Worlds of Wonder

Rings soars, Monsters whores, Majestic bores

Hobbits, wizards and elves will always make closed hearts sink and literal minds crumple. The novel is far from a model of narrative economy, but it doesn't have to be; its strengths are Tolkien's imagination and his words, not suspense (although, in a review of Fellowship, W.H. Auden wrote, "on the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next, The Fellowship of the Ring is at least as good as The Thirty-Nine Steps"). Still, it's fair to say that there are lines of prose that were never intended for some readers: "Beren was a mortal man, but Luthien was the daughter of Thingol, a King of Elves upon Middle-earth when the world was young." The novel is stuffed with such great gusts of windbagging, as well as a geologist's love for topographical detail and swaths of song lyrics probably inspired by the author's passion for belting out Norse tunes down at the pub. Merrily leaping rivers and dead warriors with unpronounceable names would be a drag at any length if that were all the novel had to offer, but The Lord of the Rings is droll and exciting against expectation, the enchantments of its author's imagination undeniable.

Reading about rivers, roads and valleys, however, is one thing; watching actors try to squeeze life into complex genealogy is something altogether different. Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have ironed the kinks in the narrative by turning stories into action, but everyone still has too much explaining to do. As with many journeys, the film plays better on the road than around the fire. This works to the director's advantage. There may be a thousand ways to interpret the novel—and another thousand ways to criticize it—but like many readers, Jackson is turned on more by the story than by its putative deep meaning. He also doesn't like to hang out in one place for long, and his movies tend to move (Heavenly Creatures is a mad dash), even when they don't do a lot else, as was the case with his effects blowout The Frighteners. In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson charges through the novel's rivers, roads and "twinkling woven nets of gossamer" even as he manages to suggest its insistent, enveloping awe toward the natural world; he stays true to Tolkien's journey without making a fetish of its every turn.

There's so much story in The Fellowship that Jackson couldn't linger if he wanted. The film's New Zealand landscapes are as imposing as its special effects, but because the director is consistently more attentive to Tolkien's invention than his own, the movie has none of the self-absorption or self-congratulation found in so many adventures of comparable scope and ambition. The film inspires such a chorus of oohs and ahs—it cheats the hobbits' diminutive height as masterfully as it transforms an underground kingdom into a cathedral of doom—that you find yourself wondering, as you did the first time the movies surprised you, "How did they do that?" The film is a virtuosic triumph, but parlor tricks don't make movies, and it's Jackson's unwavering sincerity that elevates The Fellowship of the Ring into the increasingly rare Valhalla of the rousing, well-told tale. It's his earnestness toward the novel and its readers, along with the movie audience, his conviction that everyone alike be taken equally seriously without condescension that smoothes the bumps in the translation from novel to screen, investing the quest not just with purpose but love. For all its new technologies, The Lord of the Rings is, in its lack of irony and its genuine desire to thrill, an unabashed Hollywood throwback, a return to still another paradise lost.

Real People
Photo by Jeanne Louise Bulliard
In the modern Southern Gothic Monster's Ball, Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry live in the sort of movie hell from which only death or deliverance can be expected. Thornton plays Hank Grotowski, a longtime guard at a Georgia state penitentiary whose job is the primary bequest of a wretched legacy. Like his father, Buck (Peter Boyle), and now his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), Hank works on death row, escorting condemned prisoners to their executions. As might be expected from the first sound in the film—that of Hank's robust daily morning vomit—home doesn't offer much relief: Buck is a racist bastard fond of detonating emotional bombs, while Sonny is a lonely boozer so deeply curled into solitude that he seems barely alive. With Hank's wife long dead, the house seems a veritable chamber of masculine horrors, from the dark-wood paneling to the innumerable deer racks that cover the walls. It's too much, but the swampy shivers of the American South are a perennial favorite of filmmakers, especially those for whom a sense of its people and place seems borrowed from the movies, and everything in Monster's Ball—from its ridiculous title, to its high-profile cast, to its overdetermined production design—prepares you for the worst.

The worst comes like clockwork. The story begins in the hours before the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), a prisoner whose offense is never revealed. Although Musgrove has a long-estranged wife, Leticia (Berry), and a son, a mountain of a child named Tyrell (newcomer Coronji Calhoun), the family has been decisively fragmented after his 11 years in prison. His wife can barely stand to look at him, and his son talks to him like the distant relation he has become; when Musgrove is finally executed, a palpable sense of relief washes over them both. Over the film, too. Director Marc Forster spends a fair amount a time with Musgrove, both in the family's last visit and during his deathwatch with Hank and Sonny at the prison, but the character is a contrivance, not a personality (the distraction of rap impresario Combs in the role doesn't help). His protracted death by electrocution is grossly exploitative, a sop to liberal squeamishness, but it's fundamentally meaningless; we learn nothing of the man or his family, and even less about crime and punishment save what we've known since Angels With Dirty Faces—that the chair's sizzle is inherently cinematic.

« Previous Page
Next Page »

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!