Film Studies: I'd choose Gandalf over George Clooney anyday

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The Independent Culture

Only one thing can save the American economy, and George W has a plan. Christmas is going to be extended. Just as it starts here, in the US, at Thanksgiving, so it will prevail, without interruption, until February 14th. An extra month is going to be inserted in the calendar, to be called Shopping & Movies (it's our answer to Ramadan). If you think this is far-fetched, you ought to be here now. For the last week, and the next two and a bit, the American film critic can barely get to see everything that is opening. Just like the characters in most of the movies, he or she staggers from one empty sensation to another, muttering fragments of inane dialogue.

Christmas is the biggest audience, and if you open late in the year you can run through into Oscar time (the new name for March). So, as well as cutting out Advent calendars and writing cards to people I haven't addressed since this time last year, I have to try to see Ocean's Eleven. Then, once I've seen it, I have to remember it well enough to write about it.

More or less the same reactions apply to Ali (Will Smith as the Greatest), Vanilla Sky (Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe), The Accidental Spy (Jackie Chan), Gosford Park, Charlotte Gray (Cate Blanchett), The Majestic (Jim Carrey), Bad Company, A Beautiful Mind (Russell Crowe), The Royal Tenenbaums, The Shipping News (Kevin Spacey), I Am Sam (Sean Penn playing mentally disabled). Did I mention The Lord of the Rings?

It's no way to see films, if you're interested in working out a mature, eloquent response. But since, in this country at least, we've tried that, and passed on, the critics camp out in the screening rooms and get their sleep as best they can.

To that end, Ocean's Eleven is a critic-friendly picture. You don't even need to have seen the original, made 40 years ago and a malignant record of how boring the Rat Pack must have been, to know what's happening. George Clooney is going to knock over the three biggest Las Vegas casinos, and get Julia Roberts back. You know this from his smirk in the very first scene. He doesn't care – why should you? Take a 20-minute snooze somewhere, and you won't miss a thing. Only two points of interest are left: the tightening frown on Julia's face as she realizes she's being taken for granted; and how was it, so recently, that we all thought Steven Soderbergh was a real director?

You understand, this is not a review – a crushing, maybe, but not a piece of critical attention. In the same way, you're not to count on what I say next, but The Lord of the Rings happens to be one of the most spectacular films ever made.

Don't ask me what the film is about (I don't mean the endeavour to restore a possessed ring to the volcano that made it; I mean what it's "about"). I never have known that with Tolkien, and I'd rather read Jenny Turner's brilliant essay on the man in a recent London Review of Books than go back through The Lord of the Rings trying to work it out.

What's stunning about Peter Jackson's film is the way he has married computer-generated special effects with the extravagantly varied landscapes of New Zealand to create a mythical kingdom. I don't think I've seen anything so epic and visionary since the silent films of Fritz Lang – and they were made entirely within the studios and under artificial light. Tolkien-maniacs may dispute the adaptation, but it's beyond question that a huge imaginative translation has been made. You believe in these characters, you yearn to be part of their quest. And when the film ends – with two characters setting off across a sombre lake in a small boat – you want to be told you can come back next week for another three hours.

Will it play like Harry Potter? I don't know. There are passages here with sub-titles; it's hard to recall the names of every character; the first hour is leisurely. But The Lord of the Rings is the real thing – a movie sensation. It's made my Christmas already.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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