As the annual push for year-end awards and accolades arrives, more than a dozen movies will flood Nashville theaters over the holiday season. Through bloodshot eyes, Scene writers Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, Jim Ridley and Joshua Rothkopf take a look.
Cold Mountain Antiwar ideologues who’ve had it with the implicit call to arms of Master and Commander and The Lord of the Rings should really go for writer-director Anthony Minghella’s movie adaptation of the Charles Frazier novel. Minghella is drawn to stories like this (or The English Patient, or Truly, Madly, Deeply) in which one-to-one relationships transcend nationalism, class and even death. Cold Mountain’s story of a Confederate soldier (played by Jude Law) abandoning the Civil War so that he can march home to his sweetheart (Nicole Kidman) well conveys the mayhem that surrounds a country at war with itself. Minghella, like Frazier, uses American history to create a kind of homegrown mythology, imbuing even base motivations like lust with a sense of larger-than-life importance.
A cast of well-knowns including Natalie Portman and Philip Seymour Hoffman give heft and clarity to the complex, episodic narrative, and Renee Zellweger’s passionately quirky turn as Kidman’s impromptu farming partner is scenery-chewing in the grandest tradition. Cold Mountain is choppy at times, and Minghella botches some of the lighter interludes, but otherwise this is a superior model of polished literary cinemamore British than Hollywood. Resist its romantic sweep and you’re in for a long day at the movies, but go with it and you’re likely to be humming along.
Elephant The year’s most welcome career reinvention was doubtless that of director Gus Van Sant, who after nearly a decade of making Hollywood mush emerged as a cryptic chronicler of Gen-Y detachment, first with his po-faced Gerry and now this fascinatingly oblique (and potentially enraging) picture of high school violence. Of its many light touches, none has stayed with me more than Van Sant’s evocative use of solo piano works from the young person’s playbook, including the arpeggiating “Moonlight Sonata” and a halting version of “Für Elise,” both of which capture an intentionally banal sense of free-floating despair when counterpoised against football fields and suburban rec rooms.
Elephant is also about a horrifying act of armed invasionand by extension, the killings at Columbineleading many viewers to reject its inexorable camera glides down locker-lined hallways as a disrespectful form of Shining-style portentousness. And except for a single shota serious misstepVan Sant steadfastly refuses to ascribe any kind of easy rationale to his rampagers’ motivations: no troubled monologues here, nor any gestures toward victim sympathy. I’m reminded of the disarming response from shock-rocker Marilyn Manson in Bowling for Columbine when asked what he might say to the students of Columbine. Without a beat, Manson replies that he would only listen, because no one else had seen fit to do as much. Elephant, in its observational acuity, listens very closely. It has no answers, but neither does anyone, truthfully.
The Last Samurai Kurosawa it ain’t. But Edward Zwick’s culture-clash epic, while overstuffed and unforgivably histrionic, ain’t half bad either. Tom Cruise plays broken-down Civil War hero Nathan Algren, driven to drink by his participation in the massacre of an Indian village. He’s recruited by Billy Connelly (playing against type as one of the most restrained elements in the movie) to train the newly formed Japanese army for use against the samurai, who have rebelled against the Meiji emperor’s program of westernization. Algren is captured by the samurai in their first battle, and after spending a winter in their village training camp, nursed by the wife of one of the samurai he killed, he joins their rebellion.
There are at least three good reasons to see The Last Samurai, despite its many flaws. John Toll’s cinematography is beautifully pitchedsharp but slightly subdued and diffused, counterbalancing the fetid ripeness of the melodrama. Zwick stages the battle scenes with unmatched clarity and pacing; they rank among the best in a decade. And finally, one line from Tony Goldwyn, playing Algren’s former commander, who berates him for switching sides: “Why do you hate your own people so much?” It’s a question that goes unanswered and unresolved, and it pierces the historical veil around this story, echoing toward our present-day clash of civilizations.
Mona Lisa Smile/Something’s Gotta Give It might be possible to enjoy Mona Lisa Smile as a kind of crisply photographed fashion show, or as a combined teacher-feature/chick-flick genre exercise where the pat lessons and emotional manipulation take on the quality of liturgy. But while Julia Roberts is refreshingly restrained as a bohemian art teacher shaking up the lives of hidebound New England college girls in 1953, director Mike Newell can’t do much with a script by committee that mires the movie in a fogbank of subplots. The film betrays its own obnoxiously simpleminded gender politics by taking cursory potshots at Roberts’ character late in the game. And despite early hints that Newell might dare to draw out the lesbian subtext to all the sensual dormitory horseplay, it doesn’t take long before Mona Lisa Smile starts passing out love interests like holiday hams. The best that can be said for the movie is that, as Wellesley’s finest, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Giniffer Goodwin beautifully model their clothes and hair.
A warmer and more idiosyncratic brand of womanly self-actualization can be found in Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, which pits a successful, aging, single playwright played by Diane Keaton against a picky, aging, womanizing record executive played by Jack Nicholson. The picture is shot beautifully and edited crisply (with an emphasis on reaction shots), and the weird mix of forced naturalism and theatrical speechifying has charm, especially in the skilled hands of the leads. The dialogue creaks and the second hour’s a randomly plotted mess, but Keaton and Nicholson are genuinely moving as they come closer together. And Meyers’ inability to figure out where she wants to go ensures that, from moment to moment, her film is far from predictable.
Peter Pan This dark, visually dazzling retelling of the James M. Barrie fairy tale is almost more about the Peter Pan Syndrome than it is about Peter Pan. As seen through the eyes of a Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) whose poise on the cusp of puberty is emphasized more than in previous versions, the boy who will never grow up comes across as a girl’s ideal playmate, a young woman’s nightmare of commitment anxiety and a prisoner of his own eternal youth. As lavishly photographed by Donald M. McAlpine, who also did Moulin Rouge (and it shows), this version is like a preteen’s idea of erotica: uninformed of sex, but heavily suffused with a sensuous glow. Even the stage-set clouds glow like ripe peaches. The director, P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend’s Wedding), all but makes the subtext the text, even using the same actor, Jason Isaacs, to play both Wendy’s distant father and the emotionally gnarled Captain Hook.
The result is that this Peter Pan has a deeper sense of melancholy and romantic longing than earlier versions (which is true to the source) but lacks their physical exuberance. The movie’s often heavy-spirited, and it doesn’t help that the movie’s Peter, Jeremy Sumpter, has the creepy smirk of the neighborhood kid who tortures cats. He’s bratty when you want him to be swashbuckling, and almost sociopathic when he should seem petulant. And yet, in context, his performance kinda works even if it doesn’t make things more fun. For fun, you must turn to Isaacs’ deliciously florid Hook, Richard Briers as his Python-esque henchman Smee, and Ludivine Sagnier putting the spite in sprite as a spitfire Tinkerbell. And when Peter revives the ailing Tink by getting every kid in the audience to yell, “I do believe in fairies! I do, I do,” you may feel your own heart flutter just a bit.
21 Grams Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of 2001’s electrifying Amores perros, meditates on the synchronicity of life-energy in his slightly underdone English-language debut. He scrambles the chronology of his central story to a degree unseen outside of experimental film, often juxtaposing several shots, lasting only a few seconds each, that take place at different (and initially unknown) points. The fragments provide only glimpses of the main charactersa grieving Memphis wife and mother (Naomi Watts), a philandering math professor (Sean Penn) and a reformed ex-con (the inimitable Benicio del Toro)while leaving their connection and destination a mystery.
As long as Iñárritu is allowing the connections to emerge in the dark swaths between the frames, 21 Grams is as exciting as filmmaking gets. Unfortunately, the director intrudes ham-fistedly in the second half, tying together his loose threads with the heaviest of hands. But del Toro’s performance is so energetic, so complete, that he almost pulls the film back from disaster. He keeps us from forgetting the electricity of the film’s first half, the undeniable thrill of having your neurons rewired and feeling each synapse spark in slow motion.
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