"We know that the road to freedom has always been stalked by death." ---HL Staff that went to Rome---

BIASES: mid 20s black male; frustrated screenwriter who favors action, comedy, and glossy, big budget movies over indie flicks, kiddie flicks, and weepy Merchant Ivory fare

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MOVIE BIASES: This has a lot of acclaim to live up to. Looking forward to that Berry-Thornton love scene, though.
MAJOR PLAYERS: Billy Bob Thornton (Bandits), Halle Berry (Swordfish), Peter Boyle (TV's
"Everybody Loves Raymond"), and director Marc Forster.

I was duly warned. Critical acclaim. Lavish praise. Golden Globes and Oscar nomination talk. The sex scene. A dark, brooding, depressing movie. "Monster's Ball" has all that and more. This is a haunting movie that deserves every praise it gets and reminds us that greatness comes in many different packages.

Hank (Thornton) is the second in a three generation family of corrections officers, bookended by his virulently racist, aging invalid of a father Buck (Boyle) and Hank's sensitive, moody son Sonny (Heath Ledger). Shortly after father and son are on the job escorting death row inmate Lawrence Musgrove (a surprisingly effective/non-distracting Sean P. Diddy Combs) to his death, their bleak, smalltown lives accelerate on their downward spirals. This despair is matched only by that of Musgrove's widow, Leticia (Berry), a de facto single mom to an overweight son whom she beats upon for eating too much. When their downward spirals collide somewhere near rock bottom, Hank and Leticia, surprisingly, shockingly, yet all too realistically find hope. They find love.

This movie is a masterpiece of despair, a case study of two aching souls conjoined by loss. Everything around the central pair of Hank and Leticia is a testament to a rural Georgia world slathered in self-loathing, racism, and hate. Peter Boyle's trash-talking, oxygen-tank-breathing Buck is so palpably real, I think we all know someone so horrendously backwards, time-warped, and filled with hate. Buck has to be the worst, most dysfunctional father on the face of the earth. The way that racism and self-hatred is diluted through the generations is fascinating to watch, particularly through the performance of the Aussie born Ledger as the grandson, whose quiet drawl and general attitude of malaise and hopelessness might as well be the postcard for this movie.

Marc Forster sure knows how to capture loneliness, solitude, and heartaching loss on film, too. This world he has created is visually arresting in its bleakness. The director of two previous indie films I've never heard of, Forster sure knows how to get a whole lot from very little. Eliciting riveting performances from everyone involved, including drawing out the most realistically desperate, erotic, and bittersweet lovemaking ever caught on film also makes Forster a very talented director to watch for in the future. The script, written by Milos Addica & Will Rokos, is simply outstanding, deserving whatever Oscar-talk it receives.

But let's get down to brass tax here: Billy Bob and Halle, Hank and Leticia. These are, without a doubt, the loneliest two people in the world. Billy Bob is the master of the mysterious, quiet type while Halle is doing her very best to live the part of struggling black woman. For the most part, she pulls it off, but is never quite convincing esthetically as dirt-dirt poor. Halle is still too attractively distracting. With looks like hers, she really should take lessons from Brad Pitt on glamming down. Yet proving to be a game actress not afraid to make herself out to be a funny drunk, a desperate mother, or an emotionally fragile, horny woman, Berry acts her tail off.

I'm sure the bandwagon is already full but this movie is one of the best released (late) last year. An early entrant, "Monster's Ball" should have no problem vying for the most depressing film of the century. The most interesting thing about it all is how beautiful - no matter how hard it is to watch - this depression is. That's the mark of great acting. That's the mark of great direction. That's the mark of a great film.

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