"A Beautiful Mind"Director: Ron Howard With Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris and Paul Bettany.
"Monster's Ball" Director: Marc Forster With Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger and Mos Def. "Training Day" Director: Antoine Fuqua With Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Scott Glenn.
A critique by Rachel Markus
"Don't believe the hype."
-- Public Enemy
The recent 74th Academy Awards showed us yet again how much Hollywood loves to celebrate itself and that the Oscar doesn't often go home with the most deserved, rather it leaves the stage in the hands of the most publicized and hyped stars and films. Beyond the hype, the awards reflect the dichotomy between film and the honors to be won. Film is art, but the Academy Awards reflect the business of filmmaking; they underscore that box office numbers and what appeals to mass audiences will often overshadow the subtle beauty and artistry of smaller or darker films frequently overlooked by the Academy. Three films -- A Beautiful Mind, Monster's Ball, and Training Day -- generated a lot of buzz and numerous awards this year, but not necessarily the appropriate ones.
These three films have more in common than garnering Academy nominations and awards. They discuss different themes but at the heart of each was either a subtle or overt recognition that nothing in life is black and white. What differentiated the stories and caliber of the each film was how well these gray areas of sanity, love, and justice were examined and portrayed.
A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard,tracks the true-life story of John Forbes Nash Jr, (Russell Crowe) who established the Nobel Prize-winning Game Theory of economics. What makes Nash's story so compelling are his personal trials, which include marital struggles and recovery from paranoid schizophrenia.
Undoubtedly, Crowe's performance was beautiful and his ability to deftly portray a brilliant man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia was remarkable. That he failed to win the Best Actor award for which he was nominated most likely results from the fact he won that award last year and he's Australian. Had he been Tom Hanks, an all -- American favorite of moviegoer plebecites, he may have won consecutively.
Jennifer Connelly, who plays Nash's wife, won for Best Supporting Actress, although her range ofemotions was limited from quiet tears to angry tears to sometimes fearful tears. But the Academy fails to look at performances in a vacuum, and most likely her award was best owed in belated acknowledgement of her far better role and performance in last year's Requiem For a Dream. A Beautiful Mind helped Akiva Goldstein win for best adapted screenplay, Ron Howard accrued an award for Best Director, and he and Brian Grazer as producers shared the award for Best Picture.
Was this the best picture? Absolutely not. But of those in its category, it met most of Hollywood's usual criteria for best picture -- a drama with a love interest, lots of tears and emotional triumph. A Beautiful Mind should be credited for its skill in enabling audiences to possibly understand what it may be like to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. Moreover, it let us question where and why the lines are drawn between genius and sanity. Nash's character presents a man who can solve intricate codes and create Nobel-winning theorems, yet he suffers from delusions. Russell Crowe surely deserves more credit for portraying the nuances and internal conflicts of such a complicated man and mind. However, the strength and admirable integrity of Nash's wife seems to have been misguidedly attributed to Jennifer Connolley's acting. Indeed, I believe most of the film's awards were riding on the coattails of Crowe's performance, as an inferior actor would not have been able to make the portrayal of Nash so believable, intriguing, and multidimensional.
Whereas A Beautiful Mind lacked any leading female characters, Monster's Ball presented a vehicle for Halle Berry to demonstrate her acting talent. Berry took this vehicle as the role of Leticia and rode it straight to the award for Best Actress. Monster's Ball, set in Georgia, presents a complex tale of a prison guard who serves as an executioner Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) who inadvertently becomes romantically and emotionally involved with the wife of a man he electrocuted (Sean "Puffy" Combs). The heavy emotional baggage of each character slowly unfolds before each other and viewers as director Marc Forster allows the camera to take its time, drawing the audience deeper into travails of each and into the subtext of racism present in rural Georgia.
Undeniably, Monster's Ball is a gift to viewers, as it allows us an opportunity to share the pain and loneliness of many of the film's characters, including that of Berry and Thornton's sons in the film to the younger sons of Thonrton's neighbor to which he kicks off his land because of their race.
Monster's Ball is even more intriguing as it questions whether a rather bigoted, unmerciful character of Hank can dare to seek absolution or redemption through his eventual kindness towards Leticia. Leticia herself is no saint, yet she too appeals to our nature to understand that nobody is perfect and our hopes for those who have suffered so to find some sense of consolation and happiness. Berry's performance was spectacular, as she chillingly shares her emotions so intensely with the audience that we can feel her sensations, from gut-wrenching pain to orgasm. Peter Boyle plays Hank's bigoted father, and he and Thornton are also excellent actors in that we can taste the hatred in Boyle's lips as well as the chocolate ice cream on Thornton's. Again, Forster's choice not to race through the story but to let the camera linger closely on the nuances of each character and piece of conversation enhances the emotional richness of the film. Rapper's Mos Def and Sean "Puffy" Combs make appearances in the film. Mos Def has a minor yet well-acted role, but Comb's portrayal as a death-row inmate is as convincing as if his last supper was a meal before an appearance on MTV; the tray holding his food could rival Combs' acting skills.
What happens when good actors fall into a bad film, get nominated and even win an award for Best Actor? It's called Training Day, which stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, and though Hawke's nomination for Best Supporting Actor may have been warranted, the Academy clearly bestowed Washington with a belated award, for his acting in earlier roles was far superior than in Training Day. Washington plays Alonzo Harris, a veteran narcotics officer who takes idealistic rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Hawke) through the abyss of Los Angeles' inner city streets as Hoyt has one day only to prove himself to his fiercely dynamic superior.
Over the next 24 hours we follow Detective Sergeant Harris and Hoyt and we become Hoyt, student to Alonzo and his street wisdom and morally ambiguous methodology for helping to clean the streets of drug dealers.
Training Day takes its audience along for a descent into an urban quagmire of junkies, drug dealers, sex and corruption and delves into the subjects of an idealistic rookie facing off to a jaded, do-what-it-takes superior officer.
It asks us to question where the lines of justice may be blurred as a means to a greater end and whether or not we can accept the rules of judicial Darwinism in a land where bullets pour from pistols as easily as the J&B from each ghetto corner. What differentiates Training Day from the other ten or so cop dramas a year that tackle these questions are fine performances and great cinematography.
Although Denzel may not have deserved Best Actor for his performance, he does skillfully portray a plausible character and lets us believe that despite his harsh and questionable modes of law enforcement, he was once as idealistic and honorable as the wet behind the ears Hoyt. This is critical for the audience to develop any sympathy for him and enables us to be be guiled along with Hoyt through the course of the day. Additionally, Hawke plays a convincing optimist but allows his strengthof character and self to display itself even when he is going against his notions of justice to appease his mentor. This is also critical for us to maintain respect for the rookie and to feel the ethical and judicial dilemmas he faces as they were our own through the course of the film.
A third character which should have been nominated for best supporting car is Jake and Alonzo's "G-ride" or flashy 1978 Monte Carlo low rider, in which many scenes take place. The car is their cocoon, separating them from the danger around them on the streets, and to which they retreat after each battle with the elements they encounter. Many camera shots take the point of view of the car, increasing its presence as the eyes and ears of both leading characters. Training Day also uses several music stars (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Macy Gray), and they are far better than their counterparts in Monster's Ball. Director Antoine Fuqua allows for some gratuitous yet beautiful shots of the sun, reinforcing an ominous sense of a descent into darkness as well as the notion that one's life can be changed forever in the course of a single day, in this case Hoyt's Training Day.
The three films A Beautiful Mind, Monster's Ball and Training Day each have their merits as well as their cliché acute faults. Aside from the hype, they all share some great acting and directing but as the darkness of Monster's Ball and Training Day rarely bodes well for Oscars, A Beautiful Mind reflects the kind of picture Hollywood rewards -- not too disturbing, a minor female character capable of falling in love, standing by a schizophrenic husband, and crying often, and an element of personal triumph. It's worth seeing based on Russell Crowe's performance alone. Monster's Ball is a beautifully acted and directed film and one should see it prepared to expend the energies requisite for such a compelling emotional drama. Training Day is better than I would have thought, but renting it wouldn't mean missing much. I think the titles could also be adapted, as Training Day has its fair share on monsters, Monster's Ball is beautiful in its patience and acting, and A Beautiful Mind has a stellar performance but direction that seems still in need of more training. Every now and then someone gets it allright, but I woudn't hold my breath waiting for the Academy to acknowledge that as long as there are Hollywood budgets and egos to contend with.