The battle for Middle-Earth has turned ugly, but you wouldn’t know it by the way Peter Jackson treats it. Simply put, never has so much mayhem, treachery, villainy and peril made us feel so warm inside.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” is the spectacular second installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy and Jackson, a New Zealander who could pass for a Hobbit himself, directs it with rare bravado and passion. The adventures of Frodo and Sam, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and Merry and Pippin, set amidst the sinister presence of Sauron and Saruman, have been captured with faithful devotion to Tolkien’s source material while at the same time enlivened with 21st century wizardry to produce an astonishing piece of filmmaking.
Jackson’s team, including writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair, keep the narrative moving at a wicked pace but don’t let the unfolding story developments get in the way of revealing characters. Of special note is Gollum, a computer-generated creature torn between two voices who serves as a guide for Frodo and Sam. When a bizarre being like Gollum can exhibit more humanity than most flesh-and-blood figures in the vast majority of Hollywood studio pictures, you know you’re dealing with filmmakers at the top of their game.
The second in the trilogy is now available in a four-disc box set with enough extras to choke an orc. Discs One and Two contain a gorgeous widescreen version of the film (special kudos to cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose breathtaking camera work is often overlooked because of all the CGI) with 43 minutes of new and extended scenes. There are also commentary tracks by Jackson, the writers, members of the cast and the production team.
On Discs Three and Four are documentaries galore — 13, to be exact. Most of the docs provide behind-the-scenes glimpses about the preparation and making of the film. The task of bringing Gollum to life gets special attention, as it deserves.
Jackson is a genius, and if you’re waiting for the third installment of the trilogy for more evidence before making that determination yourself, then sift through this boxed set. That should do the trick.
Check out this special feature: Of all the documentaries, perhaps the most fascinating is the one about J.R.R. Tolkien himself, the origins of the “Lord of the Rings” saga, his kaffeeklatsch of literary peers (substitute ale for coffee) and the reception to his works. As it turns out, there are three books instead of one huge one because of a post-war paper shortage. I guess that saved us from one nine-hour movie, but then again, considering Jackson’s sure hand, that wouldn’t be so bad.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” Special Collectors Edition Jack Elam sits, waiting for a train, his hat pull down. Suddenly a fly lands on his cheek. He
twitches. He frowns. He blows some air at it, hoping it will get the hint. The fly continues to patrol his face. Elam is perturbed.
Nowadays, directors would cut away from the fly to a whole nest of flies. Or they would smash the fly so its guts would spurt out in a slow-motion closeup. Or they would place the camera so it would give us the fly’s point of view.
But this is Sergio Leone’s way of building tension. After all, Elam and his pistoleros are at the station, waiting, but we don’t know why. Then Charles Bronson arrives, and we know why.
Leone has one of the most unique voices in cinema, it’s on display in grand fashion in a special two-disc set of one of his most overlooked works. “Once Upon a Time in The West” is not a great story in the classic sense, because it exists as an homage to all of the Westerns Leone admired as a film buff, but it is a great experience and terrifically entertaining. Most notably, it features Henry Fonda as a murderous bad guy, and it is a splendid example of how a legendary actor rises to the occasion when presented with a career challenge. In fact, all of the performances are impeccable, especially those of Bronson, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale.
This package includes commentary by Leone aficionados John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox as well as film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall. It also includes a then-and-now locations gallery, cast profiles and three documentaries, with some interview footage of Leone himself in 1984 when he was finishing up his masterpiece, “Once Upon a Time in America.”
All in all, an epic spaghetti Western with a largely American cast is served up in sumptuous fashion.
Check out this special feature: All three documentaries are wonderful. The first, entitled “An Opera of Violence,” features the delightful tidbit of how Claudia Cardinale became the first complex female character in Leone’s Westerns — and is told by Bernardo Bertolucci, a friend and admirer of Leone who receives a share of story credit on this picture.
Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based reporter who writes regularly for MSNBC.com.