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Tall tales: McGregor in Big Fish.

In Your Dreams
By Laura Leon

Big Fish
Directed by Tim Burton

Thank God, not another movie in which a wizened old codger waxes poetic about the power of stories. While Tim Burton’s Big Fish, adapted for screen by John August from the 1998 book by Daniel Wallace, does feature a codger, the dying Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), it forsakes philosophical monologues in favor of a series of colorful, mind-boggling stories about Edward, as told by Edward himself. This incessant stretching of truths and reimagining of the lines that bound their existences drives Edward’s son Will (Billy Crudup) so crazy that he deserts the family to become a UPI reporter based in Paris. Whereas one Bloom embellishes just about everything, the other sticks to the straight facts, and this marked difference in approach speaks volumes about deeper issues pervading this father-son conflict.

When Will and his pregnant, Parisian-born wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) are summoned home by mom Sandra (Jessica Lange) to be on hand for Edward’s final days, the stage is set for the inevitable showdown. Josephine is in the final trimester of her pregnancy, and Will is determined to find out the “truth” about Edward in order to give his new child concrete proofs. When his quest is thwarted by yet another tall tale, Will erupts, furious that his father will not reveal his true self to him at this late stage in the game. Edward, for his part, retorts that his stories have, indeed, revealed his true self, and that Will is just blind to it.

In between such arguments, Burton evokes Edward’s most fantastic stories with a visual sensibility that can only be his. We see the young Edward (Ewan McGregor) confront death, in the eye of a witch no less, and decide that his aspirations demand a greater world stage. In the course of his lifetime, we see him confront a giant, work in a circus headed by ringmaster (and werewolf) Danny DeVito, take on dangerous assignments in Korea, discover an otherworldly town called Spectre, and, most profoundly, fall in love with Sandra Templeton (Allison Lohman). The scene in which the earnest young Bloom calls to Sandra’s window, and upon opening it she spies him standing amid a field of buttery daffodils, flowers that he’s planted for her, is sweet and majestic at once. The viewer can’t help but believe Edward’s love for Sandra, and hope that she, too, shares his robust enthusiasm.

Underlying the tension between Edward and Will is the idea that the father, as a traveling salesman, was never home, but August’s script doesn’t delve much into this potential pool of conflict. In fact, while Lange’s role is inexplicably limited, she never conveys any sense of anger, resentment or wishfulness about the choices she has made; indeed, marrying Edward seems to have kept her perpetually joyous, forever young. Perhaps we are supposed to wonder at questions like why is Edward so dang addicted to storytelling, when, as a husband and father, he should be trading in the hard questions of life. What a drag. Better that in Big Fish, we see a man who is providing his family with not just an income and a home with a white picket fence, but the capacity to dream big and to leave an indelible imprint on all who know him.

One Film To Thrill Them All

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson

Whoever would’ve thought, three years and a month ago, that the most heartening moment in recent cinema would involve two make-believe little persons clambering on a scorched plateau. But when indefatigable Sam (Sean Astin) hoists sick-to-his-soul Frodo (Elijah Wood) upon his back to carry him the last few steps to certain death in a volcanic inferno, The Return of the King achieves the kind of heart-tugging heroism that can catapult a film to Favorite Movie of All Time status. Of course, director Peter Jackson had two previous films in which to establish the importance of the hobbits reaching fiery Mount Doom—nothing less than the salvation of Middle-earth hangs in the balance—and yet the concluding installment of his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is full of such interludes, all of them hard won by the filmmaker’s extraordinary commitment and talent. As indomitable as a hobbit, as bold as an elf prince and as resourceful as a wizard with a bubbling cauldron and a tome of spells, Jackson has pulled it off—the “it” being J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume source novel, a beguiling blend of literary scholarship and prodigious imagination once thought impossible to reproduce on screen.

That audiences should rejoice in the tenacity of Sam, Frodo, and the other strange folk of a fantasy universe is a credit to the director’s dramatic acuity. With its mastodon cavalry, reptilian flying monsters, and a gigantic, man-eating arachnid named Shelob, the film is a wonder (in the truest sense of the word) of wildly creative special effects. But what enriches the film’s jaw-dropping spectacle is its human approach to monumental conflict. The personalities of the protagonists shine through every clashing adventure, even when their defenses are broken by a battalion of iron-clad war trolls.

As did The Fellowship of the Ring, The Return opens with a prologue from the distant past: The (CGI) creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), way back when he was hobbity Smeagol, wrests possession of an ancient ring of infinite power and is consumed by it. The story then picks up with the quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires where it was forged. As Sam and Frodo get closer to Mount Doom, Gollum, their tortured guide, becomes more treacherous. At the same time, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must rally an army large enough to hold off the fiendish forces of Sauron, the dread lord of the ring. As those forces (Jackson has an apparently limitless capacity for conjuring grotesque opponents) march on the fortress-city of Gondor, the last best hope of Middle-earth, Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) rides ahead to warn the city’s stern ruler, Denethor (John Noble). But Denethor is going mad, Sauron’s armies vastly outnumber the allies, and Sam and Frodo are being led into a gruesome trap.

Although The Return is mostly one battle after another until a humongous climactic battle, the trilogy’s intertwining plot lines converge with a thrilling sense of urgency, validating Jackson’s $300- million-plus gamble in shooting the three films at once, creating what is basically a nine-hour film (with yearlong intermissions). Protagonists who’ve struggled against overwhelming odds and evils in the previous installments now come into their own with a depth of development not possible in a shorter or less seamless work. In the quiet before the storm of an orc attack, Gandalf consoles an anxious Pippin (Billy Boyd) with an ethereal description of the afterlife. In the heat of a monstrous battle, King Theoden (Bernard Hill) says farewell to his warrior foster-daughter, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), with a stoicism that could bring a tear to Odin. Away in Rohan, Aragorn musters enough faith in his predestination to brave a stronghold of the undead. No one has ever returned from this mountain pass, but that doesn’t stop Aragorn’s stalwart companions Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) from accompanying him on his dire path, a situation that easily accommodates such mytho-poetic utterings as “The very warmth of my blood seems stolen away.”

Along with characters who are sometimes an improvement on their print versions—a hot-blooded Eowyn, a conflicted Faramir (David Wenham), and Gimli’s gallows bravado—Jackson summons the story forth with some of the most breathtaking sequences on celluloid, among them a spectacular aerial view of the lighting of the beacons of Gondor, in which the camera appears to literally fly from one mountaintop to another as they burst into flame over a distance of several hundred miles. Equally astonishing is the panorama of Minas Tirith, an elaborate citadel carved out of a cliff. In a bravura tracking shot, Gandalf ascends the city’s seven spiraling levels at full gallop. And to have Frodo lifted to his feet by a vision of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is sheer inspiration. Purists can quibble (especially concerning Sam’s excess of brutality toward Gollum), but this is filmmaking of a dizzyingly high order.

But just as enthralling as the director’s brilliant visualizations is his mindfulness of Tolkien’s chivalric world view, in which humility triumphs over pride and mercy is the ultimate antidote to evil. Which is why the peaceable, unquenchably optimistic hobbits are the true bravehearts. And just as the Fellowship assists Frodo’s quest in ways that are not always obvious, so too, does Jackson stand on the accomplishments of an impassioned cast—notably McKellen’s Shakespeare-worthy wizard, Astin’s self-effacing Sam, and Serkis’ amazing voicing and motioning for the incredibly convincing Gollum—as well as a whole other dimension of enchantment created by Howard Shore’s magnificent and inventively evocative score. Let the trumpets sound, and the Oscar nods roll in: these are the great deeds of our cinematic age.

—Ann Morrow

A Little Less Free

Chasing Liberty
Directed by Andy Cadiff

Pity Anna Foster (Mandy Moore), teenage daughter of the president of the United States. Sure, she’s wealthy, smart and beautiful, but she can’t get a date. Seems that every time a boy starts to get close to her—you know, like over dinner at a swanky upscale restaurant— something unexpected happens, and overprotective Secret Service agents swarm in. The date freaks out, and poor Anna never even gets a goodnight kiss.

After one such particularly disastrous encounter, Anna strikes a bargain with her father: She’ll jump through all the diplomatic hoops she’s supposed to on an upcoming trip to Prague, if he’ll let her go to a concert with just two agents in tow. (Anna has good taste—it’s a Roots show.) Daddy, however, sends a platoon of agents, and Anna freaks. With the help of Ben (Matthew Goode) a handsome Brit bystander on a motorcycle, she escapes. There’s one hitch, though: Ben’s an agent too, and she isn’t really free. There’s nothing left but for the pair to fall in love against the background of gorgeous European locations.

Romantic comedy is very hard to do. Director Andy Cadiff has just the right touch, and makes all these contrivances seem as light as a feather. Moore, the former pop tart, is coming into her own as both a star and an actress. (The opening sequence, with Moore trying on a series of outfits for a big date, screams “Look at me I’m a movie star.” And she is.) She’s also cultivating an image that is the opposite of her former rivals Britney and Christina: Moore doesn’t want to be dirty (when Anna says she’s a virgin, you believe her). The script is reasonably clever, and the supporting cast (particularly Jeremy Piven and Annabella Sciorra as a pair of bickering agents) is strong. Against all odds, Chasing Liberty is charming—up to a point. That point is when Anna’s character is tested in the real world, and she’s faced with true freedom.

When Anna finds out that Matthew is really an agent, she is, naturally, heartbroken. Lighting out on her own, she immediately runs into trouble. We’re supposed to believe that although she’s been traveling unrecognized halfway across Europe, suddenly everyone knows her. Obnoxious Americans and creepy Germans close in; Anna is helpless. This smart, resourceful young woman breaks down just like a little girl. Matthew comes to the rescue, delivering her back into the protective bubble.

Without going into the gory details, suffice to say that Anna learns to accept, and appreciate, her cocoon. Liberty, as it turns out, is just a word in one of her daddy’s speeches.

—Shawn Stone

Matrons Gone Wild

Calendar Girls
Directed by Nigel Cole

Based on a recent true story, Calendar Girls is a very amusing British trifle in the tradition of Waking Ned Divine and Saving Grace—meaning that most of the humor concerns prim English villagers of a certain age tweaking expectations with their naughty behavior. The “calendar girls,” as they come to be known, are middle-age members of a Yorkshire ladies’ club who pose nude for a calendar to raise money for the local hospital. This racy brainstorm comes from brash Chris (Helen Mirren), who is notorious for trying to liven up the club with such bad ideas as a vodka-tasting night. But her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters), whose husband died at the hospital, is all for it, and some of the other ladies are surprisingly game. As the pudgy church organist puts it, “I’m 55 years old. If I don’t get ’em out now, when will I?” There are obstacles, however, not least of them the hiring of a photographer who can work with women who undress in the dark even for their husbands.

The stately Mirren is a natural doing saucy (she’s the only one who actually goes topless) while the rest of the cast play up their matronly caricatures (the stoical widow, the no-nonsense aristo, the mousy housewife neglected by her husband) with piquant wit. The photographer is not a devilishly sexy, supportive, and slightly younger man as expected, but an inexperienced bruiser who is more inhibited than his subjects. Director Nigel Cole has developed a lighter, wryer touch since his overly twee Saving Grace, and the calendar itself is a rip: The “pin-ups” are engaged in such genteel pursuits as fruit pressing, painting, and arranging a tier of frosted buns, with the rated-R bits humorously hidden. And yet it’s suggestive enough to be believable as a runaway best-seller.

The film takes a turn for the obvious when the ladies are flown to Los Angeles for a publicity junket, where they frolic glamorously on the beach and encounter a scarily trendy art director. All the attention provokes a Turning Point Lite argument between Chris and Annie over their respective star tripping, an unnecessary downer. But by then, the audience has had such a good time, it can wait until the calendar gals get back to Yorkshire for a perfectly droll ending.

—Ann Morrow

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