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At the heart of Cold Mountain—what redeems it—is the collision between the natural beauty of the landscape and the blood soaking through it. This vision is what stays with you after the film’s star turns and moral lessons have faded. Minghella is a curious combination of romantic and didact, but he has a saving grace: He wants us to know the world can be a better place, but he doesn’t flinch from showing just how bad it can be.

The word trilogy, which was handed such a black eye by the Matrix movies, is restored to its proper dignity with Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It all comes together here. Peter Jackson directed the movies one after the other over a period of about a year (except for some pickups and reshoots), and perhaps this explains why they have not only thematic but emotional unity. Taken as a whole, this series derived from the Tolkien books is without parallel as a sustained piece of fantasy-fiction adaptation. I would not want a steady diet of such films—after a while, the invasions of the orcs, the severed heads catapulted into sky-high fortresses, the giant spider with its acidic pincers, and all the bloody rest of it wore me down. (Never forget that Jackson made his cult reputation directing gross-out movies.) But Jackson is rare among the makers of epic movies in that he knows how to do the small stuff, too. The Return of the King has “heart”—how else could it pump out all that blood?

I wouldn’t recommend watching it, however, without having seen the first two, even though the set pieces can be enjoyed as pure theater. The film is very plot-heavy. Let’s just say that the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) makes his final journey to Mount Doom, the Ring in tow, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) wages war to distract Frodo’s enemies and becomes the rightful king of Gondor. For the audience, the return of Ian McKellen’s white-on-white wizard, Gandalf; John Rhys-Davies’s bristly bearded dwarf, Gimli; Sean Astin’s Sam, Frodo’s loyal soul mate; and the sputtery, grotesque Gollum (a computer-generated Andy Serkis) is like a convocation of old friends. I’m afraid that Liv Tyler’s elf princess, Arwen, still doesn’t do it for me—she looks like she belongs not in Middle-earth but in a soft-focus Breck commercial—but then again, I’m not Aragorn. Maybe you have to splatter squadrons of creepy-crawlies before you can properly appreciate her charms.

With George Lucas’s empire showing its age, Jackson seems poised to become the new Lord of the Ka-chings. In the past, he indicated that he wanted to get back to microbudget zombie movies, but I never believed he would—not even Frodo has the willpower to resist Hollywood’s siren song. Sure enough, he’s gearing up to remake King Kong with Naomi Watts. I’m there.

In Mona Lisa Smile, set in 1953, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an art-history professor from California who lands a teaching job at Wellesley. From the look of things, she appears to have crossed over from the Brave New World to a cloistered institution that’s almost as creepy as Hogwarts. The students in her class have minds as corseted as their figures; it takes proto-feminist Katherine to awaken the girls’ intellectual potential. I much prefer School of Rock for this sort of thing.

Director Mike Newell and screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal should have uncorseted their own imaginations. The girls on display are all tightly stereotyped. There’s snooty Betty (Kirsten Dunst), whose gorgon mother is on the board of trustees and who values marriage above all else; Joan (Julia Stiles), the valedictorian who can’t decide between her boyfriend and Yale Law School; Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who can be terrific in anything), the free spirit who sleeps around; and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), the scholarship student who doesn’t think she’s good enough for the Harvard guy. To top it all off, there’s also wallflower Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden, surprisingly touching), who teaches speech, elocution, and poise and is just mad about chintz.

It’s not much fun watching pigeons struggling inside their pigeonholes. Mona Lisa Smile is a thesis movie. It’s saying that women in the early fifties suffered the brunt of the era’s crushing conformity. But that sameness is vastly oversold here (as it is in most popular accounts). And surely at that time—especially at a place like Wellesley—there were many more free-thinking women than this film allows for. The movie makes it seem as if Katherine had arrived from another galaxy to spread the good word. The Wellesley potentates are depicted as equally backward; they denounce Katherine’s progressive, be-all-that-you-can-be teaching methods and send her packing. Everything about this movie seems off-key, starting with its title. Mona Lisa is likened to Katherine, but was there ever an actress with a less enigmatic smile than Julia Roberts?

As real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Charlize Theron, aided by the extraordinary makeup artist Toni G, is almost unrecognizable compared with her usual honey-dipped glam persona. With the addition of about 30 pounds, prosthetic dentures, and skin made to look freckled and sun-damaged, Theron breaks through with a ferocious performance—a real career-changer. Writer-director Patty Jenkins limits its scope, however, by presenting Wuornos, a prostitute who began murdering her johns in 1989 after a sickeningly abusive encounter, as a poster girl for victimhood. As her wide-eyed, tagalong lover, Christina Ricci is naïveté personified. . . . Girl With a Pearl Earring, adapted from the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier, stars Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as the maidservant who poses for him. Pretty much the whole movie is a series of poses, static and uninvolving, except for cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s lighting, which makes everything look convincingly Vermeer-ish. I’d like to see what he could do with Rembrandt.


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