November 30, 2010

#50: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

"The world is changed. I feel it in the air."

Nothing much hasn't been said about Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy that won seventeen Oscars total at the beginning of the last decade, so trust that probably nothing you read here will be all that insightful. (I don't know how often I'll be able to use that disclaimer here in good conscience, knowing that the top half of this list will probably be even better movies than the bottom half.) Nonetheless, I'm growing up in a generation that has these three films to thank for our incredibly high moviegoing standards. And I have to at least try.

(PS: perfect movie day conditions [cold snowy day] plus nothing to do all day plus roommate skipping work equals ... we ended up watching all three. We were in it to win it. AND really, isn't this movie on the list, the newest of the 100, as a placeholder for the entire trilogy? It is.)

Company: Stephanie, Tolkien loyalist and film-score-singer-alonger; Kecia, does a perfect ringwraith screech

Cuisine: as it was the day after Thanksgiving, we had a smorgasbord of leftovers -- scrambled eggs with roast chicken, proscuitto and green peppers; Gruyere au gratin; toast; coffee; and homemade pumpkin cheesecake near the end.

J.R.R. Tolkien's trio of novels is really one story spread out into three books to prevent broken backs, and the three films were similarly split, although the films make a much more linear narrative than the books do, and the books encompass a different set of events than the films do. But I'm not critiquing the books: this is a movie blog, and I haven't read the books (Stephanie tried but hasn't finished). This film begins with a prologue, narrated by Galadriel the elf (Cate Blanchett), chronicling the creation of the rings of power, and the One Ring To Rule Them All. In the first few minutes, we're treated to a taste of the computer-generated imagery that the entire trilogy will showcase, in the battle at the foot of Mount Doom. The camera sweeps over an impossible number of elves and men fighting Orcs and Sauron, and your breath is taken away. And it won't come back for several hours.

Flash forward several hundred years to the shire...

... and the ring falls from hobbit to tinier hobbit, who inherits the task of its destruction. Frodo (Elijah Wood, only 18 during this filming!) and three pals (Sean Astin, who should have been at least nominated for his work in Return of the King, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) unwittingly begin an incredible journey that takes them everywhere we can imagine, and hunted by freaky Dementor types.

But of course, the drama is heightened by Frodo's inability to keep his shit together. It'd be one thing if he just had to carry the damn thing to Mount Doom and avoid getting stabbed or tortured, but that ring! It has a mind of its own! And it wants to be found.

When taken alone, Fellowship still stands alone as a remarkable feat of storytelling, but my favorite shot in the entire film is this one, in which a frightened villager takes refuge in a very vulnerable spot while the ringwraiths speed past him, with only one goal in mind. I love the efficiency of the shot, and the way it encompasses so clearly the entire feeling of the first film: regular people involved in and terrified by a conflict they have no way of fully understanding. The whole world to our eyes seems magical but I think the Shire really represents ordinary folk, and that hobbits are regularly peaceful creatures who don't belong in such a violent world. It's not in their nature.

"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."

The complicated politics involved in keeping Frodo and the ring safe from Sauron run deep, surely simplified in the film version, but Frodo, our tiny hero, agrees to take the ring to Mount Doom, even after facing many dangers so far. He feels as though the task has fallen to him, but in this scene at Rivendell, it seems that no one else can agree on who should take it, or perhaps that everyone else knows to be afraid. Frodo, on the other hand, is just innocent and ignorant enough to take responsibility from his much more eligible friends and embark on a journey that will last him several more months, and us several more hours.

And several more thrills. Creepy cave monsters abound in movies nowadays, but few as humongous and terrifying as the Balrog, which Gandalf (Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, the only performance from the trilogy to be so honored) famously slays but in doing so falls to his death. It occurred to me on this viewing that when he lets go of the bridge ("Fly, you fools!") that perhaps Gandalf the Grey had the foresight to know that he would be brought back to life as the more powerful Gandalf the White. I don't know if I necessarily believe that, but this time around I thought, "whatever, he could have pulled himself up ... or magicked himself outta there."

This battle with the Balrog seems so final -- in any other movie it might have been the end -- but Fellowship, I had forgotten, has about an hour left after this. I don't know if I felt like the rest of the film was a letdown, but it's hard to top that bridge duel. But we've got a lot more story to pack in before the film's end, inevitably leading to Two Towers (which does not stand alone as well) and the finale, Return of the King (which does). The Fellowship visits the elves, paddles down the river, battles with Uruk-hai, loses a member (Boromir) and parts ways, leading to the next film's need to tell three separate stories (Frodo and Sam encountering and travelling with Gollum; Merry and Pippin's escape into Fangorn Forest and befriending Treebeard; and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas anticipating and finally leading the battle at Helm's Deep). If the middle section drags, it's not the fault of the other two films, but ultimately it does what it needs to do -- tell the story.

The Lord of the Rings ushered in a new era of CGI, certainly, but also told an immensely complex story to fans and newbies alike without alienating too many. You can't please everyone, but you can sure as hell try, and I'm very glad Peter Jackson and his crew made a valiant and commendable effort. We're not likely to see this trilogy's equal any time soon.

Next up: from the newest to the oldest. 1917's silent epic Intolerance.

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