So, who exactly is reading this? It’s hard to imagine people actually using this review to decide whether or not to attend the movie. Certainly, anyone who has watched the first two films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is already a true believer. Which leaves me with whom? A newcomer to the series? Imagine someone saying, “You know, I passed on the previous installments of the fantasy epic but I just might give the three hours and 20 minutes long concluding chapter a look-see. Ah, but first I must check a review — not one from The New York Times or Entertainment Weekly, though. No, instead I shall consult that surly fellow in NUVO.” Right. Sure, some fans will check this piece out simply to compare notes, but I suspect my prime audience this week will be those who read my pieces more as little essays than critiques. To those folks I say, Hi, how are you? Thanks for all the interesting e-mail you send me. I wish I could offer you something more useful than a movie review. A gardening tip, perhaps, or a recipe. Come to think of it, I have an easy-to-prepare recipe for a killer black bean stew. Drop me a note if you want it. I suppose I should go ahead and write about the movie now. But first I should tell you that I’ve never read anything by LOTR creator J.R.R. Tolkien. Massive books set in fantasy worlds have generally triggered resistance from me. It comes down to this: If I’m going to read a story that requires me to learn a great deal about various exotic cultures, I’d rather those cultures are real ones. So I’ve watched all three LOTR films as a civilian rather than a devotee. That said, I found The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King to be the most rousing of the set. Director Peter Jackson has fashioned a great film here. And he’s saddled it with too many endings. LOTR3 builds up to a positively spectacular climax, then spends altogether too much time showing the post-Ring fates of the principal characters. As a gesture of kindness to casual viewers like me, I wish Jackson had saved those scenes for the special extended version of the film that will hit DVD next fall and then play theaters periodically for the rest of our lives. Let me get my other complaints out of the way. First, while I realize they are special, wondrous, heroic beings, there came a point in the film where I caught myself thinking, “If I see one more shot of weepy Hobbits looking dewy-eyed at each other, I’m going to climb in the screen, bang their little heads together and enroll them in military school.” Yes, I know my reaction is coarse and insensitive, but for Pete’s sake, those guys get misty more often than guests on a Barbara Walters special. And finally, is it just me or does Liv Tyler come off looking and sounding like a contestant in a Miss America pageant? Perhaps the special extended version of the film will include footage of her being more substantial. Complaints aside, Peter Jackson has done an amazing job of blending eye-popping spectacle with affecting personal stories. The battle scenes are bigger than you can imagine, but the action is easy to track. The special effects —oh my, there are things going on in the background and sidelines here more visually impressive than the central images in other recent mega budget genre movies. Stand-outs in the acting department include Sir Ian McKellen, who continues to give the wizard Gandalf the required majesty while keeping the character refreshing down-to-earth, and Miranda Otto, powerful as undercover Rohan warrior Eowyn. But the central spotlight remains on Elijah Wood as Ring-bearing Hobbit Frodo, Sean Astin as his devoted friend Sam and Andy Serkis as the voice and physical guide for Gollum, easily the most credible, and compelling, CGI character created by anyone to date. Despite all the sniffling, Wood and Astin give gripping performances, while Serkis’ work is the highlight of the film, at least in the eyes of this casual observer.