Everything wraps up in the most important of the extended home video cuts

By Drew McWeeny
Friday, Dec 30, 2011 8:50 PM

To be honest, that's usually how Elijah Wood looks at the end of a long night of movies at Fantastic Fest, but in this case, it's the climax of 'Return Of The King' we're looking at
Credit: New Line Home Video

The mail from you guys about the liveblogging this week has been interesting, and if it's something you'd like to do on some sort of regular schedule, we can try that in the new year. I would happily pick some of my favorite movies on Blu-ray and a time when we can watch them together. Or newer movies. Or movies I've never seen, but should have, which could be interesting as well.

Whether we continue it or not, though, I'm glad to have finally sat down to see these movies again. Time had diminished them somewhat in my mind, reduced them to the set pieces and the spectacle and the hype, and I had forgotten what really makes them special, the human and emotional content of the movies. And now, as I gear up for "Return Of The King," I'm nearly as excited as I was before I saw the film for the first time in 2003, eager to see everything tied together.

Tonight's going to be a long one, so I just had a sandwich, I've got a few drinks set aside, and I'm powdered and primped and ready to go. We've got over four hours of movie ahead, which will make this an Oscar-length live-blog. A marathon. And as I said last night before "The Two Towers," it's been long enough that I really have forgotten much of this movie already.

I'm amazed at how many remarkable moments I'd forgotten. That whole bit at the end of "Towers" between Frodo and the Nazgul is gorgeous and creepy and bizarre, and I'd totally forgotten it, and I'd forgotten the way Frodo almost attacks Sam for stopping him, furious at the idea that he didn't get to hand the Ring over. Wonderful, and this revisit is giving me all of these moments anew, which is one of the reasons I intentionally set them aside for a while.

Toshi has been arguing his case like he's appealing his own death sentence, passionate and determined, absolutely ready to sit down and watch all three films with me right now. Only... he's not. Not really. He gets images in his head and treats them as nightmare fuel in a way that even Allen doesn't. Toshi tends to really feel the movies he watches, engaging with them deeply, and I think these films are full of stuff he's really not equipped to see yet.

But the interest is there, and so I showed him the trailer for "The Hobbit." He immediately understood that it was "more" of "Lord Of The Rings," and I made him a deal. He can see the movie in theaters next Christmas with me, but only if we read the book (as in I read, he listens and discusses) before the film comes out. He says he's up for it, and if so, this should be a real treat of a year.

But for now... let's press play and start the final steps of this giant journey..
Just as I feel a certain twinge every time I see the 20th Century Fox fanfare, expecting to see a "Star Wars" film afterwards, any time I see that New Line logo now, part of me expects to hear Howard Shore's music kick in immediately afterward.

The story of Smeagol and Deagol is really well-handled here, practically a Hobbit parable, and I like how this was always Fran Walsh's special project, something she felt very strongly about. I believe she even directed this sequence. It was also nice to finally see Andy Serkis in the flesh and to see how good he is on-camera, without the added filter of performance capture. It's interesting how quickly this goes from the broad comic sensibility of a Hobbit being pulled along by a fish to the naked ugly nature of the murder, more upsetting than much of the violence in the trilogy because of the close-up and coarse manner in which it's handled.

What kind of crazy-ass acid trip do you think Smeagol went on when he first put that Ring on his finger? How long do you think he went before he took it off? His deterioration over time, handled primarily through make-up, is more awful than I would have expected, and the moment where he goes from a man in make-up to a CGI creation is so subtle that it would be easy for viewers to miss. It certainly establishes just what the stakes are for Frodo, who's getting that junkie itch at this point.

For me, even before "Fellowship" came out, I always felt like "Return of the King" was going to be Sam's movie to finally step forward as a character, and it's a moment like that exchange with Frodo, and the quiet optimism of his line "The journey home" that I find so devastating in a film like this. The journey home is so much a part of what these movies are about that I don't understand people complaining about "too many endings." The endings are the meat.

We'll get there, though. First, this stuff at the beginning is, I'm fairly sure, not from the theatrical cuts. And yet it's an essential bridge into this film, bringing people back together this way. It's hilarious to me how blatantly Pippin and Merry are playing that longbottom leaf as having a particularly strong kick. Ahem. Nicely done, gentlemen.

Theoden finally getting to confront the man who had possessed him, who ran his kingdom down, is a key moment, and important for both of them. I do love the Tower of Isengard, such a striking design. And Saruman's taunt using his Palantir is nice, because it alerts them to the danger that's still lurking out there.

I also like seeing Wormtongue realize just how much he bet on the wrong horse, and handling the end of Saruman onscreen seems like one of those essential things. He's been such a source of suffering in the film so far that he has to be taken out in some way. For it to be that painful an end... well, it seems fitting. And it puts a punctuation mark on everything from the last film, allowing a natural break for everyone to regroup and relax.

You know, I got a little heat yesterday for mentioning the palpable sexual tension between Eowyn and Aragorn, but no matter how good-hearted Aragorn is, there's some real smolder going on between them. And a shot like Pippin and Merry dancing together again almost comes as a shock because I'd forgotten how small the Hobbits are. The films don't really dwell on that fact, so every now and then, there's a reminder of scale that is striking like that one.

Oh, boy... Smeagol's off his meds, and we're starting to get more hints about "Her." If there's any one character that is going to keep me from screening this one for the kids for a while, it's "Her." Allen freaks out when he sees a spider the size of a dime. One the size of a Volkwagen might break him permanently.

Pro-tip: if you're a completely sociopath, you might not want to have complicated conversations about murder out loud within earshot of your proposed victims.

One thing people seem to forget, or that wasn't really emphasized when the films came out, is that Jackson had totally different editors on each of the films, and "Return Of The King" is the one where Jamie Selkirk, one of his oldest collaborators, finally took his shot at the material. This film feels very different than the others. There's so much quiet up front, so much information still just being established even this far into the series, and it's got a very different feel than the first two films.

This sequence with Pippin and the Palantir feels like vintage Jackson, and I think it's because you can feel Selkirk's hand in the mix somewhere.

It feels like those who oppose Sauron are finally starting to get their shit together, but the conflict between Rohan and Gondor is a nice reminder that people do not always act in their own best interests, and that allegiance and honor can be tricky things. The idea of Pippin and Gandalf becoming a duo, of Pippin and Merry apart, is something that feels impossible after the second film. This is where choices start to hurt.

Choices like the one Arwen's making, or the one that Aragorn made. Choices that may mean never seeing someone again, even if that someone is the reason you're fighting to preserve something in the first place.

Hey! Flight Of the Conchords! Yes, I know he has a name, but I choose to just call him that. I'm actually really glad Bret McKenzie is going to be in "The Hobbit," as he seems like an absolute perfect fit for the world as imagined by Jackson. In our recent interview, he talked about how much he enjoys writing songs to sing as various cast members show up to do scenes, and how some of the cast loves to sing along, like Ian McKellen. Man, I hope someone's shooting all of that.

It's easy to get blindsided by the sudden emphasis in this film of Aragorn's role in the unification of Middle-Earth, and the significance of his bloodline, because Jackson keeps it back-burnered for the first two films. But it makes emotional sense, as I don't see Aragorn exactly frantic to fulfill that destiny.

Holy cow, I forgot how gorgeous Minas Tirith is. I am so jealous of Harry Knowles for the time he spent on those sets. The scale of what they had to have built for some of this is just staggering, and it all comes together as a very real, easy to understand environment. I love that both Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith are very specific in the way they're laid out, so that when there is a battle, we know how things work and we don't have to figure it out mid-combat.

I have no idea how I made that boneheaded mistake the other night, calling Bernard Hill "John Noble" when Theoden first showed up. Bernard Hill's work is so great and so warm, and Noble is the one who is all frosted edge and simmering madness.

His Denethor is imposing and frightening in his broken state, and Pippin's pledge to his service is one of those impulsive moves that has huge ramifications for the rest of the movie.

Oh! Gandalf said the film's title! I think that means we all have to drink.

I can't believe it's already almost an hour into the film. This is what astonishes me with this series. Once you're in, you're in, and the pace is impressively maintained for the entire time. Here, we're still just setting up the tensions that have to play out in this film, like Denethor's refusal to acknowledge Aragorn as the true King, Sauron's search for Pippin and his belief that he has the Ring, Frodo and Sam's growing distance and the way Gollum is starting to manipulate it... all of it laid out in a way that feels organic, that draws us in without ever feeling like exposition.

That shot of Pippin handing up the water, Gandalf setting a hand on his shoulder... that's the sort of thing that truly sells the scale as something real. It doesn't announce itself as a trick or as some sort of important establishing shot, but it works almost subliminally to sell it through the small casual details, which I'm sure were planned out meticulously.

The Witch-King is played up here in order to give us a focus during the mayhem of the second half of the film, a recognizable physical bad guy that has to be defeated. Since the Nazgul don't have much individual identity, it's wise to put a big ol' bulls-eye on one of them.

Regarding that staircase... oh, HELL, no. Even without the giant spider, there is no way I'm going up steps like that.

Oh, wow... I forgot that sound. I love sound design, and a sound like that insane cracking/sucking/inverse lightning bolt sound is great because of how utterly alien it is. I don't know what would make that noise, but whatever it is, I wouldn't want to be there when it happened. It's like the Seal Of Hell itself opened, and this Army comes walking up out of it.

An aside here for a moment as we watch the river ambush scene: not enough credit is given to Jackson for the way he handles military strategy on film in these movies. I would say that the vast majority of films that have big battle set pieces are not terribly interested in the strategy of those scenes, perfectly happy to sacrifice that in favor of spectacle. With "The Two Towers" and "Return of The King" both, Jackson reveals himself as a Strategy Geek, and these movies are like the greatest game of Cinematic Risk every played. He has a compulsive need to lay things out so you can see the ebb and flow of a battle, and why things play out the way they do.

The lighting of the Beacons represents some of the best work of Shore's in the whole trilogy. The sheer amount of music he was responsible for would have crippled some composers, but he just kept bringing in great new themes, finding ways to build and underscore and support, and at least a few of the tears I spilled watching these originally were spilled because of Shore's efforts.

"Gondor calls for aid."

"And Rohan will answer." Oh, what a wonderful movie moment. Jackson had so many great voices at his disposal in these films, and he gave them such lovely words to say.

I forgot how much of this film simply deals with the logistics of massing for battle. It is no simple thing, and Jackson doesn't make it look immediate or simple. Yes, many of his armies were created in a computer for the film, but that doesn't mean he undersells the effort required to move all of these chess pieces into place on the massive game board that is the Pellinore Fields.

I like how the main Orc we see during the stuff involving Faramir looks like a tumor in a suit of armor. That is some seriously messed up make-up on that guy.

How crazy is it that this is the first confirmation anyone's had that Frodo and Sam are actually still alive?

You strip out all the fantasy and magic and monsters, and the father-son dynamic at play in the Boromir-Faramir-Denethor storyline is still rich enough to be an entire movie. Noble and Wenham have to suggest so much here, without Bean actually present, to show just how these three fit together. Or not, as the case may be. It was the first time I ever liked Bean in anything, and a tremendous introduction to both Wenham and Noble. I love that about these films, that the entire past decade, you see casting in dozens and dozens of movies that was directly influenced by choices Jackson made here, chances he took that paid off in the end.

"Yes. I wish that." I can't imagine any father ever saying that, but boy... Jackson lands it like a knockout punch on Wenham. Absolutely brutal.

Oh, hello, debilitating acrophobia. Yes, I will get dizzy now and have to close my eyes as we look down from where Sam and Frodo sleep.

It's clever how Gollum's plan to drive a wedge between Sam and Frodo only works because of the very nature of who Sam and Frodo are. He plays them beautifully, and I like how close Sam comes to killing Gollum in his anger. They're both stretched well past the point of breaking, and every little thing gets magnified, turned into life-and-death, and when they finally break, it's awful to watch. And Gollum loves it. He just drinks it up, thrilled to see them implode.

And Astin... man, he had to know how great a role this was, but I honestly think he made it better. There is nothing calculated about his Samwise. He plays him as an exposed nerve, completely honest and on the surface, and what you see is exactly what you get. When he realizes that Frodo doesn't trust him anymore, and he starts to crumble, there's nothing held back. Astin lets you see right into this guy's broken heart.

One thing I really loved about the "Hobbit" trailer was the use of the Dwarves singing, because that's so key to the way Tolkien wrote these books. Singing is a part of their world, a big part of how they communicate, and this sequence, with Pippin singing during Faramir's ride on the Orcs, Denethor positively disgusting as he eats and tries to sublimate what he's just sent his son to do, is lyrical and crushing at the same time. Not easy to do.