get your gun: Zellweger in Cold Mountain.
Can Make You Beautiful
By Laura Leon
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
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
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
the future: (l-r) Roberts and Stiles in Mona Lisa
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
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
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.)
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.
together: the Bolger sisters in In America.
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.
envy: Isaacs in Peter Pan.
Don’t Believe in
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.
Time Use a Condom
by the Dozen
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
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
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
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!
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
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.