Monthly Archives: December 2003
Premise: At the end of the Civil War, Inman (Jude Law, scruffy) deserts the Confederate lines to journey back home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the love of his life he’s spent a combined 10 minutes with.
Results: Terribly uneven, Cold Mountain‘s drama is shackled by a love story that doesnt register the faintest of heartbeats. Kidman is wildly miscast, as she was in The Human Stain, and her beauty betrays her character. She also can’t really do a Southern accent top save her life (I’m starting to believe the only accent she can do is faux British). Laws ever-changing beard is even more interesting than her prissy character. Renee Zellweger, as a no-nonsense Ma Clampett get-your-hands-dirty type, is a breath of fresh air in an overly stuff film; however, her acting is quite transparent in an, ”Aw sucks, give me one dem Oscars, ya’ll way.”
Nate’s Grade: C
Premise: Alcoholic Civil War vet (Tom Cruise) is hired by the Japanese emperor to modernize his army. After being captured by samurai, he finds solace and fights alongside his former enemy against the emperors modernized army.
Results: A miscast Cruise is not turning Japanese, no matter if he really thinks so. The Last Samurai is a conservative by-the-book epic the limply transports the framework of Dances with Wolves and effectively creates Dances with Japanese People. Dont believe me? Lets go to the videotape. Civil War vet (check) haunted by massacre of Native Americans (check), finds peace with a foreign culture (check), falls in love with one of the foreign women (check), and must battle the invading former culture that threatens his new happiness (check). The film does have lovely cinematography and production design, if that means something to you.
Nate’s Grade: C+
To all those hairy-footed Tolkien geeks that chewed me out for having the audacity to call 2002’s Two Towers, of all things, boring, let me say this: while I still find the second entry of The Lord of the Rings to be disappointing and pretty flawed, the final chapter, Return of the King, is a glorious and satisfying conclusion. Instead of doing a usual review (plot synopsis, strengths/weaknesses, etc.), I’m going to bring back the charges I had against Two Towers and explain why Return of the King does not suffer from these ills. Will the defendant please rise as I read aloud the charges.
Charge Number One: Two Towers has nothing going on for its majority except hyping an oncoming battle.
And I still feel this way. Short of the great Helms Deep battle, there was oh so little going on in Two Towers that they could have easily trimmed an hour away from it. And don’t give me this crap about the whole kingdom of man subplot or Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) realizing his eventual responsibilities. Whatever. Now, in Return of the King, there is so much going on and the pacing is so tight, that despite being the longest film by far (3 hours and 20 minutes), this is the FIRST Lord of the Rings films that has not put me to sleep in the theaters. The nearly hour-long battle involving the 200,000 Orc army with its huge elephant creatures is mesmerizing and visually stunning. But even after the battle and before, unlike Two Towers, there is plenty going on that actually matters, not just three characters running around endlessly.
So even though little is going on, Two Towers still doesn’t use all this free space to deepen characters. But in Return of the King, the characters come through and shine. The hobbits are back to the front burner and the film is better for it. Sam (Sean Astin, in the finest performance of the film) and Frodos journey becomes increasingly important and the strain and deception of Gollum puts a wedge between their friendship. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) looks scornfully at Sam and dismisses him from their journey, it’s heartbreaking. Why? Because after two years we as an audience have come attached to these characters and do feel for their struggle. When Sam, toward the climax, says, “I may not be able to carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!” I dare anyone to try not choking up. We also get deeper moments of character with peripheral characters, like Faramir realizing he can only satisfy his father by a suicidal mission. Even the smaller characters from the second film, like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her kingly father Theoden (Bernard Hill), have wonderful moments where the emphasis is on characterization. Return of the King is filled with rich character moments that remind us how much we enjoy and feel for these people … uh, and hobbits.
Charge Number Three: Most of the characters from Fellowship of the Ring have scant appearances in Two Towers.
This still holds true. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, brilliant) returned from the dead but had about three minutes of screen time. The elves (Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) were given the amount of screen time most people would consider cameos. And then the hobbits were left alone for the overlong subplot involving Theoden and his clan. What Two Towers really was was the dwarf, elf, and Aragorn movie. And I like each of those characters but this story is not theirs its the hobbits. So the disproportionate amount of time spent with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn felt like what would happen if, in Star Wars, C-3PO and R2D2 had their own film. It wasn’t as interesting and it wasn’t right. But with Return of the King, the attention is back to the hobbits, and all of the characters in the entire film have at least one stirring moment of quality time. Gandalf is back in a big way and its welcomed. What else is welcomed is the increasing attention Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have. They started as merrymakers, but by this trilogys end they are desperate to join the ranks and fight. The shared moments between Merry and Eowyn in battle are great. The moments between Pippin and Gandalf are even better. And even though the elves still get the short end of the stick, they make lengthier appearances that are more satisfying. It appears, though, that Cate Blanchett’s longest amount of time in this whole trilogy was narrating the opening prologue.
Even if you disagree with me on the previous three charges, you must agree with me that Two Towers had about a million dwarf jokes too many. Return of the King, to my knowledge, doesn’t even have ONE dwarf joke. Fabulous. This is not to say I want less Gimli. The subplot involving the Two Towers trio seeking an army of the dead (a tad deus ex machine) is intriguing, and his competitive banter with Legolas is still ripe (Bah! That still counts as one!).
Return of the King is an amazing experience and one that is a fully satisfying conclusion, unlike say, I don’t know, maybe the last two Matrix films. The danger feels more abundant now that the end is near and the tension mounts. The payoffs are rewarding and the climax is fittingly climactic. However, the 20-minute resolution is a bit drawn out. It seems director Peter Jackson can give us three hours of fast-paced action but cant speed through a medley of hugs. You think its over…. and then theres more, then you think its over…. then there’s more. This is a small quibble for such an epic trilogy, and Return of the King proves that it’s really one large triumphant film, with a bit of a sag in the middle. What? Did you think I’d get through all this Lord of the Rings love-fest and not take one last jab at Two Towers? Though I still prefer Fellowship of the Ring out of the three, Return of the King cements the trilogys cinematic greatness in our time. Oh yeah, and the cinematography, special effects, production design, makeup, and score are magnificent too.
The defendant is cleared of all charges.
Nate’s Grade: A
Premise: A mathematician (Sean Penn) in need of a heart transplant, a recovering addict (Naomi Watts) mourning the loss of her husband and children, and an ex-con (Benicio Del Toro) whos found redemption in Jesus, are all linked by a horrific car accident. The aftermath will bring them together out of grief, guilt, and revenge.
Results: The greatest asset 21 Grams has, bar none, is the trio of breathtaking performances. De Toro gives a powerful performance as a man consumed by grief and seeking answers in the unknown. Watts gives the definition of a raw performance. What isn’t cool is the structure, told out of order like the directors first film, the brilliant Amorres Perros, translated: Loves a Bitch. But the mixed-up structure of 21 Grams is needlessly complicated d frustrating, plus it pulls you out of the movie. Im sure theres a rationale reason for it, but the surprises and expectations it produces are minimal. The whole thing would have been better plunked in an old-fashioned linear structure. The sensational performances and intelligent story will stay with you long after the film ends.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Premise: Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) has lost her family home due to a bureaucratic error, and a former Iranian colonel (Ben Kingsley) and his family move in for a rock-bottom price. Neither is willing to budge, and their turf tussle soon becomes a tragedy.
Results: Perhaps the first real estate thriller, House of Sand and Fog is a smartly written, emotionally harrowing film with phenomenal acting. Kingsley is superb and deserves a Best Actor nomination. Shohreh Aghdashloo is heartbreaking as Kingsley’s wife, who doesn’t know a lot of English but loses sleep over the word ”deportation.” The drama is meant to convey that both sides have a convincing claim to the house, but who are audiences going to side with, an American screw-up who could have avoided the whole mess by mailing in a letter, or a hard-working family ere the son is willing to take a second paper route to help out? The final act is a bit overly bleak, and the cop boyfriend character is an easy go-to for plot turns. House of Sand and Fog is one of the more compelling films of the year. What more could you want in a prestige picture?
Nate’s Grade: B+