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The Ring comes full circle
Peter Jackson has wrought the impossible. I have read J.R.R. Tolkien's great work more than two-score times. After the blasphemy of Ralph Bakshi's aborted "The Lord of the Rings" a quarter of a century ago, I was somewhat apprehensive two years ago when "The Fellowship of the Ring" appeared. I had nightmares of Bakshi's Hanna-Barbera cartoon cutouts crossing the screen on a cardboard Middle Earth. Well, the "Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring" was a tremendously moving triumph. And Jackson built upon his initial success with "The Lord of the Rings: The Towers," which was an even grander triumph than "Fellowship" was. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," however, is greater than the first two--by far. This is a magnificent achievement of cinematic storytelling that perhaps has been matched by a handful of films..."Ben Hur," "The Ten Commandments," and the first two "Godfather" titles would be on my list of over-the-top cinematic epics. Sir Ian McKellen, perhaps, received the star's billing for this tremendous ensemble cast, and no single character receives more less] than his/her proper due. It isn't enough to list all the names and roles here; the acting is great from first to last. Jackson has found the heroic and human element in all three films; as in any great work, there are no false notes. Any serious Tolkien student [as opposed to "fan," which merely implies a cursory acquaintance with the great professor and his works]could take issue with Jackson's inclusions, additions, and omissions in any of the three films--the missing Tom Bombadil in the first film, or the absence of the chapter "The Voice of Saruman" in the second film. There are many changes from Tolkien's story here in "The Return of the King," but the story simply could not be told in a credible, entertaining, and profitable manner without cuts. There are films where there is always too much of war and battle, savagery and splendor. "The Return of the King" will endure for many reasons, one of them being the eerie, frightening, apocalyptic vision of what the end of the world must be like as Jackson presents his Ragnarok of the Icelandic sagas, the Gotterdammerung of Wagner. The forces of Saruman, crawling [and flying] inexorably towards the last bastion of hope and human decency unleash a violence and blood lust so utterly and inhumanly appalling that it must be seen to be believed. The sequence at the Sammath Naur, as Frodo comes to his great decision is, of course, the film's highlight, Elijah Wood absolutely nailed it. Andy Serkis will perhaps never be appreciated for his work as Gollum, a manifestly difficult role portraying all that character's complexities. Sean Astin's Sam will become one of the most beloved screen characters in history. McKellen never overdid it as Gandalf, as Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn provided the correct heroic, distant, emphasis on his shifting character. Gimli, Legolas, Merry and Pippin all have their moments and are admirably played; however, a special mention must be given to Bernard Hill. As King Theoden of Rohan, he is superb. The wreck and fire, the slaughter of the Fields of the Pelennor were very real, the the images of the mumakil and the frightening fell-beasts, as they have come to be known, seemed to have an organic life of their own. I never once thought, "well, these are only special efects." There have been complaints about the film's length. Well, I never got the impression of time passing as I watched the movie. All I can say of Jackson's magnum opus is what Tolkien said of his own: that people wrote to him and lamented that "the book is too short." This film's [and the preceding two's] greatness will consist of having gotten to the core of the Tolkien book's essential moral truth: the nobility of the purest human endeavors and how they can either succeed or fail because, as culpable beings, we are ignorant of the "divine" intention. A final note: the music of Howard Shore gives all three films emotional and psychological reference points of the highest moral stature, lifting "The Lord of the Rings" far, far above what anyone could wish in terms of film scoring. Shore's Wagnerian musical architecture is the perfect underpinning to Jackson's great work. We may see finer films in our lifetimes, but they will not be many.
A ringing success!
It is the rare film which is an improvement upon its original. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" has eclipsed "The Fellowship of the Ring" in sheer cinematic story-telling. Perhaps its only serious rival in this regard is "The Godfather, Part Two" . Director Peter Jackson opens "The Two Towers" boldly--without plot summary or other device and plunges us into the tale. He risks much at the outset--the fight to the death between Gandalf and the Balrog, but this ratchets up the tension from the outset, and for nearly three hours, Jackson never loses his grip. As in "The Fellowship," Jackson has taken certain liberties with Tolkien's original; I thought I would find them annoying and disturbing, but he really has done an admirable job compressing the labyrinthine complexities of Tolkien's story. After many readings of the tale, there is still no character I love more than another. The acting in "The Two Towers" impressive. Viggo Mortensen's Aragon is heroic in a brooding way. Legolas [Orlando Bloom] and Gimli [John Rhys-Davis] are less easy to cast, but both actors give their characters life and, more importantly, strength. I was deeply affected by Hugo Weaving's [Elrond] and Liv Taylor's [Arwen] discussion of her fate if she marries Aragorn. In Tolkien, I think it is obvious that the elf lord loves Arwen, but the scene in "The Two Towers" is overwhelming. The heart-breaking scene gives a human dimension to the cinematic tale that only hard-core Tolkien readers know about from reading "The Tale of Aragon and Arwen" from the Appendices following the end of the book. The violence in the film cannot be discounted and unsuitable though it may be for the very young, it is implicit in Tolkien. Use your imagination. Gollum is a wonderful creation. Jackson plays it close to Tolkien's original without its being a mere copy. The only incident which I didn't care for was Frodo's drawing his sword on Sam, but I also understood it. Tolkien could spin out his tale of Frodo's slow enslavement to the ring, but Jackson cannot. This great film's virtues are many and its flaws minor, almost irrelevant. Howard Shore has proven to be a master musician in darkening his score to underscore the action. Jackson has painted a gorgeous portrait of a most difficult theme...and he's not finished yet.
The film is unlike the book, but both are great!
When I next read "The Lord of the Rings" this year, it will be the 40th time that I have begun the great and timeless adventure. I never thought that the gigantic work could be reduced to its barest essence and translated onto the screen with any kind of success. I was happily, ecstatically wrong. When I first read "The Lord of the Rings" some 25 years ago, I was stunned by the literary quality of Tolkien's writing. I hadn't thought that any creative writer could tell a story about weather and time better than Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest writer of naturalism, ever. Tolkien is the Russian master's superior in this regard. Since the New Line Cinema tease began early in 2001, I have waited with the greatest anticipation for "The Fellowship of the Ring." I shall not insult those who may read these lines by passing myself off as THE Tolkien expert, but I know every scene in the three "Rings" book by incident, if not by heart. I was ready for the absence of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, as I was for that of such minor functionaries in the book like Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger, and Farmer Maggot. Peter Jackson got it right. He distilled the essence of the first book to make it watchable, and interesting, to those who may not have read the book, or may not have had a prior interest in Tolkien at all. As a dedicated reader of the book, I have my regrets. We'll have to wait almost a year until "The Two Towers" is released, but "The Fellowship of the Ring" revealed no clue as to whether or not Gimli and Legolas will become friends. I always thought the burgeoning comradeship between the prickly dwarf and the haughty elf, made possible by Galadriel's magnanimous and compassionate behavior towards Gimli when the bedraggled, demoralized Fellowship reaches Lothlorien, was one of the book's singular highlights. While I was disappointed that this was not explored in the film, the movie is a magnificent work. The casting is well-nigh perfect. I could not think of an improvement upon Sir Ian McKellan's Gandalf, Christopher Lee's Saruman, Elijah Wood's Frodo, Viggo Mortensen's Strider/Aragorn, or Sean Bean's Boromir, if my very life depended upon it. While every Tolkien reader has his/her ideas of what certain locations must look like, the Chamber of Mazarbul in Moria struck me as a superb rendering of the ominous, stone-walled room. The computer graphics wonderfully displayed the Gates of Argonath and the Seat upon Amon Hen. Actually, the cinematic differences between Tolkien's words and Jackson's celluloid are many; however, Tolkien's lyrical prose is the payload for readers, just as film was for those sitting in the theater. This, finally: as I watched the film, the entire theater, full almost to bursting, was silent, engrossed. People didn't leave their seats for the bathroom or the popcorn stand. When credits began to roll, the audience sat silently for a moment; some burst into embarrassed, brief clapping. It seemed that the audience was indeed a fellowship, and an ennobled one, at that.
Lake Placid (1999)
What a bite this one turned out to be!
It's abundantly clear that 20th Century Fox doesn't know the difference between a crocodile and an alligator. If the producer/writer had merely taken time to visit a good library, they'd have discovered that an alligator will make every attempt to avoid human beings--and has a bulbous snout--as the creature in this poor movie did. A crocodile is another matter entirely--an aggressive, fearless and fearsome reptile, which will hunt human beings for food. Stan Winston, whose creature effects are usually well done, gave us instead an alligator--period. The beast was not especially frightening. Just as importantly, the human logic was entirely missing. When Betty White led the blindfolded cow down to the river, in plain sight of the predator, the poor dinner plate simply ambled down to the water's edge to meet its quick end. Any animal can scent danger and it made this scene not only absurd but unnecessarily cruel. And why would any human being put himself in harm's way, standing only a few yards away from a supposedly carnivorous reptile? The film's premise was non-existent--no crocodile can survive north of the equator except in equatorial Africa and in the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, crocodile "expert" Hector Cyr was mistaken when he told his rapt audience that crocodiles cannot swim in salt water. Apparently, this "expert" never heard of the feared salt water crocodile, the aggressive man-eaters of northern Australia, also known as the Indo-Pacific crocodile. These crocodiles, which have more of a menacing reputation than their Nile cousins, regularly take to the salt water in the region, swimming from one island to another in search of territory and prey. If writers can be as well paid as David Kelley, where do I get in line? His "script" was something a child could have turned out. As for the "acting," I simply can't imagine that accomplished people such as Bill Pullman and Oliver Platt signed on for such nonsense. Bridget Fonda should be ashamed of herself, given her acting pedigree. She's dropped like a stone from her early promise in "Single White Female." She pulled off two impossible feats--swimming away from an attacking "crocodile" in dark water at night, and holding her breath for over a minute. This cinematic disaster has put her career in a mid-air stall and it seems that she can either go back to acting school or find another career. The locale for such a film should have been in tropical waters to at least force the viewer to find some credibility in a premise entirely without one. Crocodile attacks are frightening events and people lose their lives to them each year, not only in Africa, along the Nile, but also in the Indo-Pacific region where crocodylus porosus [the saltwater] is king. The technology exists for a ferocious, life-like, man-eating crocodile than the stretched-out alligator the Winston factory [I can hear the yawns in the workshop] thoughtlessly turned out. Better actors exist to give weight to a story line which has not yet been filmed, and better writers and directors exist to craft a dramatic story line into a gripping and terrifying film. I left the theater extremely disappointed. I'm embarrassed for the crocodile, which deserved better.
Where have all the heroes gone?
The well-deserved negative comments about this beautifully-filmed fiasco have all but obscured one important good deed: the attempt to update the Lone Ranger on the wide screen, in all his majestic conservatism. Where the studio, in my mind, failed, was in treating the Ranger as "someone we know." For anyone who grew up in the late '40's or early '50's, and remembers Brace Beemer's voice [one God would have envied], or even his predecessor's [Earle Graser], or remembers how naturally Clayton Moore assumed the role for television, the expensive exposure of Klinton Spilsbury was cruelly unnecessary. Why trifle with the Masked Man's origins? He was perfect as we knew him! The Ranger, for all you out there in cyberspace, was NEVER named John; that his last name was Reid was well-known, but to give him a first name [and an unremarkable one at that], was to snatch away some of the mystery and aura surrounding the character. The Wrather Corporation, which bought the rights to the Lone Ranger from George W. Trendle, made this foolish mistake, and they robbed the Masked Man of any heroic pretense by making him, in essence, one of us. If someone bought the rights to the Superman character, changed his planet from Krypton to some other location, and did away with his earthly name of Clark Kent, can you imagine the reaction? The Wrather Corporation robbed themselves of a valuable property by re-tooling the Lone Ranger, and the result was this cinematic fiasco. It could have worked well, even without a "name" actor. The film was shot through with admirable creative strokes. Two come to mind. First, the racist attack on the young Tonto, second, the planned gang-rape of Amy Striker on the hijacked stagecoach, neither of which could have been broadcast nor televised in the '40's or '50's. Even the scene in the confessional could have proved a brilliant stroke [indeed, we saw it imitated in the 1998 "The Mask of Zorro" to wonderful effect]. The point is that it all could have worked! The sadistic ambush of the Texas Rangers at Bryant's Gap was realistic and moving, but could have been dealt with far more effectively by means of flashbacks. The film failed because the studio didn't care enough to probe the reasons for the Ranger's motivation [the superficial one of revenge for the massacre at Bryant's Gap wasn't enough] and Tonto's reasons for his remarkable and deeply humane devotion to his friend. A re-orchestration of the Republic and classical overtures would have heightened the film [as expensive as this might have been] from an ordinary Western into something else; a retelling of a classic myth and cultural icon. We Ranger fanatics are much the poorer because a rich corporation bought the rights to a character without understanding caring] about the emotional underpinnings of the legend. American audiences were ready for a "modern" Lone Ranger in 1981; I'm not certain that anyone cares anymore, and that's the tragedy.
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
A dashing boots and swords extravaganza!
This latest essay in the Zorro literature is very nearly a masterpiece; the only fault I have with it is that it's too short. Since Johnston McCulley's novels of Old California, in which the mysterious Don Diego de la Vega figures as the heroic nobleman who frees the "serfs" from their bonds, the American public has been treated to some spotty efforts vis-a-vis this character. The mythical progenitor of the Lone Ranger [remember, all of you, Don Diego wore the mask before the "younger Reid"], the character has been interpreted in either of two ways--as a straightforward lead role or as a childish caricature [the Disney outrages come to mind]! Here, Anthony Hopkins realizes that it's time to drop the curtain on his adventures as he has responsibilities to wife, daughter, house, and class. The greedy caretakers of Spain's "property," however, see to it that Don Diego's uncomfortable muckraking style is rid forever. The movie's greatest appeal, I think, is the slow and painful transformation of Alejandro Murrieta from a common street thief to a noble and majestic figure with a constituency of far more than one. Antonio Banderas is perfectly cast as the newer incarnation of the avenger of the people's wrongs. He moves from an unkempt, unclean drunkard to self-pitying defeatist to reluctant student, to chest-beating show-off, to reflective and cunning poseur, to gallant and lover, and then, in full flower, to shining exemplar of retributive justice. There is no caricature here, in either Hopkins or Banderas' interpretation of the difficult role. Their scenes together are comedic, worthy, and instructive. Their relationship is very nearly a metaphor for the loving care that any father would lavish on a son [and is the complete opposite of what Spain lavished on its 300-years old colony]. The remainder of the principal cast should come in for praise as well. Stuart Wilson was masterful as the unworthy, thieving Don Rafael Montero, the robber governor. His American henchman, the thuggish Harrison Love, was wonderfully read by Matthew Letscher. Finally, Zorro the Younger's love interest, Catherine Zeta-Jones, brought exquisite feminine beauty and sensitivity to what could have been a thankless role. Her verbal sparring [as well as her swordsmanship] did her proud, and, no doubt, enhanced Zorro's admiration and respect for her, as she did ours. It is a thousand pities that this film was as under-appreciated as it appears to have been.
The Sting (1973)
A winning hand
This Depression-era comic opera was one of the great films from the decade of the Seventies. The music of neglected Ragtime composer Scott Joplin was granted an unexpected hearing [and received international acclaim], underscored by the jaunty "catch me if you can" theme. The film careers wildly in places, perilously close to slapstick at times, but its greatest feature is that it never takes itself too seriously. The great human touch of the work is its boundless sympathy for the average guy [girl]. Robert Shaw's Doyle Lonegan is a menacing creature, to be sure, shadowed by his pompous [and equally dangerous] bodyguard. The deft comedic of Gondorff and Hooker by Paul Newman and Robert Redford is the movie's centerpiece. The performances of these two are as the sun, with the ancillary performances by the remainder of the splendid cast as its rays. Under the grim backdrop of hard times, these worthies banded together to avenge the murder of one of their own, defeating Lonegan, the "big bad wolf." If ever one enjoyed seeing the ultimate payback, a greedy cheat finally getting his own, this is the film to see. The Sting is a masterpiece of timing, daring, and good fortune.
The Godfather (1972)
A family tragedy
Most filmgoers who rhapsodize over this wonderful film probably place an inordinate stress on the violence and the politics which connect not only one family, but several, in this sprawling tale of post World War II America. With apologies to those of Italian heritage, I think the tragedy of the Corleones is less a matter of ethnicity than their ruination by blood which is set in motion by two evils: greed and a lust for power. The film is one which sets off the family or clan, [the neighborhood as victim] against the larger, unforgiving American society. The characters are wonderfully realized and splendidly acted. They appear as if drawn to life for the first time. The sinister atmosphere of the film, from its great opening sequence to its frightening close, is a nearly three-hours-long treatise on the disintegration of a family. The Corleones are revealed as equal parts melting kindness and merciless vengeance. The Godfather's turning point is Captain McCloskey's unnecessary assault upon Michael. The meanness of the violent act unhinged the human ideal in the Don's young son. From Michael's understandable love and need to protect his helpless father in an unguarded, creepy hospital emerged his irrevocable decision to cast away any desire to become successful in the eyes of legitimate society. The slow, sure gestation of the plan to assassinate both Captain McCloskey and Virgil Solozzo is one of the major rewards for anyone who loves this film. The seamless transition of Michael Corleone from a patriotic, dutiful, obedient son into a cruelly vengeful and malignant weapon is terrifying portrait. The title of the movie applies to both Don Vito and to Don Michael, with the son slowly eroding the warm and loving family, painstaking built by the father, into a loveless, cheerless collection of individuals adrift on a sea of loneliness and treachery.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
An enduring testament to the human spirit
The great Morgan Freeman continues to spin out superlative performances. This is one of his finest, a difficult and complex portrayal of a veteran convict, who is so long a part of the numbing prison culture that we're somewhat surprised by his sympathetic understanding of the unfortunate Andy DuFresne, movingly interpreted by Tim Robbins. People are in prison, for the most part, because they belong there. Prisoners don't normally exude compassion for their fellow unfortunates, but Freeman's "Red" noticed right away that DuFresne was of different stuff. Their friendship cut across both racial and social lines, and that it was forged in the furnace of a prison conducted by so corrupt a warden as Norton, was a magnificent testimony to their bond. Clancy Brown as the warden's personal storm trooper could have been reduced to caricature, but he turned this difficult role into a memorable portrayal of mindless violence. The great revelation in this film was Bob Gunton as the warden. There has rarely been, if ever in film, a keener reading of a character given the charge of men who've been reviled by society, and thus forgotten and who are totally dependent upon his good will for their very survival. Norton was the essential bureaucrat who, given sufficient backing from an indifferent public, can build from the foundations up, a system which brutalizes and murders men, and which exploits the last vestiges of their self-respect for his personal ends. The narration by Freeman in his great baritone lent an authentic base line for the kaleidoscopic unfolding of the film. James Whitmore's poignant turn as a man doomed to death outside of prison is proof of what lengthy incarceration to do to a man, turning him into a slave who is addicted to the very structure which denies his humanity. That both DuFrense and "Red" each managed to leap over the abysses which yawned before them, was the great cathartic experience of the film.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This movie takes a real bite out of you!
The normal human being's fear of being attacked, bitten open in a violently impersonal manner and then taken in as food is as old as the first human being's shattering witness of such a primordial act. In the thousands of years of human evolution, intelligence has armored [most of us] against predations of that horrible sort. But even more incomprehensible is an attack, for mere hunger's sake, by one human being upon another! When first we see Dr. Hannibal Lecter, his madness is merely the subject of comment, responsible or otherwise. As we view him [uncomfortably] from the safety of a theatre seat, we can only imagine the deep wells of need which forced him to savage his fellow human beings in this manner, and this makes all the more terrible the awful scene in the Memphis courthouse. Into all this walks Clarice Starling, her innocence and anxiety both touching and troubling. She is essentially tricked into taking the assignment to "interview" Lecter by her superior, Jack Crawford, who callously deems her expendable. She somehow summons the rural courage of her youth, forged from the furnace of her weary sufferings, and becomes the blank sheet for both Crawford's and Lecter's amusement. As the result of being pulled in opposite directions in the murderous tug-of-war between Lecter and Crawford, Starling is almost totally alone in the film. In spite of her genuine liking for Aredlia Mapp, Starling's isolation is nearly so complete as to be claustrophobic. Director Jonathan Demme's finely-nuanced work here is well served. Her enlightenment takes place primarily in darkness, whether the setting is Lecter's cell in the dungeon, or whether the apotheosis takes place in the demon's lair. There are almost no likeable characters in the film save Starling. This makes it easy to root for her to overcome the furies which have pursued her since her tenth year. Clarice's predatory instincts are to bring a vicious psychopath within the scope of punishment. In sharp contrast, the other main characters in the film are possessed of predatory natures of a baser, more primitive kind, whether it is Dr. Frederick Chilton's need for sex, or Crawford's need for control, or Lecter's need to destroy for pleasure. The music score by Howard Shore is reminiscent, in a eerie way, of Bernard Herrmann's work in Psycho. Shore's opening theme foreshadows the loneliness and desperation of Starling's dual quest, which is to kill both beasts: the one without and the one within.