By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Rings soars, Monsters whores, Majestic bores
In its exploitation of human misery, Monster's Ball doesn't just invite cynicism; it provokes hostility. Part of that has to do with all the dead bodies that crowd the story—and with the deaths of characters who, however well justified by the narrative, also seem disturbingly mechanistic. Too often the inevitability that hangs over the story seems as calculated as the Spanish moss that always seems to drape into view whenever a film heads South. Screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Roko—the first born in Manhattan, the second a Georgia native—try to unravel the hate that cocoons Hank and Leticia, but the writers are too in love with their characters' torment and with the territory's atmospherics to let them off easily. The case against the film would be overwhelming if Forster, who's from Switzerland of all places, didn't do such good work with most of the actors, especially in the story's pockets of quiet. Although there's nothing that can be done with Boyle, who has the film's most thankless role and gives its worst performance (his Buck just mutters on and on about blacks and his own dead wife—in the wrong accent, no less), there is an unexpected delicacy to the rest of the acting. When Ledger and Mos Def, as a family neighbor, grope for the right words, you see men staking a claim on a dignity the screenwriters haven't begun to imagine.
For his part, Forster has clearly made a study of American film from the 1970s, the evidence of which lies both in a pared-down visual style and in the muted introspection of his leads. Although she's too beautiful for the role, Berry tries to overcome the liability of her beauty by stripping her character of softness. It works: Leticia is hard, pitiless, at times primitive in her desperation; in one of the film's most shocking scenes, she even beats her son. (The exchange is brutal, not least of which because the actress is screaming about the kid's weight while poking at the young actor's massive belly.) Thornton's performance is more relentless; his sadistic exchanges with his own son are the stuff family nightmares are made. He seems gutsily indifferent to his character's ugliness, and for the first half of the film, he locks his face in a grimace (those rubber lips just won't quit). The grimace finally eases, as do the dramatics, and when they do, it's as if oxygen were pumping into a sarcophagus: characters talk, extend small kindnesses, make love. In other words, after a crucible of suffering and big ideas, they get to live like real people. Just in time, too. Monster's Ball is a maddening mess, but there's some real feeling in its madness, never more so than in a killer denouement which, if it doesn't manage to redeem this film, comes close to redeeming its makers.
Frank Darabont's The Majestic may just be the most boring movie ever made; certainly it's the most boring movie I've suffered through to the bitter end. Want to know more? Set in 1951 Los Angeles, the film centers on Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey), a staff writer at a Hollywood outfit called HHS Studios who has just had his first screenplay, Sand Pirates of the Sahara, produced. This makes him deliriously happy, of course, and because there's a snippet of that B picture tucked inside the larger film, his good feelings initially prove somewhat infectious. Since Darabont's valentine to the low-budget charms of outrageous plotting and swarthy greasepaint plays well enough, a reasonable moviegoer might think the director knows a thing or two about how to make an ostensible A picture snap along. But to do that, said reasonable moviegoer would need to forget Darabont's earlier features, The Shawshank Redemptionand The Green Mile, both of which crawled like dying snails, propelled only by the flatulence of self-importance. But I digress.
Appleton is tagged a communist by the HUAC, loses his studio gig, gets blasted with booze, then conked on the head, whereupon he wakes up with amnesia in a coastal town that Darabont and screenwriter Michael Sloane seem to believe is a little bit of heaven but plays out like a whole lot of hell. There's a cozy diner with a gold-hearted waitress, a glad-handing mayor, acres of blue sky and miles of white picket fence. There's a platinum blonde with cornflower eyes and Technicolor lipstick (Laurie Holden as the bombshell-lawyer-turned-love-interest) and a twinkly Martin Landau with a smile so merciless you'd think the pod people had already swept through town. And because this is a Darabont film, there's also, naturally, an avuncular black man waiting in the wings (here, a basement) to choke out salt-of-the-earth tears and deliver an interminable knowing speech. The film's title, incidentally, refers to an abandoned movie palace that's waiting for someone (guess who) to warm up its neon. Apparently, the townsfolk have forgotten to dream along with the movies—and in this case, who the hell can blame them?
If it sounds lousy, it plays worse. The whole thing is unbelievably phony, but what's freakish about Darabont's brand of phony is that this is exactly the sort of imitation of life most of the interesting movie characters in the 1950s were desperate to escape. The town and its inhabitants incarnate the very values—the herd mentality and terrifying sterility—that Marlon Brando sneered at across his motorcycle handles in The Wild One and James Dean railed against in Rebel Without a Cause. Given how thick and high they spread the manure, Darabont and Sloane seem never to have made it to these movies (or lived in a small town). Given, too, the gaseous swamp of patriotism and self-righteousness in which Appleton and the rest of The Majestic's zomboid aliens finally land, it's obvious that the filmmakers have been watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The problem is they've been watching Capra in slow motion with the volume turned all the way down—no wonder they think if they just filibuster their way to an ending, they'll bore us into surrender.