Joel Siegel Looks at Best Picture Nominees

Martin Scorsese has brought back the kind of epic filmmaking that puts the awe back in audience.

Daniel Day-Lewis is Bill the Butcher, a gang leader who runs a section of lower Manhattan known as Five Points. Liam Neeson leads the immigrant Irish. They square off and the snow-covered streets of New York are soon red with blood.

Sixteen years later, Bill the Butcher has taken young Leonardo DiCaprio under his cleaver. What he doesn't know is that DiCaprio is his fallen enemy's son, who bides his time and seeks revenge. The two men even love the same girl, a pickpocket queen played by a feisty Cameron Diaz.

The artistry is breathtaking. From the costumes, to the script, to the direction that never gets in the way of truly great performances, Scorsese proves he's the master. The set pieces are truly spectacular.

What the film doesn't do is give us some kind of context — connective tissue to hold it all together. I kept saying to myself, "Wow, that's great! But why did he spend so much money? Why is he telling me this story?"

Think of watching a car race: You don't know when it started. You don't know where the finish line is. It's exciting, and there's a lot of action, but you have no idea who's ahead.

In the end, here's what we have: A series of triumphant, gorgeous, huge and expensive set pieces; one of film's best performances from Daniel Day-Lewis; and a whole that is always less than the sum of its parts.

It's beautiful. It's awesome. It's also a mess. Grade: B (Reviewed Dec. 19)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — The Lord of the Rings

trilogy was one of the biggest gambles in film history.

New Line Cinema probably risked $200 million to film all three parts in New Zealand at once. After the first film, we knew the gamble had paid off. The Fellowship of the Ring won four Oscars and sold $861 million in tickets around the world.

Part two, The Two Towers, picks up right where the first one ends, and the special effects are even more spectacular. But the middle part of a trilogy is always the toughest to tell. And it's even tougher in this case, because of our expectations. This movie simply doesn't match up to the first.

In the middle book, on Middle Earth, the fellowship is divided. The film intercuts three separate stories — tough to do under the best of circumstances — but impossible here because two of the three are better read than seen.

Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin) are lost through most of the movie — trying to find their way to Mordor, to destroy the ring. In this part of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic, he took time to discuss philosophy, not exactly a visual treat. In the movie it's time to go get popcorn.

Meanwhile, other members of the fellowship are in danger. Giant walking, talking trees have captured two other hobbits. This passage is a great read — especially by flashlight when your folks think you're asleep — but on film it looks silly.

In the film's towering visual story, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) battles Wormtongue, who has turned the addled King Theoden into a pawn of the evil wizard Saruman.

But even the battle scenes are better in the book. There are simply too many computer-generated images for us to have any idea who is fighting whom.

In my favorite scene, Liv Tyler is speaking with other elves in their native tongue. When she walks out of the room, I get to nudge the person next to me and say, "The Elvish has left the building." Fans will like this, but fans only. Grade: B (Reviewed Dec. 17)

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