Things are heating up in Narnia.

"Work on The Narnia Chronicles has started at Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop," reports Bess Manson at Stuff. "A spokeswoman for Weta confirmed it was working on the $170 million film project, but refused to go into detail. Secret negotiations have been going on for months among Walden Pictures, Economic Development Minister Jim Anderton and Bob Harvey, mayor of Waitakere, where much of the filming is expected to take place."

And speaking of the WETA Workshop …

By the time you read this, you may already have seen The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Extended Edition, the new four-disc DVD set, released this week, that expands the second episode of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy into a 208-minute event. This new edition fills in many gaps in the story told by last December's 175-minute version.

It's a chance for newcomers to see a more cohesive, complete film, and for fans of the film to see more Treebeard, Gollum, Faramir, and even more of The Fellowship of the Ring's tragic hero Boromir. Those who are picky about Jackson's faithfulness to the original novels will be delighted to see some favorite episodes and memorable moments that were cut from the theatrical version of the film, including (click here to go past some spoilers):

  • Merry and Pippin's visit to Treebeard's home, where he blesses them with a deep drink of the nourishing (and growth-inducing) Ent draught;

  • Frodo and Sam making use of the remarkable rope given to Sam when the fellowship parted company with Galadriel in Lothlorien;

  • Discoveries of Shire-property in the cellars of Isengard after the overthrow; and,

  • perhaps most exciting of all, an explanation of just what became of those orcs who fled the battle of Helm's Deep.

Next week in this space, I'll post the responses of readers and Christian film critics to this enhanced edition. Has Jackson improved the movie? What does The Two Towers have to say to us? Send your thoughts and brief reviews.

Critics praise Peter Weir's oceanic epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

There are few subjects more relevant and timely than that of a leader's responsibilities in wartime. Director Peter Weir has explored the tension between power, duty, and conscience in such memorable films as The Year of Living Dangerously, The Mosquito Coast, Fearless, Witness, and The Truman Show. He tackles these issues again in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

The film's central character, Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is a man of ambition, valor, patriotism, and deadly cunning. Aubrey has been assigned by the British government to lead his able but reluctant crew on a devil-take-the-odds voyage to intercept the French warship Acheron, a craft so strong it could turn the tide of the Napoleonic Wars. Aubrey's optimism, ingenuity, and charisma inspire his men, but they do not discourage the questions of conscience raised by his best friend, the ship's doctor, a naturalist named Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). When Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, is crippled in a violent clash with the enemy, the captain's determination to pursue and overcome his nemesis toes the line of irresponsibility. The men begin to grumble that perhaps he is acting selfishly, caring more about a quest of revenge than the fulfillment of duty.

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Mainstream critics are calling this adaptation of Patrick O'Brian's oceanic epic one of the finest high seas adventures ever filmed. Religious press critics are especially impressed, as the film does not flinch at portraying the Christian faith that was an integral part of military language and procedure in early 19th century Britain.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Weir has achieved a stunning victory on both a large and intimate scale. The film contains the grand spectacle of the original source material, as well as its painstaking attention to detail, proving effective as both a work of historical realism and escapist fare. [It] explores … friendship versus duty and the role of hierarchy in staving off anarchy."

"This film is an ideal experience for young men on their way to manhood, as they will see some role models with admirable qualities," writes Jay Levitz (Christian Spotlight). "Weir has co-written and directed one of the best adventure films of this or any other decade. All the elements, including some intricately-staged battle sequences, are so realistic that it's difficult to tell whether special effects were used at all."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees: "Weir does an amazing job of conveying the look and feel of a life that no longer exists. We really get a sense of what life must have been like aboard a tall ship circa 1805."

Perhaps it's all a bit too real. Steven Isaac (Plugged In) praises the film's story of virtue. But he admits, "There are times you'll be wishing for a gangplank to shore, especially if you've brought your whole family along for the excursion. Raging battle scenes and their bloody aftermaths are both intense and prolonged."

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Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says the film is "definitely … for mature audiences, but I think teenagers (especially boys) will enjoy watching a story about men (and young men) who united, overcame odds and achieved victory."

"Overall, I really enjoyed the movie, not only for the great spin on war movies, but also for the historical accuracy of the movie," says Melinda Ledman (Hollywood Jesus). "Someone obviously did their homework. If you haven't seen it, also look for these great themes: courage, loyalty, tyranny, surprise, and leadership."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) says, "This is what makes the film so deeply appealing: it has a human scale. When you see three sailors straining to hold down a rope in the teeth of a gale, their strength and the wind seem a believable match. The howl of the storm and the creaking of the old ship's timbers sound about right. Nothing is larger than life. It turns out life is large enough."

I'll add my voice to the chorus of praise for Weir's achievement. While I prefer a few of his more thought-provoking earlier works (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, and especially Fearless), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the richest pieces of storytelling that has played in theaters this year, and it especially rewards those who see it on a big screen with a good sound system. It's the closest thing to a high seas adventure most of us will ever have, and it stands apart from other recent action films in that Weir never does anything indulgently. The sights, sounds, and thrills all contribute to storytelling, engaging our minds as much as our senses. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Bugs and Daffy are Back in Action

Director Joe Dante, famous for unleashing zany mayhem in the Gremlins franchise, has an even wackier bunch of characters on his hands this time around: the motley crew from Warner Brothers' classic cartoons. Looney Tunes: Back in Action is a mix of live-action and comedy that follows in the footsteps of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian, and the rest of the famous gang make room for co-stars Jenna Elfman, Brendan Fraser, Timothy Dalton, Steve Martin, Heather Locklear, and Joan Cusack in a plot that's almost too outrageous to describe.

I'll try: Daffy Duck is tired of being Bugs Bunny's sidekick in Warner Brothers productions. But when he cries "fowl", he finds himself unemployed and escorted off of the studio lot by a security guard named DJ Drake (Fraser). Thus, he is right in the thick of things when DJ discovers that his father (Dalton) has been kidnapped by the malevolent Mr. Chairman (Martin), president of the Acme Corporation. Apparently Drake Senior knows the location of the Blue Monkey Diamond, a powerful talisman that can … I give up. Plot was always a secondary feature of Looney Tunes cartoons, and according to critics, this feature-length cartoon is no exception.

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While young viewers will enjoy the zany onscreen antics, adults along for the ride will be equally entertained by the witty innuendo-laced dialogue—most of which will be lost on tykes too busy watching Daffy remove his own beak—and hidden humor."

Likewise, Tim Emmerich (Christian Spotlight) writes that it "provides cartoon fun and is mostly acceptable for families that have no issues with cartoonish violence."

Movieguide says it's "fun, frantic, and full of laughs." But the critic cautions us about the inclusion of "mystical, occult elements." (Apparently they're concerned that audiences could be deceived by the film's wacky invention of a Blue Diamond that can turn people into monkeys.) Further there are some "mildly crude scenes depicting body humor." (Bawdy, perhaps?)

Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) praises the film's faithfulness to the spirit and the details of the original cartoons. But the film's duration, he concludes, is a real problem. "In a seven-minute short, the plot can be something of an afterthought. You can just throw a bunch of gags at the audience with a loose, even absurd plot and the audience won't get bored. But you can't do this for ninety minutes."

"Parents," says Holly McClure (Crosswalk), "this is one of those movies that will probably entertain your little ones and may even amuse your older kids, but you'll be exhausted with all of the silliness."

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says that it "makes up for its creative shortcomings by offering utterly hilarious cultural parodies."

Mainstream critics are taking turns either chuckling—or sometimes just chucking—the film.

An Elephant in the high school hallways

In naming his new film Elephant, director Gus Van Sant is referring to the problems that face high schoolers today, big dangerous problems that nobody wants to talk about.

While the brutal murders committed by disturbed high school boys at Columbine High School are not the subject of this film, the events portrayed are remarkably similar. Van Sant, the hit-and-miss director of My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, and the recent Psycho remake, films his drama as though it were a documentary. He follows several characters down the halls as if merely documenting a day in the life of a high school. But he also follows two boys whose response to insecurity and frustration becomes one of deadly violence.

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"The film certainly has a feeling of reality to it," says Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus). "Gus Van Sant … gives us a look at the events without being judgmental. It doesn't try to justify anything. It doesn't try to explain anything. We just see what happens. We are left to ask all the 'why?' questions for ourselves."

Stef Loy, in a guest review at my own review site Looking Closer, writes, "Van Sant so boldly revisits the horror of Columbine, one has to wonder whether or not Americans are ready to experience this film. It is true that we need to address the violence that is plaguing our educational system. But the lines between education and entertainment tend to blur in the medium of film, and there will most likely be many that disapprove of the film purely on the basis of its subject matter."

Movieguide's critic say it "comes across as a pointless, aimless exercise," and catalogues potentially offensive elements that many high schoolers experience in school almost every day.

Enough viewers found Elephant a significant enough "exercise" to award it the most esteemed prize in the international film community: the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Mainstream critics offer an array of differing views on the film, but most praise Van Sant's achievement as an important and provocative work.

Tupac: Resurrection draws viewers but few critics

Tupac: Resurrection narrates the life and death of the popular rapper Tupac Shakur, who was at the peak of his musical career and the beginning of his acting career when he was shot dead in Las Vegas in September 1996.

Even though it landed in the box office top ten this week, this new film by Lauren Lazin was all but ignored this week by religious media outlet.

Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth) did attend the film. She reports that it "earns the R rating for sexual content and language. The rap songs have plenty of raw language and are angry toward the police, society and sometimes women." But she adds, "There is no doubt that [Tupac] was one of the most talented rap artists of his time and had he lived, [he] would have album after album, plus film role after film role."

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Mainstream critics delivered thoughtful and positive—if relatively unenthusiastic—reviews.

Characters from Jesus of Montrealreturn in The Barbarian Invasions

In 1986, French-Canadian director Denys Arcand released The Decline of the American Empire, a story about moral disintegration among baby boomers. In 1989, he released Jesus of Montreal, which gave us a group of aimless adults who found purpose and inspiration in their own production of a passion play.

In his new film The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand brings back a few characters from Jesus of Montreal and throws them into the mix with characters from The Decline. This story concerns the last days of Remy, an adulterous history instructor who is struggling with relationships as his body gives in to cancer.

"Though the film draws comparisons between the sack of Rome and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "Arcand uses the term 'barbarians' to encompass a broad range of toxic influences which he sees as having an erosive effect on society, among them drugs, the health care bureaucracy and unrestrained capitalism. However, flying in the face of Arcand's assertion that the story is ultimately life-affirming are the film's pervasive nihilism and cynical view of traditional morality in favor of sexual autonomy, compounded by its reprehensible solution to suffering—murder, the most 'barbaric' act of all."

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) explores the way that Arcand's film portrays Western Civilization as an Empire in decline. "Throughout the film, Arcand juxtaposes personal mortality with other kinds of mortality, such as the death of nations and ideas. The Barbarian Invasions is not a very hopeful film—it is filled with sadness, confusion and regret—but it comes by its grief honestly."

Commenting on his other discoveries at this year's Vancouver Film Festival, Chattaway discusses Thom Fitzgerald's film The Event and Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me, two other films that deal with terminal illness.

Many mainstream critics applaud the film. Andrew Sarris (New York Observer) responds to complaints of the film's melodramatic story, saying "The emotion is fully earned and is only a small part of one of the most intelligent and articulate entertainments of the year from any country."

Critics catch up with Shattered Glass, The Matrix Revolutions, Elf

Films featured in the last two weeks of Film Forum continued to draw attention from Christian film critics this week.

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Writer Stephen Glass's marathon of fabricated news stories published in The New Republic are the subject of writer/director Billy Ray's Shattered Glass. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Ray … addresses questions not often handled in today's films. Our news and entertainment media have commingled to such an extent that it can be hard to discern where one ends and the other begins. This was certainly the case of Stephen Glass for whom fact and fiction were woven so indiscriminately."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Ray does a wonderful job of telling the story. Shattered Glass is a cautionary tale. It warns us that even the most trusted institutions can be corrupted. It warns us that our lies and sins will catch up to us. It warns us that trying to hide or cover up those sins will only dig our pit deeper."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) calls it "one of the most compelling and realistic recent films about prestige journalism. Hayden Christensen plays the monstrously manipulative main character with assurance, subtlety and irresistible style, thoroughly redeeming himself from his embarrassing star turn as Anakin Skywalker in the most recent Star Wars dud."

The Matrix Revolutions continued to catch flack from Christian film critics. Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) says, "I find myself in one accord with the sentiment spoken in awe-filled tones during the concluding moments of the film: 'It doesn't make any sense.' All Matrix Revolutions has going for it is immense special effects."

Peter T. Chattway (Canadian Christianity) is similarly displeased. "No doubt some Christians will get excited over the cruciform pose that Neo strikes in one of the film's more climactic moments, or the fact that he and Trinity fly a ship called the Logos, but the film lacks any real substance to support these allusions. The story is over, and nothing has been resolved. Pity the youth pastors who must now make sense of all this."

Regarding this week's box office champion, the smash hit holiday comedy Elf, Josh Hurst (Rebel Base) admits that it is "sappy" and "even absurd." But he concludes, "Elf has one thing going for it that no other Christmas flick can lay claim to: Will Ferrell. His enthusiasm is contagious, his delivery is absolutely flawless, and his verbal and physical humor mix with wide-eyed, childlike wonder to give us the most uproariously funny film of 2003."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) says Elf "is consistently sincere rather than ironic, cheerful rather than snarky." But she walks away troubled at "the plot proposition that Santa's sleigh can't fly because people don't believe he exists. It's this that the audience is exhorted to have 'faith' in; it's this that sums up the 'Christmas spirit.' There is no hint of the Nativity of Christ in this film, and not even an emphasis on giving to others."

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P.S. (PassionStuff)

With only a few months left until Lent, when Mel Gibson's film about Jesus finally arrives, the media is still buzzing with debate over the film's allegedly inflammatory portrayal of the Jewish people.

Confusing things further, the film's title has apparently been changed again. First it was The Passion, then The Passion of Christ, and now it is The Passion of the Christ.

Peter Malone, President of SIGNIS, The World Catholic Association for Communication, has now seen the film and he responds positively. "[The movie] offers a credible, naturalistic Jesus whose sufferings of body and spirit are real. What impact it will have on those who are not believers is very difficult to predict. For those who believe, there is the challenge of seeing pain and torture which are easier to read about than to see, but there is also the satisfaction of experiencing familiar gospel stories in a different way."

However, when the New York Post showed the film to five selected viewers—"a rabbi, a priest, a professor of early Christianity, and a Post reader … picked at random"—only one expressed much enthusiasm for it.

Meanwhile, one of the film's critics, Sister Mary Boys, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is claiming that the film's supporters are harassing her with threatening phone calls and emails.

And the head of the Anti-Defamation League's Interfaith division has resigned, citing a need for "a more reflective and contemplative environment."

Is it possible that somebody out there will broadcast a made-for-TV movie about the hubbub over Gibson's project even before The Passion of the Christ ever reaches theaters?

Next week: Impressions of The Two Towers, Extended Edition DVDs, and reviews of Gothika, 21 Grams, and Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat.