The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

As Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are led towards Mordor by Gollum (Andy Serkis), the strange and conflicted former ring bearer, their fellow Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have been side-tracked in Fangorn Forest by an equally strange creature, Treebeard (voice of John Rhys-Davies), who doesn't know what to make of them. While searching for Merry and Pip, the warrior trio of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) learn about the people of Rohan, whose King (Bernard Hill) has been mesmerized by Saruman spy Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), as an evil army approaches to destroy them in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."

Laura's Review: B+

The only beauty to be found in "The Two Towers" is in the faces of the women who love Aragorn, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and the Rohan King's niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto), and the majestic New Zealand landscape. The only humor comes from Gimli, whose eagerness for battle is well met a multitude of times. This second installment of the trilogy is altogether darker, grayer, grimmer and bloodier than the first.

Unlike, say "The Empire Strikes Back," this bridging film cannot stand on its own, but it does propel the action forward towards the ultimate showdown with Dark Lord Sauron. Fittingly, as battle makes for the bulk of screen time here, most of the focus stays on the heroic Aragorn, fleet bowman Legolas the elf and stalwart Gimli. Trying to find Merry and Pippin, instead the trio are shocked to be met by Gandalf (Ian McKellan), transformed from the grey to a dazzling white. The foursome travel to Rohan and cast out Wormtongue, but are dismayed by rejuvenated King Theoden's decision to take his people to Helm's Deep rather than staying to fight Saruman's army. Aragorn is visited by Arwen in his dreams and looked upon longingly by Eowyn in daytime.

As Aragorn's crew travel to Helm's Deep, Frodo and Sam are kept from entering the gates of Mordor by Gollum, who tells them of a secret entrance. This scene seems a strong homage to "The Wizard of Oz," as Sauron's soldiers all but break out into "All we owe..." while our intrepid trio hide behind a rock. The ring grows into an ever heavier burden upon Frodo as they follow Gollum across the Dead Marshes, gazing upon the white faces of the dead who float just below the water's surface. Production designer Grant Major's stunning work here appears inspired by the Pre-raphaelite paintings of John William Waterhouse. Like Merry and Pippin held by the Ent, Frodo and Sam are captured by Gondor leader Faramir (David Wenham) and kept from completing their journey.

At Helm's Deep, a battle of biblical proportions concludes "The Two Towers" in a breathtaking climax that reunites Merry and Pippin with the others when Treebeard rallies the Ents to join the fray. Jackson creates a landscape that could have sprung from the mind of Hieronymous Bosch. He then lands us gently with Frodo and Sam as Sam wonders if there will ever be stories told about them. As in the first film, the second ends with the two Hobbits about to begin a more difficult journey than they just completed.

The cast are all fine, with McKellan again a standout. The film's energy is always goosed when Sir Ian is on screen. Mortensen, Bloom and Rhys-Davies all benefit with a deepening of character while Otto is a nice addition. Dourif is so deliciously evil, one is saddened by the banishment of Wormtongue. The biggest surprise, though, is the utter perfection of Sean Astin as Sam Gangee. While Wood is mostly wide-eyed, Astin's simple down to earth Sam shows the true heart of a Hobbit.

Visual effects supervisor Jim Ryziel and Peter Jackson's Weta Digital Ltd. have outdone themselves with Gollum, a creature who looks like one of those 1960s Margaret Keane paintings of a sad, saucer eyed child if it had been an Auschwitz survivor or crypt keeper. Gollum's conversations with himself, as good tries to keep evil from betraying Frodo, are some of the film's highlights. Also beautifully realized are the Ents, mossier and more individualistic variations on the apple-throwers of Oz. Howard Shore's more ominous score is unleavened by Enya's warblings this time around.

Besides the fact that "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" will never be a film unto itself, it must also be mentioned that it does suffer somewhat from repetition. Gollum covets his 'precious' once too often and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie is overly fond of swooping panoramic shots of tiny figures trudging across landscape. The many battles that occur in the film frequently utilize those annoying closeups that make it impossible to tell what's going on.

Still, "The Two Towers" is sure to delight the hordes awaiting it. It's a brutally majestic forerunner to "The Return of the King."

Robin's Review: A-

"Braveheart Down Under with Wizards" would be a more appropriate title for the much anticipated second installment of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy as director Peter Jackson takes us back to Middle Earth to continue the saga begun in "LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring." The Fellowship has splintered into three groups with young Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) bound and determined to return the coveted Ring from whence it came - to the fires of Mordor in "The Two Towers."

This is an absolutely critic proof film that will draw the fans of part one (and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkein's epic tale) in legions as they clamber to see what happens next to their favorite heroes. The members of the Fellowship, you'll remember, had to divide their forces with Frodo and his loyal friend, Samwise, tasked to destroy the much sought after One Ring of Power. Human warrior Aragorn (Vigo Mortensen), elf archer Legolas Greenleaf (Orlando Bloom) and battle hardened dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are tracking down a band of Orcs that hold hobbits Merry and Pip captive, while the great wizard Gandalf the Grey has made a journey of his own to the depths of hell.

These adventures closely follow Tolkein's middle book in the trilogy as it follows up with the characters developed in "The Fellowship." In "The Two Towers" we know all the players, what their missions are and what foes they must fight. Helmer Jackson and company roll up their sleeves and get down to the business of mustering the forces of good and evil as Sauron, with the help of his lackey wizard Sarumon (Christopher Lee), brings his spawn, a phalanx of super Orcs called Uruks, into battle against the humans and their allies of the Middle Earth. This formula has all the makings to provide epic battles and, guess what? The many "LotR" fans will not be disappointed.

The combination of spectacular landscape photography, huge battles with armies numbering in the thousands and the sinister doings of Sauron and his minions are all well and good, but there are a couple of other elements in "The Two Towers" that, if possible, overshadow the epic telling of the war for control of Middle Earth. Only tantalizingly shown in part one, the ubiquitous Gollum/Smeagol (voice of Andy Serkis) comes to the fore as the previous holder of the One Ring that tracks Frodo and Sam in hopes of getting back his "precious" possession. This singular little character turns out to be one of the best things in the film and attains the status of such mythical creations as Yoda and ET. Truth be told, when the action shifts away from this complex diminutive creature, I could not wait until Smeagol came back to center screen. (Gollum is the best special F/X in a film heavily laden with visual effects.)

The other aspect of "The Two Towers" that knocked me out is the appearance of the fabulous Ents, the treeherders in charge of caring for the vast, ancient forests of the fantasy world. One Ent, in particular, Treebeard (voice of John Rhys-Davies), takes on the task of helping Merry and Pippin rejoin their friends and musters the rest of the tree people to help out in the attack on Saruman's heavily guarded fortress. The battle that ensues is one of several that take place during the course of the film but is the most visually striking and memorable.

The regulars from "The Fellowship," for the most part, are back and there are one or two new editions to the story with Bernard Hill appearing as Theoden, the King of Rohan and, in a terrific, slimy performance, Brad Dourif as Sauron's puppet and spy in the kingdom, Grima Wormtongue. Lest you romantics fear, Liv Tyler appears again (in flashback) as Aragorn's elfish lover Arwen Undomiel.

This huge project has made Peter Jackson a formidable force in world-class filmmaking and will ensure his A-list status for the rest of his career. If "The Two Towers" makes only half of what "Fellowship" made at the box office it will be considered a major success. But I don't think this will be the case. The huge, ready-made audience that is chomping at the bit to spend their hard earned dollar are going to flock to the theater in droves. The almost relentless battle sequences makes the characters take a back seat at times, making this a slight bit less enthralling development-wise than "The Fellowship of the Ring," but "The Two Towers" is an epic event.

There are elements of derivativeness to parts of "The Two Towers" with the opening battle between Gandalf and a demon from hell being a reverse "Moby Dick" and with Howard Shore's music score often sounding like something out of "Braveheart." The "conventional" battles between men and Orcs are handled in routine manner and much of the action shone too close in. These are minor nits, though.