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Aisle Seat RINGS for Christmas

Andy reviews LORD OF THE RINGS Part One

Plus: Andy's Soapbox for the last time in 2001!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

Well, the final weekend of 2001 is here, and this year's Holiday slate of films has turned out to be a mixed bag. On the plus side, that's more than we could say for last summer's generally dismal offerings, while 2002 seems to be tempting us already with visions of tasty new treats dancing in our heads (Episode II, Spider-Man, Bond, and yes, "Jason X: Friday the 13th in Outer Space"!).

For this final Aisle Seat of 2001, we look at the week's #1 film -- LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING -- and sound off with some Soapbox comments both looking back, and scanning ahead, to what the new year may bring us.


New in Theaters

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (***): After watching the first three hours of Peter Jackson's long-awaited film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" series, I had many mixed feelings. Overall, though, I felt that I had seen one of the few films that had succeeded in establishing a true fantasy world and an epic quest that lures you in the way that great fantasy can -- but in the cinema, only seldom does.

The story is one that needs little description: in the kingdom of Middle Earth, young Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) sets out on a journey to destroy an evil ring, created by the dark lord Sauron, that has been given to him by his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm). It not only renders its wearer invisible, but also gives him the power to control the various kingdoms of Middle Earth itself. Hot on the trail of the ring are evil armies and corrupted men, all united by the desire to control the ring and bring back the dark lord, no longer in physical form but gaining power by the moment. Frodo is joined on his journey by pal Sam Gangee (Sean Astin) and the great sorcerer Gandalf (Ian McKellan) among others he meets along the way, including Strider (Viggo Mortensen) and Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler).

Fans have been clamoring for decades to see a live-action LORD OF THE RINGS that does justice to Tolkien's epic text. Having read only "The Hobbit," I cannot offer how faithful Jackson is to the original source, though several of my friends both praised and criticized various decisions the filmmaker made -- something not unexpected given that Jackson has gone through a massive undertaking in conjuring the adventures of the beloved Tolkien characters on the big screen in three separate films (the sequels of which -- "The Two Towers" and "Return of the King" -- will be unrolled over the next two Christmas seasons).

This first installment, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, is the kind of film that genre fans are going to love, but viewers either unfamiliar with Tolkien or not familiar with the fantasy genre to begin with are going to have a hard time getting into. It's curious how repetitive the action is for a movie that goes on for three hours: the characters run into a monster or new supporting character, walk to another location, run into a monster or new supporting character, run to another venue, all the while staying ahead of the bad guys.

That's not to say that I wasn't entertained by the movie or enthralled by parts of it, but I can see how audiences outside the niche could be bewildered by what the fuss is all about -- especially after so many other Tolkien-inspired cinematic journeys, from "Willow" to "Dragonslayer," "Star Wars" and others, have already covered similar ground of unlikely heroes, dastardly villains, and bizarre creatures scattered across unfamiliar terrain.

What I found most satisfying about LORD OF THE RINGS as a movie was the look of Jackson's film and the fact that he captured the essence of an epic adventure, a great quest, on-screen without getting sidetracked by the many supporting characters and subplots.

In a way, watching the movie reminded me of playing "Zork" on my uncle's PC back when I was a kid. For those who may not remember the game, it was a text-only Apple II adventure that had you playing an adventurer in a faraway land, traveling through mazes, running into characters, seeking out lost treasure and doing it all by typing in a sentence and finding out the outcome ("you have run into a Minotaur. You are dead" -- that kind of thing) after making your decision.

At its best, Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS conveys that kind of adventure. When the characters travel through the mine of the dwarves, are pursued by a fire-spewing demon, and jump across a crumbling bridge, you truly feel as if you're in the middle of a great, epic fantasy adventure. Where each turn could lead down a different path, each path leading to doom or discovery.

There are some shortcomings with the film, and if I had to single out a general flaw I found, I'd note the rather one-note tone of the film: the drama doesn't seem to have any peaks or valleys. It's all just kind of "there." Maybe it's because of the repetitive nature of the story, or that Elijah Wood's functional performance as Frodo doesn't quite convey the wide range of emotion inherent in the character and his journey. Even though we know the ending is going to be open-ended, Jackson doesn't quite handle it right: I could hear several "is that it?" responses from people sitting near me when the film faded to black and the credits began rolling.

I generally liked Howard Shore's large orchestral score, but found, over the course of three hours, that his motifs also became redundant. His lilting music for the Hobbits reminded me of similar "ethnic" themes written for "Willow" and "Far and Away," while the "heroic theme" he composed for the adventurers grows tiresome over the countless scenes of the heroes venturing over rough terrain. It's always functional, but somehow it misses the wider, more colorful thematic pallet that Leonard Rosenman brought to Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated feature. It'll be interesting to see if Shore varies from his original work for the next six hours of the series, since a lot of his material felt worn-out by the time this installment was finished.

The supporting performances are solid across the board: Ian McKellan makes a perfect Gandalf, while Sean Astin is fine as Sam and Viggo Mortensen equally good as Strider (a role that has, however, been altered significantly for the screen, one of my friends tells me). Christopher Lee makes for a splendid villain, while Liv Tyler's agent ought to be commended for netting Tyler third billing (!) despite her five minutes of screen time. (Even then, Tyler's dialogue seems to have been dubbed by another actress in her initial scene in the film).

Jackson shot the movie in his native New Zealand, and one of the best things that LORD OF THE RINGS has going for it are the often breathtaking locations, varied cinematography (ranging from bleak and washed-out to colorful hues representing the separate kingdoms in the story), and excellent special effects. This is a great-looking movie from start to end, even if the effects themselves don't seem all that fresh or unique.

So, is THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS a classic? The next "Star Wars"? I think the jury is still out, but Jackson has at least laid the foundation here to craft one of the fantasy genre's few epic cinematic works. Whether the remaining installments hit the dramatic heights that this one doesn't quite reach, or if it's all just a great-looking tease made unique only through its connection with the classic text, at least it seems apparent that it's going to be a journey worth taking. (PG-13)


Andy's Soapbox

What a great year it was for the DVD market. I had a tough time settling on ten discs to comprise my list of the 10 Best DVDs of 2001 (running in the next FSM), even though several titles we had hoped would be released by year's end yet again failed to materialize (maybe LEGEND will be out by the time HDTV-DVD is ready).

Speaking of LEGEND, "reports" say the disc will definitely be out this year. However, Universal's slate through February has already been announced, so don't look for it until the spring time at the earliest.

The Burger King LORD OF THE RINGS glasses are the coolest fast-food marketing gimmick since those EMPIRE STRIKES BACK collector's glasses back in 1980.

Small screen notes: it's probably too late to get into the somewhat over-the-top but compulsively watchable Fox series "24," but if FX does a marathon from the beginning of its run, definitely check it out. A pleasant surprise has been the WB's SMALLVILLE, offering a teen take on Superboy with humor and solid performances (all the ladies, including my girlfriend, love Lex Luthor!). The show is still finding its groove (there have been too many "mutated students kill their parents" episodes), but give it a look. And ENTERPRISE on the UPN is the first Trek program I've seriously watched since "The Next Generation." The show is fun and well-written, showing that the producers aren't simply going through the motions for a change (and Jolene Blalock is the sexiest Vulcan you'll ever see, too!).

Those wacky Weinsteins at Miramax are having one of the strangest seasons for a movie studio in recent memory.

First, they dump out the shelf-dweller TEXAS RANGERS on some 400 screens at the end of November without spending a dime on advertising or critic screenings. Of course, in its abbreviated 90-minute form, nobody could tell why someone spent a dime MAKING it, but then again, the folks at Miramax seem to know more about cutting films than anyone else (sarcasm inserted).

Following that, Miramax pulled a rare move -- cutting a movie even after it had been screened for critics -- and doing it twice in as many weeks!

First another in-the-can effort, THE SHIPPING NEWS, was shorn of several minutes before its limited release this week. Next, the seemingly innocuous Meg Ryan-Hugh Jackman romantic comedy KATE & LEOPOLD ended up being re-cut (and delayed from its intended Dec. 21 bow to Christmas day) after test audiences, and some critics, complained about an incest reference!

To round out their wacky season, the studio opted to dump another long-completed effort, the Gary Sinise- Madeleine Stowe sci-fi thriller IMPOSTER, into release with limited advertising on Christmas day.

Not exactly a killer line-up, eh? Maybe Harvey and Bob just decided to sit this Oscar season out, cut their losses, and plan on the marketing blitz for NEXT year.

Frank Darabont had better find another genre of film, and fast. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION was a great movie, but THE GREEN MILE felt like one too many trips to the same well. The tepid reviews that greeted THE MAJESTIC have made it all too clear that the feel-good novelty he brought to the screen in his first film has completely worn off. Frank, we don't need "The Fly III," but try something else, please!

Disappointments this past year at the movies? A.I. was #1 on my list. The movie polarized viewers who were pretty much split into two camps: those who were utterly disappointed by it, and others who thought it was a masterpiece. The latter camp was in such a minority that the film fell completely off the radar just weeks after it opened. It wasn't the worst movie of the year, but to me, proved just how far Steven Spielberg has fallen off his pedestal as one of the top filmmakers working today.

John Williams' score for A.I. was excellent, but I thought his music for HARRY POTTER was a veritable classic. I can't understand the criticism leveled at his music, which I found to be one of his strongest works in years.

Two scores that went relatively unheralded this past year: David Arnold's excellent score for Peter Hyams' modest success (isn't EVERY Hyams movie just a modest success?) THE MUSKETEER was a rousing, old-fashioned work with a sense of lyricism a bit more genuine than similar scores of recent years (like "Cutthroat Island"). Also, Stephen Warbeck's music for CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN was stuck in a terrible movie, and deserved a far better fate. I've given it a handful of spins over the last few months; it's pleasant and lends itself perfectly for repeat listening.

Most under-rated flick of the last year: JOY RIDE. John Dahl is one of the top thriller-directors around, and this under-appreciated fall release (which got lost in the post-Sept. 11 box-office race) was a real kick. Look for it on video in a few months.

Most over-rated movie (by some): THE OTHERS. Alejando Amenabar's "Innocents" rip-off offered a twist that you could see coming from miles away and a completely unsatisfying ending. But for those who don't see many supernatural films, it apparently felt like a classic.

Oscar predictions? With GANGS OF NEW YORK moved to later this year, it's a tough call. For no apparent reason, I like MOULIN ROUGE's chances. It's a major studio film that takes lots of risks and boasts a Nicole Kidman performance that has Oscar written all over it. I liked parts of the film, but I can see how Oscar voters may tune it out due to the modern music quotations. Then again, they voted for a hideous Bob Dylan (!) ballad last year from "Wonder Boys" for Best Original Song, so anything's possible!

And that's all folks, for the Aisle Seat 2001! As always, I want to wish everyone who reads the column, and all of you who take the time to write to me (at dursina@att.net), a wonderful, happy and prosperous New Year. Take care, and we'll see you all in 2002!


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