Friday, February 27, 2004

'Return of the King' searching for Oscar gold

—Originally published 2.27.04

Peter Jackson deserves to hoist the Best Picture Oscar statue Sunday night for his "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," a thrilling finale to the greatest movie trilogy ever made.

After winning yet another best-picture award last weekend, this time from the Screen Actors Guild, the Oscar conquest seems a mortal lock. But if there's one film that could pull off the big -- and I mean BIG -- upset at this year's Academy Awards ceremony, it's "Mystic River."

No disrespect to "Lost in Translation," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and "Seabiscuit" -- all fine movies also up for the evening's top award -- but "River" has all the Academy pedigrees:

-- It's tragic on a Shakespearean level, like any number of past winners (think "Terms of Endearment" or "Ordinary People").

-- It has multiple top-notch performances and leads the night in acting nominations (think "Shakespeare in Love").

-- And it boasts a cast and crew who have been nominated before (think Sean Penn and Clint Eastwood).

The latter may be its undoing, however, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a recent trend of making "right" with history.

For example, there's no way Russell Crowe should have won in 2001 for his "Gladiator" role -- he should have taken home the Golden Guy the year before for "The Insider." In the same way, Denzel Washington should not have won in 2002 for his against-type performance in "Training Day." Washington is a fabulous actor and deserved a win SOMETIME in his career, so the Academy decided to correct its mistake.

(Yes, this isn't always the case: Martin Scorsese didn't win his first directing Oscar last year for "Gangs of New York," but that's the exception to prove the rule.)

Eastwood already won for a similar -- and better -- film 11 years ago with "Unforgiven." Sure, the introverted tough guys in "River" wear leather jackets or neckties instead of wide-brimmed hats and bolos, but the two movies cover similar territory.

In this case, Jackson and his mates should be honored for past achievements and a work genuinely deserving of the award, a rare feat these days, it seems. "The Lord of the Rings" is one of Hollywood's greatest all-time feats and if "King" wins, it will mean more than your typical best-picture champ.

You see, "King" is a fantasy flick, and fantasy flicks simply do not win Best Picture; they're supposed to be content with the nomination. If "King" comes up gold Sunday night, it will do what "Star Wars," "E.T." and "The Wizard of Oz" could not -- prove it belongs with the big (usually dramatic) boys.

There are plenty of those to go around this year.

"Master and Commander" is a triumph in technical filmmaking by director Peter Weir. For me, the attention to detail was so enthralling it totally washed out a somewhat slow plot. Crowe gives yet another fine turn, this time as Captain Jack Aubrey, and there are other notable performances, including Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin.

The major problem? This seafaring epic never seems to hit the top gear "King" sustains for about two straight hours. There are great scenes of drama and battle in "The Far Side of the World," but they pale in comparison to the Pelennor Fields of Middle-earth.

(Some would argue the action sequences in "Master and Commander" are superior because real people are on-screen, as opposed to the thousands of digital "extras" in "Return of the King." There is a major anti-tech movement right now amongst movie critics -- and with good reason, considering the wretched "Star Wars" prequels and "Matrix" sequels. The difference with "King" is Jackson made scenes impossible to film under traditional circumstances still look real.)

"Seabiscuit," like its equine namesake, is the underdog who refuses to lose. Six months ago, no one expected this movie would be contending in the final lap while "Cold Mountain" sits in the barn. "Seabiscuit" exceeded all my albeit limited expectations. On the whole, the filmmakers shied away from pandering for sappy emotional payoffs, instead letting solid performances from Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper shine through.

But as good as "Seabiscuit" is, it would have to be really good in my book to beat "Return of the King," because the latter, for all its slicing and dicing, packs an emotional wallop, too. Red Pollard's love for his maltreated horse strikes a chord, but is that any stronger than the feeling you get when Sam picks up Frodo and hauls the beleaguered hobbit to the top of Mount Doom?

Um, no.

And then there's the wild card of the bunch, "Lost in Translation." Comedies don't typically fare much better than fantasies, but then there was that little flick "Chicago" that made some noise last year. While "Translation" could be more accurately described as a "dramedy," it remains one of the most overrated films of 2003. As most critics raved, Bill Murray does in fact deliver a career performance, but the rest of the film is just sort of ... dull. If you think "Master and Commander" didn't have much plot, don't bother getting "Lost."

Bottom line, "Return of the King" -- and the "Rings" trilogy as a whole -- has it all:

-- Eye-popping, unprecedented visual effects -- including Gollum, the first realistic computer-generated character in movie history, and the best battle scenes ever filmed.

-- Quality actors with the dramatic chops to ground a fantasy film in realistic emotion.

-- And the crowning achievement of accomplishing what seemed impossible seven years ago -- adapting 1,500 pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's timeless classic into 10 hours of film.

Many Academy members probably had trouble checking the box next to "Return of the King" on their ballots, but, fantasy flick or not, the movie's unparalleled and undeniable excellence should be enough to win over this typically stodgy group of voters.

Hail to the hobbits.

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