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Trying to save the world: McKellen and Hill in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Wizards of War
By Ann Morrow

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Directed by Peter Jackson

The Two Towers, the battle-filled middle installment of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is grimmer and gorier than The Fellowship of the Ring, and yet nearly as enchanting. In it, the forces of evil are gaining momentum, forging secret alliances and filling the wondrously varied “free peoples” of Middle-earth with despair. Frodo (Elijah Wood), a hobbit who bears the ring of power, is losing strength against its malign influence. If he fails in the quest to destroy the ring at Mount Doom, its dread creator will be able to enslave the will of all who oppose him. Jackson’s quest is to streamline the torrent of Tolkien’s narrative (14 years in the making) and punch up its major themes, at which he’s succeeding: Part two vaults the trilogy to dizzying heights of action and consequence, overcoming obstacles such as production fatigue (one symptom being expressionless reaction shots) with unflagging imagination. That the film is designed to segue into next year’s concluding installment is barely noticeable amid the excitement.

The Two Towers picks up where part one left off, opening with Frodo’s nightmare about Gandalf (Ian McKellen) falling to his fiery demise—a clever way of setting up the wizard’s resurrection later on. Frodo and his loyal companion Sam (Sean Astin) are lost in the wilderness, and out of necessity, they rely on the treacherous but pitiable Gollum (Andy Serkis) as their guide. A crucial element in the books but (until recently) an impossible character to re-create onscreen, this CGI creature is startlingly convincing, a breakthrough result of digital imagery overlaid on the actor’s own writhing, slinking and muttering. Although the amount of attention given to Gollum’s tortured mind, which has been split in two by his long possession of the ring, distracts from the film’s rapturously mythic tone, Serkis deserves to be the first actor to win an award for a film he never appears in.

Meanwhile, the younger hobbits, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), remain in the clutches of the abominable goblin men called Urak-hai. But during the forced march to Isengard, stronghold of the traitor Saruman (Christopher Lee, as delectably fiendish as ever), the Uraks get into a brawl with their hungry Orc recruits, giving Jackson an opening for his ghoulish sense of humor (the director’s first success was the ghastly-funny Dead-Alive). After lopping off a few heads, the Urak captain tells the troops: “Looks like meat is back on the menu, boys.” Perhaps as an in-joke on Tolkien’s unabashed Anglophilia, the nastiest Orc has a Cockney accent.

The story cuts back and forth between the scattered fellowship with a mounting sense of urgency. Joining forces with the horse lords of Rohan, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) comes into his own as a leader and warrior, a change that is reflected by Mortensen with moving ardor, as well as heartbeat of brooding hesitancy. The king of Rohan (Bernard Hill, the captain of Titanic), whose mind has been poisoned by his minister (an eloquently slimy Brad Dourif), is reluctant to risk open war, despite the vast armies amassing on his borders. He is rallied by Aragorn, who adheres to the chivalric ideal that it is better to die with honor in battle than to go to the slaughter like sheep. Of course, there’s always the alternative of using valor to overcome overwhelming odds, or in Jackson’s case, using computerized mayhem to enable the defenders to mow down whole legions of howling Uraks, Orcs and Wild Men. At one point, the fortress warfare takes on the artificial carnage of a video game, with the heavy armor of the invaders appearing to offer all the protection of tinfoil.

Mostly though, the Battle of Helm’s Deep is a thrillingly detailed update on sword-and-sorcery heroics, filled with poetic images such as the synchronized thrusts of the Elf battalion and the scuttling carapace of shields protecting the Urak’s battering ram. Further south, a more fantastical conflict takes place, one that climaxes with the stirring battle cry of “Release the river!” This command is given by Treebeard, a 14-foot-tall tree man, or Ent. Tree shepherds of the wild forests, Ents are the walking, talking embodiment of the trilogy’s deeply felt environmentalism, and their onscreen presence is a wonder of ingenuity and artistry. In what may be the most original battle sequence ever filmed, gentle old Treebeard and his fellow Ents attack the industrialized hellhole of Isengard with their rooty feet and viney fingers. But will there be a forest for them to go back to?

Drawing closer to the forbidding battlements of Mordor (whose sulphurous vista supplies the chilling closing image), Sam wonders, presciently enough, “How can the world go back to the way it was after so much bad has happened?” The fact that pundits are reading their own agenda into the film (much as the trilogy was misinterpreted upon its publication in the 1950s) can be taken as a tribute to how vividly Jackson has translated the author’s vision, an epic inspired by thousand-year-old sagas but shaped by two world wars. Regardless of its prophetic aura, the film is best enjoyed for what it is, a make-believe tale of daring and grave peril, brought to the screen with a passionate craftsmanship that is as marvelous as the tale itself.

The Chase Is On

Catch Me if You Can
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg catches our attention from the moment the cleverly animated introductory credits hit the screen running with John Williams’ playful score, reminding us of numerous caper films of the ’60s, specifically Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series. It’s a potent setup that leaves one smiling and anxiously hoping that the film can retain the wit and whimsy of the credits. It does. And what follows is reminiscent of the best work of directors like Edwards and Stanley Donan (in his Charade and Arabesque mode).

After his recent darker-themed science-fiction forays, the overblown Minority Report and the flawed masterwork A.I., and the heaviness of his serious social- consciousness films, Amistad and Schindler’s List, Spielberg has opted for lighter fare. Catch Me if You Can could almost be the director’s challenge in this fleet-footed chase film about a charming young con man who successfully impersonates an airline pilot, the chief resident pediatrician at a Georgia hospital and the assistant attorney general for the state of Louisiana while making millions of dollars in forged checks. It may be lighter material, ironically so given recent grand-scale thefts like Enron, but in its effortless depiction of personal events in the historical/cultural context of the mid-’60s, it perhaps has a greater resonance and more honest sense of humanity than Spielberg’s more labored works.

The story is about a flim-flam artist, Frank Abagnale, who led the FBI on a merry chase between 1964 and 1967. It is even more fascinating because it is based on the true events of Abagnale’s youth when, between the ages of the 16 and 18, he did all of the above-mentioned misdeeds (and more), carrying them out with the amoral glee of Dino, Frank and Sammy in their lighthearted caper films. That Spielberg evokes the fizzy spirit of the Rat Pack where others have failed (the recent Ocean’s 11, for example), with only the slightest hinting, is more masterful than any of the special effects in Minority Report and more honest than much of his celebrated black-and-white concentration camp footage.

This may sound facetious given the director’s award-winning films, but this new work is a return to the greatness of pure filmmaking he first demonstrated in The Sugarland Express and perfected in Jaws. It is also a realization of the potential shown by Leonardo DiCaprio in his early films. From his first impersonation of a substitute teacher while he actually was still a high school student, to his more daring roles, DiCaprio applies the essential maxim that acting is believing. And while his Abagnale slips in and out of various costumes showing, according to Abagnale’s father, that clothes can make the man, there is in his eyes a sureness and belief in what he is doing. Acting is the ultimate con game (meaning confidence and concentration), and DiCaprio is an accomplished artist making us go along for the ride, however outlandish it may seem.

He is evenly matched by Tom Hanks, who deftly disappears into his role of Carl Hanratty, the dogged FBI agent with whom Abagnale develops a touching relationship poised between father-son and pursuer-pursued. It is as if, given the irresponsibility of his own father, Abagnale is being chased by the responsibility of adulthood.

Indeed, every role in the film has been cast meticulously, from the radiant cameos of Elizabeth Banks as a bank teller and Jennifer Garner as a high-priced call girl to the seasoned supporting performances of an utterly endearing Martin Sheen as a potential father-in-law and a poignant Christopher Walken (working with wonderful understatement) as Abagnale’s real father.

As much a character as any in the film is the period of the ’60s. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and RFK may have heralded a new era of paranoia and distrust, but that wasn’t fully felt until Vietnam when the country truly lost its innocence and started offering up its youth to war. Catch Me if You Can is a celebration of youth and innocence and, albeit in a skewed and unexpected version, of the inspiration bequeathed by JFK and his Camelot years.

I only wish that Spielberg had not edited out some of the scenes that he filmed. I have perused Jeff Nathanson’s well-crafted script and don’t think the film would have seemed too long with the inclusion of such gems as Abagnale’s stint as a college professor. Let’s hope the DVD offers the uncut version. I’m waiting to put it alongside my copy of that other bit of fantastic-but-true chicanery, the 1961 Tony Curtis film The Great Imposter.

—Ralph Hammann

Mire in the Streets

Gangs of New York
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Without doubt, viewing Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was far more painful to me than my recent 12-hour labor. Perhaps that’s not a fair comparison; after all, following my labor, I had a beautiful son, whereas after seeing Gangs, I simply felt as if I had flushed two hours and 45 minutes down the toilet.

Set against the backdrop of mid-19th-century New York City, a place teeming with poor immigrants and angry nativists, abolitionists and Tammany Hall pols, Gangs attempts to show us “a template for what’s going on today.” Or at least that’s what Scorsese has said. The director has invested millions into ensuring the authenticity of Chinese opera houses and 19th-century butcher practices and in reproducing the notorious Five Points, and has populated his movie with thousands of extra characters, including famous names like Horace Greeley, P.T. Barnum and Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), and yet he seems to have spent little money or time on the core story of the rivalry between young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and nativist Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).

The movie begins in 1846 during the infamous battle of Five Points, in which nativist gangs lead by Cutting fell those of Irish activist Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Young Amsterdam is taken to Hellgate Orphanage for 16 years, and when released, he returns to Five Points to avenge his father’s death. Of course, nobody—not even Priest’s old cronies Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) and Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), or even Cutting himself, recognizes Amsterdam, which is good because Amsterdam, as part of his master plan, will ingratiate himself to Cutting. The fact that Cutting reveres his fallen nemesis Priest is a little unsettling to Amsterdam, nearly as much as the fact that he sort of likes his father’s killer, and we’re forced to watch too many scenes of the two men bonding, even when it appears they like the same woman, Jenny (Cameron Diaz). This last observation is merely a guess, since neither the Diaz-Day-Lewis nor the Diaz-DiCaprio pairing conveys any hint of chemistry.

Just when I thought Amsterdam would carry out his revenge, I glanced at the time and groaned—the movie still had more than an hour to go, during which I had to watch DiCaprio’s painful attempts at playing a political activist and Scorsese’s unbearably clumsy attempts at making the revenge and the gang warfare somehow symbolic of the American Civil War and, again, of the story of the birth of the nation.

Here is one example of Gangs’ unbelievably sloppy writing (amazingly, the screenplay is by Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian): When Amsterdam returns to Five Points, he is accosted by a gang, among them a black, apparently nameless man. This guy serves no purpose other than to A) prove what a broad-minded guy Amsterdam is and B) be victimized by nativists during the 1863 draft riots and thus be used as yet another inane plot device. What makes “B” particularly infuriating is that in all probability, the black man would have been accosted not by the nativists but by the immigrant and poor rioters who were protesting the draft and, as history shows, who set fire to negro orphanages and lynched and beat numerous blacks. That, however, would have painted Amsterdam’s forces in a bad light and therefore wouldn’t have suited the story. Further compounding the sloppy bait-and-switch tactics of the script is that the black man was ready to stand with the “good” gangs against Cutting’s gangs (because of course the big rumble takes place the same day as the first day of the riots), and yet we see him attacked in one of the ritzier neighborhoods where rioters were looting the mansions of the rich (and undrafted). Why has he been transplanted here from the Five Points area in which he appears to reside?

DiCaprio is embarrassingly miscast as the standard-bearer of immigrant pride and righteous anger. Even beefed up, he looks, in fights, as if the best he can do is pout that he’s going to tell his mommy on you. Diaz, who serves merely as the plot device that triggers jealousy between Cutting and Amsterdam, tries hard to be Nicole Kidman and, in scenes with guns, the young Faye Dunaway, but she’s obviously much more at home as one of Charlie’s Angels. Gleeson, Reilly and Broadbent hit their marks perfectly, and unlike the rest of the casting and production, which has a cheesy, costumey quality, they look their parts and seem believable as gentlemen of that era. Despite the film’s ramshackle messiness and lack of cohesion and heart, Day-Lewis compels our attention; imagine what this mesmerizing performance could have been in something good. Using a flat New York accent and trading in his usual savoir faire for the lionine moves of a coldhearted yet code-bound killer, Day-Lewis conveys volumes just in the way his character leans against a pole, whereas DiCaprio, for all his scowling and seething, can’t muster up anything to make a worthy competitor to either Day-Lewis the actor or Bill Cutting the character.

With Gangs, which is based on a fascinating and lusty 1928 book by Herbert Asbury, Scorsese has abandoned any pretext of subtlety, let alone storytelling. From gory visuals that make sayings like “the streets ran with blood” seem understated, to an ending in which Cutting’s and Priest Vallon’s graves deteriorate in the foreground of a New York that morphs (to the strains of U2) into modern times—yes, complete with the Twin Towers shining in the background—the director has let his obsession with making a grand statement interfere with the task of making a good movie.

—Laura Leon

Everybody knows this is nowhere: Mulroney, Davis and Nicholson in About Schmidt.

Ordinary Alienated People

About Schmidt
Directed by Alexander Payne

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is an aging Nebraskan who has spent most of his time on Earth blissfully devoid of an inner life. Recently retired from “the insurance game,” as he puts it, the now-aimless Schmidt is left to face his failures, literally without a clue. His marriage has become lifeless, he is estranged from his only daughter, and no one is interested in his opinions or experiences. When a channel-surfing Schmidt signs up with a Save the Children-type charity, it seems less that he’s overcome by the images of starving kids than in need of someone to correspond with.

In short order, Schmidt’s wife dies, leaving him with an empty house and absurdly long Winnebago. Using his daughter’s impending wedding as an excuse, Schmidt sets off from Omaha, bound for Denver in a vehicle large enough to hold a wagon- train-load of pioneers. Obviously, it’s a journey of self-discovery. The joke is that poor Schmidt is unaware of this.

Director Alexander Payne, who gave us the blistering satires Citizen Ruth and Election, is after something deeper and more affecting here—the dark heart of American, specifically Midwestern, anomie. While the film is full of people doing painful or grotesque things, the folks themselves are never truly grotesque. It’s a satire with one layer of irony peeled back, as characters are allowed, if not dignity, then humanity; if not sympathy, then a measure of respect. This doesn’t cloud the film’s often black comedy with sentiment—it’s often hilarious—but does prevent the audience from enjoying any smug distance from the characters. Those weirdos are us.

Payne’s stroke of genius was in casting Nicholson as the reserved, class-conscious Schmidt. No matter what the situation, Schmidt is always the stuffiest guy the room. This relieves Nicholson of the burden of being his iconic screen persona—an indelible figure from Five Easy Pieces to As Good As It Gets—the dangerous live wire who acts out at the least provocation. Schmidt is always flummoxed, whether by the cocky numbers-cruncher who succeeds him in his job, the wife who never lets him finish a sentence, or the lower-class bohemian family his daughter marries into. Nicholson is forced to focus his still- considerable energy on the subtlest expressions of surprise, horror and distaste, and it’s bracing for both actor and audience.

If Nicholson is forced to be without vanity and be more emotionally accessible than usual, it’s part of a cohesive plan. Payne’s idea is to turn his Hollywood actors into faceless Midwesterners. Dermot Mulroney, who has played studly heartthrobs opposite Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz, wears a haircut—the balding mullet—that is one of the ugliest ever seen on screen, as Schmidt’s daughter’s fianceé. Hope Davis, her delicate beauty faded with working-class weariness, plays Schmidt’s daughter. Only Kathy Bates, as Schmidt’s soon-to-be-in-law, keeps her movie-star magnetism intact—she’s clearly delighted to be doing her hot-tub nude scene, and makes the most of it.

As Schmidt never lets his guard down, the only way we can be sure of how he really feels is in the letters he writes to Ndugu, his 6-year-old Tanzanian foster child. These richly comic voiceovers reveal both Schmidt’s ignorance and his talent for dissembling. So it is ironic, and satisfactory, that the film allows young Ndugu the last word.

—Shawn Stone

It Belongs to Them

Rabbit-Proof Fence
Directed by Phillip Noyce

Directed by Australian native Phillip Noyce, the heartrending social exposé Rabbit-Proof Fence is filmed as a gripping, almost mythic reclamation of identity. In 1931, at the Jigalong depot in the Australian outback, 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi), her younger sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) were abducted from their maternal family and taken away to a distant “dormitory.” Within a day, they escaped and began the 1,500-mile walk back home. The girls were among the first of the Aborigine victims later known as the Stolen Generations.

At the Moore River assimilation camp, the girls (all three are played by nonactors) are told by a nun that they are not allowed to speak the “jabber” of their native language. Their hair is shorn off, and they are given gruel to eat. While entertaining a group of charitable Australian matrons, the director of the department for “Aborigine protection,” A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) explains the program’s goal of removing “half castes” from their Aborigine families and absorbing them into the white population, eventually “breeding out” the natives. What the frighteningly reasonable director doesn’t say is that the biracial population will provide cheap labor for white Australia. In the camp, where girls are trained for domestic servitude, it’s clear that breaking their spirit is part of the curriculum.

While the rest of the internees are at church, Molly, Daisy and Gracie simply walk away. Runaways are whipped, and so far, none has eluded the camp’s Aborigine tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil). The girls make it to the woods, but Molly has no idea which way to go from there. All she knows is that Jigalong lies on the rabbit fence, which runs across the entire western territory. If Molly gets lost in the desert, they might not survive.

Adapted with lyrical force from the book by Doris Pilkington—Molly’s daughter—the film uses the vast sky, forbidding, beautiful terrain, and moody, indigenous-based music (by Peter Gabriel) to express how the journey is not only a bid for freedom but an affirmation of the girls’ culture. Adding to the evocation is the strong, silent presence of Gulpilil, who played the young warrior in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 Australian film Walkabout, which Rabbit-Proof resembles in its stark narrative style. At one point, Molly and her mother, who are hundreds of miles apart, put their hands on the fence at the same time, indicating the intensity of their connection. Sampi is fiercely natural, and the otherworldly cinematography (by Christopher Doyle) concentrates her expressive face.

Noyce, who made the taut and atmospheric Dead Calm before going Hollywood (his most recent film was The Bone Collector), integrates the heartbreak of the girls’ plight (the final sequence is deeply moving) with the suspense of a political thriller. Which the film is, in a way: The shocking conclusion comes from a printed coda above the credits, stating that Australia’s Aborigine assimilation program remained in effect until 1970.


Screw This

Two Weeks Notice
Directed by Marc Lawrence

I admit it—I’m a screwball- comedy nazi. I relish superb writing (think Philip Barry or Billy Wilder), rapid-fire delivery, deliriously madcap plotlines and, of course, chemistry between two stars (think Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrae, or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant) that makes the viewer weak in the knees. So perhaps I’m not the right person to be reviewing modern movies that are hyped as a return to classic screwball comedy—think You’ve Got Mail, and now Two Weeks Notice.

On paper, it would seem that the pairing of Brit bad boy Hugh Grant, he of the goofy charm and baby blues, and Sandra Bullock, she of the wholesome, tomboyish strain of American cute, would be magic. In Two Weeks Notice, however, once Grant’s George Wade, a millionaire real-estate developer, meets cute with Bullock’s Lucy Kelson, a lefty lawyer fond of lost causes, the steam dissipates, leaving a damp mustiness on the rest of the movie. We know that George will succumb to Lucy’s brand of social consciousness, and that he’ll still be able to endow her with money, connections, and the ability to live well while working at the Legal Aid Society. (This is yet another movie that pretends poor people are better than rich ones, all the while visually worshipping the trappings of wealth and letting the girl get to mouth populist slogans while tottering on her Jimmy Choos.) And we know that George will somehow get workaholic Lucy to loosen up—who knows, he may even be able to get her to embrace her inner Cinderella.

Knowing these things wouldn’t automatically have sunk this movie. If only writer-director Marc Lawrence had imbued his insipid script with some of the zest and wit of his earlier pairing with Bullock, Miss Congeniality. We never really get to see George and Lucy working together on something, which might have given us humorous and illuminating glimpses of how they feed off each other, both professionally and personally. Instead, we get little scenes titled “two months later” and “six weeks after that,” which invariably show Lucy helping George with his wardrobe. Characters are constantly referring to Lucy as “the best,” but the best what? With one exception (George’s divorce), we never see her act as Wade’s general counsel, but more as his executive assistant. There is one scene in which the couple, having lunch, nonchalantly pick off each other’s plates, but with nothing previous to underpin it, this coziness seems out of nowhere. Lawrence is so desperate for the big laugh that he sacrifices character development in favor of having Bullock get beaned with a tennis ball and, worse, having her develop a case of diarrhea while stuck in a traffic jam with George. This isn’t screwball—it’s screwed up.


An African adventure: The Wild Thornberrys.

Talk to the Animals

The Wild Thornberrys
Directed by Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian

With The Wild ThornberrYs, Nickelodeon continues to turn its television staples into big-screen adventures, albeit with none of the breakthrough technology or even creativity of, say, Pixar or Disney. However, as a much bigger and slightly longer version of a regular WT episode, this movie, directed by Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian, is pleasing holiday family fare.

The movie successfully combines a brand-new adventure with just enough background information—young Eliza Thornberry (Lacey Chabert) has the secret gift of being able to speak to animals—to enlighten newbies. This time around, Eliza has been transplanted to a stuffy English boarding school, which she manages to escape in order to return to her beloved Africa and save some critters from poachers Rupert Everett and Marisa Tomei. There are lots of humorous moments, especially involving Eliza’s older, mall-obsessed sister Debbie (Danielle Harris), who is forced to set aside her major ick factor of all things veldtian and go in search of her missing sister. Eliza’s trusty simian sidekick Darwin (Tom Kane) also gets some funny moments, especially when it turns out that he rather likes the pomp and circumstance of the boarding school.

In the end, The Wild Thornberrys delivers a solid story, and what’s particularly nice is that while it packs a strong sense of family, it does so without being preachy or heavy-handed. This is in large part to bright writing by Kate Boutilier and exquisite characterizations by Chabert, Harris, Tim Curry as her dotty father Nigel, and Flea, as the Thornberrys’ adopted jungle-boy brother Donnie, who delivers some nonsensical form of jungle chatter. And with beautiful music by Paul Simon and others, this movie is not a bad way to spend an hour and a half during the dark days of January.


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