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Monday
Dec172012

Ed (1996)

Scrubbing Athletic Supporters

I really, really hate you, Drew, for making me watch this thing. Yeah, I obliged myself to review an audience-picked movie as a contest prize. But come on!

The rules were simple: submit the name of a favorite movie starring a Friends cast member to win some schwag and a review of the winning film. I could've seen any number of outstanding possibilities, like The Opposite of Sex, The Good Girl, or Biloxi Blues. Alas, an alarmingly small entry pile meant I'd inevitably land on Ed during the game's "random selection" portion.

What's worse is that I know for a fact you haven't seen this movie, and cruelly pushed me out of a metaphorical airplane without an actual parachute. On the bright side, I was recently criticized for being long-winded in my reviews, so I'll keep this one mercifully short--a quality I can't ascribe to the film itself.

Last week, while recovering from surgery, I sat through the four-hour Extended Editions of Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, breaking only to use the bathroom. In contrast, it took me the better part of a day to finish Matt LeBlanc's ninety-minute baseball-chimp picture. I paused roughly every three minutes to surf the Internet, watch TV, nap, masturbate, and prepare microwaveable meals with a deliberation they absolutely did not require--all to prolong facing another moment of cinematic waterboarding.

I've purposely blocked out everything except the basic plot and handful of weird details that kept me half interested during those three-minute bursts. Sure, I could go to IMDb and pull up the names of LeBlanc's director, writer, and co-stars, but they've been through enough. Also, I don't want the suits at whatever studio put this out to equate my clicks with fan interest in their terrible movie. I've taken a solemn oath as a film lover to keep Ed from achieving a blu-ray edition until three days after the format is declared dead.*

Okay, I lied a little. The one (ahem) person of interest to pop up is Jim Caviezel, who would later play Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. He's the one bright spot in the film, playing a rookie on LeBlanc's minor-league baseball team. His character gets cut from the roster early on, leaving the actor with a whopping ten minutes of screen time. But in those moments, he outshone everything that came before and after him--which, I guess, makes him a savior in two movies.

What else is there? Oh, yeah, LeBlanc has a weird tan throughout much of the picture. I dare say it's an awful makeup job--lots of earth tones. The filmmakers drove home the awkwardness with a few jokes about minority players being "sold" and "traded" along with the monkey. For the record, if this is some weird racist dig on their part, I'm happy to say it's so poorly executed as to be the film's least offensive aspect.

What about the plot, you ask?

Leblanc the ball player has low self-esteem. He gets a monkey for a teammate--who, for some reason, also becomes his roommate. They sloooooowly learn to like each other and Ed (the animatronic monkey, of course), helps LeBlanc find love and a renewed passion for the game (or something). Stretch that out over an hour-and-a-half; toss in villain characters who make the bad guys in Follow That Bird look like Olivier in Marathon Man; rely on slide-whistles and honking-horns for absolutely every occasion in which they might be used to "comic" effect; and you have a movie that proves the existence of miracles--as evidenced by some of its stars finding work after opening weekend.

If your reaction to all this is, "Lighten up! It's a kids' movie!", let me assure you that Ed is tantamount to child abuse--joyless, idiotic brain-sugar that I wouldn't be surprised to learn has been linked to certain forms of autism. I'm not making light of mental conditions. I'm simply declaring that there's no way in hell I'd let my kid near this movie.

Thanks again, Drew. Asshole.

*It seems I'm not alone in trying to bury this movie: the black-and-white photo accompanying my review is the only high(ish)-resolution image I could find from Ed on-line. The film is actually in color.

Sunday
Dec162012

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Peter Jackson's Obsession for Men

I imagine most of you have already seen the Lord of the Rings movies and made up your minds about them. You know how technically stunning they are, how well-acted, and epic If you don't know those things, you're likely a J.R.R. Tolkien purist who thinks Peter Jackson butchered the classic novels by not including eeeeverything in his twelve-hour film opus.

Or maybe you're like me. Perhaps the thought of reading LOTR never crossed your mind. It took me months to crack the first chapter of Irvine Welsh's Scottish-slang-dense Trainspotting--you really think I'm going to give Elvish folk lyrics more than a skeptical glance? I've got things to do, people. I'm still trying to review Ed, for fuck's sake!

Ahem.

Or maybe you're like me. Perhaps the thought of reading LOTR never crossed your mind, and you went into these movies cold ten years ago. They didn't grab you, and you wondered what the big deal was. If that's the case, I implore you to get hold of the Extended Edition blu-rays and commit to giving all three films another shot (yes, even Fellowship).

I don't know what's changed in the last decade that's allowed me to appreciate Jackson's (and, I guess, Tolkien's) vision. Maybe I'm more patient with movies in general. Maybe fatherhood has softened my heart to the series' numerous messages about family, friendship, and faith.* Or maybe my friends weren't full of shit when they insisted that the hour-plus of new material integrated into the theatrical cuts really does make the films flow better and feel, oddly, shorter. Whatever the case, I truly love this series now.

A lot of that has to do with the final film, The Return of the King. Granted, one of my biggest initial complaints still holds true: each main characters' heroes' journey, if viewed linearly, doesn't deviate--at all--from the expectations of their archetypes. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) set out to destroy the One Ring of power in the fires of Mount Doom. They succeed. Exiled king Aragorn seeks redemption in his quest to help Frodo and his wizard buddy, Gandalf (Ian McKellen). He finds it. Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler*), long kept from being with Aragorn because of...y'know, I still don't understand that cockamamie storyline. Anyway, she gets her man.

This used to drive me crazy. Now I realize that the beauty of these arcs shouldn't be measured by how far ahead I can see their conclusions, but by the poetry and nobility of the characters' struggles. Every actor in this film oozes sincerity and, in the moment, makes us believe that the fate of their world is uncertain.

The emotional beats still didn't land for me, though, at least not all the time. Part of that has to do with that sincerity I just mentioned. As much as it allows us to accept the reality of Middle-earth, it also mires the entire trilogy in a single-note seriousness that lulls instead of compels. While I was thrilled to see the numerous battles for the lost kingdoms unfold, and found a sweetness in the bond between Theodin and his noble niece, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), I still felt like Jackson was keeping me at arm's length from his story's beating heart.

There was light in Fellowship, and a few moments of humor in Return of the King--thanks largely to the bromantic rivalry between dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom). But the last two movies so perfectly capture the land's impending darkness that I'd forgotten joy ever existed in the trilogy. So, when Theodin dies (Spoiler?), my reaction was more of a, "That sucks. I wonder how the castle walls are holding up against those orcs"--instead of a heartfelt, "Noooooo!"

The only character I could fully relate to, ironically, was Gollum (Andy Serkis), the wholly computer-generated cave dweller who joins Frodo and Sam. In the beginning of the film, we meet him in flashback as a hobbit (and as a human actor) and see his grim transformation from the moment he spies the One Ring. The deterioration from flesh-and-blood to withered unreality reminded me of a similar setup in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (in which the man who would become Pinhead also got a bit too curious with a shiny found object). As Gollum vacillates between helping his fellow travelers and trying to murder them, those grounding early scenes drove home Tolkien's/Jackson's message about the dark forces that drive men to greatness and/or madness.

Which brings me to an unexpected revelation I had towards the end of the movie: at no point in the series does a woman come into contact with the One Ring. Only men fall under its spell. I wonder if this was some kind of deliberate statement on the author's part (or a detail that Tolkien discussed in the books, which Jackson left out). It's interesting to think that all the problems in the world are caused by men's unchecked desires and insecurities; I don't necessarily agree with that, but it's fun to speculate about how Eowyn, for example, would have handled the burden of the quest--or, if in such a blatantly patriarchal society as Middle-earth, she'd have even been offered the chance.

I'm inclined to apologize for having so thoroughly and ignorantly disrespected these films for the past eleven years. But I won't. I'll simply let my embarrassment stand as a reminder that first impressions shouldn't always be allowed to remain lasting ones, and that all perception is merely a snapshot of emotion, education, and circumstance at a given point in history. Twelve years from now, I might revisit these again and decide that they're overwrought, boring, and merely pretty to look at. For now, though, I'm happy to say that I've gone on an amazing adventure of self-discovery and come out the other end a changed man.

This fantasy has sparked my dimmed imagination and once again granted me the power to dream.

Note: You may wonder why I haven't mentioned the film's universally criticized "multiple endings". Yes, the last half-hour or so of Return of the King is heavy with the weight of each character saying good-bye and moving on from their epic journey. The screen fades to black repeatedly, teasing our hopes for end credits after nearly four hours.

I didn't bring this up as a problem because I no longer see it as a problem. These scenes aren't nearly as exciting as the amazing battles that comprise most of the movie. But they're the most crucial because they bring Frodo Baggins' story full circle and fulfill Gandalf's Fellowship promise that he wouldn't be the same at the end of his quest. Frodo returns to the shire a changed man. He's essentially shell-shocked by horrors he'd never imagine within the peaceful, lazy confines of Hobbiton--and so, he can't stay.

Many of the film's final passages lead up to Frodo's exile from the land of children. He's a grown-up now, and must live in the land of wizards and men. Sam and the other fellowship hobbits, who've not been so corrupted by the Ring's dark influence, are allowed to remain innocent. Changed, yes, but innocent still.

*If not in a "higher power", then at least in those other two things.

**Maybe I would have cared about the Arwen storyline if Liv Tyler hadn't been so goddamned awful in the role. After Aragorn meets Eowyn in The Two Towers, I hoped to God he'd forget about that dead-eyed, monotone elf chick and get with a real woman. No luck there. Fortunately, Jackson and company had the courtesy to drown out most of Tyler's role in Return of the King via instrumental montage and a series of "meaningful looks" between Arwen and her beloved.

Sunday
Dec092012

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Adventure to the Ent Degree

When The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out ten years ago, I somehow convinced my girlfriend and roommate to see it with me in the theatre. I told them that the early reviews I'd read on-line were incredibly positive, and that even the few critics who'd had problems with the overly expository Fellowship of the Ring found the sequel to be very exciting. None of us were fans of the first film, but my enthusiasm was, I guess, persuasive enough that I didn't sit through the sequel alone.

The problem with trusting critics is that they can sometimes lead you astray. In fact, the only pleasure I got from The Two Towers was giggling at the red-hot death stares coming from the seats on either side of me. For two-and-a-half hours, we squirmed, groaned, and prayed for death amidst endless shots of sweeping landscapes; plodding, mush-mouthed CGI tree creatures; and what looked to be twenty-seven separate battles involving characters who may or may not have been in multiple places at once. To this day, I consider the fact that I still have relationships with these people to be proof of God's existence and infinite love.

I'm glad I wasn't a critic back then--at least not one with a forum. Otherwise, my short-sighted impressions of this terrific second chapter would have sat in an archive for all to see and ridicule. As with Fellowship, I've come around to The Two Towers after recently watching the Extended Edition on blu-ray. I still have many of the same problems with the story as I did a decade ago, but in most every other respect, I feel as though I've just seen the film for the first time.

I won't rehash the essential plot elements here, as not much changes between films one and two. The major development is that evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) has unleashed a thousands-strong army on Middle-earth. It's up to Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to rally the disparate kingdoms to arms. That's easier said than done, and easier watched than explained.

In my Fellowship review, I remarked at how well the filmmakers mapped out their fictitious geography and drew clear lines of good versus evil. All that gets thrown out in the second movie, with kingdoms and characters springing up out of the woodwork, talking about politics as dense as the outlying woods. Jackson and co-writers Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Stephen Sinclair do very well telling personal stories, such as Aragorn's attempts to save King Theoden's (Bernard Hill) kingdom from the clutches of Saruman's slimy henchman, Grima Wormtongue (Brad Douriff), and the unrelated tale of prince Faramir (David Wenham), whose eagerness to get back in his father's good graces following the death of his brother, Boromir (Sean Bean), leads him to nearly hand the ring of power to Sauron by mistake.

The five or so main stories in The Two Towers are handled well as snapshots, but I had a hell of a time piecing them all together into a cohesive big picture. I found it easiest to just slip into the story stream and trust that the guys with beards and helmets were good and would eventually work out whatever it was they were squabbling over, and that the bad guys were the growling things with curved machetes and razor-sharp teeth.

Arguably, J.R.R. Tolkien's works planted the seeds of modern fantasy storytelling, but I really do have to give the advantage to those who studied him. George Lucas, for example, populated an entire galaxy with diverse races and conflicts, but I never felt lost during the original Star Wars trilogy--never felt like the story was being artificially inflated so as not to become too soap-y. I got that impression here, and it's to Jackson's credit that his handling of the various dramatic segments were strong enough to support rather weak connective tissue.

Speaking of weak, I should mention what continues to be my least favorite part of The Two Towers:

Hostage hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) escape their captors and stumble upon the Ents, a centuries-old race of sentient trees. They spend much of the film trying to convince the literal fabric of Middle-earth to rise up against Saruman's army--no small feat, considering introductions can take the better part of a day. Though their storyline is one of the most profound in the film, it also carries the excruciating weight of filler--as if the writers wanted to build bathroom breaks into their story. Sure, the first couple of scenes with the talking greenery are cute, but there are at least two more identical ones before anything actually happens with this storyline. You won't miss anything by ducking out for a minute.

Yeah, I'm ragging on the film a bit, but that doesn't mean I don't love it. All of the stories come to a head in the spectacular battle at Helm's Deep, the last-resort fortress at which Theoden and Aragorn lead a group of three hundred ill-equipped soldiers against ten thousand savage orcs and uruk hai. The film's climax is a thrilling, moving, utterly believable fight to the death that's rendered with all the care and attention to accuracy of real-life historical events. This sequence is a marvel of digital special effects, sound design, and acting, and I kept having to remind myself that the hordes of people charging each other were created largely on a desktop.

Strangely, my highest praise is also the source of my greatest criticism. The special effects are so convincing that they run counter to the filmmakers' desire for full immersion into the story. The Two Towers was a technological milestone thanks to WETA's achievement with the Gollum (Andy Serkis) character. In this movie, he steps out of the shadows and becomes a bona fide presence, fully interacting with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) in ways no one had ever seen before. The motion-capture and digital-painting artistry are unbelievable, but instead of becoming fully invested in Gollum's inner struggle, I kept thinking, "My God, how the hell did they pull this off?"

Some of this odd effect is lessened by the fact that Frodo develops a personality in chapter two. Granted, much of that stems from negativity, doubt, and fear brought on by the ring's influence, but these things at least shade the hobbit's lackluster identity. His relationship with Sam is tested, and Sam's loyalty to the mission and his best friend strains under the desire to outright kill Gollum. Though this really is Aragorn and Theodin's movie, I was glad whenever the narrative checked back in on these squabbling travelers.

Perhaps Jackson's greatest feat of wizardry in The Two Towers is making the film feel like its own movie, rather than just a franchise bridge. If asked, I'd be hard pressed to describe all the factions, their goals, and their major accomplishments/setbacks--without the aid of a cheat sheet--but I get what the movie is trying to say. The greater themes of temptation, friendship, and courage come through as brilliantly as that crystal thing on the end of Gandalf's (Ian McKellen) staff. It's just a shame that I spent ten years wallowing in ignorant darkness before figuring that out.

Saturday
Dec082012

Silent Night (2012)

Locals Roasting on an Open Fire

One of my earliest horror-movie memories is renting 1984's Silent Night, Deadly Night during a fifth-grade sleepover. My friends and I had heard about the controversy surrounding the film's release,* and were curious to see if the notorious Santa slasher was really as twisted as everyone said it was. Charles Sellier Jr.'s bleak and bloody movie cast a dark cloud over my soul; it wasn't just violent in ways I hadn't expected, there was also a distinct anti-humanity message throughout that made me profoundly sick.

Not wanting to seem like a wuss to my friends, I cheered as the deranged St. Nick yelled "Punish!" at his victims and laughed when he ran through a topless Linnea Quigley with a pair of mounted trophy antlers. Ah, sweet youth...

Nearly thirty years later, the remake fairy dropped an early Christmas present on my virtual doorstep. Sellier's vision has been given new life as Silent Night, a pretty-much-straight-to-video update that shares some of the original's DNA (to use that awful Ridley-ism), while staking out its own kookily entertaining identity.

In the film, death has come to the sleepy town of Cryer, Wisconsin. A maniac dressed as Santa Claus (Rick Skene) walks the streets, apparently eavesdropping on conversations to find out who's been naughty and who's been nice. The "bad" people are treated to murder by electrocution, impaling, wood-chipper, flamethrower, and ol' fashioned multiple stabbings.

The "good" people...well, he doesn't really find any--except for an old lady who witnesses him killing a lascivious priest in the middle of an empty Christmas Eve service. Santa gives her the bloody collection money that Father Touchy had stolen from the donation box. This begs the question, "Doesn't accepting that money put her in the 'Naughty' column?"

The slasher story takes a back seat to the personal drama of Sheriff's Deputy Aubrey Bradimore (Jamie King). She lost her husband a year ago, and is still struggling to pick up the pieces. Luckily, she's got plenty of wackiness to keep her mind occupied, from the invasion of Santa look-alikes pouring into town for the "record-setting" annual parade; to the creep who causes a disturbance by telling kids the truth about Christmas; to her eccentric English boss, Sheriff Cooper (Malcom McDowell), who sees every crime as the opportunity to play super-cop.

I was surprised by how much attention was paid to Silent Night's non-horror elements. Could it be that director Steven C. Miller and writer Jayson Rothwell are just as bored by horror remakes as the rest of us? By focusing on Aubrey and her relationship with the townsfolk, the filmmakers elevate the material to that of a pseudo-Twin Peaks TV pilot. Were it not inevitable that most of the cast wind up dead by film's end, I could easily imagine this as an ongoing adventure series about a mad-Brit sheriff, his glum-but-determined deputy, and their feisty dispatcher (Ellen Wong).

But this is a horror movie, and I must review it as such. Though Silent Night is utterly lacking in scares, it has a lot to admire in the gore department. Frankly, it's refreshing to see squibs and gooey, gore-soaked dummies flopping about instead of the insulting fakery of After Effects digital plug-ins. Miller and cinematographer Joseph White accomplish their elaborate kills the old fashioned way: by shooting around the practical special effects in ways that can later be edited into effective kill scenes, which still require some imagination on the audience's part.

The one odd aesthetic choice (which would make a hell of a drinking game for those that are so inclined) is the over-use of lens flares. Forget J.J. Abrams' Super 8 and Star TrekSilent Night takes the gold in the Reflected-light Olympics. It's hard to tell if Miller and company achieved this retro atmosphere through on-set techniques, or if the omnipresent, cutting beams of light were added in later. Regardless, it's hilarious to the point of distraction. In one scene, Aubrey navigates an old house with her flashlight aimed at the darkness (i.e. right at us), and the effect is like that of her carrying Darth Maul's double-headed lightsaber into battle.

Speaking of hilarious, I'd be remiss in not giving a huge shout-out to Silent Night's MVP, Donal Logue. As Santa Jim, the creep who likes to spoil kids' Christmas with Yuletide honesty, he barrels through the movie with an abbrasive wit that practically belongs in another movie. It's as if the filmmakers had wanted to get Billy Bob Thornton to reprise his Bad Santa role, but couldn't, and settled for the next best thing. Jim delivers an impassioned, crazy speech towards the end of the film that reminded me of Stallone's climactic screaming fit in Rambo, and his defiant last words to the killer Claus belong on t-shirts and bumper stickers.

I recommend Silent Night, but not strictly as slasher escapism. The killer is the least interesting part of the film, and the juciest stuff happens when he's not on screen. If you're into these kinds of movies, you may know that this is at least the second remake each for King and McDowell, who starred in updates of My Bloody Valentine and Halloween, respectively. Silent Night owes as much to those movies, stylistically and narratively, as it does to its own source material (blink and you'll also miss references to Black Christmas and the cult catch-phrase from 1987's Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2).

No, the real joy is figuring out if you're more into following the Santa killer on his grisly rounds or watching Aubrey stumble in her attempts to pin a local drug dealer (also dressed as Santa Claus) to the murders. This weird little movie is full of enough red herrings, homages, and sub-plots to down a magical sleigh. It falters in the final moments, appending a superfluous villain-origin to a story that had muscled along quite nicely without it. But over all, Silent Night's quirkiness stands in sharp contrast to the original, which played like a snuff film with a death wish.

*With all the outrageously demented stuff that's oozed out of cineplexes in the decades since, it's cute to think of parents forming protest groups because a horror-movie villain decided to dress up as Santa.

Friday
Dec072012

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Once You Go Back, You'll Never Go Back Again (Maybe)

The hardest part of admitting I was wrong about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is figuring out what led me to dislike the film in the first place. I saw it once theatrically, in 2001, and the following year on home video. Prior to that first viewing, I knew nothing about the LOTR trilogy or J.R.R. Tolkien, except that both were highly regarded as being significant to sci-fi/fantasy storytelling. Afterwards, I concluded that the movie adaptation had so turned me off to Tolkien's work that I needn't bother reading the source material--and would succumb to watching the sequels only under duress or influence of alcohol.

The home video experience was just as bad. My girlfriend was curious about the movie, so we rented it and spent an entire Saturday starting and stopping, running errands, starting and stopping, napping, starting and stopping--you get the picture. Fellowship was such a tedious chore (we thought) that committing to a single sitting didn't seem worth the effort of being able to say we'd both seen it.

Ten years later, on the eve of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy (the prequel to LOTR), I've resolved to watch the films again--all in one weekend, and with the forty-plus minutes of additional footage found in each "Extended Edition". I sighed before pressing "Play" on Fellowship, as I couldn't imagine enjoying (or even appreciating) nearly an hour of further exposition and walking. But as you may have guessed from my lead-in, Jackson and Tolkien have finally worked their charms on me. I now love me some hobbits.

For the uninitiated, the story centers on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), the most innocent of a race of Middle-earth creatures called hobbits. Frodo's uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) entrusts him with a cursed golden ring, which must be destroyed in the distant fires of Mount Doom--lest it find its way back to its previous owner, a disembodied flaming eyeball named Sauron. Aiding him on his quest is a wise old wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo's best friend Sam (Sean Astin), and an assortment of other hobbits, dwarves, elves, and displaced human warriors.

This film is all setup, and I think that's what annoyed me the first time out. Perhaps I was too young or too impatient to understand the importance of Jackson's style of world-building (or perhaps the additional material really does, as friends have suggested, help smooth out some of the jumpy narrative patches). Today, I see things differently. The director, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, establishes a leisurely pace in the Baggins' homeland, The Shire, and then ramps up the pace and danger as they step cautiously into the realms beyond. The greatest compliment I can give Fellowship is that Jackson and company capture the thrill of reading a great adventure novel on a rainy afternoon.

Things get a tad repetitive as our band of heroes treks from one wise-elf oracle to the next, collecting people and peril along the way. At the behest of a treacherous wizard named Saruman (Christopher Lee) they are pursued by ghastly ring-wraiths and tracked by the impish Gollum (Andy Serkis), a bizarre creature who was driven mad by the ring's powers for centuries until he lost it to Bilbo. These frequent intrusions help break up the numerous speeches about destiny, delivered by scowling, elaborately dressed actors pacing equally elaborate and nigh indistinguishable sets.

The picture's most interesting dynamic plays out between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), two members of a doomed kingdom. Aragorn, the rightful heir to its thone, turned his back on power because one of his ancestors allowed the ring to corrupt is soul. He agrees to help Frodo and Gandalf on their quest, ostensibly to see evil destroyed once and for all. Boromir, on the other hand, goads Aragorn to return home, and is convinced that acquiring the ring for himself will allow his people to stomp out the dual threats of Saruman and Sauron.

The least interesting characters, sadly, are Frodo and Sam. But I guess that's the idea. Their innocence and reluctance to fight are precisely what gives them the best chance against the ring's dark influence. Everyone else acts as a buffer on the long journey.

As a member of the Star Wars generation (and, technically, the tail end of the Harry Potter generation), it was impossible for me to separate those films' archetypes from those in Fellowship. True, LOTR beat the other two franchises to the Joseph Campbell punch, but I challenge anyone to ignore the similarities between Frodo and Luke Skywalker, Gandalf and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Sauron and Lord Voldemort--not to mention the Hermione/Princess Leia and droid/hobbit comic-relief sidekick archetypes.

If there's a lingering concern from my hobbit-hating days, it's this: the characters in the Tolkien/Jackson trilogy, for the most part, lack personality--at least as played by the actors. Aside from Bilbo and a couple of the goofy supporting players, Fellowship is populated by solemn sad-sacks who treat living in a world of magic and monsters with the resigned heaviness of a Mokena gas station attendant. Wood could use a tad more Mark Hamill and a lot less Jake Lloyd in his portrayal of the wide-eyed kid going on an adventure. After the first hour, Frodo spends much of the movie sick or sad, and after Gandalf drops out of the picture, he becomes even less tolerable. In fairness, a lot of these decisions may come down to direction.

And what direction! Jackson and the effects geniuses at WETA transform the New Zealand countryside into a host of fantastical lands. From Saruman's spiked tower rising out of a demon-harvesting factory to the renaissance-inspired elegance of the elf kingdom, Middle-earth becomes a real place in this film, with a clearly defined geography and relationships between various races and territories. At all times, the screen is packed with details that suggest histories as exciting (and, in some cases, far more exciting) as what's going on in the present.

As embarrassed as I am to say that I never gave this film a fair shake, I'm glad to have taken the time to watch it again. I recall liking the second film better than the first, and the third film better than the second--so, hopefully, more great surprises await in The Two Towers.

Regardless, I'm officially a Lord of the Rings fan. Who knew?