And So On 

The well-made but dull Return of the King; Jack gets smacked in Something's Gotta Give.

Okay, let's get the unavoidable out of the way first: The Return of the King, director Peter Jackson's third and final installment of his gargantuan cinematic treatment of author J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a magnificent example of epic filmmaking for the post-digital age.

It's a model for the kind of loving craftsmanship and storytelling emphasis that can be instilled in popcorn cinema when in the hands of a true believer. With its handsomely staged parallel action, visual imagination, and acknowledgment of actual human emotions, it simply shames its obvious competition: George Lucas' current Star Wars series.

From a flashback prelude that shows fisherman Smeagol transforming into greed-deformed Golem to the proper opening on the decimated battlefields of Eisengard to a climax at Mordor where Golem bites Frodo's finger off in an attempt to reclaim the ring to the return-to-the-shire denouement,The Return of the King is a wonderfully well-made (and well-intentioned) film that will certainly thrill its legion of devoted fans. I am not one.

And though I'm no cultist, I meant every hosanna above, and what makes the film a worthwhile trip to the cineplex even for nonbuffs is that it provides more to think about than its fantastical surface story.

With its epic vision of perpetual war and clash of civilizations, The Lord of the Rings is sort of an all-purpose allegory, rich with meaning that can be applied to any period of international strife, which is unfortunately any period at all and definitely right now. Jackson probably isn't happy to see his epic coincide with battles against the Middle-Eastern would-be Sarumans, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but it sure hasn't hurt the emotional and intellectual impact of his movies. And regardless of your political persuasion, there's a pertinent lesson to be taken here. Doves and lefties (not one and the same, I know) can point to the film's insistence on the need to preserve and fortify alliances and to its warnings against environmental degradation. Hawks and conservatives (ditto) can bask in the film's nonrelativistic depiction of a battle between good and evil. Me, I tend to wonder about the political morality of a war movie in which the opposing armies are made up of clone-like creatures with, presumably, no feelings, no children, no siblings, no friends.

All of that said, another question remains: How could something so fantastic be so dull? Many of you reading this are either doing a double-take or are sneering at that question. But there are plenty of people out there who feel just like I do and perhaps we should form our own AA-style meetings: Hi, I'm Chris, and I was impressed by the craftsmanship of the movie and all, but whenever I hear phrases like "the witch king of Agnar" or "If the beacons of Gondor are lit, Rohan must prepare for war," my eyes get a little droopy.

The Lord of the Rings, like the Star Wars and Matrix series (and Harry Potter and so many other relentlessly promoted cultural products), is not merely made for cultists. It is designed to turn viewers into cultists and has been so successful at this that it's essentially beyond criticism. At this point, very few viewers will see The Return of the King with a sense of detachment, and the movie is structured on that assumption.

In The Return of the King, Jackson assumes a thorough knowledge of the narrative arc of the previous two films, declining to remind viewers just why it's so important to transport this ring to the fiery mountain. (I couldn't really remember myself --thus the scribbled "what's the deal with the ring again?" in my notes. And while I could easily look up the name of the volcanic structure the ring is tossed into, I'm not doing so under protest that this series has added too much silliness to my vocabulary already.) Jackson declines to fill us in on where Merlin's (Gandalf's, whatever) evil doppelganger went, to explain why the Elves have to flee Middle-earth at the end (and take Frodo and Merlin with them --or maybe I just dozed off during this part), etc. If you haven't memorized the minutiae of the previous installments or read your Tolkien closely, I suggest you just let the epic images wash over you like so much Celtic New Age music on the soundtrack. Worked for me.

So, now that this "cultural event" is over, what are those who drank the Tolkien Kool-Aid supposed to do? (Other than explore all of the bonus materials in the special DVD editions over and overagain for years to come, of course.) There's been some talk of Jackson producing The Hobbit as a prequel to his mighty series, but I think I've got a better idea:

Given that this final installment ends with an acknowledgment of the isolation and disorientation of the postwar experience, perhaps Jackson should summon his hobbit friends back to New Zealand for a The Best Years of Our Lives-style coda instead, where Sam, like Frederic March in Lives, is alienated from his new wife and child because they just can't understand what he's been through; where Frodo feels marginalized, Harold Russell-style, because of his missing digit; and where Merry and Pippin, like Dana Andrews, have trouble holding down jobs back in the shire. And they could all gather around to drink at the local pub because at least they understand each other, right? Really, who doesn't want to see this? If it means fewer interminable digitized battle sequences, even this skeptic could get excited.

-- Chris Herrington

There is a growing trend in movie-naming that I can't help but revile. The trend: slapping a name (any old name) on a film that captures the most general attitude and feel of the film but actually has nothing to do with it. Something's Gotta Give is like that. What is it exactly that's "gotta" give? I dunno, but it doesn't matter really -- the flippancy of the title, the deliberate misspelling of "got to," and the huge names on the poster "Jack and Diane" (hey, there's a title!) let us know all we need to know about the flavor of what's inside without any of the ingredients.

As Good As It Gets is another such film, although at least that line did appear in the film. On the dramatic side, I question the validity of Primal Fear. Fear was not a theme in that film. But it sounds good, eh? And one would expect a tense drama (nay, a thriller) from a ticket purchase, so I guess it did its most basic of duties: sell tickets. I have a better suggestion for Something's Gotta Give -- a name that also happens to be my favorite porn title because it lets the audience know exactly what to expect: No Man's Land.

I would title this romantic-comedy snoozer No Man's Land not because of what it is about (and certainly not for any hot girl-on-girl action), but because of what to expect from its audience demographic: no men. This, my beloved readership, is a chick flick. Big time. Fans of "The Jack" will be woefully disappointed that this is a movie told by women, for women, and what makes Jack Nicholson a popular (if unlikely) hero for chauvinist lotharios is exploited only for its belittlement and eventual defeat. The wind is let out of his sails. He's trumped in No Man's Land!

Jack, essentially playing himself as Harry, is a rich record-company executive with a penchant for younger women (gasp!). The current object of his affection is Marin (Amanda Peet), daughter of famous Neil Simon-ish playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton). Harry and Marin arrive at the Barry beach house in the Hamptons for a weekend romp only to find Erica and sister Zoe (Frances McDormand) unexpectedly weekending themselves. Even though Erica mildly disapproves of Harry, all agree that the most adult thing would be to cohabitate for the weekend. (While I, personally, could never have a first fling with someone in the same vacation home that contains my mother, this must be common for worldly New Yorkers who weekend in the Hamptons.)

Harry keels over from a heart attack just as consummation is imminent and is rushed to the local hospital, where sensitive, theatergoing Dr. Julian (Keanu Reeves) attends him. We do not know if Dr. Julian himself has a thing for older women, but he sure falls for Erica in a big way once he knows she's written his favorite plays. When Dr. Julian prescribes a weekend of bed rest for Harry at Erica's place, we know that wackiness will ensue -- especially when Marin vanishes and Harry and Erica are left alone.

There is, at this point in the plot, a stretch of about 30 minutes that makes this whole thing a big, lumbering mess. At two hours and five minutes, Something's Gotta Give is a bit on the windy side -- a fatal mistake. That 30 minutes of padding is mostly the unlikely courtship of Harry and Erica, filmed with a fuzzy, Vaseline-y haze over the proceedings as if it were a Hallmark presentation for the romantically challenged middle-aged.

While the best acting moments are probably in this section -- including a surprising nude scene from Ms. Keaton (after About Schmidt, I think it would be grand if all Jack Nicholson movies featured a surprising nude scene from Oscar-winning Best Actresses) -- it's not enough to justify the relatively epic running time. (Citizen Kane, by comparison, was told in an economical 119 minutes.) There are long walks on the beach while our unlikely couple interminably muse about his peccadilloes and her uptightness and the nature of age and love.

Nicholson and Keaton are absolutely great at being themselves. To their credit, they have managed to go against the Hollywood grain by being absolutely sexy without a trace of plastic surgery. Reeves is surprisingly effective as a romantic rival to Harry, providing Erica with a viable alternative to Harry's wilier ways and an excellent reminder that women stay sexy as long as men do and that we fall in love with people and not society's expectations of them.

Unfortunately, all of the film's good intentions are just not enough to appeal to any unsuspecting male who wanders into No Man's Land. -- Bo List

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