You have to wonder what J.R.R. Tolkien would have said if he'd witnessed the events of this week.

On Sunday evening, January 25, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Golden Globe Awards for Best Dramatic Feature, Best Director (Peter Jackson), and Best Score (Howard Shore). On Tuesday morning (Jan. 27), the film scored 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and several technical award nomination.

Director Peter Jackson has accomplished something truly unique in the annals of film history—his series is only the second cinematic trilogy to earn such high honors for all three episodes. (The first was Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy.) Most impressively, he has done this with a work of fantasy, a genre typically snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. On February 29, we'll see if Oscar voters will give it their highest honor and place it in the winners' circle.

Some of you may be saying, "Who cares? Does it really matter? These are just popularity contests!"

I think it does matter. The Oscars and the Golden Globes may not have much in the way of credibility. But their honors are respected and, by some, remembered. Thus, they have an influence on how long films stay available on the big screen, which ultimately influences its drawing power and box office. This, in turn, sends a message to industry leaders about what kinds of films audiences want to see.

We should hope that excellence would be rewarded in such events. This year, some truly excellent work has gained attention.

(Well, in some cases. Why isn't Scarlett Johansson nominated for Best Actress for Lost in Translation or Girl with the Pearl Earring? Why isn't The Return of the King nominated for Best Cinematography or Sean Astin for Best Supporting Actor? The two Matrix sequels aren't nominated for Best Visual Effects?)

But then again, it would be harmful to exaggerate the importance of "worldly honors." What matters most in the long run is excellence—especially in storytelling. Popularity and statuettes reflect the whims of a fickle jury. Looking at the five titles nominated, which one do you think moviegoers will still gather to watch again and again? Which characters do you think will remain an inspiration, examples of hope, valor, and love?

The first two films of Jackson's Lord of the Rings series were presented on campus at Seattle Pacific University last week, as part of a festival in honor of Tolkien's achievement. Seminars led by faculty and staff were well-attended but overshadowed by the arrival of a special guest: John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli in the films. Rhys-Davies, in Seattle for a special event hosted by the Discovery Institute, took the stage for a question-and-answer session about the films. There, he indulged students with behind-the-scenes accounts and speculation about the possibility of a feature adaptation of The Hobbit.

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Rhys-Davies has been getting a good deal of special attention recently, primarily due to some things he said to religious press journalists in L.A. before The Return of the King's sneak preview. The volatile statements were provoked by a question about what feelings The Lord of the Rings stirs up in him. He went on to relate his view of a growing threat to Western Civilization, and how "some generations" are called on to stand up for what they believe in.

You can read about the protests that took place in response to these comments here, as well as his finely phrased response to the outcry.

Other interpretations of Tolkien's epic are available from transcripts of the interviews with Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Viggo Mortensen, and Andy Serkis that took place that day. (More transcripts will be posted over the next few weeks.) They are posted here.

Meanwhile, Michael Medved has criticized Rings' star Viggo Mortensen for voicing his own views that are critical of the current U.S. administration. Medved writes off his views as mere "pacifist preening," saying that Viggo is "polluting" press coverage of The Return of the King. When I interviewed Mortensen, it was hard to ignore his strong convictions, but I also found him to be a softspoken fellow with deep concerns about our nation and how it presents itself to the rest of the world. At the root of his opinion is a call for "humility" as a desirable aspect of leadership.

Further, it is worth noting, that Tolkien's own views of America were not entirely favorable. In a letter to Carole Batten-Phelps, written in the autumn of 1971, he said, "The horrors of the American scene I will pass over, though they have given me great distress and labor. They arise in an entirely different mental climate and soil, polluted and impoverished to a degree only paralleled by the lunatic destruction of the physical lands which American inhabit."

Is Medved ready to write off Tolkien as a "preening" Christian artist?

Critics bugged by The Butterfly Effect

Television comedy star Ashton Kutcher (That 70s Show) stars in this week's top-grossing feature film. The Butterfly Effect is an intense psychological thriller that suggests a rather difficult notion: Kutcher as a dramatic actor.

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The story is rather far-fetched as well. In it, a young man (Kutcher) traumatized by the death of his girlfriend (Amy Smart) takes advantage of a time travel trick to try and save her life. As he makes several trips forward and backward in time, he sees chaos theory in action—the idea that every inconsequential action has vast consequences. The harder he tries to make things right, the worse things seem to get.

Along the same lines, mainstream critics argue that this movie just gets worse the farther it goes. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "There's so much flashing forward and backward, so many spins of fate, so many chapters in the journals, that after awhile I felt that I, as well as time, was being jerked around."

Religious press critics also feel a bit jostled by the film—and offended, too.

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says, "The Butterfly Effect [has] some holes—huge ones, in fact—but it's kept moving fast enough and cleverly enough that most audiences won't notice until they're well out of the theater. What you can't help noticing is this R-rated feature's content. And there it fails miserably." Eaton notes that the film's creators are also responsible for "the pornographically violent Final Destination 2."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "an interesting sci-fi premise … weakened by a substandard cast and a pair of novice directors. Ashton Kutcher may be amusing in a slight TV comedy series but he proves himself unable to carry a dramatic film such as this one upon his shoulders. The premise of the film is interesting enough to keep us involved but not without the awareness that it could have been so much more intriguing in the hands of more capable artists."

Bruce Donaldson (Movieguide) says the movie "does address sin and its ramifications in the lives of 'real' people. It also resolves itself, nicely, with an act of loving, self-sacrifice." But then he concludes, "We are charged biblically not to set our eyes upon anything evil. The filmmakers are artful in keeping the most extreme violence and kiddie-porn/pedophilia off-screen. Why couldn't they have done the same with the sexuality and nudity?"

In a reference to "the butterfly effect" of chaos theory, David DiCerto says, "A lesser-known corollary to this postulate, known as 'The Kutcher Effect,' posits that an overhyped one-time underwear model stroking his ego on one movie set can eventually result in 113 minutes of unrelenting misery and boredom for moviegoers anywhere on earth."

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The Joffrey Ballet pirouettes onscreen in The Company

Neve Campbell, once a popular television actress (Party of Five), makes a return to the spotlight in the leading role of the new drama from legendary director Robert Altman (Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park).

In The Company, Campbell plays an ambitious dancer in the Joffrey Ballet, maneuvering across the stage and through a complex world of politics, fragile relationships, and overblown egos. Malcolm McDowell co-stars as the flamboyant, temperamental artistic director.

Critics, as usual, are impressed with Altman's vision, even if they agree that this is not one of his great masterworks.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) raves, "The several dances presented are some of the most gorgeous seen on film since The Red Shoes." But he has issues with the script, "which meanders its way to an unresolved conclusion. For a while, I was enjoying the lack of plot dynamics, the seeming desire to show nothing besides beautiful ballet. This backfires, though, when the film reaches its climax with a trite, fatuous production that personifies why modern ballet sometimes has a flighty reputation. That the movie ends with this monstrosity is a serious misstep."

Geri Pare (Catholic News Service) agrees that the film is flawed. "In essence the movie is a valentine to ballet and those who strive to be part of that world, but the film is neither fish nor fowl; it lacks the force of drama and falters as a quasi-documentary."

The Passion of the Christ

February arrives in a few hours, and with it, the end of the long wait for Mel Gibson's eagerly anticipated, highly controversial film about the life of Christ.

But in the days that remain before its release, the debate grows more and more heated. Is the film anti-Semitic? Is it too preoccupied with the violence done to Christ and not interested enough in his life? Does the Pope approve of the film, or doesn't he? (Follow this link and scroll down to 'Pundits on the Passion.')

Returning from a screening held exclusively for pastors, Thomas Minarik (Crosswalk) presumes to speak for the lot of them, saying they were "collectively dumbstruck. It was, in truth, nothing less than each viewer's personal encounter with the terrible consequence of sin—and not someone else's sin, but his or her very own." He argues that Gibson uses gory imagery to "force us to confront the reality that it was our sins which caused the innocent Jesus to suffer so terribly. Try as we might to resist, The Passion … will not allow us to hide our eyes from the terrible, brutal and bloody consequences of our own sin. [It] is so powerful and so literal that it reaches out from the screen and grabs the viewer by the collar, shakes him and shouts, 'See! This is the reality of sin!'"

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Might it, perhaps, be overstating the fact to say that the film will force every viewer to have this reaction? As the film opens nationwide in a few weeks, Film Forum will post a range of reviews, and we will see if Minarik's declaration holds true.

Meanwhile, John Dominic Crossan (Beliefnet) is troubled by the way the film is being delivered to the religious community. It's a process that he finds hindering to critical conversation. Critics are frequently asked to sign "confidentiality agreements," saying that they will not discuss a film until opening day. This agreement, says Crossan, was a little different. It told pastors that they were to keep confidential their opinions, but then it also said, "Pastors and church leaders are free to speak out in support of the movie and your opinions resulting from today's experience and exposure to this project and its producer."

Crossan comments, "I understand that legalese to mean that negative opinions are forbidden but positive ones are solicited. It is one thing to say that nobody can give any information about the movie or even express any opinion about it; but to allow support while denying criticism is something between cover-up and censorship. And its power is that of fear—the fear of ordinary and unprotected persons like myself that they might be sued for giving their opinion, even insofar as that could be done without discussing the movie itself."

Win a Datewith a critically acclaimed romantic comedy

In Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, a grocery clerk from a small town gets a chance to go out with a Hollywood heartthrob named Tad Hamilton, disgruntling her boss, and giving viewers a lot of laughs.

Last week, Film Forum posted an early review. This week, reviews came pouring in, some of them surprisingly positive. Mainstream critics are split over the film, some calling it fresh and funny, others finding too much whipped cream and not enough cake. But religious press critics seem pleased to have found a romantic comedy that appeals to the younger crowd without indulging baser appetites.

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "At the heart of the film is love. More specifically, why we love the people we do."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "It's light. It's fluffy. It's glossy. It's sweet. And it even manages to hang on to more than its fair share of morality. Win a Date With Tad Hamilton! is sure be the year's oohiest and gooiest date-night movie, and it's guaranteed to leave scores of young couples gazing adorningly into each other's misty eyes long after the lights come up. There are things about Tad Hamilton that take away from its wholesome appeal … but it possesses something few modern screen romances have: a soft center and a healthy heart."

While cautioning viewers about "some light sexual innuendoes and light foul language," Movieguide's critic describes it as "a breezy, relatively innocuous romantic comedy. The leads are appealing, and the story is entertaining, though lightweight. Topher Grace as Pete is particularly funny."

But David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the movie, "with its derivative script and generically good-looking cast, feels … manufactured. While the film offers some good-natured insider ribbing of celebrity worship and the superficiality which fame engenders, it also tends toward a stereotypical treatment of small-town life. Many of the residents of Frazier's Bottom are portrayed as star-struck rubes who spout exclamations like 'shake-a-do' and who serve more as punch lines than as characters. In the end, this sweet but inconsequential confection is only a tad entertaining."

Brady Williams (Christian Spotlight) calls it "entertaining, but average … a typical romantic comedy, in the vein of Sweet Home Alabama. I would not recommend this movie to teenaged young ladies."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a breezy but slight teen romantic comedy. Luketic once again pins his hopes of box-office success squarely on the ditzy dimples of a bubbly towhead."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) defends the film from its detractors. First, she praises the script and the acting. She writes that it "has the feel of a movie from yesteryear, and if Rosalie had suddenly transformed into Doris Day, I wouldn't have been at all surprised. … [Young girls] will see that kindness is rewarded and virginity is a virtue. [This] is the kind of movie everyone says Hollywood should make more of. So, now that Hollywood has, go and see it."

More on Along Came Polly, Teacher's Pet, Torque, and Oscar-nominated In America

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Several recent releases continued to draw attention from religious press critics this week.

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says, "Along Came Polly viewers will … ingest skewed messages about marriage's importance (or lack thereof), sexual gags galore and multiple misuses of God's name. Ultimately, all the raunch and disrespect make the film's already ambiguous moral messages seem tacked on and insincere, and its mirth self-conscious and hollow."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) finds irony in that "while Along Came Polly proudly purports the idea that the 'safe' choice isn't really the best choice, the run of the mill making of this film does nothing but choose what is 'safe' with jokes, characters, and storylines that are all very commonplace. Clearly, the medium holds none of the message and works against itself in providing any effectiveness."

Of Teacher's Pet, Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) writes, "Refreshingly, there is little of the crude humor that films many children's films these days." But he concludes with "significant reservations. Though it's quite clean in many respects, there is an awful lot of lying in the film. That's a bad example for children in the audience. Then there's the fact that Spot/Scott has a severe case of … um … 'identity confusion,' of feeling trapped in one body when he wants to be in another. I wouldn't remotely put it past the folks at Disney to not include that as a subliminal message for children in the audience."

Reviewing Torque, Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says the fast-paced biker movie "is one of those films that really gets you thinking—about how sloppy it is. Why would a major motion picture studio create such an obviously and obnoxiously flawed work? Because large numbers of 24-going-on-12-year-old males always seem willing to shell out $7.50 to see scantily clad woman, violent clashes and super-slick racing action."

Andrew Coffin (World) speaks up this week about In America, which earned Oscar nominations this week for Best Actress (Samantha Morton) and Best Supporting Actor (Djimoun Hounsou). Coffin says, "It wonderfully balances grief with hope, and is both life-affirming and, subtly, pro-America. In America's hopeful tone, remarkable performances, and flawed but fascinating engagement with basic ideas like life, death, and heaven make it a standout among the films being recognized as the best of 2003."

Next week: Owen Wilson in The Big Bounce and more.