Casanova (2005)


Casanova

Casanova doing what he does best.

(2005) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin, Omid Djalili, Stephen Greif, Ken Stott, Helen McCrory, Leigh Lawson, Tim McInnerny, Charlie Cox, Natalie Dormer, Robert Levine, Lauren Cohan. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

All men dream of being Casanova. Not the actual man but having the same characteristics; being irresistible to women, bold, self-confident and protected by powerful friends when the chips are down. In some ways, his image has become a parody; the real man was notorious self-promoter and his memoirs are fairly unreliable, but he told a good story.

Casanova (Ledger) has been bedeviling the women of Venice to the point where the Doge (McInnerny) has been warned by the Inquisition that a Cardinal Pucci (Irons) has been sent for the sole purpose of arresting the lover. Casanova is warned to either leave the city or wed someone, this someone being Victoria (Dormer), who is loved in turn by Giovanni (Cox) and whose sister Francesca Bruni (Miller) has bewitched Casanova.

Francesca is kind of a Renaissance Gloria Steinem and espouses equality for the sexes. She despises everything Casanova stands for, therefore in keeping with Hollywood convention you know she is going to fall in love with him, although Casanova will have to impersonate her own fiancée, Papprizio (Platt) – Genoa’s own King of Lard – to win her hand.

The problem here is that Hallstrom and the writers aren’t sure whether they’re making a bedroom farce or a screwball comedy and the difference between the two is pretty significant. It’s set up to be a comedy but there are swordfights and rooftop chases. Casanova comes off like  a cut-rate Douglas Fairbanks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those aspects are some of the movie’s highlights.

The late Heath Ledger made this the same year he made Brokeback Mountain and it was clear he was just coming into his own as an actor. He is self-assured and handsome, not relying on his looks nearly as much and beginning to show signs that his raw talent is beginning to gel, talent that would culminate in his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight just three short years later. It makes his untimely passing all the more poignant.

The comedy here is mostly supplied by Djalili as Casanova’s long-suffering valet and by Platt. If you’re going to cast Platt as the King of Lard, you’d better have some scenes to back it up and Platt, one of the most underrated character actors in the past decade in my opinion, has some great moments where he gets to swashbuckle as well, and holds his own doing it. Reminds me of his work as Porthos in the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers.

It’s a shame that the script went in the modern rom-com conventional direction of boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy wins girl, girl breaks up with boy and while I don’t want to give away the ending, Helen Keller could see it coming. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the most sensitive way of putting it.

If you take the attitude that this is going to be some fun entertainment with a little titillation, not a whole lot of originality and very little historical accuracy you’re going to like this just fine. I just wonder why they didn’t use the “real” exploits of Casanova from his memoirs – some of those were far more interesting and outrageous than what we got here.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger is superb. There is a swashbuckling feel that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Errol Flynn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls back on Romance 101 clichés too often. Lacks genuine wit.

FAMILY VALUES:  This is a film about one of the world’s most legendary lovers; no surprise there is a whole lot of sexuality in it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the opening sequence, Casanova is trying to evade the Inquisition by leaping through a window into the University of Venice. There is in fact no such institution; the building he is leaping into is the Teatro Olympia, one of the first Renaissance-era theaters and located 140 km away from Venice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a pretty solid featurette on the costume design and those costumes are rather lavish.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.7M on an unknown production budget; I don’t think this movie cost an enormous amount to film so I think it recouped it’s costs and maybe made a few bucks but not more than that.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Finding Nemo

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

In ancient Persia, tandem wet t-shirt contests were done with slightly different rules.

(Disney)  Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Toby Kebbell, Steve Toussaint, Richard Coyle, Ronald Pickup, Reece Ritchie, Gisli Orn Garvarsson, Claudio Pacifico, Thomas DuPont, Dave Pope, Domokos Pardanyi. Directed by Mike Newell

One thing you can say about summer movies, they don’t require a great deal of brain power to enjoy. The more action and fantasy you can cram into 90 minutes, the better and if it takes you away from your cares and troubles, even more so.

Of course, the characters onscreen have plenty of cares and troubles. Take Dastan (Gyllenhaal), for example. He’s a Prince of the mighty Persian Empire, but not by birth. Wise King Sharaman (Pickup) adopted young Dastan from the streets of Baghdad after observing the boy’s bravery in standing up for another boy. Dastan has grown into a headstrong young man, a gifted fighter and a bit of a wiseass. More than a bit, perhaps.

He and his brothers Garsiv (Kebbell) and Tus (Coyle) – the latter of which is heir to the throne – are on some kind of military exercise with their Uncle Nizam (Kingsley). The plan is to attack the holy city of Alumet – which King Sharaman has expressly forbidden them to do, mind you – but whom their intelligence has led them to believe is supplying their enemies with weapons. The leader of Alumet, Princess Tamina (Arterton) is understandably peeved, considering her people have done no wrong.

Still, the city seems impregnable enough until Prince Dastan discovers a weakness in the defenses and leads the troops into the city, even though he’s been expressly forbidden to….hmmm, seems there was a lot of that going around in the Persian royal court. In order to mitigate the issue, the decent Tus offers to marry Tamina in order to…well, politics was never my strong suit.

King Sharaman, upon hearing that his sons have disobeyed direct orders, comes to Alumet to celebrate. He is promptly poisoned and Dastan blamed. He escapes with the aid of Tamina. It turns out that an elaborate dagger, which appears to be purely ceremonial in nature, is the weapon of mass destruction that Dick Chaney was looking for after all.

This dagger can cause time to rewind a few minutes, with only the wielder of the dagger aware of the change. It can only go back a few minutes because that’s all the sands of time that the dagger can hold. There is an unlimited supply of the stuff underneath the city of Alumet, but in order to obtain enough to send the dagger-wielder back in time for any length of time, Armageddon would have to be unleashed but that little drawback doesn’t stop the villain of the piece from wanting to do just that.

The villain – oh, you know who it is, don’t you? – has also hired a secret society of assassins (try saying that five times fast) – to retrieve the dagger and eliminate the pesky prince and princess. They escape into the desert, on their way to the funeral of King Sharaman to warn…well, the bad guy because….oh my head hurts.

In any case, on the way they run into a wacky sheikh (Molina) who makes his fortune on rigged ostrich races and bad mouths any sort or form of taxation (he’s the original Tea Bagger) while keeping a taciturn knife-throwing expert (Toussaint) from Namibia (or some such place). This makes complete sense. The sheikh means to collect the hefty reward that is out on Dastan’s head but they escape by…ummm…causing a riot at an ostrich race by opening a crate of scimitars and…ummm…okay I’m done with the plot.

Okay, you’re not going to go to see a movie based on a videogame because of its intricate plot. You’re probably not going to go to see it because of its acting performances either. No, you’re going to go see it because of the eye candy and the action. On both scores, Prince of Persia gets high marks, particularly the former. The cities of ancient Persia, rendered digitally, look marvelous with the practical sets resembling the hinterlands depicted in Gladiator and Hidalgo pretty much.

Gyllenhaal probably wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Dastan, but he acquits himself nicely. Dastan is an athletic sort who combines parkour-like moves with some nifty sword work. It all works out to a pretty good approximation of The Thief of Baghdad, the granddaddy of this kind of film. Gyllenhaal is no Errol Flynn, but he carries enough offbeat charm to make the character memorable. Arterton delivers a performance from the feisty princess school of acting. It’s not groundbreaking, nor is her chemistry with Gyllenhaal particularly sizzling; she’s insanely easy to look at however and at least comes by her British accent honestly. Gyllenhaal effects one and it isn’t too bad, but it gets distracting now and again when it comes out strained.

Molina is one of the most reliable actors in the business and brings a light touch to the picture. Whenever he’s onscreen, he makes a mark and improves the movie. Kingsley lends gravitas – it’s not often you get an actor of his calibre in a videogame adaptation – and adds subtleties to his performance that you wouldn’t expect to find at a movie like this. That may go completely ignored by the average moviegoer, but I found it refreshing and surprising.

Given the political situation there now, it’s hard sometimes to remember that the Middle East was considered a romantic place, full of adventure going back to the days of Rudolph Valentino. Prince of Persia resurrects that romance, adding some surprising political jabs on both sides of the aisle (finally, a movie that both Bill Maher and Glenn Beck can both love). It’s mindless, its fun and everything you could want from a summer movie.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent production design, from the ancient cities to the intricate weapons. Action sequences are exciting and frenetic.

REASONS TO STAY: Gyllenhaal’s faux English accent is distracting at times.  

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a videogame adaptation, there is a great deal of action and violence, but nothing the average teen hasn’t seen in videogames and television. If you’re okay with them playing the videogame, there should be no problem with them seeing the movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Other than the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, this is the only PG-13 rated movie Disney has ever released under its Disney banner.

HOME OR THEATER: Big screen, without a doubt. The fantastic vistas have to be seen on as big a medium as possible.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Winter’s Bone

Robin Hood


Robin Hood

Never tell Russell Crowe that his rugby team sucks.

(Universal)  Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, William Hurt, Matthew Macfayden, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Eileen Atkins, Lea Seydoux, Mark Addy, Douglas Hodge, Simon McBurney. Directed by Ridley Scott

The legend of Robin Hood is central to English mythology. The character has made regular appearances on the silver screen and television, from the carefree bandit of Errol Flynn to the Kevin Costner version, with the heavy-on-the-mystical BBC series “Robin of Sherwood” somewhere in between. So how does this Robin rate?

Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer finishing ten years of war in the Holy Land alongside Richard the Lion Heart (Huston), the English King beloved by his people. I use the term “alongside” loosely; Richard is King and Robin is a lowly foot soldier. In most circumstances, the King would never interact with a commoner such as Robin.

However, times being what they are for the King, he can’t resist sacking one last castle, this one in the land of England’s ancient enemy, France. The English coffers are nearly bare after having paid for ten years of constant war. One evening, Robin gets into a fight with fellow soldier John Little (Durand) which is witnessed by the King and the King’s good friend Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge). The King is impressed with the honesty and bravery of both men, but Robin can’t resist speaking his mind when the King asks him to. For his honest criticism, Robin, John and Robin’s good friends Will Scarlet (Grimes) and Alan A’Dayle (Doyle) are put in the stockade for future branding and whipping.

Unfortunately during the siege the King takes an arrow through the throat and expires, throwing the ranks of the English into chaos. Robin, recognizing the situation, has a friend free the four of them from the stocks and they hie themselves hence for the coast to find passage to England before Richard’s army gets there and take all the boats for themselves.

In the meantime, the King of France (an actor who, amazingly, has gone uncredited for the role as far as I can see) is scheming with the vicious Godfrey (Strong) to assassinate the King on his way back to the coast. Of course, this is moot at this point but when Godfrey springs his ambush it is Sir Robert that is caught, innocently returning the King’s crown to England. Robin and his merry men come upon the ambush and force the assassins to flee, but not before Robin sends an arrow whistling Godfrey’s way, scarring him on the cheek. Robin comforts the dying Loxley by promising to return his sword to his father, a sword he had taken without asking. The four manage to make it to the coast and brazen their way aboard the King’s flagship by pretending to be Knights (by stealing the armor and cloaks of the dead men at the ambush) and flashing the crown. While sailing across the channel, Robin notices an inscription on the sword: Rise and Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions.

Meanwhile back in England, Prince John (Isaac) is cavorting with Isabella (Seydoux), niece of King Phillip, irritating his mother Ellen of Aquitaine (Atkins) no end, particularly since he is married to someone else. For most of the women in the audience this was a clear sign that John is an absolute jerk, although most royals of the time dallied pretty regularly – just another reason why, as Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the King. However, the party really starts when Robin – now masquerading as Robert Loxley – brings the sad news of the King’s demise, which elevates John onto the throne.

Times are hard in England and about to become harder. Taxes have just about bled the populace dry, even relatively wealthy former Knights like Walter Loxley (van Sydow) who, now well into his 80s, is blind and tended to by his son’s wife Marian (Blanchett). She is on the receiving end of the tender affections of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfayden) and is concerned that with all the good men of Nottingham away at war, too old, too young or broken, that the town will not survive the winter. With the new Friar Tuck (Addy) taking over the local church from the ambitious Father Tancred (McBurney) who is departing for York with all the seed grain for the town in his possession, which will make the coming harvest difficult with nothing to plant. Things look bad for Nottingham and they get worse when Robin arrives with the news of Robert’s death. However, Walter seems to recognize the name of Robin and in exchange for the sword he had just brought back, agrees to tell Robin about his past.

In order to keep the crown from seizing their property (because in England at the time only sons could inherit and with Walter’s dead, Marian would lose the farm as it were), Walter asks Robin to masquerade as his son and Marian’s husband in order to maintain the illusion that there was proper succession for the property. Robin agrees, having taken a shine to Marian (who of course doesn’t care much for Robin) and things get idyllic for a little while.

However, John has made the critical mistake of trusting Godfrey with the chancellorship of England, after sending the current chancellor William Marshall (Hurt) back home. Godfrey, who aims to start a civil war by using extreme brutality in the North, takes an army to cause mischief. He does this by importing a small army of Phillip’s men. Once England is in chaos, Phillip will invade and take the divided country with a minimum of fuss. England needs a leader more than ever – and a legend will be born.

This is the most unusual Robin Hood you’re ever likely to see. There is no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and very little of Sherwood Forest. There is no swashbuckling or derring-do; Russell Crowe is not the first name I’d call for actors who do that kind of thing. Crowe is more of a brooder and his Robin of the Hood does a whole lot of that; at least when he’s not perforating, slicing or dicing the French.

However, Blanchett makes a marvelous Marian, full of spunk and steel. She essentially runs the Loxley estate and takes no crap from anyone; if anyone tries to touch her, she’ll emasculate them as she tells Robin (or worse, as one of Godfrey’s men finds out later). She is elegant when she needs to be, rough and tumble when she has to be and feminine throughout.

Von Sydow is terrific in his role as the aging Knight, bringing his career full circle in some respects – you may be reminded that he once played a knight of the crusades who plays chess against death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and while the roles are nothing alike, I was reminded of it somewhat perversely. Regardless, von Sydow is nearing the end of his own career and yet remains as much a force as he has always been.

Strong, for my money, is the best villain working in the business today (although Danny Huston may give him a run for his money). Bald and scarred, he just looks terrifying without saying a word. Ambitious and amoral, his Godfrey would sell his mother if it would get him ahead – not that there’s much of a market for that sort of thing.

There are some very good action sequences, particularly the climactic battle between the French and the English. The movie is well over two hours long but still felt like it was missing some pieces; I got the distinct impression that there were some scenes that might have better explained things in the movie that were left on the cutting room floor, although if there are they will certainly wind up on the “Director’s Cut” edition that is sure to follow on the home video front.

This is more of an origin story than any Robin Hood to date, and more or less sets the tone of the times. There is no Errol Flynn leaping out of a tree, giving a jaunty salute and exclaiming “Welcome to Sherwood” with a twinkle in his eyes. This is a cross between Braveheart and Gladiator with a healthy dose of Kingdom of Heaven; the last two of which, not un-coincidentally, were directed by Scott as well. Like most films of the 21st century, this version of the character wallows in the dark side, brooding like the Renaissance Faire edition of Bruce Wayne. That’s okay by me, even if it’s becoming a little cliché. Still, I can’t fault a filmmaker for trying a new take on a venerable character as long as the essence of who that character is remains intact and I think Ridley Scott succeeds in that regard. This may not be your father’s Robin, or even your grandfather’s but it is Robin Hood nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A different take on the Robin Hood legend with a bit of political intrigue. Blanchett is magnificent as Marian, and von Sydow is delightful in a supporting role. Mark Strong may be the best villain in the movies at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: You get the feeling a good deal of exposition hit the cutting room floor. Crowe broods too much at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, particularly of the battlefield variety, as well as some suggestion of sexuality and rape; there’s enough here that I’d think twice about bringing the impressionable sorts but most mature teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tune whistled by Godfrey as a pass code to the French soldiers is “Frere Jacques.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the climactic battle should be seen on the big screen, but much of the movie foregoes the epic scope.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Cinema365 will be on temporary hiatus while I am vacationing in China. We will resume our daily movie reviews, previews and features starting on Friday, June 4th with a review of Soul Men.