Shadow of Death
By Shawn Stone
by Marc Forster
Ball is an emotionally bludgeoning film. It begins on
the eve of an execution, and, in its first 40 minutes, presents
a world of pain and violence with precious few moments of
mercy or humor for the characters or the audience. However,
these quiet moments, when we see tortured people try to connect
with each other, are what make the characters interesting
and the film compelling.
Two families are enmeshed in the machinery of capital punishment
as the story begins. Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is going
to be electrocuted. His wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), is past
being sorry to see him die, while his son, Tyrell (Coronji
Calhoun), is nowhere near accepting his father’s imminent
death. While Lawrence seems at peace with his fate, his family
is a wreck. Leticia drowns her woes in whiskey and takes her
pain out on her son, while grossly overweight Tyrell maintains
stashes of candy in every available nook.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his boy, Sonny (Heath
Ledger), are death-house prison guards. Sonny is sullen and
distant; Hank is equally remote, concerned only that his son
not screw anything up. The only things they share are hilarious
and pathetic encounters with the same hooker. At home, the
physically decaying family patriarch, Buck (Peter Boyle),
a retired corrections officer who faithfully keeps clippings
in a scrapbook of every execution at the prison, presides
over his son and grandson with the aura of an old warrior
and the sensibilities of a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
The grim procedures of state-
sanctioned death are followed with precision. The film captures
many moments of unintentional horror inherent in the process,
like an execution rehearsal with one of the few African-American
guards in the chair, straining as if shot through with electricity
in order to check if the bonds are tight enough. Every act
in the execution process is planned to constrain emotion and
promote efficiency, and the irony that this also is the way
the Grotowskis live their lives is hard to miss. When Sonny
makes a faux pas during the last moments before the switch
is pulled, Hank is jolted out of his near-immovable composure
to the point of violence. Thornton plays Hank as glacially
taciturn, making this volcanic rage truly shocking. The electrocution
itself, shown with the impassivity of a training film, is
Sonny’s mistake precipitates a chain of disasters for the
Grotowskis. At the same time, Leticia’s life falls completely
apart, a direct and indirect result of the execution. This
leads to the sexual collision (there’s no other word for it)
between Hank and Leticia. These two deeply wounded people
initially find comfort with each other, in spite of their
Surprisingly, the audience can believe in the emotional truth
of their relationship, despite a series of bewildering plot
incongruities that defy both logic and common sense. For example:
Hank and Sonny have worked at the prison for years. Leticia
has been visiting the prison for a decade. They’ve never seen
each other before? This, in fact, is the smallest hole in
As noted, Thornton gives another terrific performance. Boyle
is dependably creepy as the racist old man. It’s Ledger and
Berry who really stand out, however. Ledger’s Sonny is tortured
and angst-ridden, with his own surprisingly violent side.
Berry undoubtedly got her Oscar nomination for the anguished
drunk scene that leads into the film’s centerpiece, the emotionally
raw sex scene. It’s in Leticia’s quieter moments—particularly
the last shot of the film—that Berry makes the character real.
Though Monster’s Ball is set in the deep South, and
has a story layered with intimations of family secrets and
punctuated by moments of grotesque emotional and physical
violence, it is not really a Southern Gothic tale. Mainly,
this is because there’s hardly a hint of Christianity. No
one finds Jesus; no one’s even looking for him. Though the
racial aspects of the story cannot be denied, it’s not really
about race, either. Instead, Swiss-born director Marc Foster
casts his cool eye on Southern patriarchy, and, in a more
universal sense, the prison that a truly dysfunction family
can become. Family values? The interesting, and subversive,
point to the film is that sometimes a family not only can’t
be preserved, but shouldn’t be.
Feel Your Pain
by Nick Cassavetes
The opening sequence, in which a chic chick pays the ultimate
price for passing with her Mercedes on a no-pass mountain
highway, screams “This will be significant later on.” The
idea that HMOs are bad is voiced by every character who doesn’t
possess personalized MD or MBA plates. And if all that’s not
enough, we have America’s sage, Bill Maher, pontificating
about what’s wrong with our system of health care and insurance.
If you see John Q, bring a barf bag in case of script-induced
nausea, or an inhaler, for when the triteness of the plot
brings on a gale of unintended laughter.
And yet . . . I have to admit this movie does touch a profoundly
responsive chord. Directed by Nick Cassavetes, and starring
Denzel Washington as John Quincy Archibald, a working guy
who’s getting the shaft from corporate America in more ways
than I care to get into, it plays on the audience’s fear that
they or someone they love will be struck with a catastrophic
illness, whereupon there goes the car, the house, everything.
At its best, John Q evokes what is perhaps the one
area in which a vast majority of Americans have commonality.
But this is not to say it’s a movie worth seeing. While Washington
delivers his warmest portrayal to date, he’s still playing
a stereotype. Think Peter Finch in Network crossed
with Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and you get the
gist of his character’s scope. When Mikey (Daniel E. Smith),
the son of John and Denise Archibald (Kimberly Elise), is
felled by a life-threatening heart condition, his parents
find out that John’s employer changed its insurance policy
and, whoops, they’re not covered for the necessary operation.
So our hero does what he can before showing a gun and taking
an emergency room hostage.
Washington and Elise usually transcend the two-dimensional
limits of their characters, but more often, they’re forced
to look anguished while the zany cast of patients and hospital
staffers do their shtick. Also on hand are hostage negotiator
Frank Grimes (Robert Duvall) and media-darling Police Chief
Monroe (Ray Liotta). Will Mikey get the heart he needs? Will
mean hospital administrator Rebecca (Anne Heche) do the right
thing, which apparently means putting Mikey’s name ahead of
everybody else on the “waiting-on-a-B-
In the ’70s, Charles Bronson represented the white working
man battling the encroachment of urban decay and gang violence.
Now, we have Washington as the sort of everyman worthy of
Steinbeck, fending off faceless corporations. There are euphoric
moments in the movie, in which the audience shares some of
the characters’ resentment and the vigilante-style desire
to shake up the system. But generally, all the arguments here
are simplistic to the nth degree. Cassavetes does an admirable
job early in the movie of depicting small-town, mill-working
America—the kinships, the faith in God, the pleasures of church
suppers and weekend ball games—so much so that it’s nice that
John’s race is beside the point. But too often, he and screenwriter
James Kearns resort to pat statements rather than intelligent
arguments about a national dilemma that surely doesn’t deserve
the treatment of B-movie melodrama.
to Never Land
by Robin Budd
I admit it—twice while watch-ing Return to Never Land,
Disney’s sequel to the 1953 classic Peter Pan, I got
a little choked up. OK, maybe it was pregnancy hormones, but
I like to think it was because this clever, unassuming movie
evoked the idea that, too often, fantasies and make-believe
are thrown over in favor of maturity and common sense.
It’s London at the time of the blitzkrieg, and Peter Pan’s
beloved playmate Wendy (Kath Soucie) is a grown woman, anxious
for her husband at the front, and gently comforting her two
tykes, Jane (Harriet Owen) and Danny (Andrew McDonough). While
Wendy has never lost her faith in magic, and, of course, Peter
Pan, Jane has in her father’s absence taken on a graveness
that belies her young years. During an air raid, she chastises
her mother for filling Danny’s head with nonsense, and the
movie makes it quite clear that rather than being just bratty,
Jane has formed a philosophy suited to a life punctuated by
bombs, rubble and death. Clearly, the gentle world of Wendy’s,
John’s and Michael’s Edwardian upbringing seems a thing of
a very distant past.
Then, of course, Jane is transported to Never Land. Well,
actually, she’s kidnapped by the still-evil Captain Hook (Corey
Burton), so Peter (Blayne Weaver)—and the still-jealous Tinkerbell—endeavor
to save her. The gist of the story is Jane’s desire to get
back home, which she can only do by flying. But first, her
refusal to accept Tink’s fairy status places the bestower
of pixie dust near death, and Jane’s unwise alliance with
Hook puts Pan and the Lost Boys in considerable danger. To
make everything right, Jane must rely not just on her practicality,
but on something deeper and less concrete than she is used
to, and it is this “journey” that fuels the story. Sure, we
know that everything will work out all right, but Jane’s forthright
pluckiness (she’s one of the most sensible Disney heroines
in decades) makes hers a story worth sitting through.
Visually, the movie attempts to look as quaint as its forebear,
with which it shares the same lavender-and-blue palette. And
yet director Robin Budd cannily uses the wonders of high technology
to evoke gasps of pleasure from the tykes, such as when the
Jolly Roger, its wooden boards digitally mastered and
texturally “real,” appears in the smoke-filled skies of London.
The young characters are, thankfully, children—Pan, in particular,
is very much like the Bobby Driscoll-voiced character of the
first movie. This viewer is mighty thankful that the studio
didn’t turn him into a hunky wiseass.
Yet one can’t help but miss some of the elements of James
Barrie’s classic story that, I can only assume, were scratched
due to PC concerns. No Indians (sorry, “Native Americans”),
and no mermaids, save for a passing wave as Jane flies into
to town. OK, maybe these days we can’t in good faith have
a song like “What Makes the Red Man Red,” but have children’s
play and make-believe been so sanitized that it’s impossible
that they can’t imagine silently stalking prey in the wilderness,
or swimming with mermaids?
by Gregory Hoblit
War, set in 1944 in a Ger-
man POW camp near Ardennes, is defeated by its own ambitions.
The film has little to do with World War II (you’d never know
the Battle of the Bulge is raging just a few klicks away),
and its interludes of near-greatness are defused by all the
downtime spent working out a preposterously multilayered plot.
Nor is this Bruce Willis’ war: Willis is the camp’s senior
officer, Col. William MacNamara, whose perverse decisions
are explained, far too late, by the not-so-climactic ending.
Lt. Thomas Hart, a headquarters lackey captured while delivering
a case of champagne, is played by Colin Farrell, whose strong
screen presence isn’t enough to overcome the film’s tunnel
vision: All events are seen through the eyes of this untested
greenhorn, a frustratingly limited point of view.
The film starts promisingly with the tense, eerily portentous
sequence of Thomas’ capture, nightmarish interrogation by
the Nazis and transport to Stalag 6A. Along the way, cattle
cars of French Jews go by, and a strafing inadvertently results
in some POWs getting mowed down by their fellow Americans.
Thomas is sent to bunk with the enlisted men—mostly Southern
crackers who resent his Yale background and protected status.
The film’s real drama begins after two African-American fighter
pilots—officers of the Tuskegee Air Corps, in fact—are assigned
to the enlisted barracks. This is another inexplicable edict
from the cryptic William, who suspects that Thomas is lying
about his interrogation. (William has so many mixed motives,
it’s no wonder Willis looks exhausted.)
When one of the crackers is murdered, Hart’s War capsizes
under the weight of too many subplots and style changes. One
of the pilots, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard), is accused
and scheduled for execution. Evidence has been planted, but
by whom? Through a series of inauthentic contrivances, Thomas
arranges for a court-martial as a delaying tactic. The idea
is approved with enthusiasm by Nazi commandant Col. Werner
Visser (a superb Marcel Iures), a jazz aficionado educated
at Yale. The court-martial is held in the POW’s “theater,”
which is telling of many things: The trial will be staged,
the POWs have it ludicrously easy, and the watchful, intelligent
commandant has somehow forgotten all about his munitions factory.
Although the dialogue is often masterful, expressing both
the commandant’s war-weariness and the dignity of the black
pilots with lyrical concision, words alone can’t prevent the
film from shredding into several manipulative pieces. It seems
director Gregory Hoblit wanted to make a grimly realistic
treatise on the random horrors of war. But he also wanted
an atmospheric thriller, in which Thomas can’t trust his superior
officer, his barracks mates, or the suspiciously helpful commandant.
Thomas spends a lot of time peering around corners (where
the murk of the monochromatic art design could hide a tank
division) and acting wary and confused. The really annoying
part is that the suspense is given away by the film’s trailer,
which reveals what all the secrecy is about.
Hoblit also wanted to make a courtroom drama about American
racism set against the backdrop of Nazism. This element of
Hart’s War is so wrenchingly powerful that it belongs
in another, better movie—as does Howard’s quietly eloquent
performance as the railroaded pilot. Oh, and one more thing:
Hoblit also wanted Hart’s War to be a grand homage
to the Greatest Generation. Yet after all that’s gone before,
the tacked-on feel-good coda (war as a growth experience for
spoiled Yalies?) is more like a slap in the face than a salute.