Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings

The Lord of Some Rings – or, how I learned to love “The Sword of Shannara”

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Yes, “The Sword of Shannara” by Terry Brooks has awesome/awful/epic cover art, doesn’t it?

As I get older, I find myself less and less bothered by what people think about the things that I enjoy – hence, I’ve chosen to return to Brooks’ first novel, after abandoning it previously in a fit of peevishness over the debt owed by the novelist to some obscure fantasy novels written by a British academic, back in the day.  My reason?  It’s not original, it’s not clever, but it is fun – if you allow yourself to just enjoy it as fantasy novel candy, rather than genre-busting, transformational literature which alters the landscape of the form forever after.

In many ways, it doesn’t surprise me that Brooks would eventually go on to pen the tie-in novelisation for “Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace” as his work has a fair bit in common with George Lucas’ ultimately divisive sci-fantasy blockbuster.  Both writers lean heavily on breathless plotting, well-established archetypes/tropes and a sensibility so at odds with the critical establishment that it could well be deliberate.

Neither can be said to produce what might be referred to as high art and both are doing very well, thank you kindly, out of their nerdy, un-hip, Saturday morning serial brand of adventure yarn.  And, on the evidence of “Sword of Shannara”, the 1977-vintage Brooks and Lucas were slightly confused by girls and, not knowing how to write such mysterious creatures, didn’t bother to.

This is knowingly nerdy stuff, folks, with all the plucky Dwarves, ethereal Elven warriors and mysterious Rogue leaders that you could yearn for/fear of in fantasy fiction.  Your tolerance for it may directly correlate to how much you can handle post-Tolkien fantasy and whether or not your brand of escapism cleaves more to the grimy, neo-realistic worlds of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan.  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with either, but I do find myself drawn more to a more optimistic take on extraordinary events – which, for an often cynical soul like me, is quite a turnabout.

As ever, the idea of ploughing through many years worth of trilogies and series by an author fills me with some trepidation but I’ll report back if “…Shannara” continues to entertain me as it has been doing for the last week or so.

 

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“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” film review

Make mine Bag End...

Some pertinent business to deal with before I start my review proper:

1) The much-ballyhooed 48 frames per second process, which makes its debut with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is more or less unnoticeable.  Advanced reports of the film looking like a TV soap opera, or as though it was shot on digital video, are utter piffle.

2) If you can see “The Hobbit” in traditional 2D, feel free to do so.  I saw it in a 3D ‘LieMax’ screening and felt that the 3D frequently detracted from the experience – several action sequences were rendered impossible to watch comfortably, thanks to our old friend, Mr Irritating Motion Blur.  Mrs Rolling Eyeballs, who saw the film with me, currently rates the film as a 5 out of 10 as she saw roughly half of it – IMAX 3D and people with glasses apparently don’t mix too well.  A 2D viewing may be required for our actual full enjoyment of the film.

3) That 9 minute “Star Trek Into Darkness” prologue?  The “Man of Steel” and “Pacific Rim” trailers?  Conspicuous by their wholesale absence.  Thanks, Cineworld, for screwing your UK consumers and having the nerve to charge a premium for an experience which is decidedly lacking.

Minor, nerd-entitlement caveats aside, did I actually enjoy the film?

Well, yes.  Yes.  Yes, yes, YES!  It’s Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and a prodigiously talented ensemble in front of the camera and behind it delivering epic fantasy on the kind of scale that fans always dreamed of seeing but rarely experienced before Jackson’s initial “Lord of the Rings” trilogy expanded the possibility of cinematic adventure in the early part of the 2000’s.

Getting over the fact that these movies are inherently episodic and tell their story in a serial fashion – don’t count on getting much in the way of closure until the summer of 2014 – going back to Jackson’s Middle Earth is like visiting a much-loved holiday get away destination and finding everything much as you left it.

Breathtaking New Zealand vistas, Hobbit holes, craggy old wizards and Howard Shore‘s delightfully evocative musical score are very much present and correct – thankfully Mr Jackson has resisted the urge to cast Justin Bieber, pump up the dubstep and ‘fix’ that which isn’t broken.  As I mentioned before, the major add-ons this time around – 3D and 48 FPS – are either a waste of time (3D) or imperceptible (48 FPS), so it does feel very much like business as usual.

The changes to the plot don’t really offer up anything particularly problematic – we get a fantastic prologue which deftly underlines lead dwarven warrior-in-exile Thorin Oakenshield‘s motivations and show us more of Middle Earth than we saw in the “LOTR” trilogy, and the climax imagines the events of ‘Out of the Frying Pan Into The Fire’ quite a bit differently, and really shows how Jackson and his team have rendered three films from a fairly slender piece of source material.

Where Tolkien’s classic tale for children of all ages alludes to action occurring off-screen or dispenses with blood and thunder battles in a sentence or two, Jackson’s film goes to town by mounting elaborate, bravura sequences which pile on the Orcs, Goblins and Warg enemies for our band to face off against.  It’s probably a bit too intense for younger kids, I would guess – this iteration particularly amps up the ass-kicking whilst not exactly down-playing the whimsical nature of Tolkien’s book but emphasizing the heroics in an appropriately cinematic fashion.

On the performance side, Martin Freeman is superb as Bilbo the Younger.  He’s not doing an Ian Holm impersonation, but instead gives a turn which is funny, touching, quietly decent and layered – I’m going to enjoy following him on his burglary mission and I predict that you will too.  He’s perhaps at his best during the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence, which brings back Gollum for a spell and reminds you how utterly brilliant Andy Serkis is.  New addition Richard Armitage makes a commanding appearance as Thorin, quietly dominating scenes and neatly filling the noticeable, Viggo Mortensen-shaped hole for a heroic, smouldering lead.

I really enjoyed this movie – tech qualms be damned.  And I look forward to seeing more of Smaug, how Jackson stages the battle of the Five Armies and how the extended lore of Tolkien’s epic fantasy cycle is added to what is at heart a fairly simple and linear tale.

A qualified thumbs up for “The Hobbit” part the first it is, then.  Try and find time in your Christmas celebration to see it and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too.

Related Arcana:

 

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Power Metal Artwork of the Day – Blind Guardian

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And to finish out the week, an arguable classic slice of European Power Metal – with sleeve art almost precision designed to irk the irksome, traumatise tiresome hipsters and cause kvlt elitists to kvetch.

Germany’s Blind Guardian are perhaps best described as occupying a space somewhere between Iron Maiden, Helloween and – I guess – Dream Theater.  We’re talking songs directly inspired by double-bass drums played at a hundred miles an hour, proggy time signatures and lyrics directly referencing fantasy literature, as amply demonstrated by an album which many fans would claim as their favourite – the J.R.R. Tolkien/”Silmarillion“-inspired Nightfall in Middle-Earth.

To the artwork – it’s a painting of Luthien dancing in front of Morgoth, painted by Andreas Marshall.  I confess to having something a blind spot for Tolkien’s novels, something which I propose to address in the near future via the medium of a series on the blog – is it ambitious to read “The Hobbit” and the whole “Lord of the Rings” cycle before part one of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” opens at the end of the year?  I like to think not, but I’m ever one for taking on challenges which ask more than I can reasonably cope with.  It’s an epic fantasy thing, people – realise…

What the cover doesn’t capture is just how delightfully cheesy the spoken word portions of the album are – for viewers used to the earnest storytelling of the Jackson cinematic trilogy, this album’s (let’s be honest) amateur dramatic performance of the Tolkien material is a splendid thing.

 And it’s a killer record – if you like your heavy metal to be bold, powerful, driving and unabashedly unfashionable, Blind Guardian do this kind of stuff better than anybody else.  If your new D&D campaign needs a stirring musical accompaniment to really get those 20-sided die flying, you need this record on your iPod/stereo pronto…

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Where in the world is Andy Serkis’ Best Actor nomination?

Andy Serkis as Caesar and James Franco in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes".

Hollywood is so precious, don’t you think?  It would love to be lauded as a creative centre – a place where artists can congregate, collaborate and create important and entertaining work in an environment which thrives on the financial and artistic success of the work which results.  But the reality, of course, is quite different.

Yes, just so long as you agree to fit into your pre-ordained box and don’t do anything which threatens the carefully constructed (and constricted) status quo, you’ll be just fine.

Witness the case of actor/director Andy Serkis.  Unfamiliar with the name?  Perhaps you might recognize his most famous character:

Andy Serkis as Smeagol/Gollum in "Lord of the Rings"

Or perhaps this fine figure of a man primate?

Andy Serkis reacts to an acting snub with grace and civility.

Perhaps you’re beginning to see the problem.   Serkis’ most prominent work to mainstream audiences has been in collaboration with the likes of Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, and often realised via performance capture technology.  In essence, his very best work is oddly invisible – or a combination of his physical acting performance being subsequently animated by CG artists.  It’s in a kind of nebulous, foggy half-place where art meets the bleeding edge of computer-assisted creativity.

It’s a hard concept to grasp for many – without Serkis’ original work, there would be no building blocks for the artists to design their character around and the result on-screen is contingent on the work of artists to take the raw material of Serkis’ work and give it visual life.  Where, to cut a long story short, does Serkis end and Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” begin?

In the best sense of the word, Andy Serkis’ best screen work to date has been inherently collaborative and the result of a seamless marriage between the best of what technology can bring to a film and what we have come to think of as the traditional theatre arts.

Is there any real difference between Serkis’ work as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and, say, a performance like John Hurt’s in “The Elephant Man” or Eric Stoltz’s in “Mask”?

I would argue not.   Does anybody look at Hurt’s performance in David Lynch’s film and really say – “Well, he was okay, but the make-up appliances were doing much of the heavy lifting”?  Not unless they’re fundamentally ignorant.   Hurt’s work blends an external make-up job with the soul of the actor beneath it and delivers something which is unforgettable to anybody who’s ever seen it.  Likewise, Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly”:  There’s an extraordinary, singular, eccentric and compelling actor under some astonishing make-up but one without the other wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

I suspect that some of the blame for Serkis’ lack of acknowledgement from his acting peers is down to arrogance and snobbery – his work has largely been in science fiction and fantasy cinema, two genres which are consistently overlooked by the cinema’s great and good when it comes to awards season.  An establishment, it should always be noted, which is delighted to reap the financial benefits of those films when they succeed at the box office but glacially slow to reward them with the highest industry awards when the gongs are handed out.

It’s almost as though the people who decide on who gets nominated for acting awards are old farts who don’t have a clue. I know, I know – can you imagine?

If you want a somewhat biased view from one of Serkis’ recent co-stars, James Franco has written a heartfelt appreciation of his work and what it means for Hollywood over at Deadline.com.

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Tolkien’s 60’s Nobel snub or ‘Why awards don’t matter’…

Can't write. No good at story. Can smoke pipe a little.

Declassified new documents from Nobel judging in the 1960’s reveal that learned Swedes knew then what we could only guess at today – that J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was a crap storyteller and wrote terrible prose.

I mean, it’s obvious when you look at how few copies his novels sell today and how they had no cultural impact at all beyond his death.  He may as well have packed in the writing lark as nobody today gives a fig for the universes he created.  Furthermore, if you were to type ‘Lord of the Rings’ into Google, you wouldn’t return anything like 172, 000, 000 websites  – such a result is pure flim-flam and no mistake.

Thank goodness that the completely memorable Ivo Andric won the Nobel prize for literature in 1961 and made such an earth-shattering impact on the world with his wholly celebrated work,  “The Vizier’s Elephant”.  If not for him, people might still remember this Tolkien amateur and his silly little books which nobody reads (or films) any more.

Me? Chip on my shoulder about how sci-fi, fantasy and horror are treated by the cultural establishment? Surely some mistake.

It’s not as if genre fiction in all forms of media is arguably the most popular entertainment amongst readers and viewers and actually underwrites the literary and art house loss-makers which the taste makers so adore, allowing publishers and studios to function in the first place, by making a profit which the more respected art types can then leech off…

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“The Hobbit” – behind the scenes video

By now you’ll probably be aware that Peter Jackson is making “The Hobbit” in New Zealand, with the story split into two parts, for release in 2012 and 2013.

A gathering of Hobbits, yesterday.

Another one of the production’s behind-the-scenes diaries is now online, featuring the challenges of shooting a film in 3D – which is every bit as fascinating (and slightly mind-boggling) as the exhaustive material for the making of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was.

I loved the bit with Angus, the production’s ‘stereographer’ – these folk are my kind of nerds.

 

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