Have a Very Leo Noel


    Tough and tender Leo: 'In Gangs of New York' he is an 1860s gang lord; in 'Catch Me If You Can' he's a 1960s smoothie

    (5 of 5)

    STARRING: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis (voice of Gollum)
    DIRECTED BY: Peter Jackson

    Now where were we? Oh — right here! Like a parent reading his kids their favorite story, Peter Jackson begins the second enthrallment in his version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy just about where The Fellowship of the Ring left off. It's a literal cliff-hanger: the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) clinging to a precipice and falling — to his doom? And now, on with the story.

    The Two Towers clarifies Jackson's vision that the end result will be not three films but a single majestic nine-hour artifact — one likely to become the supreme film adventure of our time. Towers, while not quite so varied as Fellowship in its moods and settings, has a grave gusto that energizes every moment.

    A pall hangs over the realm of Rohan, where King Theoden (Bernard Hill) has been bewitched by the evil Saruman (Christopher Lee). Heroic Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bands with a revived Gandalf to defend Rohan against Saruman's soldier-clones. But the film's true battle is between Frodo the Hobbit (Elijah Wood) and the great Ring in his care. Frodo can feel its power to sap and seduce. He can see it too in Gollum, a creepy creature who has been corrupted by having once possessed the Ring. Gollum's cringing present could be the Hobbit's future.

    Though the crepe of impending war hangs over Towers, the film is vivid with melodrama, conflicted love and potent new characters. Treebeard, a tall sylvan sage reluctantly drawn into the conflict, has the stately, smiling gravity of George Bernard Shaw. And the digitized Gollum is wonderfully complex, a damned creature slipping in and out of his own private hell. At first a whiny Jar Jar Binks as he might be played by Klaus Kinski, Gollum soon reveals a complex pathos and a facility of expression no human actor could match. He is another example of Jackson's pursuit of a tone both entertaining and serious. No smirking allowed.

    Tolkien, who wrote much of the trilogy during World War II, denied that his tale was analogous to that great battle. Believe who will. But it is hard to miss connections with a new struggle. The Fellowship can be seen as Western democracies now besieged by the lunatic faction of Islamic fundamentalism. (Saruman, as played by the tall, lean, bearded Lee, looks eerily like Osama bin Laden.) The enemy's power seems overwhelming, untouchable; its ruthlessness makes strong nations shiver. "So much death," King Theoden says. "What can men do against such reckless hate?" Aragorn replies, "Ride out to meet them."

    The Two Towers is a call not for pre-emptive action, but to find the will and cunning to defeat an insidious foe. It is also, mainly, a thrilling work of film craft.

    STARRING: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Bob Hoskins
    DIRECTED BY: Wayne Wang

    Marisa (Jennifer Lopez) is a hard-pressed chambermaid in a tony hotel. Christopher (Ralph Fiennes) is a perfectly pressed nitwit — playing at elective politics, fooling around with supermodels, delighting the tabloids. Marisa is single-momming an adorable son (Tyler Posey). Christopher has an adorable dog. One day she tries on a rich guest's smashing new pantsuit; she looks scrumptious. He spots her in it and naturally falls in love. The usual class complications ensue.

    Maid in Manhattan is not so much a movie as a collection of career moves. J. Lo needs a comedy hit to support her principal activity, adorning magazine covers. Fiennes needs to warm his austere British image if he hopes to become a true international star. Wayne Wang, the director, needs to make a movie that might elicit more than wary respect from its audience.

    Because screenwriter Kevin Wade has no idea stronger than the old Cinderella angle, the movie must try to get by on clothes, decor and an appeal to our democratic ideals. Of course this nice, pretty woman should get to marry her prince. Isn't that what America is all about?

    Sure. But to involve us with its characters and its inevitable happy ending, the movie requires some interruption — unexpected dizziness, a crazy comic outburst — that would disrupt its complacent reliance on the stalest of conventions.

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