Popcorn for thought

Crowd pleasers with something on their minds

Generally, the holiday season pits two distinct types of films against each other: serious, weighty dramas that pique the Academy’s interest (“Cold Mountain,” “House of Sand and Fog”) and featherweight escapist fare that duke it out at the box office (“Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat,” “Love Actually”). However, many of this year’s offerings prove that filmmakers can think outside the box and provide audiences with mainstream crowd-pleasers that aspire to an intellectual sensibility and thus a real shot at Oscar consideration.

For “The Last Samurai,” director Ed Zwick and his producing partner Marshall Herskowitz knew they scored a box office coup when Tom Cruise signed on to play the lead. But the role of disillusioned ex-Civil War Captain Nathan Algren was no cocky fly-boy, and their lengthy historical script, set during Japan’s Meiji Restoration, seemingly packs considerably more philosophical heft than your average “Mission Impossible” sequel.

“The film is about what it means to live by a code of honor,” says Herskowitz. “The samurai code is a very astringent code and in some ways very familiar to us because it’s very similar to the Arthurian chivalric code. And in some ways, it seems very brutal to us and very harsh. The first screenplay I ever wrote was of ‘Beowulf,’ which is the story of a warrior culture in Northern Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. So it’s something that Ed and I have both been fascinated by for a long time.”

Herskowitz says he expected criticism a la “Dances With Wolves” over the fact that the film was a look at feudal foreign society through the eyes of a white man who ends up rejecting the values of Western civilization.

“This is not a story where Tom Cruise goes to Japan and shows those poor benighted people how they should live,” says Herskowitz. “As a matter of fact, it’s a story of a man who learns that he likes their way of living more than his own and devotes himself to serve their cause.”

For Zwick and Herskowitz, infusing the action-adventure genre with a rich historical context — if playing fast and loose with the facts — has been second nature in most of their collaborations, from “Glory” to “Legends of the Fall” to “The Siege.”

“You have to understand that our tastes were formed by the films we loved as boys,” says Herskowitz. “Whether it was ‘Gunga Din’ or ‘Drums Along the Mohawk’ or, later, ‘The Man Who Would Be King.’ We have no shame in saying we wanted to make a film like those kinds of adventures. And I didn’t feel any conflict in the desire to have a strong philosophical statement in the film. I felt they were quite compatible.”

On the surface, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” seemed to be a testosterone-fueled epic about a British naval captain and crew fighting for king and country across two oceans against French forces. But though touted as a vehicle for its macho star Russell Crowe, the film is actually a thinking man’s adventure. At its core lies an unusual relationship between Crowe’s Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a renowned seaman-warrior, and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a scientific naturalist and man of reason. While the two are best friends, they clash regularly over the true purpose of their voyage and Jack’s single-minded pursuit of an enemy ship. What keeps them together is their unflagging loyalty.

“The ability to have that dynamic of these two characters who are very different but bonded as close friends is what carries the books,” says “Master and Commander” producer Duncan Henderson. “The good doctor is a man of knowledge and education. That and in the books there’s the historical accuracy, so you feel like you’re in the period. And I think both of those things come across very strongly in the movie. I worked with Peter Weir on two other pictures and I knew he would be more interested in the characters than the action. And the action would back up the characters rather than vice versa.”

The project originated over a decade ago when producer Samuel Goldwyn and Patrick O’Brien, author of the 20 Aubrey/Maturin novels, discussed adapting some of the stories into a film. Eventually the iconoclastic Weir (“Witness,” “The Truman Show”) attached himself to the 10th book in the series, “The Far Side of the World.” “Peter didn’t want to dumb it down or pander to a wider audience,” says Henderson. “The trick was to make the best picture for the audience we’re trying to get to.”

Transcendent ‘Rings’

It’s hard to believe that a mere three years ago, Hollywood was skeptical about bringing J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to life.

The project went into turnaround from Miramax to New Line before it was finally made. Now with the first two installments having generating a fantastical $1.8 billion worldwide, and the “The Return of the King” having bested its predessesors’ opening numbers with a five-day take of $125 million, these complex epic fantasies have established themselves as one of the definitive film anthologies, along with the “Godfather” and “Star Wars” series.

But elaborate battles and incredible monsters aside, producer Barrie Osborne says the key to the “Rings” saga’s success is its fundamental message of acceptance.

“Instead of condemning diversity, the films celebrate it,” he says. “And also that you can transcend your background, you can be better than your ancestry leads you to believe, as Aragorn learns when he becomes king. And as Frodo and Sam, the smallest of people learn when faced with the incredible burden of saving Middle Earth.”

Osborne also calls third and final installment “Return of the King” the most emotional chapter of the trilogy. “It’s the denouement,” says Osborne. “It’s the resolution of all these character arcs, all these people we’ve grown to know and root for the last three years. So I think for that reason, there’s a tremendous payoff on ‘Return of the King.’ ”

Ultimately it’s the films’ attention to character that keeps people interested in the convoluted adventures and the struggles between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness. “Like Ian McKellen said, ‘Gandalf’s a wizard. But Gandalf smokes and he drinks. He’s a person,’ ” says Osborne. “There’s a three-dimensionality to him and certainly there also is for Frodo and Aragorn and every other character in the film. It is great that this film does touch people and they do care for it.”

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