Vincere


Vincere

This is what obsession looks like.

(2009) Biographical Drama (IFC) Filipo Timi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Corrado Invernizzi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michaela Cescon, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello, Francesco Picozzo, Simona Nobili, Vanessa Scalera. Directed by Marco Bellochio

 

Benito Mussolini was a dictator and a despot with an ego far greater than the entire country he ruled. His private life was carefully orchestrated so that his image would be pleasing to the predominantly Roman Catholic citizens of Italy as well as to the Church of Rome, with whom he had a political alliance. Having a mistress and a son by that mistress would have been devastating to the way Il Duce was perceived.

But then again, he wasn’t always the jut-jawed figure that his Fascist party spin doctors made him out to be. Once upon a time Mussolini (Timi) was a firebrand, an atheist who advocated the violent overthrow of Italy’s hopelessly corrupt government.

He caught the attention of young Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), an idealistic young shopgirl who was initially attracted to Mussolini’s politics and eventually to the young firebrand himself. The two had a passionate and torrid relationship that had Ida giving him her life savings in order to fund a Fascist newspaper which led to financial disaster for her. It also led to her bearing him a son.

However what she didn’t know was that Mussolini was already married, and as his star rose politically, it became expedient for him to cut ties with her. Dalser could have gone quietly into the night and lived a comfortable life as so many women who had gotten involved with charismatic politicians had over the years, but Ida was determined that her son be the heir of Il Duce, so she forced his hand.

She was forcibly committed to an insane asylum where her story that she was married to the Italian leader (a ceremony was performed or so goes the rumor) and had a son by him was met with to say the least skepticism. She continued to try to fight for her son’s place in the Italian hierarchy right up until the very end.

This is a little known story, even in Italy where Dalser’s existence wasn’t even re-discovered (after the Fascist regime essentially buried her from history) until 2005. Veteran Italian director Bellochio (a contemporary of Antonioni, Fellini and Bertolucci, among other great Italian directors of the era) has crafted an interesting biopic that is largely conjecture, based on what little we know about Dalser and extrapolating how things might have happened.

He is fortunate in having Mezzogiorno, one of Italy’s great leading ladies in the pivotal role of Dalser. Mezzogiorno has been compared to Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard (whom she resembles) and she brings an inner strength that becomes readily apparent. During the first half of the movie, Dalser is almost obsessively in love with Mussolini, submerging all else of her personality and her life for his benefit. During the second, the obsession turns psychotic and you wonder if she really IS insane. Dalser, that is. It’s a bravura performance and one that has been acclaimed all over Europe, but sadly not here where the movie went little-seen.

The movie does take a bit of a tumble during the second half as Mussolini disappears from the film and is seen only in newsreel footage – the real Mussolini, not the actor playing him. While I think that the move to center the movie on Dalser was a logical one, I think it could have used more of the dynamic between the two, even if Mussolini isn’t interacting directly with her. Perhaps that’s what the director was trying to achieve – create an iconic Mussolini who ceases being a man and becomes a demigod which is, at the end of the day, what Il Duce was trying to achieve in life.

This is a mesmerizing movie that ultimately falls short of being great. Mezzogiorno gives a performance that might have been Oscar-worthy in a perfect world, and the assured hand of an experienced director makes the first part riveting material. If only that sure hand hadn’t failed him in the second half.

WHY RENT THIS: Mezzogiorno’s performance is riveting. Interesting use of historical footage

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The end of the movie becomes unfocused. Suffers from disappearance of Mussolini from the narrative.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity and sex scenes here, as well as a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was selected as the #2 best film of 2009 by the respect French journal Les Cahiers du Cinema.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.7M on a $13M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Bryce Dallas Howard incurs the wrath of PETA.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, Mamie Gummer, Jessica Collins, Will Patton, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Zoe Perry, Barbara Garrick, Zach Grenier, Laila Robins, Susan Blommaert. Directed by Jodie Markell

Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest writers in American literature so when a previously unproduced television script (meant for director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris) was unearthed, it was reason for celebration. Sadly, rather than be the subject of a major studio release being heralded for Oscar gold, instead it is the subject of a well-cast but ultimately little-promoted indie film.

Fisher Sparrow (Howard) is a Memphis-area socialite in the 1920s whose family has fallen on hard times. Her father was the center of a scandal when he dynamited a levee, causing a low lying area to flood and drowning two sharecroppers who lived there, as well as ruining land downriver of the levee. Fisher had no knowledge of that before she returned from some time in Europe.

She is supposed to be making her debut in Memphis society (a big deal back then) and because of her supposed wild behavior and her daddy’s reputation, she can’t find a decent gentleman willing to escort her to the balls and parties of the social season. She resorts to paying a field hand, Jimmy (Evans) to be her escort. Jimmy’s a decent sort who has a governor of Tennessee in his bloodlines but his family has been driven to poverty, with an alcoholic father (Patton) and a mother who is in an institution which Fisher hints she can get her out of, or at least into a better facility.

An aunt of Fisher’s gives her a $10,000 diamond earring set to wear for the season. The first party turns out to be a disaster; Fisher has a meltdown wanting the band to play music more in the flapper style which causes the party guests to say cruel things to her. Jimmy rushes to her aid and takes her home. The party invitations dry up after that and the only one Fisher can get is a Halloween party on the other side of town which was unaffected by her father’s actions.

On the way to the party, Fisher and Jimmy stop at the levee for a few moments. Fisher attempts to kiss Jimmy but he pulls away. Angered and humiliated, Fisher tries to jump out of the car as they pull up to the house where the party is being held. Shortly after she notices one of her diamond earrings is missing. A misunderstanding causes Jimmy to believe that she is accusing him of taking it.

Heartsick, Fisher goes away from the commotion to find her Aunt Addie (Burstyn) lying in bed, wracked in pain. The two have a heart-to-heart and Aunt Addie advises Fisher to leave and go back to Europe which she is more suited for. Addie makes Fisher promise to give her a bottle of pills so that Addie can die with dignity; Fisher promises she will as soon as the missing earring is found.

Devotees of Tennessee Williams will find some of the characters familiar; the down on their luck Southern family, the crumbling gentility and honor, the fiery sexual Southern belle. However, the characters and situation aren’t the best to come from his pen.

The movie is subdued in many ways and a bit mannered; modern audiences might find it too slow paced for their tastes. Still, there are some good performances here. Howard turns in one of the better performances of her career (and certainly her best since The Village). She is at once brassy and vulnerable, ambitious and un-self confident. She isn’t the most likable movie heroine ever, but she has enough flaws to be interesting.

Evans is mostly known for comic book roles in Fantastic Four and Captain America: The First Avenger. A few decades ago this kind of role would have been played by Paul Newman and not so long ago by Matthew McConaughey. Evans doesn’t have the best Tennessee accent ever but that’s ok; it’s the man inside the accent that makes the role memorable and Evans does that.

This has all the tawdriness and quiet desperation of some of William’s best work but none of the really interesting, unique characterizations that make his best work great. It’s worth seeing from a standpoint that it’s Tennessee Williams but in all honesty there are far better movies of his work out there, not the least of which are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. You’d do better renting those to get an idea of how great a writer he once was.

WHY RENT THIS: Howard is impressive and Evans is pretty good too.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too mannered and slow-moving for modern audiences. Not one of Williams’ better works.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lindsey Lohan was originally cast in the lead role but her legal problems precluded her doing the movie. Howard was given the role instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Cast Away

John Carpenter’s The Ward


Amber Heard prays that someone will take her seriously.

(2010) Horror (ARC Entertainment) Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lindsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, Sydney Sweeney, Mika Boorem, D.A. Anderson, Susanna Burney, Sean Cook, Milos Milicevic, Jillian Kramer, Sali Sayler. Directed by John Carpenter

When looking back at the annals of horror movies, some directors stand out; James Whale, Todd Browning and in later years George Romero and David Cronenberg. Into that company, one has to add John Carpenter. The auteur of horror and science fiction classics such as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live! (1988), it has been ten years since he has directed a feature film. Is this the movie to launch the comeback of one of horror’s masters?

A young woman sets a somewhat isolated farmhouse on fire. She is caught there by the police, who bring the struggling, screaming woman to the North Bend Mental Institution. We discover her name is Kristen (Heard) and she has no memory of how she got to the farmhouse or why she burned it down.

She is assigned to Dr. Stringer (Harris), the urbane Brit who seems to be the only doctor in the Asylum. There’s not much staff there either – Roy (Anderson), a somewhat menacing orderly, Nurse Lundt (Burney) who likely took her education at the Nurse Ratched school of Nursing (note the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reference), and Jimmy (Cook), a kindlier orderly.

Then again, there aren’t many patients. There’s Sara (Panabaker), a somewhat self-centered and looks-oriented young woman who never met a mirror she didn’t like. Zoey (Laura-Leigh) has some pretty serious emotional traumas and deals with them by reverting to childhood. Iris (Fonseca), the friendly bespectacled one who has a sketchbook and draws the things that disturbs her. Finally there’s Emily (Gummer), the strong sort who appears to be the leader of this merry band.

There’s also Alice Hudson (Boorem). Who’s she? Well, apparently she’s a former resident of North Bend who took her leave of this mortal coil in a sudden and not very nice manner. Now her ghost (Kramer) is roaming the halls of North Bend, bumping off the remaining girls in also sudden and not very nice manners. Kristen must figure out a way to escape before she winds up on the grisly list of victims. But who is she really? Why can’t she remember any of her past? And why did she burn down that farmhouse. That is the key to the supernatural goings on at North Bend and a secret she must unlock if she is to survive.

Carpenter has mostly been working in television the past decade and in some ways that absence show. This is a very old school kind of movie in the way the shots are set up; it looks in many ways like an 80s horror film which is unsurprising given Carpenter’s pedigree. This is his first movie with a nearly all-female cast.

He gets some good performances, the most outstanding of which is by Gummer as the erstwhile leader of the group Emily. Gummer looks very much like a young Meryl Streep which makes some sense because she’s her daughter. She has as much as any of the female characters has to work with but in the end she does more with it.

Panabaker and Fonseca also acquit themselves well, Panabaker as the resident flirt, Fonseca as the sensitive girl. They’re essentially disposable cannon fodder for the monster who stalks them. Both of them are attractive women, which helps and both of them are solid professional actresses, which helps them even more. While you could have plugged in the cast of Jersey Shore to these sorts of roles, Fonseca and Panabaker give it the old college try.

Heard is usually a very capable actress but here she seems a little forced. There isn’t a lot of real emotion coming from her, mostly taking us from point A to point B with little examination into the process of getting there. She’s at her best in the opening shots, frightened and not really knowing what she’s doing or why she’s doing it, merely following her instincts. That scene piqued my interest.

Too bad what followed was awfully derivative, even of movies that were filmed concurrently (say hello, Sucker Punch) but for sure of asylum horror movies like Gothika and The House on Haunted Hill. A creature stalks the actors, lurks in shadows, shows signs of being a decrepit corpse and winds up being part of a twist.

That’s what this movie is and to be honest, it doesn’t disgrace itself. It just isn’t the comeback you’d hope for a master of the genre. Romero managed to re-invent himself without losing sight of what got him to the dance – Carpenter hasn’t quite mastered that trick yet. This is very much like the movies he would have made back in 1981. The unfortunate thing is that it’s 2011 and we expected something better.

REASONS TO GO: Well directed by a master craftsman. Some good performances, particularly by Fonseca, Panabaker and Gummer.

REASONS TO STAY: We’ve seen this all before, and better. Heard picks a bad time to give a sub-par performance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images as well as some violence and the very important obligatory extraneous nude shower scene (although much more nudity is implied than scene).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Carpenter not to have been shot in Panavision since his first one, Dark Star.

HOME OR THEATER: Essentially a haunted house horror movie which takes nearly entirely within a mental institution, this will be fine as a home video offering.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Easy A

Shutter Island


Shutter Island

Ruffalo and di Caprio have wandered from a Scorsese movie into an episode of Tales from the Crypt.

(Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, John Carroll Lynch, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, Robin Bartlett. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Reality is a very subjective thing. We often see things as we want to see them and not as they truly are. That’s true of all of us to a certain extent, but every one of us usually does that only to a certain extent. When we can’t get past our own self-delusions, we are walking the fine line between sanity and insanity.

United States Marshals Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are on what seems to be a routine assignment. A dangerous prisoner, one Rachel Salondo has disappeared from her cell at the Ashecliffe Mental Hospital on Shutter Island, one of the Harbour Islands just off the coast of Boston. Their ferry emerges from the fog and approaches Shutter Island like an earlier freighter approached Skull Island, with palpable menace exuding from every crevice on the island.

They are met at the dock by Deputy Warden McPherson (Lynch) who relieves the marshals of their firearms, which the marshals submit to reluctantly. He escorts them to the main building where they are met by Dr. Cawley (Kingsley), the chief psychiatrist of the facility. Here are the most dangerous lunatics in the Commonwealth, who are so violent that no other hospital can handle them. It is said that there are asylums that have been decommissioned where the horrors of the past seem to live on; you can feel the decades of suffering in the very bricks of the building. Ashecliffe is a lot like that.

It is 1954 and the patients are probably better off in there, safe from the concerns of atom bombs and HUAC witch hunts. Teddy himself is haunted; as a soldier during the War, he helped liberate Dachau and the horrors he witnessed there have driven him to drink. Even worse, his beloved wife Dolores (Williams) died in a fire a few years back.

Teddy realizes early on that the staff is being far from co-operative but he has an agenda of his own. He is looking for a man named Andrew Laeddis (Koteas) who was the man who set the fire that ended his wife’s life. Teddy had followed Laeddis’ trail to the hospital where it disappeared.

From here Teddy realizes that something far more sinister is going on at Shutter Island. A hurricane has further isolated the island and the answers Teddy is looking for are as elusive as driftwood on the tide. To find them, he is going to have to dig deeper; and once he does, he might not like what he finds.

This movie is a serious mindf**k. It is unlike anything Scorsese has done before. There are elements of Hitchcock and film noir in the movie, and certainly turns of gothic horror. I wouldn’t have been overly surprised if Barnabas Collins had stepped out of the shadows of Ward C, where the most dangerous offenders are kept and where Teddy has to go to find Laeddis.

Di Caprio is at his best here, playing the tormented Teddy with grit and just a hint of madness. Teddy is our proxy in the movie and we see the events through his eyes, and Di Caprio makes sure those eyes are wide open and staring. He keeps us off-balance enough to make us susceptible to the twists and turns of the script which is based on a Dennis Lehane novel.

This is a fine cast and Scorsese gets great performances out of nearly all of them. Kingsley does quiet menace like nobody else in the business, and can seem sinister with a dismissive gesture. Von Sydow has a brief but memorable turn as a doctor who may have at one time worked for the Nazis. His verbal sparring session with Teddy is one of the better scenes in the movie.

There are some disturbing images here, and a good deal of male nudity. There is also a score from former member of The Band (and subject of Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz) Robbie Robertson that I think was meant to further put us off-balance but sadly doesn’t succeed; it comes off as intrusive and annoying. I think a subtler approach might have worked better.

I have to admit that some of the scenes here are really tough to watch on an emotional level, but I really don’t want to get into much more detail than that. In fact, the less I tell you about the movie the better you’ll be able to enjoy it. That allows you to experience the full effect of Scorsese’s first venture into the psychological thriller territory that Hitchcock once owned.

This won’t go down as one of Scorsese’s better efforts, although ironically it might wind up being his most profitable. The final scenes are ambiguous and meant to be that way. Some critics have assaulted the ending, but I think its part of Scorsese’s plan to let you draw your own conclusions as to the nature of Teddy’s reality. Certainly it will have you questioning your own perceptions as you leave the theater and that’s pretty impressive on its own.

REASONS TO GO: This movie plays with your head long after the credits roll. Di Caprio does some of the best work of his career. Scorsese conjures up a real air of foreboding.  

REASONS TO STAY: The music was intrusive rather than supporting the overall mood. The building up of Andrew Laeddis as the most dangerous man in the facility doesn’t quite work.

FAMILY VALUES: Oh my God no. Dear God…what are you thinking? Kids? Shutter Island? NO! Seriously!  NO!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ted Levine and Patricia Clarkson starred in the short-lived TV series “Wonderland,” which was also set in a mental institution.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that should be witnessed in the dark, preferably without a huge crowd. Home viewing would be more suitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Valentine’s Day