Tag Archives: B+

AMADEUS DIRECTOR’S CUT

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B+

Though Milos Forman’s filmization of Peter Schaffer’s play “Amadeus” won eight Oscars, including those for best picture, director and actor, in 1984, it’s always been more admired than loved. The narrative–about the way in which the competent but uninspired court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), in an act of vengeance against the God he believes has cheated him, destroyed (or insanely believed that he had destroyed) the young Mozart (Tom Hulce), whom he saw as a divine instrument–certainly raises serious questions: it deals, among other things, with the clash between mediocrity and genius, and with the mysterious character of God’s providence in human affairs. Its treatment of those issues, however, isn’t terribly deep, and from the intellectual perspective the film is rather muddled; there’s a sense of false profundity constantly at work While the production afforded the material is opulent, moreover, the pace is so stately and genteel that it could be criticized in the same terms that its version of Mozart applies to the static operas that preceded his own. “Amadeus” is also an extremely talky piece: following the structure of the play on which it’s based, it devotes a good deal of the running-time to the elderly Salieri recounting his relationship with Mozart to the audience (whose surrogate is now a priest who wants to serve as the old man’s confessor). The characters, moreover, are sketched in broad, overemphatic strokes (less suited to the screen than the stage); it’s hard to see them as anything but elements of an argument rather than sympathetic individuals. (That may explain why neither Abraham nor Hulce had a sterling career afterward, despite their good work here.) The approach gives the picture a detached, dry tone that makes it eminently admirable, but not really moving. Ironically, “Amadeus” seems like the sort of well- crafted but oddly pedestrian film a Salieri might make, rather than the brilliant, inspired creation of a Mozart.

Still, “Amadeus” was a sort of intimate epic, and while it never matched the transcendent beauty of the music with which it was filled, it seemed to have a seriousness–despite its flashes of wicked humor (especially in Jeffrey Jones’ hilarious turn as the empty-headed Emperor Joseph II)–that merited recognition and respect. And in the current “director’s cut,” it emerges looking and sounding wonderful again, filling the wide screen with color and richness. It’s certainly worth seeking out and savoring once more for its many virtues, not the least of them the shards of Mozart’s music sprinkled liberally throughout it–and very nicely played. (And the scene in which Mozart blithely converts Salieri’s march of welcome into “Non piu andrai,” without realizing the offense he’s giving, remains a masterful joke.)

Yet this is a somewhat different film from that issued eighteen years ago. The old version ran about 160 minutes; the new one has grown to 188. The most prominent additions are a couple of scenes involving a tin-earned, dog-loving Viennese businessman named Schlumberg (Kenneth McMillan), whose daughter briefly becomes (at Salieri’s intervention) Mozart’s pupil. The earlier of them shows Mozart stalking out in disgust after the man refuses to keep his mongrels out of the practice-room, and the latter depicts the now-dissolute composer returning to beg a loan–unsuccessfully. (The first is preceded by another new sequence, a conversation between the two composers in which Mozart intrigues Salieri by letting slip that he’s working on a big project, which turns out to be “Le Nozze di Figaro.”) Other added minutes include a brief introduction to the visit that Constanze Mozart makes to Salieri to ask him to look over her husband’s scores, showing the court composer with one of his students, and a scene in which Mozart goes to Katerina Cavalieri’s dressing-room after the premiere of “Die Entführung aus dem Serail,” reinforcing Salieri’s conviction that the younger man has seduced his prize pupil. Forman has probably made lesser adjustments at other points as well, though they’re less immediately apparent.

What’s the effect of all this tinkering? In some respects the narrative runs more smoothly–the added conversation between Salieri and Mozart, for example, is helpful in explaining why the plot unfolds as it does afterward. Unhappily, its inclusion necessitated the addition of the two Schlumberg sequences, which–to be perfectly honest–should never have seen the light of day: both are heavy-handed and far too broad, with McMillan looking (and sounding) very much out of place. The dressing-room sequence is basically redundant, as is the brief conversation between Salieri and his pupil prior to Constanze’s arrival. More, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Still, that’s no reason for you to skip the opportunity to see “Amadeus” on the big screen once again. It’s not a classic, but it is a solid, if somewhat stolid, picture of an extravagant, vaguely cerebral kind that’s not made very often nowadays. Though it’s unlikely to transport you to the degree that Mozart’s works did Salieri, it does at least hint at the miraculous quality of his music.

MONSTER’S BALL

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B+

The misfortune of Marc Forster’s “Monster’s Ball” is that it invites too many invidious comparisons. As a portrayal of the realities of death row in an American prison, it doesn’t quite equal “Dead Man Walking.” As an examination of the way poisonous beliefs infect the succeeding generations in a family, it’s a runner-up to “Affliction.” As a depiction of the grief that comes from the loss of a child, it doesn’t match “The Sweet Hereafter” or “In the Bedroom.” Even in terms of restrained, minimalist performances from Billy Bob Thornton, it follows all too closely upon the ever-so-slightly superior “Man Who Wasn’t There.”

Still, if you can set aside all that, Forster’s film is actually very good. The central character is Hank Grotowski (Thornton), the head guard in the maximum security area of a Georgia prison where his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) works under him. The brooding, ominously quiet Hank is an unreconstructed racist–a trait that he’s inherited from his odious father Buck (Peter Boyle), a bedridden misanthrope who had also been a prison employee. Sonny, on the other hand, is a more sensitive, tolerant sort, though without much strength of conviction, and when his emotions overcome him during the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), Hank is disgusted with the boy–an emotional reaction that leads to family tragedy. Shortly afterward, Hank encounters Musgrove’s widow Leticia (Halle Berry), who’s taken a job as a waitress in a diner he obsessively visits, always for a bowl of chocolate ice-cream, which he eats only with a plastic spoon in a habitual booth. On one stormy night he’s compelled to help her after an accident befalls her son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), and they gradually enter a halting friendship which necessarily challenges his inbred ethnic hatred (and brings out the worst in his father). The ultimate question is whether these two damaged people can overcome their individual losses and come together despite the obstacles which separate them–or, to put it in the way that scripters Milo Addica and Will Rokos frame it a mite too ponderously, whether Hank will be able to find happiness (which is what “leticia” means in Latin, of course). Even more broadly, the issue is: can the present escape the past, or must we remain what our families have made us?

The coincidences that propel the plot of “Monster’s Ball” (the title refers to an execution without lawyer, minister or family present) are severe, of course, and Forster’s very deliberate staging accentuates the essential implausibility of it all. Still, the overall impact is considerable; this is an affecting, thought-provoking film despite the plot contrivances on which it depends. Thornton gives his third superb performance of the year (along with “Bandits” and the aforementioned “Man”), and Berry is excellent as well: the hesitant nature of their courtship is beautifully caught through the use of silences rather than reams of dialogue. Both are especially effective in their relationships with their children: Hank’s final confrontation with Sonny is extraordinarily powerful, and a scene in which Leticia berates Tyrell for his overeating is painfully vivid. Ledger and Calhoun are very fine as the youngsters, too–the Australian heartthrob is particularly to be commended for taking such a risky part–and Boyle is spectacularly loathsome as Buck. Surprisingly enough, Combs is not lost in this company; he paints a nuanced, even touching portrait of the dignified, doomed Musgrove. All the performances are enhanced by the splendid wide-screen photography of Roberto Schaefer.

“Monster’s Ball” is a spare film, almost as laconic as Hank is himself, and some in the audience will find it ponderous, even emotionally desiccated. If you’re willing to surrender to its peculiar rhythm and allow it the necessary space to grow on you, however, you should find it a remarkably moving experience.