Rings of Power update

rings2Rings of Power Season One, 2022, Amazon Prime

Well, a few more episodes on now since my last post about this series having now seen episodes 3 – 6. Can’t say my opinion has changed very much because the strengths and weaknesses of it hasn’t altered. The strengths are definitely the music score by Bear McCreary and the visuals, which are largely spectacular. Whether its really half a billion dollars spectacular I don’t know- sometimes I wonder if Amazon needs to do an audit on where all the money has gone, but then again, I think the same about many Netflix shows and so many films too. The money spent on these productions is staggering and sometimes… maybe its just me, but sets look surprisingly flaky sometimes in these shows (fake rocks/brickwork looking, well pretty fake) but perhaps that’s the impact of shooting/streaming in 4K, things show up now that wouldn’t in the old days. That all said, some of the imagery is so gorgeously pretty I have to fight the urge to press the pause button and just soak it all in (actually maybe that’d be a better way of watching this show). I think this is one of the more negative influences of the Peter Jackson films- those films were full of wonderful visuals, and Rings of Power seems hellbent on mimicking or even bettering them, its producers perhaps wrongly thinking those visuals were the main appeal of the films and where all the attention needed to go.

The music is excellent and 100% everything it needed to be, and absolutely the best element of the entire show. It really carries some of the weak narrative and character moments, with some lovely transitions between scenes, particularly those where we see a map indicating a change of location. McCreary is to be applauded and I hope we get a disc release that the work deserves- a lengthy album compilation is available on digital and also episodic streams that expand it even further, but I’m holding out for a disc release or (even better) a series of disc releases to match all that digital content. I think its clearly McCreary’s finest work since his BSG reboot work, thematically diverse and very cinematic.

rings3But regards those moments where we see a map indicating where we are/where the next scene is occurring (its a welcome storytelling device on Rings of Power considering its reliance on several seperate storylines/characters), it brings me to one of my gripes with the series: for all its epic pretensions, why does the world seem so small? Its something that bugged me in Game of Thrones in its later seasons; the time characters spent travelling didn’t match the distances involved, deliberately and artificially done in order to keep up the narrative pace as that series neared it end, and this occurs a lot in Rings of Power. For instance, in episode six, we see the Númenorian fleet depart for Middle Earth and then after a day and night of the Southlanders defending themselves against Adar’s Orc army, the Númenorians suddenly arrive to save the day. An earlier examination of a map showed that the fleet had to cross a sea, sail up river and then the army march across land to get to where the Southlanders were fighting- something that looks like it would take a week or even several weeks, but certainly not a day. Maybe that’s me nit-picking, but the typical and predictable plot contrivance of the Númenorians saving the day is only exasperated by how small Tolkien’s world suddenly seemed when they turned up.

What is not me nit-picking though is the writing, which remains very poor indeed, depressingly so sometimes. Characters are one-dimensional, giving actors little to work with, and coincidences and contrivances seem to crowd every episode. Its definitely a show that seems… well, as I’ve noted before, it seems to me that Rings of Power is what the producers evidently THINK a fantasy show should be like. Written by a writing staff more suited to police procedurals or soap operas, its ticking boxes not understanding what those boxes mean. Lots of personal quests, quotes of prophecies, and horrible portentous dialogue that is written thinking its the stuff of epics. That dialogue really is terrible; something particularly highlighted by everything looking so gorgeous- the visuals really deserve more. You can get caught by a particularly arresting shot that looks like an exquisite painting brought to life and then the moment is shattered by a brutally inane piece of dialogue. Pacing is all over the place; just when the narrative pushes forward and something’s happening, suddenly characters just stop everything for a chat.

If this was ‘just’ a fantasy show, like maybe that Willow tv series Disney is apparently working on, then this would be fine and hardly a surprise/disappointment, I’d just ignore it and move on. But this is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings I’m discussing here. It deserves more, it deserves better. It deserves, I suspect, a better show running team, really. All the woke nonsense warned about before the show aired was pretty much just a marketing distraction, diversity being used as a diversion mechanism to side-track critique from the real issue of bad writing (‘Diversity as Diversion’, heh I should coin that one). I doubt that the last two episodes can really save it, but we’ll see; at the moment Rings of Power, while not really the utter disaster the YouTube bunch are screaming about, is pretty average at best and definitely not at all worthy of the Tolkien license Amazon spent a fortune acquiring.

Maybe a course correction behind the scenes, between this and season two will find Rings of Power fulfilling its potential, because its some way off just yet.

Returning to the Return of the King

rotkA few thoughts upon re-watching the third LOTR film, now completing my watch of the three films on 4K UHD:

On the ending/s

I know there’s lots of people who joke about the never-ending ending of The Return of the King, but for me its possibly my favourite part. It feels earned. After all, after watching… what is the length of all three extended editions, somewhere around 9 – 10 hours… surely after a story that is so long, it needs a proper ending that wraps up the various character arcs and validates everything before it with a fitting conclusion. Its funny; whenever I see the post-Mount Doom scene, after the Eagles have saved Frodo and Sam and we then see Frodo wake up and he is reunited with his old freinds, and we finally see Sam in the doorway, and he and Frodo exchange that look and Sam smiles and it fades out… I always think, ‘THATS the ending some people might prefer, certainly the ones who think its all too long’. It even FEELS like an ending, when it fades to black part of me expects the credits to roll (I wonder if it was actually a temptation?) but if the film had closed with that, I would have felt so cheated. I need the rest of the film, all the farewells and the ceremonies and the return to the Shire, to remember what’s been saved. And of course, we need the sadness, too, of Frodo’s departure, which was the genius of Tolkien- he understand that ultimately there has to be a price for everything, a cost to the victory, a lesson from Tolkien’s studies in mythology no doubt, and one modern film-makers and writers should heed. Speaking of which-

Its all about the story, stupid

You can’t beat having a traditional, sensical storyline with a beginning, a middle and end (albeit even one, or ESPECIALLY one, spread over a trilogy), a storyline with internal logic and sensical characters and motivations. That’s the advantage of having a literary source where all that has been worked out for you (in the case of LOTR, Tolkien had all sorts of appendices etc for additional weight and thought over and above those huge three books that  themselves supplied a trilogy structure). Things that were done or said in Fellowship of the Ring have bearing upon events in Return of the King, it feels like a whole. Its all totally the very opposite of, ahem, the Disney Star Wars trilogy that seemed to inexplicably wing everything as they went along: what in the world were they thinking? I’m no film exec but I would have expected some kind of plan regards creating a new trilogy of films would have been one of the very basic requirements prior to greenlighting anything (or signing actors, really), especially considering the investment required for films of that scale. Simply winging it seems very reckless or very brave (or indication of wild, perhaps even reckless, hubris).

Still awfully pretty

Some of the visual effects have inevitably dated, but much of it holds up incredibly well and maintains the ‘wow’ factor. The sequence of the Rohirrim on horseback fighting the Oliphaunts, racing in the madness of battle under the giant beasts remains as amazing now as it did back then. Its really quite astonishing and holds up brilliantly well. It reminds me that one of the things that so impressed me about all three LOTR films when they originally came out was the sheer audacity of what they were trying to do, how fearless they were in trying to bring some of that stuff to the screen. Indeed, in hindsight its even more impressive when one considers how cutting-edge it was at the time and how so little has been done like that since. Sure, some of the compositing looks a little ‘off’ (probably due to the sheer number of shots being attempted and the pressure of time) but some of the stuff looks more than amazing, some of it quite perfect. Speaking of ‘perfect’, ahem-

Maybe the fate of The Hobbit was obvious

As the LOTR trilogy progresses, some of its missteps become more frequent and jarring- that dreaded word ‘overconfidence’ rearing its ugly head again, as if Peter Jackson was so chuffed by his new film-making toy set and what it could do that he wanted to play with it until it broke, and he lost any self-restraint. The whole Army of the Dead sequence is brutally inept, losing all of the books tension and horror – and when the avalanche of skulls threatens to engulf our heroes (this is AFTER the undead army has agreed to terms with Aragorn) its like something from some other movie- pertinently, its like something from The Hobbit movies. There’s a few moments in the films when any bafflement regards how those Hobbit films could have turned out so bad seems like no surprise at all: indeed it even seems inevitable. The irony that the book of The Hobbit is such a gentle adventure and it was blown into this huge trilogy of spectacle is almost too painful to bear.  ‘More’ isn’t always the same as ‘better’ and restraint is often the smartest course of action- just because you can throw armies of thousands of digital characters onto the screen doesn’t mean you have to, nor that a battle of thousands has anymore dramatic power than a simple one-on-one fight: yet its a lesson that film-makers and their digital trickery do not heed. In fairness to Jackson, maybe it was the studio and the external producers demanding something as big as LOTR when he should have been better making something rather more low-key and fanciful, and minus that silly romance between an Elf and a Dwarf (as if Gimli and Legolas wasn’t plenty enough).

LOTR prefigures me too, ‘woke-ism’ etc:

Witch King: “You fool. No man can kill me. Die now!” Eowyn: “I am no man!” (kills Witch King). I mean, that’s how you do it. You don’t draw attention to it or turn into a banner for some political movement. Strong women have been in films for decades, just ask Ripley and Sarah Connor.

The music is extraordinary

What Howard Shore achieved with his scores for these films is beyond exceptional, and like John William’s work for the original Star Wars trilogy, his music lifts the whole LOTR trilogy to some other level beyond anything Peter Jackson could have hoped for. Its a great reminder of the power of film music, its just a pity no-one heeded it, considering the state of film-scoring now.

We wants it, we needs it. Must have the Precious 4K

lotrQuick, get it while you can– oh frack. Sold out already. That’s the oh-so-pretty-isn’t it-me-precious- steelbook edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy coming out on 4K UHD in December (or, hey, 30th November for us Brits).  Are production runs in this Age of Covid (hmm, sounds quite Toklienesque) so limited or is the demand for 4K LOTR so great? (hint, I really don’t think its the latter). I was actually humming and ahhing about it (I enjoy the LOTR films but I don’t think I have actually watched my extended boxset on Blu-ray at all, another Shelf of Shame candidate) but fortunately, as it turned out I opted on pre-ordering on the off chance and scarcely thirty minutes later Amazon had frozen orders, presumably having exhausted their allocation. It does look nice (the standard edition being a digipack lacking the dazzle). I know. I know. But its practically Christmas when this set comes out, and we’ll need stuff to cheer us up this year of all years won’t we, during the impending Covid Festivities of Christmas 2020. Bad enough the nights drawing in and the days getting colder, its hard not to feel down about everything going on in the world. Lets get what pleasures we can while we still can, yeah?

How very hedonistic. That my freinds is the ‘word of the day’ : hedonistic.

Origins of Mordor: Tolkien

Tolk2Films are not the place to look for facts or cold hard Truth. Films prefer to smooth things out, preferably with a happy ending, or certainly something life affirming. Always take a biography on film with a pinch of salt. But there is always something enticing about the ideal pictures that films paint, something seductive.

On paper, a biography of JRR Tolkien seems the unlikeliest of subjects for a film. Tolkien was, as far as I know, a very traditional Englishman a world apart from those we consider ourselves to be today, a wholly different generation that possibly ended with the Great War. Fascinated by language, mythology and history, an Oxford scholar quite averse to celebrity or wealth – and likely quite ignorant of the Hollywood machine that turned his most popular works into something else entirely, making billions of dollars and earning Oscars and fabulous wealth for those involved. One has to wonder what he would have thought of the hugely successful LOTR trilogy; he may have been ruefully chagrined by the whole spectacle, and as someone who read the books in the 1970’s, I can sympathise with those that feel the films woefully inappropriate. A LOTR trilogy close to Tolkien’s original vision might be the biggest and most elaborate arthouse movies ever made, far removed from the popular-culture films Peter Jackson produced. Something more Boorman (Excalibur) than Jackson, I think.

Tolk1The narrative of Tolkien is rather mundane, if understandably so- its a dramatisation of Tolkien’s early life, from his orphaned childhood to later years at college, and the narrative is how his experiences and friendships over those years, and his experiences on the battlefield of the Somme during WWI, informed his later creations of Middle Earth and the saga of the Ring, images of which are scattered throughout the film.

I suspect some liberties may have been taken. The film has the feel of… well, I’ve raised this before regards films based on true events or life stories: in making a dramatic work, you can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Tolkien’s biography does have elements of the remarkable to it, and there is no doubt that his harrowing experiences of the Great War and the loss of his friends had a huge effect on what he later wrote in his stories. It is perhaps inevitable that the wholesome, Sunday-afternoon matinee movie feel of the film is perpetuates through the war sequences which are suggestive rather than as graphic as they might have been, the whole film perpetuating a very mild matinee sheen. I’m thinking, Downton Abbey. Maybe that’s inevitable, it seems that’s how the outside world thinks we lived in the past, our own equivalent of the Hollywood Wild West.

The film is heartfelt and well-intentioned, but lacks the darkness that I think really infected Tolkien’s actual work. In the tradition of Downton Abbey, everyone seems handsome or gorgeous or noble or good or combinations thereof, almost as if we are seeing an inspirational ideal rather than the possible reality that Tolkien lived, something that unfortunately reduces Edith to an underwritten love-interest. Its all harmless and entertaining but lacks any genuine surprises and any drama feels idealised, or distant. Its a harmless film, really.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

...and, er, where's Bilbo, exactly...?
…and, er, where’s Bilbo, exactly…?

The problem with these Hobbit films, it seems to me, is that they just aren’t The Hobbit. Purists had problems with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but those films were gospel compared to the liberties taken with The Hobbit in making it a trilogy. The book The Hobbit was about Bilbo Baggins and his adventure with a company of dwarves. That adventure seems almost incidental to the big wide story told in The Hobbit film trilogy.  There are whole new characters and plots and arcs that are just there to pad out the story and add ties to the LOTR trilogy; its all about making a six-film saga. Whether that’s about ticket sales or DVD/Blu-ray boxset sales, I don’t know, but I sincerely suspect its all about the financial gains rather than any artistic merit. The case of Smaug is a prime example- any dramatic weight and build-up to the dragons climactic attack on Laketown and how he is finally beaten is completely dissipated by shoving it over to the beginning of the third film rather than having it at the end of the second film. It leaves the second film with an awkward and infuriating cliffhanger, dumps the action into the awkward start of the third chapter and loses any dramatic power. No doubt it will seem okay when its all part of a boxset over consecutive nights but as far as separate movies are concerned, trilogy or not, its crazy decision-making and robs the sequence of the climactic power it should have. Smaug is such a highlight of the book, but he becomes, like Bilbo, almost incidental to the Bigger Picture that Jackson is so fascinated by.

Its such a pity, because having now seen these three Hobbit films, I have to say, there’s perhaps two great films here. Had it been a Hobbit Part One and a Hobbit Part Two, I think we may indeed have had something great- as it is the parts (and whole) are lessened considerably by going with a trilogy.

Sadly it just seems to be symptomatic of where films are going these days, drifting into a HBO-style miniseries format of episodic tales (albeit with huge budgets). That’s another problem I have with these particular Hobbit films; they didn’t need to be so huge, so spectacular. The films are at their best when they are at their most intimate. Its something that was true of the LOTR films too but Peter Jackson and company seem to have lost sight of that lesson. Instead we just go bigger, louder, as if that is inherently better, which is simply not true. The Hobbit is at its best when we have the marvellous Martin Freeman onscreen, whether he be in peril and working his way through his adventure, the films are at their worst when Martin Freeman is swamped by CGI or indeed offscreen and replaced by countless hundreds of cgi characters and creatures telling someone else’s story. Besides, I always thought of The Hobbit as a charming, simple, somewhat intimate adventure. It was never supposed to be as big or important as LOTR, surely?

These films are an opportunity lost, then. Maybe somebody will do a fan-edit one day, stripping them down somehow. There’s two good films in there, somewhere.

 

The Hildebrandt Tolkien

BHCVRSMALLI think it must have been back in 1980 when I bought this artbook of the paintings of The Brothers Hildebrandt. I knew of them from the glorious Star Wars painting that they did a few years before- Luke and Leia may not have really looked in the movie anything like how they looked in that painting (I recall something about Carrie Fisher mocking it or being embarrassed about it at the time), but goodness it was a gorgeous painting. I had a print of it up on my bedroom wall, and years later when in sixth form,  when I was given an art project to do a self-portrait, I painted the Hildebrandt Star Wars poster with me in Luke Skywalker’s place. One day if ever I find that painting (its around here somewhere) I’ll take a photo of it to give you all something to laugh at. But yeah, I loved that poster of theirs, such an iconic work of art. It kind of captured my childhood image of Star Wars, something the films could never really live up to, but only art could (or the wonderful soundtrack score, which I had on cassette for my 12th birthday).  It’s very 1970s, very colourful, bright, very Disco. It’s gorgeous.  Its the definitive Star Wars image as seen through the lens of my Childs Eye of the time. I don’t know how true it is, but it was said that they painted that Star Wars poster in just 36 hours. Good grief.

If I remember UNI8100B.tifcorrectly, I bought the ‘Art of The Brothers Hildebrandt’ around the same time I bought one of the Ballantine artbooks that collected Frank Frazetta paintings. Such collections were quite popular at the time and were feasts for my eyes. The Hildebrandt book was really mouth-watering, as it featured a wide variety of their paintings but most importantly several of the paintings for their Tolkien calendars. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was their three Tolkien calendars that ‘put them on the map’ so to speak, made them hugely famous (and rich, possibly, but that I don’t really know), and led to that iconic Star Wars poster that I so loved.

The Brothers Hildebrandt – Greg and Tim Hildebrandt- were twins; it was said back then that their work was so alike that you could not tell where ones brush stokes ended and the others’ began. This was just publicity nonsense, as it turned out, but it was taken as fact for many years. The fact that the two bearded twins -they always looked like wild hippies to me in pictures-could create such remarkable artwork so seamlessly together was something that fascinated me. Usually artists styles were so very different -at school the drawings and paintings my mates and I did looked so very different to each others, it would be impossible for any of us to work together on a painting. I could not imagine how two people could work on a painting like the Brothers Hildebrandt did. They were twins, they were great artists, they worked together- it seemed the stuff of magic. I notice I write in the past tense; one of the brothers, Tim, died in 2006. Greg still paints, far as I know (he must be in his early or mid-seventies now) but the Brothers Hildebrandt are no more.

BHLOTRCVRRecently I came across this amazing  book, ‘The Tolkien Years of the Brothers Hildebrandt’  which as its title suggests collects all of the paintings from those three calendars with lots of preliminary artwork, sketches and photos the artists took for reference. It’s a wonderful book.  As I never had any of the actual Tolkien calendars, the only paintings from those calendars I had were in that original artbook published in 1979, so there are many paintings in this book that are new to me. It is especially interesting to see these paintings in light of the Peter Jackson films that came out several years ago (indeed, I believe this new edition of this book was issued to tie-in with the release of The Hobbit movie). The paintings by the Hildebrandt brothers show a very, well, 1970s vision of LOTR, a richly-coloured, fairy-tale vision quite at odds with the toned-down, rather realistic approach that the movies took. It would be erroneous of me to suggest that they are closer to the true ‘vision’ of Tolkien, but I do feel that they capture a magical, bold, colourful LOTR that the films failed to. These are more Classical, almost medieval images, more akin to the Golden Age of Disney Animation than the films that Peter Jackson made. There is much of the original Disney Snow White movie, and Pinnochio and the  Fantasia film, in these paintings. Much of this was intentional, as that was the style they were aiming for.  To be honest, when I looked at those paintings back in 1980, it was a time that the LOTR books were still unfilmable- the images could only possibly exist in painted form, as the technology simply was not there to make a ‘proper’ LOTR film. Even those wizards of ILM would be unable to bring it to life in any way like the Hildebrandt paintings did.

bhlotr4

The painting above, of Eowyn fighting the Nazgul,  was always one of my favourites of the Tolkien paintings the Hildebrandt brothers did. Something about it was utterly arresting. Somehow it always seemed to capture the fantastic nature of the Tolkien books, the way the artists captured the play of the light, how it symbolised the goodness and purity of Eowyn against the depravity of the agent of Mordor. I used to look at that painting and imagine it coming to life, like a movie in my head. The actual movies wouldn’t come until a quarter-century later, and even then they could never quite capture the magic of the Hildebrandt paintings.

BHLOTR6 There is a wonderful timelessness and sense of Classical Reality to the best of the Hildebrandt Tolkien art. Larger than life, utterly fantastic. Golden shafts of light, Godlike- almost Bibilical indeed. The figures were realistic (the brothers worked from photos they took of family and friends posing to match preliminary sketches) but the magical play of light, and the rich golden colours, the deep, velvety blues, all worked to create a playful, almost hypnotic fairy-tale aspect to the paintings. A fantastic reality perhaps. Or Disney for grown-ups.  I don’t know; it just seemed that no-one could quite capture that golden, fantastic light like the Hildebrandts did. It was totally at odds with the grim, brutal art that Frank Frazetta had created for the REH covers.  Not better, necessarily – certainly I doubt for all their ability the twins could have matched Frazetta’s REH stuff but likewise I doubt that Frazetta could have pictured Tolkien as well as they. One was fantasy, the other Sword & Sorcery. bhlotr5I rather think that Peter Jackson’s movies made a deliberate decision to meld the two approaches, funnily enough. I would love to have seen LOTR movies that looked as fantastic and colourful as the Hildebrant paintings. Maybe they would have looked camp and silly and have been laughed at by Joe Public, but goodness what amazing movies they might have been.

The Tolkien Years of the Brothers Hildebrandt’ is a fantastic book. With commentary by Gregory Hildebrandt Jr, who was five back when the first paintings were created in 1975 and was the reference for the Hobbits featured in them, the book is full of nice anecdotes and wonderful sketches and photographs. The sketches in particular are so detailed and wonderfully drawn, some of them are better than the paintings. Its all a fine insight into the creative process of those works of art.  The book can be easily purchased on Amazon, and is worth every penny.  I do find it interesting, albeit likely totally coincidental, that the recent first film of The Hobbit trilogy seemed to have a bit of that certain fairy-tale, golden light in its cinematography, which reminded me of the Hildebrandt touch when I saw it at the cinema.