Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Boromir

Boromir: Sean Bean sets aside his usual Scottish accent to provide us with a typically strong performance as the heir-apparent to the Steward’s “throne” of Gondor. Throughout his portrayal and through the occasional flashback, we are treated to an excellent tapestry of a complex and nuanced character who is torn in mind and heart over the best course of action for his people. Bean’s extensive resume and familiarity with classical stage work is once again the key to his powerful delivery, and his critical interaction with the Ring is one of the primary elements driving the FOTR film.
At first glance, Bean’s performance may seem over-the-top or perhaps a bit bipolar – from the very beginning we see him address Aragorn in a friendly manner and hold the shards of Narsil with their proper reverence, only to suddenly see his face turn dour as he declares the relics “nothing more than a broken heirloom,” before ignominiously discarding them and stumping off. Later, we see Boromir bravely battle through the Mines of Moria only to lose heart in the woods of Lothlorien. Finally, there’s the famous back-and-forth with Frodo that nearly ends in his slaying of the Ring-bearer, but of course culminates in his own untimely death. This seesaw of emotions, purposes, and tactics could easily become wearisome or confusing for an audience and, left in the hands of a less gifted actor, it may well have done. But Bean guides us through each of these moments with skill, and we are left to ponder the implications of the lessons Tolkien bequeaths to us through the character.

In the first example, we are crucially introduced to Boromir as he explores Rivendell, clearly feeling somewhat out of place there. His encounter with Aragorn and Narsil is used as our first glimpse of this proud, strong-willed Man of the South, and the seemingly abrupt turn in emotions we witness is an important insight into the man’s character. Our first impression is one of a polite person with a proper amount of respect for history (at least his own country’s history, however distant). Boromir’s awe turns to something resembling scorn, however, and it may not immediately be clear why, but at this point we become aware of competing forces within this man, and we’re interested to learn more. The genesis, of course, is Boromir’s documented desire to rule Gondor as its rightful king, as in the Appendices he challenges Denethor, asking how many generations must pass before the Stewards (and himself, by extension) should be hailed as monarchs. His father rightly responds that, in realms of lesser lineage, perhaps only a few lives of Men would be sufficient for such a change of course, but in the remnants of Numenor no passage of time would do. We get a taste of this attitude in Bean’s first moments on-screen as he tosses Narsil aside, but we also saw his appreciation for what it represents. The contrast with Aragorn’s gentle replacement of the relic to its proper place, of course, tells us something about Aragorn too, setting his reverence against Boromir’s latent ambition. Another minute but important function of this scene is to hint at what might be called “fantasy racism,” or the fact Boromir occasionally fails to hide his disdain or (at the least) distrust of the other free races in Middle-earth. This is visible by his first words to Aragorn (“You are no Elf”) and he subsequent extension of polite greeting to him (“Then we are here on common purpose, friend”), but later we get the impression his words are borne at least partially out of relief at finding someone like himself in this strange place. One finds more examples of this in the book than in the films (“For themselves they may be right, these Elves and Half-Elves and wizards … But each to his own kind”), but Bean and Jackson work to give us glimpses of it along the way. It is instructive to look back once one understands all of this to observe Bean’s acting as his character’s mind works through these thoughts and emotions: his facial expressions may not seem very important without this deeper understanding, but once seen in light of the full story, those moments become full with meaning.

We see more of Boromir’s character throughout the Council of Elrond as well. It is there the hopelessness which plagues Boromir and allows to Ring to work its will first becomes apparent, but we also begin to see some of the arrogance he carries as well. His declaration that the whole of the free world is maintained “through the blood of [my] people while your lands kept safe” is as close to an insult as the outnumbered Boromir might be willing to muster under the circumstances, but the implication is obvious. One might also be inclined to see additional shadows of racial superiority here, though that is less clear. From there we get the scene on the slopes of Caradhras where Boromor is tempted by the Ring directly which, although not in the book, nonetheless brings a sense of danger and urgency to the film as the Fellowship struggles against natural forces for the time being. Boromir plays a valiant role throughout the adventure in Moria, and this is crucial as we see this Man as a strong and doughty warrior – a true asset to those on his side – which makes his wavering hope and susceptibility to the Ring’s wiles all the more tragic.

While the group passes through Lothlorien, we witness a brief scene with Aragorn which finally explains Boromir’s Hamlet-esque mental tug-of-war. It helps to clear up some of the earlier ambiguities and also treats us to some admirable moments of excellent acting. I admit I had originally thought Bean’s performance to be overdone – trying too hard to show us a mind torn between options – but I’ve since determined that judgment to be in error. The extent of Boromir’s mental and spiritual torment must be sufficient to properly set up his later (assumed) willingness to murder Frodo and steal the Ring from him, and it would take some serious force to set those actions in motion. Boromir may be an arrogant prick at times, but he is also well-meaning, noble-hearted, and a man of his word. To place the weights entirely on one side of the scale robs the character of its nuance as well as its tragic elements and diminishes the drama considerably as a result. We must, therefore, periodically see the character in a state of substantial mental torment as he struggles with what feels right and what seems right under the circumstances. Specifically, to struggle and fight on in pursuit of the Quest (which he later decries as “Folly!”), or to take the route that seems more likely to reach his goal within his lifetime: to seize the Ring – naturally with only the best intentions in mind – and use it against the Enemy. Such has been the downfall of many Men before him: keeping their sights set only on their own times and not considering how the quick answer is often not the best, and Boromir falls prey to this gambit too.

All of these mental gymnastics reach their apex on the slopes of Amon Hen, as Boromir commits his great sin but atones for it in short order by giving his life to protect Merry and Pippin. Typical of a classical actor with more than his share of Shakespeare under his belt, Bean delivers a riveting death scene where, in soul-crushing slow motion, we watch Boromir fall to Saruman’s Orcs. Bean, together with Jackson’s camera and Howard Shore’s orchestra, provides an incredible tapestry of grief, valor, suffering, determination, pain, and redemption from one shot to the next. At the end of it all, Boromir could still despair and nearly does as he predicts (wrongly, thankfully) that his city will come “to ruin” and “the world of Men will fall.” Yet, at the very last, we see the Man’s noblest qualities finally win out as he turns to Aragorn in his last hope. Whether an actor’s intuition or the director’s instruction, Bean suddenly seizes Aragorn’s doublet, clearly a non-verbal way of saying, “You had better do something about this, bud.” Aragorn, still finding his way through his own mental murkiness, offers a resolved (if slightly lawerly) vow that he will not let this come to pass. Boromir, now singularly and properly focused on the protection and survival of his countrymen, is able to pass from this life while essentially swearing fealty to the king-to-be; an important acknowledgement from the Steward’s heir which was never forthcoming prior to this moment.

In Fangorn Forest some days later, Gandalf marvels as he lays out the Providential nature of the tragedy of Boromir’s death and its necessity in bringing the wrath of the Ents to bear against Isengard. We are left to marvel at the power and dignity Bean brings to his character and the vital role it plays in the evolution of the full story. Once again, a character’s interaction with Sauron’s Ring conveys to the audience the nature of the Enemy and, by logical extension, the nature of what is at stake in this War. We see how strength of limb is of little use in what is ultimately a spiritual conflict and how pride and ambition can corrupt even the noblest among us. Through his performance as Boromir, Bean gives us shining moments of brilliance which, along with the source material, be mined many times over to the enlightenment of us all.

Master of Toons

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Lula Gives Chuckie the Evils

Here's Lula telling the ever-inquisitive Chuckie to mind his own darned business.

Laying Out on a Hot Summer Day

This is Lula, Mrs. Pad's adopted squirrel. We're pretty sure she had some babies recently, but she's still as feisty as ever and she doesn't take any guff from Chuckie. Her favorite foods are bird seed and the heels off our bread.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

RIP -- Oliver

We lost this adorable sweetheart seven months ago today.
Oliver passed away Thanksgiving Day 2014.

Rest In Peace, Oliver. We still miss you.

Master of Toons

Mr. Goober Update

We got some semi-good news regarding the Dynamic Duo the other day. I am referring, of course, to Messrs. Goober and Chuckie, the Plucky and Porcine Pair of Super-Popular Poochery (Good Heavens. -- Mrs. Pad).

Actually, Goober been the very opposite of porcine lately, which had us a little worried. We also noticed he had become more standoffish than usual -- more than was typically called for by Chuckie's incessant attempts at hazing, anyway. This called for a visit to his arch-nemesis, The Crab-Lady With the Anal Probe!

Mr. Goober poses for the camera.

After lots of poking and prodding (and a series of x-rays), it was determined the stately-if-somewhat-taciturn Mr. Goober was suffering from mild spinal compression in three of his discs. No doubt this was creating a reasonable amount of discomfort in the Self-assured Shih-tzu, so we put him on some pain medication. The good news is it was nothing more serious than that and his weight loss was actually good for him at his age.

Despite being 77 years old (in dog years), Mr. Goober is mostly back to his old self. He still has a barely discernable wobble in his back legs, but his energy has definitely returned.

Now, what we really need is some doggie Ritalin for Chuckie...

Master Pooper-scooper

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Gimli

Gimli: I remember back when the LOTR films were first released, and one of the criticisms that seemed loudest (but hardly singular) was, “Gimli has been reduced to a comic side-kick with no dignity!” I always found this an odd comment since Gimli got more than his fair share of funny moments throughout the book, but perhaps that is at least somewhat in the interpretation.

The Dwarf strikes me in a manner similar to most of the uniformed individuals I met during my military career: hardy, good-natured, liable to be grumpy (especially when the food is low or of poor quality), but also possessed of a tremendous fighting spirit, dedicated to friendship, and an absolute terror on the battlefield. He also has the typical soldier’s flair for exaggeration and showmanship, especially when it comes to bravery or toughness. This is my reading of Gimli based on my own life experiences, but it is likely other readers have other perceptions.

In his incredible work Master of Middle-earth, Paul Kocher remarks Gimli provides levity here and there in a long tale which has serious droughts in levity throughout its numerous pages. The dour-handed Dwarf trumpets his own hardiness from before the Fellowship even leaves Rivendell, risks certain death at the hands of the Galadhrim, stares down Eomer and his entire eored of armored knights, repeatedly begs to get into a scuffle with some Orcs, threatens (who he thinks to be) Saruman with an “incurable dent” in his head, and constantly tussles with Legolas over hundreds of miles as they travel together. All of these moments and many others elicit chuckles from the reader and enamor us of Gimli at the same time. Kocher, however, when reviewing these moments declares, “Gimli never finds them funny.” This is true, but not relevant to the topic at hand, at least not in the way Kocher intends: the moments are funny precisely because Gimli never finds them funny. In virtually every theatrically comic situation, at least one of the participants does not find the proceedings in which they find themselves embroiled to be in the least bit amusing. But this is a critical part of what makes the moment funny to the audience: were the character involved to laugh at the circumstances themselves, they would diffuse the importance and thereby diffuse the comedy.

To illustrate, I’ll take a very simple and extremely well-known example. In Star Wars Episode IV, Han Solo just saved himself, Chewbacca, Obi-wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, and the two droids from capture, torment, and death (possibly) at the hands of the Galactic Empire by unleashing the hidden hyper-drive on the Millennium Falcon and escaping into the depths of interstellar space. The getaway accomplished, Solo swaggers his way back into the cargo area, flashes his cocky smile in expectation of laud and praise, and says, “I told you we’d outrun those Imperial slugs!” His passengers, however, engaged in lightsaber training or partaking in a game of space chess, pay him no mind. Solo, his feelings clearly injured by everyone’s lack of interest in his heroics, mutters, “Don’t everyone thank me at once.” This little non-exchange is unquestionably funny, but in large part only because Solo doesn’t find it funny at all. Were Harrison Ford to chuckle at the situation himself, the moment would be decidedly less funny or perhaps even unfunny. Solo’s dented ego, however, which drives his genuinely despondent remark, gets universal laughs from the audience.

Theatrical comedy is replete with parallel examples: watch any Charlie Chaplin film and you’ll see the same principle at work. In clip after clip, the Tramp is often seen in single-minded pursuit of some object or goal. It being comedy, Chaplin naturally encounters numerous problems and obstacles in the pursuit of those goals, each of which lands him in circumstances which are funny. An often overlooked element of the comedy, however, is the character’s “tunnel vision.” This means the character must be so thoroughly committed to their objective that they are plausibly willing to brave those obstacles in order to get what they want, including subjecting themselves to any number of hilarious situations. The first example that pops into my mind (although I have no idea why) is Steve Martin’s dressing like a gangster in Bringing Down the House in order to gain access to the person who can clear his name of wrongdoing via a taped conversation. The stakes are high (imprisonment, life ruination, etc.) and Martin’s character is committed to overcoming the obstacles in order to acquire the objective. The result is a middle-aged stiff dressing up and sounding like Snoop Dogg in order to access the nightclub where the objective resides. Hilarity ensues.

This same phenomenon is at work in the character of Gimli throughout the book and the LOTR films (not counting the gangsta-rapper impersonations). John Rhys-Davies, Peter Jackson’s flawless pick to play the battle-hardened Dwarf, understands he must invest totally in the character’s sense of honor, valor, and duty if he is to create a Gimli with which moviegoers will fall in love. Rhys-Davies gloms onto the Dwarf’s staunch personality as the defining traits and, by logical extension, reacts appropriately to the world around him, using the script to maximum effect in the process.
Rhys-Davies’s Gimli is so lovable because he reminds us of ourselves: while most everyone else is running around with somber faces pondering the end of the world, Gimli just pats his axe, sticks his beard out and says, “Bring it on! This should be fun.” There’s something in many of us with the same attitude – no matter what the world throws our way, our knees remain unbent, our wills unshakeable. Even if we can’t say we’ve always held up so admirably under the stresses of the real world, we admire those who do (real or imagined). The character of Gimli supplies this attitude in ample doses throughout the trilogy, and audiences everywhere get thorough enjoyment from it.

The inclusion of this personality does, admittedly, bring a healthy amount of comedy to the role (and the film at large), but there’s every indication in the book this is exactly who Gimli is. Yes, the Dwarf bellows his defiance at every opportunity, but we also see the limits of his braggadocio: Gimli is the first and most vocal of the Fellowship to express true fear of whatever spirit governs the mountain of Caradhras, and he is deadly serious about his superstition. He also refuses to talk about his trek through the Paths of the Dead with Aragorn and Legloas – a refusal brought about by shame for the intense fear he felt on that journey. I maintain Rhys-Davies through his acting and Jackson through his screenwriting bring this crucial aspect of Gimli’s personality to life on the screen. We see it in several scenes, such as on the road to Helm’s Deep where he shows his willingness to charge into battle against numerous foes, but without the skill needed to make his horse actually charge. In the same battle, we see him face down mounted enemies on foot, but his inability to participate in the combat from horseback ends with him comically being buried under a pile of corpses. Over and over we see him being hauled away from the fighting, even when hopelessly outnumbered. We never see Gimli ponder shades of moralistic grey or refuse to accept a given duty (even if he comes close on the road to the Sea). His brand of bravery is very different from Frodo or Aragorn’s reluctant heroism or Merry and Pippin’s sparks of greatness under duress. Gimli reminds us, in a way, more of Sam: almost simple-minded in his dedication, but someone who throws themselves heart and soul into any fray, practically unconcerned whether (or perhaps zealously convinced) they will either win out in the end or have their actions justified after their fleeting defeat or death. This kind of absolute commitment could also be appropriately described as “faith,” another key theme throughout Tolkien’s works.

In conclusion, both Rhys-Davies and Jackson collude to create a compelling and beloved portrayal of Gimli. The director/screenwriter creates numerous opportunities for the audience to enjoy this colorful and important member of the Fellowship of the Ring while the actor wields his sense of commitment and comic timing as deftly as his axe. The result is a delightful and memorable character which lends critical levity to the story while simultaneously conjuring a multi-dimensional, sure-hearted warrior-zealot that we, on some level, wish we could emulate in our own lives.

Master of Toons

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Die, Watcher, Die!!!

The vile Watcher is slain in the Vile Maw by the not-at-all-in-any-way-vile Dawnbreakers!
Level 58-65 Dawnbreakers, where the Watcher once was! Pictured left to right: Maurelio, Kayloramir, Caitil, Eryndil, Antropenny, and Tezraldor.

Master of Toons

Random Instance Night with the Dawnbreakers

Another fun random instance night with the Dawnbreakers!
The Dawnbreakers prepare for battle as Caiteth (not pictured) runs off to fetch the first boss in Ost Elendil. Pictured left to right: Svartharth, Walkssoft, Kayloradan, Grimlur (that's me, the short bearded dude down front), and Maedhantros. Apparently I teamed up with a bunch of vampires, as I'm the only one casting a shadow...

Random instance nights are Saturdays, starting at 7 p.m. Central.

Master of Toons

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Walkthrough for Loot and Glory

One of the easiest instances to farm for money and (occasionally) halfway decent gear is the Library at Tham Mirdain. Although this is a three-man instance, I have successfully completed it, including the challenge, with a captain (yellow), a champion (blue), a guardian (blue), and a warden (blue). It may be possible to do this with a very well equipped burglar too, perhaps. For this post, I will focus on a quick walkthrough using the warden, since that class takes – by far – the least amount of time and effort.
Typps, Watcher of the Wilds, prepares to take on the Library of Tham Mirdain all by his lonesome.
For a level 100 warden in blue line, hordes of enemies are no sweat. You can clear whole sections of this instance with little more than the usual AOE skills you would use in any multi-opponent situation. Enter the instance and grab all three of the overlords and their accompanying pale-folk. You can grab the next two groups (down the hall) as well if you like. I’ve even been successful taking all seven groups to the first boss, although it was a close call. Anyway, gather up as many groups as you feel comfortable handling at once and target one of the overlords. They will absorb your attacks, but the damage is distributed to their minions, who die quickly. Once you have their attention, start out with Exultation of Battle (using the Battle Preparation skill), then follow up with Brink of Victory and Surety of Death. The pale-folk will be obliterated within seconds of executing those three skills, so all that remains are the overlords. You can take them down using any combination of your usual AOE or even single-target skills. I recommend throwing in a Devastation somewhere since the overlords do cast heals, so the interrupt is useful.
Bring it on! Typps single-handedly challenges a small horde of enemies, including Commander Unudhu!
Once your group is down, plod along the pathway and take a right (make sure you don’t accidentally grab any of the birds along the way). You’ll encounter another pair of overlords and their pale-folk, so beat them down in the same manner. Rinse and repeat until you reach Commander Piztor. There’s nothing special about any of the boss fights in this instance aside from a few quirks. Piztor likes to stun you for a good 8-10 seconds and wail on you while you’re down. You can use your stun-escape skill when it’s off cooldown, but otherwise there’s not much you can do. As long as you use a few Perseverance skills now and then you’ll be just fine. You’ll probably want to throw in a few Dark Before the Dawns as well to keep your power up, and don’t forget to clear poisons when you see them, especially the one that slows your attack speed. Other than that, just whip out the Power Attack line and/or Brink of Victory line of gambits to wear Piztor down until he croaks. This is a great time to practice your less-frequently-used gambits as well since you’re not in any real danger from this yutz. Grab your first loot box and head back to the courtyard.

You’ll need to head in the opposite direction toward Commander Unudhu. You can deal with the overlords and pale-folk the same way you did on the first side until you reach the second boss. Unudhu is even less of a challenge than Piztor: the only thing to watch for is when he loses half of his morale. At that point he will stun you and heal himself for a considerable amount. He takes his sweet time doing it, though, so preventing him for recovering his morale is easy. Watch his morale level: as he approaches the halfway point (around 79,000 morale or so), build The Boot gambit and let it sit there at the ready. When he stuns you, trigger your stun-escape skill and kick him in the face to interrupt the heal. Once that’s done, you can polish him off with little effort, gaining you the second chest.
Take that! Typps lands an Unerring Strike against Commander Unudhu.
With both orc-flunkies out of your way, you can drop back into the courtyard to confront the main boss. A nice opener on him is Ambush, Critical Strike, Wages of Fear (by running through him to use the javelin from behind), and finished off with Unerring Strike or Warden's Triumph (which you would have built up using Battle Preparation before starting the Ambush). Chieftain Gursh, even with his flock of crebain, isn’t much of a threat so long as you monitor your morale and power throughout the fight and keep his birds in front of yourself as much as possible to maximize the use of your shield. His only truly irritating skill is Dirty Trick, which causes you to miss 25% of your attacks. When this debuff is present, concentrate your gambits on the Perseverance line to keep yourself healed along with the occasional Dark Before the Dawn for power. Another useful tactic is to hit with Defensive Strike then execute Restoration to keep it in memory for another use later (you can also do this with Dark Before the Dawn for some quick power). You’ll need to avoid using any AOE attacks, lest you slay a craban and fail the challenge. When the debuff isn’t present, the Power Attack line, Warden's Triumph, or Wall of Steel are good gambits to use for single-target attacks that induce bleeds or buff your ability to parry incoming attacks. Feel free to throw Dance of War or Shield Mastery out there as well, if you want. Shield Mastery is especially recommended since it increases your evade rating and each attack you evade heals you for 1% of your total morale. This makes quite a difference when there's 17 enemies all pounding away at you at once!
Who needs a Fellowship? Typps tangles with Chieftain Gursh mano-a-Uruk!
You’ll end up jockeying with Gursh for several minutes as his morale slowly dwindles. As long as you keep an eye on your own morale (your healing gambits still do damage, after all) and have Never Surrender! active in case of an emergency, you should do just fine. Once Gursh finally goes down, that’s your cue to go hog-wild with Exultation of Battle, Brink of Victory, and Surety of Death to annihilate those squawking birds. With mop-up operations complete, all that remains is to treat yourself to the goodies!

The challenge is only available at level 100, so any gear you collect will be level 100 purples and teals. Wardens tend to gather agility-based gear, but I’ve seen more than a few pieces of heavy or light armor drop as well. Any of the “Of Penetration” gear is especially welcome because it usually includes boosts to Vitality and Critical Rating among other things. Heritage runes have never been terribly common as loot for this instance, unfortunately, at least not for me. You’ll also usually collect between three and five sealed relics as well, which can be deconstructed at a Relic-master for one to three (normally) tier 5 relics.
Victory! And a victory so swift, the game is still tallying the kills. Now for the loot!
There you have it! If you have an up-and-coming warden who’s been dreading the long, dull slog to level 100, here is a great excuse to get crackin’.

Master of Toons

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Series: Saruman

Saruman: Given the passing of the late, great Christopher Lee, I will step aside from my examinations of the Fellowship actors for a look at this stellar performance. Like Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, and several of the other LOTR actors not named Ian, Lee provides another excellent example for comparison between a classically trained actor and some of the younger, less experienced members of the cast. 
With a long and rich tapestry of life experiences including service in the British Special Forces during World War II, Lee brings a fantastic wealth of expertise along with his imitable love of Tolkien to the film set. It’s fairly common knowledge Lee wanted nothing more than to play Gandalf, but Jackson made the right call when casting him as the vile traitor Saruman instead. Lee’s most defining characteristic is his tremendous stage voice, which translates wonderfully into the slick, seductive tones of the White Wizard. One can scarcely imagine any other actor in the role as Lee wends his slippery way from scene to scene, commanding the audience’s rapt attention every step of the way.

Saruman doesn’t get a ton of screen-time throughout the film trilogy, but his presence is critical as Sauron always remains a potent but remote and disembodied force. This partial vacuum is filled in part by the Ringwraiths and their nightmarish menace, but also by the more proximal Saruman, who (in the films, at least) personally interferes with the Fellowship’s ability to proceed with the Quest. This gives a more immediate sense of danger to the audience, who gets to see a major antagonist and understand his purposes and motivations. As always, a character’s relationships with other characters is also an important part of the action. I’ve mentioned several times already how the way different characters’ interactions with Sauron (via a palantir) or his Ring is crucial for the audience’s understanding of the Dark Lord’s character, and Saruman is no exception. One of my favorite mini-moments is the way Lee chooses to show himself after conversing with Sauron through the palantir early in FOTR. In the very next clip, the mighty White Wizard is seen huddled and seated, as though chilled to his soul or horrified at what he was subjected to in the Dark Lord’s twisted mind. This reaction, especially coming from Sauron’s most powerful ally, is very telling and even that brief moment communicates vital information to viewers about Sauron’s nature and his ability to terrify and dominate even Saruman the White, who we just recently saw overpower Gandalf in a sort of angelic duel. The pecking order, then, is clearly established: Gandalf has shown himself to be possessed of considerable divine power (as seen in his scenes with Bilbo and the aforementioned duel), but Saruman is stronger than Gandalf. Sauron, on the other hand, pulls Saruman’s strings from a great distance and inspires immense fear in Saruman, all of which has our audience thinking: how can the Free Peoples possibly defeat something of such incredible power? And if this great Wizard, who was supposed to be on our side, can be converted and manipulated, on whom can we rely? Who is friend or foe? Gandalf mentions later he considers Saruman to be a greater threat with each passing hour “because he is driven now by fear of Sauron.” The uncertainty this creates in the audience’s mind is important for the furtherance of the drama, and Lee’s use of small opportunities advances this.

Lee’s use of voice is always worthy of mention, and his masterful display of raw talent throughout the Rings trilogy is a tantalizing case study for it. Even without any obvious moments featuring Saruman using his strongest ability to dominate others’ minds, Lee’s voice is enough to convey that power in spades. The riveting scene I love to read and re-read from TTT The Voice of Saruman is greatly reduced in the films, earning little more than a tip of the hat in the Extended Edition. This is probably wise for the same reasons visualizing prolonged mental bouts with the Ring don’t work on-screen, but we still get delightful tastes through Lee’s vocal art. He uses range, volume, diction, and stresses flawlessly to augment his physicality and makeup, creating a character of great power and a deep mind, but with a sneering condescension which belies his ambitions.

Another key triumph of Lee in his portrayal is his knowledge, through decades of acting in roles of strength, authority, or power (which he probably received often, since they fit so nicely with his vocal abilities) is that those with true power have no need to exert much force. The mere threat of their doing so is all that’s needed to drive the actions of others in the manner he wishes. This is a personality trait which is an excellent fit for the character of Saruman, and Lee uses it to the fullest. Whether he is ordering his Uruk-hai about, trying to persuade Gandalf toward treachery, or simply going about the business of inspecting his hordes, Lee’s Saruman exudes a hidden menace which his servants, his opponents, and the audience all keenly feel. As I’ve noted elsewhere, “less is more,” and this axiom is rarely more true than in situations where someone wields immense power. Lee’s controlled actions convey extreme confidence, so long as the character is in control of his circumstances. It’s when things slip that we see the character become less suave, such as in the parley before Orthanc following Saruman’s defeat. Lee knows his character is in very real danger of being toppled and imprisoned, and his character reacts with more attempts at direct exercise of power (up to and including an outright magical attack on Gandalf, who he hates most) than we’ve ever seen from him, even while at the height of his influence. This juxtaposition is another method of showing the audience the back-and-forth over who has the control at any given moment, which brings lovely moments of drama into the films. Films that, generally speaking, often were required to move too quickly to allow the drama in any single scene to develop far just in order to cover the vast amounts of time necessary to tell the story. Lee is always aware of how his character is perceived by the audience and lends his majestic personality to a role that could have been written with him in mind.

In summation, it is remarkable how well the character of Saruman is understood by the audience considering how little time Lee gets in front of the camera, especially when you mark that most of that time is spent in very short scenes where he issues orders or plots his wars. Despite these limitations, it’s Lee’s use of the non-verbals as well as the verbals which work pure magic for the audience.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fun With LOTRO Pics

"Dratted crebain always manage to hit me no matter where I stand. That one nearly fell right in my mouth!"

Master of Toons

Random Bench Fit for a Hobbit

Mrs. Pad and I saw this bench in a public park as we celebrated our 11th anniversary while taking a walk. This should totally be a housing item for sale in the Shire homesteads!
A delightful bench made of real Live Oak -- fit for any hobbit's front yard!
Master of Toons

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Pad & Mrs. Pad -- 11 Years of Married Bliss

We celebrated 11 years yesterday!
Bennard (Pad) flirts with Kathlena (Mrs. Pad) outside the vendor shops of Michel Delving.

June Weddings. :)

Master of Toons

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Legolas

Legolas: Orlando Bloom was another of the “outliers,” a British actor cast more for looks than any other obvious quality. With a fairly thin resume at the time of his casting, this young face provided a lithe physicality fit for an Elven prince, but added little in the way of substance.

Not unlike Elijah Wood being over-matched in his role as Frodo, Bloom doesn’t deliver much insight for the audience into the ways and minds of the Elven-folk, despite being easily the most visible character from that species throughout the three films. As I mentioned in my previous post about Gandalf, playing a non-human of any kind is difficult for an actor. In the case of the Istari and the Eldar, immortality is perhaps the defining characteristic of these roles and it is extremely challenging to understand it and portray how that trait defines a character to an audience. We are all human beings here in the real world, and all humans are mortal. But mortals have no concept of just how mortal they are until they meet a being which is not mortal. The incredible shock and the implications such an encounter would have can scarcely be imagined, and trying to convey how such a profoundly different (from humans) racial trait would have on a character’s psyche and motivations to moviegoers is no easy thing to do. Bloom, in spite of an enviable opportunity to do this, contributes surprisingly little to the cause. As Wood’s youth likely limited his ability to effectively portray Frodo’s epic spiritual struggle with the Ring, Jackson’s decision to cast a young and fairly inexperienced actor in the role of a royal character who is nearly 3,000 years old at the time of the story was misguided, and for all of the same reasons.

Having dropped those bombs, it is certainly fair to point out Jackson himself and the mere fact we’re talking about converting a massive tale to film are largely to blame here. Legolas is another one of the secondary roles which gets diminished very nearly to a stock character by reductions and simplifications in the script. Nearly the first decent moment we get from Legolas that doesn’t involve putting arrows through goblin throats or leaping across gaping chasms is in the Elven boat with Gimli recounting his interaction with the Lady Galadriel. In this mini-scene, Legolas acts simply as the catalyst for Gimli telling his story and serves no other purpose. The one instant Bloom does get which could have been impactful, however, is the character’s reaction to how Galadriel treats Gimli’s request for “a single hair from her golden head.” The facial expression from Bloom seems to be some sort of knowing approval (one can be forgiven if “smirk” comes to mind), but we’re not quite sure what Legolas thinks about this exchange, and that may be because Bloom himself did not know what to make of it. The implications of the Galadriel/Gimli story are significant and far-reaching for Dwarves, Elves, and the Free Peoples in general, but none of this comes across in Bloom’s choice of reaction to its telling. In fairness, two seconds of non-verbal acting isn’t much time to make anything of all of this significance and far-reaching-ness, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles in film.

In my opinion, Bloom's best moment in the entire trilogy comes when Gandalf informs the Fellowship a Balrog is approaching. Jackson gives Legolas somewhere between half a second and a full second on-screen, and Bloom's look of suppressed terror is an excellent moment which succeeds in conveying everything the Elf would think and feel at hearing such news. Legolas isn't old enough to have tussled with a Balrog himself, but as he says later while Aragorn relays the tale of Gandalf's fall to Celeborn and Galadriel, "It was a Balrog of Morgoth. Of all the Elf-banes most deadly, save the One who sits in the Dark Tower." This sentiment is captured in that one outstanding second -- Jackson is to be applauded for recognizing its need and Bloom for a solid delivery.

The general lack of specificity in Bloom’s acting creates problems, however, as the films progress. We are treated to a couple of delightful moments when Legolas ribs Gimli at various times and also when welcoming Aragorn “back from the dead” after he “took a little tumble off the cliff,” but all prolonged moments are uniformly weak for Bloom. His outburst at Aragorn in the armories of Helm’s Deep does little more than confuse the audience. In reality, this argument was most likely intended by Jackson to be little more than a set piece to show Aragorn’s commitment to the people of Rohan which, in the films, is an important part of Aragorn’s development. The rare opportunity is wasted on Bloom, however, whose manner of delivery comes out of nowhere. Legolas later apologizes for speaking out of despair, but where did it come from? Throughout a full six hours of film, by this point, we’ve seen nothing but confidence-bordering-on-cockiness from Bloom, even under extreme personal danger (save the Balrog, as mentioned previously); why this sudden onset of hopelessness? Most of these extra-Tolkien inserts by Jackson are poorly written and this one is no exception, but the actor has to make something of such moments, same as any other. Bloom does not appear to have considered the source or motivation of his character for this scenelet or, at the very least, it’s not coming through to us in the audience. Is his objective to dissuade Aragorn from participating in the battle? To excuse himself from it? To argue in favor of a different strategy? We have no idea. Any college or even high school acting coach worth their salt would tell you a character’s objective is never “to express him/herself” because that’s boring and unpersuasive, but it looks like that’s all Bloom is attempting in the clip. Yet the problem is not just him: as I mentioned before, when the screenwriters begin monkeying around with the source material and creating character moments which don’t appear to be in line with Tolkien’s text, the result is often a weak moment in the film. When coupled with an actor who doesn’t provide the underpinnings to carry the weak writing, the result is usually a bad scene and an audience left scratching its collective head.

Legolas continues as a background character in ROTK with little to do other than shoot more baddies using his apparently bottomless quiver of arrows. After the world is saved, he shows up for the party wearing the same self-confident smile he’s had for most of the last 9 hours of film. It’s almost as if he’s always thinking, “It’s good to be immortal” over and over in his mind. Bloom adequately fills the swashbuckling and Stoic role to which Jackson’s script relegated him, but we miss out on the richer character Tolkien gave us. While other actors managed to find those small moments and exploit them for the audience’s benefit, Bloom seems to have more in common with the insufferable Jedi Knights of the Star Wars prequels. He flips and flies across the landscape, never in any apparent danger of being harmed by the lesser beings around him. As a result, Legolas becomes little more than a sort of comic-book hero instead of a nuanced character with an age-long background and an uncertain future, no matter who wins the War of the Ring. We can’t expect secondary characters to deliver too much, even in a film of this magnitude; they are secondary characters, after all. But as Stanislavsky said, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” Bloom’s performance is larger than life, but unfortunately also largely devoid of emotional substance and the films are a bit poorer for it.

Master of Toons

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Dawnbreakers' Seventh Anniversary Week

What does your kinship do on the anniversaries of its founding? All this week, the Dawnbreakers are celebrating the kinship's seventh year of saving the world from the forces of darkness!

June 8 - Chicken Play
June 9 - Hide-and-Seek (Or: Find the Easily Lost Kin Leader)
June 10 - Spring Festival games
June 11 - Freeze Tag
June 12 - Kin Meeting and Show of Force through Bree-town

But wait! There's more: event winners receive excellent prizes! If your kinship doesn't have as much fun and community interaction as the Dawnbreakers ... your kin's not doing it right.
Padhric jumps for joy after winning the first round in the Dawnbreakers' Hide-and-Seek anniversary celebration event. What did he win? You'd have to be a member to find out!

Curious? Go to www.thedawnbreakers.vilya.guildportal.com!

Master of Toons

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Performance Review Series: Aragorn

Aragorn: The character of Aragorn Elessar understandably got a lot of “extra” attention from Peter Jackson in his film trilogy. Tolkien himself admitted to providing less of the future king’s story in the book than he was comfortable with, and his beautiful Tale of Aragorn and Arwen was the appendicular way of resolving this issue. In fact, Tolkien admitted in his letters that, as he was writing the introduction of Aragorn to the hobbits in Bree, he had at that time “no more idea than [the hobbits] had of who Strider was,” and he had begun to despair of living long enough to find out. The future ruler of the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor was, truth be told, originally conceived as a hobbit named Trotter which, along with Bombadil’s recent cameo, lends some understanding to researchers of just how puerile Tolkien’s magnum opus had started out.

It is Aragorn’s revelations to the hobbits in the darkened corners of the Prancing Pony, however, where the real dangers facing them first become unveiled, and it also where we begin to see the first shoots of a long and branching maturation process. Viggo Mortensen, in his role as the brooding Strider, did not face such difficulties on the film set: with Jackson’s nightmarish Black Riders having pursued our hobbit heroes across the length and breadth of the Shire before we even make it to Bree, that particular challenge was removed for him as an actor. His job, instead, was to jump straight into the role Tolkien eventually gave the character – as a guide and sagely protector of the hobbits and their precious cargo. On the acting front, Mortensen was required to initiate the character’s extensive dramatic arc and somehow sustain that development, scene by scene, throughout all three films. This is a Herculean task which requires careful management from both the actor and the director, and both fulfill their roles wonderfully.

In Jackson’s films, we are introduced to Aragorn chiefly as a woodcrafty Ranger who shows up just in the nick of time to save the hobbits from a nighttime raid on their rooms at the Prancing Pony. At the Council of the Elrond, Legolas reveals him as heir to the throne of Gondor, mightiest of mortal kingdoms and the last vestige of downfallen Numenor. Despite the revelations, Mortensen does an excellent job showing the audience his character’s nature: one of humility, caution, wisdom, and meekness (used properly, “meekness” refers to reticence in the use of one’s strength). These are very good qualities in a leader, but Aragorn views himself as cursed down the long line from father to son due to his ancestor’s weakness in refusing to destroy Sauron’s Ring some 3,000 years earlier and so is hesitant to accept his destiny. Morentsen is given many opportunities to show us Aragorn’s inner conflict and he handles it deftly, never wandering into Macbeth territory, which would be the temptation for most actors. His job in this sense is made all the more challenging due simply to the vast expanse of film time he needs to occupy, but Mortensen succeeds in keeping his experiences relatable for the audience through measured introspection without ever becoming taciturn.

Some critics have suggested Mortensen (and Jackson, by extension) made Aragorn too much of a reluctant warrior. This argument may carry some weight if each film is viewed independently, but of course that was never Jackson’s intent: the trilogy was filmed as a whole and meant to be viewed as a whole. Mortensen’s and Jackson’s gradual unraveling of Aragorn’s mental and emotional struggle has a critical and powerful effect once the thread is finally unwound in ROTK. By setting up the eventual conquest of Aragorn’s inner demons through the first two films, we see the character’s evolution into the soon-to-be King of Gondor and leader of all Free Peoples. The most significant part of this process occurs during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. In fact, one could easily posit the entire battle was used as a set piece by Jackson for the development of Aragorn as a leader, both militarily and emotionally. We see the character exhibit his leadership abilities prior to the battle, as he recognizes the purpose of Saruman’s invasion (which Theoden in the films had not yet pondered), in his rebuke to Legolas regarding the hopelessness of the battle ahead, and in his relation to the son of the slain Hama on the walls of the Hornburg. We see more development during the fighting itself as Aragorn takes a crucial hand in the design and execution of various tactics. Finally, near the end of the battle, we see Aragorn’s devotion to the men he leads (“They still defend it! They have died defending it!”) as Theoden despairs and appears prepared to surrender to death. All of this is verified early in ROTK when Theoden tells his niece, “It was not Theodeon of Rohan who led our people to victory.” Mortensen’s triumph throughout all of these multiple minutes of cinematic grandeur is to never become grand himself: the character must retain its humility if it is ever to earn the respect, admiration, and love of the audience it deserves. What we are treated to is the slow but critical development of a character who recognizes his own shortcomings but gradually overcomes them through love for his friends and a series of personal trials which prove his mettle both on and off the battlefield.

The impact of all this, once Jackson’s Aragorn finally decides to take up the mantle assigned to him by fate, is akin to an excellent boxer who has been boxing well for years only to discover he’s had one arm tied behind his back the whole time. We, the audience, instinctively know he will be twice as good a fighter with both arms at his disposal, so the removal of the mental barriers to Aragorn’s greatness has the same effect: the audience feels a thrill of hope at the new asset the good guys have obtained.

And yet, even following Aragorn’s transformation into the leader he was meant to be, Mortensen keeps the character grounded. There are several moments like this throughout the trilogy, but the little breath he takes after being crowned king and before turning to present himself to the adoring throngs in Minas Tirith is a fantastic mini-moment which perfectly encapsulates Aragorn and everything he’s about. In those two seconds we see the shift from beleaguered defender of the free world to total victor and leader of that same world – a different fight with its own set of challenges. Mortensen accomplishes this while simultaneously giving us another of his private glimpses into Aragorn’s mindset where humility and a servant’s heart prevail. Similar moments are peppered throughout the trilogy, such as Aragorn’s seat-shifting at the Council of Elrond after Boromir suggests Gondor alone is responsible for holding the armies of Mordor at bay – his decision to not speak out regarding Boromir’s ignorance is telling (this doesn’t happen in the book). His decision to kneel before Theoden in TTT is another such moment, as is his decision face impossible odds in battle in order to give Frodo the precious seconds her needs to escape Saruman’s orcs beneath Amon Hen. The reaction of several audiences in theatres I experienced (having watched FOTR in the theatre eight times in 2001-2002) was an assumption Mortensen’s little sword salute prior to engaging the orcs was some kind of “badass” moment as he prepares to open a can (as they say) and liberally spread the contents. Those familiar with Aragorn, however, understood this little moment to mean the character was surrendering himself to death, if needed, in order to allow the Ring-bearer the chance to carry on his Quest. One could criticize Jackson for failing to make this more clear because an audience’s interpretation (or misinterpretation, when writ large) would have to be laid at the feet of the director and no one else. But in this case the moment was, in my opinion, very well executed and the misunderstanding may point more to a cultural difference than any failure of the production staff. Incidentally, this kind of thing is – in more than a few cases – the reason why some things end up the way they do in movies: there is often a fear or concern the audience will misinterpret some event on-screen, and many a production staff has worked themselves into knots trying to avoid such incidents.

Several more posts could easily be written dissecting the details of Mortensen’s scenes with Liv Tyler. For the purposes of this discussion, it is worth focusing on the love story and how Mortensen delivers a genuine performance where we see his absolute devotion to Arwen as well as the pain he bears in his time apart from her. It is critical, especially for modern audiences, to see the source of the character’s motivations, for only the most powerful of emotions could inspire someone to such great feats. Mortensen’s execution is inspired indeed as we see several love scenes between the pair, each with its own flavoring and purpose in the larger plotline. The actor is believable in every moment and therefore never gives his audience cause to chuckle while at the same time creating a dramatic arc with which every audience member can relate, despite the fact none of us has ever been in love with an Elf. The depth of love is the article of importance here, and Mortensen allows it to drive every scene in varying degrees.

Overall, the character of Aragorn in the film trilogy is a tremendously effective merger between the actor and the director. Jackson allows Mortensen to summarize years of spiritual, physical, and emotional toil in small, often wordless moments (again, the best acting happens when you’re not delivering lines), and Mortensen turns each of those moments into little gems for his audiences to finger and mull over time and time again.

Master of Toons

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Saturday Random Instance Night

Saturday night was an adventure in Osgiliath as the Dawnbreakers attempted the Dome of Stars instance.
The Dawnbreakers rest in between battles throughout the ruined city of Osgiliath. Pictured left to right: Penstanwell, Maedhantrons, Padhric (eating, as usual), Kayloradan, Caiteth, and Lesraldor.
Saturday Random Instance Nights start at 8 p.m. Central time. For more information, check out the Dawnbreakers' website at www.thedawnbreakersvilya.guildportal.com.

Master of Toons

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Merry & Pippin

Merry and Pippin: I decided to examine Merry and Pippin together in this post because, for the purposes of the film, the two characters are nearly combined for much of the story. Tolkien clearly had Merry positioned as the more mature of the pair, but for the film Jackson practically merged them, creating a rather different dynamic.

From the moment we meet the two rascally young hobbits they are known as an inseparable pair of scamps that terrorize the countryside with their impish and irresponsible behavior. There is virtually no effort in the movies to differentiate between them, although we occasionally get a more insightful question or comment out of Merry now and then. And, of course, all of the truly bothersome tomfoolery is left for Pippin to get himself into. We’re left with this impression of the two clear into the middle of ROTK when they suddenly find themselves separated, and each finally begins to show a bit of a more individual personality. Eventually they each enlist in the service of the lords in whose companies they happen to find themselves and there’s a delightful little mini-arc for each character as they mature into the hobbit-heroes we know and love.

It’s a fun fact that Billy Boyd, the eldest of the four hobbit actors, played the youngest and most mischievous hobbit while Elijah Wood, the youngest of the actors, played the eldest of the hobbits (or, at least, Frodo was the eldest hobbit until Jackson had his way). Boyd provides a wonderful turn as the spunky Pippin and fills many moments with a certain levity that is much needed as the plot develops. These types of characters can often be a tricky turn for an actor and it can take more skill to be effective than most people might think. An actor who is successful at playing a fool or simpleton can lull the audience into believing the actors themselves are equally pedestrian, but this is not the case. Take, for instance, the effectiveness of the super-smart Lisa Kudrow in Friends, among other examples.

Boyd delivers a delightful turn in his role, giving audiences clear views of the character’s truancy, gravity, and even terror at every opportunity. His scene with Ian McKellen after looking into the palantir mid-way through ROTK is an excellent spotlight: Boyd wisely keeps his overwhelming desire to look into the orb from becoming absurd or laughable. It can be a difficult balance to achieve for an actor, to display the character’s uncontrollable drive toward something without it appearing forced. Boyd understands he doesn’t need to emote excessively because the actions his character takes – risking the wrath of Gandalf in the act of doing something he knows is wrong – do a lot of the heavy lifting for him with regards to conveying his emotional status in those moments to the audience. Instead of focusing on his emotional state, Boyd concentrates singularly on his goal: acquire the palantir, seemingly at any cost, and this obsession carries the first half of the scene very well (this is called “pursuing the objective” in theatre parlance, an extremely basic function of the actor which can easily get lost in the sturm und drang of any dramatic production). There’s nary a snicker from the audience at this point as they are pondering what could be causing the innocent young hobbit to act so strangely. Remembering Sauron’s appearance in the crystal ball to Saruman from the two earlier installments, the audience may begin to fear for Pippin as he gets closer and closer to his objective.

Once the deed is done and Pippin finds himself trapped in the Dark Lord’s inescapable gaze, Boyd again does a fantastic job at showing the audience the nature of his pain. Simply screaming loudly is never as
effective as imagining a very targeted and specific pain, and Boyd (it seems to me, at least) selected a particular spot – the platysma or maybe the upper trapezius – where he was being tormented. The nature of the pain, meanwhile, appears to be a stabbing (as opposed to a burning or a shocking), which serves to further specify its nature. This is important because an audience will connect more fully with a character experiencing specifics – if the actor generalizes their experience the audience cannot focus their empathies and the emotional connection is diminished or lost. It is likely Boyd is using the Laban technique in this case, where the nature of the action is a direct and sustained activity. This would be akin to someone stabbing him in the shoulder (direct, or “Punch” in Laban terms) then cruelly twisting the knife in the wound to magnify the pain and suffering (a “Wring” in Laban), as evidenced by his writhing in pain, standing at first, then falling to the ground and continuing to wretch. These combine to create a very specific type of pain with which the audience can identify. It is also important to note the location of the pain (the upper body) and where it causes the character to move in response to the stimulus (earthward). Again, the importance is one of specifics and believability with the purpose of the audience’s involvement: Boyd may have conjured in his own mind the image of Sauron, a massive and towering figure, thrusting a flaming sword into his shoulder then twisting it and driving him to the floor with the force. The location of the pain being in the upper body and driving downward is significant because the directional source of the attack (from above) subconsciously relates to the audience that the attacker is larger than the target. The earthward trajectory also creates an impression of subjugation and oppression, which is certainly well within Sauron’s character as well. Finally, the decision to not scream in pain was, I think, a wise one. Whether it was Boyd’s personal choice, a direction from Peter Jackson, or whether there was originally a scream but it was edited out in post-production we don’t know, but the effect is dramatic. We get the impression the pain is so incredibly unbearable that poor Pippin isn’t even able to cry out in response, which might have brought help from the army of people around him. This is an isolating factor which forces Merry, who happens to be awake nearby, into crying out for him in helplessness, another effective theatrical tactic.

The following scenelet with McKellen is also highly effective for many of the same reasons. Boyd doesn’t try to do too much and instead keeps his experiences relatable to the audience. The impression we get is of someone who just suffered immense emotional pain rather than physical pain, such as the sudden and horrific death of a loved one, which delivers a much more powerful sense of Sauron’s evil nature. This is another critical instance of the audience witnessing the Dark Lord’s demi-god-like powers and, when delivered effectively, it creates a real sense of fear and impotence in the audience’s psyche. How can our heroes ever prevail against something like that? And what sort of diabolical monster would torture a little hobbit for no apparent reason? It’s an incredibly powerful moment in the story which develops Pippin’s character, advances the story, and brings Sauron into the action in the most personal manner we’ve seen yet while Boyd’s commendable performance is the cornerstone of it all.

Dominic Monaghan, meanwhile, was a surprise as Merry, delivering a decent performance in what had to be a very secondary role. Despite limited screen time (and rather too much mascara), Monaghan finds some nice moments here and there, especially, it seems, when he has been battered and beaten. Some of his better clips come out of the tussles with the Uruk-hai in Rohan and following the Battle of the Pelennor Fields when Pippin finds him lying wounded on the battlefield. He also performs well in his more impish or comic moments, such as gearing up for battle in Eowyn’s tent, the Ent-draught sequence, and the various lighter spots throughout FOTR.

Monaghan didn’t have many opportunities to tackle weighty issues and his execution in such situations was a mixed bag. He had a few too many “slow burn” turns of the head in TTT, like while escaping from the orc when he and Pippin first enter Fangorn, turning to see the legion of Ents marching to war against Isengard, and even when the Ents first appear at the Entmoot. The effect is rather silly: if I suddenly started hearing weird and potentially threatening noises while located in weird and potentially threatening places, I think I would be turning quickly to find out what’s coming up behind me. His few dramatic moments are reasonably well done, especially considering the lines in those moments weren’t terribly well written. He tries a little too hard when yelling at the Ents where pleading or helpless frustration might have served him better. Shortly thereafter he has a solid moment as he manages to convince Pippin they do have a stake in the War because the Shire will not long escape the destruction that threatens to spread from Isengard and Mordor. The lines he has to deliver at this moment are not exactly glittering jewels of screenwriting brilliance on their own (“The fires of Isengard will spread, and the woodlands of Buckland and Tuckborough will burn. And all that is green and good in this world will be gone! There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.”), but Monaghan manages to make a little something of them by rightly acknowledging Merry doesn’t normally talk this way. His halting delivery, as if searching for the right words to express his feelings, is an effective way to get the message across without sounding like a bad Shakespearean amateur. On the other hand, his delivery of the lines to Pippin while in the hands of Ugluk and his “lads” on the borders of Fangorn about the nature of the trees there are downright absurd. The lines (once again, with only the flimsiest ties to Tolkien’s text) are poorly conceived, but Monaghan seems to momentarily forget he’s surrounded by hundreds of monsters with bad attitudes who wouldn’t mind literally eating him alive if they got the chance. Sure, talking trees make for a cute fireside tale, but which is more likely to harm you at the moment? Trees which may or may not be making funny noises as they’re being hacked to bits, or the small army of raging, cannibalistic berserkers who just murdered your traveling companion in front of your eyes the day before? The result is an almost goofy moment which Boyd tries to avoid with his genuine and well delivered amazement at the idea of sentient trees, but Monaghan takes it too far with a (literally) wide-eyed performance that almost looks as if he’s deliberately trying to scare the impressionable young Took. Again, the lines don’t help anything, but had the actor at least acknowledged the immediate threat around him it would have rendered the moment more believable while still getting the message of the lines across to the audience.

In the end, Monaghan did pretty well considering what he had to work with. Merry’s character remains largely undeveloped throughout much of the book and, even with 10 hours of film to play with, Jackson wasn’t going to do much with him either. Monaghan uses his opportunities well, for the most part, and plays nicely off his fellow actors throughout the series.

Master of Toons

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Performance Review Series: Samwise

Sam: One of the things I’m finding through trying my hand at this critique project is it’s rather difficult to analyze performances ranging across 10 hours of film all at one time. The comments have to be kept at a fairly high level, otherwise I’d be writing these posts non-stop for months. Anyway, onward we doggedly trudge to Samwise, son of Hamfast.

Sean Astin was the other actor to receive an Academy Award nod for Best Supporting Actor (ROTK), and it could probably be viewed as an acknowledgement of his superior work throughout the film trilogy. Tolkien himself had mentioned somewhere that he considered Sam to be the “real” hero of the story, but his heroism stems from his faithful and humble servant’s heart rather than any great measure of wisdom, strength, or any other virtue normally associated with heroes. His strength comes from devotion to his friends, his courage from dedication to what’s right, his wisdom from his unconquerable “hobbit-sense,” and his endurance to the eventual revelation that greater powers are at work in the world: powers which he cannot alter. Sam is the closest thing to an “Everyman” The Lord of the Rings offers up, complete with a wonderful mixture of sarcasm, humor, love, confusion, and even vengeance. Astin taps into Sam’s mindset beautifully, with nearly every one of his “spotlight” moments being driven by the character’s simple, pure, and admirable qualities.

In one sense, we love Samwise the way we love a doting pet – even when he is rebuked he may be hurt and confused for a moment, but he’ll be right back cuddling up to you in the next moment. On the other hand, there is much to admire about Samwise precisely because he is not a dog or a cat. Animals are driven by instinct and know their owners are there to care for them as the pack leader. Any humanoid creature with a soul – be it man, elf, dwarf, or hobbit – has choices to make which animals never contemplate. Many literary critics scoffed mightily at the way in which Samwise seems to be more of a puppy than a relatable character, but that is what is so remarkable about him: despite the dangers and the fact he has nothing to personally gain from it, he continually chooses to put himself in harm’s way for others.

Astin captures this mentality from his first moments on-screen. No sooner are we introduced to the character than he is whisked off on Frodo’s journey to Rivendell. We see his manservant’s mindset when Pippin collides with Frodo in Maggot’s field and at other safe moments, such as when he offers Frodo some fried tomatoes at the camp under Weathertop. Astin delivers one or two awkward takes where he tries a little too hard to make Sam seem simple, overly rustic, or unlearned. A primary example is the “If I take one more step” line early in the FOTR. A simple acknowledgement of the significance of the event would have sufficed in this situation, which would have served to keep Sam’s grounding and reserve his wonder for other moments, such as his meetings with the Elves, which get diminished due to his premature amazement at a cornfield. Astin’s interpretation of Sam’s take on seeing the Twenty-first Hall in Moria (“Now there’s an eye-opener, and no mistake!”) is much simpler, almost tough-in-cheek, elicits a mini-laugh from most audiences, and is directly in line with the Sam we know and love. I also think it’s not at all coincidental the former moment is not found in the book while the second is, although the line was lifted from a battle scene prior to entering Moria which was not seen in the movie. The point, though, is the actor has source material to review and understand the character’s reaction to certain moments when the scene is drawn from that source material. When there is no direct source material, the actor’s job becomes a little harder.

As in the book, the character of Sam becomes increasingly more crucial to the action. By the time we enter ROTK territory, Sam has grown significantly. It was one of my greatest disappointments after viewing Jackson’s films to realize there would be no movie scene of Sam’s tempting by the Ring. This, of course, became academic due to Jackson’s decision to use Frodo’s captivity as a sort of cliff-hanger with the audience believing the Ring was in the clutches of the Enemy, which is an entirely valid approach for a filmmaker to follow. And perhaps it would have been a visual disaster in any case, since Sam’s struggle with the Ring is, like everyone else’s, entirely in his own mind. Still, it would have been interesting indeed to see how Astin handled that challenge and set it against Elijah Wood’s interpretation. The brief moment he does get – when handing the Ring back to Frodo in the orc tower – is of a different nature, though still grounded in the book. Audiences can be forgiven for wondering briefly whether Sam’s reluctance to give the Ring back is borne of his desire to spare Frodo the pain of it as a burden or due to the Ring’s beloved trickery, or perhaps both confusedly at once. Jackson provides the audial cues at this juncture to inform us the Ring is, in fact, at work, with the tininess of Frodo’s voice indicating the Ring can influence even the staunch Samwise. Astin’s facial expressions, meanwhile, provide an excellent tapestry of horror and pity as the Ring plays on those qualities and attempts to drive the two friends apart from each other. The actor’s triumph in this moment is to keep it simple (“less is more”) and not try to carry the story on his own. It is the combination of all elements – Frodo’s pleading, Sam’s inward struggle, Jackson’s sound effects and camera positioning, as well as the audience’s knowledge of the Ring’s demonic nature – which produce the desired effect. The key for the actor is to stay within their function and not try to do too much on their own.

Astin does a tremendous job with the opportunities he’s given in the script, never wasting a chance to show us what noble intentions and a pure heart can achieve. There are several weepy moments in ROTK, and I’ve heard plenty of people mention the moment Frodo sends Sam away prior to entering Shelob’s Lair as one of their main tear-jerkers. Their reaction is certainly warranted due to the intimate nature of the conflict, the audience’s knowledge of Gollum’s duplicity, and Astin’s admirable handling of his character’s reactions throughout the scene. For me, personally, the scene is well done but never rises to a higher level because (once again) Jackson is toying with the source material and creating situations that never arise in the story. Jackson’s purpose here, obviously, was to isolate Frodo and have him face the terror of Shelob’s Lair alone while also allowing Sam the opportunity to arrive just in time to save the day later. One can argue the value of taking such liberties with a film script, but the result is forcing Wood and Astin into acting a scene which neither of the characters ever contemplate in the book. This creates yet another vacuum for the actor because there is no source material indicating how the character would respond in such a situation. That’s not to say actors can’t fill these voids with their imaginations – they can and do, and the three actors in this scene do so quite well despite getting little help from the script (“He’s poisoned you against me!”).

But contrast that scene with my tear-jerking moment of choice: on the slopes of Mount Doom itself, Sam tries to comfort Frodo by reminding him of their homeland. Frodo, however, cannot recall any sensation of peace or green because his mind and soul are in perpetual torment from the Ring – robbing him of any pleasant memories. Sam’s resolve hardens beyond steel in response: in the book he has a debate with himself in which he says he’ll carry Frodo to the summit “if it breaks my back and my heart.” In the book, when it comes to it, Sam calmly tells Frodo “up you get!” as he carries him “pig-a-back” up the slopes of Orodruin. In the film, this moment translates into a tremendous clip where Sam, through gritted teeth says, “Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you – BUT I CAN CARRY YOU!” He then hoists Frodo on his shoulders and works his way inch by inch up the volcano as we hear, for the first time, the emotional strains of Into the West played under the action. Even though neither scene is verbatim from the book, one set of actions does happen in the source material while the other does not. The effects of this fact stretch beyond the lines being well written or even well delivered: there is, rather, a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations in those moments because the actors know how the author had them react under those conditions – it drives both the script and the acting to greater heights.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong about all of this: I wasn't there during the filming. This is just my guess as to why certain scenes seem to "work" while others come up short. There were plenty of us when the movies came out (myself included) who felt the films would never get a fair shake at the Oscars because of the establishment's disdain for fantasy cinema. There may be some of that, but the truth is this interpretation of The Lord of the Rings is spotty when it comes to truly great theatrical moments. They are there and in decent number, but you're basically talking Aeschylus vs. Shakespeare. Besides, it's hard to deny Jackson's focus was, is, and always will be on the visualization of grand tales. He certainly succeeds in that regard and Hollywood acknowledged this by awarding his trilogy enough Oscars to tie Titanic for the most Academy Awards ever. But they were all in the technical categories because the critics had a point: these films do not contain the kind of sustained acting performances that rise to the level of Great Art. In fairness, the breadth of the story probably made that an impossibility to begin with, and let us be glad no one had that as their aim.

But back to Astin: over the course of the full film trilogy, we see Sam evolve from a simple gardener to a staunch companion to a great Hero of the Age. Through it all, Astin keeps true to Sam’s underlying qualities and we are treated indeed to see how those innate virtues, actively chosen to prevail in the most trying of times, lead directly to incredible feats of courage and will. In the falling action, Astin never lets his Sam grow beyond himself: although he’s clearly more self-confident (And who wouldn’t be after saving the world? His sudden and direct proposal to Rosie is the manifestation of this), the character never loses his grounding or becomes any sort of traditionally “heroic” figure. This, of course, is precisely how Samwise would react, and Astin’s recognition of this endears Sam to us all the more.

Master of Toons