Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of The Rings is widely considered to be the best high fantasy adaptation of all time, a sweeping epic that mixes spectacle with character work to magnificent effect. Understandable that eyes were rolled then with the revelation that Amazon Studios bought the rights to Tolkien’s work, deploying a generous $1 billion budget to bring the book to the small screen. How can you improve that? Yet, Jackson’s adaptation was not the first. The 40th anniversary of Ralph Bakshi’s animated version is a great reminder that no two adaptations of any book are the same, and that Middle Earth is a rich enough place to accommodate drastically different visions. In fact, a look back at Bakshi’s version shows why a new version of Middle Earth should be welcomed.
Although highly flawed in terms of character work and storyline — and working off a $4 million budget 80 times smaller than the $330 million Peter Jackson was gifted — The Lord of The Rings was a fine effort to bring Middle Earth to the big screen. Mixing traditional cel animation with innovative rotoscoping techniques, Ralph Bakshi’s version is simpler than Jackson’s in conception but darker in execution. While a sometimes terrifying animated vision of a world beset with darkness, it suffers massively from a botched production schedule.
The story of both productions couldn’t be more different. While Jackson had plenty of time to write treatments, scripts, and storyboards before starting a lengthy production schedule, Bakshi made The Lord of The Rings in just two years, forced by United Artists to meet a difficult deadline and deliver the film under budget. This pressure forced Bakshi to improvise wildly, something no director could have pulled off given the innate scope of the story. Filming across USA and Spain, then scrambling to finish the edits in time for release, The Lord of The Rings shows its scars across its frustratingly unfinished product.
The eternal appeal of Tolkien’s tale is just how vast it seems to be. Even the original novel, a kinda-sequel to The Hobbit, is steeped in a wider mythology that requires you to read his other books to understand absolutely everything. Bakshi understood this when he wanted to adapt the movie, telling the Hollywood Reporter that he was incensed when he found out that John Boorman, director of Deliverance, was going to adapt the novel into just one movie:
“For a Tolkien fan, I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d heard in my fuckin’ life. … You can’t squeeze those three books into one picture unless you’re making a Roger Corman film.”
Bakshi’s Lord of The Rings was first intended as a three-part movie, but producers battled him down to two films. They also didn’t want to label the first film as part one, leaving audiences confused when it just ended after the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Bakshi was so incensed by the whole process that he refused to be involved in a sequel, although Rankin/Bass released a musical version of Return of the King in 1980 that had little stylistic similarities.
There are some stories that benefit from a brisk runtime. Thrillers, romantic comedies and animated films usually play better when they’re shorter, as themes are so often tied to the storyline itself; keeping the narrative tidy is a great way to make them shine brighter. Unless you’re working from original material, high fantasy epic needs more breathing room. Although it is 132 minutes long, that is an extremely brisk rendition of events considering the source material, making it feel like a barebones recap. The Lord of the Rings rushes through the story of Frodo and the Ring at such a quick pace there is little time to wonder why Boromir is wearing a Viking hat.
What makes the Jackson version such a monumental success is how character motivation is weaved between action scenes in a way that doesn’t drag (one’s personal mileage on the extended editions will vary). Thus, the three main heroes of the story — Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo — grow both physically and mentally in order to become capable of saving Middle Earth. In the 1978 film, the three of them only have time to act out the main scenes from the book instead of being fully-fleshed out characters in their own right. They remain cartoons — not people.
Additionally, this past version was simply too faithful to the novel, giving the film little true tension. Peter Jackson made crucial changes in the adaptation — like condensing Gandalf’s absence of seventeen years into seemingly no time at all — in order to increase the high drama needed for a cinematic translation. Bakshi is more faithful to the events of the novel, but what works well on the page translates poorly to the screen, leading to simplistic dialogue scenes instead of moments of gripping action. For example, his conclusion to the events of The Fellowship of the Ring — having the orcs attack after Frodo has already left — gives little drama to these scenes, making his solo departure feel inconsequential. Although Tolkien purists will disagree with me, sometimes changes do need to be made in order to make something work as cinema, especially when dealing with a story of this scope. Television, however, may be able to accommodate a completely fidelitous adaptation, giving Amazon’s attempt yet another good reason to exist.
Where 1978’s The Lord of The Rings soars is through its haunting, strange visuals, which couldn’t be more different from Jackson’s. The drastic changes of colour, and the way they saturate the entire screen, call to mind early tinted silent cinema. This is more a Middle Earth of one’s nightmares than a fully transportive place, heavy on Murnau-esque shadow and expressionistic design. For example, Frodo’s horseback escape from the ring-wraiths takes place in an empty desert, the riders tinged in a terrifying otherworldly green. While the editing leaves a lot to be desired in terms of creating tension, this scene is bathed in an ominous atmosphere, giving Frodo’s journey a real sense of danger. In comparison to the Arwen-assisted chase of the Jackson version — where it is obvious that they will get away — here, first-time viewers may not be so sure.
Bakshi was fond of rotoscoping techniques — both to skimp on the budget and to create a realistic sense of action. This was achieved by filming live action and then drawing over it. While it is easy to laugh now at the fact the Fellowship only seem to fight three or four orcs at a time, their movement feels real and the emotional effect is intact. The director would even blend both traditional animation and rotoscoping in the same scene, creating a truly strange cinematic texture. While hardly as seamless as Jackson’s blend of CGI and live action, there is something oddly charming about how delirious this version looks. It coalesces brilliantly in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, with even the high wailing soundtrack chipping in to create a real sense of danger.
For real LOTR obsessives (and I include myself in this category), having different versions of the same story is a blessing, not a curse. There are many things in Jackson’s adaptation — great though it is — that I would have liked to see, including more songs, Tom Bombadil, and the Scouring of the Shire. Additionally, literature is always open to interpretation, and there is a danger with definitive adaptations in that they lock in how one should envision a book instead of inspiring the use of your own imagination. A television adaptation, which I calculated should encompass at least eight seasons of different lengths*, could be the perfect way to both satiate this childhood desire to see Tom Bombadil in the flesh, and to reimagine the look of Middle Earth anew. One only hopes that they go directly back to the novel itself and not try and ape the look of Jackson’s trilogy. Bakshi’s delirious attempt should prove an inspiration, an example showing that with a little imagination, anything can happen in Middle Earth.
*Season One: The Shire, World-Building
Season Two: Trip to Rivendell
Season Three: Moria, Lothlórien, Break-up of the Fellowship
Season Four: Split between Frodo in Gondor, Fangorn Forest, and Battle for Helms Deep
Season Five: Gathering troops to save Minas Tirith, Merry and Pippin individual journeys, Eowyn struggling against patriarchy, Aragorn becoming the true king, enlisting Army of the Dead
Season Six: Battle for Minas Tirith, Frodo and Sam vs Shelob, Frodo’s capture and Sam having to save him
Season Seven: Preparing for the Black Gate, The Black Gate, Frodo and Sam destroy the ring, Aragorn crowned king
Season Eight: The Scouring of the Shire
25 Years Later: ‘Before Sunrise’ Crafts an Enduring Romance Founded on Empathy
Richard Linklater’s 1995 film features one of the strongest relationships in cinema, bound to the idea that understanding is crucial to being able to love.
“If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something”
Before Celine (Julie Delpy) agrees to go on a night of adventure in Vienna with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), she is told that her decision is akin to time travel. Serving as a pick-up line and audacious concept, Jesse’s cheesy attempt to get her off the train is the jumping off point for what Before Sunrise ultimately becomes before the two lovers part ways. Richard Linklater’s 1995 classic opens with Jesse positing that seizing the moment helps both strangers avoid future and past regret. Where the film goes from there is what Celine so eloquently captures in the above quote: “…the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.” Its empathetic viewpoint is what structures the entirety of Before Sunrise, and eventually goes on to shape each subsequent installment in the series.
Unsurprising is that Linklater took the concept of Before Sunrise from his own personal experience, which helps shape an assured film with a very minimalist plot. Jesse and Celine merely wander the streets of Vienna until the next day, when Celine leaves and Jesse prepares to head back to America. Co-written by Kim Krizan, it’s the long-winded conversations and exchange of ideas that defines their relationship for audiences. The way Jesse can move from talking about his friend taunting a homeless man with $100 to Celine contemplating feminism as a means for men to have more sex, switching just as quickly to ruminations on death, old age, and the power of love — that’s what gives the film its potency. The openness that the two share isn’t merely a ticking clock pressuring them to expose themselves to each other. They’re opening up out of comfort, and building upon a relationship that has quickly defined itself by finding meaning in the moments shared.
It also helps that the two leads, Hawke and Delpy, come together to convey a chemistry so poetic and charming that all you want is to spend more time with them; one night is quite simply not enough. Hawke’s grungy cynicism barely masks a romantic at heart, evident in the way he can’t stop watching Celine’s every movement, and how he reaches out to her only to pull back in hesitation. The bond between them is barely matured early on in Before Sunrise, allowing Hawke to play Jesse like he’s handling a delicate balance between smooth-talking gentleman and an open-book of philosophical ideas about a decaying world that’s lost the plot. What becomes evidently clear is how open Celine is from the very beginning, and how much that open form of communication is what she not only wants, but demands in a relationship.
Meanwhile, Delpy’s performance is filled with so much passion that when Celine starts immediately discussing death or prodding at the way men behave, she imbues it with an eccentricity that gives the two of them something to counter each other with throughout the night. Even the quieter moments capture an emotional intensity, such as the two sharing a listening booth in a record shop. No words are spoken as they dodge each other’s eyes, taking in every moment between them as Kath Bloom sings “No, I’m not impossible to touch/I have never wanted you so much.”
Decades later, and Before Sunrise remains one of Richard Linklater’s crowning achievements. Combined with the later films in the series (Before Sunset and Before Midnight were released in 2004 and 2013, respectively), Jesse and Celine have endured for so long because like love, the films have been a collaborative process between Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. However, regardless of what happened in those other films, Before Sunrise was the first, and it was — much like its successors and Jesse and Celine’s night together — thought to be the last time audiences would see the two together. Its beauty is in the fact that it never feels like there’s a definitive endpoint in their time together; even the ending leaves a possible reunion up in the air.
It’s also powerful because Before Sunrise channels empathy in all of its encounters. Even beyond Jesse and Celine trying to understand one another and navigate the feelings they have for each other, they also encounter a cast of characters that force them to confront behavior, ideals, and the root of their motivations. The best example is a fortune teller who tells Celine her fortune. Smitten with the reading she’s received, Jesse immediately starts tearing down the fortune teller’s profession, calling it all a scam. His cynicism towards life itself begins rearing its head, but Celine disregards him and states she loves what the fortune teller said. A later encounter with a street poet has Celine staring at Jesse as he holds back his desire to call it a hustle, until she asks what’s going on and he begins tearing down the street poet’s gimmick, only to stop himself midway through a rant when Celine asks him to explain his disdain further — instead exclaiming that he loves it.
In any other pairing of people, Jesse’s constant focus on capitalism as the motivation behind all good things in life would probably turn most women away. Celine comes at the relationship from the perspective that good things come out of conflict; she says as much while the street poet is conjuring up a poem about the two lovers. Jesse worries that they’ve already had their first fight, and Celine comforts him with the acknowledgement that just because they had an argument doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. In fact, that good thing that came out of the argument was a strengthening of their relationship, and understanding of each other. Before Sunrise is a movie all about those moments of interaction where we try to understand one another. However, it’s also a deeply moving study of two specific characters put on a path based on one huge decision they made. The rest of their time is shaped by much smaller moments.
Before Sunrise will always be that one night in Vienna where two people took a chance and shared a profound moment that may or may not have changed the course of their lives. It was an intimate moment that we shared with Jesse and Celine, watching two people connect and open up with each other until they realized they had so much more they wanted to share with the other, and so little time to do it. Linklater’s film is a masterpiece in romantic storytelling because it understands that romance is not necessarily dependent on grand gestures or constant confessions of love and compassion — it’s the understanding that even talking about something completely unrelated is rooted in wanting to tell that person that specific thing. As Celine puts it, there’s magic in the attempt to understand sharing something with someone — a universal message that still feels just as powerful today.
‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie
The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.
Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.
Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.
Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.
There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.
Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.
Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.
Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces
Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.
I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.
The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.
Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.
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