Merry Christmas, readers and moviegoers. It would be good, in these days of frenzied merchandizing, to remember the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, which he included in a letter to his son Michael in 1962: "Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no 'commercialism' can in fact defile—unless you let it."
Hot from the Oven
Speaking of Tolkien, Christmas, and commercialism, you may have already noticed the flood of Hobbit-related toys, trinkets, T-shirts, soundtracks, posters, and Burger King glass goblets that are helping to hype the long-awaited movie trilogy. (Collectors, take note: The ring used in the movie is currently available on a German eBay site, winning an early bid of $46,000.) New Line Cinema has a lot riding on the success of The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring, which opened this week. They're determined to convince you that one movie rules them all.
They needn't worry. In a what many people have called one of the worst movie years in recent memory, critics almost unanimously agree that Fellowship is one of the best, if not the best, cinematic experience of the year. Film enthusiasts invoke revered titles like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Lawrence of Arabia in their comparisons. Perhaps Tolkien would have been pleased. He confided to his publisher in 1957: "I should welcome the idea of a … motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization; and that quite apart from the glint of money, though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility." If he were still with us, he would stand to receive some hefty box office percentages.
Stephanie Zacharek at Salon.com struggles for the right superlatives: "The most heartbreaking thing about faithful moviegoing is that awe, beauty and excitement, three of the things we go to the movies for, are the very things we're cheated of the most. The great wonder of The Fellowship … is that it bathes us in all three, to the point where we remember—in a vague, pleasurably hallucinatory sensation from another lifetime—why we go to the movies in the first place. It would be an insult to say the picture merely lives up to its hype; it crashes the meaning of hype, exposing it as the graven image it is. Advertising is dead: Long live moviemaking."
"The film does full justice to Tolkien," says Christopher Tookey (Daily Mail). He calls the film "a landmark in cinema, an awesome feat of imagination and daring. Critics who gave five-star ratings to … [the] uninspired Harry Potter movie are going to have to find ten if they are to do justice to The Fellowship. Here is landscape photography of a grandeur and emotional resonance that we haven't witnessed in the cinema since John Ford revolutionised the western or David Lean took to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. The movie has a mythic grandeur and a profound understanding of human corruptibility that makes the Star Wars movies look like kids' stuff."
Christopher Howse (Telegraph) calls it "easily the most impressive fantasy film ever made—at least until next Christmas."
David Denby (The New Yorker) registers a few complaints: "Too many blackened caverns … too much chanting by a male chorus on the soundtrack. The movie … repeats itself more often than a talkative cabbie driving out to the nether regions of Middle-Brooklyn." But after that complaint, he joins the applause anyway: "I have to admit that I capitulated soon enough. Once it gets going … [the movie] is consistently beautiful and often exciting … surely the best big-budget fantasy movie in years."
Ed Gonzalez (Slant Magazine) writes, "Jackson has stunningly authenticated Tolkien's mythic landscape. There is a sense of belonging here, as if we've finally stumbled across that old friend we've only seen in dreams and read about in the thumb-worn pages of Tolkien's novels."
It has even won over religious critics who, earlier this year, condemned onscreen wizards.
Lisa and Eric Rice (Movieguide) write, "Fellowship … is a wonderful 'epic' movie that vividly captures most of Tolkien's vision, including his moral vision."
Paul Bicking (The Dove Foundation) says, "The visually stunning film and enthralling adventure will capture audiences with its tale of bravery and friendship." (In spite of this, he concludes, "the graphic, gruesome battles, while true to the book, prevent our recommendation.")
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) has mixed feelings: "I had expected to either love it or hate it and instead found myself squarely in the middle. It's an engaging tale told with panache, but it's not without its flaws. At three hours, it often feels too long, and yet I was disappointed when it was done."
Peter T. Chattaway at Canadian Christianity reports, "The film paints a vivid, compelling portrait of an ancient world and the fascinating creatures that lived, fought, and died there. The film gets even better when it settles into its main story, and for one simple reason—despite the vast sums they spent on sets, props, and special effects, the filmmakers pay close, careful attention to the relationships between individual characters, and the actors, almost without exception, do a marvelous job of bringing the inhabitants of Middle-Earth to life."
I cannot offer a completely objective perspective on the film. I first read Tolkien when I was 7, and I remember more specific details from Bilbo and Frodo Baggins's journeys than I do about my own childhood. Tolkien gave me strong metaphors for the battlegrounds of my own life and my own heart, for the forces in conflict that are described in Ephesians 6:12. Every reader's imagination is different, and different viewers will respond differently, but when I saw Fellowship on Wednesday night, it was as though director Peter Jackson had tapped into my memories. With the first sighting of Gandalf moseying into Hobbiton, I felt right at home.
Almost everything was just as I had imagined it. Okay, maybe I imagined Aragorn as slightly darker, more weatherbeaten. But Ian McKellan's performance as Gandalf seemed flawless, from the gleam in his eye to the ferocity of his temper. The Hobbits are perfectly childlike, the Ringwraiths and the Balrog perfectly terrifying. Most Tolkien devotees will quibble over what director Jackson got right, what he got wrong, what should have been left in, what should have been cut.
But good literature and good movies are two different things. If the film had included all of Fellowship's beloved events—Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Wight, Bilbo's songs, and Frodo's dance—detail-obsessed fans would have nodded knowingly while others might have lost interest or gone for more popcorn. Tolkien once said of movie adaptations, "The failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies." Jackson has admirably and efficiently streamlined the story, while honoring the book's "core." This is his interpretation of Tolkien's romance, just as Arthurian legend has been interpreted by T.H. White, Thomas Malory, Steven Lawhead, and Monty Python. As moviegoers are drawn to the book and its sequels, those gaps will be filled.
Where the movie is flawed as a movie is in its pacing. In an admirable attempt to include as many scenes as possible, Jackson moves extremely fast. This robs us of an accurate sense of time passing—in the books this journey takes months, but onscreen it feels like a few desperate days. When the Hobbits grimace at having to leave the Shire or Rivendell, I sympathize. We also miss out on the complexity of many central characters. Hobbits Merry and Pippin, and Gimli the Dwarf, are reduced to sidekicks with the occasional zinger.
But these complaints are minor in view of what Jackson does accomplish. His adventure has a distinctly different style from Spielberg/Lucas-brand adventures. Viewers are not invited to enjoy the battles the way we gasp and thrill at Star Wars shootouts. There's real fear and desperation in the conflict. We experience frightening pursuit and frenzied battles just the way the adventurers themselves do … as sudden, chaotic, life-threatening crises. No time for cocky movie-star nonchalance here. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) isn't a wisecracking Han Solo; he's the kind of guy you'd choose to defend you if the fate of your family, your nation, and a natural paradise were on the line.
The effects are standard-setting; Jackson and WETA Studios have stolen the torch from Lucas and ILM with this awe-inspiring work. But some sequences are clearly stronger than others. I was left shaken and breathless by the fellowship's flight through the cavernous Mines of Moria, the film's most spectacular scene, but kinder, gentler places like Lothlorien receive very little attention. (When the Lady Galadriel is tempted to seize absolute power, we're given a vision of what she might become—and frankly, it looked like a bad cartoon.) Fortunately, New Zealand's natural beauty makes the argument for Middle Earth's goodness; it's the film's finest special effect of all.
Even though Tolkien regretted the loss of his privacy in the rising tide of fame, he once said, "It remains an unfailing delight to me to find my own belief justified: that the 'fairy-story' is really an adult genre, and one for which a starving audience exists." Longtime fans and newcomers alike should be grateful that this, the grandest of fairy tales, has fallen into Peter Jackson's capable hands. He's given us a feast unmatched in the history of cinema—jaw-dropping visuals, compelling storytelling—and in 2002 and 2003, we'll get second and third helpings.
Hot from the Oven
Untitled, Cameron Crowe's personal cut of last year's hit film Almost Famous, just arrived on DVD. It's definitely an improvement on the original, offering characters that are more fully developed and scenes that give the film's conclusion far more resonance. (My review of Almost Famous is at Looking Closer. It was my favorite American movie of last year.)
At the same time, Crowe is introducing his colorful and intense remake of a Spanish thriller called Open Your Eyes. Like the original, which was directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro AmenÁbar, Vanilla Sky is mind-bending, and it demands your close attention."
Here's the setup: David Aames (Tom Cruise) is a super-rich heir to a splashy vanity magazine empire. David squanders his money. He buys art to show off, without comprehending the art's meaning or beauty. Similarly, he harasses and abuses friends and lovers, scarring the women that flock to him like moths to a flame.
Julie (Cameron Diaz in her best performance yet) is one of those moths. She says she's content to be David's "friend" and willing sex toy. But when David flirts with a seductive brunette named Sophia (Penelope Cruz), Julie gets possessive and starts demanding that David honor his unspoken commitments. "When you sleep with someone," she rages, "your body makes a promise whether you do or not." But insights like that just bounce off David. He's determined to control his kingdom of denial, until the wages of his sins finally overtake him.
Vanilla Sky is a long, complex, ambitious thriller that doesn't quite work. Plot twists and puzzling contradictions stack up until the audience is struggling to comprehend what is going on. That may prevent the film's important moral lessons from sinking in. Still, it's exciting to see Crowe (Singles, Say Anything) pushing himself to do something new.
Some mainstream critics were impressed with the film's moral courage. At the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert writes, "Think it all the way through, and Vanilla Sky is a scrupulously moral picture. It tells the story of a man who has just about everything, thinks he can have it all … and loses it because—well, maybe because he has a conscience."
Likewise, Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) writes, "Crowe … digs for the moral context that has turned David's world into a nightmare. Crowe's tantalizing film sticks with you."
Stephen Holden (The New York Times) calls it "a disorganized and abstract if still-intriguing meditation on parallel themes. One is the quest for eternal life and eternal youth; another is guilt and the ungovernable power of the unconscious mind to undermine science's utopian discoveries. David's redemption ultimately consists of his coming to grips with his own mortality."
Religious media critics were sorely divided over the film. Family-friendly critic Holly McClure (The Orange County Register) raves, "This is a movie with a sobering message that may be an uncomfortable journey for the audience, but is still a profound one most can appreciate."
"All the components of the film are … admirable," says Michael Elliott (Christian Critic). "From a spiritual perspective, the lesson is clear. Every action has a consequence. As one of the characters says, 'Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.'" But he does register a complaint: "Because nothing much makes sense until the final few minutes, the first journey through Vanilla Sky is less than satisfying."
Some religious media critics condemn the film for portraying the ugliness of sin. John Adair (Preview) writes, "Frequent foul language and graphic sexual elements cloud up Vanilla Sky."
Steven Issac (Focus on the Family) agrees: "Tight directing and clever twists make Vanilla Sky a colorful, surreal experience. What turns it black as night is a firmament full of obscenities, sexualized violence and murder, and glamorized alcohol abuse."
To tell its story of a sinful, indulgent man and the long road to maturity, Vanilla Sky does paint some harsh pictures. Sins, portrayed honestly, should look somewhat appealing. After all, they are, and that's why people sin. But this requires that the consequences be portrayed honestly, and in Vanilla Sky they definitely are. When David realizes his sins, he first reacts by drowning his woes in drink and collapses, miserable, on a sidewalk. Is that "glamorized alcohol abuse"?
Taking a different approach, J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) is frustrated by the film on an artistic level. "There are a number of provocative elements in Vanilla Sky: Is it possible to change your life? What is the relationship of fantasy and reality? How important is your image to your self-image? Unfortunately, those are only fitfully explored. … Cameron Crowe was not a good choice to direct the project."
The U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops critics agree: "Crowe's film is initially intriguing before becoming increasingly incomprehensible as the elaborate narrative plays games with reality and illusion, cryogenics and character identities."
While I found it difficult to follow, awkwardly paced, and a little preachy in places, the film's tough questions echo in my memory several days later. Do I find my security in temporal, fragile things of this world? Do I use God's gifts to make myself comfortable and appease my own ego? Do I blind myself to the harsh realities of life so I can avoid responsibility?
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Another movie opening this week seems to anticipate what many will say when they see the commercials—Not Another Teen Movie. The flick attempts to spoof the recent, base-humored, teen-oriented sex comedies like American Pie. According to critics, this just takes a bad thing and makes it worse.
Mary Draughon (Preview) says, "Not Another Teen Movie portrays teenagers as stupid, immoral, and perverted. Avoid it."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "The filmmakers go for shock humor rather than wit or genuine satire."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) speculates about the project's genesis: "Somewhere there must have been a casting call that read: Wanted, aspiring young actors and actresses willing to prostitute themselves for a spot on the big screen. Must be attractive and possess no moral standards. Talent optional."
The USCC calls it a "witless spoof" that "reaches new depths by debasing every character and demeaning sexuality."
There is an ongoing debate on the web about the merit, or lack of it, in the writing of online critics who answer only to themselves. A story about the controversy is currently posted at New York University's Read Me. Writer Alex Ginsberg asks, "Has a new breed of film reviewer emerged on the Web? Many critics see a difference in tone, approach, and aesthetics among online movie reviewers. According to the conventional wisdom, this new critic compensates for a lack of reputation and credentials with honesty, unpretentiousness, and a more open mind toward unusual or controversial movies. But more conservative voices warn that today's Web writer is simply yesterday's uncritical fanboy, with a soapbox."
Referring to the independents, he comments, "Some websites may start out trying to please young audiences, with an anti-establishment style and flashy tone, but those who want to be respected inevitably retain intelligent, thoughtful critics."
We hope you find rewarding insights in the perspectives of all of the critics we cite here at Film Forum. You'll notice we link to Web sites for established print magazines as well as independent online columnists. After all, the more lenses you have for your telescope, the better, and the farther, you'll see.
Next week: This year's holiday batch arrives—The Majestic, Joe Somebody, and Lantana.
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