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THE RACE IS ON! The regal Mortensen helps make the saga’s final chapter a front runner

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen

Well, it's back. The film event of the millennium — three superb films re-creating J.R.R. Tolkien's epic series of novels — reaches its climax with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. For the third December in a row, the year is capped with a robust cinematic retelling of the war of Middle-earth, as the hobbit Frodo (Wood) and his fellowship of humans, elves, dwarfs and the wizard Gandalf (McKellen) surge into battle against the dark power of Mordor's Lord Sauron.


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The king in the story is the hunky human warrior Aragorn (Mortensen). But Jackson is the true lord of these Rings. The New Zealand auteur spent seven years on the trilogy, collaborating on the scripts with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. He chose and directed this perfect cast, orchestrated the smashing visual effects — Tolkien's bestiary on the march in fantastical realms. In Return, the giant trolls, four-tusked elephants and flying, screeching serpents of Mordor will amaze adults and may startle small children. The spider monster Shelob, creeping up on Frodo and mummifying him in a silken straitjacket, offers a delicious horror-movie frisson.

Viewers don't play this movie like a video game. They are seduced to live inside it. In one brilliant visualization, the hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) manages to light a bonfire at the top of Gondor to alert his distant comrades to a military victory. On a far hill, a second fire is lit, its flame echoed on farther mountaintops, on and on into the dawn. At last, it's wartime.

The Ring films, like Master and Commander, celebrate old-fashioned martial virtues: honor, duty, comradeship, sacrifice — soldiering on, under an immense, sapping burden. Though the trilogy percolates with bracing adventure, it is a testament to the long slog of any war. Pain streaks the faces of the film's stalwart warriors. They know the enormity of their foe and know that the child hobbit who bears the Ring is far from them — surely in peril, perhaps lost forever. At one point Aragorn asks Gandalf, "What does your heart tell you?" and in a little movie epiphany, the wizard's face briefly warms, brightens, and he says, "That Frodo is alive."

The boldly choreographed battles are really a diversion from the story's great drama: three little people — Frodo, his companion Sam (Sean Astin) and the ex-hobbit Gollum (Andy Serkis and a lot of CGI geniuses) on their way to Mount Doom with a mission to destroy the Ring. Cringing and crafty, Gollum is the rebellious servant, subverting Sam's selfless impulses, trying to twist allegiance of the pallid, ailing Frodo away from his friend. (So poignant are Gollum's turbid emotions, and so persuasively is this computer critter integrated with the live performers, that he deserves a special acting Oscar for Best ... Thing.) The devotion of Sam is inspiring. His plea to Frodo--"Don't go where I can't follow!"--makes him the film's real hero.

At 3 hr. 20 min., The Return of the King occasionally slows to a trot. There's a long middle passage where half a dozen characters in turn muse and fret at length. After the climax there's a plethora of meetings and farewells, most of them extended versions of the goodbyes in The Wizard of Oz. But Jackson is entitled. He surely felt that he and his companions of the Ring had waged their own hard, heroic battle and that sentimental adieus were earned.

They are, too. The second half of the film elevates all the story elements to Beethovenian crescendo. Here is an epic with literature's depth and opera's splendor — and one that could be achieved only in movies. What could be more terrific?

This: in some theaters, the Ring trilogy will be shown back to back to back. What a 9-hr. 17-min. trip — three huge installments, one supreme enthrallment. Ecstasy trumps exhaustion in the reliving of a great human quest, a cinematic triumph. --By Richard Corliss

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
Directed by Vadim Perelman
Starring Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo

Kathy (Connelly) is a woman in disarray. She's a recovering drug addict who cleans houses for a living and — a fatal flaw — lets her mail pile up unopened. Colonel Behrani (Kingsley), late of the Shah's Iranian air force, is her opposite. He's got it all totally, tightly together. He has one job on a road-construction crew, another as a convenience-store clerk. And he is, by hook or crook, eventually going to give his family an American life comparable in privilege to the one they enjoyed in the old country. Specifically, that means a house near a beach.

Even more specifically, that means Kathy's house. Among her ignored letters are bills dunning her for back taxes on her home — the one she grew up in and loves passionately. The law appears at her door to evict her, and she spends the rest of this sad, curiously moving film fighting the county and fighting the colonel, who acquires her house, at less than its worth, by paying off the old taxes.

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