The Fellowship of the Ring
The worst thing about this movie is knowing that you have to wait twelve months to see what happens next.
Let's get one thing out of the way early: "Rings" could handily kick Harry Potter's wand-waving butt. As natural as it would seem to match up the two magical fantasies, though, it's an unfair comparison. "Harry Potter" is aimed at kids, and its depth and sharp edges are limited by design. "Rings" isn't for children some scenes made even me jump. Both invoke the threat of evil, for example, but one gives you a teddy bear with angry eyebrows, and the other gives you a snarling hellhound with bloody fangs.
The two films do contrast in one telling way, however. Both films are adapted from books with fanatical followings. But while "Harry Potter" bent over backwards to stay loyal to the text, Jackson wasn't afraid to change things to tell a better story. Instead of copying the text to the letter which would net an accurate, but sterile, film Jackson trusted his instincts as both a filmmaker and a fan of Tolkien's work.
That's not to say that Jackson would not have written a better book than Tolkien just that he'd probably be a better movie maker. And it's clear Jackson has a real affection for the material. While he did add this and omit that (revisions that already have Tolkien purists up in arms), he was true to the spirit of the books. And he did remain true to a great many of the book's details besides.
But don't worry, those who didn't read or just don't remember the novels will still get swept up in "Rings." The raw energy that floods from the screen makes it impossible not to.
In fact, "Rings" somehow manages to provide just the right mix of ethereal, misty fantasy, geek-pleasing magic, and bone-rattling action. On that last point I was pleasantly surprised. From hand-to-hand medieval combat that leaves your palms sweating to attacks by very realistic creatures (I especially liked the unnamed pool creature outside the gate to the Mines of Moria). It just might be that it's been too long since I read the books, but I never imagined them to be half as thrilling.
Almost without exception, you immediately empathize and care about the crazy assortment of characters, from the hapless but sometimes brooding Frodo (Elijah Wood) to the burly dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). There are no fewer than 14 main characters in this story, but you'll have no problem remembering them all. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Ian McKellen's portrayal of the wizard Gandalf, who must be both wise and powerful and yet fallible. As with the books, though, the women get short shrift, and Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett seem almost painted in indeed, Tyler's character Arwen gets lots of screen time, but you can still tell she barely warranted a paragraph in the book.
Even though the plot is basically "get from here to there," their mission still seems larger than life, as do the many obstacles they face. It's a struggle of good and evil, and even though it takes place in the finite realm of Middle Earth, it seems more real than it ever did in movies like "Star Wars."
The incredible visuals are a large part of the movie's power. The incredible New Zealand landscapes make it seem as if you really are in another magical world. And the mind-bending special effects sometimes overwhelming, but almost never out of place fill the screen with so much wonder you know halfway into the movie that you'll be back to see it again. From truly terrifying, expansive landscapes to attacking armies to fantastic monsters, never before has cool silicon generated images that burn so hotly.
Indeed, a nitpicker would say it's obvious the technology used in "Rings" is a few generations behind the state of the art. You don't even think to look for the seams, though, as the elements fit so naturally into the flavor and flow of the story.
"Rings" is a little uneven, and you certainly feel every minute of its three-hour running time. And yet, it only feels more right that way. You sense immediately that you're not watching a market-tested, laser-calibrated, pasteurized corporate product, but rather a real, flawed, yet totally engrossing film. Jackson shot the footage for all three parts of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy at once, running up a record-setting bill of over $250 million and yet it has the heart of an indie flick at Sundance.
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Ocean's Eleven (December 21, 2001)