When 'Cold Mountain' opened in 2003, I was still a young and immature moviegoer with pretty questionable taste. A cinephile friend of mine recommended 'Cold Mountain,' touting it as the best film of the year, so I headed over to the theaters to check it out all by my lonesome (maybe only four other people in the theater). As I sat there watching the movie, I was appalled that someone could actually consider 'Cold Mountain' a great movie. I hated everything about it. Now, over eight years later, and having acquired a filmmaking education, I figured I might actually enjoy the film, understand why my friend loved it, and see how it earned seven Academy Award nomination – but no. I loathed it just as much as I did when I was an uneducated moviegoer.
Imagine what it would be like if Nichols Sparks made an R-rated Civil War adaptation of Homer's 'The Odyssey.' That's what 'Cold Mountain' feels like, surprising since it's based on a novel by Charles Frazier, a book that won 1997 National Book Award! The film tells the story of a man and woman – Inman (Jude Law) and Ada (Nicole Kidman)- who meet, talk a few times and kiss once before he leaves to fight for the south. Apparently, that brief encounter is enough to make them long for one another incessantly over the next three or four years – enough to make Ada put herself in danger by acting against the "town sheriff" and enough to make Inman go AWOL despite the military shooting deserters.
There are three main stories being told during this narrative – that of solitary Ada back in small town Cold Mountain, that of Inman trying to make his way home to her and flashbacks of the two before the war.
Things back in Cold Mountain have gotten very bad since all the men left for the war. An old cuss (Ray Winstone) and his gang have been terrorizing the woman around town. They look for deserter just for the satisfaction of killing – textbook motive-less villains. The writer tries to give the gang a reason for menacing Ada – he wanted the property she lives on, but her father (Donald Sutherland) bought it up first – but never give him a reason for messing with the rest of the folks in town. When her dad passes away, the farm goes to pot because Ada is a proper preacher's daughter who's never learned to take care of herself. It takes hiring a wild young woman with an old soul named Ruby (Renee Zellweger) for Ada to learn how to become self-sufficient.
Inman's journey home is what causes 'Cold Mountain' to feel like 'The Odyssey' – he just can't seem to get there. There are hurdles to cross around every corner. Each time one pops up, it feels like another episode of a Danielle Steele miniseries. First, he stumbles across an evil reverend (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that's trying to kill a young slave that he's impregnated. Then the two must work together to flee from deserter-hunters. Then they fall for a sexual enticing trap set up by a crazy man (Giovanni Ribisi) and are handed over to the law. Then they get ambushed and Inman gets away. Then he stumbles across a young widow (Natalie Portman) with a sick child who's molested by Union soldiers. And so on. This episodic fanfare turns 'Cold Mountain' into the slowest melodrama – and the 154-minute runtime certain does not help.
The flashbacks spread throughout are so bad that I can't imagine a studio would have let them stay in the final cut. They attempt to set up Inman and Ada's love, but are merely pointless and emotionless scenes – and that is exactly how the film feels on the whole. A big battle sequence opens the movie, giving the impression that we're about to watch a Civil War movie, but it's really just the one and only war scene in the whole movie. This sequence means nothing for what lies ahead. It doesn't build Inman's character, that happens in the flashbacks. It doesn't give him the injury that inspires him to go AWOL, that happens later. It's there just to be there, perhaps to give the movie an angle of advertising to trick men into wanting to see it. Had the wartime content been done well, I probably wouldn't be complaining. But as is, it feels like a joke.
The one battle in the film is a depiction of the siege at Petersburg, Virginia in July of 1864. At the time, Confederate soldiers were waiting in their trenches for the Union army to attack. What they didn't know was that the Union troops had tunneled to the Confederate side and placed tons of explosives beneath them. When the Union lit the fuse, the Confederates had no idea what hit them. Many were buried alive, blown up or terribly wounded. But the Union underestimated the amount of explosives they packed in there. As they ran into the crater to attack and kill the remaining Confederates on the other side, the Union troops were unable to climb out because of how steep the embankment was. The remaining Confederates wiped out the Union with ease, like shooting fish in a barrel.
Awesome war story, right? Well, it's definitely not put onscreen in a manner that does it any justice. You don't know which army is which – both are hiding out in trenches, then battling. Not only was this confusing for me on my first viewing of the film, but in the extensive making-of documentary in the special features, director Anthony Minghella informs us that my same confusion was a major audience complaint during test screenings. Nobody knew what was going on. The final cut of the film reveals that they attempted to fix this mistake by adding in ADR cues of peanut gallery characters commenting on the situation. Inman's leader, whom I like to call Captain Exposition, of the Confederate army chimes in from off-screen several times with bad lines, "They're trapped in their own damn crater!" and "The whole plan backfired on 'em! Damn fools dug their own graves!" Normally, it would be safe to say that it doesn't get any worse than that – but it does.
There are so many lame, purposeless and cheesy scenes throughout the film that feel more like deleted scenes than ones that any studio would ever let remain in a final cut - like a flashback where a congregation won't enter a church because a bird has flown inside. For some reason, Ava and Inman are the only ones inside and they're trying to catch it. The most laughable part of the scene is when the bird perches on Inman's hand and he holds it up like he's posing for Ada. So cheesy and so pointless. Just like this, many other dumb and silly scenes leave you wondering how they made it into the film. Examples of dumb scenes include an albino henchman torturing a woman via gymnastics and Phillip Seymour Hoffman talking about his bowel movement schedule. The silly scenes include a rooster attacking Ada (all it needed was 'Hee-Haw' music to throw it over the top) and Ada looking into a magic well to see the future. If they wanted to give 'Cold Mountain' a magical feel, why not include wizards and dragons and the cyclops?
'Cold Mountain' is chock full of random cameos. No notable character is played by a no-name. The credits not only include Law, Kidman, Zellweger, Winstone, Sutherland, Hoffman, Ribisi and Portman, but Brendan Gleeson, Jack White, Ethan Suplee, Kathy Baker, Lucas Black, Charlie Hunnam, Jena Malone, Teryn Manning, Emily Deschanel and Cillian Murphy. As much as I like all of the actors involved with this film, they should all have known better. The only thing sadder than seeing such wasted potential is knowing that 'Cold Mountain' received seven Oscar nominations.
Amidst this hateful review, I must praise the film for one thing that it gets right. The central love story carries no genuine weight, but there is a section of this film that is filled with real honest emotion – the episode where Inman stumbles across the home of Natalie Portman's character Sara. Sara's husband recently died in the war, leaving her and their baby behind. Her cabin is literally in the middle of nowhere. There isn't a soul near her. She has no one to talk to, no one to mourn with, no one to help her through this harsh winter. It's just Sara and her sick baby. When she realizes that Inman is a good person, she asks him to sleep with her – but not for sexual reasons. She just needs be near someone. She needs someone to hold her, a shoulder to cry on. As he climbs under the covers with her, she breaks down, finally having someone to console her. It's a brief moment that's much too short, but it's the one and only honest part of the entire film. In case you haven't seen the movie, I'll refrain from spoiling the only worthy thing in this whole movie.
I'm aware that I'm just one person and there's an audience out there who loves it, but so far I've only met one person who loves 'Cold Mountain.' If you fall into that category of folks who love it, then you will definitely want to own this Blu-ray. But if you've never dared make the journey, I urge you to avoid it. It's more than likely that you'll be bored out of your mind.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate has placed this Miramax catalog title on a Region-A BD-50 in an eco-friendly blue keepcase. A whole bunch of vanity reels, disclaimers and trailers play before taking you to the main menu, but you can bypass all of them by pushing the "top menu" button on your controller. The main menu features the sliding selection bar at the bottom of the screen with moving images filling the other two-thirds. Score plays in the background and each button movement makes a clicking sound, but both can be turned off in the settings menu.
Lionsgate went above expectations with the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of 'Cold Mountain.' Presented in a wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it's a strong transfer only bogged down with one highly problematic sequence.
Let's start off with the good. Anyone who loves a decent layer of classic film grain will love this presentation. The print is mostly clean, only tiny specks of dirt popping up here and there. Nothing terribly distracting. The image is sharp – so sharp that it possibly couldn't be any better. Details shine through with the utmost clarity. Nicole Kidman's perfect complexion has never appeared so smooth. Fine details like facial hair and the texture of clothing patterns are always visible and defined. The picture carries a nice overall third-dimensional feel.
Blacks are deep, rich and powerful. Contrast is well balanced and consistent. The color scheme makes the images onscreen vivid and realistic. The vibrant greens of summer in the south are absolutely beautiful. Kidman's blue eyes glow brightly, exploding with power against the bright white snow-covered scenery.
But all of these positive elements fly out the window during one specific segment of the film – the opening war sequence. So much shoddy digital work was done to this portion of the film in post production that it strips it of any good values – all for the stylistic sake of making it look like a painting of the battle. So many filters were used that detail is entirely stripped, making the picture hard to see at times. On top of that, such a dense amount of smoke screen was used that combined with the filter, it distorts the image and even results in artifacting. Colors are washed out and in one shot there's even a noticeable sudden jump in warmth. Blacks are gray. And the image is flat.
The only problems that arise outside of the war scene are one instance of banding during a zooming blurry fade-out and trace amounts of digital noise. Edge enhancement, DNR and aliasing are never an issue.
Only one listening option is available on 'Cold Mountain,' but considering it's a very strong 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, it's all you need.
The opening credits of the film are set to a gentle harp melody. Each pluck emanates from a different channel, turning your theater room into a resonating full-sounding space. From recent experience, I've learned that you can't be too quick to judge a Blu-ray's audio quality based on the opening music, but this is one instance where the rest of the audio follows the strong suit. Sound – be it effects, music or vocals – is always evenly spread throughout the channels. This mix constantly employs all speakers, making good use of the space.
The scoring isn't the only solidly mixed music in the lossless track. Like other 'Odyssey' adaptation 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' 'Cold Mountain' is full of the bluegrass hillbilly music of the time (hence, why Jack White was cast). The musical scenes are always some of the best in the film, but my favorite for listening purposes is of a church congregation singing a southern spiritual. The purely a Capella singing sounds amazing in this lossless format.
The effects are highly detailed. When the underground explosion rocks the Confederate camp, you'll hear layer after layer of debris soaring, colliding and hitting different surfaces. Each sentence of Captain Exposition's dialog rings from a different channel as if he's giving orders while standing behind you as you look over the wasteland. When we watch Ada and Ruby reaping their summer harvest, you can hear cicadas and other humidity-bound bugs chirping and cricking in the surrounding woods.
The vocal mixing isn't quite as strong as the music and effects, but it's definitely not bad. Always appearing clear, the only fault is that it occasionally comes across as too quite, requiring you to turn the volume up.
Aside from the trailers, none of these many special features are new to Blu-ray - but considering how strong they (mostly) are, new features truly aren't needed.
I'm not a hater of romantic films – at least not when they're realistic, believable and well made. Unfortunately, 'Cold Mountain' misses the mark, playing out like a $5 trash novel you'd find on a rack near the checkout stand at your local grocery store. Like many of those bad pieces of cheap literature, 'Cold Mountain' rips a story – 'The Odyssey' – and loads it will meaningless filler. Nothing that happens in the movie carries any weigh in the long run. It doesn't further the plot or storyline. Instead, it does just the opposite – it holds our characters back and keeps them apart even longer. My favorite film studies professor, Dr. Moody, once tossed out the idea that every scene in a movie should serve a specific purpose, that once the movie is over you should be able to look back at scene, analyze it, and explain why it was there. If you can't, then that scene deserves to be cut. If that notion is true, then 'Cold Mountain' would be a very short film indeed, and not the dragging and lagging 154-minute opus that it is. No matter how fantastic the video and audio qualities are, no matter how extensive and interesting the special features may be, nothing can save this emotionless and contrived story from being as unwatchable as it. For fans only.