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Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Okay... let’s do the short version first.

Everything you’ve heard is true. Smeagol (it’s hard to call him Gollum once you see how tortured he is) is the single most persuasive CGI character in a film so far, due in large part to the exceptional performance by Andy Serkis. Helm’s Deep is a jaw-dropping sequence, one that would make Akira Kurosawa weep tears of joy, choreographed with an eye for epic imagery but also executed with an awareness of how well an intimate moment pays off in front of such a spectacle. Peter Jackson and his exceptional team of creative collaborators have not only created a worthy follow-up to FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, they’ve also expanded Middle-Earth and given us new characters to love, new adventures to be enchanted by, and new lands to revisit. THE TWO TOWERS is more than just a sequel or a middle film in a trilogy; it’s a shining example of just how big we as filmmakers have been given permission to dream now.

Having said that, I’d like to get specific, so if you haven’t seen the film yet or don’t want to know what’s coming, here’s the point where you hit the “BACK” button on your browser. I’ll even give you some spoiler space, just in case...

Still here? Good. So you won’t mind if I lose my mind a little bit? Because, honestly, I don’t know any way to talk about this film without engaging in outragous hyperbole. I am so smitten with the cinematic legacy that Peter Jackson is creating that I find myself wanting to grab random strangers on the street and buy them tickets just so they can see for themselves. When I was a kid and films like STAR WARS and RAIDERS and CONAN and BLADE RUNNER and THE THING and JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS were coming out, I just assumed all films were supposed to be that good. I believed they would always be that good, all the time.

Little did I know...

This time around, there’s a special feeling that I get when I see each new chapter unfold of Peter Jackson’s triumphant trilogy of fantasy epics. This time around, I’m well aware of how special these moments are, how truly few and far between. And this time around, I plan to savor every beautiful, breathtaking frame as the gift that it is.

One of the ways that Peter Jackson demonstrates his almost absurd sense of control over the material is with pacing, something that can confound even the most gifted of filmmakers when working on an epic scale like this. See GANGS OF NEW YORK if you want the perfect example of that. And, no, don’t start crying to me about how there’s supposed to be some magic 20 minute longer cut of GANGS floating around that solves all the problems it has. Both versions of FELLOWSHIP, the theatrical and the extended edition, delivered as complete experiences. One simply fills the other out in different ways, and even if Jackson goes back next year to re-edit THE TWO TOWERS and puts in a half-hour or an hour or whatever, it won’t matter. He got it right already. He is a masterful storyteller, confident and always working to advance each of the multiple storylines he’s juggling even as he stops to bask in the particular wonders of this world.

The film’s opening is, in my opinion, just about as perfect as anyone could ask. First there’s that long shot as we move over the mountains, a reminder of how beautiful Middle-Earth can be, then the gradual introduction of familiar voices, and then that sudden, dizzying plunge right back into the events of the first film... it’s so much better than any cheesy “Last Week On LORD OF THE RINGS”-style montage would have been. It doesn’t distance us or remind us that this is only a film. Instead, it immerses us into the world right away, and by showing us more of the struggle between Gandalf and the Balrog, it reminds us just how high the stakes are. And then Frodo wakes up, and with a simple “It was just a dream,” we are shown the full toll these events have taken so far on these characters. It’s important that the first new scenes take place between Frodo and Sam. These two small, infinitely vulnerable creatures are, after all, literally carrying the fate of all Middle-Earth between them.

Their friendship, their support of one another, is all that allows the dawn of each new day, and the performance work by both these actors is note perfect. There’s an almost startling physical change in Elijah Wood, the effects of carrying The One Ring more and more pronounced now. The interplay between him and Sean Astin is both brotherly and also increasingly sad. It’s starting to dawn on Sam now that Frodo isn’t going to survive this journey. Somewhere along the way, Sam’s found himself on a death march, and it horrifies him.

These frustrations and fears are only exasperated by the introduction of the most arresting new character, Gollum. Yes, we caught glimpses of him in FELLOWSHIP, but they were wordless teases, as unrevealing as they were fascinating. This time around, we meet him face to face, and Jackson’s smart to get right to it. I’d be surprised if it’s more than ten minutes into the film before we see him up close. For fans of the books, this is a moment they’ve been waiting for their whole lives, and one of the miracles of the film is just how easily we accept him as real.

Are the CGI effects absolutely flawless? Nope. But that’s not the point, and anyone who belabors the fact isn’t fit to converse with because they just don’t get it. What makes Gollum such a landmark is the quality of performance work and character animation by Andy Serkis and the team of remarkable talents at WETA Digital led by the brilliant Randy Cook. Look into his eyes at any point in the film, whether he’s the main focus of a shot or not and you’ll see a soul. You’ll see real intelligence at work. Gollum thinks. Gollum feels. When he first attacks Sam and Frodo, he’s horrifying, but once they subdue him and Frodo has him immobilized under the point of Sting, he begins to cry. That’s the moment where he became real for me. The moment where he ascends to classic fantasy character status for me comes later, when we see him wrestle with the two sides of his nature, Gollum and Smeagol. It’s only after he’s reminded of the Smeagol side of himself by Frodo that he dares dream of a new life, a chance to live outside of the shadows once more, and this scene manages to be heartbreaking and funny and ominous all at once. There’s a similar moment in SPIDER-MAN with Willem Dafoe, but truth be told, it’s Gollum who gives the better performance, and if Serkis is nominated for awards this year, expect this to be the clip they show.

Gradually, we are reintroduced to each of the characters from the first film, and in each case, we meet them already embroiled in the action that was suggested by the first movie’s finish. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are still in the clutches of a band of Uruk-Hai, and I love the way Jackson’s horror movie influences inform the design of much of this film. He can’t resist wallowing in the freakier side of Middle-Earth, nor would we want him to. There’s Uruk-Hai that look like blood sausages stuffed too full and ready to burst. There’s one loathesome thing that looks like Richard O’Brien in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW that wants to eat the legs of the hobbits. Much more of Jackson’s identity seems to be creeping into the films as they progress, and to my eyes, it’s a good thing. Already, I’m being innundated with letters from purists who can’t tolerate the changes that Jackson has made, and they have their impassioned defenses of why each and every mistake ruins the films and renders them useless, but I just don’t believe it. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read the books since I was young. I retain fond memories of them, but I’m hardly a slave to the source material. What delights me is watching the way these stories unfold as films. I don’t rely on my prior knowledge of characters or relationships because I’m afraid it would continually pull me out of what I’m seeing. I have no idea what the details are of Merry and Pippin’s encounter with Treebeard in the book, and I don’t care. I was enchanted by the way they met him here and by the way Jackson and his co-writers (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair) introduce us to the notion of the Ents, the shepherds of the trees, ancient beings that are totally alien.

I was equally taken with the way we find Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies, who also voices Treebeard) on the trail of Pippin and Merry, determined to rescue their friends. Aragorn’s skills as a Ranger come into play more in this film, and Legolas and his abilities are also key. Gimli’s role in this film could be described as comic relief, except Rhys-Davies gives the dwarf a dignity and a genuine sense of physical danger that keeps him from being so easily written off. The relationships between these three actors are etched in small moments, subtle details, but there are obvious bonds that have formed, and the cumulative effect is quite powerful.

Then there’s the story of Rohan, featuring a whole slew of new characters, and this is one of the film’s most imposing potential stumbling points. If there’s an opportunity in the film for Jackson to just plain confuse his audience, it’s here. We’re asked to soak up quite a bit of information all at once, and again... my reaction isn’t based on the books. I felt that we learned just enough about King Theoden (Bernard Hill), his disgusting private advisor Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), his niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto in a role that is sure to launch her as a major name), and his loyal but frustrated nephew Eomer (Karl Urban, making the most of a small role). The torment of Theoden is evident in the way his skin hangs off of his slack and saddened face and the way his eyes barely focus on the world around him. Wormtongue pours poison into the King’s mind with each whisper, and it’s obvious that he’s leading Theoden astray, turning Rohan into an extension of the ever-spreading kingdom of Saruman (Christopher Lee) for reasons that are hinted at, but not made explicit up front. Would I like to know how Wormtongue slipped into this position of influence? Sure. I would love to see the gradual seduction of Theoden, the way Saruman slowly moved in and set up camp in the head of this once-beloved ruler, but that’s not the story we’re seeing here. Jackson picks up at a very particular moment, at a turning point, and what we’re given is just enough to understand why it’s so important when a resurrected Gandalf the White(played here with a sort of befuddled majesty by Ian McKellen) arrives in the court of Rohan, ready to do whatever it takes to restore Theoden to his former self.

Even without a lot of action in the first hour of the film, Jackson gives us enough memorable moments and unforgettable imagery to keep us rapt. The scene where Frodo collapses into the marshes filled with the dead is right out of Jackson’s worst zombie nightmares, a vision of real horror. The gates of Mordor, opened by twin trolls tethered to terrible machinery, are a remarkable image, imposing and forbidding, a mere hint of what we might see on the other side of those gates when RETURN OF THE KING finally rolls around. And when that first big action sequence finally arrives in the form of Orcs saddled on the backs of Wargs, it’s worth every moment of anticipation, delivering a visceral kick that will set your pulse racing.

From there on, the film begins to pick up a head of steam, even as we are treated to quiet moments of power between Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and his daughter Arwen (Liv Tyler), or between Elrond and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) or between Aragorn and Eowyn or, in one melancholy half-dream, Aragorn and Arwen. Merry and Pippin gradually convince Treebeard that they’re not Orcs, peppering him with stories of the lush green of the Shire, their home. And during it all, the shadow of Isengard grows longer, driving the people of Rohan to the supposed safety of Helm’s Deep, a fortress that has always spared them from the worst fury of any storm in the past. This time, though, they’re cornered by an army unlike any I’ve ever seen on film, a rolling black wave of purest evil made up of 10,000 of Middle-Earth’s most heinous visions, and when they make their stand, joined only by a group of elves determined to honor an age-old alliance with men, it is convincingly hopeless. Jackson tightens the screws until we can barely breathe. He shows us children being suited up for war because there are not enough men of the right age to do the job. He gives Rohan enough of a personal face to make it count. We understand that this is one of the last places where free men are going to make a stand, and if they fall here, they may well vanish altogether. And it’s during the film’s final hour that I feel it really comes into its own as something special, something better than just a fantasy or just an action film or even just an epic. It’s here that I was forced to ask myself, “At what point does a historian become a prophet?” Tolkien wasn’t trying to see the future as he wrote his story, but here we are, fifty years after its first appearance, and it feels more timely than ever. In fact, it seems to me an act of nearly-divine coincidence that this film at this moment should be called THE TWO TOWERS, because seeing the way these characters make their stand for what they believe and what they love, and seeing how willing they are to sacrifice to protect not only their own lives, but the lives of others, I am both heartbroken and healed in equal measure. Some people have criticized Sam’s speech in Gondor, but I find myself incredibly moved by it, and I hope some part of this sentiment finds its way into the mainstream so that, as we contemplate stepping into the mouth of hell in the months or years ahead, we do so for the right reasons, and that we remember that there are some things worth fighting for, just as we must remember that there are some powers we might use that will destroy us just as easily as our enemies.

If there’s one character that feels underutilized this time around, it’s Faramir (David Wenham), who seems to get shortchanged a bit. He’s got a few nice moments, including one in which he places the life of Gollum into the hands of Frodo, forcing a choice which shall echo through the rest of the saga to come. Still, that’s a minor complaint, and I don’t know what I’d be willing to give up in order to make more room for Faramir. I am still dazzled, a full 24 hours after seeing it, as I think about the way Jackson intercuts between the events at Helm’s Deep, the events in Gondor, and the final stand of the Ents at Isengard. It’s all handled beautifully, and I couldn’t have predicted how much of an impact these images would have on me. The fell beasts, the oliphaunts, the Ent army in full attack... these are things I have never seen in a film before, and they are images I will never forget. Time and again, Jackson tops himself with some fresh flourish that seems to set an impossible standard, and there are at least ten or twelve sequences here that any other filmmaker would be happy to feature as the climax of any other film. Jackson’s overstuffed his film with magic, but it’s not like he’s showing off. Instead, it all feels organic, earned, and it all ends up working in service of the larger story being told.

And, in the end, it all comes back to a very personal tale as Sam and Frodo and their guide into Hell, Gollum, end up back on the road to Mordor, each with their own agenda, each with something very different on their minds. “The battle for Helm’s Deep is over,” Gandalf observes, “but the battle for Middle-Earth is just beginning.” If Jackson manages to pay off all the emotional and visceral crescendoes that he’s laid the groundwork for in this film with the final chapter of this saga next Christmas, then it’s safe to say he’s guaranteed himself a place in film history. He’s made me believe in the unlimited power of cinema and imagination again in a way I didn’t think was still possible, and he’s convinced me that it all comes down to passion. He believed he could do the impossible and bring these books to life, and he convinced a team of brilliant madment that he was right. Together, they’ve woven a tapestry of every possible emotion, creating something I look forward to wrapping myself in at every possible opportunity, a timeless classic, and a tease that will have me positively agoraphobic in the year to come. I’ll be hiding inside, careful to the point of phobia, determined that nothing prevent me from making it to next year, when we’ll see just how magnificent the conclusion to this symphonic cinematic masterwork can be.

"Moriarty" out.

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