Many Film Forum readers already have their tickets for the third and final film in … oh, you know what I'm talking about.

I joined several Christian press film critics in Los Angeles last week to see an early screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The screening was an overwhelming experience—the film surpasses its predecessors in many ways, especially in the Department of Jaw-Dropping, Eye-Dazzling Spectacle. But regarding the way that Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh adapt this chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien's story, they have made many changes that must be discussed. Check next week's Film Forum for some in-depth debate.

The day after the screening, most of us were still a bit bewildered from having seen such an awe-inspiring work, so we had to struggle to concentrate on the job of the day: interviewing the cast and the crew. My full review will be posted at Looking Closer on Monday, and excerpts from the interviews are being added to the site over the next two weeks. Some of the best interview bits will be included in next week's Film Forum as well.

A particularly interesting aspect of the interviews: Tolkien's Christian worldview seems to have gone either ignored or almost entirely unnoticed by many of the cast and crew. In fact, the themes of the story seem to have had very little influence on their thinking. Indeed, actor Andy Serkis told in an interview this week that if he had the Ring of Power in his grasp, "I would banish all religions first of all." In response, Steven D. Greydanus quipped, "The actor who plays Gollum thinks it would be better to be a Sauron than a Frodo."

Some of the religious press critics who saw the film have already posted their reviews. Steve Beard, for example, has summed up his experience at the premiere on his site Thunderstruck.

Two of them came away with startlingly different responses. (Strangely, they sat side-by-side at the same screening.) Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "It's hard to overstate the soaring achievement of Peter Jackson and company in The Return of the King. To call it the grandest spectacle ever filmed is no exaggeration; it may also be the most satisfying third act of any film trilogy, completing what can now be regarded as possibly the best realized cinematic trilogy of all time. It's the most ambitious [of the three]; it may also be the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most flawless." But Barbara Nicolosi, Christian film blogger at Church of the Masses and the director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, feels very differently. "This film is … the most self-indulgent of the three projects. [It] ends at least seven times that I counted, each one bringing tear-filled eyes and the loving gripping of shoulders. I'll give you that it certainly is a spectacle in the way that Cleopatra and Intolerance were spectacles. … But it isn't great spectacle in the way that Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With the Wind[were], because in the end, I just don't care too much about any of the people on the screen. The spectacle only serves itself."

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Mainstream critics are, for the most part, waiting until the release date to publish their reviews, but there is a full examination posted at The Hollywood Reporter.

The Last Samuraifalls on the sharp sword of religious press critics

Director Edward Zwick knows his way around a war movie. He directed a longstanding favorite film of the Civil War called Glory. He told a tale of Desert Storm in Courage Under Fire. In 1998's The Siege, he declared a state of martial law in New York. Now, he steps into the territory ruled by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, directing hordes of Samurai warrior—and Tom Cruise—in The Last Samurai.

The story follows the journey of an embittered U.S. cavalryman, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise), whose service in the Union army under General Custer have left him disillusioned about the country he calls home. When a young Japanese emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) hires him to refurbish the Eastern nation's army so it can stand as a state-of-the-art militia, Algren takes his inner demons to another continent. There, a samurai general (Ken Watanabe) teaches him how he can pay for his past sins and learn the true meaning of honor. At least, that's what the film would have us believe.

"Unfortunately," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "despite lofty platitudes about honor, the film's gilded portrayal of the warriors' militaristic lifestyle and hail-of-bullets climax results in an at times overly romantic view of war. While proper respect should be shown to foreign customs and value systems, the notion of death before dishonor taken to such an extreme as to justify suicide rather than 'losing face' is totally inconsistent with Christianity's inviolable prohibition against the taking of one's own life. And though Samurai raises important cultural questions about the cost of modernity and the value of tradition, it subscribes to the fashionable trend of painting people of Western culture as inherently corrupt and morally inferior to their Eastern counterparts."

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While Oscar buzz begins for Tom Cruise, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) muses that the actor is "certainly serviceable in the role but doesn't seem to bring that many layers to it. Though it is a physical performance, it isn't all that memorable."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) says, "The connection between tranquil meditation and slashing through an enemy's face is not spelled out. The rebels' cause is not explained; the whole plot is a muddle."

The film receives heavy criticism in a Movieguide review credited to a committee. "Although one character tells Algren 'God speed' before the movie's climactic battle, and although the movie uplifts such values as honor, integrity, and sacrifice, [the film] has some serious worldview problems. Regrettably … the movie makes a hero out of a traitor and makes 19th Century America the villain."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) levels an accusation at the film echoed by many mainstream critics: "The Last Samurai could be the first big budget Hollywood movie to express heartfelt sympathy for the bloody, demented and self-destructive values of Muslim fundamentalism."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) writes, "The Last Samurai slices and dices history to suit its own story needs. One cannot randomly select a compelling cause, campaign, or religion because it seems exciting or satisfying, and then call the support or pursuit of that thing 'positive' just because one is fervent and sincere. The Last Samurai teaches that that is exactly what one is to do."

In spite of all of these criticisms, Christian press critic Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I am passionate about this movie for many reasons and feel it's the best epic film of 2003. This is an adult epic adventure that will satisfy those who love a story of war, heroes, and men of honor and character."

Director Zwick is drawing quite a few passionately delivered criticisms from mainstream critics as well.

David Poland (The Hot Button) says, "The Last Samurai is not a bad film. But it is an evil one. It pretends to be anti-imperialist while its internal meaning, telling the story of a white man who comes to be as good or better than those in a culture that is completely new to him, could not be more imperialistic."

Stephen Hunter (Washington Post) writes, "Under its beauty … the basic product feels lame and thin, wan and stale. It's wannabe-ism on a multimillion-dollar scale. Movies set in Japanese history should not be about handsome white people. It just feels wrong and, in the end, leaves in your mouth the taste of desecration. It's the first, and I hope last, pro-warlord movie!" Many others, however, find plenty to praise, and some are calling for Oscar.

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Admirable behavior sweetens Honey

Best known for making music videos, director Billie Woodruff tries his hand at big screen moviemaking with Honey. Honey Daniels is a 22-year-old who lives in the inner city, works two jobs, and teaches dancing at a community center in hopes of getting noticed by a music video producer. She's such a nice girl though, helping kids discover that dancing is better than drugs—surely success will find her before the end of this predictable, dance-heavy movie.

Loren Eaton (Crosswalk) says, "When virtue is the center of … Woodruff's cinematic focus, Honey truly is sweet. Responsibility. Graciousness. Selflessness. Determination. All these get ample screen time. Honey, however, stumbles hard with its fixation on flesh and booze. Gyrating dance moves and freely flowing liquor will leave audiences with a bitter taste in their mouths once the lights come up."

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) laments, "Honey is no sweet treat. The tired rags-to-riches story is held together with Scotch tape. The film feels more like an excuse to show off hair and makeup and the latest skin-tight, skimpy fashions than a sincere effort to tell a compelling story. None of the various subplots penetrates beyond the surface."

But Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls it "an uplifting, moral tale that will inspire many viewers. It's great to see a movie like this have something more on its mind than just getting fame and fortune and landing the boy. The results of Honey's compassion for the youth in her neighborhood may even bring a tear or two."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a perfectly predictable, somewhat shallow story. The messages at the heart of Honey are as sweet as its title. Do what you love. Serve others and the community in which you live. Don't compromise your ideals or your integrity in order to get ahead. Don't judge success by how much money you earn. Let your life make a difference in the lives of others … especially in those that you love."

Mainstream critics might agree with those life-lessons. But they have very little patience with the movie.

Critics catch up with 21 Grams, Master and Commander

"I wanted to like 21 Grams," writes Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus), regarding the angst-burdened new film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. "Unfortunately, something about it makes you come out to the theater picking at it. It's not that it doesn't have its good points—wonderful acting from the three primary actors … and some exploration of religious and theological issues—but in the end, it's the problems that you focus on." Those problems, he argues, include a muddled non-linear story and characters that "never really invite us to identify with them or care about them. We never really understand their motivations."

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Movieguide's critic is also displeased: "The interesting Christian and moral elements in 21 Grams are undermined by ambiguous humanist elements and plenty of strong foul language, sex, nudity, violence, and drug use."

Josh Hurst (The Rebel Base) did not have high expectations going into Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He was in for a surprise. "Like a mighty hurricane, this film will quite simply knock you out. Well-acted, masterfully crafted, and relentlessly effective in its storytelling, [this film] shows us an artist and an entertainer at the top of his game. Throughout the movie, Weir raises important questions about leadership, responsibility, and morality. [He] is never preachy or propagandistic; he simply asks the questions and leaves the audience to ponder and discuss the answers."

Similarly, Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) calls it "compelling. Military conflicts often bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The power of this film to present both is worthy of the journey."

P.S. (PassionStuff)

Joining the vast armies of critics, religious spokespeople, and moviegoers who have reviewed Mel Gibson's epic film The Passion of the Christ, Jeremy Babka (RazorMouth) tosses his opinion into the ring. He writes, "Virtually everyone 13 and older should see this film, especially because it will be R-rated. Parents of teenagers should take their kids along. Then they should have a good conversation with their kids both immediately after seeing it, and in the days to follow. After all, 'there's power in the blood.'"

Meanwhile, Barbara Nicolosi sums up this week's report that The Passion of the Christ has been screened for the Vatican … and for a horde of movie geeks at a film festival in Texas, the first public screening. She writes about the responses at Church of the Masses.

Next week: At last … a host of raves hail The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Plus, Tim Burton's Big Fish.