In Memory of Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (1956-2015)

Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, most famous for photographing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and the Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014), has passed away from a heart attack at age 59. Lesnie, who won an Oscar the one time he was nominated (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001), also made his mark with two other Peter Jackson films, King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009), in addition to photographing other films including Babe (1995), Babe: Pig in the City (1998), I Am Legend (2007), The Last Airbender (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). His final film, The Water Diviner (2014), which was directed by Russell Crowe, was just released in American theaters – in IMAX, no less – this past Friday. In a recent Associated Press review of The Water Diviner, Lesnie’s cinematography was described as “so exquisite that sometimes it alone propels the story.”

(Peter Jackson and his director of photography, Andrew Lesnie, on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2011.)

In honor of Lesnie’s wonderful cinematography in the Lord of the Rings films, I would like to highlight some of the scenes he shot in each part of the trilogy. Although this talented man has left us far too soon, his work will not be forgotten by legions of fans all over the world. His mastery of the camera will continue to inspire both viewers and makers of movies.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Our introduction to Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf makes the Shire look as lush and green as every Tolkien fan must have imagined while reading the book. It is easy to see how Lesnie won an Oscar for his photography here.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – The “Evenstar” scene is my favorite part of the film. Aragorn’s memory of an encounter with Arwen is dreamlike but it is not filmed in typical soft focus; instead it is clear, the light casting a goddesslike glow over Arwen’s flowing gown and pale skin. Half of the beauty is in Howard Shore’s score, but the other half is in the images, especially when they have a blue tint.

I spoke too soon: I have another favorite part of The Two Towers (it is, after all, my favorite film in the trilogy). The battle of Helm’s Deep, as shown in these two videos, is intense every time I see it. Even after twelve years, the combat is heart-pounding. From the dark blue shadows of the fighting in the rain to the bright white light of Gandalf’s victorious charge forth into the fray, the cinematography is a significant part of what creates the sense of “epic” storytelling.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – In the final chapter of the trilogy, the big heroic battle shows the scope of this heroic struggle for the soldiers of Rohan (“the Rohirrim”) to slay the invading Orcs. The monumental clash of the two armies is the essence of the excitement in Peter Jackson’s LOTR films: it has all the thrill and grandeur that we came to expect of Andrew Lesnie’s camerawork.

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2012: Part 8

Hitchcock. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. The greatest injustice delivered by this film is that it makes Alfred and Alma Hitchcock appear to be a loveless, childless couple. Not only did their marriage create a child, Patricia, but Pat Hitchcock also appeared in a small role in Psycho (Marion’s chatty coworker in the bank). Facts aside, Helen Mirren fares better as Alma than Anthony Hopkins does as Hitch. Mirren has an easier job at being convincing since the public is by and large not familiar with Alma Reville, visually, vocally or otherwise. Hopkins has the challenge of inhabiting the life of a man about whom most people, even if they are not film buffs, have certain preconceived notions. That doesn’t mean that Hopkins is ineffective in the role, but it was sometimes hard to tell where the makeup and prosthetics ended and the real performance began. Scarlett Johansson does an OK job as Janet Leigh in the sense that the characterization makes seem the nicest person and most caring mother ever, but I don’t see any resemblance, unless just being shapely is supposed to pass muster. On the other end of the spectrum, Jessica Biel makes Vera Miles into a woman who is alternately annoying (rolling her eyes at aspects of the production) and sympathetic (as a supposed victim of Hitchcock’s mania), so I didn’t know how to react. Various other actors populate the cast, from Toni Collette and Michael Stuhlbarg to Kurtwood Smith and Ralph Macchio (!), but with the exception of a subplot between Mirren and Danny Huston, the supporting characters don’t get much screen time. Even James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, star of the whole operation, gets just one scene focusing specifically on him.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Directed by Peter Jackson. As a fan of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films since (I think) 2003, when I saw The Two Towers on rented VHS, I was pretty excited to see this first installment in Jackson’s newest Tolkien trilogy in theaters. That didn’t end up happening. I didn’t get to see An Unexpected Journey until it was released on DVD, but I’m really glad I got around to it. “Sherlock” gave me a real appreciation of Martin Freeman and Journey solidified the feeling since he does a fine job as the young Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen is, as always, a welcome presence as Gandalf. It was hard to keep track of who all the dwarfs were, but Richard Armitage was quite good as the leader of the group, Thorin. As always, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography and Howard Shore’s score are highly impressive. P.S. Extra credit to my mom for sitting through the movie with me. It’s not exactly her preferred genre.

Rock of Ages. Directed by Adam Shankman. Well, it’s better than Shankman’s earlier directorial effort (the remake of Hairspray), that’s for sure. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are “bad” in the lead roles of this 80s-tastic musical, but I’m partial to the Broadway version since I was lucky enough to see it in July 2012. (Justin Matthew Sargent has some pretty killer pipes.) The film condenses the story and the number of songs, which cuts down on the viewer’s enjoyment. Some performances are kind of fun, like those by Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Malin Akerman, but the obvious standout for sheer weirdness is Tom Cruise as the dissolute rocker Stacee Jaxx. For better or worse, Cruise’s acting is on a plane separate from everyone else in the film; his character’s entire persona feels like it dropped down from some freaky universe where every rock song is the most extreme case of melodrama. I mean, I guess Cruise’s singing is impressive (judge for yourself), but the whole time I kept thinking about how he was almost 50 when he filmed the movie, which in turn made me think of Molly Shannon’s “Sally O’Malley” character from “Saturday Night Live.”

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Directed by Lorene Scafaria. Part of me wants to applaud first-time director Scafaria for crafting such an intensely romantic story, but part of me is irritated that that romance is all in the drama-heavy second half while the first half is absurdist comedy, a puzzling disconnect. There’s nothing wrong with the performances by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, who are as expert with handling drama as with comedy, but I’m not sure that the screenplay allows them to have as much development as their characters need for the story to be completely believable, even for a movie about the imminent apocalypse. The huge supporting cast includes a sea of famous faces, including Martin Sheen, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Patton Oswalt, William Petersen, Rob Corddry, Derek Luke and Melanie Lynskey. (One particularly funny scene involves T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs as overenthusiastic servers in a restaurant.) I also can’t fault the soundtrack, which includes one of my favorites, the Hollies’ version of “The Air That I Breathe.” My issue is that the final twenty or so minutes that don’t go the way I expected or wanted. Maybe that’s just me disliking apocalyptic themes.

Won’t Back Down. Directed by Daniel Barnz. One of the most treacly, overly sentimental dramas I have seen in quite some time, Won’t Back Down has no shortage of good actors but a severely deficient screenplay. You’re not likely to see a more earnest performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal than here as a working-class mother struggling to get a better education for her dyslexic daughter. Viola Davis does her usual fine work as an overworked teacher who bands together with Gyllenhaal to fight the system, fight the man, etc. As mentioned earlier, the rest of the cast is capable: Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lance Reddick, Bill Nunn, Ving Rhames, Ned Eisenberg. The main problems emanate from the script, an original work by director Barnz and Brin Hill, based on real events but deviating so far from truth and logic that it’s an unrealistic narrative. (Creating a charter school is way more difficult and time-consuming than the movie makes it look.) Stylistic choices also mar the film’s impact. Cinematographer Roman Osin, who had previously done such lovely work on Pride & Prejudice, works with a limited and obvious color palette, using blues and greys to telegraph sadness and yellows and greens to indicate victory. The end credits featuring Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” is the gag-inducing icing on the cake (no offense to Tom Petty – it’s a good song).

Making the Case for Fandom: A Truncated Journey

I must ruefully admit that while I am a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, I have never read the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. (In fifth grade I bought a box set that also included The Hobbit, which I started to read… but I got stuck in chapter two, amidst all the discussion of roast mutton.) Therefore my appreciation of the world shown in the films is based entirely on how great the films are and by how well the actors, screenplay and other technical elements brought those Tolkien characters to life.

Three nights ago I watched most of The Two Towers on cable. It always stuns me when I notice how much of the dialogue I know right away, anticipating it before the characters speak. I don’t know if The Two Towers is necessarily the best film in the trilogy, but it will always be my favorite one.

The love scene in Imladris between Aragorn and Arwen is one of the best moments in the film (the YouTube clip’s lack of Elvish subtitles notwithstanding). As the “Evenstar” theme plays, we see the romantic beauty that lingers in Aragorn’s memories beyond the warrior’s exterior. (Not to sound like fanfiction too much, but it really is a beautiful scene.)

I suppose I could have read Tolkien if I’d wanted to, but between the ages of nine and eleven, the joy of seeing the Lord of the Rings trilogy without knowing what would happen in the films was really exciting. I know I can’t claim to be a superfan in the same way that Tolkien readers are, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love Peter Jackson’s films as much as any other avowed geek. I’m darned proud of it, and as soon as I find my Legolas shirt, I’m going to wear it again. I’m glad to be a member of the LOTR fandom.