(Columbia, 2003) D: Patty Jenkins, w/ Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci. Rating NNNNN
Believe all the superlatives. Charlize Theron's Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who murdered johns in 1980s Florida, is one of the greatest performances ever committed to film. It boils with mixed, hidden and out-of control emotions.
By itself, it's enough to make Monster a great movie. But it isn't by itself. Everyone involved is fully in tune with the movie's spirit.
In the excellent commentary track and making-of documentary, Theron and writer/director Jenkins call that spirit truth. For them, finding the truth meant creating a fully human Wuornos, so we learn who she is and how she got to where she did. Whether or not we agree that this film's version of things constitutes the truth, we do get a Wuornos untainted by exploitation shocks, noble-loser weepies or predigested psychologizing. The only explanation or insight we get is what she provides herself.
Theron and Jenkins discuss in detail how they did it, mostly talking about emotion in a depth and detail that few filmmakers even attempt in these things. They're also scrupulous about pointing out what's fact and what's fiction in the film. This is what earns this DVD the highest rating possible.
But the commentary and making-of are dangerous. Jenkins' stated aim is to get you to feel, not to tell you what to feel. But she and Theron have their own strong ideas about Wuornos, and they're not shy about putting them forward. Turn to the commentary too soon and you risk being drawn into their view. Wuornos is, among other things, a liar. That does much to make the film an unsettling experience, and much to make it worth repeated viewings.
EXTRAS Commentary track, making-of documentary, making-of and composing-for-surround-sound documentaries, very good extended and deleted scenes, good interview with Jenkins and composer BT, sound mixing demonstration. English 5.1, English DTS, Spanish and French 2.0; Spanish and French subtitles.
(WB, 2004) D: Pitof, w/ Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt. Rating: NNN
Too bad about the lame story, because almost everything else about Catwoman rocks. Halle Berry's physicality has never before been used so well. Some of her scenes - catfooting around the apartment on her first morning, for instance - are pure delighted play. The rest of the cast chew the scenery with an energetic glee just this side of camp. Sharon Stone, whose physical confidence is a match for Berry's, is a standout. Even Benjamin Bratt, who has the thankless role of love interest/cop on Catwoman's tail, has some life.
The making-of documentary tells us that Berry went to cat school under choreographer Anne Fletcher, and more on that would have been welcome. Instead, time's wasted outlining the same predictable story we've just watched. Far better is the Catwoman history hosted by Eartha Kitt. Here's every woman who ever played the part. Julie Newmar is wonderful, explaining how her version all came from certain details of the costume's fit. Look for a good chase and Sharon Stone's maybe-lesbian scene in the deleted scenes. Both moments should have been left in the movie.
The only real minuses here are some obvious CGI and the formulaic paint-by-numbers story, scripted at the level of Birds Of Prey. Catwoman's a fun character. She deserves better.
EXTRAS Making-of documentary, Catwoman history, deleted scenes, DVD-ROM features, theatrical trailer. Dolby 5.1 English and French; English, French and Spanish subtitles.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2004 ) D: David R. Ellis, w/ Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, Jason Statham. Rating NNN
It's wonderful what you can do with one good idea: she's been kidnapped, and her only link to the world - and hope for survival - is a slacker with a cellphone. That simple notion opens up a whole new range of possibilities for the action/suspense movie. No more boring driving scenes as the hero chases baddies all over L.A., no more boring talking-head scenes. Now the driving scenes are the dialogue scenes.
You get new suspense gimmicks: the quirks of cellphones, like dying batteries, bring nail-biting potential to all kinds of unexploited everyday occurrences. And new contexts: it gives scripter Chris Morgan a chance to slip in some satrical points about that wretched and revolutionary cell.
Special features include a good doc on the history of the cellphone. Just as good is the documentary on the real-life story that inspired the plot. It's best I don't even hint at this, and best you just watch the movie cold.
The director's commentary is one of the worst ever committed to disc. David R. Ellis is a surfer dude at heart, apparently most concerned with getting hotties onto the screen and making sure his relatives get work - both his sister and daughter worked on the film in key positions and appear in the commentary, which has some funny moments and a bit of good stuff about stunts but is mostly a waste of time.
The surfer dude is a pose, of course. Ellis has done stunts, stunt coordinating and second unit directing on over 60 projects before stepping up to directing on Final Destination 2. He treats his action scenes as integral story elements, not CGI candy.
Ellis's people look imperilled and in pain. Kim Basinger and Jason Statham (Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels) are standouts as victim and kidnapper, and William H. Macy brings life to a role that's basically just a plot device. Rick Hoffman's lawyer is a little comic gem, breaking the movie's tone. He almost deserves a movie of his own.
EXTRAS Making-of, cellphone and true crime documentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, director, producer and stunt coordinator commentary. DVD-ROM features. In English and French; English, Spanish subtitles.
The Story Of The Weeping Camel
(MGM, 2003) D: Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni, w/ Janchiv Ayurzana, Chimed Ohin. Rating: NNN
Deep in the Gobi desert, a camel rejects its newborn colt. After doing what they can themselves, the Mongolian family of sheep and camel herders decides to bring in a good musician for a ritual to unite mother and colt. That's it. Not much happens, and it happens slowly. And it all works.
It's easy to wreck this kind of movie. Lean a little too heavily on your theme and your movie looks like blatant propaganda. Bungle your composition and editing rhythms just a little and the rhythm of the seasons turns to the rhythm of boredom. Shoehorn in every bit of accidental humour and drama and your amateur cast look like clumsy puppets.
Davaa and Falorni sidestep all these pitfalls and produce a graceful movie with near-flawless shooting and cutting of the most basic sort. The Gobi has a stark beauty, and we get lots of it. Mongolian camels have a shaggy beauty, and we get lots of them.
The apparently real shepherd family seem to be responding in a natural way to a normal, only mildly dramatic problem in their lives, with occasional glances into the camera. The whole thing plays as much like a documentary as fiction, and gives the viewer ample space for contemplation.
Too bad the only extras are a photo gallery. It would be nice to know how Davaa and Falorni brought it off.
Extras: Photo gallery. 5.1, 2.0 sound; Mongolian, with English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, January 25
The Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection
(WB) The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), White Heat (1949), The Petrified Forest (1936). The films and tough guys that defined a genre, they still hold up today.
Backbeat Collector's Edition
(Columbia, 1994) A great look at the Beatles' early years.
Bunny Lake Is Missing
(Columbia, 1965) A terrific cast in a chilly thriller.
Salt And Pepper/One More Time
(MGM, 1968-70) Ratpackers at their worst. Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford make Dean Martin's Matt Helm look like James Bond.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb