DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Monster’s Ball, 40 Days and 40 Nights, The Third Wheel, Changing Lanes, Patti Rocks, About a Boy, Shadowboxer

 

Title:   Monster’s Ball

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 100 minutes

MPAA Rating:  R (almost NC-17)

Distributor and Production Company:  Lion’s Gate Films

Director; Writer: Marc Forster, Milo Addica, Will Rokos

Producer: Lee Daniels

Cast:  Billy Bob Thornton (Hank), Halle Berry (Leticia), Peter Boyle (Buck).

Heath Ledger (Sonny), Sean Combs, Dante Veze, Coronji Cakhoun, Taylor Simpson, Gabrielle Witcher, Amber Rules, Charles Cowan Jr,m Taylor Lagrange, Anthony Bean, Francine Seal, John McConnell

 

Technical: Panavision 2.35/1, Digital

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Review:  This film provides good discussion materials for screenwriters, literary agents, writing workshops and the like.  The basic setup is your model plot: a rather racist policeman falls in love with black widow of a man he has electrocuted.  It has all the character and event evolutions of a well-prepared quicksand plot, and for that reason the film worked for me, even if most of the characters were rather unlikable (the desperate nature of their circumstances doesn’t get my sympathy).  The film spins a good story. The dialogue is earthy and natural, with lots of one-liners and four-letter words. And a couple of events in the film relate to some things in my own life. For example, the widow gets evicted when the sheriff shows up and puts her belongings on the street.  (I evicted someone when I was a landlord this way.) And Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) puts his father (Peter Boyle) in a nursing home after the father insults his new romance.  He says, “I don’t love him but he’s my father.” And then there is this brutal conversation that the nursing home stay is until the end of time. There is an on-camera electrocution, complete with leg-shaving and body smoldering, like on The Green Mile. There are several very physical sex scenes, with heterosexual sodomy and emphasis on male “performance” (or, in one scene, failure).

 

This is a brutal, somewhat brief, film, but somehow “Sling Blade” kept coming to mind. It was filmed on location in Louisiana, in wide-screen, and “The Farm” (Angola Prison) gets shown.

 

40 Days and 40 Nights, with nouveau Minnesota hearththrob Josh Hartnett as the center of attention, required the combined resources of Miramax, Universal, and Studio-Canal to produce, even though it looks like a small film.  I mention it because the story seems to provide an even clearer writing-class exercise in writing fiction with the standard plot-formula. The problem for the protagonist Matt (Hartnett) is to keep a Lenten vow (to his brother priest) of no sex (not even masturbation) and get the girl in the end, while fighting off the taunts of his roomies, sinking into quicksand.  The problem with this, of course, is that the setup is silly and the stakes not convincing.  Who cares? (Good question for a book proposal.)  But on the level of satire, the film works, sort of.  Why is doing without sexual performance a problem for virile young men like Hartnett (dig those great hairy legs of the would-be basketball star, who looks too young to have chest hair, or maybe he just isn’t allowed to have it)?  Well, sexual performance, after proper preparation of courtship and wedding consummation and subsequent fidelity, leads to family, and vicarious survival. There are lines about men having to spread their seed, else they don’t “survive.” Then there is the hint of legal problems from invasion of privacy: since Matt works for an Internet company, his coworkers have a right to publish his vow on the Net with a really nifty, overdone website, complete with Macromedia Flash Calendar and pretty animated icons. (Professional web development, no less.)  I talk about this seriously elsewhere.

 

 The Third Wheel, (no connection to production company Third Wheel Productions) a little situation comedy that appeared out of nowhere in 2001 from the Miramax Project Greenlight, directed by Jordan Brady and directed by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, also has a cute manipulative story. A homeless con artist (Luke Wilson) inveigles a young exec (Jay Lacopo), trying to score on an arranged date with Diana (Denise Richards) while his office buddies bet (Ben Affleck leads this little boiler room) – by getting hit by a car twice and going on for the ride. It doesn’t take long to see the scam but the executive falls for the great acting-within-acting job.

Bennett Haselton writes this to me about this movie: Hehe, just my luck, to be apparently the only person who watched it who got involved in it (hey, it was a boring flight) and not be able to find out the ending :) I suspected all along that the Denise Richards character was in on the scam because it seemed so hard to believe that she would go along with it, but another review that I read, which didn't give away the ending, still hinted that she wasn't in on it. What I was trying to figure out was whether the homeless guy was working together with one of the gamblers at a party, or whether he just wanted to be the one to go home with Denise Richards.

 

The Minneapolis International Film festival in 2001 also resurrected Patti Rocks (1987, New World Pictures), directed by David Burton Morris. This local film has the look of Blood Simple. A rather misogynistic seed-sower (Chris Mulkey, from Twin Peaks), after cheating on his wife, journeys with a coke buddy to Lake City to convince his “mistress” to have an abortion. There are minor misadventures on this David-Lynch-like road movie, some of them involving vomit and underwear, so it gets wickedly funny. The characters are indeed “wild at heart.” This film was originally rated NC-17 and barely got an R (roguh language, total nudity).

 

Changing Lanes, with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson (Paramount, 2002), provides a literary agent’s delight of two intertwined but individually “simple” plot skeletons. Two men from different backgrounds are late for separate court appointments after an auto accident. They are both in deep trouble quickly: Kevin Battel (Affleck) might get disbarred and go to jail for leaving a “power of appointment”  with his adversary, who faces problems of alcoholism and loss of custody. So they mess with each other, sinking into quicksand, but the story depends upon too many improbable coincidences. Affleck gives some compelling speeches about moral dilemmas, but doesn’t want to “change.:

 

About a Boy, from Universal and Studio-Canal, features British romantic comedian High Grant as a spoiled playboy who inherited inherits everything and just watches TV and buys things, and smokes cigarettes. (How depressing.)  In the opening scene, he turns down a chance to be a godfather. What connects him to “responsibility for others” is, of course, the opposite sex. He happens to meet a single mom, and finds he can bond to her son. That relationship fails so he joins a single parents’ group and pretends to have a kid. Soon he finds himself involved with another woman with a twelve year old who is willing to visit his flat uninvited and really invite him to behave like a parent, after skipping the huggies and diapers. He finds he can enjoy his knew responsibilities and “get involved” without the formal commitment of marriage and family. It’s a step-by-step, practical thing. There are great lines in the screenplay, which is brilliant in its terseness and simplicity. For example, he soliloquizes (while narrating) that single moms are people whose ratings have gone down. Later he admits that to help people it has to “mean something.” And eventually he admits that his own possessions and trivial activities don’t mean anything (as with Ed Norton’s character in The Fight Club). But the moral calculus would be more complicated if he had real talent and used it. I’m recalled of the Justin Taylor character in “Queer as Folk” who says art is something you have when everything else goes to shit.  Grant’s character doesn’t even have that. He needs women and a connection to the future. Welcome to George Gilder 101.  This film, with its atomic story and screenplay, offers sumptuous on-location photography of London.

 

Shadowboxer (2005, Freestyle/Teton, dir. Lee Daniels, wr. William Lipz, 93 min, R (close to NC-17). This is a layered thriller, with jumps around in time that somewhat remind one of Memento. The setup is that a female hit-person, Rose (Helen Mirren, who somehow evokes Meryl Streep from Prada) is decides on one last hit after getting well into her chemotherapy for terminal breast cancer. The treatment makes her well enough in remission intervals to be mean. Her stepson, Mikey (Cuba Gooding, Jr., and opposite in race) is to be her partner in crime, and the mark is the pregnant wife Vickie (Venessa Ferlito) of young mobster Clayton (Stephen Dorff, who presents the curious look of a previously shaved chest, partly grown back to look like a buzz cut). In an opening sequence, Clatyon is torturing young mob Dr. Don (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, from Brick, still rather a college kid in this film ), yanking off his trousers as he is tied to a pool table and using a pool que stick as a ramrod. The film makes art work of the brutality of the crime sequences. When Rose walks in on Vickie, intending an assassination, Vickie’s water breaks in a graphic display. Rose helps her deliver the baby, and Rose, Mikey and the baby become a family. We learn in some bizarre sequences about Dr. Don’s antics (even as he treats the mother and baby), and about Mikey’s brutality, and all will lead to a bizarre showdown. The on location scenery of Philadelphia is extremely effective, particularly the scenes near the Greek-looking museums where the wheelchaired mob boss gives out his next directions and plays puppetmeister.    

  

Related reviews: The Farm: Angola Prison  Storytelling  Memento  Brick   The Devil Wears Prada

 

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