Worlds of Wonder

Rings soars, Monsters whores, Majestic bores

©2001 New Line ProductionsCherished by fantasy fans and the now-graying habitués of head shops everywhere, J.R.R. Tolkien's epic novel The Lord of the Rings has long existed in a pipe-weed haze of geek love. It was first published in the 1950s, becoming a cult first for bookworms, then—famously during the 1960s—freaks (what the British Tolkien Society politely calls "the Alternative society"). Movie companies usually cherish built-in constituencies, but not all fan passions are equal, which explains why the film is being strategically pitched as adventure epic, not fantasy. Too bad! For the initial installment in this great slab of entertainment (the other two films are already finished) is honest-to-goodness fantasy—a nerve-jangling, pictorially beautiful, mostly engrossing phantasmagoria of ghouls and warriors, oozing ambitions and towering dark castles, waylaid only by an occasional dip into the bog of exposition. As directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson, by all accounts a genial madman, the film transports us into a world that once upon a time could be conjured only in the wilds of our imagination or inside an animation studio. Never before have digital effects seemed so justified. That makes The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some sort of modest technological wonder, but what makes it more than the sum of its pixels is the sincerity of its storytelling and sense of wonder—it's 100 percent irony-free.

The film begins in flashback and solemn voice-over ("The world has changed. . . . Much that once was, is now lost") that outline the forces of evil that have gathered at the story's launch. Men and elves, inhabitants of Middle-earth, having once routed an evil called "Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord," are faced with his resurrection. The key to Sauron's ultimate power is a gold ring that has fallen (or landed—the ring has its own agenda) into the benign stewardship of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). In very brief: the story of The Lord of the Rings relays the quest of Bilbo's cousin, Frodo (Elijah Wood), to destroy the ring—or, as the author himself wrote rather more majestically, "to find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there . . . to put it beyond the grasp of the Enemy forever." Some 340 pages (into the book) and three hours (into the film) later, the Fellowship leg of the journey comes to a close. Frodo's travels continue, however, for two more volumes, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, a journey whose epic scope parallels that of the film's director: Jackson turned each volume into a separate feature, and shot them in succession over a year and a half. If all goes according to plan, the unholy, somehow deeply American union between Tolkien and Burger King (or "Lord of the Onion Rings," as one of the trade papers put it) will endure for two more Christmases.

Divided into six books that are usually published in three separate volumes, The Lord of the Rings entered the world piecemeal. Jackson's film traces the events of the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, which was published in Britain in 1954 when Tolkien was 62 (it would be more than a year before the balance made it into print). The whole work was written between 1936 and 1949, but Tolkien, an Oxford scholar and teacher (the book is deeply influenced by the Old English poem Beowulf), often insisted there was nothing "allegorical or topical" about it—despite its battle between Good and Evil and the struggle over the "master-ring" ("The One Ring to rule them all"). (Later, this veteran of World War I would admit comparisons between Frodo's quest and Britain's fight against Germany in the second Great War, though it's easy enough—and perfectly reasonable—to read the book without giving thought to National Socialism.) Tolkien's book sold well but didn't reach its popular apogee until the late 1960s, when it was discovered with a vengeance by the same youth culture that from Woodstock to Spahn Ranch went looking for Eden on Earth.

The hobbit's heroic quest is fairly standard—the individual's journey into knowledge, here as trodden by fuzzy feet. Frodo, aided by his wizard friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), leaves his protected village in the hobbit land of the Shire, to rid the world (Middle-earth) of Sauron and his creeping dark shadow. Along with seven others, the pair compose a pan-species fellowship that includes a man called Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen); another, Boromir (Sean Bean); an elf, Legolas (Orlando Bloom); a dwarf, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies); and three other hobbits, Sam, Merry and Pippin (Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd). The journey takes Frodo from the pastoral Shire, over mountains through deep earth, into the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell (a Gothic idyll, with a fillip of art nouveau, ruled by Hugo Weaving's Elrond) and the mysterious Golden Wood of Lothslorien ruled by the Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). Not all of it is idyllic—the Shire is a morass of explication and hobbit sentimentalism, while the film's final stretch drops off precipitously after much sword-clanging and bloodletting. But as with most journeys, it's what comes between the start and the finish that counts—the small frights, the Elven warriors, the oozing hoof of a ghostly horse, the wonderfully eccentric Weaving pulling out lines as if he were drawing and quartering the language.

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.

In its exploitation of human misery, Monster's Ball doesn't just invite cynicism; it provokes hostility. Part of that has to do with all the dead bodies that crowd the story—and with the deaths of characters who, however well justified by the narrative, also seem disturbingly mechanistic. Too often the inevitability that hangs over the story seems as calculated as the Spanish moss that always seems to drape into view whenever a film heads South. Screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Roko—the first born in Manhattan, the second a Georgia native—try to unravel the hate that cocoons Hank and Leticia, but the writers are too in love with their characters' torment and with the territory's atmospherics to let them off easily. The case against the film would be overwhelming if Forster, who's from Switzerland of all places, didn't do such good work with most of the actors, especially in the story's pockets of quiet. Although there's nothing that can be done with Boyle, who has the film's most thankless role and gives its worst performance (his Buck just mutters on and on about blacks and his own dead wife—in the wrong accent, no less), there is an unexpected delicacy to the rest of the acting. When Ledger and Mos Def, as a family neighbor, grope for the right words, you see men staking a claim on a dignity the screenwriters haven't begun to imagine.

For his part, Forster has clearly made a study of American film from the 1970s, the evidence of which lies both in a pared-down visual style and in the muted introspection of his leads. Although she's too beautiful for the role, Berry tries to overcome the liability of her beauty by stripping her character of softness. It works: Leticia is hard, pitiless, at times primitive in her desperation; in one of the film's most shocking scenes, she even beats her son. (The exchange is brutal, not least of which because the actress is screaming about the kid's weight while poking at the young actor's massive belly.) Thornton's performance is more relentless; his sadistic exchanges with his own son are the stuff family nightmares are made. He seems gutsily indifferent to his character's ugliness, and for the first half of the film, he locks his face in a grimace (those rubber lips just won't quit). The grimace finally eases, as do the dramatics, and when they do, it's as if oxygen were pumping into a sarcophagus: characters talk, extend small kindnesses, make love. In other words, after a crucible of suffering and big ideas, they get to live like real people. Just in time, too. Monster's Ball is a maddening mess, but there's some real feeling in its madness, never more so than in a killer denouement which, if it doesn't manage to redeem this film, comes close to redeeming its makers.

Frank Darabont's The Majestic may just be the most boring movie ever made; certainly it's the most boring movie I've suffered through to the bitter end. Want to know more? Set in 1951 Los Angeles, the film centers on Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey), a staff writer at a Hollywood outfit called HHS Studios who has just had his first screenplay, Sand Pirates of the Sahara, produced. This makes him deliriously happy, of course, and because there's a snippet of that B picture tucked inside the larger film, his good feelings initially prove somewhat infectious. Since Darabont's valentine to the low-budget charms of outrageous plotting and swarthy greasepaint plays well enough, a reasonable moviegoer might think the director knows a thing or two about how to make an ostensible A picture snap along. But to do that, said reasonable moviegoer would need to forget Darabont's earlier features, The Shawshank Redemptionand The Green Mile, both of which crawled like dying snails, propelled only by the flatulence of self-importance. But I digress.

Appleton is tagged a communist by the HUAC, loses his studio gig, gets blasted with booze, then conked on the head, whereupon he wakes up with amnesia in a coastal town that Darabont and screenwriter Michael Sloane seem to believe is a little bit of heaven but plays out like a whole lot of hell. There's a cozy diner with a gold-hearted waitress, a glad-handing mayor, acres of blue sky and miles of white picket fence. There's a platinum blonde with cornflower eyes and Technicolor lipstick (Laurie Holden as the bombshell-lawyer-turned-love-interest) and a twinkly Martin Landau with a smile so merciless you'd think the pod people had already swept through town. And because this is a Darabont film, there's also, naturally, an avuncular black man waiting in the wings (here, a basement) to choke out salt-of-the-earth tears and deliver an interminable knowing speech. The film's title, incidentally, refers to an abandoned movie palace that's waiting for someone (guess who) to warm up its neon. Apparently, the townsfolk have forgotten to dream along with the movies—and in this case, who the hell can blame them?

If it sounds lousy, it plays worse. The whole thing is unbelievably phony, but what's freakish about Darabont's brand of phony is that this is exactly the sort of imitation of life most of the interesting movie characters in the 1950s were desperate to escape. The town and its inhabitants incarnate the very values—the herd mentality and terrifying sterility—that Marlon Brando sneered at across his motorcycle handles in The Wild One and James Dean railed against in Rebel Without a Cause. Given how thick and high they spread the manure, Darabont and Sloane seem never to have made it to these movies (or lived in a small town). Given, too, the gaseous swamp of patriotism and self-righteousness in which Appleton and the rest of The Majestic's zomboid aliens finally land, it's obvious that the filmmakers have been watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The problem is they've been watching Capra in slow motion with the volume turned all the way down—no wonder they think if they just filibuster their way to an ending, they'll bore us into surrender.

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