Renee Zellweger

Cold Mountain

 2003

Miramax Films

Directed by Anthony Minghella

Produced by Sydney Pollack, Albert Berger & William Horberg

Screenplay by Anthony Minghella

Based on the book by Charles Frazier

I like Jude Law as an actor a lot.  I liked him even before the yearlong Jude Law Film Festival of 2004 since he starred in two of my favorite science fiction movies, “Gattaca” and “eXistenZ”.  He played one of the most unusual hired killers I’ve seen in a motion picture in “Road To Perdition” and an android gigolo in “A.I.”.  So based on the strength of his past track record with me I figured that COLD MOUNTAIN  would be worth watching even though I had heard and read that the movie wasn’t all that good.  This was one time I should have listened.  It’s not that COLD MOUNTAIN is a lousy movie.  In fact, there are an awful lot of good things about it.  It just doesn’t add up to a movie that’s very interesting to watch.  And by the time the end credits came up I found that I really didn’t care much about what I had just watched.

The movie starts just before The Civil War.  Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and her father, The Good Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland) have just settled in the small North Carolina town of Cold Mountain where they are received warmly and Ada develops an interest in the broodingly handsome Inman (Jude Law).  Beats the hell out of me how they can be so interested in each other when they barely have conversations of more than twenty words at a time.  In fact, Inman comes right out and says to Ada that a relationship between them would be perfect if they never had to talk.  A notion that Ada agrees with.  Now I thought this was a Civil War drama I was watching but the notion of a man finding a woman who doesn’t like to talk skirts dangerously into science fiction territory if you ask me.

Inman goes off to war delightedly and Ada promises to wait for him.  And so she does as the town comes under the control of Teague (Ray Winstone) and his Home Guard.  Supposedly their job is to protect the town but instead they prey upon the women, old men and infirm citizens who have nobody to defend them since all the able bodied men are off fighting in the war.  The Good Reverend Monroe passes away and Ada goes a little nuts, dressing in her father’s coat and hat and letting the farm go to ruin.  Into her life comes a down to earth, no nonsense, take charge spitfire named Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) who rouses Ada out of the apathy she’s let herself slip into and they start working the farm together.

Meanwhile, Inman has been seriously wounded in a hideously brutal battle and he receives a letter from Ada asking him to forget the war and come home.  Despite warnings from other soldiers that fellows who decide to take a long walk from the war are shot on the spot, Inman deserts and sets out on foot to return to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves.

Now this should be great material for a wonderful love story set against the backdrop of The Civil War but it’s anything but.  The romance between Ada and Inman didn’t work for me because there’s no chemistry between the actors playing them at all and it doesn’t help that Nicole Kidman and Jude Law spend most of the movie apart and since we’re talking about a movie that’s almost three hours long that’s a whole lotta time.  It’s almost as if Nicole Kidman is in one movie and Jude Law is in another.  There’s a sex scene between the two near the end but it still didn’t convince me that these two were madly in love with each other.

This is a movie where the supporting characters are more fun than the leads and Renee Zellweger takes top acting honors here.  She comes into the movie like a whirlwind and her first scene is priceless.  Informed by Ada that she believes that the farm’s rooster is possessed by The Devil since it keeps attacking her, Ruby calmly walks up to the bird, wrings it’s neck and turns to Ada with a big grin and a suggestion they put the bird in a pot.  Whenever Renee Zellweger shows up on the screen, the energy level of the whole movie gets bumped up several welcome notches.  Jude Law’s character meets his share of characters on the road as well: Philip Seymour Hoffman as a preacher who can’t keep his business in his pants where it belongs, Giovanni Ribisi as a sneaky farmer who uses his wife and her sluttish sisters to entrap, rob and murder deserters and Natalie Portman as a lonely widow woman.

COLD MOUNTAIN is one of those movies that led me for the longest time to wonder why Natalie Portman kept getting work as an actress.  She has one expression she wears on her face throughout this movie and it’s not a convincing one.  There’s a scene where she’s about to be raped by Union soldiers and I give the other actors in the scene credit for keeping straight faces during Portman’s horribly unconvincing hysterics.

What’s good about the movie?  Well, Nicole Kidman is as usual, almost supernaturally beautiful here.  Even under all the hardships her character goes through she continues to glow with an angelic aura.  Her scenes with Renee Zellweger are extremely good and have more conviction than her scenes with Jude Law.  The scenery is gorgeous and the way the whole movie is photographed is just terrific.  This is a movie worth watching just for the cinematography alone.  And the opening fifteen minutes has one of the most terrifying battles I’ve ever seen on the screen.  I suppose that knowing he was only going to have one big battle in the movie, the director decided to go all out and he certainly does.  It’s a brutally realistic depiction of men killing each other and after seeing it you can readily understand why Inman decides to say the hell with the war and goes home.

What’s wrong with this movie?  The lack of chemistry between the supposed leads.  Ray Winstone’s badguy Teague.  There’s no reason for him to be in this movie save to provide a threat to Nicole Kidman’s character and he plays the character on the level of an old silent movie villain.  I half expected him to be twirling his mustache every time he showed up.   And one of his minions is an acrobatic albino sharpshooter who seems more like a villain you’d find in “The Wild Wild West” television show than a realistic Civil War drama.  The uneven pacing of the movie doesn’t help due to the nature of Inman’s journey.  The movie is less a unified and complete story and more of a series of incidents strung together.

So after all this, should you see COLD MOUNTAIN?  If you’re a fan of Jude Law, Nicole Kidman or Renee Zellweger you’ll probably enjoy this one.  It didn’t work for me as a love story or as a drama.  I enjoyed the supporting performances and some of the situations Inman finds himself in during his journey are interesting but taken as a whole, I couldn’t recommend this movie as anything other than a time waster on a slow Sunday afternoon if you’re snowed in.

Rated R: There are scenes of violence here that are depicted realistically as well as a graphic sex scene between Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.  I should also mention that there’s a scene where some soldiers threaten a baby that I found very uncomfortable watching.  I think that using a baby in a movie in such a manner is a cheap way for the filmmakers to show what despicable bastards the soldiers are and we could have gotten that impression from their attempted rape of the Natalie Portman character.

152 minutes

The Whole Wide World

1996

Cineville, Inc./Sony Pictures

Directed by Dan Ireland

Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers

Based on “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis

Here’s a romance movie that I think is wonderful for a couple to watch but it’s not exactly the first movie that would come to mind when you and your sweetie hit the Netflix for something cuddle up with.  But you really should give THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD a try.  Let’s face it; aren’t you guys tired of seeing “Ghost” over and over and over?

In 1933, Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger) is an independently minded young woman living in rural West Texas who dreams of going off to college and maybe becoming a teacher.  She really aspires to be a writer.  She has these huge diaries she writes her daily activities in and has been sending off stories to the confession/romance pulp magazines with little success.  She desperately longs for someone to talk to about her ideas and stories and one day while sitting on her porch drinking lemonade, a friend of her drives up and asks her would she like to walk over to his car and meet the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world: Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio)

Robert E. Howard grew up and lived most of his painfully short life in Cross Plains, Texas and created what is probably the most famous pulp adventure character of all: Conan The Barbarian, the hero of short stories, novels, comic books and movies.  But Robert E. Howard created many more characters than that and wrote so prolifically that whole issues of ‘Weird Tales’ magazines were filled with his stories, written under half a dozen pen names.  Even today nobody is sure exactly how many names Robert E. Howard used or how many stories he wrote.  For me, when it comes to writing, Robert E. Howard has few equals when it comes to sheer storytelling power.  He wrote stories about lusty adventurers who spent their days hunting for treasure, fighting demons and roaming uncharted lands and spent their nights wenching, drinking and gambling.  There’s nothing but total testosterone in a Robert E. Howard story and it’s easy for me to understand why they were so popular during The Depression Era when so many men felt impotent and powerless.  After a hard day of trying your best to feed your family and keep a roof over their heads, for a man in the 30’s, picking up a copy of ‘Weird Tales’ and reading a Conan story where he kills a mad god and makes off with his priceless giant diamond is the equivalent to a modern day Joe Punchclock coming home from work and watching ‘24’ to cheer Jack Bauer kick terrorist scum ass and save The President from being blown up by a neutron bomb in his shower.

Novalyne is totally astonished at meeting someone who actually makes a living by writing and they begin a friendship that develops into a rocky romance.  Novalyne has a mind of her own and is ambitious with an independent spirit.  In that respect she’s somewhat more progressive than most of the other young ladies in the town but she’s never met anybody like Robert Howard who is socially inept and extremely close to his mother, who is in poor health.  When they go out on dates, Bob Howard prefers to take Novalyne on long drives where they can talk about the dreams and aspirations they have as writers.  As much as Novalyne grows to love Bob, she soon realizes that he’s not husband material.  Robert E. Howard is a wonderful man but he lives too much inside of his own head.  And while his incredible imaginative power and lust for life draws her to him, his emotional insensitivity and manic depressive moods drive her away.  They maintain their romantic relationship in a sort of on-and-off again basis but the real romance is between their imaginative minds and the love they both have of writing.

I really love THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD for number of reasons: first of all, while it’s not a straightforward biography of Robert E. Howard, we do get to see some very important moments in his life filtered through the eyes of Novalyne.  And there are some moments between Howard and his mother (Ann Wedgeworth) that are really touching.  You may remember Ann Wedgeworth as the sexpot neighbor on ‘Three’s Company’.  She does a really good job of acting here as Howard’s possessive mother who obviously loves her son a little too much.

The acting by Vincent D’Onofrio is first rate and convinced me that I was looking at Robert E. Howard in the scenes where he’s writing a Conan story and he’s speaking the dialog out loud.  There’s another scene where’s he’s walking down the main street of his home town, shadowboxing an imaginary enemy and mumbling descriptions of the fight that’s taking place as he works out a story in his head.  It’s made clear in the movie that Howard’s neighbors and friends think it’s pretty damn odd for a big grown strapping man such as himself to be making a living writing stories and talking to imaginary people in his head but D’Onofrio plays Howard with such an ‘I-Don’t-Give-A Damn-‘ charm he sells the performance.  Renee Zellweger is simply wonderful as Novalyne Price.  She understands Robert Howard.  She loves Robert Howard.  She thinks Robert Howard is the greatest writer in the whole wide world.  She just can’t allow herself to fall enough in love with him to marry him.  She’s smart enough to see that such a marriage would end in tragedy.   Novalyne Price went on to become a teacher and she wrote the book the movie THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was based on after she grew angry at reading so many articles that she felt distorted the truth about what Robert E. Howard was like.

The relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is handled with a great deal of romanticism and sensitivity.  Robert continually amazes Novalyne with the places he takes her to where they gaze upon beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  These scenes also give D’Onofrio a chance to show off the stare he learned from Stanley Kubrick when we worked on “Full Metal Jacket” as Howard tells Novalyne about his stories and in the background we can faintly hear swords crashing together, the curses and yells of men fighting and the sounds of war which get louder and louder until Novalyne says something to snap him out of it.  The thing that really comes across in the movie is that in a lot of ways, both Howard and Novalyne were born out of place and out of time and even though they were lucky enough to meet, they still could not connect on a lot of levels.  It’s a really classically bittersweet love story.

It’s a great movie for lovers of the work of Robert E. Howard as I think it really gives fans of the man and his work a really good look at what his everyday life was like.  It also works as a movie about writers.  Movies about writers are really hard to do since most of the work takes place between their ears.  Fortunately, Robert E. Howard was as big as life as the heroes he wrote about and his life makes for an interesting movie.  I really enjoyed the movie just on that basis since I identify a lot with Robert E. Howard.  Like him, I have no illusions that my work is great art.  I just like telling a good story and Robert E. Howard was one of the best storytellers ever born.  Vincent D’Onofrio does an excellent job of showing Howard’s sheer exuberance and delight at just being able to tell a hell of a good story and I felt that deeply.

So should you see THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD?  Absolutely.  It’s a movie that works as a biography of one of the most influential and popular writers of all time.  It also works as a movie about writers and their internal lives and how they connect, interact and deal with others who are not in tune with those wavelengths writers are in tune with.  And it most definitely works as a romantic film as the relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is touching, sad, funny, and poignant and I freely admit that the last scene of the movie is one that had my eyes watering.  Netflix THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD and watch it with a writer you love.

111 minutes

Rated PG