You cannot hide from the hype of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The commercials, toys, posters and more are all a part of the Christmas rush. Bookstores are seizing the opportunity to convert moviegoers into Tolkien-bookworms.

Meanwhile, critics are predicting that that the sequel will grab a Best Picture Oscar nomination like its predecessor. Regardless, many moviegoers have been nervous: Can director Peter Jackson deliver a second helping as spicy and fulfilling as the first?

The answer is, for the most part, yes. Two Towers is packed end-to-end with helter-skelter action, jaw-dropping New Zealand scenery, standard-setting animation, and a stirring score. But the film unfortunately falls short of Fellowship's emotional impact. Super-sized portions of violent conflict cost us precious periods of intimacy with the characters. Further, Jackson goes beyond the skilled abbreviation of the novels evident in Fellowship and begins revising plotlines to mixed results. Action fans won't mind much. Purists, however, will be disgruntled.

Nevertheless, Towers will have moviemakers striving to match its brilliance for years to come. They will only succeed if they recognize that the saga's greatest strength is the profound spiritual foundation on which this mythology is constructed.

My review for Christianity Today can be read in its entirety here, and a lengthier treatment of the film is posted at Looking Closer.

Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Along with Fellowship, this film delivers much of what is great about the book, and remains an order of magnitude above all previous cinematic efforts at "fantasy" or epic fairy-tale mythopoeia … [but] this film is also destined to be more controversial than its predecessor."

Other religious media critics are celebrating without reservations. J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "one of the most thrilling movies of the last year. It's difficult to write a review of a movie you positively love and not sound somewhat foolish. I promise the movie … won't disappoint. It's hard to miss the obvious Christian symbolism on display here."

Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, (The Tidings) focuses on the themes: "Can good and evil exist within the same person or society at the same time? At what cost? How do we discern what is right and just? What are we to do?" She points to surprising parallels between Towers and another popular sequel — Terminator 2: Judgment Day. "Note themes like the destruction of the environment; the incursion of the machines and technology permitted by people who do not consider consequences; the process of dehumanization brought about by war and the worship of technology; the physical, moral and ethical conflict/dilemma between the violence of oppressors and violence of those who seek to preserve the good. [These films] are not so very different at all." In a follow-up article, she discusses Tolkien's avoidance of clear Christian allegory, and explores Christian values that shine through the tale anyway.

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David DiCerto (Catholic News) says, "Two Towers is a veritable passion play, with Frodo serving as a Christ figure. The story's overall message of hope in strife, and the ultimate victory of light and goodness over darkness, are as reassuring to our troubled times as they were when Tolkien wrote it during the horrors of the Second World War."

Ken James (Christian Spotlight) highlights its emphasis on "the bonds of friendship, the continual battle against evil, redemption of those who seem perhaps beyond hope, the choices one can make to choose the right, concern for the environment, and one word: HOPE."

Critics at Movieguide are disappointed by 'New Age' elements they saw in The Two Towers. They admit the film is "a four star movie," but claim the film does not do a good job of highlighting redemptive aspects. "For example, there's a New Agey resurrection shot of Gandalf, whose hair and raiment have turned almost completely white from his experience of death and resurrection. The movie version also heightens the nascent environmentalist notions that appear in Tolkien's masterpiece."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) quotes cast members and director Peter Jackson. Jackson says of Tolkien's novels, "I think they're very timeless. It's depressing that 50 years after he wrote this book … the world really hasn't moved on. And I suspect 50 years from now it won't be much different." Vaughn also posts a discussion with Andy Serkis, the actor who portrays Gollum. Serkis muses about the conflict in Gollum's heart and the echoes there of Cain and Abel's story.

Mainstream critics sing the film's praises, just as they did for Fellowship last year. To find a compilation of raves, visit Rotten Tomatoes.

Tomorrow's Menu

Gangs of New York is director Martin Scorsese's much-anticipated film about an uprising of Irish immigrants against a gang called "Nativists" who seek to drive them out of Civil-War-era New York City. Leonardo Dicaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, a tough young Irishman who returns to a poor New York neighborhood called The Five Points in order to avenge the death of his father (played in the prologue by Liam Neeson.) Vallon's father died a principled Irishman defending the rights of Irish immigrants to live in peace on American soil. His murderer was William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), also known as "Bill the Butcher," the leader of an immigrant-hating gang. Vallon's revenge quest gets complicated when he finds himself adopted as the Butcher's apprentice in all things devious and violent. The stakes are raised higher when he falls in love with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and con woman who is dangerously close to the Butcher's cold cruel heart.

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This story would seem predictable. But when the inevitable confrontation finally arrives, Scorsese pulls the rug out from under us. We realize the film is not about something as frivolous as a blood rivalry between two men. It is about the consequences that occur when the rich turn a blind eye to the poor.

The violent clashes that bloody these filthy streets are symptoms of poverty in the big city. In the 1860s, immigrant men were drafted into Civil War duty as soon as they stepped off the boats, even if they were not supporters of Lincoln. Meanwhile, rich men could buy their way out of the draft for about $300. Seeds were planted for distrust of the government, and prejudices that deepened during that time continue today. This deep civil unrest sparked a fire that became the Draft Riots, an outburst of rage and violence that threw New York City into a Civil War of its own, the bloodiest riots in American history. Scorsese concludes his film with a suggestion that the oppression of the poor by the wealthy continues today.

Dicaprio makes Vallon a charismatic savior, rallying the Irish to his cause; but alas, he is only a savior by violence, far too willing to compromise his innocence in order to achieve his goals. Thus, the price of vengeance grows costly indeed.

Dicaprio's solid work pales in comparison with the spectacular return of Daniel Day-Lewis. His sneering, roaring, monstrous performance as the Butcher will remind you of Robert DeNiro in his prime.

The supporting cast is effective as well, featuring strong turns from John C. Reilly (Magnolia), Henry Thomas (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), and Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart.) Cameron Diaz holds her own in the midst of such formidable talent.

The script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan shows a close study of the dialects, accents, and prejudices of the day. The cast sinks their teeth into the script with the same enthusiasm they would give to Shakespeare. In fact, the film resembles the sort of bloodstained epic Shakespeare would have written had he been a student of American history.

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Gangs is a complicated film, both great and deeply flawed, that plays like a dirge for the poor who still suffer from the neglect of the rich and powerful. Regardless of the creative liberties taken by Scorsese in telling his tale, it's the most shocking and troubling film about American history I've ever seen. (My review is at Looking Closer.)

Other religious media critics have yet to offer reviews, but mainstream critics are already debating the pros and cons of this long-awaited production. Rumors of trouble between the director and the studio have led to debate about the difference between this version and an earlier, much longer version of the film. Columnist Dave Poland mourns the absence of Scorsese's original vision from this abbreviated edition.

Richard Schickel (Time) is quite impressed: "Today when audiences go into the past, they want fantasy. They're not looking to pay for history lessons. Thus Gangs … may be the epic's last gasp. If so, it is a gasp that sings, howls, like a grand tenor at an Irish wake." Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), who offers an interview with Scorsese, claims, "No movie has ever depicted American poverty and squalor in this way."

David Denby (New Yorker) is not satisfied. "What's on the screen [is] grisly and heavy-spirited. Somewhere along the way, Scorsese's conception turned vague and then got pickled in excessive production values." But he praises Day-Lewis's acting as an event in itself. "[The Butcher is] a consciously theatrical monster, and Day-Lewis—an actor playing an actor—returns to performing with a glee that he's never shown before."

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Antwone Fisher, a former Navy sailor, penned his own memoirs and turned them into a screenplay. Now, actor and first-time director Denzel Washington has made Fisher's story into one of the year's most highly acclaimed films. It's a true story, but it's also the kind of story that can trip into a sentimentality-laced formula. It is to Washington's credit that he keeps it just real enough to move our hearts and our heads.

Talented newcomer Derek Luke plays Fisher through his years as a reckless, temperamental sailor. Easily provoked to violence, Fisher ends up meeting regularly with Dr. Jerome Davenport (Washington), a Navy psychologist.

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Davenport's strength is his patience. He waits until Fisher can see and admit his weakness before drawing out of him a secret history of hurt. Davenport's interest is in Antwone's redemption from psychological and emotional damage, but this psychologist needs some saving himself. In reaching out to a hurting young man, he discovers things about himself, and faced with his own flaws, he too might be rehabilitated and restored to what he should be. As Fisher grows to trust the good doctor, and hesitantly falls in love with a beautiful young sailor (the radiant Joy Bryant), he gains the confidence to hunt down his personal demons.

The film offers some admirable lessons regarding fear and forgiveness. But it also lends a strange and unnecessary emphasis to the importance of a young man losing his virginity. While Davenport encourages Fisher to exercise caution in his new romance ("No escalating!"), later he congratulates him for sleeping with his girlfriend as though this maneuver represents an arrival at maturity. Antwone and Cheryl definitely look like they have what it takes for long-lasting marriage, but in a film that places so much emphasis on family and faithfulness, this endorsement of hasty intimacy seems irresponsible and contradictory.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "It works. I laughed, I cried, I left the theater with a bounce in my step. That it features a story about African Americans and the nature of family, without a lot of swearing and violence, is merely a bonus." David DiCerto (Catholic News) says, "Luke brings a refreshing vulnerability and tenacity to the role of Fisher. Overall, the story and Fisher's rocky journey to wholeness ring resoundingly true. The movie is a compelling testament to the sacred value and potential inherent in each and every person."

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Evelyn, the new film by Bruce Beresford, follows a father's desperate battle with the Irish government and the Catholic Church. Desmond Doyle (Pearce Brosnan) is an unemployed widower who must find a way to win back his children, which authorities have placed in orphanages due to his poverty.

Religious press critics are raving about the film, particularly because of its complimentary portrait of Christianity. Ted Baehr (Movieguide) is impressed. "With stellar acting and superb direction, Evelyn has been polished to absolute perfection. Showing the human condition in all its fallenness, [this] is a brave, Christ-centered movie that will delight, encourage and touch everyone who sees it." Holly McClure (Crosswalk) exclaims, "Bravo for a movie that'll remind you what values in life are worth fighting for! This is a story full of courage, heart, triumph of the human spirit and a redemptive message."

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Mainstream critics find the film rather sentimental, but worthy of measured praise. Ebert says, "Beresford … may have chosen the straightforward classic style as a deliberate decision: It signals us that the movie will not be tarted up with modern touches, spring any illogical surprises, or ask for other than genuine emotions. Brosnan, at the center, is convincing as a man who sobers up and becomes, not a saint, but at least the dependable person he was meant to be. And Irish law is changed forever."

Hot from the Oven

Star Trek: Nemesis is the tenth installment in the hit-and-miss sci-fi film franchise. [Warning: Plot spoilers ahead] Featuring the stars of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Nemesis follows Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in a confrontation with a particularly devious doppelganger. Shinzon, a villainous representative of the planet Romulus, turns out to be a young clone of Picard. A parallel plot about androids mirrors the dilemma—Data (Brent Spiner) encounters an early prototype version of himself: B-4. [End of spoilers] The film teases us with ethical and philosophical questions: Is it merely our DNA that determines who we are? What effects do the conditions of our upbringing and our choices have on our identity?

I admit, I've never been much of a Star Trek fan. Perhaps Tolkien and Lucas have spoiled me—compared to their sagas, these Treks have seemed shallow, formulaic, and unambitious. But like most Trekkies, I have enjoyed the even-numbered films in the series, especially Wrath of Khan and First Contact. Nemesis reaches for the same magic by presenting a complex and hot-tempered villain who provokes a high-stakes space battle. But alas, this episode is merely redundant, full of contradictions and seemingly arbitrary tangents that exist only to give each regular character screen time. And I wonder, why does Picard spend so much time talking about duty and responsibility when he continues to play fast and loose with his own safety and the security of his crew?

Michael Elliott says the series seems to be in decline. "Director Stuart Baird is treading on familiar ground. Although some of the special effects are grand spectacles, the overall production has the feel of a made for TV movie, a quality which all the best Trekkie films have in common." He highlights the film's focus on identity, and observes, "What the film never contemplates is the one element which makes a man or woman truly unique in all the world. That element is none other than the spirit of God which dwells within a believer."

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Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Nemesis raises questions about destiny and free moral will, while valuing our desire for self-improvement. As always, friendship, loyalty and duty rule — leading one beloved character to make the ultimate sacrifice. When Picard urges a galactic terrorist to set aside hate and realize his potential, it sounds like the civilized world appealing to the humanity of Saddam. As science fiction uses that cultural mirror effectively, the genre will live long and prosper."

Jim Akin (Decent Films) says, "Star Trek: Nemesis is about to divide Star Trek fandom. At issue will be whether it is the best of the 'Next Gen' movies." He promptly takes a stand: "It is. Go see it." Likewise, Dan Singleton (Phantom Tollbooth) claims, "The even-numbered Star Trek film dominance continues! The tenth installment in Trek filmdom is easily the best since Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Not because there is anything especially original in Star Trek X: Nemesis, but because they picked the right films to borrow from. They've found the formula."

Dale Wilker (Catholic News Service) calls it "another satisfyingly familiar, if predictable, sci-fi adventure for the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Baird sticks to the tried and true formulas of the Star Trek franchise to deliver a film that goes where every Star Trek fan has gone before, but hardly explores any new frontiers."

Blaine Butcher (Preview) praises Patrick Stewart, and says the movie "exalts the themes of self-sacrifice, personal moral responsibility, and racial harmony. It delves into the nature-versus-nurture debate, what it means to be human, and medical ethics in cloning."

Mainstream critics were either mildly amused or else bored with the familiarity of it all. Roger Ebert writes, "I'm sitting there during Star Trek: Nemesis … and I'm smiling like a good sport … and gradually it occurs to me that Star Trek is over for me. I've been looking at these stories for half a lifetime, and, let's face it, they're out of gas."

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Maid in Manhattan stars Jennifer Lopez as Marisa, a smart hotel housekeeper and a single mom. When she gets a shot at a management job, love complicates matters. Romance springs up in the midst of mistaken identity, as Marisa accidentally charms a rich would-be U.S. Senator, Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes). When Marisa realizes the lies are leading to trouble, she tries to get out without ruining her career. Sound like a formula? It is, but Lopez's performance is so engaging that the movie avoids the scorn of critics who usually pan conventional romances.

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Michael Elliott also credits the director. "Even a proven formula requires a competent craftsman to properly mix the various ingredients … [Director Wayne] Wang has certainly proved himself to be competent and he mixes the elements of this film effectively." Movieguide's critic calls it "a pleasant diversion." And Mary Draughon (Preview) observes, "Although a bit shallow and predictable, Maid … treats motherhood positively."

But Steven Greydanus (Catholic News Service) isn't as pleased. "Maid … makes agreeably diverting viewing for most of its 105 minutes. However, after the magic runs out at midnight, the movie meanders through an autopilot resolution that lacks a glass slipper." Phil Boatwright agrees: "It's not an awful movie. It's just not smart or the least bit clever. I'm sure it will do well, but really only for one reason: J Lo is nice to look at."

Mainstream critics have not raised much fuss about the film, for good or bad. Ebert says, "Manhattan is a skillful, glossy, formula picture, given life by the appeal of its stars. There won't be a person in the audience who can't guess exactly how it will turn out. Yet it goes through its paces with such skill and charm that, yes, I enjoyed it."

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The Hot Chick is the latest crass comedy starring an ex-Saturday Night Live star. Rob Schneider plays a popular teenage girl who wakes up and finds herself in the body of a 30-something male. As she tries to unravel how this alarming transformation took place, she learns all about how cruel and self-centered she has been. Or, perhaps more accurately, she discovers just how base and lowbrow the typical American comedy has become. Dale Wilker (Catholic News Service) calls it "a dumb-witted sex farce." Phil Boatwright seconds that: "Admittedly, transvestism can be a form of conceptual humor. Perhaps the most successful use of the gender bender genre can be found in Some Like It Hot. But, only the lame brainiest of adolescents could get more than five laughs out of this trash pile that masquerades as comedy." Mary Draughon (Preview) agrees: "The Hot Chick is nothing more than a repulsive, vulgar attempt at humor."

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Foreign Fare

While you're in line for The Two Towers, try asking your fellow moviegoers what they thought of Songs from the Second Floor. Their response will likely be "Huh?" But this acclaimed film from Swedish director Roy Andersson won the Golden Palm and Jury prizes at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago, and now that it has found a U.S. distributor (New Yorker Films), the few who have seen it have offered rave reviews.

The film deserves the praise. Andersson has higher intentions than mere crowd-pleasing—he's more a visual artist than a storyteller. Songs is slow-moving, surreal, and clouded in a pale gloom, a troubling work of art that may be cinema's most poetic echo of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Andersson takes us on a tour of a troubled city in which men seek only fulfillment and financial success, leaning on their own understanding for support. Ignoring God, rejecting their wives, refusing to give or receive love, they become bitter, despondent, wrathful, even suicidal. Bizarre imagery underlines the fact that all of their hard work has come to nothing: a traffic jam, for example, winds endlessly through the town, barely budging. The motionless drivers get desperate; some exit their cars to search for sustenance in trash cans. In the midst of their folly, some recite comical revisions to Ecclesiastes as a mantra: "Beloved is the man who sits down. Beloved is the man who catches his finger in a door." Crucifixes are everywhere, suggesting a possible solution to their madness. But to these business-minded men, Jesus is just a commodity. A crucifix salesman throws away his existing stock, shouting, "How can you make money with a crucified loser?"

While our tour guide has an explosive sense of humor, I found the experience to be wearying and often quite unpleasant, mostly due to the moral vacuity of the film's many deranged characters. You could call it "the feel-bad movie of the year." But its imagery still haunts me, weeks after viewing it, and its illustrations of Scripture — intentional or otherwise—speak to the painful truths underlying Andersson's vision. Great art doesn't have to be "feel-great" art, after all. My full review is at Looking Closer.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) is similarly impressed: "The film is gorgeously shot with spectacular widescreen compositions and moody lighting. And I loved the exploration of religious themes, tinged as they are with deep melancholy. Admittedly, this kind of thing isn't for everyone, but Songs … is an exhilarating look into the abyss."

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Mainstream reviews range from expressions of admiring bewilderment to profound insight. Roger Ebert says, "I love this film because it is completely new, starting from a place no other film has started from, proceeding implacably to demonstrate the logic of its despair, arriving at a place of no hope. Songs … is a parade of fools marching blindly to their ruin, and for the moment we are still spectators and have not been required to join the march. The laughter inspired by the movie is sometimes at the absurd, sometimes simply from relief."

In two weeks: More critics respond to this week's releases, plus reviews of About Schmidt, Catch Me If You Can, The Quiet American, and The Pianist. All four are appearing on critics' best of the year lists.