Seen at the Movies:

Anthony Minghella has lavished a considerable amount of loving care on his adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-selling Civil War-era novel Cold Mountain, and the film is a handsome, engrossing, and at times stirring experience. Jude Law plays Inman, the Confederate soldier making his way back to his Blue Ridge Mountains home and to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the woman who waits for him. He faces a Homer-inspired series of obstacles on his journey, most treacherous of which are the Home Guard patrols bent on shooting deserters. For her part, Ada, raised to appreciate the finer things but ignorant of the basic techniques she needs to survive the privations of war, is receiving a tough education under the tutelage of mountain girl Ruby (Renee Zellweger). The crosscutting between the two story strands doesn’t work as well here as it does in the novel—the narrative flow keeps breaking, which interferes with the cumulative impact of each character’s story.


Cold Mountain. Photo: Phil Bray/Miramax Films

But from episode to episode, the movie is gripping. The opening recreation of the Battle of Petersburg is shot as a terrifying mass of mud, soot, and blood, and some of the miseries Inman encounters on the way home—vignettes populated by such excellent character actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, and, most memorably, Natalie Portman—are equally effective. By this point, everyone must know that the production subbed Romania’s Carpathians for the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the result is reasonably persuasive. DP John Seale, working on a widescreen canvas, balances the natural lushness with a judicious choice of film stocks to emphasize the characters’ harsh ordeals. Production designer Dante Ferretti dots the movie’s landscape with period-perfect villages and log cabins. Though costume designer Ann Roth does a similarly exacting job with the film’s bedraggled uniforms and mountain clothes, I found Kidman’s succession of perfectly tailored outfits to be distracting, as is her flawless Barbie-doll complexion. In the end, there’s something not quite right—a failing of absolute conviction in the romance or spiritual authenticity in the period evocation or whatever—about Minghella’s Cold Mountain. But it’s an honorable piece of work.

Speaking of flawless complexions—the Charlize Theron we’ve come to know through such films as Celebrity and The Cider House Rules could certainly give Kidman a run for her money. Therefore, her transformation for Patty Jenkins’ film Monster into the hulking, mottle-skinned killer Aileen Wournos is truly astonishing. Especially so is that makeup artist Toni G. accomplishes what she does with just one major appliance, a dental piece, and relies on paint and bits of gel to achieve the rest. But this is not just about makeup; swaggering and cursing but unable to conceal her wild animal-like panic, Theron completely inhabits the character of the Florida prostitute who went on a john-murdering spree and was eventually executed for her crimes. Monster is primarily a showcase for this performance, and fails to make something coherent out of the other important character, Wournos’ female lover (here called Selby and played by a monotonously sullen Christina Ricci). But when a performance is as good as this one, it’s enough to carry a film.


Monster. Photo: Newmarket Films

I wasn’t necessarily yearning for another movie version of Peter Pan, but P.J. Hogan’s new film of James Barrie’s classic comes as a pleasant surprise. It was a good decision to cast a 12-year-old boy (Jeremy Sumpter) as Peter and work up a touch of sexual frisson between Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and him. And it was a smashing idea to base the designs for Neverland on Romantic turn-of-the-century paintings and illustrations. Roger Ford’s production design, ranging from verdant forests to creepy lagoons inhabited by gorgonish mermaids to cloud puffs you can rest on, is truly magical, and photographed with a suggestion of fairy dust by DP Donald McAlpine. Ludivine Sagnier’s Tinkerbell, digitally embellished by Industrial Light & Magic, is less successful, but Jason Isaacs, costumed with extravagant wit by Janet Patterson, makes a deliciously silly and malevolent Hook. This is a family film that earns the designation.


Peter Pan. Photo: Industrial Light and Magic

Bless Robert Altman—at 79, he just keeps churning them out. The filmmaker’s latest, The Company, is a fictional examination of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, with producer, co-story writer, and former ballerina Neve Campbell leading the ensemble. I’m not one to complain that not enough happens in a movie, but…not enough happens in The Company. Unlike the director’s best kaleidoscopic films, the drama never emerges from the round of rehearsals, creative disputes, injuries, and romantic entanglements chronicled in The Company. Malcolm McDowell is amusing as the troupe’s artistic director, and some of the dancing is lovely, but the movie evaporates as you’re watching it. Altman and DP Andrew Dunn made the decision to shoot the film in high-definition, which facilitated a multi-camera setup and extended takes, but it’s not the best result from HD that I’ve seen—the images tend to bleed and smear a bit. This one is for dance aficionados and Altman completists only.--John Calhoun


The Company. Photo: Matt Dinerstein/Sony Pictures Classics

Seen Off Broadway: Out of nowhere, and just in time for the holidays, comes a silly, hilarious, impudent nightclub revue of a show called The Musical of Musicals. The premise, cooked up by authors Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart, is simple: Take one dramatic situation (featuring a boy, a girl, a grasping landlord, and an advice-giving older woman) and retell it five times, in various Broadway musical styles. If the results are a tad uneven, the giddy party atmosphere never dissipates. The Rodgers and Hammerstein spoof is an Oklahoma!-like prairie opera, heavy with poetic waxings about nature (“The chipmunk is reading the Bible,” croons the hero) and featuring the requisite dream ballet (which, we are told, is “run of DeMille.”). The Stephen Sondheim version is set in an apartment house full of neurotics (“Welcome to our complex,” they sing, anxiously) presided over by a homicidal landlord (When someone calls him crazy, he avers, “No one is a loon.”). The company really goes to town on Andrew Lloyd Webber, mocking his fondness for thieving melodies from classical sources (“It may just be a teeny/Bit like Puccini”) and sung-through pieces (“I’m tired of having to sing everything,” trills an understandably exhausted ingénue). For some reason the Jerry Herman pastiche just sits there, but the audience at my performance loved the Kander and Ebb parody; here, Bogart, who amuses as a corn-fed pioneer auntie, a bellowing Elaine Stritch-like sophisticate, and a demented diva a la Norma Desmond, really scores as a Lotte Lenya-style cynic, curling her lips and spitting out an ode to the joys of prostitution. (As she notes, in considerably tougher language, it’s the only job where you can simultaneously sell and retain the merchandise.) If all of the above leaves you bewildered, then you have no need to attend the York Theatre anytime soon. If any of this amuses you—as it did me, mightily—then a visit is certainly in order. As opposed to Forbidden Broadway, which, with its skewing of Broadway stars, is aimed at a tourist audience, The Musical of Musicals is for the fans, filled as it is with puns, allusions, and surprisingly sophisticated musical jokes. Under Pamela Hunt’s perfectly-pitched direction, the cast of four gleefully rakes their Broadway betters over the coals. Aside from Rockwell and Bogart, Craig Fols lends true conviction to each addled romantic hero, and Lovette George easily sends up her insipid ingénue roles. Even the design is amusing: James Morgan’s set is framed in a proscenium that alludes to the show and a certain other musical in which the issue of rent is a key plot point. Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting includes some apt use of Sweeney Todd-style uplighting and Cabaret/Chicago type footlights as well. John Carver Sullivan’s simple black costumes attractive. If you’re looking for a mood-brightener, this is the show.--David Barbour.


The Musical of Musicals. Photo: Carol Rosegg