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Monster’s Ball (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 26, 2001:

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racist or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Monster’s Ball was Lee Daniels’ first movie as a producer and years before his first directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, but it’s clear as ever in 2021 that his influence is all over this movie. The elements that would come to define Daniels’ later movies, like Precious and The Paperboy and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, are here, and that’s the awkward and sometimes jarring discordant elements of the serious and the soapy, of camp and sincerity (the movies are also so unabashedly horny). A Lee Daniels’ movie is trying to say something, sometimes poorly, often too many things and too spread out, and Monster’s Ball is one of those statement movies, or at least it was upon release. It was a screenplay developed in the mid 1990s by actors Milo Aaddica and Will Rokos, and while it attracted talent at points it didn’t really gain traction until Daniels came onboard as its shepherd. You can see what would be so attractive to Daniels, with the mixture of odd elements as its own eclectic brew. It’s a romance that should not work. It’s life lessons about racism that seem heavy-handed. It’s a thrust-heavy sex scene that goes on for four uncomfortable minutes. I think there’s a recognizable argument to be had that this romance doesn’t quite work. It’s more out of necessity than connection, but maybe that’s even the point. These are two wounded people finding solace in one another, and maybe that’s enough in a world of pain and uncertainty, just finding someone who, in Leticia’s words, “makes you feel good.” Monster’s Ball isn’t as wild and campy as other Daniels’ joints, but you can see the DNA of his other movies, the seeds of artistic flowers that would bloom into his style. It’s got a bit more of an arty, indie sheen here, but Monster’s Ball might as well be Lee Daniels’ Monster’s Ball as far as its key influence, certainly more than director Marc Forster.

Re-watching this movie many years later, it’s clear to me that it is not a movie about race relations, though this is an implicit subject as well, but much more an examination on generational toxic masculinity. This makes much more sense for me with the prominence given to Hank’s (Billy Bob Thornton) perspective over Leticia (Halle Berry). It’s about him learning to break free of his racial prejudices, yes, but that’s more one sign of him learning to break free of the tyranny of his father’s influence, and his father (Peter Boyle) is an infirm cartoon of toxic masculinity. This is a man who brags about his wife dying and how many women he cheated on her with. This is a man who calls his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) weak because he displayed empathy for an inmate on death row. It’s his close-minded, harmful definition of what constitutes a “real man” that has become the lingering poison infecting the Grotowski family tree. It’s not subtle in the slightest, but Monster’s Ball is effective in communicating cycles of abuse. Hank carries many of his father’s tendencies and views his own son with contempt for not being able to meet these same restrictive definitions of manliness that his father imposed on him. When his son needs him the most, in his cry for help, is where Hank fails him, telling him he does in fact hate him, and that’s when he loses him forever. The rest of the movie is tracing Hank’s journey to breaking free from the vile influence of a decrepit old man.

To that end, the story structure of Monster’s Ball works better. In the span of 110 minutes, Hank has to reflect on what the negative influences of his life are and to break free of them. When he finally decides to put his father in a nursing home, the lady in charge smiles and says, “You must love your father.” Hank is quick to reply, “No, I don’t. But he’s my father.” There is no love between these men because love was most likely viewed as weakness. It’s the last thing Sonny says before killing himself, after his father says he hates him: “Well I’ve always loved you.” When Leticia looks at a picture of Sonny, something that Hank doesn’t share until late in the film, she remarks that Sonny doesn’t look like Hank. He replies that Sonny has his mother in him, implying the things that made him better came from her. This is a character journey that literally culminates in a man performing oral sex on a woman as a sign of his personal growth. Taken by itself, it sounds laughable, but it mostly works in the context of the movie. Surely his father would view the giving of pleasure to another as a waste of energy and time, so his desire to give rather than receive ends up being his character’s defining push away from the negativity of his father.

My issue is that Leticia feels less like a fully-fleshed out person and more like an infantilized victim. She’s a single mother struggling to keep her job, keep her home, and keep her son’s weight in check. Her husband is on death row. She’s got a lot of opportunities to be given dimension and insight. However, the movie never seems to deem her ready for that attention until the very very end, literally the last scene of the movie. Beforehand, she’s more a prop to the development of others, someone to gauge Hank’s personal growth and someone to be inflicted with all manners of indignities and abuses. When she interacts with Hank’s father, and he’s as awful as you would expect, her residual pain and outrage is the final straw for Hank who then moves the old man out. Her entire relationship with her son feels awkwardly handled. Fiction can illuminate the lives of complicated people, people with flaws that don’t always make the best decisions, but her single-minded obsession with her son’s weight, and her subsequent beating of him, feels like another chain of abuse but without the explanation. Otherwise, it’s just a woman in pain berating her son, and then the boy has to die, and it feels excessive. I know that Hank and Leticia bond over their mutual grief over having lost a son, but it feels like Leticia is more a martyr for Hank’s growth. During their protracted sex scene, her voice cracks and sounds uncomfortably childish. At the end, she asks Hank to take care of her because she needs it. She comes across like an infantilized version of a woman who is there to cry and be pretty.

That’s why the final moment of the movie rings so curious for me. After Hank puts his father away, what is the conflict here? Leticia agrees to move in with Hank after being evicted, and it all seems to be going well. Then while he’s out retrieving his favorite ice cream, she discovers that Hank has drawings by her late husband, reshaping her understanding of Hank. But what is that reshaping? Before he was a guy she served at a diner who happened to help her during the most trying time in her life. Does she think he was seeking her out to take advantage of her? How? She got the diner job because she lost her previous job, and it’s not like he sought her out, but she might not be privy to any of that context. It feels like an artificial conflict that’s meant to boil over and possibly spell doom between these two. Can this budding relationship survive this revelation? But I’m still unclear what exactly the revelation is. He worked at the prison? He was involved in the execution of her husband in a way, walking him to the chair? This seems artificially inflated to me. And yet it is only here that the movie gives her the final say, allowing Berry to wordlessly process this new information and whether or not it dramatically changes anything between her and Hank. She never comments to him about it. You just have to study her face, and it’s here where the movie at long last treats Leticia with the courtesy of nuance.

Monster’s Ball was made famous for two reasons: the extended sex scene between Berry and Thornton and her Best Actress Oscar victory, the first ever for a woman of color (and still the only one twenty years later). Let’s start with Berry’s performance, which was definitely a leap above what she had been demonstrating with trashy thrillers and lame comedies. Berry is good here but the Lee Daniels of it all makes it feel like her performance is being pulled into less subtle, more overtly soapy directions against her better judgements. When she gets into a whiny space, I kind of winced, not because her character was undeserving of complaint, but because the movie was shifting her into that infantilized victim box. Berry is good here, but after re-watching Sissy Spacek’s In the Bedroom performance and Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! performance, I’d rate her third of the chief 2001 Best Actress nominees. Berry is an actress I had mixed feelings about early in my critical career (2004’s Catwoman did not help), but I’ve come around to appreciate her more. I greatly enjoyed her varied performances in 2012’s Cloud Atlas. She recently directed her first movie where she plays a middle-aged kick boxer, and that sounds punishing and possibly eye-opening.

I’m not the only one that seems to come back to the infamous sex scene; it constitutes almost all of the trivia about the film on IMDB (interesting not-sex-scene fact: Wes Bentley was going to play Sonny but mysteriously dropped out –he admitted to struggling with heroin addiction later– and the studio gave the production 48 hours to find a replacement, and that’s how Heath Ledger got it). Also, I had to revise this paragraph several times to remove any phrases that might come across as unintended innuendos. You could argue the sex scene is a turning point. It happens at the halfway point of Monster’s Ball and beforehand Leticia and Hank have expressed no romantic interest. Afterwards, it becomes about their possible odd-couple romance, if that’s what it can even be called. The scene is played raw and desperate, which is why it made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t because I was watching two actors pretend to physically go at it for an extended period, it’s because these characters were so sad and reaching out in desperation to feel anything fleeting. The attention given to the scene just feels thematically wrong. It’s not offensively gross but it feels a little too prurient, a little too salacious for what the characters are going through emotionally. Thornton has even said in interviews that this movie might have contributed to his eventual divorce from Angelina Jolie, which seems strange to me considering she was also filming steamy scenes with Antonio Banderas at about the same time (2001’s Original Sin).

Director Marc Forster has had an interesting career since helming this four-million dollar indie. He’s done Oscar-bait dramas (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) and quirky indies (Stranger Than Fiction, Stay) and big Hollywood action movies (Quantum of Solace, World War Z). He was hand-selected by producer Brad Pitt to direct World War Z. Forster has no distinct, visible style to him but effectively alters to the genre and story he’s directing. In some ways, this is what a director should be, and yet Forster has never gotten credit for his versatility. Nobody is going to say Quantum of Solace is their favorite James Bond movie, or even the best of Daniel Craig’s run, but it’s not really Forster’s fault that movie didn’t work. His last two movies were smaller dramas, 2016’s All I See is You and 2018’s misguided Christopher Robin, and he’s attached to movies about the Holocaust, a downed World War II pilot, the formation of Greenpeace, and Thomas the Tank Engine, so the man’s versatility continues to go undervalued.

This is my final re-review of the 2001 film slate, and my original review I think mostly holds up. I was thinking the same thing about lazy metaphors and lacking substantial racial commentary, but I better appreciated the scope of the movie not on race but on the effects of toxic masculinity. I think I was more dazzled by the photography in 2001 (or 2002 when it was made available to us in central Ohio) than in 2021. Monster’s Ball is a clumsy but well-intentioned movie that has some pristine elements to it but I don’t quite know if it ever coalesces into the important movie it desires. It’s an interesting artifact of Lee Daniels before he became an industry unto himself, and with Berry showcasing just what she was capable of if given the right opportunity. This began a run of “pretty actress goes drab” of Oscar winners (2002’s Nicole Kidman, 2003’s Charlize Theron, 2004’s Hilary Swank), and so the biggest lesson of Monster’s Ball after all might have been providing a successful template for future actresses to follow a path to Oscar gold.

Re-View Grade: B-

The Dark Knight (2008)

In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman series was a critical and commercial success. Gone were the campy and opulent sequences of old and the nipples on the Batsuit felt simply like a bad dream. Nolan served as director and screenwriter and brought serious psychological depth to his story and characters. As a life-long Batman fan, I loved it and wanted a sequel immediately with the exact same people responsible. The Dark Knight has been overshadowed by the passing of actor Heath Ledger, a gifted young actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. He’s gone from gay cowboy to the criminally insane, and it’s all anyone can talk about. The buzz on Ledger and The Dark Knight is deafening and I am about to join that joyous chorus. This is a movie for grown-ups and makes lesser super hero adventures look downright stupid.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is dealing with the repercussions of his choice to assume the masked identity of Batman. He’s cracked down on Gotham City’s mobsters, and in their desperation they have turned to a crazed anarchist that likes to wear strange makeup. The Joker (Ledger) promises to return Gotham back to its old ways but even he knows this isn’t possible. “You’ve changed things,” he tells Batman. “There’s no going back.” The Joker wants to break the will of Batman and Gotham City and sets up elaborate and disturbing moral dilemmas that push many to the edge. His purpose is chaos, which isn’t exactly what the Mob had in mind when they subcontracted his services. Bruce must rely on his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and company tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to help him combat a man that “just wants to watch the world burn.” Gotham also has a new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is willing to put his name on the line to clean up the city. He’s butting heads with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) because of Gordon’s secrecy and his reliance on Batman to do the things the law won’t allow. Dent wants to prosecute mobsters and is willing to put himself in jeopardy. He believes Batman is waiting for men like him to take the baton. Bruce’s old squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes — upgrade) has fallen for Dent. He’s an emotionally available man who wants to do good. Naturally, Dent and Rachel will becomes targets of the Joker.

First off, believe the hype because everything you’ve read and heard about Ledger’s performance is the gospel truth. The actor vanishes completely underneath the gnarly latex scars, stringy hair, and smeared makeup. He transforms into this menacing figure and he makes Jack Nicholson look like a circus clown in comparison. He’s creepy and funny in a totally demented and spooky way, but he almost comes across like a feral creature that enjoys toying with his prey. Ledger fully inhabits his character and brings a snarling ferocity to the role. The Joker is given no back-story and he takes a macabre delight in crafting differing versions of his sordid past depending upon the audience. Ledger’s Joker is like a mixture of sadist and intellectual, of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lector; he finds a way to get inside your mind and unleashes torment. There’s a great scene where he’s left alone in a holding cell with a police officer. The Joker taunts the man, getting little reaction from the trained lawman, but then he hits a nerve. The Joker asks how many of his friends, his fellow officers has he murdered. He then rhapsodizes the finer points of using knives instead of guns because guns are too quick. With knives he can see who people truly are in the final moments of existence. “So in a way, I know your friends better than you ever did,” he tells the officer. “Would you like to know which of them are cowards?” This triggers the officer to break his protocol and play into the Joker’s scheme. I’m not ready to say Ledger’s performance overtakes Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) as the most menacing villain of late, but Ledger certainly will make your skin do more than crawl.

Ledger gives a performance worthy of posthumous Oscar consideration. Toward the end of the film I found myself lingering on sadness that, well, this was it. This is all we are ever going to get of the Joker, such a fabulous character, but even more, this was the last full performance we are ever going to get from Ledger. His unnerving performance will stand the test of time when it comes to haunting screen villains, and I’m sure the actor had many more incredibly performances left in him before he passed away.

The Dark Knight has less in common with other superhero series and should be considered a modern crime drama. It has more in common with Heat than with Spider-Man. Even compared to Nolan’s excellent Batman Begins, this is the first Batman film that feels like it occurs in a real city in our own reality. In Batman Begins, we had the CGI ghetto that happened to be conveniently where all the city’s scum lived, an ancient league of ninjas that wanted to wipe an entire modern city off the map, and then a super microwave that zapped water molecules in the air. Even though it was the most realistic Batman yet, it still had some fantastic elements that kept it from feeling fully believable. This newest Batman adventure feels more like a real city and a city that is being torn apart. You get to see a lot of Gotham City’s moving parts and different social circles and then see the Joker tear them apart. The knotty screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon is dense and packed with subtext and ambiguity not seen in the likes of other spandex-clad super hero movies. This isn’t a super hero movie so much as an enthralling crime thriller with better gadgets.

Whereas Batman Begins focused on the psychology of a man that dresses up in a costume and fights crime, now the attention turns into examining the impact of Batman. There has been escalation, just as Gordon hinted at the close of the last film. Batman has stepped up law enforcement and now Gotham’s criminal element has placed their trust in a psychopath that promises results. This is a movie about symbols and ideals and about the tenets of civilization. The movie presents an arsenal of mature questions and rarely gives absolute answers. Batman I supposed to be a hero but does he play by the law? Can he make decisions that no one else can? Batman believes in the goodness of others and serves as a symbol for the city to stand up against corruption, but can Batman be corruptible? Does he have a breaking point? Is implanting hidden surveillance and spying on 30 million people in the name of security overstepping? Is it acceptable to cross a line if your enemy crossed it first? The Joker lives at the other ideological end and believes that human beings are selfish and will eat each other when the chips are down. He devises disturbing social experiments that test the limits of ordinary citizens and how far they are willing to go out of self-interest. The Joker is an anarchic force that seeks to tear down civilization itself, and that is a far more interesting and devastating plot than vaporizing water molecules with ninjas. When the movie covers the tired “we’re one in the same” territory that most super hero flicks hit (the Joker responds to Batman with, “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? You complete me.”), it even makes sense given the psychological and philosophical complexity at root.

And oh boy, is The Dark Knight dark. This flick racks up a body count that could compete with movies usually involving some cataclysmic act of nature. The Joker’s unpredictable nature, and the dark twists the film plumbs, creates an atmosphere where you dread anything happening at any time, and mostly bad things happen. Batman must come face to face with his limitations and the realization that his actions, no matter how altruistic, will have negative consequences. This is not a movie for young children. If any parent buys their child a Joker doll and takes them to see this movie then expect years of therapy bills down the line. Much of the violence is implied but the overall effect is still chilling. It’s difficult to call The Dark Knight a “fun” movie. Batman Begins was fun as we followed Bruce Wayne tinker and become his crime-fighting avenger. This movie watches much of what he built get taken away. The movie makes gutsy decisions and for a super hero movie, let alone a summer blockbuster, and this is one decidedly dour flick where no character ends in a particularly pleasant place, especially poor Harvey Dent.

Speaking of Mr. Dent, while Ledger is deservedly getting all the buzz and plaudits, Eckhart’s excellent performance is going unnoticed. Dent gets just as much screen time as Batman and is the white knight of Gotham, the man unwilling to break the boundaries of the law to merit out justice. Like Batman, he serves as a symbol for Gotham City and its resurrection from the stranglehold of crime. Batman fights in the shadows and serves as an anonymous vigilante but Dent is the face that can inspire the city. That’s what makes his transformation into Two-Face all the more tragic. You really do care about the characters in this movie, so when Dent turns on his principles and seeks out vengeance you feel a weighted sense of sorrow for the demise of a truly decent man. Eckhart and his lantern jaw easily sell Dent’s idealism and courage. After his horrific transformation, Eckhart burrows deep enough to show the intense hatred and mistrust he has even in fate. He gives a terrific performance that plays a variety of emotions and does justice to them all.

The rest of the cast, just to be mentioned, is excellent yet again.

Nolan has also stepped up his directing skills and delivered some high-intensity action. His first foray with Batman had some dicey action sequences that suffered from choppy editing, but he pulls back his camera lens and lets the audience see the action in The Dark Knight. The explosive high point is a long car chase where the Joker tries to attack an armored police car via an 18-wheeler truck. The police look for safe detours to escape the Joker’s line of fire, and when Batman surfaces with the sleek Batpod motorcycle thing get even cooler. What makes the sequence even better is that all of the peripheral characters behave in semi-logical ways, meaning that your secondary cop characters are respectable decision makers. Nolan also shot several sections of the film in IMAX, which boasts the highest resolution possible for film stock. The panoramic views of Batman atop buildings are breathtaking and may strike vertigo in some moviegoers. The movie looks great and it delivers the action goods but it’s really more of a tense thriller with more tiny moments of unease than an out-and-out action flick with gargantuan explosions and blanket gunfire.

Despite the undeniable brilliance of The Dark Knight, the movie is rather exhausting. After a decent 45 minutes of establishing the characters and setting up the stakes, the movie is essentially two hours of climax after climax, and you will be perched on the edge of your seat and tense until the end credits crash onto the screen. It’s exciting and overwhelming but you will feel wiped out by the end of the movie. There are a lot of characters and a lot of subplots and while I’m thrilled the movie has so much intricacy it also makes it hard for the film to come to a stop. The climax with Two-Face and Gordon’s family also feels misplaced. At a tremendous 2 hours and 30 minute running time, The Dark Knight will test your endurance skills in the best way.

I honestly have no idea where Nolan and crew can take the story now. The Dark Knight seems unlikely to be topped. This is an intense, epic crime thriller with a labyrinthine plot that is packed with emotion, subtext, philosophy, penetrating open-ended questions, and genuine nerve-racking tension. It’s hard for me even to think of this movie as a super hero flick despite that fact that it’s about a billionaire in a rubber suit. This is an engrossing modern crime drama that just so happens to have people in weird costumes. Nolan and his brother have crafted a stirring addition to, not just the Batman canon, but to cinema as a whole. Ledger’s character is the driving force behind the film, the man that makes everyone else react, and his incredibly daring and haunting performance will stand as a last reminder of what talent was lost to the world when he passed away. I for one will be amongst the throng crying out for Oscar recognition but not just for Ledger, for The Dark Knight in general. And I may not be alone. The Dark Knight is currently breaking every box-office record imaginable and seems destined to finish as the number two highest grossing movie of all time, steadily behind James Cameron’s Titanic. If the Academy is looking for a way to shore in better ratings for the Oscars, it might seriously consider nominating The Dark Knight in some key races. It certainly deserves recognition.

Nate’s Grade: A

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Go ahead and work the snickers out of your system. Brokeback Mountain has been dubbed “that gay cowboy movie,” and been condemned by certain fundamentalist Christian organizations as “a very dangerous and insidious message to America.” But what message is Ang Lee’s film even putting out there? It seems to me that Brokeback Mountain is putting a human face on a slur, making homosexuals look like you or me. For some that prospect may be terrifying. The movie is playing well on the blue-state coasts, expectedly, but it’s also surprisingly playing well in America’s heartland. It seems that people are lining up all over to see a movie about two gay cowboys in love. And perhaps the more people that witness Brokeback Mountain, the harder it will be to listen to those so-called family advocacy groups with their sterling Christian morals. Maybe people will really see what’s behind many of the words of outcry – hate and ignorance (I am in no way insinuating that disliking the flick means you are homophobic). Despite all this political talk, Brokeback Mountain is by no means a political movie. It’s a love story, above all, and it’s a doozy.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a quiet man looking for work in rustic Wyoming. He finds a job as a sheep herder working atop the canyons and mountains of Brokeback. Working alongside Ennis is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a charismatic rodeo rider. The weeks are long and Ennis and Jack are all the company they have, excluding the hundreds of sheep they tend. Eventually, the more taciturn Ennis finally opens up and bonds with his herding partner. “That’s more words than you’ve spoken in two weeks,” Jack says. “Hell,” Ennis adds, “That’s the most I’ve spoken in a year.” The rules have been laid out: every night one man sleeps in a tent campsite, the other sleeps next to the sheep to guard them. Well one night Ennis has had too much whisky and cannot make it back to the sheep. Jack invites him to sleep in the tent instead of freezing outside. Then something surprising takes place – both men have an alcohol-fueled bout of rough sex. The next morning both men stress they “ain’t queer,” but they have a hard time fighting their feelings inside. Ennis warns that, “If this thing, it grabs hold of us again… at the wrong place… at the wrong time… and we’re dead.” He recounts a childhood memory where his father showed him the corpse of an older homosexual man, brutally beaten and mutilated. For them, their love must stay on Brokeback Mountain.

photo157qoThe men part ways. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), a quiet woman after his own heart, and fathers two daughters. In Texas, Jack meets fellow rodeo rider Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and gets involved in a relationship with her, fathering a son of his own. But Jack still thinks of his Brokeback pal and sends him a postcard. Ennis nearly lights up at the returned sight of Jack and the two passionately embrace. He tells Alma that Jack is an old “fishing buddy” and they sneak away every few months for a fishing getaway. Really the men are returning to the countryside to rekindle the love that they haven’t left behind. But can they keep their love a secret, and should they even have to?

I wonder if Lee would ever have directed this if 2003’s Hulk didn’t bomb so badly. Lucky for us, he’s taken the Brokeback helm and infuses lots of emotion into the story. The Wyoming countryside (actually Canada, but it’s all close enough) is gorgeous, and the film has a great earthy feel. Best of all, Lee allows his love story to breathe and go at its own pace, never cutting corners or rushing an emotion. There’s a lovely, lilting feel to the film, and Lee’s guided hand allows the story to play out to its grand promise. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Proulx’s 11-page short story, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show) have given incredible depth and subtext to the tale. McMurtry, in particular, has great knowledge of the West and the cowboy lifestyle, and the screenplay gives you an idea of small-town Western life. There are a few moments at bars, social scenes, stores, but they brilliantly give you every detail you’d need to know about this way of life. I even loved how the people of Wyoming wore fashions that were five years removed from their height of popularity, which is exactly how fashion moves around to the smaller parts of America. Ossana and McMurtry are also commended for presenting their characters as people first and never as agenda bulletins. All three lend a level of authenticity that makes the story feel organic and never trite.

In films about forbidden desire and heartbreak, the acting is the cornerstone for how powerful the tale resonates. The acting in Brokeback Mountain is phenomenal. Ledger is the breakout star and the majority of the film’s focus. He gives the performance of his life (I know, not saying much). Ledger is outstanding as the reserved, taciturn Ennis, brought to believe that queers were something sub-human and now he wrestles with his own identity. He may be a restrained man of few words but you see every emotion bubble under the surface, every conflict played out in his eyes. Ledger’s few violent or emotional outbursts are startling because they show an uncontrollable feeling, one even he can’t withhold 24/7.

Gyllenhaal has the showier role but masterfully displays the frustration of forbidden love. He’s willing to sacrifice everything for Ennis, and the fact that Ennis won’t do likewise tears him apart. Isn’t love enough, he wonders. There’s a moment in the film that so sharply displays Jack and Gyllenhaal as an actor. It involves two different shots in a moving truck. The first is Jack headed to Ennis’ ranch, singing, bouncing, and with a wall-to-wall smile. The second is Jack driving away from the ranch unfulfilled, sullen, broken, and seemingly unable to cry another tear. It’s two small moments and they sum up Jack and Gyllenhaal perfectly. The only thing unsettling about Gyllenhaal’s performance is his late 70s porn star ‘stach. With his tremendous work in Jarhead and now Brokeback Mountian, Gyllenhaal is in class all his own (he’s got the dreamiest doe-eyes in Hollywood).

The ladies of Brokeback Mountain have less screen time to play with but they each deliver fine performances. Williams is a silent, put-upon mother and is shattered when she discovers her husband’s secret love. She just crumbles. She’s never the same and Williams showcases her character’s distress and mounting bitterness. One of the film’s highpoints is her confrontation with Ennis, many years later, finally sharing all that she knows. Me thinks an Oscar nod is headed in her post-Dawson’s Creek future. Hathaway plays quite an opposite character. She begins as a wild, headstrong cowgirl with a healthy sexual appetite, something perhaps Jack sees as a reflection of his self. Then their love dies at some point and she pours herself into work, but Hathaway illuminates every step along the way. Her small smile during a scene where Jack finally browbeats her obnoxious father is terrific. And girls, if you’re having trouble dragging your significant other to see Brokeback Mountain with you, remind them that both ladies get naked at some point.

This is an elegiac, engrossing love story. Brokeback Mountain is not necessarily a “gay thing,” more so it’s a story about forbidden love and about the consequences of moving forward without ever letting go. That sounds universal, right? Nothing “gay” about that. Brokeback Mountain explores the force of love and shows how uncontrollable and unpredictable it is. Jack and Ennis are just as surprised by their feelings and their rough night of passion as the audience, but the happiness they share is hard to argue.

photo_06Because of the film’s gentle pace, and Lee’s loose control, we really immerse ourselves in their relationship as they frit away the hours looking after sheep. There was a woman in my theater (I won’t name names, partly because I don’t know hers) who felt that Brokeback Mountain was far too slow and could have been put to better use by cutting 2 hours out. The film’s placid pace is integral to the story’s success; you need to see how expansive that countryside is to feel alone, you need to have the many small conversations to draw out a closer camaraderie, you need the added time to open up to these men, and then once you have –BAM! — they turn their worlds upside down. This buildup is necessary for our connection to the characters but it’s also essential so we can understand what happens. Yes, the film portrays love as it truly is: an all-encompassing emotion that can be as maddening as it is passionate. But Brokeback Mountain doesn’t dare introduce a gay romance, something so dangerous in this land, all lickity-split. It’s supposed to be a surprise to these men, grown up with John Wayne movies and strong, silent role models. The movie enjoyably takes its time to seduce an audience with its tale before choking out every last tear in the end.

The tragedy of Lee’s film is that these men have each found the love of their life but, because of society’s prejudices, are not allowed to act. As a result, each man puts on a different face and pretends they’re a happy heterosexual Western buck for the public, but each is being eaten away inside. Ennis drinks a lot and is full of self-loathing. Jack is less publicly reserved about his feelings and finds momentary comfort with other warm bodies, mostly through silent nods with other closeted gay men. I’m reminded of a line in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia: “I have a lot of love to give; I just don’t know where to put it.” Ennis and Jack cannot quit each other but they also tragically can never fully commit to one another, at least without any threat of ostracism or death. That’s the power of Brokeback, that it shows you these simple men, shows you their love, and then won’t let that happy ending ever manifest that we yearn for. When we reach our somber, haunting conclusion there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater, mine included. Brokeback Mountain is a love story that won’t let itself be happy, and that’s what provides all the kicks to the gut and lumps in your throat.

I think some of the more hostile criticism of Brokeback Mountain is because of how normal Jack and Ennis are presented. Neither is a swishy stereotype, neither is any less of a man, and that notion probably terrifies the homophobes:  “Well, they look normal, and if they get gay then maybe I will too!” That’s a shame really, because those ignorant few will miss out on a powerful, sweeping, complex, aching love story with fantastic acting. Ledger and Gyllenhaal will make you feel every moment of joy, every moment of pain, and every lingering conflict on what makes them whom they are. Lee stressed that he wanted to show the world a love story where you really felt that love was an uncontrollable force. His heartfelt, touching film is a revolution for being a normal love story, albeit with two classic Marlboro men. There is no propaganda, no gay agenda, but perhaps the film will open people’s eyes and strip away any narrow definitions we have toward the ownership of love. Brokeback Mountain set out to merely tell a good story, not change the world. It’s accomplished the first part and maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark discussion, debate, and lasting memories to lay groundwork for the second.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Director Terry Gilliam is one of the true artists working today in movies. His manic, off kilter, visually grand imagination has crafted wonderfully vivid fantasias, but it also has given Gilliam a reputation for being the captain of a sinking ship. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is regarded as one of Hollywood’s bigger failures, unfairly I might add. A fascinating 2003 documentary called Lost in La Mancha detailed the bizarre circumstances and implosions that forced Gilliam to shut down production of his pride and joy, a film about Don Quixote. We’re talking things as out of control and unlucky as acts of God conspiring to doom this project. But then, Gilliam has always been fighting someone or something his whole film career. The studio refused Gilliam’s cut of Brazil so he sneaked out a print, showed it to the Los Angeles film community, and they dubbed it the best film of that year. Gilliam is a man governed by his idiosyncrasies. He’s blessed with a unique voice but cursed with the prospects of not having anywhere to say something (would he not make simply the most divine Harry Potter film yet?). And so Gilliam strikes his hands at something a bit more commercially minded with the action/comic fable, The Brothers Grimm.

Will (Matt Damon) and Jakob (Heath Ledger) Grimm are nineteenth century ghostbusters, so to speak. They travel from town to town ridding the villagers of evil spirits, witches, and all sorts of demonic creatures. Trouble is it’s all a lie. The Grimm brothers and their pals set up the spooks and rob the town blind. Will enjoys the fame, and especially the women, but Jakob feels apprehensive. It?s the Napoleonic wars, and the French have occupied the Germanic lands. A snooty general (Jonathan Pryce) plans to behead the two Grimm brothers unless they solve a strange case in a rural town. A slapsticky, torture-loving commander (Peter Storemare) is sent to watch over the “Grimmies.” At the village, Will and Jakob discover the town has had 10 of its daughters kidnapped with little explanation. With the help of a free-spirited woman (Lena Headey), the brothers encounter giant wolves, moving trees, lickable frogs, and the giant tower of the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci). The Queen was given eternal life but not eternal youth. In order to gain eternal youth, the Queen needs to take the lives of 12 hearty girls, and only the bumbling Grimm brothers stand in her way.

The acting is an example of the film’s messy feel. Ledger talks with marbles in his mouth. He’s putting more detail into the character than it deserves. Damon seems like he’s sleepwalking through the film, and his accent fluctuates wildly. He’s sort of a grinning straight man to Ledger’s tic-heavy daydream believer. Belluci is a ravishing beauty and proof positive for Hollywood that women over 40 don’t need to be put out to pasture. Too bad all she’s expected to do is look pretty and seductive in The Brothers Grimm. Pryce plays his role like a cartoon caricature. Stormare has already given one crazy performance this year (Constantine), and his frenzied, nearly indecipherable performance seems to be the closest to Gilliam’s whacked-out wavelength. Stormare is entertaining in every scene he’s in but can be found guilty of chewing scenery like it was a delicious candy house.

The Brothers Grimm is a gorgeous looking film. The sets are massive and greatly detailed. The location shoots in Prague seem like the perfect environment for Gilliam’s beyond-this-world landscapes. Gilliam experiments with advanced computer graphics for the first time and adds his oddball touches. A child has her eyes taken by a glob of mud, and then the mud reshapes itself into a lumbering gingerbread man. A horse spits out a spiderweb and ensnares a child. And it looks really freaking creepy. The Mirror Queen’s defeat is another standout effect as she breaks apart like shattered glass. The look of The Brothers Grimm is outstanding, but it’s what takes place inside those pretty pictures that dooms the film to mediocrity.

The Brothers Grimm is an unfocused mess. It has disjointed subplots and several story elements that just don’t fit. The wacky French occupation feels like a leftover from a different movie. It just doesn’t work and grinds the movie to a screeching halt with every resurfacing. The Brothers Grimm will routinely work its way into a narrative corner and then use a “magic” cheat to escape (magic axe, magic mirror, magic kiss). Gilliam has always been a master maestro of chaos and visual oddities, but this time he’s tackled a film with a very weak script by Ehren Kruger (Ring Two). Kruger doesn’t bother laying the groundwork of his magical world or establish the rules. Therefore anything can happen and rarely feels satisfying. The characters are one-note, each given a single character trait to play with (skeptic, believer, idiot, etc.). The pacing is pretty sluggish. The first act takes an eternity to set up the film’s characters, plot, and yet it still feels sloppy. The twists and turns are easily telegraphed and unexpectedly boring. The plot is frustrating, shortsighted in scope, and far too conventional for Gilliam’s tastes. When The Brothers Grimm reaches its happy ending you’ll swear you can hear Gilliam gagging somewhere.

Gilliam adds a worthy macabre tone to the film. There will be touches that you know are pure Gilliam, like a woman skinning a rabbit as she talks, or a cat flying into the blades or a torture device. In fact, The Brothers Grimm has a lot of humor involving the comic demise of animals. This isn’t exactly a film appropriate for young children despite the appeal of a fairy tale background. The film wants to tweak fairy tale legends like the two Shreks, but Gilliam wants to make them disturbing nightmares, not something of irreverence. This puts the film’s tone at odds. One minute you’ll have a scene that?s morbid, darkly funny, and unconventional, and then the next minute you’ll have a scene that’s cliché, dull, and whimsically misplaced.

The Brothers Grimm feels like a Terry Gilliam film under glass. The script is weak and plodding, the characters barely leave a dent, and the tone is uneven. The plot is pulled in too many directions and lacks momentum. There are a handful of fun comic diversions but the movie feels like a loose collection of disjointed story elements. There are flashes of grim humor and visual elegance but more often than not the film is just stupendously boring. The Brothers Grimm feels the same way the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty felt: a unique vision compromised and downsized by studio conformity. You can see the indie spirit but the heart just isn’t beating. The Brothers Grimm is mediocre at best. How very grim indeed.

Nate’s Grade: C

Monster’s Ball (2001)

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an overweight young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racists or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Patriot (2000)

For all the controversy this flag-waving picture is garnering over historical accuracy, turning British commanders Nazi-like, ignoring slavery like Spike Lee said, people forget it’s a well tuned and fairly touching and always exciting movie.

The battle sequences are shot with great suspense and visual expertise. The gore flies often, as this would be a very gory war indeed. On a personal note this movie has had the best squib hits (blood shot explosions for those who don’t know) I’ve ever seen. But the main focus isn’t the war, it’s merely a back drop for the story of a family man Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) avenging the death of one of his sons and being pulled into the war fighting for a purpose. Mel Gibson gives a wonderful performance as the troubled father man afraid of his past sins and what the future may bring. His thoughts are never on the enemy but on his children he loves dearly. Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You) plays Gibson’s oldest son Gabriel and is the break-out star. His acting is as sharp as a bayonet and the future looks very promising for this Aussie actor.

The most necessary quality a movie must have to pull for the hero is a hissable villain, and The Patriot has a villain that will likely be the best (worst?) of the summer and possible year. Well known British stage actor Jason Isaacs gives such delight in every snarl and evil grin that Tavington, his character, exudes. You can peer into his eyes and see evil — and that’s great acting. He truly relishes his actions. With a wonderfully bad villain it only pulls more emotional heft to the story written by Saving Private Ryan‘s scibe Robert Rodat on a personal mission to pen a movie about every major American war.

The Patriot isn’t spot free, especially after a multiple tomahawk attack. Some of its characters are sloppy and the end is rather predictable and somewhat cheesy that the two men do battle as the focal point of the entire war. And you might just laugh when Gibson races back to the front of a quivering line and waving the flag to inspire the troops. There’s also many unnecessary and stupid sub-plots. Some work like Gabriel’s love story, some don’t like the one black man entering the unit to fight for his freedom met with the usual hostility.

The Patriot is a movie filled with excitement, great direction, and worthy characters. So do something for your nation and plop down seven bucks and see this movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

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