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Ada get your gun: Zellweger in Cold Mountain.

War Can Make You Beautiful
By Laura Leon

Cold Mountain
Directed by Anthony Minghella

It is a blessing that Anthony Minghella is behind the cinematic adaptation of Charles Frazier’s lovely, but hugely interior, novel Cold Mountain. After all, Minghella is the man who fleshed out Michael Ondaajte’s equally interior, poetic novel The English Patient into something grander and arguably more eloquent.

Minghella sets right to work, shattering our worries that this is going to be a snoozer, by filming the Civil War siege of Petersburg in a manner befitting Saving Private Ryan. Which isn’t to say the director is copying Spielberg’s style, but that this compelling battle, in which Union forces dynamite the bejeezus out of Southern barricades only to fall victim to the crater they’ve created, is horrific, raw, pulverizing warfare. Immediately, we’re drawn to the plight of sleepy-eyed Inman (Jude Law), who struggles to survive being buried alive almost as much as he struggles to maintain possession of a daguerreotype of one Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman).

Meanwhile, Ada is suffering greatly at a home tragically reduced by wartime scarcity and suffering. She writes eloquent letters to Inman, a man she knew only briefly but with whom she fell completely, unequivocally in love. These letters, most never received, are read in voice-over, creating a plaintive aural backdrop to the remote possibility of reunion.

The movie slips back and forth in time and place, showing us an Inman unravaged by war but still stoic and laconic, even when confronted by Ada’s sheer loveliness. Cold Mountain marks a huge achievement for Law, who proves he has so much more than movie-star good looks. His character changes significantly throughout the movie, and without a great deal of dialogue; Law is able to convey these sea changes and their emotional and psychological underpinnings.

Minghella introduces a host of cameo bits for actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi and Natalie Portman, whose disparate characters give Inman somebody to relate to and engage with. In the case of Portman, who plays a grieving widow left alone with an infant, it gives Inman a shocking glimpse into what might have befallen Ada, who is at wit’s end keeping Home Guard Lt. Teague (Ray Winstone) away from her.

Fortunately for Ada, who was raised to read books, not farm, help comes in the form of Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), an earthy farmer who, in no time, shapes up the Monroe homestead. While Zellweger’s presence initially lights a match under the proceedings, she does turn things around in a manner that isn’t wholly successful. The movie goes from being a yearning, searching love story (love of both a person and a place) to a “heartening” tale of survival and female bonding.

Ada, last seen greedily chomping on begged salt pork, becomes in no time an able farmer, carpenter and vet, and the transformation does wonders for her hair and complexion. Since her infamous acid-green Oscar ceremony dress, Kidman has cannily parlayed her image into that of celluloid goddess, so much so that she’s become bland in her utter beauty. She plays Ada as Hollywood Valkyrie, so much so that when she finally reunites with the ragged, wounded Inman, you’re almost shocked that he doesn’t take the time, first thing, to remark on how fit and radiant she is. The cad.

Having reined the movie’s potential histrionics to a laudable level, Minghella busts loose toward the end, focusing too much on Ruby and her annoying, folksy-jokesy way of turning a phrase. One can’t help but worry, with the Home Guard breathing down their necks, why Ruby is so damn loud, and why Ada allows Ruby’s AWOL soldier father (Brendan Gleeson) to play his fiddle into the wee hours of the night. Worse, he turns that magical moment when Ada and Inman are finally in each other’s arms into a sex scene worthy of Melrose Place. Is the love story that much more meaningful because we get to see Law kiss Kidman’s ass, peering decorously from a slit in her ivory muslin pantaloons?

So much of Cold Mountain is a hauntingly beautiful elegy on hope and remembrance, on the meaning of home, that its ragged, rushed ending, complete with an image of a cobbled-together extended family, seems at odds with what has come before. The movie preserves Kidman’s goddesslike stature—indeed, even expands upon it, as how many such creatures are able to skin a lamb as well? But such preservation comes at the loss of a better measured, more compelling and honest tale of love and loss.

Facing the future: (l-r) Roberts and Stiles in Mona Lisa Smile.

What Women Wanted

Mona Lisa Smile
Directed by Mike Newell

The idea behind the plot of Mona Lisa Smile is pure in its conceptual brilliance: Take a modern woman and maroon her in the ’50s. Not in a literal sci-fi, time-travel story, but in a Hollywood movie-star-vehicle sort of way. Thus, the filmmakers likely reasoned, the audience would identify and sympathize with the star as she navigates the narrow options and social restrictions that were a woman’s lot in those dark, prefeminist ages. It’s a way-too-slick idea, but it works beautifully.

The woman in question is Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), who arrives from California to teach art history at Massachusetts’ tradition-bound Wellesley College. There’s no question that while she may be named Katherine, she’s Julia Roberts, contemporary movie star—and might as well be from outer space. Fellow faculty member Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), an etiquette teacher and comic (but not cruelly so) prefeminist stereotype, certainly finds Watson odd, but is too polite not to be friendly.

The film’s first imaginative twist on its central conceit? Watson’s venomous students don’t even notice that’s she’s weird. They’re so elitist, it doesn’t matter where anyone from the “wrong” background comes from. On her first day of class, the students treat her with utter contempt. To her chagrin, Watson realizes that they’ve already learned the official course syllabus, and plan to do nothing for the rest of the term. Julia—I mean, Katherine—is undaunted, however. She determines to challenge the catty monsters with messy, radical modern art, and earn their respect by being a real hardass about assignments and attendance.

The film paints 1953 as being as paranoid and repressive as much of social history tells us it was. Wellesley, with its Seven Sisters insularity, is a perfect setting: The dominance of wealthy alumni over all aspects of campus life astutely parallels contemporary ’50s society.

The daughter of the most connected alumnus is Betty (Kirstin Dunst), an impossibly snobby arbiter of morality who, from her privileged perch as editorial writer for the school paper, gets the campus nurse fired for being subversive (read: progressive). The other girls aren’t as nasty, but are equally invested in the status quo, and more than happy to forget their expensive education to plan for a postgraduate life as wife, mother and corporate accessory. Joan (Julia Stiles) is already engaged; Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) may be sex-crazy (and Jewish—another stereotype?), but is no social rebel; and dowdy Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) just wants a date.

The role of Betty seems a bit beyond Dunst: She isn’t thoughtful or cruel enough. Stiles, however, is perfect: From her accent to the manner in which she carries herself, she is wholly convincing.

The ways in which the film has Roberts—I’m sorry, Watson—go about raising the students’ collective consciousness is accomplished with surprising thought and cinematic delicacy. The filmmakers never go too far, either. They know Watson can’t be Wellesley’s feminist savior, and as the story develops, it’s clear that the social forces against her are too strong. Wellesley, as Watson ruefully notes, is a glorified finishing school—and nothing short of the social upheavals of the following decade would change that.

Ultimately, Mona Lisa Smile is that film in a hundred that almost justifies the way movies are made in Hollywood. (Too bad the other 99 don’t.)

—Shawn Stone

Redemption By Numbers

21 Grams
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu created an international sensation with his last film, Amores perros. It was gritty and brutal, with a claustrophobic sense of place (Mexico City) and epic, biblical themes. Even when a particular character seemed like a puppet, or plot turn seemed obvious and schematic, these false notes didn’t interfere with the grandeur of the filmmaker’s vision. Crossing the Rio Grande, however, seems to have shrunk the director’s ambition: 21 Grams is showy but thin.

Let’s get the explanation of the title out of the way first, since it isn’t revealed in the film until a long, gratuitous and obnoxiously obtuse narrated monologue in the last reel. It’s the weight of a human soul. If this seems a bit precious, then 21 Grams isn’t for you.

There are three main characters. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a heart-transplant patient, a cheating husband, a sick man with a gun looking for revenge, and a kindly Samaritan looking after Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts). Peck is an alcoholic junkie, a housewife with two daughters, a grieving widow and a reckless party girl. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an abusive parent, a preacher, a convict, and a good family man. The characters are all these things, because the various bits of their lives are presented simultaneously. The story’s chronology, as a friend aptly put it, seems like it was chopped into a thousand pieces and thrown up into the air.

That’s why there’s no point in getting mad at having the film’s “meaning” revealed and spoiled above. The nonchronological structure means nothing that happens in the picture is a surprise. The result? 21 Grams feels like a long, slow Sunday school lesson as told by Jean-Luc Godard. (Check those names: Rivers and Jordan. Shall their sins be washed clean?) The odd thing is, it’s not a completely unentertaining sermon.

The film’s pleasures are all to be found in the acting. Del Toro is moving as a man struggling with good and evil, and Watts and Penn are superb. While Del Toro’s character isn’t required to change much, the other principles are put through an emotional wringer. Penn has to play his character as a dying man twice—and he makes each distinct and affecting. He’s also seductive and charming; we’re not surprised to learn that his long-suffering wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) had to put up with his philandering for years. Watts is given her best role since Mulholland Dr. As in the David Lynch film, she is required to play a barely credible character filled with contradictions, yet makes that character harrowingly real and believable.

All other aspects of 21 Grams seem generic or false, from the could-be-anywhere setting to the “gotcha” ending. The sense of place and class, so vivid in Amores perros, is muted or nonexistent. Against all expectations, Hollywood seems to have robbed filmmaker Iñárritu of his previously sharp sensibility. Whatever form that loss took, I wonder what it weighed.

—Shawn Stone

Happy together: the Bolger sisters in In America.

Immigrant Song (Off-Key)

In America
Directed by Jim Sheridan

What seems like Jim Sheridan’s most personal film to date is poised, at this holiday time, like a sugar plum meant to be devoured greedily—but is ultimately forgotten pretty quickly. In America tells the story of illegal immigrants Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton), who filter through the border with daughters Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger), to find work in Manhattan. Haunted by the death of their only son, Frankie, who is seen only in the stored lens of Christy’s ever-present camcorder, the family is, nevertheless, bound together by fierce love and loyalty, so much so that the children seem to have an unspoken pact to keep Mum and Da happy, even while the parents can’t seem to figure out their grief.

There is much in this film that annoyed me to no end, the illegal-immigrant thing being one. Just where are these people coming through Customs, and later, when Sarah is undergoing a risky pregnancy, just who is paying for her exorbitant medical bills? How does the family find this palatial, if rundown, apartment house, and which design school did they graduate from in order to transform said apartment into a bandbox example of shabby chic? A crucial scene shows Johnny risking the family’s entire nest egg (basically, the rent), to win an ET doll at a carnival. Ideally, one is supposed to be rooting for these hardscrabble people, and to recognize that the contest is representative of larger risks taken on the hope of better tomorrows, but I couldn’t get past Johnny’s and Sarah’s frantic disregard for the security of their family. Equally annoying is the presence of the noble savage (Djimon Hounsou), aka the black artist downstairs who seems really scary but deep down has a heart of gold.

The movie is saved by the presence of the Bolger sisters, whose ease in front of the camera makes one believe we are really watching transplanted Irish sisters taking on America. Sheridan takes a direct approach, thankfully, so despite the maudlin aspects of the tale, it comes across as straightforward and honest. Nevertheless, it’s a flimsy tale, which evokes guilt in the less-than-enamored viewer for not having the heart to embrace this biographical tragicomedy.

—Laura Leon

Peter envy: Isaacs in Peter Pan.

I Don’t Believe in Fairies

Peter Pan
Directed by P.J. Hogan

The new live-action Peter Pan, admirably enough, is a lavishly dazzling production that sticks close to J. M. Barrie’s 1904 play. But though Peter, the ever-young flying boy, and Wendy, the storyteller he lures from a loving home, soar through a candy-colored cosmos and ride on wayward clouds, the film itself doesn’t quite take flight. Directed by P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding), the film is too obviously constructed to be a blockbuster to allow the viewer’s imagination to intrude. Strenuously raucous, this effects-heavy fantasy attains the aesthetic opposite of the enduring magic of the spare, 1960 TV version, in which even Mary Martin’s suspension strings couldn’t break the spell of an enchanted screenplay and an inspired lead performance. In Hogan’s digitally enhanced version, individual sequences are often remarkable—notably Peter’s floating-on-air dance with Wendy, a peek at the fairies’ midsummer ball, and the recreations of Edwardian London—yet the sum is less entrancing than its parts.

Peter is played by model Jeremy Sumpter as a recognizably modern teen, subtly marring the film’s emphasis on adolescent stirrings. The sublimated yearning between Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and Peter may be in keeping with Barrie’s text, but onscreen, it comes off as vaguely yucky. One of the problems with adhering to the often dark-sided psychology of fairy tales is that age-appropriate actors usually don’t have the experience to convey it. After all, Martin was a middle-aged Broadway star when she created her cocksure yet naive Peter. The dewy-eyed stuff is a bit confusing, too: First Wendy wants to escape her father’s intention of grooming her for marriage (she’d rather be swashbuckling with her younger brothers), and then shortly after getting into the swing of rambunctious Neverland, she starts yearning for a deeper attachment than the commitment-phobic Peter can give her. In contrast, the lighthearted flirtation between Wendy’s younger brother John and the assertive Tiger Lily hits just the right note of embarrassed infatuation.

Still, Sumpter certainly looks the part of Peter, and newcomer Hurd-Wood makes for a beautiful, feisty, and warmhearted Wendy, one who is of a piece with her beautiful but domesticated mother (luminous Olivia Williams). Jason Isaacs is an especially vivid Captain Hook, both repugnant and pitiable. It’s Isaacs who gets the darkling psychology down, displaying with panache how the pirate’s pathological hatred of Peter is based on jealousy of his youth, flying abilities, and most of all, his possession of Wendy’s affection. When Wendy is enticed into joining Hook’s brigade, the film finally starts to cook. The marvelously ooky-spooky ship serves as a floating funhouse, and the scurvy crew, led by the amusingly vile Mr. Smee (Richard Briers), are much more entertaining than the needy Lost Boys. The most memorable character, however, is the Darling’s teddy bear, who gets in on the action with inspired whimsy. As for bratty Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) and her whiny chirps, well, there’s much to be said for the little white light of the Martin version.

—Ann Morrow

Next Time Use a Condom

Cheaper by the Dozen
Directed by Shawn Levy

Ostensibly based on the 1950 Clifton Webb-Myrna Loy film, which in turn was based on the memoirs of children of the early 20th century’s leading efficiency experts, Cheaper by the Dozen 2003 is, in actuality, an homage to the Hollywood ideal that, yes, you can have everything without having to sacrifice for it. Tom (Steve Martin) and Kate (Bonnie Hunt) Baker have foregone career dreams—he of coaching football at a big university, she of being a sports journalist—in favor of low-key life in Midland, Ill., where he settles for leading the high school team to several championships, and she finds time to work on her manuscript between caring for their 12 children.

It helps that in the movie’s preface, Kate voices over a comical explanation of how they came to have 12 of their own biological tots. After all, this is a family size we don’t see much of anymore. Then again, this is the kind of family we usually don’t see, ever. The Baker house is pleasantly messy, the kids get along pretty well and, when they disagree, they like to vote on things. Still, Mom and Dad take over when he’s offered his dream job, precipitating a move to a swank mansion in Evanston, which—incredibly—comes with a housing allowance and free tuition for all the kids. At about the same time, Mom sells her book! Tom and Kate are so busy jumping up and down over the prospect of finally having it all, they fail to notice that the newly transplanted kids are far from happy.

Everything comes to a head when Kate has to go on a book tour. Inexplicably, Tom—for all his newfound wealth—can’t hire a team of domestic and child-care helpers to get him through this spell, preferring to guilt-trip his eldest, Nora (Piper Perabo), into taking time off from her new job [and vain boyfriend Ashton Kutcher] to play nursemaid. One kid runs away, another gets sick, a third falls in the second one’s vomit. Much of the movie is a series of comic setups that are actually pretty funny, relying on carefully, then outrageously building on a single funny act. A search for a lost frog, for instance, turns into a food fight topped off by the destruction of Mom’s antique teapots.

Still, it’s hard to get past Tom and Kate’s selfishness and, worse, their inability to recognize their kids’ plight. As things at home escalate from bad to worse, Tom never once mentions anything to Kate, in New York, and she never once asks for specifics, such as, how was the kids’ first day at the new school? So when Kate gets back to find utter chaos, her extreme anger at her husband seems only partly justified, and largely plot-driven. This being Hollywood, of course, everything works out in such a way that the Bakers get to keep the swank new house, but Mom and Dad are somehow, inexplicably, more available for all the kids. If only!

—Laura Leon

Future Schlock

Directed by John Woo

Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a “reverse engineer” who specializes in replicating computer breakthroughs for competing companies. Because his work is unethical, all memory of his assignments are “erased” upon completion, a procedure with the potential to bake his brain—a risk Michael accepts in exchange for a huge paycheck. When an old friend who happens to be the CEO of a corrupt conglomerate (Aaron Eckhart) offers him a long-term job, his personal neurologist, Shorty (Paul Giamatti) advises Michael not to take it. The assignment—something to do with optics—is expected to take three years, dangerously longer than anyone has been erased before. But Michael can’t resist the millions in stock options he’s been promised. The optics technology he makes viable turns out to be a mirror that predicts the future by reflecting, literally, ahead of the curve of the universe.

Adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall), Paycheck starts out as a futuristic brain teaser but quickly morphs into a noisy, flashy actioner dominated by director John Woo’s robotically choreographed sequences of violent conflict. This minor effort has aspirations to being a thriller comparable to Minority Report (another Dick adaptation), but the ridiculously tricky script doesn’t have enough science to be considered science fiction, although its does borrow numerous Dick twists from the aforementioned films.

After coming out of a memory wipe (a startling bit that hints at what the film could’ve been), Michael exits his corporate quarantine and is informed—to his shocked disbelief—that he relinquished his stock options. He has provided himself with an envelope containing 20 ordinary but presciently handy items, such as a diamond ring and a single bullet. He’s not much perturbed that he can’t recall his love affair with the company’s biologist, Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), but maybe that’s because he has to stay one step ahead of the company henchman (Colm Feore), who has orders to erase him permanently. Rachel’s multilevel, orchid-filled lab is made mostly of glass, and exists solely so it can be elaborately shattered. The greenhouse effect is best one, however; an extended motorcycle chase is routine, and the director’s trademark, double-gun-to-the-head standoffs, are noticeably Woo deja vu.

The slick art design, which focuses on the hair pomade and severely tailored suits of the leading men, riffs on early James Bond films in a way that does nothing for the story. Neither does Affleck, who is blander than usual, especially in his scenes with Thurman. For her part, Thurman tries so hard to be radiant that she practically breaks into a sweat just smiling. Or maybe the strain is from trying to ignore the micromanaged contrivances that allow Michael to alter his future. He needn’t have bothered: For the audience, it’s all been done before.

—Ann Morrow

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