> Volume 3 > Screeners '01 #2

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Screeners '01 #2


Avatar:  Kandahar.

Cowboy Booking International:  Down from the Mountain, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Fat Girl.

DreamWorks:  The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Evolution, The Last Castle, The Mexican, Shrek.

Fox Searchlight:  The Deep End, Sexy Beast, Waking Life.

Lions Gate:  Lantana, Monster's Ball.

MGM:  Bandits, Ghost World, Hannibal, Legally Blonde, No Man's Land.

Miramax:  Amélie, Apocalypse Now Redux, The Others, With a Friend Like Harry.

New Yorker Films:  Life and Debt, Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 4 p.m., The Town is Quiet.

Newmarket:  Memento.

Universal Pictures:  A Beautiful Mind, K-Pax, Mulholland Dr., Spy Game.

USA:  Gosford Park, The Man Who Wasn't There.

A Beautiful Mind

(Dir: Ron Howard, Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, Vivien Cardone, Anthony Rapp, Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas, Christopher Plummer, Judd Hirsch, and Scott Fernstrom)



Probably one of the worst aspects of reviewing movies -- there are many, though it’s hard for me to not love it -- is that too often, it feels like you are belittling the lives of someone. Yes, Ed Wood and Arch Hall both deserve some anguish at their careers, but what about all the people who were connected by bad films not in their own intent. Look at the many people who have had biographies of their lives made into horrendous movies. Carl Brashear, Babe Ruth, George Jung, Frankie Lymon, all had great or important lives, but their bio pics, Men of Honor, The Babe Ruth Story, Blow, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, failed to successfully tell why they were important.

That is the case with A Beautiful Mind, which strains to tell the story of John Nash, a mathematician who was stricken by a mental illness when he was at the top of his career. And Ron Howard, the king of schmaltz, makes sure that this story can have as little reverberation as possible.

I don’t want to say that John Nash’s life is unremarkable, just that in this cinematic form, it is uninteresting. Movies have had many schizophrenics over the years and just because this one veers into savant territory does not make him any more intriguing. For my money, I’d rather watch Dustin Hoffman pull-off Rain Man again before creeping through the long 2 hours plus that is A Beautiful Mind.

The film begins with John Nash moving into Princeton and creating his clichéd circle of relations. There are the two good friends, Bender (Rapp) and Sol (Goldberg), the understanding best friend, Charles (Bettany), and the intelligent foil, Hansen (Lucas). Everything is drawn out into the perfect little collection of people for Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman to tell their tale as easily as possible.

It seems like Russell Crowe is getting the lion’s share of Oscar attention for this role, when it is nothing more than him chewing the scenery. Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez perfectly referred to Crowe’s style here as being like “John Goodman doing a David Helfgott impersonation while chewing on Marlon Brando’s Godfather tissue paper.”

Somehow this is the same actor who fleshed out completely different roles in Jeffrey Wigand of The Insider and Maximus of Gladiator. This time, Russell Crowe seems willing to rely on gestures to carry his entire performance, without giving it a slight amount of personality. I liked the way he nervously moved his fingers as he thought out important details in a mathematical or, even, social equation, but the reliance on this attribute becomes worrisome by the time Nash’s schizophrenia has come fully out and he is raving like a wild man outside the Princeton library.

That’s where I turn to thanking Jennifer Connelly. Her ability to balance Crowe’s work shows just what a wonderful, untapped actress Connelly is. A year ago, I was ready to give her any award possible for the breathtaking performance she pulled in Requiem for a Dream, and, even in the wake of a bad film like A Beautiful Mind, I’d still feel good if she received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Nash’s long suffering wife. The only real problem with the role is that screenwriter Goldsman does not take the time to really flesh out her role.

Akiva Goldsman, as readers might have noticed, has become my normal whipping boy whenever possible. I think that everyone has a person they equate with horrid work -- I always feel that from Goldsman and Freddie Prinze, Jr. In the past three years, I have called on the evils of Goldsman in reviews for Deep Blue Sea, Lake Placid, The Last Castle, The 6th Day, Bring It On, The 13th Warrior, and The Fast and the Furious. Though, not every one of those films deserved the wrath I normally save for Goldsman himself (Bring It On was, outside of some Goldsman-esque character development, is not a bad film).

A Beautiful Mind only strengthens my distaste for the screenwriter (his credits, by the way, include Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Lost in Space, and Practical Magic -- currently he’s trying to ruin The Sum of All Fears and Memoirs of a Geisha). The dialogue sounds like something Winston Groom might have thrown with the trash and the storytelling lacks any qualities that might, say, allow the audience to feel something for the characters. The Goldsman belief seems to be that having a person with some disability automatically means the audience will be there with hoops and hollers to guide him to the right path.

And Ron Howard is not much of a credit either. The last time I was not dismissive of a Howard film was Backdraft, the flawed diamond in the rough of Howard’s filmography. Sure, there have been other somewhat high points like Cocoon and Gung Ho, but there have also been some mistakes like Willow, Splash, Far and Away, EDtv, and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I respect the fact that Ron Howard makes a directorial decision dealing with the first half of Nash’s schizophrenia, but my final feeling on it is that it feels more like a concessive quirk than any form of mature filmmaking. Even though he has been able to tackle serious stuff in the past, this is the first time since Splash where it felt like Opie was behind the camera instead of Ritchie Cunningham.


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Down from the Mountain

(Dir: Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker, Appearances by John Hartford, Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Chris Thomas King, Emmylou Harris, Colin Linden, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings)



There is a paradox found in Nashville unlike any other city. I should know; I’ve lived in the area for a long time. The paradox surrounds country music and its importance to the city. People feel a great deal of aversion towards the fact that Nashville is known around the country as a city dependent on the country music that built it. Yes, they are thankful that country’s success has allowed Nashville to become a major city, but abhor the fact that it is now the only thing people connect with the city because of it.

And yet, Nashvillians, like most cities in the same rut, feels the need to sing the constant praise of some of the county music names of yesteryear. Sure, Opryland has been torn down; sure, some major acts have moved to Branson, Missouri; but in the end, these people still grew up with this music. The generations are each marked by some country celebrity whose music became the fodder of their childhood -- Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Minnie Pearl, Ralph Emery, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rodgers.

Having been privy to all this has been interesting for me as an admittedly non-fan of the genre. However, I, like so many of the Nashvillians who scorn country music, felt alive as I watched and listened to the music on parade found in the documentary Down from the Mountain.

It should come as no surprise that my one time foray into country music be that in connection with a movie. Not only is Down from the Mountain connected to movies in the fact that it is a feature documentary, but also in the fact that it covers the music from the soundtrack to the surprise hit O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a soundtrack that has been considered the reason people are once again interested in country music.

I was one of the few people who were moot on the Coen Brothers film, in my mind it has moments of genius amidst mediocrity. However, I did have very kind words to say about the orchestral and song score, though the orchestral part was a given (anyone who reads my rantings semi-regularly will know that I have a great deal of respect for Carter Burwell and his orchestrations).

“A Man of Constant Sorrow” and “O Death” and “Don’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” were all moments in the O Brother, Where Art Thou?where I was aghast at the aural work put into the film. Who cares about special effects and cartoon lunacy, the real treat was hearing the Sirens sing their seductive song.

While the documentary Down from the Mountain shows off these songs -- as they were performed at the Ryman Auditorium for a live audience -- I could easily close my eyes and take in the musical magic. And let me reiterate: I’m not a country music fan. The documentarians Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker have an taken an easy job here -- this is not The War Room or even, the music in this film could easily carry any mistakes the filmmakers might make.

Thankfully, these three men are quite talented at their trade and know how to show these performances. They allow the film audience to feel like they are allowed to see the show, not only with great seats, but also with a backstage pass. There is an occasional problem with coherence (for some unknown reason, the movie never takes the time to tell who anyone is -- it just thinks everyone can recognize Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss), but the end product is still a delight. Down from the Mountain makes a great film that could be an even better soundtrack.


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The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

(Dir: George Butler, Narrated by Liam Neeson)



“Notice: Men wanted for harsh journey. Bitter cold. Small wages. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

That was the rumored advertisement that Ernest Shackleton bought in hopes of generating a furor for his trip to the South Pole in 1913. By the time he had gathered 27 men to join him and setup all the plans for the endeavor, he still did not know how true his words would be.

The expedition is now a famous moment in British history, a memoir of perseverance and leadership occurring while Europe was caught in World War I. Ernest Shackleton is a hero in a way, proving that there is a thin line between genius and madness. But, however crazy his expedition was, its story is possibly one of the most engaging events to happen.

There has been a sudden increase in interest about this expedition with the restoration of South, the film made by Frank Hurley during the months stuck in the frigid arctic. Now, George Butler has made a companion documentary to go with Caroline Alexander’s novel The Endurence (named after Shackleton’s boat, a perfect name for the events that would occur on and off its deck). The documentary, The Endurence: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, tries to capture the fear and hope that came to Shackleton and the crew. Butler perfectly employs Hurley’s footage, artist’s renderings, old phonographs, crewmember journals, and shots of the area today (as filmed by Sandi Sissel, who delivers some of the best documentary cinematography outside of an Errol Morris film).

In 1915, the crew of The Endurance set out to Antarctica in hopes of crossing the continent and becoming heroes for the British people. Along the way, the ocean froze and the ship was stuck in the ice for 10 months. But, as fate would have it, the ship would not last those 10 months, finally being destroyed. Shackleton and two other men began a rescue mission to find help and return to the souls lost on the ice. In the end, Britain would not know the fate of The Endurance for two years.

Butler knows how to structure a fine documentary, though none of his previous subjects have been as notable as Shackleton and his crew. Showing the common sense to veer away from talking heads that emote nothing more than a history lecture, Butler instead relies on simply the true importance of the story. Liam Neeson narrates the events like he is reading a book told in a linear timeline. Those who do not know what happened to The Endurance (and don’t fret, I’ve failed to give away most of the story) will be able to sit on the edge of their seats watching, waiting to see what happens to these poor men stuck in the chill of the arctic.

It would be hard to call the expedition a success, though it has produced the honor and recognition that Shackleton hinted at. Today, the survival story of The Endurance sounds like something that could only happen in a movie. That’s part of the reason why George Butler’s film works so well -- it takes a true story like Shackleton’s, places it on an artificial medium, and yet never lets the artifice seep in.


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Gosford Park

(Dir: Robert Altman, Starring Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Claudie Blakley, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Camilla Rutherford, Maggie Smith, Geraldine Somerville, Kristen Scott Thomas, Sophie Thompson, Emily Watson, Natasha Wightman, James Wilby, and Trent Ford)



Robert Altman has received more attention, more positive press, and more awards as of late for very good reason. That reason is called Gosford Park, a reminder why so many moviegoers consider Altman to be a cinematic god equal to the likes of Welles, Sirk, Hitchcock, and Scorsese.

And Gosford Park, with its social commentary and occasional bits of humor, proves to be the best work out of the highly prolific director since 1993's Short Cuts. Remaining true to his societal view into a different ensemble of like people, Altman strays into a period piece, a rarity for his ensemble comedy/dramas. And, like some of his best ensemble films (Nashville, MASH, 3 Women), the commentary is biting and the cast is luminous. Employing setting and social structure different from his earlier works, Altman proves that his vision can create magic out of any time period, place, or group of people. That is, of course, all but those present-day Parisian fashion designers and devotees in Prêt-à-Porter.

Gosford Park is comparable to Upstairs, Downstairs as it looks discreetly into the inside and outside of a 1932 English mansion. The divide between the aristocrats sitting upstairs and the servants working downstairs becomes apparent in both the geographical locations of these people, but also in their disposition to each other. When spotting a butler, one aristocrat says "Don't worry, he's nobody;" at another time, when a servant muses that his employer thinks he's God, another states, "They all do."

In proof that the Hollywood class system does not matter to Altman himself, the director casts some of the industry's brightest gents and dames into characters not fit for the likes of a Bruce Willis or Meg Ryan. The servants seem helpless -- characterizations provided by the likes of Ryan Phillipe, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, Eileen Atkins, Richard E. Grant, and Kelly Macdonald; the aristocrats seem inept -- characterizations provided by the likes of Michael Gambon, Kristen Scott Thomas, Camilla Rutherford, Geraldine Somerville, Charles Dance, Natasha Wightman, Tom Hollander, Maggie Smith, and Bob Balaban. Jeremy Northam rounds out the cast as one of the few people completely happy with good reason -- Northam is playing British actor Ivor Novello (a name that causes a reference that will be music to the ears of any Alfred Hitchcock fan).

The film centers around a shooting party held at the McCordle family estate, headed by the greedy Sir William (Gambon) with his catty wife Lady Sylvia (Thomas) and sheepish daughter Isobel (Rutherford). The guest lists includes a wannabe business partner (Hollander), a money-hungary sibling (Smith), and a Hollywood movie producer (Balaban).

Through the holiday in the English countryside, secrets and lies become damnable products of schemes and deceits. In that old Agatha Christie fashion, a murder takes place -- suddenly all these condemning, surreptitious moments mean people are going to have to come to terms with their past decisions. And, despite a belief otherwise by an inept detective (Fry), the guilt does not necessarily only pass among the affluent -- those souls downstairs have just as much against the murdered as those upstairs.

Robert Altman has turned a nice costume drama into a webbed creation of constant surprise and hilarity. Altman's ever-present decision to stage his dialogue as realistically as possible once again shows his attention to allowing the audience into the stories of his characters. Where another filmmaker would have three pages of scripted information for five characters conveyed through two or three scenes, Altman instead believes in the ability of the audience to understand more than one conversation at a time (hey, we do it everyday) and has those three pages told in one scene as all five people pontificate at the same time.

The sumptuous sets, costumes, score, and cinematography keep with the attention to detail that Altman strives for. Not since 1971's McCabe and Mrs. Miller has the director used a period piece to such outstanding pleasure. Gosford Park, which is also one of his most enjoyable films to sit through, shows that Robert Altman is still the fine director behind all those 1970's classics, just bringing his outstanding abilities to the 2000's.


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(Dir: Ray Lawrence, Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Barbara Hershey, Geoffrey Rush, Rachael Blake, Vince Colosimo, Russell Dykstra, Daniella Farinacci, Peter Phelps, Leah Purcell, and Glenn Robbins)



The lantana bushes that grow in Australia are notable for their blossoms, which come in to hide the thick, thorny branches. By this symbol, Ray Lawrence has chosen to give his film the same name, a symbol that it strains to capture and then over-simplifies in a poor attempt to show social and marital milieu.

Lantana was a huge hit in Australia where it raked in seven Australian Film Institute Awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and all the acting awards. That’s unprecedented, and yet the movie never really convinced this viewer it was structured enough to deserve all these awards. For a movie that has been under development for three years, Lantana feels like it was rushed through production.

The story is muddled, the characters are underdeveloped, and the screenplay feels forced. With each scene, Lantana felt like it was not really going anywhere -- I felt more distraught at the continuation of events than the actual characters seemed to be. There have been dozens of movies dealing with these same emotions, most of which seemed shorter and more in-depth. The movie feels like Altman-lite, but that comparison is immensely unfair to a movie as highly motivated and well made as Short Cuts.

The film opens on one of these lantana bushes. Upon further investigation by the camera, it becomes clear that the dead body of a woman is lying in the brush. The film then introduces three women who could possibly be the deceased and their collection of problems that plague them.

The first introduction is perhaps the one that rings the most -- partly because she is first, partly because we are introduced to her in the midst of a passionless act of adultery. She is Jane O’May (Blake), who is currently cheating on her husband with police detective Leon Zat (LaPaglia). They have come together in “a one night stand that has extended to two nights,” almost because they each feel a cold, bitter side (whether warranted or not is unknown) from their spouses.

Zat’s wife is the frustrated Sonja (Armstrong). She has barely stood beside her husband for years even though he is as high-strung and aggressive as most of the Sydney thugs he arrests. Her life seems bleak and unimportant, even to herself -- the one thing that seems to bring her out of her cocoon is the tango dance lessons she and her husband enjoy.

Sonja has turned to psychiatrist Valerie Somers (Hershey) in hopes of finding the reasoning behind her life’s decisions. Valerie herself is having problems in her own marriage, where she suspects that her husband John (Rush) is having an affair with a confrontational young gay man (Phelps) who comes to her for psychiatric help.

When one of these ladies turns up missing, all these people begin to cross paths and wonder why this lady -- like their lives -- has gone.

Ray Lawrence is a highly talented director who makes it clear that he knows how to frame a fine shot. However, the storylines that he is working with as written by Andrew Bovell (adapting from his own play Speaking in Tongues) never really meld well. I like the way Lawrence teases the audience into caring at moments, but later, as the teasing becomes all the more visible, the fact that there is nothing to really stay for becomes a disappointing situation.

Like any screenplay that comes from the stage, the actors are meant to carry the show. Perhaps that is part of the reason that Lantana ultimately fails so much -- while Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey turn in terrific performances, the rest of the cast never really comes to terms with their own characters. Kerry Armstrong and Rachael Blake both seem determined to give something to their roles that are not given in the screenplay, but cannot make up for the lack of development.

Anthony LaPaglia, however, stands as the biggest disappointment of the cast. He holds more screentime than anyone else and never really gives the impression that he knows what to do with it. There’s one scene where he runs in a rush and collides into another man. LaPaglia’s character bursts into fury and the innocent man begins to cry -- as LaPaglia’s Leon shows unpleasant acknowledgement of this man’s showing of emotions, he becomes an equivalent to the audience, sitting at wonderment as to what ill fate brought all of us to this point.


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Monster's Ball

(Dir: Marc Forster, Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Coronji Calhoun, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Heath Ledger, Anthony Marble, Mark Swanson, Mos Def, and John McConnell)



"What would you do if your son was at home, crying all alone on the bedroom floor 'cause he's hungry and the only way to feed him is to sleep with a man for a little bit of money. And his daddy's gone, somewhere smokin' rock now in and out of lockdown; I ain't got a job now. So for you this is just a good time, but for me this is what I call life."

For some unknown reason, that tune came to mind as I watched the generational drama Monster's Ball. It's a bad song called "What Would You Do" from City High and was evidently a favorite song for the guy that lives in the apartment next door to mine.

The character of Leticia (Berry) seems just one misfortune from making that chorus her anthem -- if memory serves me right, there's a later line in which the female singer says "Everyday I wake up, I'm hoping to die" (it's a happy song, if you cannot tell), a statement that I would not be surprised to hear Leticia say. There are many misfortunes for the young black woman living in Georgia, Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton might have even felt bad for her. Her son is obese (at least she thinks so), her husband is on death row, and she is barely making ends meet at her low paying job.

And that's just at the beginning of Monster's Ball -- there's much worse in store. Yet, despite all the anguish that screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos throw out at the audience, there's a definite effervescent tune to Monster's Ball. It has some semblance of hope -- then again, Hardy and Wharton might be a little disturbed at that -- keeping the film from turning into a retread of its first act.

Halle Berry steals the show -- note that I have only dealt with her character in the review even though she is second-billed -- with a fiery performance that seethes with the anguish of a single mother pulled from all directions. There's one scene where she castigates her son (Calhoun) for being overweight -- in her mind the only thing worse than being a black man in the south is to be an overweight black man in the south. That scene, with all its pain and pathos remains with me stronger than almost any scene this year.

The film is essentially a two-pronged story, one of Leticia's, one of Hank's (Thornton). Hank is the local prison guard in charge of executions -- he, as one would expect, is the man who must walk Leticia's husband (Combs) to the electric chair -- and a creation of long brooding racism at the hands of his father (Boyle). He is unsuspecting of what emotions are in him, at least not until the death of a family member brings certain aspects of his personality to light.

In that, the largest flaw of Monster's Ball becomes clear: the screenwriters and director Marc Forster (who seems more interesting in capturing some pretty shots instead of telling the story) fail to really establish much in Hank's story before getting to the central story. Where Leticia is readily readable for anyone watching the movie, Hank is too coiled and shadowy to understand early on and the filmmakers never let the audience catch up. By the time that he and Leticia begin a relationship, the reasoning for Leticia is something we have been privy to while the reasoning for Hank still seems ambiguous.

Of course, that seems to be what Billy Bob Thornton's looking for in characters these days. While his character in Bandits wore his feelings on his shoulders, the characters he has worked on in The Man Who Wasn't There and Monster's Ball feel like furniture instead of actual people. If it were not for the cigarettes livening up The Man Who Wasn't There's Ed Crane, I'd make a guess that Thornton was dead in that film. In Monster's Ball, instead, Thornton just seems apathetic. I did think he gave the performance he intended -- one that he is highly talented with -- but in the end felt that it was not the right way to go with the role, especially considering the maltreatment Forster is willing to give the character.

Monster's Ball makes some big mistakes, but soon atones for them. The Berry performance, more than anything, gives it a heart and soul, while the finale gives me some pleasure. At the base, Monster's Ball is nothing more than Crazy in Alabama without the Melanie Griffith subplot -- but it somewhat rises above that horrid comparison by a nice style and a wondrous actress.


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Reviews by:
David Perry