Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, and Liv Tyler
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Peter Jackson
Distributor: New Line Cinema (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images

Conventional wisdom tells me that you, Dear Readers, should know this first: if you liked the first cinematic installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's fanciful trilogy, Fellowship of the Ring, you will not be disappointed with its sequel, THE TWO TOWERS. And, I guess, if you didn't like Ring, the reverse is probably also true. But to dismiss Peter Jackson's second visit to the world of Middle Earth as simply 'more of the same' would be to do it a great disservice. The films may cover the same terrain and feature many of the same characters, but THE TWO TOWERS is no carbon copy: deeper and darker in tone, complex overlapping storylines, and -- freed from setting up the situation that was done in Fellowship of the Ring -- a decided emphasis on action make this a wholly singular, ecstatic experience.

Frodo (Elijah Wood), our hobbit hero, is still making his way toward the evil kingdom of Mordor with the ever-burdensome titular ring, with his stalwart companion Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin). THE TWO TOWERS, though, really belongs to the human rebel Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who leads the remainder of the Fellowship in pursuit of a band of villainous Uruk-Hai and into a battle to defend the most surprising race of people in this world...mankind. As dark forces grow in strength across the land, new players emerge: the marvelously schizophrenic Gollum (a CGI character based on Andy Serkis, and a major step forward in visual effects creation -- perhaps the single most stunning feature of the film), the fiery damsel Eowyn (Mirando Otto) , and the brittle human prince Faramir (David Wenham), faced with the battle of releasing Frodo to his task, or keeping the evil ring of power for himself.

THE TWO TOWERS isn't a morality play, though, and the tug-of-war between being good and being evil isn't the major theme it was in Fellowship. No, Jackson's second epic chapter is concerned with the idea of personal engagment: how we engage in the world around us, choosing friends and enemies, moving from individuality to community. Like its predecessor, though, its themes play out against a jaw-dropping canvas, with grand natural settings, valiant characters, and two imaginations -- Tolkien and Jackson's -- working in tandem to create the most exciting vision captured on cinema two years running.

Certainly, THE TWO TOWERS will inevitably suffer comparison; the thrill of the new is gone, and as a sequel, it has to work much harder to thrill and dazzle. But dazzle it does, with style to spare. Jackson's films are clearly destined to be classics. Catch them now, so you can say you were there. It's a reward that is simply unmatched in contemporary Hollywood cinema.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, and Jim Broadbent
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
Distributor: Miramax/Touchstone (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language

After innumerable delays, uncountable reshoots, and public spats with his producer, Martin Scorsese's GANGS OF NEW YORK arrives on screens over a year later than planned. And having lost over an hour's run time in the interim, it's perhaps not surprising that, watching it, one cannot help but feel that things are missing. Not missing, perhaps...maybe just absent, details that might have enriched and illuminated, turning this GANGS into the triumph it longs to be (and almost is). Perhaps it's the aura of missed opportunity that hangs so palpably in the air over Civil War-era Manhattan -- for this is an epic tale that isn't quite epic enough, a classic tale that never quite becomes a classic. It's as if a very good film sits in the place where a masterpiece should be.

Lest anyone accuse me of sour grapes, though, know that GANGS OF NEW YORK is a very good film, and worth anyone's trip to their local megaplex. Scorcese, perhaps America's greatest living director, has invigorated the demimonde of lower Manhattan in the 1860's with a coursing energy and vitality that is infectious and mesmerizing. Sagely exploring the intersections of class, race, and ethnic background in the Five Points neighborhood at this time, Scorses creates a physical and emotional tinderbox where his well-drawn characters can clash magisterially. This is Julius Caesar, American Style.

Another cause for celebration is the return of Daniel Day-Lewis to the cinema, pulled out of self-imposed retirement by Scorsese to play the maniac gangster/showman Bill The Butcher. As Bill, Day-Lewis is rapturous, showing a commitment and dedication to his character that seems to elude the rest of his contemporaries. Violent, charming, street-smart, and power-hungry, Bill is at once a complete original and an American archetype, both the success and failure of the American Dream. His charisma and magnetism nearly blow the film's actual lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, off the screen. DiCaprio, for his part, is at his most impressive as the vengeful young Irishman Amsterdam, but Day-Lewis' formidable presence has the unfortunate side-effect of imbalancing a film that was precariously weighted to begin with. Cameron Diaz, as Amsterdam's pickpocket girlfriend, does the best work of her career, and the supporting players -- including Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas, John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, and Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed -- are solid without fail. The design team's recreation of historic Manhattan is exquisite.

Who knows what has been left on Miramax's cutting room floor that could have made GANGS even better; perhaps on the film's eventual DVD, we'll find out. But for now, one can celebrate a film director's marvelous vision and enjoy an impressive effort. And, as the credits roll, perhaps we can bittersweetly miss what ultimately isn't there.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: David Benioff
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and some violence

Let's get the details out of the way: 25th HOUR, Spike Lee's examination of the last day in a drug dealer's freedom before going to jail, is beautifully shot, directed, and (for the most part) acted. It attracted top talent, from Edward Norton to Philip Seymour Hoffman to Lee himself, arguably the most underrated director in the universe. This thing has Pedigree, with a capital P.

So how can so much talent be so utterly wasted on such weak material? David Benioff, the leaden screenwriter who based 25th HOUR on his own book of the same name, has turned Lee's film into the biggest disappointment of 2002. For Benioff, a novice screenwriter, has made almost every mistake imaginable -- repetitive, unremittingly downbeat, riddled with clumsy dialogue and weakly-made plot points. Even worse are the secondary characters, stereotypes that Lee has never allowed in his work before. (Catch the menacing cops or the fat Russian gangster.) Fundamentally, Benioff doesn't understand cinematic structure -- and how a movie must move to sustain interest and grow.

The cast works very hard to make something meaningful out of this mess. Hoffman and Pepper, as Norton's lifelong friends, are marvelous: very different people connected by their ties to Norton, neither compromises the other. As Norton's father, Brian Cox gives the film its best moments, from a revealing dinner discussion at the family's Irish bar to a meandering monologue near the film's end (that screewriter again!) that Cox gives shape and pathos.

On the minus side: as Norton's live-in girlfriend, Rosario Dawson adds little to the proceedings. Truthfully, she has never been an exceptional actress; here, she is neither embarrassing nor revelatory. The biggest surprise in 25TH HOUR, though, may be Norton himself, who plays his good-guy-gone-wrong on autopilot. Watching his lethargic performance, one wonders if this is truly the same incendiary actor who made Fight Club and American History X come alive. Hard to believe.

And writing this, I am SO sad...if I had to make a list of great living directors, he'd easily be top 5, maybe top 3 on my list. I love his work. (GIRL 6 is one of my favorite films of all time, as are DO THE RIGHT THING, 4 LITTLE GIRLS, MALCOLM X, SUMMER OF SAM, MO BETTER BLUES, and others.) I hate that this screenplay is so weak.
Julianne Moore, like countless actors before her, has said that in choosing scripts, "It's all about the writing." And indeed, it is; if your script is a stinker, no amount of talent or sleight-of-hand can hide the face. Let 25TH HOUR be an object lesson to aspiring filmmakers everywhere.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Howard Hesseman, and Kathy Bates
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Distributor: New Line Cinema (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief nudity

After knocking his first two films out of the park, Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election) has become surburbia's most savvy and witty chronicler. It's unfortunate, then, to see the trite, uninspired conventions of ABOUT SCHMIDT, Payne's latest excursion into what makes the Modern Midwesterner tick. While this specific scenario -- a man's search for purpose in the world after his retirement -- may click with a certain demographic, it's really a lazy effort peppered only sparingly with inspiration.

Payne's beast of burden this time around is Jack Nicholson, who -- like Election's Reese Witherspoon and Ruth's Laura Dern -- is an actor of substantial heft. As Schmidt, Nicholson carries the entire movie on his back, appearing in nearly every scene with at least one major close-up on his face. This, one can only surmise, is so we can see Jack's Impressive Facial Reactions to the events happening to and around him. Don't get be wrong, Jack has an Impressive Face. But as good as Jack is, it's simply not enough to hang a movie on.

Furthermore, ABOUT SCHMIDT is seriously confused in tone -- one minute a quirky comedy, the next a dramatic meditation. This teeter-tottering ultimately ends up as uninspired comedy and feather-light drama, neither of which satisfies. The comedy, for its part, has two major sources: a letter-writing device (Schmidt has 'adopted' an African child named Ndugu who he writes constantly about his problems), and Kathy Bates. Bates, as the ex-hippie mother of Schmdt's soon-to-be son-in-law, exhibits perfect comic timing and an over-the-top wackiness. Unfortunately, she's only in about 20 minutes of the movie. So we're back to the Close-Ups On Jack's Face. Ugh. As the supporting players, Hope Davis (as Schmidt's willful daughter) and Dermot Mulroney (as her waterbed-selling fiancee) and mirthless.

If you are retired, or will be soon, or if you're searching for alchemical meaning in your life, maybe ABOUT SCHMIDT will hit a chord. Everyone else should just skip Payne and Nicholson's misguided foray, and go rent Election or As Good As It Gets instead. Trust me, you'll be happier in the long run.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2002 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

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