Pre-screenings of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring continue to ramp up the excitement about the epic's big December 19th opening day. But this week, Peter Jackson's ambitious $250 million dollar project gained its first official complaints.

Film Critic's Christopher Null is the only naysayer thus far, but what a lot of nays! "The obvious digital backdrops that start to wear you down … the fights are not particularly well-choreographed, either. You don't get a good sense of scale of the big battles, and the in-close fighting is edited too frantically to follow well." He boldly claims that "most moviegoers will find it overly long and just too exhausting."

So far, though, Null is a minority of one. Just listen to the other mainstream reviews:

"The Fellowship … is thrilling," exclaims Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, "a great picture, a triumphant picture, a joyfully conceived work of cinema that would appear to embrace Tolkien's classic with love and delight, and rewards both adepts and novices … Every detail … engrossed me. I may have never turned a page of Tolkien, but I know enchantment when I see it."

The highest praise yet comes from ScreenDaily's Emanuel Levy: "Jackson's Ring cycle generates the kind of epic cinema excitement encountered in the films of Abel Gance (Napoleon), Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Ran), David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), and arguably last seen on the American screen in Coppola's Apocalypse Now. It certainly far surpasses the standards of popular epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, the Oscar-winners of 1995 and 2000, respectively." It contains "a moral and emotional significance" and is "bound to assume a place of honor in film history." Even though it's a fantasy, it "remains grounded in reality, dealing with relevant human themes of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and responsibility."

"Fellowship … is an unqualified triumph, its status as the best Western fantasy film ever made all but indisputable," says Nev Pierce at BBC Films. "I have no doubt the series will get better now that the groundwork is laid."

At MSNBC, Todd McCarthy raves that the film "is an epic by any standard and looks to please the book's legions of fans, as well as the uninitiated. Jackson must have convinced someone that he would do it right, a view thoroughly borne out by what's up on the screen. [He] keeps a firm hand on the work's central themes of good versus evil, rising to the occasion and group loyalty in the face of adversity, and always keeps things moving without getting bogged down in frills or effects for effects' sake."

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"At last, smart movie making, with a real sense of creativity, style, wit, and texture. You can't ask for anything more," says Roger Friedman (Fox News). And he's not the only one who sees visions of little golden statues. "Are there Oscars waiting for Fellowship? Certainly for special effects, costuming, makeup, and other technical categories." But he adds, "What Lord of the Rings really revels in, though, are the characters and their relationships."

Calgary Sun's Kevin Williamson simply declares, "Lord of the Rings, folks, rules. And while perhaps Harry Potter's spell will grow stronger as later episodes of the planned marathon of Potter flicks unfold, for now anyway, Lord of the Rings stands the taller of the two—a mythic, sprawling fable with a palpable sense of doom … It begins to fully dawn how much George Lucas, um, borrowed from J.R.R."

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir says, "The handful of Tolkien purists likely to pillory Jackson for his various departures from the sacred text are missing the point on a world-historical scale. This isn't a doggedly literal adaptation, along the lines of Chris Columbus' competent but spiritless Harry Potter. It's an interpretation that seeks to capture Tolkien's magic in a new vessel, an epic with grimy hands and a core of mystery. It's a work of art created on its own terms."

Hot from the Oven

While the Ring's Fellowship of nine noble heroes waits on the threshold, a fellowship of eleven shady characters stole the box-office prize for the week.

Ocean's Eleven is Steven Soderbergh's slick remake of a famously unsatisfying Brat Pack heist flick that starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and a host of other stars. This version is a who's-who of Hollywood as well, with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, and Elliot Gould just for starters. Clooney plays Daniel Ocean, a thief who walks out of prison and wastes no time getting back to break-ins—more specifically, he plans to rob three casinos. But this time it's not just about money. Ocean admits, reluctantly, that it's "about a girl," and about humiliating an arrogant casino lord.

For the record, let me remind you that robbing a casino is immoral—a crime, motivated by selfishness, ego, and materialism. This kind of warning is, really, about as necessary as putting a caution before a Bugs Bunny cartoon saying: "Warning! Playing practical jokes on hunters and gunslingers is reckless and dangerous." As with any film, it is important to be discerning, to separate the good meat of the movie's story from the sharp bones of its irresponsible characters.

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The real draw of a film like this is the guessing game. Clearly the central characters of Ocean's Eleven are more focused on a match of wits than money. Watching them is like watching chess champions trying to anticipate each other's moves with cleverness and a stone-cold poker face. I thoroughly enjoyed the lighthearted, good-humored spirit of the movie, and laughed out loud at some delightful plot twists. It's also surprisingly free of shootouts and unnecessary killings (although an intentionally inflicted citywide power outage probably does more damage than this movie wants to admit). It's not a work that will change your life or inspire you, but as chewing gum for the brain, it's more challenging than Frank Oz's The Score and it tastes better than David Mamet's Heist. Along the way, I took a few notes on writing snappy dialogue.

The critic at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also appreciated the film's strengths. "Though director Steven Soderbergh treats larceny lightheartedly, [this] breezy remake brings together a good-looking, all-star cast with a slick story that zips along jauntily, providing escapist entertainment."

"There's a playful ease to the picture," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), "good, unselfish ensemble work by the cast; and a sure hand behind the camera. All in all, it's an enjoyable couple of hours."

The Orange County Register's Holly McClure writes, "No one should go expecting anything more than an entertaining, witty, crime caper … nor anything less than an interesting ensemble piece with talented actors who know how to deliver a scene." She comes away with a few complaints. "We never get more than two-dimensional performances from the charismatic actors who each have the ability to deliver so much more. [It] left me wanting more and disappointed with an ending that fizzles."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) echoes this dissatisfaction: "Ocean's Eleven is a slight, little picture that wants nothing more than to entertain its audience and creators, though not necessarily in that order. The movie slows down just as the con gets under way. The problem is that the strength of Ocean'sEleven is in its characters. Once the plot takes over, the movie has little of value."

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At Movieguide, Ted Baehr, who has been busy condemning the Harry Potter film for onscreen references to witchcraft, goes much easier on this casino story of gamblers and conartists: "As a popcorn movie, [Ocean's Eleven] is well-constructed and will keep many people entertained," says Baehr. "However, like popcorn, it may leave you wanting something more nutritious."

Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser believes that the film "justifies illegal and immoral behavior by making the law-breaking heroes more noble than the one getting scammed."

Mainstream critics were unenthusiastic, but they weren't complaining either. The New Yorker's David Denby calls it "the least adventuresome and emotionally vital" of Soderbergh's films. But, commenting on the "glorification" of robbery, he says: "The money that the robbers walk away with at the end is virtually symbolic—the reward for putting on a good show."

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) also finds it second-rate Soderbergh: "Serious pianists sometimes pound out a little honky-tonk, just for fun. That's like what Steven Soderbergh is doing. … I liked it as a five-finger exercise. Now it's time for Soderbergh to get back to work."

Heist films are surely here to stay, and they can be enjoyable enough. But I do wonder why we are so rarely treated to a film as professional as this one in which the heroes are admirable. Surely in days like these, audiences could appreciate the cleverness of an honorable hero—whether a policeman, a fireman, a security agent, or just a citizen on the street. Why is it that that when we get a "good man" acting against a criminal element, it's always with the use of violence (check out Collateral Damage, the latest Ah-nold actioner) instead of using the kind of smarts Ocean's Eleven boasts? Where are the supermen who come equipped with super wits?

Side Dishes

In the arthouses on the other side of town, a couple of low-profile flicks are getting some impressive mainstream responses and some bad press from the religious media.

The Business of Strangersstars Stockard Channing as a corporate exec who, when she gets a significant promotion, decides to use the opportunity to work out some serious revenge.

Jerry Langford (Movieguide) says the story "exposes the trappings of anger repression and seriously questions the wisdom of vengeance." And it "really shows us that the view from the top may not be as beneficial as the ability to view the heart. … Further, it shows the excesses of human nature when mixed with boredom and a lack of accountability." He calls it "a clever and dark thriller with many layers of powerful messages." But in spite of these admirable characteristics, he concludes, "it has too many excesses to be worthwhile."

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Mainstream critics describe it as a powerful—if bleak—portrait of modern despair. At The New York Times, Stephen Holden writes, "With an intensity that few movies have mustered, Strangers makes you feel the acute loneliness of it all, the empty pit-of- your-stomach feeling of being lost on the road in a world of masks with only your own ambition and gnawing paranoia for companionship."

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Similarly, In the Bedroom is gaining impressive kudos from almost all sides, but a few religious-press critics are nevertheless disgruntled. The story follows a family that suffers a sudden and grievous loss, and as a husband and wife hold their marriage together in the aftermath their pain slowly turns to hardened, vengeful intent.

The USCC critic praises director Todd Field, whose "accomplished directorial debut is subtly intense and deliberately paced," and applauds "exceptional performances from the ensemble cast."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) disagrees. "The first two-thirds of [the film] are one of the best-acted, most rewarding family dramas of the year. The final third of the movie, however, rejects forgiveness, redemption and true justice in favor of revenge and a confused, unintelligible warning about controlling mothers."

Mainstream critics are hailing the film as deserving of Oscar nominations, especially for the performances. "So spare and true to the rhythms of life is this film that its sudden turns leave you as shell-shocked as genuine tragedy might," writes Flick Filosopher MaryAnn Johanson. "Small, personal, and human throughout, this almost uncomfortably raw film stabs you in the heart with emotion, but it's not sentimental, and it's not a tearjerker. It takes you to a hard place beyond tears. [Tom] Wilkinson and [Sissy] Spacek so ably inhabit the Fowlers, their journey through emotional disaster, and all the things that go unsaid in a marriage … that you almost feel as if you shouldn't be watching at times. But it's impossible not to … you'll feel as rocked as the characters do, as if your world will never be the same again."

Next week: TheLord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ringopens everywhere. We'll have part three of our review round up, plus critical responses to the new Cameron Crowe/Tom Cruise reunion, Vanilla Sky.

Related Elsewhere:

More review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.