Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings

The Legacy of Christopher Lee

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Earlier today it was announced that the legendary film star recognised the world over, Sir Christopher Lee, had passed away. Famed for his iconic movie roles, many of which were villains in the horror and sci-fi genre, unfortunately no amount of virgin’s blood, ancient Egyptian curses or black magic will bring him back this time. The world of cinema has lost one of its true greats.

Star of over 200 movies in total, stretching as far back as his pre-Hammer Horror collaborations with Terence Fisher in the 1940’s, right the way through to last year’s multi-million pound blockbuster The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, it’s fair to say that he has left behind a rich legacy of films. Whatever age you are, you will know Christopher Lee for one role or another. As Scott Weinberg said on Twitter: “Do you have kids? They know who Christopher Lee is. Are your grandparents around? So do they“. And it’s completely true. Whether you grew up with Lee burning wicker effigies in the 70’s, or whether he’s Saruman the White wizard to you, he’s known to multiple generations.

To honour his remarkable talent and to hopefully reflect even a smidgen of the impact he’s had on the movie industry, here’s a quick list (in no particular order) of ten of his films that he is undoubtedly the star of.


Dracula (1958)

draculaLon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and… Christopher Lee. Whoever your favourite classic horror film icon may be, in the mid-50’s the genre was flagging. Surpressed by its flashy American counterparts, or the subject of ribbing over Universal’s cartoonish nature. Without this full colour Hammer Horror film, who knows what might have happened to the independent British horror genre. Notoriously difficult to finance due to the legal wrangles with Universal over the rights to the Transylvanian Count, Dracula was shot on a budget of just £81,000. And yet, over a million people flocked to see the debonair giant Christopher Lee (at 6 ft 5 in) devour buxom hapless ladies. Much, much darker and more gruesome in tone than Lugosi’s take on the aristocratic vampire some 25-30 years earlier, Lee’s imposing presence terrified audiences back then and possibly still does even now. Of course, he would go onto play the character quite a few more times with …. less success. Nevertheless, Dracula still ranks amongst his finest performances.


The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

JOHN JAY80Lest we forget, of course, that it was actually this film released the year before Dracula that actually shot Christopher Lee to stardom. Hammer’s first colour feature film, after the relative success of X-rated black and white horror The Quatermass Xperiment and its sequel, it took until 1957 for director Terence Fisher to join the studio for them to really be propelled into the big leagues. Whether it was the result of a genius at work, or just sheer dumb luck, they seemed to stumble upon the perfect formula with Lee as the monster and Cushing as the hero. As you can read in my Horrorble Month article from last year, they’re two genuinely impressive performances that elevate The Curse of Frankenstein from being simply ‘quite good’, to ‘immensely entertaining’, virtually by themselves.


The Mummy (1959)

the mummyAnd whilst we’re talking about Fisher, Lee and Cushing during Hammer Horror’s golden period, one last pick of their movies together that’s worth a mention is The Mummy. Mainly because, ahem, I haven’t seen The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sorry. Er, swiftly moving on. Unfortunately, whilst the overall quality of The Mummy is debatable, not quite at the level of the previous two – and whilst I’d never bad mouth Peter Cushing! Ever! – there’s only really one reason to watch this. Yep, you guessed it; Christopher Lee. From the make-up and practical effects used on the creepy silent ancient mummy coming to life, “bringing terror and death across 4000 years”, to Lee’s slow lumbering stalking, it really makes you appreciate just how great he was. It’s worth watching purely to see him do one of the things he did best (and perhaps somewhat underratedly these days?), which is just simply being the unstoppable terrifying monster. There’s probably none better, before or since. And there probably never will be, either.


Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

gremlinsIt wasn’t all serious horror films for Christopher Lee throughout his career. Sometimes, he displayed his famous wicked sense of humour in the choice of characters he made. Take, for example, his part Joe Dante’s Disney comedy sequel, Gremlins 2. In this, he pops up as a bit-part character, Doctor Catheter, a mad scientist experimenting on mutating animals. Something rather obviously playing on Lee’s reputation for constantly portraying the villain, his over the top performance steals the scene almost every single time he’s on screen. Even though the film is a cartoony little fluff piece to pass a Sunday afternoon, Lee himself is magnificent and huge amounts of fun.


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

sleepy hollowOne director, whatever your opinion of him, who truly loves the classic horror genre like few others is Tim Burton. From casting Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands, to creating a whole film about Ed Wood, to give him credit, the guy clearly loves the b-movie. Which is why, even though I may not be a fan of most of his latter films, it’s great to see Christopher Lee honoured by Burton with a handful of slightly larger cameo roles every now and again. He pops up in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Corpse Bride and probably my favourite of his surprise roles, the town Burgomaster in Sleepy Hollow who sends Johnny Depp off to carry out his investigations into the town’s recent murders. And once again he can be found displaying the lighter humour that he was both renowned and admired for. He’s quite frequently been the highlight in some of Burton’s less critically acclaimed movies.


The Wicker Man (1973)

'The Wicker Man' film - 1973Proving he could pull off just about any role available to him and turn it into something incredibly memorable, even when wearing women’s clothes and dancing around a field burning a policeman to death, The Wicker Man is one of his most beloved low budget British movies. There’s more to The Wicker Man that makes it such a classic than simply the performance of Christopher Lee… but it certainly helps! As Lord Summerisle, head of a small cultish Scottish town with some rather bizarre rituals, his charisma makes him seem both likable and dangerous. It’s absolutely perfect casting to pit him alongside the sterner Edward Woodward as the two have chemistry together that emulates that shared between Lee & Cushing in his earlier films. A kind of wary friction that permeates through the screen and infects the viewer.


The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

scaramangaThere’s probably three things you need to know about The Man with the Golden Gun. Firstly, it’s a Roger Moore James Bond film, so set your expectations to “goofy”. Secondly, there’s a man with a gun made of gold (evident from the title, I imagine?) Finally, it has Scaramanga, played by Christopher Lee, who is probably one of the most recognisable villains in the Bond back catalogue. Let’s just say, in a line up of topless decapitated Bond villains, his distinguishing feature will probably make him the first one you can identify. Surprisingly though, Scaramanga actually gets a lot less screen time than you probably remember. He certainly had less than I remembered back when I rewatched The Man with the Golden Gun for the first time as an adult ahead of our Bond special podcast in 2012. It was a shame he didn’t appear on screen more, as he lit up the picture frequently. It’s great to see Lee play a slightly more nuanced and complex villain with an in depth backstory for a change and still be fantastic at it.


Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

rasputinProbably less well known of Christopher Lee’s films behind even the likes of Fu Manchu and Howling II (neither of which are making it on this list!) but still one of my personal favourite performances of his is as the crazy Russian advisor, Rasputin. Sure, OK, the film is so very melodramatic and wildly inaccurate (historically speaking); it would be understandable for someone to expect very little going into Rasputin. It does not deserve to be as brilliant as it actually, honestly, God-help-me is. Lee as the mad Russian monk with his supernatural healing powers and hairy face utterly dominates. Horse-and-cart-jacking his way from one drinking game to the next, womanising, hypnotising and bellowing all the way to the top, Lee is absolutely superb. I know it sounds like I’m overstating his role, but I genuinely believe this is perhaps his most unappreciated performance. It’s more than just a schlocky mid-60’s Hammer Horror film because Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee makes it thus.


Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

count dookuRepeating my long-held opinion on the Star Wars films will be a massive waste of time for all involved here. As has been established plenty of times during the 160 episodes of our podcast, George Lucas’s space adventure films just aren’t for me, I’m afraid. However, I don’t think I would be forgiven if I made this list and left out Count Dooku. Even I can’t deny that he deserves his place here. He’s actually one of the more sympathetic characters in the Star Wars universe, having basically turned to the dark side of the force because he hated the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the Jedi’s. In fairness, it’s enough to turn anybody to the dark side. I suppose the fact that he’s also a massive arrogant dick probably made the job easier for Darth Sidious. Starting a full scale war might also count against him too. Regardless, it’s not a completely wild accusation for me to say this film is basically carried by Christopher Lee’s broad shoulders.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

sarumanI could’ve picked any of his performances as Saruman the White from Peter Jackson’s middle earth films. In The Two Towers, that’s probably his finest accomplishment throughout the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films combined as he and Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf the Grey clash during a siege. But just think about this for a second. Last year, some sixty six years after making his big screen debut, now a 90+ year old man, he was still making huge blockbuster films! And in the third instalment of The Hobbit, which is at time of publishing his last on screen performance, he convincingly portrayed an arse-kicking heroic wizard with all the enthusiasm you’d have expected a fresh faced 26 year old to muster. To have had such a verve for life after having already lived such a full and truly astonishing 93 years on this planet, and to still have gotten excited about doing his job as excellently as he possibly could, he’s just a credit to everyone and I for one will sorely miss seeing him in new movies.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Not quite the triumphant fanfare that the epic fantasy adventure series deserved to bow out on, but still an impressive conclusion to an entertaining series.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

hobbitDuring the week, you may have read an article that I published on here expressing my excitement at the release of Peter Jackson’s final jaunt through Middle Earth. After I recently watched all three of the extended edition DVD’s of The Lord of the Rings and rewatched the two Hobbit films, the most unexpected thing happened. I found out that despite previously believing these fantasy adventure films to be little more than Hobbity-tosh, they were actually rather marvellous. Full of character, personality and thrills, I could not wait to complete the set by taking myself off to the cinema and spending 144 minutes with Bilbo & Friends one final time.

In fact, I’ve actually been holding out voting on our end of year awards just yet in case The Battle of the Five Armies made my top 10, as both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug had done in 2012 and 2013 respectively. (Yes, that is a plug for our Failed Critics Awards 2014! Finish reading this and then scroll back up the page and click this link to vote for your choices!)

So, where does this third and final Hobbit film begin? It picks up directly from where the previous film left off without pausing for breath or to stroke its long and lusciously thick beard. As we saw in the closing scenes of the second movie in the series, Smaug the dragon has taken flight and is on his way to burn Lake-town to cinders to inflict revenge on the company of dwarves out to steal back their home. Perhaps an even bigger threat to our heroes is the impending arrival of an army of orcs marching towards the Lonely Mountain ready for all out war.

Maybe I made a rod for my own back by over hyping the film to myself beforehand, but I genuinely was looking forward to this. However, as disappointing as it is for me to say, it was something of a let down. Whereas the previous two movies feel like lots of mini-adventures all taking place within one movie, the final part is.. well.. it’s just the third act to the second film. From the arrival of the dwarves at Bag End and Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, to the barrel riding escape plan and awakening of the dragon in The Desolation of Smaug, there’s always one more perilous quest awaiting Gandalf’s party of homeless dwarves and burglars. In that regard, this is lacking somewhat, which is no surprise when you consider the original plan was for JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit to be adapted into two movies rather than three. The main issue is that isn’t very well concealed. This may be the shortest movie of all six films, but that’s because it’s essentially just one long battle sequence with a bit of story at the beginning and a bit more at the end.

Don’t get me wrong, the battle is well shot. There’s the epic scale that is to be expected and director Peter Jackson doesn’t deny the viewer some absolutely fantastic and imaginative set pieces. It’s not like Jackson doesn’t have experience in how to shoot them by now. However, it just wasn’t satisfying like The Return of the King was. Calling it a battle sounds quite grand but it was more of a brawl with thousands of unidentifiable generic soldiers.

My biggest gripe lies with the lack of humour. It’s not completely without comedy; indeed, I chuckled and sniggered during some amusing scenes. However,  the dwarves simply weren’t fun characters to be around any more. A (100% CGI) Billy Connolly pops up to deliver one or two funny lines, but generally they are more concerned with the darkness enveloping their rightful king, Thorin Oakenshield, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage. In fact, the performances across the board were of a high standard again. Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Lee Pace and of course Sir Ian McKellen were all positive aspects, as was Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. The only problem with Martin Freeman is that he really should’ve had more screen time. All of the best lines and most interesting plot lines come from the little hobbit. Unless of course you count Legolas declaring that “these bats are bred for one purpose; for war” to be the best line in a so-bad-it’s-good way.

Finally, on the subject of characters and their respective actors, I really think Luke Evans as Bard is one of the best human characters from any of the Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit films so far. An honourable character whose sentiment is not over-egged, with a performance that does not seem to be discussed as much as it should. He carries the story on his own during some of the lesser moments and does so admirably.

Overall, it’s still an occasionally exciting and impressive film, but undeniably lacklustre. The first two films made me laugh and had their own identity as fun, fantasy adventure films. Oddly The Battle of the Fives Armies only managed to make me laugh on a handful of occasions and as such, regardless of the fact the run time flies by (unlike An Unexpected Journey), unfortunately it just feels like Lord of the Rings-lite as opposed to the conclusion to an original and new Hobbit trilogy.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in cinemas right now and will be featured as the main review on our next episode of the Failed Critics Podcast, a Christmas special.

Failed Critics Podcast: Hobbity tosh, Pottery hogwash & Intersellar oh-my-gosh

interstellarWelcome to this week’s super-professional well-researched spick-and-span highly-polished episode of the Failed Critics podcast!

The main release review this week is Christopher Nolan’s $165m space-time-travelling science fiction thriller Interstellar. A film so long, we extended our podcast an extra 15 minutes with the return of our Spoiler Alert section alongside our regular spoiler-free review.

Despite that, there was even time for Owen to take in the first two (well, one and a half) Lord of the Rings films this week; for Steve to reveal exactly why he’s watching through all seven Harry Potter movies; and for Carole to have a meta-meta experience with 90’s slasher sequel Scream 2.

Jon us again next week as we review the acclaimed wartime drama The Imitation Game.

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A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2003

This week, Gerry gives us his top five from 2003 – be sure to check out the entries for 2002, 2001 and 2000 if you haven’t already done so. We’d love to hear your thoughts on these so please get in touch with a comment or on twitter.

5. Finding Nemo

FindingNemo460“The dropoff? They’re going to the dropoff? What – what are you insane? Why not just fry them up now and serve them with chips?”

It’s not my favourite Pixar film, but that’s like saying Stairway to Heaven isn’t my favourite Led Zeppelin song – it’s still fucking good, it just happens to have been created by people who reach greater heights. Gorgeous to look at and full of charm, the storyline and characters are perhaps a little weaker than others in the stable; this, of course, still means that they are superior to the vast majority of animated films and lots of ‘normal’ films too. The voice cast is so outstanding I’m not even going to highlight anyone in particular. This film was a long time in the making (3-5 years) and it shows in the attention to detail. Gorgeous and, a decade on, firmly established in the pantheon of family classics for young children and former children alike.

4. Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

ROTK Viggo“Then let us be rid of it… once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”

The culmination of a growing mastery of epic fantasy over the preceding years, Jackson’s final installment is often derided for having about 27 endings, but that ignores the excellence that goes before it. It’s very hard for me to decide between the three LOTR films and I will continue to argue that they are one of the rare examples of films that, as a trilogy, are much greater than the sum of their parts. Still, a visually wonderful and enthralling film with iconic battle scenes and the closing of one of western narrative’s great achievements – what’s not to like?

3. Kill Bill Vol 1

Kill bill uma thurman“Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.”

Stylish, witty and chocked full of violence, Kill Bill is one of my favourite Tarantino films (and I really like Tarantino). Uma Thurman is great, the references are too numerous to count, and the story clips along at a lovely pace. This sums up what Tarantino is about for me – his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema shines through, while his control as a director is superb. The result is just a really fun film. Slightly better than Vol 2 in my opinion, although I am quite eager to see the original cut of both as a (very long) single film.

2.Elf

Elf Will Ferrell“First we’ll make snow angels for a two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookiedough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle”

Yes, Elf. The joint best Christmas film ever made (alongside It’s A Wonderful Life, obviously) which sees Will Ferrell’s Buddy as a human adopted by elves who goes to New York City to find his real parents. This is a film that can only be described as charming from start to finish. The supporting cast is pretty good all round, especially a short turn from Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones) as a ridiculous children’s author, but this is undoubtedly Ferrell’s film. This was a great year for Ferrell, with Old School close to making this list too. Most remarkable is David Berenbaum’s screenplay – his first – and the fact that, in his second proper outing as a director, Jon Favreau marked his arrival as a director with genuine potential thanks to his understanding the nature of Hollywood cinema magnificently. Honestly, it’s a Christmas institution in my household and I know it is for many of my generation – I challenge you to watch Elf and not smile, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

1. Te Doy Mis Ojos (Take My Eyes)

Take My Eyes“Where it reads ‘home’ read ‘hell’. Where it reads ‘love’ there is pain”

This is a remarkable film. The simple fact that it won seven Goya awards in 2004 (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor and Lead Actress should indicate to you quite how much quality is bursting from every scene here. But let me make a disclaimer early on: this film is brutal. It depicts some dark depths as far as humanity is concerned. This most certainly isn’t one to watch on a romantic night in (trust me, I’ve watched this with my girlfriend) unless you’re in a very established relationship. It tells the story of Pilar and Antonio, a couple in the wonderful city of Toledo. The opening scene shows Pilar leaving him due to the abusive nature of their relationship, moving in with her sister, Ana. As she tries to rebuild her life, Antonio goes to anger management classes. Slowly but surely, they begin to interact again. We are presented unflinchingly with a troubling examination of abusive relationships, the powerful effect they have on the victim and those around them, and the strange irresistible pull of the abuser despite all the horrors they have committed. Luis Tosar’s Antonio is one of the outstanding performances of the decade, making the film worth watching for that alone. But this is truly brilliant in many aspects. In a way that European cinema seems to manage so much better than Hollywood, the characters are not black and white. This is no hero and villain affair. We feel sympathy where we ‘shouldn’t’, anger and annoyance towards those who are ostensibly in the right. Yes, Antonio is an awful human being but we see the sides of him that make Pilar still love him. We are exasperated at her lacking the strength to completely cut him off. This cuts to the core of Spain’s problems with domestic violence and is in fact sociologically significant, as it helped catapult the debate into the limelight after decades of awkward silence. A woman dies every week at the hands of her partner in Spain. Watch this and you will understand the horror of that experience, one that is unfortunately repeated in countless homes all the time*. But you will also understand a little more about people.

*The death rate for domestic violence in the UK is actually higher than this, but we don’t talk about it – perhaps we need to have films like Tyrannosaur reaching a much wider audience to stimulate debate? You know, get powerful dramas about the dark side of society on general release with big marketing? Accept that as a nation we are capable of appreciating more than CGI and loud noises? Just saying, Hollywood obsessed shitty cinema chains; you can do what you like with that suggestion. I suspect nothing and more ‘John Carter on 15 screens for a fortnight’ crap. Rant over.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Blackwater (s2, ep9)

When I found out that Failed Critics would be running a series on greatest ever TV episodes, a few shows came to mind. However there is one from recent memory that is more deserved of a praise than anything I’ve seen in years.

As the world had come to accept fantasy drama as mainstream following the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Game of Thrones took that world by storm in 2011, when it was launched into realism as a TV drama out of the pages of its author George R. R. Martin. Where GOT differs from other classical mythology of Tolkien-ilk, is its unyielding portrayal of real-world brutality and shocking morality.

The new series was an overnight success and quickly became the most talked about TV show on the Internet, as people scurried to find out more from the existing texts than their weekly supplement could satisfy. Wheels are set into motion in the first episode of the very first series, pitching five families against one another for survival and ownership of the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Blackwater, the penultimate episode of the second series, is arguably the culmination of all the episodes of GOT that came before it, as circumstances create a chain of events and pawns are strategically (or sometimes less strategically) placed for the infamous ‘Battle of Blackwater Bay’.

The episode begins with the patrons of King’s Landing (the kingdom’s capital) laying in wait of the wrath of would-be King, Stannis Baratheon. The capital is ill-armed, ill-prepared and under-manned due to an ongoing war with the Northern uprising (led by Robb Stark). The tension in the air is truly palpable as troops drunkenly await their call to arms, as particularly highlighted by a delicate conversation between Sandor Cligane (The Hound) and sell-sword, Bronn (Jerome Flynn).

As the city faces seemingly insurmountable odds, the scene appears grim as the army of Stannis sails right into Blackwater Bay without any interjection from the defending King’s army. Cruel King Joffre Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) flouts the possibility of defeat despite making zero preparation, all of which has been left to the most intelligent and charismatic character of the series, Tyrion Lannister (the King’s uncle) played by the extraordinary and Emmy award-winning Peter Dinklage.

Bronn-stands-tall-in-the-Battle-of-Blackwater

As the city forces take position at the walls, the King panics when he sees only one defensive ship in his harbour sailing directly into the ensuring armada. The attacking forces also curious as to why only one boat sails out to meet them begin to suspect a trap, but it is too late by the time they see the neon green substance leaking from the defending ship and a solitary flaming arrow flying over their heads…

What follows is the most spectacular piece of television I’ve ever witnessed, as the flaming arrow ignites the substance called ‘Wildfire’, thus creating a huge explosion of semi-biblical proportions and a shower of death closely resembling napalm, as a significant number of Stannis’ forces are consumed and their ships destroyed.

Stannis, unimpressed and non-relenting to the devastation, tells his forces to attack. When prompted by one of his commanders that so many are dead and many more will surely perish if they attack, Stannis merely responds with ‘Thousands…’.

A siege then begins as Stannis’ remaining troops storm the bay and even following the Wildfire attack still outnumber the defending troops. An impressive battle of archery and swordplay ensues on the beach between defenders and attackers, and there appears to be hope for the defenders of King’s Landing, until the King himself panics and retreats to the inner walls of the city, leading to his troops losing morale and ceasing to defend.

Reluctantly Tyrion (who happens to be a dwarf) has no choice but to lead an attack himself in the King’s absence to save the city. He is able to sneak a garrison of troops behind the attacks as they ram down the gate and begin to ascend the city walls, but they are greatly outnumbered and all seems lost as Tyrion is struck down by one of the City guards, at the orders of rival sibling Cersei (Lena Headey).

At the very last, a charge of cavalry is seen smashing into the attackers and the King’s grandfather, Tywin Lannister pronounces the battle over, just before Cersei can administer her youngest son with poison to save him from the wrath of Stannis.

The Blackwater episode is very much comparable with the Battle of Helm’s Deep from LOTR’s The Two Towers yet, in my opinion, is more impressive and unquestionably more graphic. The GOT universe until this point had almost exclusively been forged in a Medieval mythology that is compatible with real history. All that changes with the introduction of alchemy via Wildfire, and then sorcery by the end of the series with ascension of Dragon’s and the rise of the un-dead from beyond the Wall.

Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the hottest property on TV currently, and the whole-world is on count down to the launch of Season 3 in early April 2013. It’s like watching a fantastic hour long movie every week and, like any good show, it leaves you desperately awaiting the next episode. Whatever Season 3 has in store, it certainly has a great deal to live up to following the Battle of Blackwater Bay, one of the finest pieces of television you’ll have seen in many years.