When Judge David Johnson's review is over, there will be a reckoning.
This Civil War story, fronted by three heavy-hitting actors, seemingly represented Miramax's annual entry into the Hunt for the Gold Man. Yet, it was shrouded in the shadow of another war epic that traded the blues and grays for Orcs, Gondorians, and undead soldiers.
With a trio of crowd-pleasers like Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renee Zellweger, anchored by renowned director Anthony Minghella, and sporting a multi-layered war-time story, Cold Mountain certainly seemed to have dotted all of its i's—yet it failed to make much of an impact, critically and financially.
So, what it is?
Facts of the Case
The Civil War sucked. And in Cold Mountain, it really sucks.
Amid the gunsmoke, cannon-fire, death, and general unpleasantness is a burgeoning love between Inman (Law), a soft-spoken stud of a land-tiller and Ada (Kidman) a pampered, pretty daughter of a minister. Ada and her father (Donald Sutherland) have just moved to Cold Mountain, and the arrival of the beautiful, golden-locked Pastor's kid has sent a jolt through the groins of the town's men, long since grown weary of staring at their homely women (though the fellas don't have much to be proud of either).
Inman grabs the attention of Ada, and the two begin a very tentative courtship that is cut short by the clash between the Union and the Confederacy. Inman suits up to take it to the Yankees, and endures the long haul of war. Meanwhile, Ada must deal with the death of her father, and the family farmstead, which she must tend to herself. Unfortunately, she does not have the skills to pay the bills, and her farm quickly slips into destitution. She repeatedly writes Inman to come back to her and help save the farm ("Dessert, boy!").
Following an especially bloody battle, Inman gets shot in the neck, and while recuperating, decides to risk being shot as a deserter, and return home to Ada. So he embarks, making the long, dangerous trip to Cold Mountain, the threat of death by bullet constantly looming.
During his travels, he encounters a smorgasbord of characters, from a siren-ish den of sex-starved farmer's daughters to a mysterious woodland healer to a lonely Queen Amidala wielding a shotgun. Inman gets shot at, beaten, latched to a chain gang, and forced to sleep on wet corn among other things.
Meanwhile, back at Cold Mountain, just as the farm is going belly-up and Ada is about to fall prey to the unhealthy advances of Teague—the villainous leader of the home patrol who takes way too much glee in killing deserters—Ruby Thewes (Zellweger), hick-princess extraordinaire, shows up, armed with agricultural skills out the cornhole. Together, the two manage to keep the farm up and running and producing while also befriending Ruby's estranged father and his clan of misanthropic deserters.
The fate of Inman's voyage and the goings-on at Cold Mountain will intersect and tomfoolery will abound.
And shooting. There will be a lot of shooting.
Cold Mountain is a good movie. In fact, it rather exceeded my expectations. I knew the theatrical reviews had been mixed, it under-performed at the box office, Oscar gave it the shaft-a-roni, and Renee Zellweger has annoyed me with her self-involved campaign to win an Academy Award.
Yet even going in with all this baggage, I came away relatively satisfied. Not blown away by any means, but not thinking I wasted my night.
There are lots of good things happening with the movie. Though not necessarily a war movie—the battle footage is limited to the opening brouhaha—Minghella effectively conveys the effects of war. Most of the characters we see are immoral jackasses, self-involved brutes who don't give two craps about their fellow man. The Civil War was certainly an ugly time in our history, but with Cold Mountain much of the ugliness is reserved for the characters. Unsettling, but highly effective.
Of the three headlining performers, two deliver the goods. Jude Law, who I really like, presents a sympathetic hero, a sort of Odysseus (Minghella points out the similarities of the picture to The Odyssey in the commentary), yearning to just get home, but getting caught up in other people's problems. He is a "do-the-right-thing" kind of guy and is more than adequate at kicking a little ass when the times call for it.
The other is Zellweger's Ruby. I had really gone into the flick wanting to loathe the character; my preconceived notion had been that Ruby was just a means to an end of hefting an Oscar up high. But Zellweger's performance won me over. She was endearing and Ruby is a fun character. A yokel with heart and a mouth; a tobacco-juice-drenched-spitfire.
Kidman, however, didn't do much for me. Probably because, well, she just didn't do much. Bracketed by two strong personalities, Kidman's Ada had little to do than shriek at roosters and evoke pity for her ingrained uselessness. She was the princess at the end of the journey for Inman, and her shallow character seemed pretty disproportionate to the complexity of her beau.
This is surprising because the movie is so long. Too long. Inman is cool and all, but he got embroiled in so many adventures the movie took on an episodic quality that became distracting. Tune in next time when Inman faces off against his arch-enemy…The Riddler! It was as if he was experiencing the adventure for the sake of experiencing adventures. On the other end, Ada and Ruby learn about agriculture and the over-the-top cruelty of the home patrol (which seemed too contrived). The move could have been leaner and meaner.
Lastly, the big strike against Cold Mountain for me was the predictability. It's hard to explain, but the film slid into the realm of Best Picture Contender Cliché. There were signs throughout the movie pointing toward the ending, and the final scene, while relatively happy, suffered from the Post-Traumatic Cheese Disorder. I knew what was coming and I had willed the movie to take a different turn, but alas, it did not. And I'm notoriously awful at predicting ends to movies.
As for the DVD offering, Miramax has put together a two-disc special edition, with the feature on Disc One and a handful of extras on Disc Two. The film sports a commentary by Minghella and editor Walter Murch. The track is enlightening and it's evident Minghella had a passion for his product.
Disc Two features some okay deleted scenes (but you get plenty of them!) Four featurettes include "Words and Music of Cold Mountain," footage from a live concert at Royce Hall, "Climbing Cold Mountain" and "A Journey to Cold Mountain," making-of documentaries, and some history on the "sacred harp," which details the traditional musical influences. Some storyboard comparisons finish off the list.
The featurettes are interesting enough and well done (and meaty) and offer a good dose of insight into the process of bringing the book to the screen. Minghella is very prominent in the documentaries, as he details his creative process. Good stuff.
Visually, I was disappointed. Minghella captures some great vistas and the cinematography is bodacious, but the transfer left me…er, cold. The colors seemed pretty washed out and the opening battle got real muddy to watch. A shame.
For the ears, Cold Mountain boasts a Dolby Digital and a DTS track. The two are equally good, with the slight edge going to the DTS mix. The war footage gives you the most bang for your buck, and really flexes the L.F.E. and the surrounds, but after that, there's not much for your set-up to do.
A good movie that falls short of being something more. "Lukewarm Mountain," I guess…
The accused is relegated to an agricultural work-release program planting turnips. Court adjourned.
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