was. Anyway, for me Fellowship remains the strongest of the trilogy; the only one that feels like a complete work in its own right — even though it’s clearly nowhere near the end of the overall narrative, an awful lot of the plots and themes reach suitable climaxes. Finiteness aside, the quality of the work is unquestionable: this is exciting, funny, emotional, transportive, epic filmmaking of the highest order.

Next… nobody tosses #54.

The Revenant (2015)

2016 #103
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 156 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Canada / English, Pawnee & French | 15 / R

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.

The Revenant is the Oscar-winning, acclaim-gathering story of Hugh Glass, the expert guide for a pelt-collecting group (is that what they are? Is that a thing?) in the Old West, who’s mauled by a bear to within an inch of his life. Eventually betrayed and left for dead by the members of the group who’d vowed to stay with him to the end, Glass somehow survives, and crawls across the wintery wilderness in search of his revenge! And it’s all the more remarkable for being based on a true story… though this retelling contains approximately as many “historical events that actually occurred” as does Game of Thrones.

The main talking point of The Revenant has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, which finally bagged him an Oscar after four unsuccessful nominations (and I’m sure plenty of other roles that he thought might snag him some Academy recognition but didn’t). How much is it acting and how much was it just an endurance test that director Alejandro González Iñárritu subjected him to? Is there a difference? If you have to suffer for great art, Leo certainly did that. In some ways it’s testament to the Academy being able to look past delivery of dialogue as an indication of performance quality, because Glass doesn’t speak much — not when he’s in the company of others, and certainly not when he’s trying to get by on his lonesome, which he is for much of the film. Nonetheless, Leo conveys thoughts and emotions — which do go beyond, “I can’t believe Iñárritu is making me eat this raw liver” — effectively through expression and action.

In some respects it’s a shame the rest of the cast were consequently overshadowed — Leo may spend a huge chunk of the film on his own, but there are frequent cutaways to what everyone else is up to. Tom Hardy is the obvious standout as selfish bastard Fitzgerald, a perfectly detestable but completely believable villain — I’m not saying we’d all sink to his depths, but I’m not convinced most of us are above some of the choices he makes, either. Will Poulter steps outside the comedy roles he’s mostly taken since his Son of Rambow debut to give an effective turn as the group’s youngest, most conflicted member, while Domhnall Gleeson is commanding as the group’s leader. Gleeson was something of a lucky charm last awards season, appearing in no fewer than four Oscar-nominated films, including two that were up for Best Picture. Not only that, but look at his turn here (as an honourable, disaster-struck Captain) alongside his appearances in those other films (a small town nice guy in Brooklyn; an inexperienced evil military commander in Star Wars; a naive, selfish, sort-of-moral, easily-led programmer in Ex Machina) and you can see the kid’s got range.

Far from just an acting showcase, The Revenant is a film of thematic weight. In fact, it’s like an old-fashioned blockbuster — the kind of thing you’d’ve seen in the 1950s (epic revenge Western) or 1970s (bleak revenge Western) as among the year’s biggest movies — crossed with a slow-paced, scenery-loving, meditative arthouse piece. If it’s about anything (beyond, y’know, the plot), it’s surely about nature — both the amazing vastness of natural spaces, but also the brutality of survival. And not just humans, either, which is the go-to simplistic message (“isn’t nature good? aren’t humans bad?”) of such cod-thoughtful fare. Like the rest of nature, humanity is varied: there are some very harsh, cruel acts herein, but also acts of kindness — sometimes perpetrated by the same people.

The avoidance of pat depictions extends to its portrayal of Native Americans, too. They’re neither simplistic Evil Foreigners, nor a “we’re so sorry for how we’ve treated them before, they’re great really” apologia. Instead, they’re just as brutal and as human as the rest of us, and made up of varied groups who behave differently, or even slaughter among themselves. The main band of Indians we see do serve as the film’s villains (as if Fitzgerald wasn’t bad enough), a hunting party acting out an inverted Searchers as they hunt for a kidnapped daughter. In The Searchers the group hunting and killing in search of a girl are the heroes; here, they’re the villains. Makes you think, don’t it? I’m not accusing Iñárritu of casual racism — I imagine that’s exactly their point.

And speaking of Iñárritu, I wonder if this is his first genuine masterpiece. I didn’t care for 21 Grams or Babble, and Birdman was good but overrated. (In fairness, I’ve not seen Biutiful, which people seem to disregard nowadays, or Amores Perros, which is a rare foreign language film in the IMDb Top 250.) It seems like he was a nightmare during production — the budget was set at $60 million, but ultimately more than doubled to $135 million due to delays thanks to his production choices. In hindsight it looks like genius — “I knew it would be amazing so we kept going” — but if it had flopped, I’m sure an awful lot more would’ve been made of Inarritu’s excessively picky directorial style and fractious treatment of the crew, which apparently led Tom Hardy to try to strangle him…

At the Oscars, I was pulling for Roger Deakins to make it 13th time lucky, or for Mad Max to do a technical sweep and take cinematography with it (not undeservedly); but having now actually seen Lubezki’s work on The Revenant, it’s hard to deny it’s an immensely deserving winner. His mastery of all elements of the form is on regular display: the use of light (all natural!), perspective, lenses, focus; the single-shot techniques he and Iñárritu learnt for Birdman are put to superior use here, creating some stunning sequences (rather than taking over the entire movie). It looks incredible on Blu-ray, too — so detailed, crisp, epic. If anything was going to convince me 4K was an idea worth investing in, it’s material like this. (The cost of a new TV, new Blu-ray player, re-buying films, and the real estate needed in the lounge for a screen big enough to appreciate it puts the other half me off again.)

The film’s biggest flaw is that it goes on a bit too long in the middle. I’m not saying it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, I just think it lingers a little longer than it needs to in places. Individual shots are beautiful, but the sheer volume of them stretches the centre part thin. There’s probably one too many action sequences where Indians attack and our hero has to escape, not least the one that ends in a too-obviously-CGI dive off a cliff. Equally, for every one of those there’s an incredible sequence, like the opening Indian attack. For a film that could easily be described as arthouse-y and thematically-driven, there are some truly stunning action scenes. The long middle means you couldn’t really call it “an action movie”, but focus on the first and last acts and it absolutely is.

I slipped in the word “masterpiece” a few paragraphs back, and I’d wager that’s what The Revenant is. It’s not perfect, and I don’t know that I’d say it’s the best film of last year either; but it is magnificently made, telling its story in a way only cinema can truly manage.

5 out of 5

The Revenant is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK as of yesterday.

It placed 4th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

2015 #9
Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

4 out of 5

A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…


* For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^