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The Shadow of Death
By Shawn Stone

Monster’s Ball
Directed by Marc Forster

Monster’s 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 suitably horrible.

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 backgrounds.

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 the plot.

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.

We Feel Your Pain

John Q
Directed 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-
positive-heart” list?

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.

—Laura Leon

Peter Principles

Return to Never Land
Directed 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?

—L.L.

Imprisoned by Ambition

Hart’s War
Directed by Gregory Hoblit

Hart’s 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.

—Ann Morrow


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