1 COLD MOUNTAIN (Miramax) Director: Anthony Minghella. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger. (R)
Take One: English Patient director Minghella returns with another epic tear-jerker/romance with a wartime backdrop based on a popular novel. Law plays a Civil War Confederate deserter on an Odyssey-like trek to get back to fiancée Kidman; Zellweger steals her scenes as a roughneck mountain girl.
Take Two: As apolitical as Civil War movies get, Cold Mountain is all about the characters. But Law's character is an enigma while Kidman doesn't get enough to do. Strong scenes of wartime violence and brutality come with the territory, but scenes of explicit sexuality — one involving a stereotyped, hypocritically lecherous minister — are excessive.
Final Take: Like Minghella's English Patient, Cold Mountain is the sort of handsome, big-studio Oscar bait that wins awards and is even the more involving of the two — but its flaws are too significant to overlook.
2 IN AMERICA (20th Century Fox) Director: Jim Sheridan. Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou. (PG-13)
Take One: Sheridan's nostalgic, heartfelt commemoration of a modern-day Irish immigrant family's experiences in New York is alternately gritty and sentimental, juxtaposing scenes of urban decay and tragedy with a struggling family's commitment to one another.
Take Two: Though affirming of love and family, In America seems uncomfortable with the family's religious heritage. One daughter's belief that she can talk to, and ask favors from, her late brother is dismissed as wishful thinking, and the film seems finally to eschew faith for sentimentality. Adult content includes a racy depiction of marital intimacy and some profane and obscene language.
Final Take: Though deeply personal, In America feels less than completely honest, and the director's evident unresolved issues with God over a real-life tragedy are distractingly apparent.
3 HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (DreamWorks) Director: Vadim Perelman. Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard. (R)
Take One: Kingsley's virtuoso performance highlights a morally ambitious, ambiguous tale about a conflict between two parties who each have credible claims on the same house and how believable moral choices lead inexorably to a downward spiral of disaster.
Take Two: It's well written but not as ambiguous as it would like to be: Kingsley, though not perfect, is decent, honorable and basically in the right — while Connelly, though sympathetic and the victim of a raw deal, is pathetic, selfish and in the wrong. Content issues include much obscenity and some profanity, an explicit, adulterous bedroom scene, brief domestic violence and suicide.
Final Take: By the film's end, you can feel the plot gears creaking as the filmmakers work toward their desired ending; it's too much nastiness and not enough to justify it.
4 PETER PAN (Universal) Director: P.J. Hogan. Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Jason Isaacs. (PG)
Take One: Hogan's lavish, big-budget adaptation eschews Disneyfication and confronts the darker themes in J.M. Barrie's story head-on — and it stars a boy (Sumpter) rather than a petite woman.
Take Two: A great fairy tale mustn't be too self-aware; Hogan spells out what should be left implicit, in effect creating as much a commentary on Barrie as an adaptation. Hook, instead of being a child's idea of grown-up malevolence, becomes a real adult, capable of psychoanalyzing Peter. No fair! Some swashbuckling action, menace and, at times, comic violence.
Final Take: Something's been lost, but this is still an interesting take on J.M. Barrie's enduring nursery tale.
5 TEACHER'S PET (Universal) Director: Timothy Bjorklund. Nathan Lane, Shaun Flemming, Debra Jo Rupp, Kelsey Gram-mer. (PG)
Take One: Based on the short-lived Disney Channel animated series, Teacher's Pet is about a talking dog who wants to be a boy — so much so that he disguises himself as a real boy and attends class with his young master, whose mother just happens to be the teacher.
Take Two: Why are modern animated character designs so all-fired ugly? Quirky throwbacks to early animation (anthropomorphic singing houses, constant musical numbers, etc.) are a nice touch, but those post-Ren & Stimpy characters — yuck!
Boy and dog conspire to keep dog's secret, with much lying to adults, and there's some mild crude humor.
Final Take: In the post-holiday adult entertainment glut, decent family films are few and far between, but Teacher's Pet is only barely passable trifle.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.
Among Academy Award hopefuls, the big winner at the Golden Globes on Jan. 25 was clearly The Return of the King, which won all four awards for which it had been nominated, including the double diamond of best dramatic picture and best director.
Cold Mountain, which had twice as many nominations, settled for just one award, Renée Zellweger's best supporting actress.
After Return of the King, the big winner was Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's mood piece about two otherwise-married Americans who don't quite have an affair while enduring insomnia, ennui, loneliness and cultural isolation in Japan. It picked up three awards, including best musical or comedy (though it wasn't exactly either), best actor in a musical or comedy (Bill Murray) and best screenplay.
Does Return of the King's strong showing bode well for its chances at the Academy Awards? Probably — though I can't say I'm too worked up about it one way or the other. The historic achievement of these films is bigger than the awards. The Lord of the Rings will not be diminished if the trilogy goes without a best picture or best director Oscar; nor will the minority of skeptics be persuaded of the films’ greatness if it wins.
Recent history justifies Oscar skepticism. Arguably, not since Schindler's List (1993) has a truly great film won the top award. I can almost understand someone thinking Chicago a great film (I didn't think so myself, although I didn't think The Two Towers was the year's best picture, either; for me it was Roman Polanski's The Pianist). But how anyone could mistake Ron Howard's well-crafted but hardly extraordinary A Beautiful Mind for great cinema beats me. Then there was Gladiator in 2000, Titanic in ’97, English Patient in ’96 …
The point is not that the Academy will get it wrong again but that winning or losing the award doesn't “prove” anything. By the way, if you've never heard of the HBO miniseries “Angels in America,” which swept the Globes’ TV awards, don't look for it in our weekly Video/DVD Picks anytime soon. There may be angels in it, but this homosexual-themed, Mormon-bashing AIDS story is anything but heavenly.
- February 1-7, 2004