Blog Archives

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

——————————————————

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-

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up from his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight is an affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel exploring a larger picture of the African-American experience through the life of one family under pressure. It’s a beautifully tender movie that aches with human feeling, tragic and joyous. We follow a young couple where Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephen James) is in jail for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins jumps around in time, providing mirrored juxtapositions that enliven the emotional outpouring of the scenes on screen, adding a sense of dread at the hardships we know await and a extra compassion for the good times while they last. Regina King is so outstanding as Tish’s mother, who goes out of her way to gather evidence to free Alonzo, that I wished she had more to do than her handful of big Oscar moments. There’s a racist cop that comes into the picture and is easily sidelined again. Many moments follow this lyrical, free-floating structure, zipping from one memory to another, which nicely presents a fuller picture with less. However, it also makes the film feel like it doesn’t fully come together by its very end and whether all of the assorted moments and insights are as helpful. It presents a case study of criminal justice reform and reminder that this family is only but one example. The intimate cinematography is gorgeous and the use of color is spellbinding. The music by Nicholas Britell is also highly involving without being overbearing. If Beale Street Could Talk might not have the awe-inspiring power and artistry of Moonlight, but it’s a moving, compassionate, and beautiful movie that confirms Jenkins as one of the greats.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Human Centipede 3 (2015)

MV5BMzU1OTUyNjE1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjc4NjI1NTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Sometimes as a critic I seek out the worst of the worst so you don’t have to, America. And you really owe me big time for sitting through all 100 torturous minutes of the regretful-in-every-aspect horror… “comedy,” Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. I’ll confess that horror is a genre I’ve grown to enjoy and I genuinely liked the first Centipede film, finding its premise near ingenious and that writer/director Tom Six developed his horror grotesquerie in a way that turned it into an accessible survival thriller with some gonzo edges. The sequel was pretty repulsive and the third film, with the hopeful promise of being the “final sequence,” is even worse. This is a horrifying endurance test not unlike Tom Green’s abysmal lone directorial affront, Freddy Got Fingered. It is that bad. Scenes just seem to go on and on and exist for no purpose. It’s like Dieter Laser was just told to do whatever he wanted as long as he yelled as loud as he could and based his performance after the Looney Tunes cast. It’s cheap vulgarity masquerading as edgy provocation; it’s transparently lazy and insufferable. It’s not funny no matter how weird or loud or garish or bloody or dumb it gets. The premise is basically an insane prison warden (Laser) is going to create his own human centipede, the biggest ever, linking over 100 inmates. Ignoring the escalation of all the Centipede sequels, it’s a facile plot device and it doesn’t even happen until the very end. Until that awful reveal, you will have to endure, no a better word is survive, extended “comedy” bits like Laser sticking his tongue out and roaring in orgasm while his secretary (Bree Olsen) is forced to felate him while others are in the room. The movie is trying so hard to be shocking and irreverent that you can see all the pained efforts. It’s tedious and boring. Human Centipede 3 is 100 minutes of pathetic flop sweat that could more or less end with the throwaway punchline, “The Aristocrats!”

Nate’s Grade: F

Lockout (2012)

Rather derivative and not very clever, the sci-fi prison break movie Lockout is surprisingly enjoyable, in a brain-dead sort of way, mostly thanks to a few lean suspense sequences and the deadpan glory of star, Guy Pearce. The man plays a reluctant hero sent to a space prison to rescue the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) hiding amidst the dangerous inmates. It’s like every action, sci-fi cliché rolled into one, and yet the movie is consistently entertaining. Pearce carries the same deadpan gumption throughout; it doesn’t matter what’s happening, it will not faze him and he has a quip for everything. When the first daughter asks him if her dad had any words to pass along, he quips, “Yeah, you’re adopted.” The roguish charm of Pearce keeps the movie grounded even when it goes a little nutty with conspiracies, obstacles, and a mad rush of a climax. The movie is set only 40 years or so in the future, and as such it feels too weirdly futuristic for the minimal time jump. Would we really have an orbiting space prison and put prisoners in hyper sleep? Anyway, the movie is a lot more fun and tolerable than I would have expected, and Columbus, Ohio’s own Grace (Taken) actually gives the most mature performance of her still young career, for what that’s worth. It’s not great, but thanks to Pearce, it’s pretty passable entertainment, especially for generous genre fans.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Stoic (2009)

Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to associate Uwe Boll with the idea of social activist. This is the same man who has caused people so much pain and with his movies, ranging from bad to ridiculously bad to “You cannot unsee what you have seen” bad. The German director who has caused so many film and video game fans suffering seemed an unlikely candidate to seriously explore the suffering of others. And yet Boll’s heart grew three sizes and he directed a slate of movies with a social conscience. His movie about the genocide in Darfur is still circling around, awaiting a release date, but let me stop to remind you that Uwe Freaking Boll directed a movie about a topical humanitarian crisis. This is akin to… Eli Roth directing an Edith Wharton adaptation (“From the director of Cabin Fever comes … Ethan Frome!”). It just doesn’t seem like an organic pairing. Boll is used to blood and boobs (both of the mammary kind and of the idiot variety), not social relevancy. You don’t expect an exploitation filmmaker to shine a light on exploitation. While we await his Darfur movie, in the meantime is Stoic, a quick and cheap movie about three prison inmates (Edward Furlong, Sam Levinson, Steffen Mennekes) brutalizing their cellmate, Mitch (Shaun Sipos) when a bet goes wrong. It’s based on a true story from a German juvenile detention center, or so we’re told.

So what kind of movie is Stoic, actually? Well, for starters it’s an uncomfortable one. The movie aims to show the capability of human cruelty and how easy it is to become compliant within a group, to go along with the flow despite some murky moral hazards. The three cellmates end up kick starting a cycle of violence, each trying to top the last so as not to appear weak or to damage ego. Can this cycle of cruelty be stopped? The dehumanization leads to some rather brutal and disgusting acts of violence and degradation including forcing Mitch to eat his own vomit, dumping urine on the guy’s face, raping him, and sodomizing him with a broom handle (“Just curiosity, I guess,” explains one of his attackers). Despite all this, there are actual moments of restraint on Boll’s part, particularly during the rape sequence. The audio drops out, the edits become jump cuts stuttering ahead through time, and I thought perhaps Boll was maturing. Needless to say this thought was torpedoed a tad when Boll later showcased the inmates rubbing the bloody broom handle over Mitch’s unconscious mouth. Stoic is essentially a torture movie; it’s 80 minutes of literal torture with some extra psychological justification tagged along for safe measure.

Where Stoic comes into issue is whether or not it possesses any merits to justify watching 80-some minutes or torture. The movie doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological insights or rich characters. Watching people become increasingly hurtful is not the same as exploring the habits that make such escalating acts of barbarity occur. Boll and the actors pound us with the message that we’re in prison and prison has its own operating system and everybody jockeys for position; Peter (Levinson) repeatedly tells us that he feels sorry but felt he had to participate or else they’d turn on him. It’s all about having somebody weaker to take the fall. I’ll give Boll credit that the amplification of events seems plausible given the circumstances, to the point that the three guys have come to the conclusion that there will be serious consequences for their actions unless they convince Mitch to go along with a fake suicide. The movie maintains believability even as things get more and more out of hand, which is commendable. But what isn’t commendable is that there seems little reason for Stoic to exist. Narratively the movie is simple: three guys pick on another guy. The characters are all slight variations of one another based upon the level to process guilt and deception. During the interviews, we’re given fleeting glimpses at denial and coping mechanisms, mainly lying (“I would’ve remembered something like that.”) to self-rationalization (“I kept saying to myself, ‘As long as it’s not me.’”). There aren’t many insights to be gleaned from the brief interviews, which serve as commentary.

Boll decided to make Stoic his Mike Leigh film, meaning that he had the basic outline of a story and told his actors to run with it while he filmed them. There was no script and all the dialogue was completely improvised. This does allow Stoic to maintain a naturalistic feel, however, it also means that the actors are beholden to tough guy clichés. The dialogue, particularly during the interrogation scenes, keeps falling back to a “you don’t know what’s it’s like, man!” mantra. Here are some examples of bland dialogue that the actors came up with:

“What choice did I have?”

“You’re either with them or against them.”

“What don’t you understand? If I didn’t seem like I was apart of it, they’d kill me.”

“I had no choice. They forced me.”

“I want to lie because I don’t want to be that person.”

“I felt like there was no way out.”

And because you knew it had to happen:

“I’m just as bad as the two of them because I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

You’ll note that most of these dialogue examples belong to the Peter, the chattiest and most remorseful interviewee. Improvisation has its virtues but it can also lead to actors falling back on stuff they’ve seen in countless other genre examples, which means that the banal, cliché dialogue all gets stirred together one more time.

In defense of Stoic, it may prove to be Boll’s finest directorial effort yet. The handheld camera, sharp edits, and close angles copy the Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) style of visuals, and yet the docu-drama copy works. The visual aesthetic improves the quality of the film and allows Boll many opportunities for interesting compositions and smart stylistic decisions with the economical space of the set. The interviews are shot as one static camera shot to contrast with the shaky, reactionary movement from within the cell. It may not be an original style, but then again Boll seems to adopt (some might say rip-off) a new style with every film. For Stoic, Boll’s direction makes you feel in the middle of these awful incidents, and the pain feels even more real.

But is there any reason to really watch Stoic? The acting is mostly good, and maybe fans of Edward Furlong would like to see what he’s been up to since 1998’s Pecker and American History X. Perhaps the declaration of “Boll’s best directorial effort” will appeal to maybe six or seven curious, and questionably masochistic, film fans. Due to Boll’s German background, I can’t help but wonder if his country’s history influenced him to try a narrative experiment hat explores how easy it is to go along with something awful, how difficult it is to make a moral stand against the grain, and how easily circumstances can find momentum and get out of control. I wonder if Stoic is Boll’s personal act of penance, of trying to understand a nation’s actions (and inaction) and working through a lingering shroud of shame. Then again, I may be reading way more into this movie than was ever intended. It could have just been a lark for a quick buck/deutschmark. Stoic is a mildly interesting little filmic experiment from Boll. Due to its narrative simplicity and limited characterization, it can’t offer much more than another voyeuristic slideshow of human degradation.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Prophet (2009)

France’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar is like a much more realistic version of HBO’s soapy prison drama, Oz, for better and worse. We follow a young prisoner who gets caught up in the power dynamics of the many warring factions within the pokey. This is a dense, slow-burning drama that hooks you early but then seems to stall. Early on, our lead character is given an ultimatum by a Corsican boss: murder an informant held in the jail or die himself. It’s a turbulent moral struggle with definite intrigue as he considers his dwindling options of escape and practices a routine to slit a man’s throat to save his own. After that A Prophet introduces a stream of characters inside and out of prison and it gets more complicated. The film values realism but it means that the characters aren’t as colorful, and therefore memorable or interesting, as they would be in similar crime capers. It makes it hard to remember who is who and why exactly they’re important. The story follows the steady ascent of our lead from nascent to criminal boss but it all plays out as a series of small power plays with little grand gestures. This is not Scarface at all. There’s little action, scant suspense, but mostly the movie deals with the minutia of climbing the criminal underworld. It’s like the filmmakers want to impress you with the homework they did in sociology. A bland lead and an overabundance of procedural details blunts the film’s entertainment quality. I appreciate gritty realism but after a while I’d sacrifice some of that realism for some more engaging characters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Longest Yard (2005)

Does anyone else remember an episode of South Park from the 2004 season where Eric Cartman dresses up as a robot named AWESOM-O? The best part of the episode came when Cartman stumbled into a Hollywood meeting and they asked the robot to pitch a movie idea. He came up with idea after idea of Adam Sandler in some wacky yet predictable situation, each a slight variation from the last. The Hollywood execs ate it up and scribbled everything down, chanting, “Goldmine!” I imagine The Longest Yard remake, the latest Sandler comedy vehicle, came about through similar creatively bankrupt circumstances.

Paul Crewe (Sandler) is at a low point in his life. The once star quarterback has been banned from football for throwing a game. His girlfriend (Courtney Cox) thinks they should split, and after being chased by police for drunk driving, he?s been sent to prison. The warden (James Cromwell, your go-to guy if you need someone old) has big plans for Crewe. He wants the young stud to organize an all-inmate football team to play against the cruel guards. Crewe gets help from a fellow inmate Caretaker (Chris Rock) and they set about finding the right men for their team. A former Heisman-winning football player (Burt Reynolds), who happens to be in the same prison, becomes the coach. Slowly but surely the group becomes a team united to get some revenge on their tormentors.

The Longest Yard is an Adam Sandler comedy in the worst way possible. The film is sloppy and sophomoric but generally unfunny. It sets its comedy heights on kicking people in the nuts and making fun of gay people. Mission accomplished. The sex jokes, while in abundance, generally fall flat because the movie is so ineptly transparent when it comes to comedy. It lets all the air out of the supposed punch lines. The humor is typically homophobic but infuriatingly also anti-women. You see, one of the guards is taking steroids in a bottle with a giant label that says, “Steroids?”(so much for keeping a low profile). The boys replace the steroids with -hee hee- estrogen pills. And in three days time, which would of course have no effect in such a short period, the guard is now crying, and overly emotional, and empathetic, and he has hot flashes, though I don’t know how in the world a man comes to that conclusion. Apparently it’s funny because women are weak and care about each other. I would be offended by this whole joke if it wasn’t so incompetently done. The Longest Yard exists in its own inept world where inmates have cells within arms reach of each other and there’s a prison football league. Lest we forget, this prison also keeps a star system to rank its inmates. Little did you know of Roger Ebert’s unorthodox side projects.

Sandler plays Adam Sandler as he does in most of his Hollywood flicks. He’s likable, he’s a goofball, and it all works out. I wonder if we’ll ever see the true thespian side of Sandler again, like in Paul Thomas Anderson?s deconstructionist Punch-Drunk Love. Rock’s abrasiveness is toned down but he also loses his comedic edge. He’s basically another stereotypical black character in a movie making tired jokes about the difference between black people and white people. Cromwell and Reynolds both appear to be having fun mucking it up with the youngins. The rest of the supporting cast have their moments but aren’t very memorable. The movie fills out the athletes by having real football players and wrestlers.

What’s worse is that The Longest Yard wants to also be taken as a serious movie. This causes some intensely jarring scenes intended for dramatic impact but they just stick out sorely and are misplaced. Every time the movie goes from kicking people in the nuts to dealing with something like racism or death, the movie flounders from the tonal whiplash. The original movie was more of a prison drama than a sports movie, let alone a comedy. The Sandler remake wants to be all three and isn’t good at any of them.

This movie is so formulaic that it could have been written on a string of napkins, likely only totaling three. The Longest Yard feels like 2005’s greatest example of a cut-and-paste studio approved movie. Of course the embattled hero will once again face his demons and his past. Of course the motley crew of idiots and convicts will come together for something greater than themselves. Of course the evil guards will all get their comeuppance in appropriate ways. I expected all this from the start, but where The Longest Yard goes terribly wrong is when even the details can be correctly guessed. I watched the film with a couple friends and we accurately guessed every character move, scene transition, character development, and sadly, every punch line. This is a film that spells everything out, including the jokes. Here’s an example of the film’s shortsighted thought process: the dastardly warden soaks the player’s field and makes it all muddy with the intention of demoralizing the team. What? These are prisoners, and you think mud is going to demoralize them? Don’t even get me started on how insane it is sending Burt Reynolds into the game as a running back. There’s more attention spent on the limp football scenes than the story or the comedy.

Another example of how weak the comedy is comes during the football game. It’s being telecast on ESPN and Chris Berman is providing the play-by-play. His sidekick in the booth is an inmate who doesn’t say anything. Berman even broaches this fact on air. Now, if The Longest Yard knew the facets of comedy, the natural payoff for this sequence would be for the silent inmate to say something at the very end, something funny or unexpected or even verbose. Instead, the film has the inmate talk two or three times and he adds no comedy. That’s The Longest Yard in a nutshell: all set-up and no return. And seriously, stop with the Rob Schneider cameos already.

The humor is a cocktail of physical slapstick and the occasional one-liner. There just isn’t anything satisfying to the comedy The Longest Yard has to offer. The jokes typically don’t build to anything greater and the humor is simply immediate with no lasting results. There’s nothing that will make you keel over with laughter, nothing that rises above a smirk or a slight giggle. The jokes are way too predictable and there’s nothing funny about the expected. That’s why most people don’t chuckle when the mail arrives. This just isn’t an entertaining comedy, plain and simple.

The Longest Yard is a tirelessly formulaic affair that is so ham-fisted with comedy it can’t even deliver jokes properly. This is a dumb, sanitized, audience-friendly easily digestible piece of puff that will get caught in your throat. This is a Franken-movie, with various parts crammed together for the best possible results by some studio overlord. The Longest Yard‘s comedy is sophomoric and generally insipid, the drama is a complete misstep and tonally out of place, and the football scenes are vapidly jazzed up. This is a sports move that doesn’t work as a comedy and a comedy that doesn’t work as a sports movie. Sandler’s devout army of fans will likely be satiated with this latest effort, feeling the flick to be stupid fun. For me, it was just stupid. Very stupid.

Nate’s Grade: D

Chicago (2002)

January at the theaters is a tale of two kinds of films. One type are the studio bombs (take Just Married and Darkness Falls, please take them far away). The other type are the prestige pictures expanding their releases in hopes of garnering some of that Oscar magic. A lot of prestige films were released around the holidays and though not every one could be a winner, they were all better than Kangaroo Jack. Well, except for The Hours.

Chicago (2002)

Premise: Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), hungry for fame, finally grasps it when she kills her lover and is put on trial. Silver-tongue lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) stirs up the media in her defense, as well as for another starlet killer, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Results: A song-and-dance picture that’s quite toe-tappin’ with imaginative numbers, even if I can only remember like two songs. A surprisingly steady Zeta-Jones really shines and Gere can cut a rug. Chicago is just lively fun. Blink and you’ll miss Lucy Liu in it.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Green Mile (1999)

A prison in the heart of the deep South during the era of the Great Depression is not usually the locale you’d find a somber tale of earnest discovery and passionate awareness to the follies of life. Yet here arrives the long anticipated The Green Mile, the second in tag-team efforts from director Frank Darabont and novelist Stephen King in their own genre creation of nostalgic feel-good prison flicks. All the swelling hype could manage to make the movie seem overbearing, but if you’ve got a free afternoon and a butt made of steel then try The Green Mile.

Darabont seems like the perfect visual interpreter to King’s epic narrative spinning of good, evil, and all that fall between. The movie moves at the pace of molasses and clocks in at over three hours in length. Not exactly audience friendly fodder but one and all will be grateful for the decisions taken to build character development and tension instead of blindly rushing through.

Tom Hanks plays a prison guard on the Death Row block of a Southern penitentiary. Despite the bleak and grim surroundings his humanity still shines through. He escorts and oversees the final moments of many men’s remaining breaths along the final walk of green linoleum tile to the electric chair. Enter one mysterious morn John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan), a towering giant that seems to break all the rules each of the guards on cell block E has come to realize through their years. Coffey has been convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls, but as Hanks soon learns things aren’t always what they seem. The 7-foot miracle worker displays scenes of empathetic healing like to Christ himself. Hanks views are turned and his eyes open, and that’s just the beginning of the heartstrings being pulled. To release anymore of the plot would be a crime punishable by Ole’ Sparky himself in the Green Mile.

The pacing is smooth and wrings out every droplet of mystery and drama needed. The Green Mile‘s comprehensive fable quality transcends the period just like The Shawshank Redemption did as well prior. ‘Mile’ should be expected to be a front-runner for Oscars when balloting begins.

The ensemble acting is magnificently eclectic and truly inspiring. Hanks’ name is so synonymous with Oscar that he might as well shave his head and paint his body gold because come nomination time this man’s name is going straight to the ballot. Other stars give thoughtfully deep and refreshing performances guaranteed to turn a few heads. Duncan’s gentle child-like giant is serene and a benevolently touching figure of innocence and warmth. But one can not forget the presence of a very special rodent by the name of Mr. jingles that deserves billing above the credits itself for the quality performance it puts on.

The Green Mile is a sad, touching ,and rather powerful movie that speaks to the viewer’s emotions and gladly earns every one of them. In the end The Green Mile is nothing beyond a long yarn of a fairy tale; but one told so exceptionally, one performed so extraordinarily, and one directed so deftly that you’ll gladly journey down that mile with ease.

Nate’s Grade: B

This movie also revisited and analyzed in the article, “1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View.”

Brokedown Palace (1999)

Foolish teens today, thinking they can smuggle drugs into East Asian countries and get away with it. Foolish screenwriter for thinking we haven’t seen this exact same situation done many times before and done many times better. And foolish audience for actually paying to go see this.

The movie desperately tries to be an emotional tale of the chains of friendship and perseverance, and it uses earlier examples like Midnite Express and Return to Paradise as staples. But the movie is devoid of emotion all together because of one glaring fault in the flick: the girls are complete idiots! Throughout the whole movie they’re given cliched and horrendous dialogue to spurt. You can’t feel any attachment or connection because they are just so incompetent that on some cosmic level it’s almost like they deserve what they get. And they didn’t get much. The ending is rather ludicrous because it tries to have this strong emotional force but is only a whimper because there was little attachment to the characters in the first place.

It’s a common practice in movies to put the characters through harrowing and dangerous circumstances so that the audience will pull for them and be drawn closer to them emotionally. And in this genre nothing can do that like the good ole’ inhuman prison system so monstrously shown in previous films. But I don’t know where these girls went or who their travel agent was because where they stay is like the Club Med of all those horrible foreign prisons. They’re almost livin’ it up for an inhuman hell hole.

The women-in-prison genre is a classic cheesy late night television smorgasbord of gratuitous nudity and shower sequences that are almost the entire purpose of the genre. Brokedown Palace certainly isn’t going to go down this route. You won’t see Claire Danes sponging off Kate Beckinsale’s body during a mass shower, or see the tough lesbian guard who runs her shop tight and mean, or the tough lesbian rival in the jail cells. What you do get is a script that tries to garner emotion but instead can only grasp for cheap melodrama.

Nate’s Grade: C

%d bloggers like this: