Tuesday, 2 October 2007

DVD's: Lord of the Rings - Special Editions

Lowdown: Simply the best.
Not really a review:
To celebrate the arrival of our new speakers, which have already been deployed even though the surrounds are yet to be fixed and the front are yet to be bi-wired, we’ve decided to go for the best sounding movies at our disposal: the three Lord of the Rings Special Edition DVD’s. While noting that it felt strange to watch DVD’s that we own rather than rent for a change (taking them out of the shelf and putting them back in felt really strange), I will add an important note: as good as the sound in the three Lord of the Rings films is with their surround sound and all, fidelity and overall sound quality are very poor cousins to a well recorded audiophile recording. The reasons for that are mainly to do with movie sound being mostly artificial and the large number of tracks getting mixed together during the creation of a movie soundtrack, complimented by the fact that both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks available on the special edition DVD’s are heavily compressed (as they are on all DVD’s).
At this point I would like to make one point very clear: this post does not represent an attempt to review the three films. By now I have seen them so many times that a review would be a rather futile way of wasting time. What I will do here is share some anecdotes about the films.
Let’s start in the beginning: Fellowship of the Ring. The funny thing about this film is that while this is my least favorite book of the trilogy, the film version is my favorite of the three films. It’s hard for me to say why: Maybe it is because it’s the first film of the lot so it opened new grounds. Or maybe it is the innocence that dominates the first film: the shire scenes, the party… I do suspect it is mostly to do with the film’s themes, which are significantly different to the ones that seem to dominate Two Towers and Return of the King. Or perhaps I like it because Jackson managed to take the boring tedious stuff out of the book, the stuff that makes it an ordeal to start reading the trilogy (although as of the end of Fellowship and all the way to the end of King the reading is very flowing): the early setup in the Shire, while severely reduced, is entertainingly flowing; and the redundant Tom Bombadil was retired, too.
By the way, the scene in which Frodo is healed after being stabbed at Weathertop, and the following horse chase scene, are the ones I used most regularly to test projectors with: they offer quite a large mix of elements to test an image with, most noticeably dark, bright and intermediate scenes.
Two Towers is a good film, but it is a film I always remember as a film that disappointed me, too. The disappointment is mainly caused by what I consider to be some severe parting of ways from the book. Now, it’s important for me to make one point very clear: I do not think that straying from the original book when creating the film version is necessarily a bad thing; film is a different media to books, and in order for it to work things have to be changed. What I don’t like, though, is the way the straying was done: I do not think that turning Gimli into a comic relief character improves the film; I think it makes it feel like your usual Hollywood corny production rather than the glorious film Two Towers is, in general.
There is more to my problems than Gimili, but the point has been made. When I will direct my own version of Lord of the Rings I am sure I will do a much better and loyal job than Peter Jackson has done; the only thing that stops me from doing right now so is the issue of copyrights, of course.
Return of the King is traditionally the book I like the most in the trilogy, but the film has raised a bit of a mixed reaction. When I saw the original version at the cinema I couldn’t contain myself from pronouncing that if this has been as good as it was then the special edition just has to be the best film ever. I was wrong, though.
The main problem I have found with the original version was in the Frodo/Sam story. It just felt as if after the Shelob encounter they had this big dash and found themselves on top of Mount Doom; it was too straightforward. This was very well addressed by the special edition, which added depth (and misery) to the trip through Mordor on the way to the mountain. However, this extra depth came at a price: yes, you do get a nice end to the Saruman story, but the beginning of the film becomes too tedious. The film finds it hard to take off; and lift-off is only achieved an hour and a half through, by the time Minas Tirith is put under siege. Another added scene, showing Merry riding his pony next to all the Rohinians is simply badly made, with the special effects obviously not on par with the rest of the film.
While criticizing Return of the King, let us not forget the truly silly theme of “death is just the beginning” that threatens to dominate the siege scenes. I don’t know why Jackson bothered with this bullshit that, to the best of my memory, is absent from the book.
Criticism aside, the Lord of the Rings trilogy certainly qualifies as one of the best cinematic experiences I have ever had. Its effects are pretty obvious: Driving to the shopping mall just after we finished watching Return of the King, we were deliberating whether to take the short path through Highett and risk the wrath of the Frankston line boom gate or whether we should take the long way around the mighty forest (or rather, small park). A couple of days later, Jo was inspired to start reading the Lord of the Ringses trilogy again.
Best scene: There’s no one really good scene that stands on top of all others. Sound wise, I like the scene of the run down the Moria mines’ bridge the most. It provides an intense experience and it is accompanied by a deep voiced choir chanting “doom, doom” in a way that knocks you off the sofa.
Picture quality: This was actually the first time we have watched the trilogy on our big screen TV, and the experience was mesmerizing; the type of thing that makes the purchase and the careful calibration of the TV worthwhile. Obviously, a lot of work was done on these DVD’s to reduce digital artifacts. One thing you do notice, though, is the artificial coloring that sets the theme for every different location on Middle Earth; I can see where Peter Jackson is coming from with this, but I cannot say I agree with this approach that I find too distracting.
Sound quality: It’s hard for me to judge the sound because I am lacking in references, having just substantially altered my sound system. That said, there can be no doubt this (or should I say “these”?) is one of the best soundtracks around, both in the music and the sound effects. From previous experience I can say that in my opinion the main opposition that gives Lord of the Rings a run for its money in the sound department comes from Saving Private Ryan and especially from that initial landing scene. Not much music in there, but the realism and the intensity are second to none.
Back to Lord of the Rings, dialog does suffer from time to time, as in it sounding a bit detached; probably the result of an ADR overdose. And as good as the soundtrack can be it is not perfect: a good sound system will reveal bugs here and there. But yes, I am being picky now.
Overall: While each of the three films can be scored on a zero to five stars scale, and while all three would score at or near the top of that scale, I will not attempt to do so here; even when judged on their own, but especially when put together as one long movie experience, the three transcend any scale I can judge a film by. Overall, though, I will say that the special editions do a much better “transcension” work than their original brethren.
To use the terms I have used before in this blog, this trilogy is 6 out of 5 stars material.

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