WHAT FRESH HELL

How I spent my Christmas vacation. Quick links: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Cold Mountain, The Human Stain , Dogville, Capturing the Friedmans, Hulk, Elephant, City of God, American Splendor, Bad Santa, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Swimming Pool.

Given that I avoided movie theaters all summer long, my moviegoing rhythms were a little off in 2003. Slogging through the year-end panoply of Oscar bait always turns me off — I dislike feeling the pressure to see so many earnest movies all within a few days of each other, just so I can fill out my various awards ballots (OFCS, Cinemarati, and the all-important Skandies) with a clear conscience — so this year it felt even more like a duty than a pleasure, as I tried to squeeze in intriguing holdovers from mid-year like American Splendor and Capturing the Friedmans, for instance, at the last minute, while dutifully looking at The Human Stain (mainly because I wanted to see Nicole Kidman) and Girl With a Pearl Earring (ditto Scarlett Johansson). These end-of-year releases vary in quality, but they're all ambitious, and while that ambition can lend big films an intriguing messiness, it rarely manifests itself in anything resembling idiosyncracy. Like what's left of the American indie scene, the big studio Cinema of Quality can feel as tedious and mechanical as any dopey action programmer or thick-witted teen-horror romp.

So settling in for the long haul that was Cold Mountain — the most technically proficient yet emotionally remote film of the year, edging out Ang Lee's intermittently mesmerizing Hulk — I couldn't help thinking to myself, “Well, here we go again.” Watching that bunny scamper across the Civil War battleground-to-be, representing the calm before the film's opening-sequence storm of fire, mud and body parts, the question in my mind was of just what level of bloody chaos director Anthony Minghella was prepared to represent. Part of me was dreading this. Having spent three-and-a-half hours slouched in my seat little more than a week previous, witnessing the mammoth, unprecedented military landscapes that were represented so overwhelmingly in The Return of the King — and having spent the calendar year living in a country engaged in its own increasingly protracted, toll-taking war overseas — I was pretty full of war. But we see movies like Cold Mountain, I suppose, not in the hope of being excited by the carnage on screen (for that there's always Bad Boys II) but rather because we hope they can teach us something about the nature of the human soul as it engages in — and, in this case, disengages from — atrocity.

If Looney Tunes: Back in Action is eligible for Best Animated Film, why not The Return of the King?
In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, of course, war is a higher calling. I can't think of a movie that ever made the case for the good fight as spectacularly and inarguably as did its Kurosawa-inspired predecessor, The Two Towers, which rallied troops to a cause no less noble than Defending the Future of Mankind from the Hordes of Evil. The Return of the King ups the ante with ever-more-spectacular battle sequences driven by ever-more-mathematically-advanced computer software that sets raging hordes of little computer-controlled soldiers against one another on battlegrounds shot from ever-higher altitudes. I loved The Fellowship of the Ring quite a lot — in its extended DVD version, the languid introduction at Hobbiton takes its place alongside the rightly lauded Mines of Moria sequence as one of the most assured achievements of Peter Jackson's career to date. I guess what was really inspiring about that first film was not just the sense of difference, the shock at seeing this material represented on screen for the first time with a sense of cinematic heft as well as the requisite slavish fidelity to the material, but also the sense of closeness to its characters. The scope of the second and third films has grown ever wider; though there's certainly more happening story-wise in each of them, the intimacy and humor have been replaced by menace and darkness.

Now, it's probable that the God's-eye view is the only way for director Peter Jackson to generate a canvas onto which he can fit his Tolkien-sized vision of the battle at the edge of the world. The effect is awe-inspiring, but remote. (Sometimes I felt like I was watching a particularly chaotic game of Age of Empires raging on the theater screen.) That none of the characters in this film seem to ever be in real jeopardy — the death of Boromir and the disappearance of Gandalf in Fellowship both packed a wallop that is never quite matched in the two follow-ups — only further separates these battles from their physical and psychological implications. The Return of the King also seems to me to beg the question of whether it's possible to evoke the experience of war in any meaningful way, even in a fantasy context, in a PG-13 movie. And I do have a question for the Academy: if Looney Tunes: Back in Action is eligible for Best Animated Film, why not The Return of the King?

I'm still looking forward to Jackson's King Kong, which I hope will afford him more room to bend the classic formula to his own strengths than did his take on The Lord of the Rings, a project that kept him sweating to stay ahead of a lynch mob ready to prosecute any significant variation from the source text. This brand of strenuous adaptation is some kind of achievement, for sure, and it's likely beloved by more viewers than any other film this year. So although I think I'd rather watch Jackson's Heavenly Creatures or Braindead for the umpteenth time, I figure maybe his Tolkien will gel better on a repeat viewing — The Fellowship of the Ring only fell together for me the second time I watched it — but I appreciated the accomplishment from what felt like a great literal and emotional distance.

Upon all the living and the dead.

Minghella, by contrast, shoots his fighting scenes from grunt level and below. The early battle scene, the only large-scale Civil War skirmish depicted in the movie, is shown in all its horrific glory to underscore its psychological importance to Jude Law's soldier, Inman, who eventually turns his back on the war and treks across the country toward home, a deserter who has eyes only for a woman of glancing acquaintance that he nonetheless loves with all his too-mortal soul. Too-obviously redolent of the journey of Odysseus, Cold Mountain is at its best within individual episodes, little self-contained dramas that have Inman interacting with folks who apparently demonstrate different facets of U.S. life during wartime — the ways that political ideologies play havoc with real people. That these ancillary characters are played by big-name supporting actors — Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a man of the cloth who's skeevy and funny in a way that belies his quite desperate moral character; Natalie Portman as a young mother and war widow; Giovanni Ribisi as a deceitful opportunist — each of whom seems to be working in a different register, just underscores the choppy nature of Inman's story thread. As Inman trudges back toward the town of Cold Mountain, his journey is cross-cut with scenes from life at home, where a too-statuesque Nicole Kidman patiently awaits his return even as the sexual predator Teague circles, flanked by a vigilante posse that gets its kicks rounding up deserters who've prematurely returned home. (You can see, surely, where this is headed.)

The mustache-twirling business imposes some kind of dramatic structure on the screenplay, but is just too much melodrama for material that struggles to reveal the internal lives of its lead characters, good people who pine for lovers they barely know but who mean everything in the world and then some. Jude Law is very good in a role that demands a demonstrable psychological progression, both during his journey home and through flashbacks that show him living the humble life that begat a soldier (he remains quiet, a little smile pasted on his face as the other young men of Cold Mountain whoop and holler, chillingly, “We got our war!”). His eyes start soft, then progressively harden and tighten until the end of the film, when he may as well be a zombie. Law doesn't find a worthy counterpart in Kidman, who's been drafted to play the overly-schooled southern lady whose world abruptly disintegrates around her. There's a certain magnificence to her, sure — she looks particularly splendid in the scene where she hoists a rifle and levels it at the unrecognizable man approaching her too quickly down the road — but her ineluctable movie-star presence just increases the film's already problematic sense of overdetermination. As transitorily stunning as its technique can be — Minghella, cinematographer John Seale and editor Walter Murch are some kind of cinematic dream team for sure — Cold Mountain is the Civil War viewed through a abstraction layer, its big ideas about human behavior studied and contrived for thesis value.

The spectacularly miscast The Human Stain.

Speaking of Kidman, what seems less likely — Anthony Hopkins performing in a sex scene with Nicole Kidman, or Anthony Hopkins playing a black man? Hopkins (at 65, he's not quite twice Kidman's age) managed both feats in the same film, the sensitively written and directed but spectacularly miscast The Human Stain. Kidman plays a 34-year-old janitor at the New England college where Hopkins, his race a shameful secret closely held, is the dean who falls from grace after making a comment — oh, the irony! — that's interpreted as racist. Hopkins is quite good in the role, although there's a clear disconnect between him and Wentworth Miller, who plays the part to near-perfection in flashbacks as the younger version of the same character. But Kidman, playing deliberately against type, never inhabits her white-trash role without resorting to Acting; she transforms herself, true, but said transformation is a distraction in every scene where she appears. You believe the old man would want to spend time in this gorgeous woman's bedroom, for sure, but the shouting matches with her abusive, loudmouthed war-veteran boyfriend — as well as the janitorial gig — ring wholly untrue. I didn't have much use for Robert Benton as a director until he made Nobody's Fool and Twilight, two films that cast splendid multi-generational American icons in films that depicted growing old as an ineluctable and ridiculous tragedy. This film is more ambitious yet less successful than either of them. Call it a noble failure.

Ah, finally a Nicole Kidman movie!

Kidman is just great in Dogville, the real best film of the year, and one that has its own hellish vision of America for audiences to contend with. Lion's Gate decided to hold this one for release next spring, presumably because it worried that Kidman would already be in competition with herself for Oscar attention this year, and why oversaturate the market? From a distribution standpoint, I suppose that's a smart move, although it seems crazy from an audience standpoint for a company to sit on a movie this good when there's so much dross on the market. Shot on a minimalist set dressed for live theater, with an abundance of special-effects gadgetry helping director Lars Von Trier get exactly the right angles, Dogville chronicles the events following the arrival in a sleepy Colorado mountain town of a stranger with secrets to hide. Immediately befriended by the self-consciously right-thinking Thomas (Paul Bettany), the mysterious Grace (Kidman) has to prove her virtuousness to the townspeople in order that they might accept her rather than cast her back out for capture by the gangsters or the cops, both of whom are looking for her. Leave it to Von Trier to expose the unpleasant underbelly of prototypical small-town America. (When the townspeople sang “America the Beautiful” at the dinner table, I had some idea of where the story might go.) In terms of mood, this reminded me most of Le Corbeau, with its poison-pen auteur systematically turning a town against itself, although Dogville's view of human behavior is ultimately even dimmer than Clouzot's — instead of turning on each other when their frailties are revealed, the townspeople rail singlemindedly against the outsider. Dogville is a bravura piece, probably the director's greatest achievement to date, with a scalding sociopolitical context that's been missing from English-language films for so long that some viewers reacted to this one like Von Trier himself had crapped at the dinner table.

Home movie.

Capturing the Friedmans is all about sociopolitical context, with director Andrew Jarecki clearly positing that the Friedmans of Great Neck, Long Island, were railroaded by a capricious legal system that privileges the presumption of guilt over fairness and fact-gathering. Dozens of hours of home movies and videos were made available to Jarecki, who stumbled across the story while researching a completely different film, about clowns who entertain at children's parties in New York City. As coincidence would have it — and giving the film a coincidentally queasy edge — one of those clowns happens to be David Friedman, whose own family disintegrated in the media spotlight amid accusations of child molestation. Jarecki challenges viewers to confront their own prejudices about child abuse and pedophilia, using dozens of hours of Jarecki home movies and videos as well as latter-day interviews to examine the circumstantial, sometimes contradictory elements of the case that put Arnold Friedman and son Jesse (David's brother) behind bars. Jarecki's methodology seems calibrated for maximum ambiguity, which is frustrating. He mounts a convincing argument that allegations of abuse were solicited from at least some of the children involved in a way that encouraged them to lie — or even to conjure up phony “repressed” memories of abuse — but declines to work up the kind of scalding condemnation of the justice system that characterized, say, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. That's the treatment that his findings would seem to demand, assuming Jarecki had great confidence in his skeptical inquiry. But the problem with defending the Friedmans remains the Friedmans themselves: Arnold was an admitted pedophile who not only solicited child pornography but apparently also admitted to molesting children (but not the children he was accused of molesting). And it doesn't help that Arnold and Jesse both plead guilty to the charges levied against them. So innocence is, in this case, a tough sell. Which, granted, may be Jarecki's point. (However, some of Jarecki's gimmicks — like the big reveal at the end of the film showing that Arnold Friedman's brother is, um, gay — play irresponsibly.) At the very least, the sheer number of charges filed against the Friedmans seems ludicrous, especially considering the confessions Jarecki elicited from one alleged molestee who now says he was effectively coerced into making the allegations. But the real accomplishment is the fine emotional spin Jarecki puts on the story. Here's a family that acted out its most painful private moments in front of cameras because the Friedman men had been performers for so long that they didn't know how else to live. The final scene documents a homecoming that's the more wrenching for its understatedness — and, yes, its ambiguity.

In our family portrait, we look pretty happy.

Speaking of fucked-up family portraits, Ang Lee took a singleminded approach to his Hulk movie, resolutely reconstructing the comic-book story as a fable about fractured father-child relationships. This one came in for much early criticism of its computer-animated special effects, but I think it got a bum rap; Industrial Light + Magic's meticulously animated Hulk arguably gives a better performance than Eric Bana, and the sequences late in the film where the big green guy bounds quietly across expansive desert landscapes in the general direction of the only family life he knows are breathtaking. It's too bad about the first half of the picture, which wastes time and squanders audience sympathy with too much humorless exposition. And the final sequence, a completely computer-rendered father-son showdown high up in the Sierra Nevadas, is a complete loss. Some amazing stuff made it up on the screen just the same. Given Hulk's unspectacular box-office performance and the subsequent difficulty it had trying to organize the inevitable sequel, Universal will always think of Ang Lee as its franchise-killer. Which is OK; he's some kind of brilliant, for sure, but huge budgets don't seem to agree with him. (That said, I'm pleased to see that his next project is a gay cowboy movie. Life imitates South Park.)

Eenie-meenie-miney-MO!

The atom-bomb blasts seen in Hulk flashbacks are a sort of traditionalist equivalent of the latter-day Columbine-style apocalypse conjured by Gus Van Sant in Elephant. I'm often sympathetic to movies about high school, and Harris Savides' cinematography is sensitive and evocative. I really love how the visual strategy of tracking shots and close-ups seem to evoke an internalized, rather than a literal world — a collective memory of what high school was like rather than a “realistic” depiction of that milieu, and an almost metaphysical sigh heaved in response to the Columbine slayings rather than any kind of investigation into motives. Elephant is a film that's suffused with sadness, a mourning for the death of an idyllic world it depicts, and that sadness is compelling even if its depiction is lacking in range and detail. The stereotypes that Van Sant deploys — the jock, the aspiring photographer, the awkward teenage girl — are as perfunctory in their way as the motivations that he offers for the young killers: they dig Hitler and Beethoven; they like violent video games; they have ready access to weaponry; and they might even be queer. But there's a thick layer of irony here. Van Sant offers up this series of ludicrous, half-baked explanations for the killers' behavior with a sort of cinematic shrug and maybe even a fuck-you-for-thinking-you-can-comprehend-what-caused-this. Elephant is an honest-to-god art movie in the 1960s European style, taking its time to reach anything but a conclusion about the events that it depicts. The imagery is hauntingly beautiful, with detailed closeups of the young performers' faces occasionally reducing the rest of the world to blurred echoes of vision that just fill up space in the frame — all the parts of Van Sant's imagined day in the life that go unconceived and therefore unrealized. The spatial and temporal emptiness it traces in its concentric narrative circles is occasionally terrifying. But there's also a glibness that rubs me the wrong way. (Gags about bulimia? In this context? What the fuck, Gus?) If Elephant's eenie-meenie-miney-mo climax is meant to denote the randomness of violence, it essentially makes its own argument for the moral transparency of everything else in the film.

Photorealism?

It took me a shamefully long time to catch up with City of God, which played in downtown Manhattan for about a year. (Literally.) I don't know what I was thinking. I was put off for the first half hour or so — by the crudely insistent violence, by the overly demonstrative camerawork and flashy technique — until, in one bravura scene, the former Lil' Dice started pumping bullets into his victims, laughing maniacally with delight as a saucy horn chart and funk guitar line swelled on the soundtrack, and I realized I was seeing a well-honed exploitation picture that just happened to be set in the slums just outside Rio de Janeiro. Imagine an edgy arthouse conflagration that's equal parts Los Olvidados and Brian De Palma's Scarface, with a sweeping narrative ambition that recalls Scorsese's gang movies, and you'll have an idea what director Fernando Meirelles is up to. The narrative is maybe a smidge too reliant on other gangster movies for inspiration, but dramas this taut aren't easy to come by no matter whose masterpiece they crib from. It's not quite a multigenerational saga, but it feels that way, with children forging their own relationships with the violence exploding around them and poised to pass those traditions on to their own kids (should they live long enough to reproduce). If the movie argues that proximity to violence desensitizes children to it – and ultimately teaches them to revel in it — it's not bereft of hope, suggesting also that meaning can spring from chaos. Mereilles stops short of hokum, but implies that his film's protagonist, a photojournalist named Rocket, has the power to help change his world.

Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar. I mean, the real Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar.

There's hope, too, in American Splendor, in which lowly file clerk Harvey Pekar rises up and changes the face of the counter-culture by hooking up with R. Crumb, writing a long-running series of slice-of-life comic books, appearing (10 times) on Letterman, surviving a bout with cancer, and publishing a National Book Award-winning graphic novel about the experience. Talk about your everyday heroes. Paul Giamatti plays the role in the narrative, sometimes narrated by the real Pekar, which adapts the comic book that relates his his life story. Meanwhile, the present-day Pekar appears in the film as a documentary subject. Giamatti is credible and funny without resorting to mimickry (on the evidence seen in archival footage, the real Pekar is quite a bit more caustic than Giamatti's portrayal of him would suggest). Hope Davis is similarly good as wife Joyce Brabner who, on the evidence here, seems to have been more or less made for him, and James Urbaniak is a well-observed Crumb. The visual-effects technique, which composites Giamatti in front of photographic backgrounds, comic-style, or has a line-drawn Pekar scampering across the screen, takes modest advantage of the new digital tools available to low-budget filmmakers, but the shots in which Giamatti and Judah Friedlander, playing his co-worker Toby Radloff, inhabit the same screen space as the real Harvey and Toby, are an even better special effect. They're mind-blowing in a gentle and inexplicable way. In all, it's an engrossing stunt in the Being John Malkovich vein, only not quite as weirdly compelling. (P.S. Pekar finally retired from his clerking job in 2001, an event that's documented in this film.)

Bad Santa, no biscuit.

I always cringe at one moment in Ghost World that just feels really clumsy compared to the rest of the movie, one where director Terry Zwigoff essentially hangs Thora Birch out to dry, giggling dorkily and awkwardly on-screen in a shot that's held too long for comfort. Anyway, the first couple of reels of Bad Santa felt like that — a little dorky and a little awkward, like the terrific Ghost World might have had the benefit of some finishing touches that weren't available to Zwigoff's follow-up. But Billy Bob Thornton eventually pulls this unruly movie into some kind of order with a sustained comic performance as a department-store Santa/scam artist. Once it gets rolling, it's very funny, rather cynical, somewhat misanthropic, more than a little weird and unapologetically vulgar. Improbably, it's also a crowd-pleaser that maintains some level of artistic integrity despite a moderately happy ending that feels a bit like a cop-out. Quite an achievement, on some level.

That smoldering Dutch artist is so dreeeamy.

More typically redolent of the end-of-year Oscar season is Girl With a Pearl Earring, an earnestly tedious (or is it tediously earnest?) romance-novel of a movie based on a novel that's reputedly a compelling first-person narrative of a housemaid who sat for the famed Vermeer painting. I can believe the book, seasoned liberally with details about 17th-century Delft and intent on revealing the varied psychological awakenings of its heroine, is warm and fascinating. But the material doesn't translate so well. There's a moment when Vermeer quizzes the girl on the color of the clouds overhead. She immediately responds, “White,” then pauses and takes a look upward through a window, realizing that they're not white after all. “Yellow, blue and gray,” she murmurs, apparently seeing the true nature of that particular “white” for the first time. The shot is held on her face, in close-up, for long enough that I was pleased by the apparent decision not to depict those yellow-blue-gray clouds on screen, forcing viewers instead to consider their own perceptions of fluffy clouds in a blue sky and wonder if they're not really white at all. And then, goddammit, director Peter Webber cuts to a shot of the clouds, which look, predictably, somewhat yellow, blue and gray, and the scene deflates like a farting balloon animal; the spell is broken.

Eduardo Serra has been praised effusively for his photography, and it's true that he does technically magnificent work here. Virtually every shot is draped carefully in rich colors and shadow that might have been imagined by Vermeer himself. But as a director Webber lacks the kind of stylistic brio that could prop up Serra's richly indulgent cinematography. In other words, the photographic opulence serves no greater purpose than to draw attention to itself. (My film looks like a Dutch painting, Ma! A freakin' Dutch painting!) The occasional insights offered into issues of paint, light and color are welcome; I'd have liked more of that business. Colin Firth's conspicuously smoldering Vermeer becomes a little ridiculous — always with the lurking in the shadows and around the corners, always with the strong hands and piercing gaze. OK, I'm grumpy about this one, but there are moments that I liked. And, like that other Scarlett Johanson film that you might have seen this year, Girl With a Pearl Earring is about an intense romance that's never consummated sexually, which puts a nice spin on the material. All that stuff about the relationship between artist and subject made me wish I was watching La Belle noiseuse instead, but I'd still have preferred to see a longer version. It's not particularly engrossing, but at 95 minutes it feels rushed.

Too much sun.

Finally, the year's biggest disappointment was likely Swimming Pool. Director Francois Ozon's previous 8 Women was a mischievous delight – perhaps the single bitchiest movie ever made, and a musical, no less! But Swimming Pool, inexplicably shot and constructed as some kind of thriller, is a terminally lame psychodrama with an oddly inconsequential twist at the end. Charlotte Rampling is good as a mystery novelist invited to stay at her publisher's house in France to get some writing done; Ludivine Sagnier is even better — and sexy as all get-out — as the casually oversexed publisher's daughter that Rampling doesn't expect to be dealing with. The scene in which a completely nude Sagnier brutally attacks a man with whom she's just had casual sex would elevate almost any movie to worth-a-look status; even Rampling gets naked for her art, so this should, ahem, elevate the interest levels of the more lecherous among us if you get my meaning. Otherwise, Swimming Pool is pretty limp.

Movies I missed for various reasons and would like to catch up with: Mystic River, Thirteen, The Son, Unknown Pleasures, Gerry, The Fog of War, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, Millennium Mambo, Dirty Pretty Things. Movies I missed and have no immediate interest in catching up with: Mona Lisa Smile, The Station Agent, Calendar Girls, Something's Gotta Give, In America, House of Sand and Fog.

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer
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bryant@deep-focus.com