RETRO REVIEW: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

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Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” was an extraordinary introduction to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It not only introduced us to its compelling assortment of characters, but it also firmly planted us within J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast enchanting world. But it’s the second installment, “The Two Towers” where the series truly hits its stride.

“The Two Towers” takes the story of its predecessor and expands it in every way. Fascinating new characters, more lands throughout Middle-Earth, and even higher stakes than before. But one of Jackson’s many great accomplishments is how seamlessly he blends these new pieces into the existing fabric. And despite the immensity of his scope, the movie never loses its intimacy.

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Picking up where “Fellowship” left off, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam’s (Sean Astin) journey to destroy the One Ring has grown more arduous and the weight of the ring more burdensome. As the two struggle to find a path to Mordor, the sallow, emaciated Gollum (Andy Serkis) secretly follows them. He was the ring’s former owner, consumed by its power and desperate to reclaim it. When Gollum is discovered Frodo shows pity and uses him as a guide against the pleas of a concerned Sam.

A second story thread follows Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) as they follow the trail of their abducted Hobbit companions Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). They are led through the war-torn lands of Rohan whose King Theodin (Bernard Hill) lies under a spell of the wicked wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).

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And yet a third story thread follows the aforementioned Merry and Pippin who manage to escape their Uruk-hai captors after the Orc soldiers are attacked by Éomer (Karl Urban) and his exiled Riders of Rohan. The two Hobbits hide deep within Fanghorn Forest where they encounter a mysterious tree beings called Ents.

The challenges for this incredible three-headed story are obvious. Huge in scale and with a ton of ground to cover, yet vitally important that it all comes together. Jackson melds together his many moving parts with remarkable precision. And of the several new characters introduced not a one feels wasted or undeserved. Each fit and have a place in Tolkien’s tumultuous world yet have their own personal storylines that take form without ever feeling pointless or intrusive. It’s a remarkable mixture of character and narrative.

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Then there is the genius of Jackson’s technique. From his sweeping camera combing the exquisite New Zealand landscapes to the subtlest of closeups capturing every worry, concern, and pain of the characters. Equally exhilarating are the action scenes both small and epic in size. It’s hard not to be blown away by his framing of the action as well as Weta Workshop’s extraordinary special effects. Jackson really opens it up with the first of the series’ huge battlefield sequences. The Battle for Helm’s Deep remains my favorite segment in the entire trilogy.

Much more could be talked about including Jackson’s knack for not only building tension but maintaining it throughout a sequence. Also “The Two Towers” highlights Jackson’s keen ability to convey to the audience an incredible sense of the mystical and magical. The world he and his teams place us in are rich with imagination and the fantastical. But the greatest thing about the series is that it’s far more than eye candy and sparkly window dressing. It’s the characters and their stories that form the heart of trilogy. That’s especially true for “The Two Towers”.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5STAR K&M

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REVIEW: “The Two Faces of January”

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Beautiful Greek locales and three strong performances anchor “The Two Faces of January”, a smart and measured adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel. Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst star in this steady-moving thriller that doesn’t depend on big twists or reveals. Instead it is straightforward and focused – a slick and stylish retro noir full of fedoras and cigarette smoke.

It’s 1962 in Athens, Greece. Rydal (Isaac) is a tour guide and small-time con man. While at the Acropolis of Athens he connects with an American couple Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Dunst). Rydal is instantly attracted to Chester’s wealth and Colette’s beauty. Colette takes a liking to Rydal but Chester doesn’t trust him at all. The three have a pleasant dinner together and then part ways.

 

JANUARY1Chester and Colette return to their posh hotel where they are confronted by a mysterious armed man. Turns out Chester owes money to the wrong people. A struggle follows and the stranger ends up dead. In a panic Chester scrambles to do something with the body. While doing so he runs into Rydal who is returning a bracelet Colette left in a cab. A desperate Chester pleads with Rydal to help him and Colette get out of the city. Rydal agrees and the three head to the Greek Islands where they try to lay low until they can get back to the States.

The tensions between the three characters skyrockets. There is an obvious sexual tension between Rydal and Colette. This leads to a growing animosity between Chester and Rydal. There is also Colette’s anger and frustration with Chester for getting them into the mess they’re in. Then you can sprinkle in Chester’s heavy drinking and growing paranoia along with the question of Rydal’s trustworthiness. Each one of these tensions are allowed to play out, sometimes in unexpected but satisfying ways.

Screenwriter Hossein Amini, probably best known for his work on “Drive”, makes his directorial debut and he certainly has an intriguing eye. The film is exquisitely shot and Amini doesn’t shy away from using the beauty of his setting. He also gives a keen attention to detail particularly in creating a nostalgic noir atmosphere. I swear, at times this film looked as if it were plucked right out of the the late 1940s or early 50s. It’s something Amini is clearly going for and for the most part he nails it.

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The film is also helped by its exceptional cast. Oscar Isaac is finally getting the respect he deserves as one of cinema’s most reliable actors. Here he gives a character that is charismatic, charming, but also a mystery. Mortensen is tasked with the bigger and louder performance and he has no problems with it. He lays out the intricacy of his character sometimes with bravado but other times with quiet uncertainty. And Dunst was also very good. She is an actress who keeps getting better and better. Here she gives us a character who may be the only one worthy of our sympathy.

“The Two Faces of January” is an intelligent and efficient thriller that is very confident with its presentation and with the story it is telling. Hossein Amini gives an impressive directorial debut, but he also deserves credit for his well-conceived screenplay. And it doesn’t hurt to have talents like Isaac, Mortensen, and Dunst to help create your vision. I wouldn’t say “January” will be one of those essential time capsule movies, but it is a highly entertaining throwback thriller that more people need to see.

VERDICT – 4 STARS