Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 29, 2003 Herald Journal
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Lord of the Rings: a fantasy film that could actually win an Oscar


Finally, a fantasy film that could actually win the Oscar for best picture!

"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was produced the way epic sequel films should be, and how many more probably will be in the future.

All three films were shot at once, and the the installments were released in consecutive years ("The Fellowship of the Ring" in 2001, "The Two Towers" in 2002, and "The Return of the King" just last week.)

No waiting around for four years like we did between the first and second "Matrix" films, or the three years between each of the first three "Stars Wars" flicks.

But in the very real world of Hollywood economics, it does make sense to finish the first film in the series, and then see if the audience is ready to spend money on, say, a new Superman series, before you drop a few million more to make the next installment.

"The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson was so confident of his films, success, and obviously so persuasive to his producers and investors, that he set out to make three very expensive movies in one fell swoop.

The effort and risk has paid off, and one of the effects is that, having now seen all three films, I feel like I've actually seen one monstrous film with two rather long intermissions.

And long films they are ­ over nine hours altogether ­ with the last one, "The Return of the King," clocking in at 3 hours 11 minutes. This duration, though, is relative: if you are a fan, it wasn't too long at all, and you can't wait for the DVD release that will be even longer.

If you didn't see the first two films, and you never read the books, then you will certainly notice how sore your sitting muscles are by the time the battles are winding down.

You might even find yourself getting up two or three time toward the end, thinking that it's over.

In the formula for writing a good screenplay, the part of the movie after the conflict is over is called the denouement, which is when we get to celebrate or cry with our heroes and tie up loose ends.

Denouement shouldn't last more than about 10 percent of the duration of a typical feature film. If it goes longer, we find ourselves uncomfortable ­ like those long Minnesota goodbyes at the in-law's house.

For a typical Hollywood movie, if it,s ten minutes after the climax, you,d better be well into the credits and playing the hit song.

I wasn't looking at my watch during the denouement of "The Return of the King," but it had to be at least half an hour.

However, if you think of all the "Lord of the Rings" movies as one long film (there was no denouement in the first two) then that's about right length. And there were a lot of loose ends to tie up.

There was good reason why I didn't look at my watch during this picture: my eyes were glued to the screen. Full disclosure ­ I am a fan of these films and of the Tolkien books.

Nevertheless, it is a beautiful movie to see. The design and artwork, the effects, the costumes, the music, and the characters themselves are respectively either awe-inspiringly gorgeous or tantalizingly hideous.

A case in point: director Peter Jackson insisted that every prop and every costume be created just for these films ­ none of the typical pulling from studio stock or rental pieces.

There's no Academy Award for casting directors ­ the people who find, recruit and negotiate the actors for a movie ­ but if there were, "The Lord of the Rings" should get it.

There are five people listed in the credits for casting "The Return of the King," and they had their work cut out for them. How they found the actors who played the hobbits, each looking like they popped right out of Tolkien's imagination, is a mystery to me.

The face of Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf is unforgettable; the two elf women, played by Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler, can melt your heart with their ethereal beauty; and who wouldn't want Viggo Mortensen to be king?

I would warn against going into this movie cold ­ rent the other two first, or you'll be completely lost. Regardless, you'll be treated to the finest film in the fantasy genre to date, and the first in that category to be a serious contender for the "Best Picture" Oscar.

And here's a tip: when you go to see this movie, or any "spectacular" of this sort, call ahead to make sure the room you'll be seeing it in has the best sound system.

In Buffalo, the front theater ­ House #1 - has a full digital system; whereas the other room where "The Return of the King" is showing has an older system.

I saw it in the older one, and actually had trouble understanding some of the dialogue. On the other hand, I viewed "The Last Samurai" in House #1 a couple of weeks ago, and the sound was excellent.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images.

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