By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The worst comes like clockwork. The story begins in the hours before the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), a prisoner whose offense is never revealed. Although Musgrove has a long-estranged wife, Leticia (Berry), and a son, a mountain of a child named Tyrell (newcomer Coronji Calhoun), the family has been decisively fragmented after his 11 years in prison. His wife can barely stand to look at him, and his son talks to him like the distant relation he’s become; when Musgrove is finally executed, a palpable sense of relief washes over them both. Over the film, too. Director Marc Forster spends a fair amount a time with Musgrove, both in the family’s last visit and during his deathwatch with Hank and Sonny at the prison, but the character is a contrivance, not a personality (the distraction of rap impresario Combs in the role doesn’t help). His protracted death by electrocution is grossly exploitative, a sop to liberal squeamishness, but it’s fundamentally meaningless; we learn nothing of the man or his family, and even less about crime and punishment save what we’ve known since Angels With Dirty Faces — that the chair’s sizzle is inherently cinematic.
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 Rokos — 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 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 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.
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