Half-a-dozen decent films opening between now and the New Year is good news, and a great surprise.
After "The Cat in the Hat," I thought I'd rather bait a bear or stone a mime than ever go to the movies again. But, somebody has to. Before we get to the epics, in which you can always look at battlefield carnage if you don't like the cornball sermons, let's look at three movies where real people behave in recognizable ways and we care about them anyway.
While not as sophisticated as it wants to be, "Something's Got to Give" stars Diane Keaton as a 55-year-old divorced playwright who must choose between Jack Nicholson, a Viagra-gobbling professional bachelor who has a heart attack in her house, in bed with her daughter, and Keaunu Reeves, who plays doctor. Keaton is always an excellent reason to go to a movie.
"Calendar Girls" stars Helen Mirren and Julie Walters in the true story of best friends, who, to raise money for a Yorkshire hospital, organize a calendar picturing themselves and their Women's Institute friends watering flowers and ironing shirts – the twist is that the 50-something ladies pose topless. Mirren is just as wonderful being bohemian and funny here as she was being deadly serious in "Prime Suspect."
"Mona Lisa Smile" takes us back to 1953, when smart young women like Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhall go off to colleges like Wellesley to use their brains just long enough to snag a husband. Julia Roberts, a teacher of art history, will change all that. They may think they know everything out of a textbook, but they've never seen Jackson Pollock. They may think they own the world, but Roberts can't be bought.
Before we get to the epics, I remind you that Julia Roberts is the closest Hollywood gets to Bill Moyers. In "The Pelican Brief," "Conspiracy Theory" and "Erin Brockovich," she exposed a Supreme Court assassination plot, an intelligence-agency brainwashing project, and a corporate dumping of toxic waste. With a "Mona Lisa Smile," she subverts patriarchy.
Meanwhile, with very big budgets, boys will be boys.
In "The Last Samurai," Tom Cruise, as a 19th-century U.S. Cavalry captain, feels so guilty about the Indians he's massacred that he goes to Japan to help the Emperor wipe out a samurai rebellion. A first encounter with these warriors doesn't go so well, but he gets to spend the winter with Ken Watanabe. Cruise's character masters traditional concepts of loyalty, discipline and shame, as well as martial footwork. After which, it's horses, swords and slaughter. Think "Dances With Wolves" meets "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
In "Cold Mountain," Jude Law no sooner meets Nicole Kidman and her piano than he has to join the Civil War. Nicole might not survive the Blue Ridge winter if not for the fabulous arrival of Renée Zellweger. Between federal regulators and confederate homeguards, the bullet-riddled woods of North Carolina are as dangerous as the battlefields up north, from which a shell-shocked Law deserts for the long walk home. Think "Gone With the Wind" meets "Dr. Zhivago."
"Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is the last of the Tolkien trilogy, and better than the other two combined, almost three-and-a-half hours of horned, winged and many-legged beasts, birds and giant spiders, not to mention orcs and the all-seeing Eye of the Dark Lord, in unholy war with Middle Earth and its multiculti motley of humanoids, hobbits, magicians, fairies, and elves -- not to mention one Gollum and many ghosts. Think "Dante's Inferno," Wagnerian opera and '80s glitter rock.
Without for a second gainsaying the entertainment value of these epics, which is great indeed, this one gloomy observation. When "Lord of the Rings" pauses to explain itself, "suffering" and "sacrifice" are evoked and exalted. In "The Last Samurai," the words are "honor" and "shame." An epic from France would use the word "glory" and from Germany, many more syllables adding up to the same trombone.
On the screen, what these words end up meaning is corpses. So congratulations to "Cold Mountain" for showing us the worst and keeping its mouth shut.
For Further Information:
"Mona Lisa Smile"
"Return of the King"
"The Cat in the Hat"
"Something's Gotta Give"