There and back again : A writer’s tale by Vance McCarty

When I was around six or seven years old. My Brother started reading this book series and he would tell me and my family about it and it sounded wonderful, I fell in love with it just from hearing about it for my brother. Then we found out they were making a film series and mom immediately started buying everything she could find. I had just about every action figure they came out with(Especially from the second film) and even had all the Burger King toys and glasses(Still do!) Ten years later, after watching the movies and reading the books, The author’s story would inspire me to start writing my own stories and now here we are. This story is The Lord Of The Rings By J.R.R. Tolkien.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Lord Of The Rings films premiering in theaters. From the opening monologue delivered by Cate Blanchett as Galadriel to Sir. Ian McKellen as Gandalf fighting the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad Dum all the way to breaking of the fellowship at Amon Hen, this film introduced me to a world that I would never want to leave. As I got older I had read the books and discovered even more about Middle-Earth…and then about Beleriand after and Arda as a whole after that. The world that Tolkien created was one that my generation grew up with through films but the books are where you have to go if you want to truly enjoy the story for what it is : A masterpiece.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien began writing stories in the trenches of World War I on whatever pieces of paper he could find. These stories would go on to be the beginnings of The Silmarillion: the epic history of Arda. The Silmarillion reads more like a history book which covers major events over the course of around 4000 years. Although John would never actually see this story published it was a story that was very close to his heart. These stories include stories of Beren and Luthien, Turin Turambar, The Fall Of Gondolin, Feanor, Earendil and many more. His son, Christopher went on to publish the book four years after his father’s death. He compiled and edited hundreds of notes that were left for him and told us of this history. Christopher would go on to release many more books of his Father’s notes including early versions of Lord Of The Rings and The Silmarillion.

John, upon returning from the war, would continue teaching at Oxford and writing these stories, almost 20 years later he would publish one of them. The story was The Hobbit, which went on to become one of the best selling books of the 20th century and would redefine the idea of not only children books but also fantasy stories in general. The tale of the Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins, the Wizard: Gandalf and the Dwarves: Thorin Oakenshield and company would introduce us to a world unlike any other. These were stories that we could fully immerse ourselves in and learn about the world surrounding them. So, naturally, we wanted more.

In 1954-1955, Tolkien finally published The Lord Of The Rings, comprised of The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers and The Return Of The King. This is widely considered to be one of the greatest books of all time and it definitely earns that spot from a sprawling epic story that tells of the ring, the dark forces searching for it and a cast of characters that will stay with you long after reading it. Everyone is very interesting and complex and you genuinely want to see what happens with them because you truly care about all of them.

But why are these stories so close to us? What makes us have this longing for fantastical heroes and dark lords to challenge us? I think we as humans are imbued with a want for some sense of adventure and fantasy. Look around some spots of our world and you’d find that we are surrounded by magical areas(Places I fully intend on visiting sometime in my life.) It’s not hard to understand a longing to be a part of the Fellowship of the Ring, or in the company of an Aes Sedai, or joining with the Pevensies or Caspian or even traveling the northern lands of Westeros. Fantasy itself calls to us when it’s presented to us in a way that makes us feel like we are a part of it. You feel the characters pain and agony and you rejoice when they triumph over an obstacle. No one did this better than Tolkien.

Now some people will say that Tolkien is overrated or that they prefer their fantasy to have more Gray areas like some of the characters in Game Of Thrones and although I also love that series I have to say that clearly they weren’t paying enough attention to the books. Here’s a list of Characters that make many decisions that could easily be considered a bit more gray:

  • Feanor
  • Boromir
  • Denethor
  • Elrond
  • Thorin
  • Smeagol/Gollum
  • Bilbo
  • And even to some extent : Turin Turambar

Now I know that Tolkien does mostly feature characters that are either good or evil but their complexities lie beyond dark deeds or noble causes. Aragorn is a very conflicted character throughout much of The Lord Of The Rings due to his fear of becoming just like his ancestor. A fear that is even more solidified when he sees what the ring does to Boromir. His conflict doesn’t make him a gray character but gray doesn’t mean interesting and I’m personally very tired of that phase of writing that has become so prevalent in the last twenty years.(But that’s an article for another time)

Now, getting back to the the 15th anniversary of the films. When I first saw them, they were just fun films that I loved but it was years later when I would finally realize just how important these were not just to me but also the world of cinema.

Think about the ramifications of a group of people coming together to make a film of one of the greatest books of all time. It was widely considered to be unfilmable and it really was. The film leaves a lot out, naturally, but they do a really good job of streamlining the story without hurting Tolkien’s vision. I’ve always imagined these films to be the same way that Led Zeppelin was formed : the right people coming together at the right time to change the genre and make something that would stand the test of time.

The crew was clearly very careful about how they went about these films when it came to authenicity, primary example being Weta Workshop, Richard Taylor and Ngila Dickson. Taylor was the head of Weta and they made thousands of different weapons and armors for the films based on different designs from the medieval times and the paintings of Alan Lee and John Howe. Dickson was the designer of basically every piece that wasn’t armor, so you can imagine the job she had of coming up with different looks for the four primary groupings of Hobbits, Elves, Rohirrim and Gondorians without making them look similar. A lesser grouping of people would’ve made it into a mess of designing that just got jumbled up together but instead they made Middle-Earth come to life and that can’t be overstated.

The set design, which was also led by Taylor and Howe, has to be mentioned as well. Using the natural beauty of New Zealand was a perfect way to create different set pieces. Hobbiton and Edoras especially due to the fact that much of that was naturally done. Now, of course there were different sound stages they would use for inside scenes and everything else but most of what was filmed in fields, mountains and forest were done on some sort of location.

So we’ve gone over how they made Middle-Earth come to life but we haven’t even discussed one of the primary reasons I love this film : The Cast. The Casting is a rarity to me because I can’t imagine anyone else playing these roles, Ian McKellen is Gandalf, Christopher Lee was Saruman, Viggo Mortensen is Aragorn, Elijah Wood is Frodo and so on and so forth. All of these men and women brought these characters to life with a love and reverence for the story that I don’t think anyone could’ve done any better. There are so many great moments to choose from whether it’s Sam’s speech at the end of The Two Towers, Gandalf saving the riders from Osgiliath from the Ringwraiths, the Ents attacking Isengard, the council of Elrond, the charge from the Hornburg, the charge of the Rohirrim at Minas Tirith, Aragorn claiming Anduril or any of the other classics that will forever stay with us because of the truly phenomenal performances of the cast. But surely some of them are bad actors, right? Nope! Every single one is a brilliant representation of what their character needs to be.

Now throughout the years, the saga of Middle-Earth has taken on different forms and Yes, I did have issues with them. The films based on The Hobbit were decidely lacking in the magic that the first trilogy had produced for us. I initially thought that this was due to these films being a cash grab by New Line and Jackson together but since then I have learned of other matters that were the cause of this being a less than stellar production.

First, you have to understand Jackson’s directorial style. He uses storyboards heavily and this is why the first trilogy is so cinematic and why it makes for a great trilogy because he could plot out years in advance and not have to worry about deadlines. When Weta created all of these armaments and weaponry, it took well over two full years of pre-production and it showed. Jackson has always been someone who thinks out every single detail of every single shot in the film, which is why Middle-Earth seems so real in the first trilogy.

Fast forward about seven or eight years after the first trilogy and Guillermo Del Toro is scheduled to write and direct the new Hobbit Films…until MGM goes bankrupt and he chooses to back out right before shooting is supposed to start. They hire Jackson to do it but they don’t push any of the dates back. So instead of having three years of Pre-Production like he did with the last trilogy, he now has a year and a half to polish up the script, build the world of Middle-Earth and go with little vision of an endgame. In other words, whereas I previously thought the Hobbit wasn’t that great because of Jackson it was actually due to studio executives. Which is why there is heavy CGI all throughout those films and the best scenes are the ones where you can really feel what went into it.

Watch the video below if you need anymore proof about why I’m not harder on the Hobbit films. Knowing what they went actually makes me like them a bit more.

This doesn’t give the films a pass though and I do still have a major problem with the trilogy that could’ve been avoided no matter how much time they had. Tauriel and Legolas is one of my main issues with these films, now I don’t care that they were added to the storyline, cameos are always fun and I was even hoping to see a young Aragorn at Rivendell. No, what I do care about is the fact that they changed elements of the story to fit them in more then they should’ve.

First, Thorin is one of my favorite characters in the middle-earth saga but he is very much a character with faults. He let’s his greed get the better of him, he lashes out at multiple people and he goes back on his promises. So why do I like this character? Because he remains noble and faithful when it comes to his people. He’s always trying to do the best for his family and he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong. Now, how does Tauriel and Legolas change this? Well due to them having to push the love story they separate the dwarves. Kili was injured earlier in the film and he has to stay behind when they enter the mountain. Wait, Thorin? The loyal dwarf leader that cares about his family more than anything else in the world is willing to leave his nephew behind because he would slow the party down? Hmm, naturally I understand that this might have happened in the book had one of them been hurt but it didn’t so why change it unless you just wanted another reason to add Legolas and Tauriel and build the love triangle. Literally everything they do after the film can be done without having the dwarves be stuck in lake town. I understand this might be me nitpicking but I hate this part of the film every time because this is one of only two main times that they drastically change a character(Faramir’s capture of Frodo in Two Towers) and because of it they become that much more abrasive to the viewer.

That is my main problem with the films, that and way too much time focused on Alfrid and the master of lake town but the movie does do a lot of things right such as the casting being once again some of the best that any film could do. Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin all particularly shine in their roles as do all of the returning actors from the previous trilogy. I enjoyed that Dol Gulder and Ringwraith tomb scenes quite a bit and I thought it gave a great connection to the first trilogy as well. Other scenes like Riddles in the Dark and Bilbo meeting Smaug make for some of the best of the series. The Battle Of The Five Armies was well done to me, it made for some great sequences such as the the elves and Dwarves fighting together and the charge of Thorin’s company. Overall these films are fun to watch and I would definately recommend them to someone who is looking to delve further into Middle-Earth but if we’re comparing it to the original then there’s really no contest.

In closing, The Saga of Arda is one that will forever be with us. We’ll always long to see the white city of Minas Tirith or the shining trees of Lothlorien. Our stories go on and the love we have for these stories will always be with us.

Tolkien was right : The Road goes ever on and on…

“Built On Hope” Rogue One Review(Spoiler Free)

This film is going to be very difficult to do spoiler free but I believe I can do it fairly well.

A lot of times spin-offs will be depicted as a cheap cash grab for a studio and a lot of times they’d be right but this one, this one was something different. It’s a prequel that only inhances the following films and does so in a beautifully elegant way.

First and Foremost, the film is done like no other Star Wars film prior to it. It has no opening scrawl, it shows the main title like you would see any other blockbuster movie and it takes place over 15 years which is the first time that Star Wars has ever done that in a single film. That right there changes everything because this is a film that you need to be paying close attention to, most of the film has very quick but important exposition that if you don’t catch it you could be lost. From the very first shot, when we see a young Jyn and her family, we find out that her father and Krennic worked together years ago. This is only given to us in a few throw away lines but they work almost seamlessly into the storyline. The stage is set as what is truly a war-torn galaxy and make no mistake this is not a happy Star Wars film, it has a very dark tone with some small bits of comedy but it’s honestly a war film with blasters and starships.

Now if anyone else did this then it wouldn’t have worked but fortunately the guiding hands of Gareth Edwards and Disney have led this film in a perfect direction. For the fans who wanted something that felt different, but were frustrated when Force Awakens was basically an homage to everything that came before, this one delivers on every front. (For the record, I still love Force Awakens and I still believe that they did that so VIII can be something brand new.)

The battles are some of the best in the series and it’s done so well because of how they’re filmed. Cinematography is great but it’s the sound design that gets the nod from me. There’s a point early on in the film where it’s a skirmish in the streets and the music is building and building until the first grenade goes off and then all you hear is blasters, explosions and screams. They did a great job of really giving that full effect of a warzone in this film. They do this a few different times throughout the film and it helps to make the film as great as it is.

You can tell that this film is from someone who truly loves Star Wars because it doesn’t come off as trying to be too dark and it doesn’t come off as cheesy while doing it, instead we just get something that feels very real. Most of the characters don’t have a lot of screen time but they have just enough for us to get to know them. We want these characters to succeed before the end and that’s what truly counts to me as a fan. You can have the best plot in the world but if you don’t have great characters then what’s the point?

One of the main reasons that these characters work so well is because of the war setting. We’ve got defectors, war-weary veterans, someone who doesn’t want to get involved and idiotic generals, It’s perfect!

Beginning with the villains, Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic is stunningly good. He’s ambitious and powerful and most of all, evil. Everything he does is about controlling the galaxy through fear and in that way he makes the perfect imperial.

Vader has limited screen time but when he’s there he is utterly terrifying. This is a purely dark version of the character that has no family ties and no distractions. He is powerful beyond measure and menacing in even the simplest movements.

Diego Luna as Cassian Andor does a great job of portraying the fact that he’s fought this war for a long time. I like that they totally separated him from Poe or Han and made him into a solid soldier who’s willing to do some dark things if he has to for the rebellion. That aspect was only overdone on one occasion which proves how good he and the movie is because honestly that’s one of only two major flaws in this film but we’ll get more on that later.

Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe was a scene stealer because he’s basically a blind force ninja. He doesn’t have many force abilities beyond an acute perception to the world around him which is how he’s able to fight and even shoot a specialized blaster but it’s is trust in the force that makes him such an excellent part of the film. To see someone else with that much hope and belief in a film that is almost devoid of it makes him great.

Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus acts primarily as the muscle of the film and Chirrut’s protector. He does a really solid job in this film of having very few lines but portraying everything you need to know about him.

Alan Tudyk as K-2SO is one of the greatest characters they’ve done. He’s a reprogrammed Imperial Security Droid security with a healthy amount of sarcasm tossed in. He maintains the comedic relief throughout most of the film and does so in a very believable way. He’s loyal to Cassian no matter what and is, in many ways, one of the most human characters in the film.

Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook was really surprising to me. Going in, I just thought he was going to be a bonus character but he’s such a great character in his own right. He’s constantly looking for a way to make things right and you can really feel that he wants to change things for the better.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso is a fantastic lead but many people are trying to compare her to the brilliant performance by Daisy Ridley last year and honestly you just can’t do that. Jyn comes into her own as a character throughout the course of the film but she is genuinely one of the focal points of this film and the series as a whole, her involvement in pushing the rebellion forward is one of the best parts of the films and it leads me to my final point.

But before that final point, I have to give some major props to the CGI team because the special effects of the battle are incredibly well done but there’s a few other surprises that they managed to keep hidden until the film comes out that are absolutely brilliant but I won’t spoil that here.

Now my final point is what I didn’t like about the movie but I will defend the filmmakers choices in a bit cause I’ve had time to think about it. Forrest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera just isn’t good, he’s over the top and pretty much does nothing to progress the storyline that couldn’t be done by any other character. The other rebel leaders are all idiots and cowards except for Jimmy Smits and Genevieve O’Reilly reprising their prequel roles as Bail Organa and Mon Mothma. Most of their choices make no sense and there is no reason for their commands to Cassian on Eadu.(See? Told you we’d come back to this) But is there a point to that? This entire film is setting up Episode IV and if there’s a better way of doing it besides showing us how much we need Luke, Leia and Han then I haven’t seen it.

Overall this film was great and I highly recommend it to any Star Wars fan.

I said before that it’s largely devoid of hope but that’s because we know that it’s coming. We know what happens next and we know that it happens because it was Built on Hope.