Are you counting the days until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? With just over a month left before the December 18 unveiling, the Internet is buzzing with trailers, news, photographs, interviews, and hype. What are your concerns about the final episode in Peter Jackson's filmic trilogy? Or have his previous interpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien's stories turned you off to the whole project? Let me know.

An update at announced this week that the film's official running time will test the endurance of even the series' most devoted fans: 210 minutes!

And yet, the films' fanatical audience is showing unprecedented enthusiasm for the series. On Wednesday October 8, New Line Cinema made tickets available for a special one-day-only event in 99 locations across the U.S., a marathon run through all three Lord of the Rings films. It's been nicknamed "Trilogy Tuesday."

"Rarely, if ever, in the history of movie making has a studio gone so far for its fan base," reported. "And yet, the small number of theaters tapped for the event guaranteed fierce competition for tickets. Fan anticipation was great, and demand extremely high. Tickets went on sale in 99 locations across the United States and with a few exceptions, they were gone a few hours later."

Those who snatched up tickets for the event, scheduled for December 16, will have the privilege of sitting through The Fellowship of the Ring's extended edition, previously only viewable on DVD. That's a 210-minute production. After an intermission, they will sit through the extended edition of The Two Towers (due on DVD on November 18). That's another 208 minutes. Following that, they will stretch and reload their bags of popcorn for the screenings of the three-and-a-half hour Return of the King, 48 hours before it opens for the rest of us.

(Keep in mind that the extended edition of Return of the King is not finished and will not be available on DVD for perhaps as long as a year. You can bet that keeping you on the edge of your seat for more than four hours!)

For those discouraged by the scarcity of event tickets, there is good news. In many locations, the extended editions of Fellowship and Two Towers will each have a whole week in theatres before Return of the King arrives. Tickets are already available, in many places, for these showings.

Film Forum will keep you posted on Middle Earth matters in the coming weeks with reviews of the Two Towers extended edition DVDs and with early buzz on The Return of the King. For detailed, regular updates on upcoming Lord of the Rings film screenings, locations, schedules, and tickets, visit the official website.

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Meanwhile, some religious press film sites are already covering the landmark release. No such site has devoted more attention to the trilogy than Hollywood Jesus, which features commentaries by Greg Wright, who recently published his own study of Tolkien's Hobbit-heavy tomes, Tolkien in Perspective.

Meanwhile, regarding movies that are already here …

Is Radio'a sticky package' or 'a triumph at every level'?

Radio is another sport-oriented true-life drama from writer Mike Rich, who wrote The Rookie. Like that film, which was one of 2002's most rewarding and surprising releases, Radio focuses on the way a community comes together to lift up one individual and help him surmount difficult obstacles.

In Radio, the spotlight falls on a South Carolina high school football coach named Harold Jones (Ed Harris). Jones's wife, his daughter, his team, and a whole community (minus one wicked banker) assist him in his efforts to help a lonely, misunderstood, mentally disabled person—James Robert "Radio" Kennedy (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)—find friendship and purpose.

The film is significant in that it breaks Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s streak of lamentably bad roles and forgettable performances. Since he won his Oscar for Jerry Maguire, Gooding has signed up for a bunch of awful lowbrow comedies (Rat Race, Snow Dogs, Boat Trip.) Here, however, in a role that could easily have been overplayed, the actor shows remarkable restraint, and makes us care about a young man who needs love. What is more, he becomes an example of unconditional love by the way he responds without selfishness or grudge to those around him who have in the past mistreated him.

But the most striking thing about Radio, at least for this reviewer, is its unconventionally intense concentration on one neighborhood's charitable endeavors. Most sports movies culminate with "the big game" and a cliffhanger tie-breaker. Here, although there is a montage about the local team's wins and losses that is framed in the same way as the one in The Rookie, there is very little emphasis on competition. Sports are merely a backdrop, not the main event. Director Michael Tollin's priorities are in the right place as he makes the human drama the center of our attention.

In fact, the lack of any suspense becomes a problem for the movie. Radio oversimplifies its central dilemma—and its characters—so much that there is nothing much to consider or concern ourselves with. We sit secure in the obvious rights and wrongs of the situation, cheer for the nice guys and boo the cookie cutter villain who is uncomfortable with Radio's acceptance. (Why he is bothered by Radio is not much explored.) And if any uncertainty arises regarding where a scene is going, the music declares for us what our emotional response should be. Despite the fine efforts of Harris and Gooding, Jr., Radio nearly drowns in James Horner's overbearingly sentimental music.

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The Rookie had complex, realistic, believable characters. Radio may be based on a true story, but the supporting players that populate this film seem flat and one-dimensional. Radio is full of good intentions, and practically pounds us on the head with simple moral lessons, but there is an unfortunate lack of things to think afterward. We've had our most basic convictions affirmed, our emotions have been pushed around, and we walk away knowing very little about Radio, his condition, his background, his way of thinking, and the ethical questions regarding how to care for someone like him.

"It's not an unpleasant film," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "just unconvincing. Its heart is in the right place, though its head could be a bit clearer."

He goes on to list several things about the "schmaltzy, feel-good story" that troubled him. "The possibility that some kind of professional care might be in Radio's best interests is downplayed by having this suggestion raised by [the villain] … because who wants to agree with him?"

"This movie should have been a documentary," says Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor). "There is a great story here somewhere, but unfortunately, Radio doesn't tell it. [The movie is] "inspiring but hardly gripping."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) argues that it felt "too calculated and streamlined. I wanted more. Don't get me wrong, Radio isn't a bad movie. It's just that it could have been much more satisfying with fewer contrivances … and more character development. The result is a good after-school special, not a brilliant, richly textured feature film."

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) concludes, "[It's] a good story that would have benefited from a tighter editing hand. Despite its imperfections, Radio manages to inspire and uplift, and the moviegoer leaves the theater walking a little taller, and probably wiping away a tear or two."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "This story is made even more poignant by our knowing that it was inspired by real life events. Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a controlled and surprisingly understated performance. Sentimental to a fault, Radio is sure to touch hearts and have audiences reaching for their tissues with its ageless message. The movie is a celebration of life, community, and the bond that links us all … Love."

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Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says it's "a good choice for family audiences. At times it feels like the film tries to do too much and comes across a little contrived, but the values are excellent."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk), on the other hand, has rarely offered up superlatives so generously for a film. He writes, "Every once in a great while a film turns up with so much emotional impact, integrity, dramatic richness and cinematic skill that it can inspire new optimism about the movie business, about America, about humanity itself. Radio represents precisely that sort of refreshing, altogether unexpected gift, a triumph at every level for all concerned."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) calls it "an inspiring movie that all ages will love. Consider taking some tissues, but don't discount the movie as sentimental chaff. There's nothing wrong with being a sucker for a movie about something that matters."

Mainstream critics are mostly unimpressed. Philip Kennicott (Washington Post) calls it "a train wreck of a film lying inert where the tracks of the Feel Good Line cross the Path of Good Intentions." Stephen Holden (New York Times) calls it "a synthetic mush of molasses-soaked pablum." "Rarely have good intentions been wrapped in such a sticky package," says Peter Howell (Toronto Star).

But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) sticks up for it: "There is no cynicism in Radio, no angle or edge. It's about what it's about, with an open, warm and fond nature. Every once in a while human nature expresses itself in a way we can feel good about, and this is one of those times. For families, for those who find most movies too cynical, for those who want to feel good in a warm and uncomplicated way, Radio is a treasure."

You can read interviews with Sarah Drew, who plays the daughter of Coach Jones, at Crosswalk and Ethics Daily. Drew is a professing Christian and talks about the standards she intends to uphold in her growing career as an actress.

Feisty Sister Helenstrives to save alcoholics and addicts

In a year of groundbreaking and celebrated documentaries, Christian film critics are cheering yet another new arrival, which won acclaim and awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

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Sister Helen, documented by filmmakers Ron Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa, avoids the typical narration/question-and-answer format of most documentaries and instead gives us up-close access to the daily goings-on at the John Thomas Travis Center on East 142nd Street in the Bronx. There, a 69-year-old Benedictine nun lives and works in a safe house where more than twenty men—all of them drug addicts and alcoholics—take tests, follow strict rules, perform community service, and attend biweekly meetings in hopes of rehabilitation.

Sister Helen Travis is not a meek, mild nun, but rather a foul mouthed, tough-talking, cantankerous personality with a history of tragedy. At one time, she had a family of her own. But she suffered from alcoholism. Her husband died of a heart attack, and her sons died in tragedy as well—one was murdered, the other overdosed. Broken by these crises, Travis became a nun and now spends her days trying to "do for other people's sons what I couldn't do for my own." At the safe house, she counsels the troubled souls there in hopes of helping some of them.

"The film is grimly realistic about these men's chances," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "Sister Helen is not without hope, but there's no false optimism or sentimentality; this is reality, not fiction. See the film, and say a prayer for Sr.Helen. Pray, too, for others to join in her work."

While she is not completely satisfied with the film, Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) still recommends it. She explains that the documentarians "have created a film that is at times poignant yet other times tiresome. It is clear that Sister Helen has followed the example of Jesus and placed herself where she is most needed. Yet it is wearing to see and hear [her] verbally beat up on prospective renters for the halfway house, berating them to come clean about the drugs they've taken and just how recently. It is also difficult to make out how much of the good sister's surliness is real and how much is for the camera."

Beyond Borders—Beyond Boredom?

In Beyond Borders, Angelina Jolie (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) plays Sarah, an American woman living in London. Sarah is shocked into grief and action when a handsome, roguish relief worker, Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), introduces her to the hard facts about suffering in Africa. As she learns more about the humanitarian crises on the war-torn continent, she is drawn to Ethiopia, strives to serve the needy, and (of course) finds herself passionately in love with Callahan.

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Jolie herself has undergone a similarly transforming experience, speaking out on the need for humanitarian aid to suffering nations and taking a step herself by adopting a Cambodian orphan. And yet, while her passionate advocacy is admirable, her movie, directed by Martin Campbell (Maverick, The Mask of Zorro) is not passing tests for artistry.

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says, "Beyond Borders … slaps Americans across the face with bleak realities … beyond our comfortable comprehension. It will, at the very least, make American moviegoers heartily thankful for their country. [However,] its episodic, over-long, meandering plot gets tiresome. The tissue-paper thin love story … all too quickly attempts to justify adultery. And Nick's bouts of profanity are ear-stinging."

"Despite the sincerity of its humanitarian message," says David DiCerto (CNS), "Campbell's film suffers from severe narrative malnutrition, with characters less fleshed out than the famine victims they champion. The movie's humanitarian message never evolves past preachy we-are-the-world moralizing. A more apt title may have been Beyond Boredom."

"Good intentions in moviemaking do not always lead to good results," says Michael Medved (Crosswalk). "Jolie's preachy, pathetic Beyond Borders represents an especially painful case in point."

Is Scary Movie 3obscene or just stupid?

The third film in the Scary Movie franchise continues the series' tradition of lampooning other horror films and fishing for laughs with cheap bait. Yet, there are some significant differences in its style, largely due to a change in directorship. The first two films were written and directed by the Wayans Brothers, but Jerry Zucker (Airplane!, Top Secret!, The Naked Gun), who has a better knack for absurdity and punchlines, runs this show.

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "Zucker shows a bit more responsibility at the helm, toning down his rapid-fire lampoons enough to earn a PG-13." But on the other hand, he says, "Let's just give the ratings board the rest of the year off, shall we? If their decision to grant Scary Movie 3 a PG-13 is any indication of how it is 'serving' families, we'd all be better off without it."

David DiCerto (CNS) says that film boasts "humor that ranges from the witty to the witless and from slapstick silliness to distasteful irreverence. Zucker's involvement has smartened up the [franchise's] bawdy tenor—reining in the foul-mouthed quips—though much of the humor is still fueled by a lowest-common-denominator gutter mentality in which the punch lines of jokes more often than not involve a bodily fluid or sexual innuendo."

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"Even though it is an improvement over the other Scary Movies," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), "it remains a silly, silly film where the attempts at comedy miss as often as they hit. And on more than one occasion, as the audience around me erupted in riotous laughter, I found myself questioning the reason for the hilarity. Why is it funny to see a young boy hit by a car, nearly decapitated by a ceiling fan, or beaten repeatedly with farm instruments? Where is the humor in watching a corpse being manhandled and mistreated?"

Is Brother Beara 'delightful fable' or a pile of 'pagan' lies?

The film that Walt Disney has declared will be its final animated film crafted in the traditional hand-drawn way—Brother Bear—opens next week. But some religious press critics have already published their reviews.

David DiCerto (CNS) calls it a "delightful animated fable. Directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker combine timeless themes with stunning scenery to craft an allegorical tale about love, forgiveness and man's fellowship with nature. Regrettably, the beautiful visuals are buttressed by Phil Collins' uninspired score."

Regarding the Native American folk tales on which the story is based, he adds, "The transformation tale is underpinned by an almost Franciscan spirituality which imparts a strong message about the interconnectedness of all living things, reminding us of our responsibility to live in harmony with the rest of God's creation."

Movieguide's reviewer, however, is far more concerned about the pagan beliefs of Native American culture than he is about any lessons the film might offer. "Brother Bear, as sweet, warm-hearted and well made as it is, will lead children astray. [The movie's] pagan worldview … shows how far we've descended into darkness from the light of civilization. [The] truth about pagan cultures must be told to any child who sees this movie." He does, however, approve of the film's "moral point, which is not to seek revenge, but to try to see things through another's eyes."

Is it okay for Christians to watch horror movies?

The classic sci-fi horror film Alien makes a return to theatres this month with the release of Alien: The Director's Cut. In the film's study of the fierce nature of the beast, we end up asking what, if anything, distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Is a "perfect organism" something that learns to protect and preserve itself perfectly? Or is "perfection" defined by something less practical?

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This week, Steven D. Greydanus marks the occasion of Alien's return by examining the tradition of horror films. At Decent Films, he writes, "The grotesque, the macabre, and the frightful have an abiding place in human imagination and culture—a place that Christian sensibility has historically not seen fit to reject or condemn, at least entirely. As perverse as much modern horror is, one cannot simply throw out the baby with the bathwater. Neither uncritical acceptance nor uncritical condemnation is called for, but critical discernment and moral vigilance."

The Gospel of John, Pieces of April, Kill Bill—Vol. 1, and Time of the Wolf

Catching up with recent releases and film festival previews, Christian press film critics covered several other titles this week as well.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The Gospel of John is exactly what its title suggests: a word for word rendition of the book of John using The Good News Bible as its sole textual source. The result is a faithful, reverential version of what remains to this day to be the greatest story ever told."

Last week's acclaimed drama Pieces of April continued to win raves. "What a sweet and wonderful little film this is!" exclaims Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). He says that this independent, low-budget movie "has the ability to hit our hearts with the accuracy of a sharpshooter. Pieces of April tells the story of a black sheep longing to be welcomed back into the flock. And what better time to set the story than at Thanksgiving?"

Quentin Tarantino's kung-fu homage, Kill Bill—Vol. 1, continued to inspire discussion and debate about its brash style and intense—perhaps merely indulgent—violence. "Tarantino doesn't direct films," argues Michael Leary (Matthews House Project). "He pieces together symphonies of disparate bits of cultural data and conducts them together in the editing room. Is there anything of substance behind the bloody curtains of Kill Bill? Probably not."

Leary (Matthews House Project) also caught the new film from the esteemed French director Michael Haneke (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher.) He says, "Time of the Wolf is a concentrated, emotionally detailed visualization of a deceptively simple tale. [The director's] conclusion empowers us not just with a sense of an unexpected glimpse of hope, but with Haneke's characteristic ability to instill a social gravity to film that is lost on other directors."

Next week: More critics behold Brother Bear and get In the Cut.