From one Catwoman to the next!
When I selected Halle Berry as our April Film Admissions actress, I didn’t consider the feline DNA she shares our March starlet, Michelle Pfeiffer. (No word yet on whether or not we’ll be covering Anne Hathaway in May.) Both actresses have played the kitten antihero in big budget superhero movies, but for Berry, the more impressive feat was landing on her feet afterward without a long-term scratch.
Instead, you probably think of her as one of the most memorable Bond Girls, as Storm from X-Men, or as the only African-American Best Actress winner. I’m not sure if it’s because of her poignant, genuinely tearful Oscars speech or her self-parodying, faux-tearful Razzies speech, but like Pfeiffer, we definitely don’t just remember her for her beauty pageant-eligible face.
I’ve come to love Berry for the warmth she brings to her performances.
I’ve come to love Berry for the warmth she brings to her performances. Her characters feel lived-in upon arrival, making even a weather-altering mutant more than just a comic book plot device. (Remember, that was still a novel concept for movies when she donned the cape in 2000.) Even her supporting role in 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle felt like a welcome, stable presence in an action flick crammed start-to-finish with a lot. While her roles haven’t seemed to aim for the Oscars lately, she’s never stopped making interesting choices, including the adaptation of Cloud Atlas, TV’s Extant, the Rodney King riot drama Kings, or the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Most interesting of all? She’s set to step behind the camera as the director for her next star vehicle, Bruised.
Speaking of her off-screen presence, I’ve also come to admire Berry for the self-awareness and down-to-earth je ne sais quoi she brings to every appearance and interview. For some reason, I still remember her crediting her youthful appearance in a 2015 InStyle interview to avoiding smoking, drugs, and alcohol. When she won Best Actress, she spent much of her time on stage acknowledging the women of color who came before and alongside her to make this moment possible. (One of those women was Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American to be nominated for Best Actress and whom Berry won for an Emmy for playing in 1999.) For this and for the talent we’re highlighting in this piece, something tells me the Academy would have no trouble welcoming her back to the stage should she decide to make another run for the prize.
– Taylor Blake
Die Another Day
2002, Eon Productions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, dir. Lee Tamahori
by Krystal Lyon
The James Bond franchise is known for action, intrigue, fantastical villains and beautiful women always falling for the dapper and debonair Bond, James Bond. And in Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day, the 20th film in the franchise, we get all of those glorious elements. We also get Halle Berry playing the iconic Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson, who turns out to be a little different than our usual “Bond Girls”. Emerging from the surf with a knife at her hip, Berry might look like the typical seductress; in fact that scene was a tribute to the first “Bond Girl” Honey Ryder, Ursula Andress, in Dr. No. Her swagger and beauty made orange bikinis the “it” summer wardrobe item of 2002. But Berry is more than a swimsuit and a pretty face. It’s the effortless smile, cool and a little something else that makes Jinx an anomaly in the Bond universe. But before we get to that “something else”, let me give you some details about Die Another Day.
Pierce Brosnan is back for his last time as James Bond. He’s trying to infiltrate a corrupt Korean agency that’s connected to African conflict diamonds. (Totally plausible.) There’s Zao, Rick Yune, a great villain with diamonds embedded in his face, DNA body changes that remind me of Face Off, a hover tank chase scene across a mind field and a satellite mirror weapon that melts an ice castle! How fantastic can you get?! That added to the multiple exotic locales, a really awesome fencing duel with Madonna on the sidelines, oh, and an invisible Aston Martin complete with missiles equals the typical fun and action packed James Bond we’ve come to expect and enjoy. Plus as a fun bonus there’s a young Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost, a cold blonde that’s great with a sword! (Pun intended!)
But back to Berry! Jinx is just so dang confidant, cool and talented! She can smile her way into any situation and kick and punch her way out, all while looking flawless! And all of that is really believable coming from Berry, who is already an Academy Award winner for Monster’s Ball. Berry at this point is a veteran of film. It’s been over ten years since Jungle Fever and Boomerang gave her an amazing start, and X-Men in 2000 made her a household name. All of those accolades to say, the spirit and fearlessness that Berry gives to Die Another Day seems genuine and adds a different role to the classic “Bond Girl”. Yes she’s still desired by everyone but she’s also someone you want to hang with, which is a far cry from May Day in A View To A Kill. (Holy moly Grace Jones, I love you and fear you at the same time!) Jinx is a friend, a buddy and someone you can rely on! Berry is the “Bond Girl” you could share mojitos and a laugh with, and that makes her performance an absolute delight!
2004, Warner Bros., dir. Pitof
by Jeffrey Knight
Halle Berry is far from the worst thing about Catwoman. She is the most public face of this (in)famously bad movie, but in all honesty, it’s not her fault. Berry plays Patience Phillips, a mild-mannered graphic artist that works for a large cosmetics corporation run by Sharon Stone and Lambert Wilson. Patience uncovers a criminal plot that threatens the health of women who use the miracle skin cream produced by the company, and gets herself murdered for her troubles. Luckily, a swarm of alley cats bring her back to life as a Catwoman, and Patience finds herself living a double-life: mousey graphic artist by day, feline avenger of wrongs by night.
As Patience, Berry is all but a non-entity. But as Catwoman, she becomes something else. Berry is able to elevate the material at times to a level of entertaining camp. This is no small feat, especially when the director is working so very hard against you. Berry effectively channels previous Catwomen, most notably Eartha Kitt in the way she growls her purrrrfect lines, her voice dropping down a register toward ‘sultry.’ It’s a performance that leans into the most ridiculous aspects of the film’s conceits and it’s a good choice. The only way an actor was going to make it out the other side of Catwoman intact was by explicitly acknowledging how stupid the whole endeavour was.
She won a Razzie award for her performance, and in doing so became one of only a handful to win both an Oscar and a Razzie. That’s a questionable honor, to be sure. Surprisingly, Berry attended the Razzies to collect her award in person. “If you aren’t able to be a good loser, you can’t be a good winner,” she is reported to have said. Good on her, especially since I don’t think it was a deserved win (not when her competition included the Wayans brothers for White Girls). Not to say that Catwoman doesn’t deserve the scorn heaped upon it, but Berry doesn’t it. Save it for Pitof, the director, and Sylvie Landra, the editor. They’re the real Super Villains here.
It’s been 15 years since Catwoman, and it’s still one of the two roles she’s probably best known for. For all the genre films Berry has appeared in, none of them have done her any favors (except for the paychecks that tend to come with them). You think of her in the X-Men films? It’s the “toad hit by lighting” line from the first one that comes to mind. Her time as a Bond Girl comes in Die Another Day, one of the worst films in the franchise. And she didn’t write the toad line (and no actor could’ve delivered it any better) and she didn’t think up the invisible car. Likewise, Berry isn’t responsible for Catwoman’s utter failure as a movie. If anything, she provides the only spark of interest the film has. I came away from Catwoman more impressed with Berry as a performer than I could’ve imagined. Considering the overall level of incompetence in the film, that’s a real superpower.
2017, Di Bonaventura Pictures, dir. Luis Prieto
by Sharon Autenrieth
Here’s the pitch: What if you had a movie like Taken, but instead of Liam Neeson hell bent on rescuing his daughter, Halle Berry was relentlessly pursuing her kidnapped, adorable son? But what if – and stick with me, because this is where it gets interesting – what if Halle Berry had far fewer specific skills than Liam Neeson? And what if the film’s director, screenwriter, editor, and the entire cast ALSO had very few skills? That, my friends, is Kidnap.
This is a real stinkeroo of a movie. Poor Karla Dyson (Berry) is a devoted mother and put-upon waitress who loses track of her child at a busy festival in a city park. This is about the moment when Karla lost me because, frankly, her decision to leave her six year old child unattended while she walks away to take a phone call is pretty questionable parenting. We already know what this movie is about (that title is a solid hint), so we are not surprised that little Frankie goes missing. I was surprised, to be honest, by how many times she continued to play Marco Polo with her vanished child before admitting that maaaaybe this was an emergency. Before the police can even be contacted, though, Karla sees Frankie being shoved into a ratty-looking hatchback by a ratty-looking woman. The specific kind of car is an important plot point, but I’ve already forgotten because I never cared.
Much of the rest of Kidnap is Karla in a high speed chase with that hatchback. She can’t call for help because she dropped her cell phone while running to her minivan – what are the odds of such an unfortunate plot convenience?!? It turns out that Karla’s short list of specific skills are these: shrieking, giving unnecessary plot exposition by talking out loud to herself, and driving like a maniac. I’m pretty sure she got some innocent folks killed with her reckless driving, but what’s even harder to stomach is that she intentional smashes into the hatchback. The hatchback carrying her small child. Which, I’m guessing, did not come with a weight-appropriate child safety seat.
I shouldn’t belabor this review. This is a dumb movie, crudely edited, without a genuine twist in sight, and Berry’s acting is appalling. In pursuit of the hatchback she drives with wild abandon (I mean, sort of wild, although she rarely goes over 60 mph). Outside her minivan her thought processes slow to a crawl. Here’s an indicative moment in Kidnap. Karla has managed to sneak into the kidnappers home and after some unnecessarily long set up, discovers that the female baddie has just returned from their barn with a half eaten pizza and a crushed juice box. Karla stares at that juice box for about five long seconds before the epiphany strikes: Frankie! I mean, yeah, probably. It seems unlikely that giant, vicious child trafficking gal drinks Welch’s juice boxes. Though I guess people can surprise you! Not in this movie, though. There are no surprises beyond what a very bad movie it is. And perhaps it’s a surprise to hear that Berry wasn’t just the unfortunate star of this monstrosity. She was an executive producer!
I’m going to spoil Kidnap so that you will never feel the need to watch it. Karla kills all the bad people, saves her son, and some other children, too. All’s well that ends well. Except this movie. It doesn’t start well, end well, or give us anything like wellness in the middle. It’s just bad.
2001, Warner Bros, dir. Dominic Sena
by Jim Tudor
Completely pedestrian at the time, Swordfish is, at least by 2019 eyes, a rather ugly if only somewhat uninteresting animal. Mounted for display in the summer of 2001, this action-packed crime blockbuster could easily make for an ideal catch and release, saving one angle it couldn’t have intentionally speared: domestic terrorism. Specifically, how domestic terrorism and government overreach in the name of protection can be its own two-headed leviathan. Spearing it’s way through theaters merely a few months prior to the events of September 11, 2001 forcing such notions to the forefront of our lives, Swordfish checks out as weirdly prophetic in spite of itself.
Aside from that, this is, in most every other way, a far more dated film than I realized. (Memories of it opening still seem fresh, as well as the memories of me shrugging off seeing it). Swordfish models a visual tint suggesting a urine-soaked negative; that coupled with a constant sickly green hue that suggests producer Joel Silver learned all the wrong lessons from the success of The Matrix, which he also produced only a couple of years prior. Director Dominic Sena brings new meaning to the phrase “overcooked zeal”, spending an ungodly amount of Warner Brothers’ money on this forgettable (and forgotten) caper. Overstuffed with forced twists and show-offy Enemy of the State-level sociopolitical philosophies, Swordfish is shockingly withered… and often reeking as such.
And yet, it has it has its moments, generally courtesy of its talented cast. All of the key players, with one exception, the top-billed John Travolta, are above this. Then-newcomer Hugh Jackman is the protagonist, a brilliant computer hacker named Stanley who’s put the shady life behind him for blue collar labor that will never financially net him enough money to win custody of his young daughter.
Travolta, trading on the last shred his Pulp Fiction badassery, plays a dynamic mastermind in need of just such a hacker, who reels Stanley in with the promise of first $100,000, then $10 million. Rocking the narrowest of chin stripe beards and Vincent Vega hair, Travolta commands the film as though he owns it. Per the marketing, he doesn’t. Now, it may be my straight male brain remembering this detail selectively, but if memory serves, Swordfish’s most reported-on selling point was courtesy of co-star Halle Berry, and her assertion to appear topless in the film. Her strategy was sound, if perhaps warped: she knew she had an Oscar run coming up later that year with the far more explicit Monster’s Ball, itself a later 2001 release. She didn’t want her boobs to steal the focus away from the seriousness of that prestigious picture, so she let this bit of silliness benefit from that. Aside from being more than a little presumptuous on her behalf (don’t get me wrong, she looks great), at least Berry understood the disposability of the costly and self-serious Swordfish better than the people actually making it. Her role is what it is: Travolta’s girl Friday, a self-assured but saucy sexpot who might not be what she seems. Perhaps Berry could actually be lumped in with Travolta in terms of not being above this film. It’s a toss-up, though she’s fine in her part, as well as her clothes, when she’s wearing them.
Travolta’s first line- the first line in the movie- is, “You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make shit. Unbelievable, unremarkable shit.” He said it, not me. No wonder Swordfish kinda stinks.
2001, Lion’s Gate Films, dir. Marc Forster
by Taylor Blake
Monster’s Ball is an actor’s movie. The stacked (and early 2000s time capsule) cast includes Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Mos Def, but most importantly, Halle Berry.
She plays Leticia, the wife of an inmate on death row and mother to their struggling son. An eviction notice is nailed to her door, and her waitressing job is on its last straw. While the movie starts with the story of death row officer Hank (Thornton) and his family, the movie turns out to be hers because of her convincing portrayal of grief, anger, and the hope that sustains her through the worst month of her life.
This is very good news for a movie that doesn’t make a lick of sense unless you squint and tilt your head sideways. Though Monster’s Ball works well on a scene-by-scene basis, the threads connecting each episode were confusing, and when the credits started rolling, well—what? Character’s motivations are murky, the plotting doesn’t find significance in the coincidences pulling Leticia and Hank together, and I’m unsure what this film was trying to say other than that it really wanted to go to the Academy Awards.
Berry and Thornton (and to a lesser degree, Ledger, who somehow earned second billing) hold this film together with performances that ring true even though the world around them does not.