A Prayer For The Human Race

Wrapping up the year on film, they saved one of the best for last. As war movies go, Hollywood has always treated the Civil War-the only homemade war ever fought on American soil-with boredom, disinterest and disdain. Except for Gone with the Wind , the War Between the States is like Bette Davis in the winter of her career: box-office poison. Spectacular and overwhelming, Cold Mountain is an exception. The movie that Anthony Minghella has sculpted from the heroic best-seller by Charles Frazier blends every aspect of filmmaking-sets, costumes, camerawork, acting, lighting, writing, editing and technology-to tell mythic stories of love, death, courage, honor, loss and survival on the battlefield and on the home front in the 1860’s. It’s long and sometimes slow as dripping molasses, but you can forgive a lot of things when you’re talking about a masterpiece.

Both an epic adventure yarn and a romantic saga, it’s about the spiritual journey of two lovers caught in the changing values of a country torn apart by war. Nicole Kidman is Ada Monroe, the beautiful and cultured minister’s daughter from Charleston transported to a farming village in North Carolina called Cold Mountain. Jude Law is Inman, the Confederate soldier separated from the woman he loves by a war that dragged on so long the men fighting it no longer knew what it was about in the first place. After her father (Donald Sutherland) dies and leaves her alone with no farming skills to hold her land together, Ada waits patiently for Inman to come home and marry her, unaware that he lies close to death in the trenches. From the attacks of hundreds of flag-carrying Yankees, to the mutilation and massacre of the Southern troops drowning in ditches of their own blood, director Minghella plunges you into the chaos of war with such abandon the soldiers can’t even see where to move the cannons. The war scenes are brief but harrowing, and they have the same maximum impact as the opening invasion sequence on the beaches of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan . Quickly realizing the horror and futility of carnage as his friends and neighbors from home lie slaughtered around him and dying in his arms, Inman is severely wounded, then is hospitalized and becomes an Army deserter. Four hundred miles away, in Cold Mountain, Ada frees her slaves and survives the harsh winters digging through the frozen ground for the roots of vegetables. The rest of the film is a tapestry of a war-torn landscape that chronicles the people, adventures and catastrophic twists of destiny that Ada and Inman experience in their search for reunion, peace, salvation and a hopeful future. While Ada battles loneliness, starvation, cutthroat renegade intruders and starvation, Inman teams up with a disgraced preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose head has been shaved for impregnating a runaway slave girl, gets captured by outlaws rounding up military deserters, chained to a gang of corpses and rescued once again from the jaws of death, this time by an old mountain crone (played by the great Eileen Atkins) who nurses him back to health with home-brewed medicinal cures and goat meat. During the passage of seasons and the endless atrocities and hardships they both endure, Ada takes in a hard-working field hand named Ruby (Renée Zellweger), who teaches her how to do useful things and never stops talking. While Ada and Ruby struggle to save the farm, Inman takes refuge in the bed of a bereaved and desperate widow with a sick baby (Natalie Portman), both of them clinging to each other out of mutual misery. By the time Ada, Ruby and Inman find each other, the film has introduced us to dozens of characters with vivid chapters of their own to contribute, caught up in the crossfire of war and damaged beyond repair. The distinguished cast includes Kathy Baker, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Lucas Black, Jena Malone and others too numerous to mention, each one a square in a patchwork quilt that contributes to the completed pattern with color and flavor and zest. This is not a Civil War made up of generals and cavalry charges and mammies swaying on the banks of the Mississippi, nor is the landscape dotted with ante-bellum plantations endangered by carpetbaggers. (No Doric columns in Romania, where it was filmed.) But it all looks authentic, the cinematography by John Seale is as evocative of the rural South and authentic as it gets, and Gabriel Yared’s lush music underscores the multiple levels of action with passion. There is one irony: While the British, Scottish and Irish actors manage a multitude of completely skillful Southern accents, Ms. Zellweger, who really is from Texas, hams it up so much that she looks and sounds like an exasperating cross between The Beverly Hillbillies and Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun .

But in a film with so much going on, this is a small caveat. Cold Mountain is really a poignant work of art about lost innocence, about people under siege on their own soil whose hearts are as broken as their farmland, about the detours they take on the perilous road to reconstructed values, and about the stupidity of all wars-whether they are fought in Gettysburg or Iraq. Anthony Minghella brings to the material the same personal vision with which he turned The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley into enduring classics, with a healthy and welcome regard for the dying art of narrative storytelling. The result of so much talent and painstaking detail is a film as beautiful and compelling as it is literate-a work of greatness and art that is, in itself, a prayer for the human race.

Jack Meets His Match

Something’s Gotta Give , written and directed by Nora Ephron clone Nancy Meyers, is a comedy of manners (and mannerisms) with two of the most mannered movie stars of our time, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, acting all over the place until you surrender with the ecstasy of pure pleasure. He’s a rich reprobate who only dates younger women, she’s the mother of his latest squeeze, and when they meet at her beach house in the Hamptons for an unexpected weekend, hate at first sight (“He’s leaving as soon as the sun comes up”; “What, his car doesn’t have headlights?”) turns to sex on second thought. When he has a heart attack after too much Viagra and turns into Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner , staying on as an unwelcome house guest, she is forced to play the role of reluctant nurse, maid and baby-sitter. The other shoe drops when the handsome and horny young emergency-room doctor 20 years her junior (Keanu Reeves) chooses her for his own love lollipop, and the one-liners fly faster than flapjacks at IHOP. The movie takes a bracing look at the toxic station of single women over 50 in dating hell, and the two stars are worth a ticket at any price. She eats the furniture with tics and habitual idiosyncrasies, but the way she plays exhilaration, frustration, absentmindedness and hysterical bouts of pain and humor is oddly affecting. Nobody does a crying jag like Keaton. Bringing along his own self-indulgent bag of tricks, Jack is querulous and full of mischief. Watch him suck the ice cream out of a cone-you have to laugh. You have to admire him for being so engaging while trying to upstage everyone else in the scene at the same time. I am delighted to report he has finally, and irrevocably, met his match in Diane Keaton. In Something’s Gotta Give , their looseness rubs off on everyone who shares the screen with them. Mr. Reeves still can’t act, but he’s less bland than usual, while Frances McDormand and Amanda Peet, as Ms. Keaton’s sister and daughter, sparkle more. Filmed in Manhattan, the Hamptons and Paris, the movie provides something terrific to look at even if you tire of watching the stars. But what dope would admit to that? Making scrambled eggs by candlelight in their pajamas, mixing up each other’s reading glasses, and just plain washing the screen with polish, professionalism and panache, they are twin Rolls Corniches in a movie for assembly-line Toyotas.

Hot Mamas

Charming and sweet-natured, the British film Calendar Girls tells the true story of a women’s club in a small village in Yorkshire that meets monthly for lectures on such stimulating subjects as the history of broccoli. Every year to raise money for charity, they make jam, sell flower arrangements and publish an annual calendar of pastoral landscapes noted for its dullness. This is the year that will change the lives of the women, the town and the world. This year, to pay for a new sofa in the uncomfortable waiting room of the local hospital, the club’s two most enterprising members, recently widowed Annie (Julie Walters) and her take-charge best friend Chris (Helen Mirren), decide to give the calendar an added pinch of paprika. Taking an inspired cue from The Full Monty , the ladies propose a different prim and proper club member for every calendar month, all in the nude. With more senior-citizen models than months, they are soon tossing their bras, baring their bums and posing discreetly in the raw behind their pastries, knitting and potted plants. The town goes wild, the calendar sells faster than Harry Potter , the story makes international headlines, and stripping for charity turns homemakers, church organists and demure grannies alike into cover girls.

Despite the domestic problems it raises, the calendar gets the women all the way to Hollywood and a guest spot on Jay Leno. By the time Annie, who feels guilty about soiling the reputation of her late husband, and Chris, who has neglected her own family while the lure of celebrity goes to her head, both come to their senses on an empty California sound stage before exploitation and publicity ruin their lives-well, you’ll be laughing and applauding with equal abandon. The fact that it’s all true (the actual women worked as technical advisers, with the blessing of Britain’s same community-based Federation of Women’s Institutes that first opposed the idea of the calendar) makes it as surprising as it is entertaining. A joyous dose of Yuletide cheer, indeed.

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