Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (B+) is a stirring Civil War-set adventure and romance with some of the best work done by Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. The director deftly handles two parallel stories, invoking color and detail in the backwaters of battle. The film has epic sweep and intrigue throughout.
Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo (A-) is a computer-generated treasure trove of aquatic animation featuring a winning school of voice talent including Albert Brooks as a cantankerous clownfish and Ellen DeGeneres as the forgetful regal tang named Dory. The story centers around losing your community and finding it again and sweeps the viewers along an amazing journey through the world’s oceans. Like the best Pixar films, the humor is double-edged so adults and kids can both enjoy immensely. The faces on fishes obey the rules of film school, so you can truly follow their dramatic and comedic interactions. It’s an epic adventure to cherish.
With the origin story and mythology behind him, Bryan Singer is free to plunge viewers right into the action of a cloak and dagger adventure with his ensemble of mutant superheroes in X2: X-Men United (B+). Few of the affairs are as fast or fresh as before, but it’s fun to watch the deepening of characterizations such as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Singer continues to plumb the analogies of the mutants’ outsider status to contemporary civil and human rights issues, lending more gravitas to the adventure than would normally befall an action adventure.
A rare misfire from acclaimed director Ang Lee, the comic book thriller Hulk (C-) is schizophrenic indeed. Ostensibly it’s supposed to be an action movie; but in trying to draw out the human elements characteristic of his greatest works, Lee creates a soapy, off-the-rails domestic drama. The story about the man who becomes a monster when enraged is shrouded in a blur of inconsistent effects and sloppy storytelling. It’s often quite a mess, despite admirable work by Eric Bana as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Jennifer Connelly and Nick Nolte. I’m not completely sure how this curiosity in its current incarnation ever got green-lit.
Todd Graff’s Camp (B) is a joyous ode to growing up, making friends and finding your voice. Set at a summer camp for kids who want to be Broadway stars, there is enough backstage drama to fill the great white wilderness as the teens overcome their outcast status and find themselves center stage in their own follies, foibles and friendships. Graff draws out charming performances from newcomers Daniel Letterle, Robin de Jesus and Anna Kendrick, the latter belting out a very memorable and angry “Ladies Who Lunch.” The title’s play on words might imply a film high on kitsch, but it’s actually high on sweetness and coming of age. Showtune fans will rejoice at some unexpected songs and a star cameo. It’s Meatballs for maestros.
Writer/director Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass (A) may give you an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach as you watch its conman antihero (a captivating Hayden Christensen) play loose with the truth as he makes up stories at The New Republic magazine. It’s a wrenching look at the journalism profession through the eyes of fellow reporters (Peter Sarsgaard and Chloe Sevigny are incredible). The suspense in waiting for the truth to catch up with “Stephen Glass” is the amazing part of watching the film. As the character weaves fiction, Ray shows the stories come to life, so the subjects are sometimes blurred and it makes it difficult to remember what really did happen. It’s a spectacular work.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (A) has such a graceful finale, director Peter Jackson ends it three or four times. But it’s hard to admonish this visionary for wanting to take an extended curtain call to send off such a magnificent cast of characters at the end of what has become such an epic film trilogy about Hobbits and other inhabitants of Middle Earth. Viggo Mortensen gets his best showcase this time around, and the characters get to truly stare evil in the face as they end their quest. The film sustains moments of charm, introspection, delight, full-blooded adventure, wonder and thrills. Because of the goodwill developed for these characters, the film can plumb truly dark territory as the titular ring works its soul-crushing magic. By the end of Jackson’s three-part masterwork, he has reinvented film fantasy.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (B+) is vintage writer/director Quentin Tarantino material if ever there were. When “The Bride” (a fierce and feral Uma Thurman) is gunned down and nearly killed at her own wedding, she embarks on a global vengeance spree against the crime ring responsible. The film chronicles, in out of order episodes, of course, the colorful and outrageous interactions that often lead to bloody revenge. Inspired by grindhouse films, samurai epics, anime and so much more, this is a creative and unexpected action thriller. The wordplay mixes wonderfully with the swordplay, and it’s often a riotous ride.