A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)


A Midsummer Night's Dream

Why is it that beautiful women always fall in love with asses?

(1999) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees, Max Wright, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin, Sam Rockwell, Bernard Hill. Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

At first glance, you’d think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice for a modern interpretation of Shakespeare. In fact, with the glut of Shakespeare adaptations that were in theaters at the time – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V among them — it’s actually amazing this one didn’t get the star-studded, splashy treatment sooner.

In fact, of all of Shakespeare’s body of work other than those named above, only Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and The Tempest have more resonance to 21st-century sensibilities than this in my opinion. Of course, you may have an opinion of your own.

A talented cast makes this a Dream worth having. Updated to a late 19th-century Italian setting, Hermia (Friel) is betrothed to Demetrius (Bale), but is in fact in love with Lysander (West). Demetrius is being pursued by Helena (Flockhart), who loves him unrequitedly. Hermia and Lysander plan to flee her intractable father (Hill) and Lord Theseus (Strathairn) – who as it turns out intends to wed himself, in his case the astonishingly beautiful Hippolyta (Marceau)  – because they are forcing Hermia to wed her betrothed.

Perchance all four young people flee into a nearby forest, where Titania, Queen of the Faeries (Pfeiffer) has been carrying on, much to the chagrin of her husband Oberon (Everett). Oberon dispatches Puck (Tucci) to fetch a particular flower that when its essence is rubbed on the eyelids causes that person to fall in love with the first person they see. Mischievous Puck makes sure that the wrong lovers are paired up by the potion and that the Queen espies a would-be actor (Kline) who has been given the head of a donkey by Puck. Make sense yet? It’s Shakespeare – pay attention.

And by that I mean of course not. Truthfully, all you really need to know is that All’s Well That Ends Well and you won’t understand half of what’s going on and that’s quite okay. Still, it’s great fun to behold and I found myself laughing at lines written 500 years ago that are still uproariously funny. I’m not sure whether to be comforted or saddened that human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening centuries.

Kline, Tucci and Everett are wondrous to behold; their classical training is in evidence and all of them take their roles and run with them. Pfeiffer does surprisingly well as the promiscuous Titania; she is at the height of her beauty here and to add fuel to the fire, she is showing signs here of her immense talent which had often to this point been overshadowed by her looks. Strathairn, one of John Sayle’s repertory actors, shows a great deal of affinity for Shakespeare which should not really be surprising – a great actor will rise to the occasion when given great material.

The element of fantasy is not as intrusive here as it might be in other romantic comedies and the filmmakers wisely shy away from turning this into a special effects extravaganza, using technology sparingly and subtly to enhance the story instead of overwhelming it. Kline and Tucci are particularly enjoyable in their performances – both are terrific actors but have never been regarded as Shakespearean classicists. They handle the challenge well here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything but boring although an atmosphere free of distraction is preferable when viewing it – having a 10-year-old demanding my attention probably deducted at least half a star from the rating which is patently unfair. Nevertheless, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is frothy, lighthearted and enjoyable – a perfect introduction to the Bard for those who have had little or no experience with him.

WHY RENT THIS: Light, frothy entertainment solidly acted. A good introduction to The Bard if you are unfamiliar with his work.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be awfully confusing for those with short attention spans and an impatience for language.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the incidental music is taken from composer Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the 1843 staging of the play.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.1M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a mild box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tempest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Argo

Advertisements

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


 

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

An olliphant never forgets.

(2003) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, John Noble, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee,Thomas Robins, Hugo Weaving, Paul Norrell, Lawrence Makoare. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

After a long wait at long last the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s version of the epic J.R.R. Tolkein-penned trilogy The Lord of the Rings came upon us, and it was everything we hoped it would be – although had it come out 10 years later it would have been split into two movies in order to maximize profits although in this case I wouldn’t have minded so much.

The movie opens with a flashback, as we see how Smeagol (Serkis) took possession of the ring (or vice versa), murdering his friend Deagol (Robins) for it. Smeagol slinks into the wilderness, gradually losing his soul and becoming the creature known as Gollum.

Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) are being led for a secret way into Mordor by Gollum unaware that the wicked creature intends to lead them into a trap. The lembas bread which has sustained them is running low, and Sam is rationing it. They need to climb a nearly vertical rock face in order to enter the tunnels that will take them into Mordor. However, Gollum displays his treachery, using the ring’s hold on Frodo and some strategically placed lembas crumbs to drive a wedge between Frodo and Sam, which leads to Frodo telling the weeping Sam to go home.

Meanwhile, the other heroes of the fellowship have no time to rest on their laurels after the events which crowned The Two Towers. Gandalf (McKellen), Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) ride for Isengard to take on Saruman (Lee), only to find out that the Ents have done it for them. They discover the hobbits Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), happily smoking their beloved South Farthing pipeweed and munching away on the spoils of Isengard’s larder.

Once again, the group separates, with Gandalf and Pippin going to the city of Minas Tirith to assist Gondor in the battle to come. Aragorn, Legolas, Merry and Gimli return to Rohan to await word from Gandalf and also convince King Theoden (Hill) to aid Gondor in their time of need, although he is loathe to do so since Gondor provided him with no assistance when his people needed it. When Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Gondor, Gandalf warns Pippin not to tell Denethor (Noble), the Steward of Gondor, of the death of his son Boromir (Bean) which Pippin witnessed.

However it turns out that Denethor already knows and the news has unhinged him. Pippin offers up his services to placate the half-mad ruler. Denethor refuses Gandalf’s plea to light the signal fires to call on aid from Rohan, but Pippin lights the fire anyway, and Theoden determines to go to Gondor’s aid. Eowyn (Otto) pleads to go with her uncle, but he refuses, asking her to stay behind to lead Rohan if he doesn’t return (he doesn’t expect to, knowing the numbers of warriors he brings will be inadequate). She disguises herself as a man and goes anyway, as does Merry, whom she pledges to look after.

Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham) can do no right in the eyes of his father, which is further complicated when Osgiliath, the fort he is charged to defend, is overrun by a numerically superior force of Orcs. Denethor orders Faramir and his company back to retake the fortress, even though Faramir knows that neither he nor his men will survive the attempt. That proves to be the case, as Faramir’s body is returned to Minas Tirith and Denethor completely loses it, extolling his men to abandon their posts and flee for their lives as an enormous army of orcs and mercenaries riding elephantine war beasts reach the gates of the city and begin to knock on the gates. To Pippin’s further horror, Denethor becomes determined to cremate Faramir’s body, even though as Pippin discovers, Faramir is still alive.

In the mountains of Mordor, Gollum springs his trap on Frodo leading the defenseless hobbit into the lair of a giant spider named Shelob, who attacks Frodo and at last, poisons him with her venom, wrapping the hapless hobbit in web for eventual dining. Fortunately Sam arrives in the nick of time to fight off Shelob, but can’t stop a small band of Orcs from taking Frodo’s inert but still-living body. Sam manages yet another dramatic rescue and the two emerge from the mountains, only to find that there are at least 10,000 Orcs encamped between them and Mount Doom.

As the force from Rohan encamps in the mountains, Elrond (Weaving) appears, bearing the re-forged sword of the King that had once defeated Sauron and gives it to Aragorn, urging him to take up the role he had been born to play: King of Gondor, heir to Isildur and the great kings of legend. Knowing that his love Arwen (Tyler), daughter of Elrond, is dying as Sauron grows stronger, having refused to leave Middle Earth with the rest of elvenkind, Aragorn reluctantly accepts the mantle he has avoided all his life. He, Gimli and Legolas go into the mountain to persuade an army of the dead to assist them. This army, led by the King of the Undead (Norrell), once broke oaths to the King of Gondor and were cursed for it. They will respond only to the King of Gondor, and when Aragorn reveals his sword, he has the allies he seeks.

Not a minute too soon, either. Minas Tirith is in the process of falling, despite the heroics of Gandalf. The mercenaries, orcs and nazghul are in danger of overrunning the city when Theoden and the Rohirrim arrive. They are able to hold off the hordes, but at great cost. Aragorn’s arrival with the army of the dead, however, saves the city. Once this is done, Aragorn releases the dead to their final rest.

All is not over, however. Aragorn knows that Frodo cannot hope to succeed with all the Orcs still encamped in Mordor. The forces of the Fellowship must make a desperate attempt to give Frodo and Sam the time they need to make it to Mount Doom and destroy the Ring in the fires that it was forged in. But Frodo may not want to destroy the Ring after all and Gollum is still lurking about with a part to play in the final dénouement.

As with the first two movies, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is absolutely breathtaking visually. The city of Minas Tirith is like a wedding cake in concrete, beautiful and imposing. On the flip side, the computer-generated Shelob is terrifyingly realistic; you could almost imagine her crawling around the dark places in your home town. A lot of sensitive people are going to have some nasty nightmares as a result of her.

The battle scenes are impressive in their scope. Thousands of computer-generated warriors move in tandem with the real actors and extras that were employed in the battles of Pelennor Field and of the Black Gate. Even the most jaded of moviegoers will be amazed and enthralled by what Peter Jackson has brought to life onscreen.

Mortensen gives a performance for the ages; his charisma and rugged good looks would earn him further starring roles, although I daresay he’ll probably always be remembered as Aragorn. Still, in many ways this movie is Sam’s story more than anyone else’s. He shows growth as a character, becoming the equal of any of the heroes who have garnered more press. It is Sam who provides the movie’s emotional payoff.

Elijah Wood’s Frodo is a curious case. Although ostensibly the focus of the movie, Wood is curiously detached. It’s very hard at times to fathom who Frodo is, although, to be fair, Frodo is undergoing drastic changes at the hands of the Ring. It’s hard to imagine being less interested in Frodo than you are in Merry or Pippin, but that is the case here. Wood does a pretty good job, but that’s not good enough to stand out in a cast that performs so magnificently.

Orlando Bloom also showed the makings of a big star, although Legolas is not really at the fore much in the trilogy; when Legolas is given the spotlight, however, Bloom shines. Andy Serkis provides Smeagol and Gollum both with humanity; although treacherous and conniving, you wind up feeling the pity for the character as both Frodo and Bilbo had, which is crucial for the story. The supporting cast of Wenham, Otto, Urban, McKellen, Monaghan and Boyd in particular all added luster to their résumés here.

Roger Ebert criticized Return of the King and the trilogy overall as having a “silly story,” which is one of the few times I have disagreed with him quite this vehemently. The story of the trilogy is the story of man’s own ability to grow and change. Written at the dawn of the atomic era, it ascribed hope that we could overcome the desire to use an awesome weapon, and conquer the forces of darkness and despair. Not silly at all, I find it a powerful story that has as much meaning in my everyday life as do some of the smaller films Ebert prefers.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has an honored place in cinematic history for groundbreaking visuals, and passionate vision. Return of the King is the best of these movies, not only because it should be, as the payoff of the trilogy, but because it also is so well-made and the performances well-given. Once you get past the eye candy, all you are left with is the performances and in that, you will not find a better ensemble than this one. It is to date the only movie nominated for more than ten Oscars (eleven to be exact) to win every award it was nominated for, and deservedly so. It is one of three films to win eleven Oscars, the most in the history of the award. I don’t know how much more honored a film can get.

I viewed the conclusion of this beloved trilogy with a mixture of awe, wonder, sadness and satisfaction. I am sorry the trilogy is now complete, but look forward to the works of Peter Jackson, Viggo Mortensen and the rest of the cast. There is an emotional epilogue in which some of the main characters of the trilogy take their leaves – not only from the tale, but from those of us who have followed the story from day one. It is a most satisfying ending.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing piece of film-making; it earned every Oscar it got and more. It will stand as one of the first true classics of the 21st century.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You find this a “silly story.” Roger Ebert, shame on you!

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are pretty grisly in places but I cannot emphasize enough just how frightening Shelob is as a creature. If you have a fear of spiders or are particularly sensitive to monsters, be warned that Shelob is as scary a creature that has ever been put to film.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Peter Jackson has an irrational fear of spiders and modeled Shelob on two of the species he fears the most.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1B on a $94M production budget; the movie made ten times what it cost, easily a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Iron Man

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers


 

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Gandalf sure knows how to make an enterence.

(2002) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Karl Urban, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, Brad Dourif, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Craig Parker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

The second installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy picks up where the first left off, with the Fellowship broken and the quest very much in peril. Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) have struck out on their own, knowing that the evil of the Ring would eventually corrupt all of them. They are heading for Mordor, but quickly become lost. Apparently nobody thought to call the Triple A.

They are ambushed by the creature that has been stalking them all along, Gollum (Serkis). They manage to subdue him, but Frodo feels pity for the creature, who offers his services as a guide. Although Sam has misgivings, they allow the creature to lead them to the Black Gate of Mordor, which turns out to be heavily guarded. It’s obvious they won’t be able to get to Mount Doom that way. Gollum offers to lead them to a secret way into Mordor, one even the Orcs don’t know.

Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd) have been taken captive by the nasty Uruk-hai, who mistakenly believe that these two are the Ring Bearers. The Uruk-hai turn out to be testier than anybody thought, with a faction all for killing and eating the two hobbits, which was expressly forbidden by their creator, Saruman (Christopher Lee). A fight breaks out and things look bad for the hobbits.

Meanwhile, Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (Rhys-Davies) have pursued the Uruk-hai who kidnapped the Hobbits relentlessly for days. They run into the Rohirrim, who are led by the valorous Eomer (Karl Urban) who tells them that they have in fact massacred the entire band of Uruk-hai. The trio reach the site of the battle, only to discover through Aragorn’s tracking skills that the two hobbits escaped into the forest. They follow the tracks into the reputedly-haunted Fangorn Forest where they are met by a wizard in white — Gandalf (McKellen).

Merry and Pippin had indeed escaped into the Fangorn Forest in the confusion of the fight. There, they meet Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies), an Ent – a walking, talking, sentient creature that looks like a tree. Treebeard rescues the two hobbits from a stray Uruk-hai, then takes the two of them deeper into the forest.

As for the astonishing appearance of Gandalf, there was something of an explanation; having fallen into shadow in the mines of Moria, Gandalf has somehow been reborn and made more powerful. Now clad in white, Gandalf is a formidable wizard indeed. He somehow knows that the kingdom of Rohan is in dire peril, both from within and without. Gandalf leaves Merry and Pippin with Treebeard, and rides the king of horses, Shadowfax, with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to reach Rohan.

Theoden (Bernard Hill), king of Rohan, is ill. Weak and feeble, most of the governance of his kingdom has fallen to an advisor, Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). His niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto), sister to Eomer, is powerless to help and moreover is the object of the sleazy affections of Grima. Theoden has become so bewitched that even when his son dies while out on patrol, he is unable to react.

Eomer is banished from the realm by Grima, who sees Eomer as a threat. Eomer takes loyal warriors into the wilderness to protect Rohan as best he can, but things look dark for the kingdom of the horseclans. The arrival of Gandalf changes all this. The white wizard breaks the spell and restores the king to full vigor. Grima is sent packing with a boot to the behind and a warning for Saruman.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum make their way back for Gollum’s hidden entry into Mordor when they stumble onto a battle of Mordor-allied mercenaries and soldiers from Gondor, who capture the three of them. Their leader, Captain Faramir (David Wenham) is brother to the slain Boromir, and wants details of his brother’s death. Frodo, suspicious of everyone, is loathe to tell Faramir much. A battle occurs in which they are attacked by nazghul on terrible dragon-like creatures. Eventually, Farmair is convinced to let Frodo, Sam and Gollum continue on their way.

Theoden thinks that Rohan cannot stand against the army Saruman is sending against them. He orders his city evacuated and the people are taken to Helm’s Deep, a fortress that has never been breached in thousands of years. Gandalf leaves to gather allies to defend Rohan. As the Rohirrim begin the journey to Helm’s Deep, it becomes obvious that Eowyn is developing deep feelings for Aragorn, who continues to harbor a great love for Arwen (Tyler). The elves are almost gone from Middle Earth, leaving for the Grey Havens to travel by ship to the far shores. Elrond (Weaving) urges Arwen to go as well, but she is torn between her love for her father and her love for Aragorn. At last, knowing that should she stay she would only see her love age, wither and die before her eyes, she agrees to leave.

The Rohirrim meet up with an orc patrol, traveling on bestial wargs, and a battle ensues. Gimli and Legolas begin a friendly competition to see who kills more of the enemy, and their friendship begins to deepen. However, disaster strikes when Aragorn is swept over a precipice and into a swift-flowing river. Saddened, the Rohirrim complete their journey to Helm’s Deep without him.

Like Gandalf before him, Aragorn survives and manages to limp back to the fortress. As the fortress prepares for siege, elves under Haldir (Parker) arrive from Rivendell to assist, and the defenders of Helm’s Deep need every one of them, for the army that faces them is vast and merciless. Despite the heroism of its defenders, the walls of Helm’s Deep are breached and it looks like there will be a massacre the likes of which Middle Earth has never known.

Gollum leads Sam and Frodo on the way back to Mordor, but his mind, already twisted and demented by the influence of the Ring, has become further warped at the perceived betrayal by Frodo that led to his capture. He means to do away with both of the hobbits, but knows he cannot do it himself. However, there is a way…

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The second part of the trilogy is visually magnificent, as was the first. Of particular note is the character Gollum, who was build of Andy Serkis’ physical performance and some brilliant computer imaging on top of that. Gollum is as real and lifelike as any one of the flesh-and-blood actors (in fact, Gollum has more expression and range than Keanu Reeves, but that’s another story), but the nasty wargs and the magnificent Ents (partially real, partially computer-generated) are nearly as good.

Viggo Mortensen shows flashes of major stardom here. His charisma carries much of The Two Towers. Sean Astin also gives a riveting performance; his speech that is meant to inspire Frodo when his friend despairs of surviving the journey is one of the best you will ever see. It’s a memorable moment, and one you should have handy the next time you are depressed.

The problem with The Two Towers is that it feels like there really isn’t a beginning, middle and end; it’s all middle. Of course, that’s a function of the fact that it is the middle chapter in an epic story, but seen on its own it’s not quite as satisfying as The Fellowship of the Ring. It is also much darker in tone. Still, the performances are excellent from top to bottom; in addition to those previously mentioned, Legolas is a swashbuckling hero as portrayed by Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies brings gruff humor to the part of Gimli. Ian McKellen brings great presence to Gandalf, and Wood does a nice job bringing the torment of Frodo to the fore.

Howard Shore’s score was one of the critical attributes to the success of the first film of the trilogy for me; he continues his impressive work, but none of the various vocalists who contribute to the soundtrack (including Liz Frasier, formerly of the Cocteau Twins) really add up to Enya’s impressive work on the first soundtrack.

Despite its minor flaws, “The Two Towers” is still a classic. The battle scene of Helm’s Deep is beautifully done, and overwhelming in scope. The siege of Isengard by the Ents is an astonishing visual, and although I was a bit disappointed by the Congress of Trees, it is still a feast for the eyes throughout. This is not a disappointing work; quite the contrary. It leaves the viewer champing at the bit for the trilogy’s conclusion. More importantly, it is a tremendous movie in its own right, regardless of what came before or what is to come. The Two Towers, quite frankly, shouldn’t be overlooked as a movie.

WHY RENT IT: The themes of the trilogy become much more developed here. Mortensen and Astin shine. Great visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks beginning and end; those unfamiliar with the first movie will most likely be lost.

FAMILY MATTERS: The Battle of Helms Deep has plenty of battle savagery. There are some pretty frightening images and the very young or those who are sensitive should be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: As the Orcs have black blood, it was thought the inside of their mouths should also be black. All extras who played Orcs had to swill a licorice-based mouthwash in their mouths before filming in order to achieve the effect.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $926.1M on a $94M production budget; the film was another massive blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eragon

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Beaver

Gothika


Gothika

Penelope Cruz and Halle Berry conduct a pretty faces who aren't just pretty faces face-off

(2003) Supernatural Thriller (Warner Brothers) Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel, Kathleen Mackey, Matthew G. Taylor, Michel Perron, Andrea Sheldon, Amy Sloan, Anana Rydvald. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

 

After an Oscar-winning tour-de-force in Monster’s Ball and a well-received role as Jinx in the James Bond  (Pierce Brosnan-era) flick Die Another Day, what Halle Berry needed to do was to show that she can open a film, in Hollywood parlance, to move up into upper echelon of stardom.

On the surface, Gothika would seem to be a strange choice for Berry’s declaration of superstardom. After all, it comes from Dark Castle Productions, which up to that point had for the most part been serving up remakes of William Castle-produced B-movie horror classics, only with better budgets and modern eye-popping effects (see House on Haunted Hill, Th13teen Ghosts). This one is a bit different. For one thing, it is a completely original story, one of the first Dark Castle produced.

The plot isn’t a simple one. At first glance, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) seems to have a pretty nice life. A respected psychologist at a gothic woman’s prison in New England, she’s married to the warden (Dutton), himself a psychologist of some repute. There are hiccups, of course. One of her patients, Chloe (Cruz) seems to be imagining phantom rapes that she claims were perpetrated by the devil. When Miranda seeks a more rational explanation, Chloe exclaims “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.” But the ever-rational Dr. Grey, who believes in logic above all, finds that Chloe’s rantings are the cries of a woman attempting to displace her guilt at having murdered her abusive husband.

That dark and stormy night Dr. Grey is forced to take a detour home when her normal route is washed out by the rain. She has to pass over a lonely bridge, when she nearly runs into a girl (Mantel) standing in the middle of the road, causing her car to skid into a ditch. When Dr. Grey goes to see if the girl is all right, she finds the girl is badly gashed. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Three days later, Dr. Grey wakes up — to discover she is now a patient in the penitentiary at which she formerly worked. When she demands to see her husband, her former co-worker, Dr. Graham (Downey), informs her that her husband isn’t in and wouldn’t be in again for the foreseeable future – and that Dr. Grey herself had punched his ticket for the choir invisible.

When Dr. Grey loses it, she is sedated. Over the next few days, she tries to piece together what happened, through therapy sessions, interviews with the sheriff (Lynch) who also happened to be her late husband’s best friend, and her own fragmented memory. When Dr. Grey sees the girl in the prison shower that she nearly ran into that fateful night, she becomes upset which I suppose is perfectly justifiable.

After some digging, Dr. Grey discovers that the girl is actually the daughter of a hospital administrator (Hill) and there is a bit of a problem; the girl had committed suicide years before. Dr. Grey, being the logical, stable person she is, doesn’t believe in ghosts. The problem is that ghosts apparently believe in Dr. Grey, and they begin to have several violent encounters with her, escalating with each incident, and always prefaced by flickering electric lights which go largely unnoticed in a prison that has had electrical problems for years.

It becomes obvious that there is more to the murder of her husband than Dr. Grey was led to believe, and that something or someone is willing to kill the good psychologist to silence her about what she knows. The only way to survive and find the truth about her husband’s murder is to escape from the maximum security prison, and only then will Dr. Grey confront what really happened to her husband – and find out that her life will change forever.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz sets up a wonderfully spooky atmosphere, which is absolutely essential for a ghost story. Unfortunately, Sebastian Guttierez’s script has a few leaps in logic which — when you consider his main character is supposed to be defined by her devotion to logic — derails the movie at times. For example, during the escape from the prison, Dr. Grey is allowed to leave by a friendly guard who even gives her his car to use. Why would he trust her when the evidence points to her as an axe-murderer?

There is another, even more glaring hole, but I can’t discuss it here without giving away a vital plot point. The characters are a bit stock but Berry does an excellent job. She has to play a strong, self-confident woman whose whole world is shattered. Dr. Grey is not the perfect hero; she loses it from time to time, which makes her more realistic. She has to re-evaluate her view of the world as it becomes more and more evident that there is a supernatural element in the events transpiring. She shows self-pity from time to time, but her inner strength carries her through.

With an Oscar victory in hand and an important role in the X-Men franchise, Berry is a formidable presence in Hollywood. In Gothika she more than proves that she is capable of carrying a movie herself. Kassovitz, who has directed Crimson Rivers (one of the best horror movies of recent years) and Amalie, a delightfully charming fantasy, is a first-rate talent. Although the flickering electricity can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed, he prefers to build the horror through atmosphere, suspense and misdirection. There are some horrific moments of gore, but the gore isn’t so over-the-top that it defines for the movie. With this impressive cast (Downey and Cruz are wonderful), he does a fine job in his first English-language movie. I had hoped we would see great things from him at the time this came out although to date that hasn’t happened yet.

Gothika is one of those movies you don’t want to see in a dark room without someone to clutch. There are a few genuine shocks, but nothing that will put a pacemaker into overdrive. It derives its success from excellent acting, fine directing and a compelling story advanced by characters who rarely stoop to cliche. If 2003 is remembered as the year visceral horror made a comeback (and it well should be), Gothika should have been noted as one of the films that fueled the trend. Unfortunately it didn’t get the respect it deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances and well-received scares. Kassovitz creates an admirably spooky atmosphere, perfect for a good ghost story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many lapses in logic and plot holes. Some of the characters are a bit stock. The ending is a bit weak.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, a bit of nudity and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Berry broke her arm during production when Downey grabbed her arm harder than he meant to and snapped it.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a Limp Biskit video covering the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” a song that figures prominantly in the movie. The Special Edition DVD also includes an episode of “Punk’D” featuring Hallie Berry being led to believe she had been locked out of the premiere of the movie, as well as an MTV documentary on the making of the Limp Biskit video. There is also a featurette on the inmates in the prison, giving their backstories. It doesn’t really add much to the movie but it’s a nice touch.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $141.6M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:One for the Money

Titanic


Titanic

The great ship on it's last night of it's life.

(20th Century Fox/Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, Bernard Fox. Directed by James Cameron

When Avatar was released, few would have predicted that it would overtake Titanic as box office champion but it did indeed. When Titanic was released, there were many who were predicting that the film would be one of the most expensive failures ever.

Brock Lovett (Paxton) is part of an expedition that is tasked with retrieving artifacts from the most famous wreck of all times, the Titanic. It becomes evident that he is searching for something specific; he sends his remote vehicles into a specific cabin and is thrilled when he retrieves a safe, sitting on the bottom of the ocean for 80 years. When he opens the safe, however, the prize isn’t in it.

They do find a portfolio of pencil drawings (how these would have survived immersed in sea water for 80 years I have no idea), one of which depicts a nude woman wearing a necklace with a large stone on it. It turns out this stone is the Heart of the Sea, cut from a larger diamond owned by Louis XIV. It had been purchased by a wealthy industrialist and was presumed to have gone down with the ship he had been sailing across the Atlantic on in 1912 (you guessed it) and would be nearly priceless on today’s market.

When images of the drawing are shown on television, an old woman named Rose Dawson (Stuart) is startled. She makes a call that is transferred to Lovett aboard the Russian research vessel hovering in the sea above the wreck and tells him that the drawing is of her. Seeing as she is Lovett’s best lead to finding the diamond, he flies her aboard. As she watches footage of the deep sea rovers filming aboard the silent, dark wreck in the endless night of the bottom of the North Atlantic, she tells him her story.

Rose deWitt Bukater (Winslet) is preparing for the trans-Atlantic crossing on board the newest and most heralded ship of the White Star line, the RMS Titanic. She is accompanied by Ruth (Fisher), her mother and her fiancé Cal Hockley (Zane), a wealthy industrialist and his manservant Lovejoy (Warner). While most of them are looking forward to a crossing aboard the most luxuriously appointed ship of its time, Rose sees it as a prison ship taking her to a life of endless boredom.

Unlike many women of her era, Rose has a spark of curiosity and adventurousness, curious about the world and in love with life. She dreads being the meek and mindless mistress of a household, caring only for her husband and children’s needs and never spreading her wings. She may look calm and serene on the outside but on the inside she’s screaming.

Jack Dawson (di Caprio) lives by the seat of his pants. He wins his steerage tickets for the great ship in a poker game and looks at the Titanic as a means of transportation only, of getting back to the United States after years of knocking about Europe (and Paris in particular) as an artist, getting by on what drawings he can sell for pennies.

Rose, desperate and looking for a way out, sees only one. She runs to the bow of the ship and intends to throw herself off. Jack, stargazing on the bow sees her and manages to talk her out of carrying through with her plan. She nearly falls climbing over the railing but Jack rescues her. A couple of crewmen come upon Jack and Rose crumpled in a heap and mistakes it for an assault on a first class passenger by a third class passenger. However, as Cal and Lovejoy are summoned along with acquaintance Colonel Gracie (Fox), the misunderstanding is quickly sorted out and Jack is revealed to be a hero. Cal wants to give the boy $20 for his trouble but this displeases Rose and so Jack is invited to the first class passenger’s dining room for dinner the next evening.

The next day Rose spends some time with Jack and they begin to get to know each other better. Rose is at first a bit put off by some of Jack’s vulgarities but as Jack shows her some of his drawings, she realizes that he is a talented artist with a rather sensitive soul. She realizes that she really likes this young man.

Jack is completely unprepared for the dinner, but fellow passenger Molly Brown (Bates) takes pity on him and supplies him with a tuxedo that her son wore. Jack arrives at the dinner self-possessed and unflappable, utterly calm in a sea full of sharks. Rose becomes more intrigued and when the men adjourn from the dinner table to go to the lounge for cigars and brandy “and to congratulate themselves on owning the world” as Rose puts it, Jack invites Rose to a party down in steerage. She is very much taken by the wild lively dancing, the drinking and the frivolity.

The next day, Jack can’t get Rose out of his mind and attempts to go see her again, but is rebuffed. He finally corners Rose, pulling her out of a tour led by ship designer Andrews (Garber), but she tells him that their romance is impossible. He counters that he just wants to make sure she’s all right, because her lifestyle is snuffing out her spirit and will eventually kill the woman she is. She sends him away, but realizes he’s right.

The Captain (Hill) is aware of icebergs in the North Atlantic at this time of year and wants to be cautious, but the ship’s owner, Ismay (Hyde) is more interested in publicity and wants to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. Captain Smith orders all the boilers to be lit and the Titanic sails full steam into destiny. Who will survive? Can Jack and Rose survive the sinking and end up together despite all the obstacles between them?

The voyage of the Titanic holds a fascination for nearly everybody. Deemed unsinkable at the time it was built, it has become a symbol for man’s hubris, as well as for the class structure that dominated society at the time; nearly everyone in steerage drowned and there are reports that crew members kept the steerage passengers behind locked gates while the 1st class passengers were loaded aboard half-full lifeboats that there were not nearly enough of.

Some say the definitive Titanic movie was the A Night to Remember (1958) which had more of a documentary feel to it but this one at least keeps most of the salient facts correct. While much of the vessels last minutes can only be conjecture, Cameron uses legends and intelligent guesses to fill in many of the blanks. He wisely doesn’t try to include the entire Titanic mythology (the movie was three hours long as it was) but instead focuses on the romance between the fictional Rose and Jack (a trivial aside here – there was in fact a J. Dawson that died on board the Titanic, a fitter named Joseph, and his grave in Halifax is now one of the most visited in the cemetery since the movie was released). Fortunately, the chemistry between di Caprio and Winslet is marvelous and we wind up caring that they wind up together, and feel concern that they both survive the disaster (in fact, we know for sure that Rose will since her character is seen in the opening modern day sequence).

This was the movie that made stars of di Caprio and Winslet, and even seeing it as many times as I have I never get tired of their performances. In fact, in Love Actually Liam Neeson uses a video of the movie as a tonic to cure his lovesick son and I’m sure that in reality many a lovelorn sort has done the same.

The recreation of the great ship was painstakingly executed, with many of the original providers of furnishings used to make new versions based on the original plans. As a result, the sets on board the Titanic are magnificent and historically accurate for the most part (there are some subtle differences – the Grand Staircase on board the original was a bit less grand, simply because people in that era were actually a little smaller than they are today).

A movie like this almost by definition has to be special effects-heavy and indeed it is, but they are rarely intrusive. There were some primitive computer animated shots of the vessel sailing the sea, some of which are crude by today’s standards (one such shot that was more or less a helicopter shot looked patently fake, even in 1997) but for the most part the movie holds up more than a decade after its release.

This was a movie that became an event. Nearly everything is iconic, from the image of Jack Dawson standing at the prow shouting “I’m the king of the world!” to Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning theme song. It is the only movie I’ve ever seen more than twice in a theater, and maybe one of the few I’d still go see again. On a personal level, the movie has a great deal of meaning to me – Da Queen and I saw it while we were dating, and less than three months before we were married. It holds significance on that personal level and of course on a historical level for the film industry.

In many ways it was the perfect movie. It attracted nearly every niche audience; women loved the romance, men loved the disaster and everyone loved the scope of it. It works on nearly every level and even though it is in some ways a standard Hollywood romance on an epic scale, it still remains one of the movies that will be a standard other movies are compared to for decades to come.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a modern classic and some of the action holds up well. Di Caprio and Winslet have a great deal of chemistry as a couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the digital effects are a bit crude and didn’t work even in 1997. It’s quite likely you’ve already seen this movie a number of times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality and violence, but the disaster epic has some horrific images that may be too graphic for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The most expensive film made during the 20th century, the production cost more than it did to build the original Titanic.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is no Blu-Ray edition yet for this film, but there are three DVD versions available; a bare-bones 1999 release, a 10th Anniversary release from 2007 that has a number of features and the three-disc Special Collector’s Edition from 2005. Most of the features are fairly mundane, but there is a commentary track by two historians that gives a great deal of insight into the historical accuracy of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Green Zone