Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Natalie Portman, Giovanni Ribisi, Donald Sutherland, Ray Winstone, Kathy Baker, James Gammon, Charlie Hunnam, Jack White, Ethan Suplee, Jena Malone, Melora Walters, Lucas Black, Taryn Manning, Tom Aldredge, James Rebhorn, Emily Deschanel, Robin Mullins, Ben Allison, William Boyer, Christhopher Fennell, Erik Smith, Cillian Murphy, Richard Blake
Written by: Anthony Minghella, based on Charles Frazier's novel
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
MPAA Rating: R for violence and sexuality
Running Time: 152
Date: 12/24/2003

Cold Mountain (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Cold Cut

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The British writer/director Anthony Minghella once infused his stories with touching human qualities. His Truly Madly Deeply is still a joyous experience, perhaps imperfect on the visual end, but magnificent on the emotional one. But he soon traded all that for a job at Miramax. Now he makes large, beautifully shot, but empty and lifeless films like The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Essentially making films he thinks the Academy will like rather than pleasing himself. Minghella's newest film, Cold Mountain is part of this vein, but even more transparently awful.

Based on the novel by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain follows the tales of two young lovers torn apart by the Civil War. Having just barely met and shared their first kiss, Inman (Jude Law) rushes off to war, leaving the reverend's daughter Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) on her own. When her father (Donald Sutherland) dies, Ada nearly lets her farm rot until the brassy Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) arrives to put her to work. Meanwhile, Inman is wounded and escapes, traveling cross-country back to his Ada and meeting all kinds of supporting players along the way.

Whereas he once coaxed a career-topping performance from Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply, these days it's difficult to tell whether Minghella chronically miscasts these epics, or if his mediocre direction stifles the cast he ends up with.

In any case, Kidman comes across as too ravishingly beautiful for her role; she has nothing to do but look pretty. And, given that this is the 19th century, wouldn't someone have married this single thirty-something a lot earlier? Law has no chemistry with her, and practically no personality to speak of. But Zellweger has too much. Apparently no one told her that she wasn't doing Oklahoma! -- she struts and stomps around with an outrageous farmer accent. You almost expect her to burst into song at any moment.

Minghella usually has better luck with supporting players. In The English Patient, Juliette Binoche stole the wraparound sequences from the major scenes between the very dull Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. In Ripley, Matt Damon, Law and Gwyneth Paltrow all came across homogenized and flat, while Philip Seymour Hoffman gave the film a burst of life. Thankfully, Hoffman is on hand here for about ten minutes -- as a dandyish outlaw -- and he single-handedly saves that portion of the picture. Other supporters turn in fine work as well: Brendan Gleeson as Zellweger's errant father, Giovanni Ribisi as a scary, half-crazed mountain dweller and Natalie Portman as a sweet war widow panicking over her sick baby.

Unfortunately, the film comes with a band of stock villains, men who hunt army deserters such as our hero Inman. These baddies basically ride around maniacally sneering and laughing; they might as well be James Bond villains. More than almost anything else, these half-wits really drag the film down. Part of the problem is that Minghella's dialogue sounds overly written, as if he tried to imagine how people talked back then and looked to Gone With the Wind and other old Civil War movies for inspiration. Few of the actors can handle the awkward phrasings, and anytime anyone speaks it sounds forced and phony. (Only Hoffman makes the words his own.)

But, since Minghella swapped his humanity for sweeping vistas, fans of such work will find plenty of postcard poetry in Cold Mountain. It helps that Minghella has scooped up the greatest film editor and sound man of all time, the Bay Area's own Walter Murch. Murch manages to patch together a professional-looking package, especially when it comes to non-dialogue sequences and war scenes. Ultimately, Cold Mountain will impress many people with its size and scope, its politeness and its musings on the nature of war. Take a look back at 1996, though. Is there anyone today who really believes that The English Patient deserved to win Best Picture over Fargo? Cold Mountain may elicit a certain amount of enthusiastic response now, but its shelf life will be a short one.

DVD Details: Well, Miramax only got away with one Oscar for their bloated epic, and it was the worst possible one. I liked Renee Zellweger very much in Nurse Betty and she was my choice for that year's best actress. But let's face it: she stunk up Cold Mountain. In any case, Miramax is hoping that this giant sleeping pill still has enough supporters six months later to justify a 2-disc DVD set for $29.99, complete with a commentary track by the one-shot director Anthony Minghella and the genius editor Walter Murch (who was too good for this film). Disc two has the obligatory making-of documentary, delted scenes (there were more?!?), more featurettes on the music, etc. and storyboard comparisons. It comes with two sound mixes, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and DTS 5.1 Surround, plus an optional French language track and optional Spanish and French subtitles. The picture has been mastered in 2.35-to-1 widescreen. Despite all this, nothing could get me to sit through this movie again.

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