Wednesday, December 17, 2003

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

Of the novels that make up J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Return of the King" is the most dynamic and emotionally-driven of the three, boasting both spirit and strain as it plows its way through a series of tense climaxes on its way to a resolution. What gives it such an edge over its predecessors has less to do with specific events, however, and more to do with the fact that readers have become far more invested in the story with time; they care about what happens to their favorite characters and can practically touch the settings with their own fingertips, as if every twist and turn is happening to them as equally as it is happening to the actual participants. That's because the great fantasy literature has never worked simply based on the notion of having characters rush off on quests or getting mixed up in trouble; it has depended on leveling the playing field to a point where the outside spectators can see themselves contributing to actual decisions and outcomes. Anyone, therefore, who has been installed in Tolkien's trilogy knows well the rush of drama that comes from being brought to the end of the journey. It may take much for one to take root in this elaborate material, but it takes a lot more energy to accept the fact that all good things, no matter how inviting or substantial they may be, must come to an end.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action / *1/2 (2003)

If there's one thing that Warner Bros. can depend on, it's that there will always be an audience for Bugs Bunny and his cartoon costars. The "Looney Tunes," as they have been popularized as since their inception in the early 1930s, are among the pinnacle cartoon figures of modern pop culture, characters who can be identified simply by walking onto the screen for a split second before saying or doing anything. That's because like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, they house the earliest and purest values of Hollywood animators, who in the early days created their creatures out of substance instead of just for the sake of filling an empty story role. To this day, they remain as well-drawn as they have always been, and seeing them show up in the new "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" not only does wonders for nostalgia, but allows us to recall the elements that made them so distinctive in the first place.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World / * (2003)

The Patrick O'Brian novels about seafaring adventurer Jack Aubrey have amassed so many admirers and enthusiasts in the last 40 years, its fan base could almost easily match J.R.R. Tolkien's in both size and dedication. Small wonder, then, that the stories, rather conveniently, are finding their way onto the big screen just as the saga of Middle Earth's treacherous One Ring is drawing to a close. Could it be that movie audiences have a renewed fascination with ambitious and stylized Hollywood epics, a trend that lost significant steam in the mid-1960s? Whatever the answer, there are still reasons why such productions don't flood the market as significantly as they used to—there simply isn't room or need for all of them. "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World," the first of an inevitable series of screen adaptations of O'Brian's famous stories, is a rather potent reminder that the most ambitious undertakings won't necessarily add much to the crop. It's an irrelevant, lackluster, dry result that does little but reaffirm the notion that the "Rings" trilogy is all the audience needs right now to satisfy those cravings for bid-budgeted Hollywood epics.

Shattered Glass / *** (2003)

Con artists can get just about anywhere if they have the right knack for putting up elaborate facades. Just ask Stephen Glass, who, in the late 1990s, fabricated over two dozen articles in the east coast-based The New Republic, which prided itself (at least at the time) as the news publication of choice aboard Air Force One. Slick as a dog and every bit as calculating, he manipulated his peers and superiors with a fiery demeanor. But such a task only clouded the initial issue, which was that his stories were too flamboyant and ingenious to be legitimate in the first place. From an outside perspective, simply reading one of his famous pieces has the immediate mark of fiction; sensationalism has always been an escape route for writers without substantial inspiration, yes, but there's a fine line separating the sensational from the absurd, too. Just like the old saying goes: if it's too good to be true, then it probably is.