I have now sat through "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings" several times, including a few viewings of the film's extended edition, which was released on DVD earlier this Winter. When I originally saw the film theatrically, I liked it, but didn't love it and found it rather flawed - the first hour seemed too slow and I never really found myself fully involved in the characters. However, I warmed up to the film after its first DVD release and consider the extended version to be a very considerable improvement over the theatrical cut.
I'm pleased to say that I found "The Two Towers", the follow-up to the first picture, to be mostly a phenomenal piece of cinema (once again, I have not read the books - I'm going simply on what I thought of the film). The film may be the middle part of the trilogy, but that actually works for the opening of the picture - we know these characters and after the sudden close of the first film, most will likely be eager to see the adventure continue on-screen. The opening sixty minutes of the picture opens at a full-throttle pace as Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) continue to try and rescue hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) from their Orc captors. Elsewhere, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continue their journey to destroy the ring, guided by Gollum (Andy Serkis), a CGI-creature who is obsessed with the ring, but decides to serve as the guide for the two hobbits. There is also the return of Gandalf (Ian McKellen).
The film does split the story into a few pieces, although it's a credit to director Peter Jackson and the film's editors that the film cuts between the stories perfectly, with not too much time spent on one or another. This film focuses on Aragorn's character considerably more than anyone else, but that's not a bad thing: Viggo Mortensen is a terrific actor and the progression of this character is the most engaging part of this picture. Still, Frodo's quest is compelling material and even Merry and Pippin's ending up on the shoulders of a giant tree creature, Tree Beard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies) is enjoyable - a good mix of comedy and drama. While Gollum's tragic battle with his own soul is often very well-played, there is one darkly funny sequence with the creature battling himself that is quite amusing. The human actors also all provide uniformly stellar performances, with even some of the performances that have less screen-time (Liv Tyler's Arwen) remaining memorable.
All of this eventually builds towards the battle of Helm's Deep, a giant stone fortress that Aragorn, Pippin, Gimli, king Theoden (Bernard Hill) and an army of a few hundred men have retreated to. Sauruman (Christopher Lee)'s armies are sweeping across the lands, however, and its only a matter of time before they reach the gates. When they do - the film's last 20-25 minutes - it's something truly breathtaking. Facing impossible odds, the band of a few hundred looks out to face nearly 10,000.
The film does have a bit of a slow point around the middle, but both the opening and closing of the film proceed with more forward momentum than the first picture did in general. "The Two Towers" story, split into several sections, also feels larger than the first film - there's more going on, there feels like even more at stake and the urgency and emotion that Jackson is able to give many events in the film is remarkable.
Technically, the film is also remarkable. Peter Jackson and team, whose careful use of CGI mixed with astonishingly beautiful real locations only enhances the film, shows how computer effects should be used, unlike the latest "Star Wars" pictures, where the effects overwhelm everything else. Gollum, for example, is a far better character - in animation, voicing, writing, emotion and movement - than Lucas's horrid Jar-Jar Binks. Andrew Lesnie's cinematography once again makes the New Zeland locations look breathtakingly beautiful and epic. Howard Shore's score adds drama, tension and excitement without calling too much attention to itself. Production design is, once again, first-rate.
"The Two Towers" is not a flawless picture, but it is grand, epic filmmaking unlike anything I've seen in recent years. The continuing story of these great characters continues to be compelling, the realization of this world by Peter Jackson and crew is visually stunning and many scenes here are powerful and incredibly memorable - especially the Helm's Deep sequence, which is more amazing than anything I've seen on the big screen in recent memory.
One of the year's finest films.