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And Just In Time For Christmas

As usual, Hollywood has saved its must-see movies for the holiday season, when credit cards are maxing and discretionary income is minning. David Ansen reviews five of the inescapables:

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS

Opens Dec. 18

Gird your loins, buckle your armor, take a deep breath and plunge yourself into the dark, fierce epic that is part two of "The Lord of the Rings." That Peter Jackson and his remarkable team have done it again is no surprise. Most of it was shot at the same time as the first, so it wasn't apt to fall apart. Still, what's remarkable is how immediately, after a full year, "The Two Towers" seizes your attention, and how urgently it holds you through three seamless, action-packed hours.

The Fellowship had split apart when last we saw them, and the new film follows three separate trails. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), heading for Mordor to destroy the Ring, are joined in their quest by an emaciated, suspiciously servile creature named Gollum, who offers to serve as their guide. Elsewhere in Middle Earth, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom) come to the aid of King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill), who must defend his kingdom against Saruman's terrifying army of Orcs and Uruk-hai. In the Forest of Fangorn, the two hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are rescued from their captors by an Ent named Treebeard, an ancient walking and talking tree, who must be persuaded to join arms with the humans, the hobbits and the Elves to defend Middle Earth from the evil Sauron. At stake is... everything.

"The Two Towers" takes more liberties with Tolkien than "The Fellowship of the Ring" did; it's also more violent and nightmarish. But Jackson, a master of scale and perspective, doesn't let it become claustrophobic. Few people can stage a battle--and the eyepopping siege of Helms Deep is one of the most spectacular you'll ever see--with such sweep and clarity that the carnage doesn't seem an oppressive end in itself. The tale never loses touch with its human core. Amid all the surreal visions, terrifying monsters and overwhelming landscapes, it's the naked, skinny, schizophrenic Gollum who snakes his way most deeply into your memory. Created digitally with a motion-capture technique that mimicked the movements of actor Andy Serkis (who also supplied his hissing voice), Gollum is a previously hobbitlike creature, grotesquely deformed by having once possessed the Ring. While everyone else in Tolkien's myth falls neatly into the camps of Good and Evil, the self-lacerating Gollum is at war with himself. In an epic drenched in medievalism, he's the dangerously ambiguous voice of the modern.

GANGS OF NEW YORK

Opens Dec. 20

Martin Scorsese's lavish, wildly ambitious epic of 1860s New York takes the audience down some of the meaner streets in American history. It's set in Five Points, a crime-ridden slum where recently arrived immigrants are pitted against brutally xenophobic nativists, and anarchy is held at bay (just barely) by the tribal dictates of competing gangs with names like the Plug Uglies, the Daybreak Boys and the Dead Rabbits. The scariest and most powerful of the local warlords is William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), a one-eyed nativist who would just as soon carve up an Irishman as a slice of pork.

"Gangs of New York" culminates in the violent Draft Riots of 1863, and as a dark, diligently researched history lesson, it fascinates and enlightens. The problem is with the drama in the foreground. This tale of revenge, in which young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to the Five Points to kill the Butcher--the man who murdered his father--takes a mighty long time to engage your emotions. It doesn't fully catch fire until the "Hamlet"-like midsection when Amsterdam, having been treated as a surrogate son by the unwitting Bill, first tries and fails to kill him. Bill's a vibrant villain, and a stunningly theatrical Day-Lewis plays him to the hilt. But our hero remains one-dimensional, and the usually spontaneous DiCaprio seems constrained by the part. It doesn't help that his romance with Cameron Diaz's pickpocket prostitute falls back on first-they-kiss-then-they-fight cliches. Scorsese seems most engaged in the violent set pieces, which have a brutal, terrifying poetry. But a cloak of artifice hangs over the movie. "Gangs" is a dream project Scorsese has wanted to make for 30 years. You have to honor its mad ambition. But sadly, it feels like a dream too long deferred.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

Opens Dec. 25

The teenage runaway Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a child prodigy of crime. By the time he was arrested at 21 he had cashed millions of dollars in forged checks and had successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a university teacher, with a combination of charm, charisma and chutzpah. His true story (cleverly adapted by Jeff Nathanson) is the basis for former child prodigy Steven Spielberg's zippy "Catch Me If You Can," a delicious cat-and-mouse game flecked with intriguing Oedipal undertones.

As the mercurial mouse, DiCaprio sparkles, far more comfortable in the ever-changing skin of this slick chameleon than he is in Scorsese's epic. The dogged cat is FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (a droll, buttoned-down Tom Hanks), always one methodical step behind his prey. As Hanratty's pursuit drags on from year to year, his resolve never wavers, but his enmity evolves into an almost paternal concern for his young foe. Meanwhile, Frank's real dad, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), looms behind his son's every larcenous deed. He's a charming, fast-talking failure whose slippery relationship with the truth and firm belief in the importance of appearances provide the template for his son's life of deception. Walken's performance is hilarious, poignant and full of surprises.

It's nice to see Spielberg in a larky, relatively modest spirit. "Catch Me" is never less than engaging; all that's missing is a proper crescendo. The picture moves along briskly, even at two and a half hours, but it seems to be running on cruise control. Spielberg has caught the sunny, primary-color spirit of the prewar '60s, the American optimism that Frank Jr. both exemplifies and parodies. Frank lives life as if he were an actor in a movie, his costumes determining his identity, his fate dependent on improv, with all the mundane, boring parts (school, job training) edited out. Like Spielberg, he's a firm believer in cutting to the chase.

CHICAGO

Opens Dec. 25

Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones put on quite a show in Rob Marshall's dazzling cinematic rethinking of the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical directed by Bob Fosse. The setting is Prohibition-era Chicago, and our antiheroines are two bitter rivals, aspiring singer Roxie Hart (Zellweger) and vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), both jailed for killing their men. There's nothing like notoriety to jump-start a career, Roxie reasons; she hires legendary lawyer Billy Flynn (a tap-dancing Richard Gere) to plead her case, and parlays murder into celebrity.

When I saw the 1995 Broadway revival, late in its run, the show's cynical bite needed dentures. Now director-choreographer Marshall, screenwriter Bill Condon and a cast that includes Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly (who knew he could sing and dance?) have restored its teeth. The musical numbers are now presented as figments of Roxie's spotlight-lusting imagination, and the movie flows back and forth--stylishly, fluidly--between reality and illusion. On the surface, Zellweger isn't the tough cookie we associate with the role (a gum-chewing Ginger Rogers played her in the 1942 "Roxie Hart"), but her veneer of vulnerability makes her venom effective. (Who knew she could sing and dance?) "Chicago" is exuberantly theatrical yet every inch a movie, and some numbers ("The Cell Block Tango") are so entertaining you might want to applaud. First "Moulin Rouge," now this. Could the movie musical be making a comeback?

THE PIANIST

Opens Dec. 21

Roman Polanski escaped from the Cracow ghetto when he was 7 years old. Until now, he has avoided making a film about the Holocaust, though you could feel its shadow behind every movie he has made. "The Pianist," the first feature he's made in Poland since his 1962 "Knife in the Water," isn't autobiographical. It's based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, an acclaimed concert pianist who miraculously survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. But you can feel it was made by a man who's been there. It's in the little details, in its refusal of sentimentality, in its cleareyed assessment of the depths people will descend to--Jews, Poles and Germans alike--as well as the heights to which they rise.

The objective tone--a detachment that contains pools of rage and sorrow--is set by Szpilman himself, who never raises his voice in his memoirs. Nor does Adrien Brody, who plays him here with soulful elegance. At first, Szpilman is an urbane, slightly aloof onlooker of the approaching nightmare. Then, when he and his family are herded into the Warsaw ghetto, the man who has everything becomes a man who has nothing. Saved from deportation to the camps by a Jewish turncoat guard--the rest of his family are not so lucky--he eventually escapes from the ghetto, only to become a hunted man, alone, sickly, hiding for his life.

English playwright Ronald Harwood's screenplay sticks close to Szpilman's book, showing us everything through the protagonist's eyes. The Warsaw ghetto uprising is seen only as it's glimpsed through the window of Szpilman's hideout just outside the ghetto walls. For long stretches of his confinement, he's more a witness than a participant in the drama: we see, through him, the spectacle of a great city reduced to physical and moral rubble. Polanski shows us shocking visions--Nazi soldiers hurling an invalid off a balcony, a starving man licking spilled soup off the dirty ghetto pavement--but he never hypes up the horror for effect. "The Pianist" is all the more harrowing, and moving, for this restraint. This powerful, precision-made movie offers hope as well--an act of kindness from a German officer that saves the pianist's life, the music that sustains his soul. In going home to tell Szpilman's story Polanski seems reborn: once again he's become a filmmaker who matters.

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