DVD - Image A+ Sound A Extras A-
DVD (SIGNATURE SERIES) - Image A+ Sound A Extras A-
starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger
screenplay by Milo Addica & Will Rokos
directed by Marc Forster
by Walter Chaw Two men tell poor Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) that she's beautiful during the course of Marc Forster's pitch-black Monster's Ball. The first is her condemned husband Lawrence (Sean Combs), and the second is Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), the head of the death-row guard team responsible for bringing Lawrence to the electric chair. The circumstances and timing of their compliments, separated by almost the entire body of the film, says a great deal about where Monster's Ball has gone in the interim. Lawrence says it as his last words to his wife during their last time together on the last day of his life. Hank says it over a pint of ice cream, just after an important revelation has been claimed without his knowledge. In both instances, there is a simple, fated truth to the words: the first utterance represents the realization that there's nothing left to say, the second the recognition that some things are best left unspoken.
Monster's Ball is about the distinctions that circumstance draws between identical actions and, as such, it is strict and mannered in regards to its narrative structure. Every action in its first act has an echo later, and the events leading up to Lawrence's execution are mirrored (a slow walk, a lit cigarette, a nervous sketch) in the actions of Leticia and their morbidly obese 10-year-old son Tyler (Coronji Calhoun). Forster's careful direction would seem an odd fit with Milo Addica and Will Rokos's sparse and naturalistic screenplay, but the union of a carefully-drawn subtext and a cast as naked and raw as an exposed nerve is at once unbearable and rewarding. Seen in a slightly different way, Monster's Ball is fruitfully deconstructed as a discourse on the sins of the fathers and the difficulties inherent in breaking family legacies. The repetitive nature of destructive tendencies passed from one generation to the next is the best justification for the film's careful arrangement of symbol and event.
Buck (Peter Boyle) is Hank's mordant father. Hank's son is the tortured Sonny (Heath Ledger); three generations of death-row prison guards given to racism and redundancy. When Buck is exiled to a retirement home, he pleads, "I'm stuck"--and of course Hank responds, "So am I." In their final conversation, Lawrence informs--implores--Tyler that the child is not the father, but Tyler's treatment at the hands of the increasingly desolate Leticia suggests that sensitive Tyler might tread a familiar path. Each family represents decayed legacies that have devolved into culturally-forged manacles, and it seems inevitable that Monster's Ball will be a study in hate. Yet Leticia and Hank are there to fulfill the hope for a better world that their offspring represent.
Hank's gradual journey away from antagonism is so deadpan that the forcefulness of Thornton's performance is miraculous. By the end of the film, every one of Thornton's quiet gestures rings with the heft of cathedral bells. Along with his reticent barber in the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There, his work in Monster's Ball announces Thornton as an actor fully coming into his own. Matching him in the performance of her career is Berry, who sets aside her inhibitions and uncommon beauty to touch the heart of a woman beaten down and exhausted with wrenching honesty. The part of Leticia, perhaps the role of a lifetime, might be Berry's transition from starlet to actress after several false alarms.
A party for the prison guards on the eve of an execution is the titular "monster's ball," a caustic tradition perpetuated to salve the unconscionable rites of violence and grief that inundates every aspect of these characters' lives. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that, like a dance (a danse macabre), Forster's film is predicated on machination but distinguished by grace. Beyond its extraordinary performances, screenplay, and direction, Monster's Ball is bursting with a literary life. I was reminded of the closing line of Flannery O'Connor's short story "Everything That Rises, Must Converge":
The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.
Monster's Ball is a tremendous and tremendously risky film. It is about sex and death, fathers and sons, how identity is tied to family and profession, and finally about the hope that people can change if only presented with enough reason to try. Originally published: December 25, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Lions Gate releases a leanly-supplemented but outstanding DVD version of Monster's Ball. The film is presented in a stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with your choice of sensational Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 surround soundtracks. The warm image has subdued saturation, as mandated by cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; compression is smoother than silk. Edge-enhancement does not intrude on the crisp line and shadow detail. Meanwhile, the 5.1 mix features more skin-crawling electrocution sound effects than those of The Green Mile, with the groaning current of Ol' Sparky coursing subtly through the five main channels. Dialogue begs the occasional boost in volume if one so chooses to avoid the subtitles or closed-captions.
Our review disc--a retail copy complete with white stickers--lists a bonus feature within the cover art that was nowhere to be found during a thorough exploration of the DVD, "IFC's Anatomy of a Scene"--unless this refers to the 4-minute "Behind the Scenes" featurette, which shows three Billy Bob Thornton-centric outtakes, the last a gag take wherein he yells at Heath Ledger with the affectations of his beloved character from Sling Blade. (It's very funny.) "Scoring the Film" (8 mins.) talks to composers Thad Spencer, Richard Werbowenko, and Chris Beaty (collectively, Asche and Spencer), re-recording mixer Rick Asche, editor Matt Chessé, and director Marc Forster about Monster's Ball's beautiful ambient score, much of which was written prior to the musicians seeing any footage.
In the best of the DVD's four deleted scenes, the poetic justice of Hank's father is carried a bit too far. Video trailers for Monster's Ball and, as an Easter egg, Forster's Everything Put Together, round out the disc, not counting the disc's two terrific film-length commentaries. In the first, Forster and Schaefer discuss the visual themes of Monster's Ball and impart tons of practical advice in the process, while in the second Forster, Thornton, and Halle Berry reunite for a thoughtful reminiscence. Not surprisingly, given the elegiac shooting style of his Sling Blade and All the Pretty Horses, Thornton praises Forster's minimalist coverage, and Forster betrays genuine awe for his two lead actors, gently grilling them on technique along the way. Don't miss out, but just in case you do, Berry would probably want you to know that she does her own handwork. (No, that's not a euphemism.) Originally published: June 6, 2002.
THE DVD - LIONS GATE SIGNATURE SERIES
by Bill Chambers Two of the titles in Lions Gate's new "Signature Series" line of DVDs, O and Amores Perros, are reissues of pre-existing discs save a gold stamp of the director's John Hancock on a snazzy cover. But the Monster's Ball: Signature Series contains fresh supplementary material to go with its uncut version of the film and is thus a complement to the previous DVD release, which included some interesting extras in its own right.
Labelled "Original Theatrical Version" because it's the one that played in all other parts of the world except North America until debuting on Cinemax late last year, this Monster's Ball could easily be called Last Tango in the Deep South. Omitted from the R-rated version of the sex scene featuring Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry is much of the inscrutable "bird cage" imagery, replaced by emotionally raw, borderline-pornographic thrusting that goes on well past the point of titillation. This restoration establishes a far more primal connection between Hank and Leticia; I don't know that this significantly improves Monster's Ball, which was already something special, but it's a grittier alternative.
Audio and video are identical in quality to that of the previous disc (see below) despite the new additions. Exclusive to this DVD are a number of bonus items, starting with Sundance Channel's "Anatomy for a Scene" special on the build-up to the execution. While this is one of the better, leaner "Anatomy"s, the absence of Berry, Thornton, and Heath Ledger talking-heads denies us the crucial perspective of the actor. (Sean Combs, who plays the doomed prisoner, sticks to recapping plot.) Gifted cinematographer Roberto Schaeffer contributes the most illuminating points, such as his subtle bathing of the cellblocks in green for the colour's soothing effect and his goal of keeping each character off to one side of the screen.
"When you make a film for very little money, there's no time to screw it up," says Thornton in a 20-minute section of cast and crew interviews (many conducted at the Monster's Ball press junket) divided according to separate aspects of the production in which all participants (Thornton, Berry, Peter Boyle, Ledger, Combs, Forster) seem to stress the importance of the screenplay. Fittingly, then, screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos join director Marc Forster on his third yak-track for the picture. Forster is again eager to inundate his co-commentators with questions, and in so doing generates mountains of great conversation revolving around the artistic process.
Lee Daniels, Monster's Ball's self-proclaimed street-smart African-American producer, discusses his jack-of-all-trades movie career within the context of the film's personal resonance for him, revealing in this fascinating 18-minute piece that the script was almost made with Sean Penn directing Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando in the Thornton and Boyle roles, respectively, and how he came to blows with Oliver Stone, who almost turned Monster's Ball into a vehicle for Tommy Lee Jones. Daniels says his goal from the start was to hire a European, 'race-blind' helmer--and got his wish with Forster. Trailers for Monster's Ball and Forster's Everything Put Together round out the disc. Originally published: February 2, 2003.