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

Letters to Juliet


Letters to Juliet

When Victor looks into Sophie's eyes, he can see a really fine...chianti.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Summit) Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Gael Garcia Bernal, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, Oliver Platt, Marcia DeBonis, Luisa Ranieri, Marina Massironi, Lydia Biondi, Milena Vukotic, Luisa De Santis. Directed by Gary Winick

Nearly all of us have at least a ghost of a bit of romance within us. We secretly believe that the secret to our redemption is that great love, the one that is trumpets and swans and fireworks exploding overhead. We want our love to be grand gestures; we want it overcome every obstacle. We also want it to be eternal.

Sophie (Seyfried) and her fiancée Victor (Bernal) are on a little pre-marriage vacation to beautiful Verona in Italy. It’s partially a working vacation – Victor is in the midst of opening an Italian restaurant back in New York and he’s all about wine tasting, finding the right ingredients so he can present New Yorkers with the most authentic Italian cuisine ever.

Sophie is working as a fact-checker for the New Yorker and longs to be a writer, which her editor (Platt) encourages somewhat. She also longs to sightsee beyond the interior of wineries and cheese factories, indeed to experience the romance and charm of Verona firsthand.

In wandering about the ancient town she comes upon a strange sight – dozens of women, some obviously upset and distraught, leaving letters and notes on the wall of a courtyard of a Renaissance-era home. She learns that this was the palace of the Capulets, the family of Juliet (of Romeo and) herself, and these women are seeking her advice in love.

To her astonishment, she discovers that these letters to a 13-year-old fictional character are actually being answered – by a group of older women who call themselves the Secretaries of Juliet. Intrigued, she joins them and begins to write responses of her own. One in particular grabs her imagination – a 50-year-old letter found hidden behind a rock in the wall, belonging to a lovestruck teen named Claire who found the love of her life in a Tuscan farmer named Lorenzo Bartolini but chose to give him up for practical considerations, then regretted her decision. Sophie writes an impassioned letter back to Claire, urging her to return and find her love.

Amazingly the letter finds its way to Claire (Redgrave) who shows up in Verona and brings her flinty, curmudgeonly grandson Charlie (Egan) in tow. Charlie’s not a big believer in love or romance and considers this so much foolishness, but he obviously adores his grandmother so he goes along for the ride reluctantly, wanting to be there to protect her.

Inspired by Sophie’s letter as Juliet, Claire means to find her Lorenzo. The problem is that there are apparently quite a few men named Lorenzo Bartolini in Italy and so they must weed out all the wrong Lorenzos. This means quite a bit of driving through the bucolic Italian countryside, many opportunities for the romantic Sophie to argue with the pragmatic Charlie (they’re so at odds with each other you just know they’re going to wind up together) and the increasingly conflicted Sophie texts with Victor, wondering now if perhaps she’s not making the same mistake Claire did half a century earlier.

Romantic comedies are a dime a dozen these days but good ones are on the endangered species list of Hollywood. Fortunately, this is a pretty good one for the most part, mainly due to the travelogue-like Italian countryside, beautifully photographed for sun-dappled orchards and vineyards, bright blue skies and charming villages. Equally charming is Seyfried, who can be one of the more likable actresses when she has the right part. You would think this would be right up her alley, but she is curiously lifeless here; I’ve seen her far more energetic in parts that were less worthy of it. It’s a bit disappointing – I do like her very much as an actress – but not fatal.

More pleasant is Redgrave, who plays the elderly lover with wide-eyed wonder, both the wise mentor and the eternal ingénue. She lights up the screen whenever she’s on, and her scenes with Nero (who plays the right Bartolini) instantly transport you back to the days of Camelot when Nero’s Lancelot fell for Redgrave’s Guinevere. The two have the kind of chemistry you can’t fake (see Trivial Pursuits below) and it adds a nice touch to the movie. Bernal is kind of the odd man out here, as close as there is to an antagonist; he’s merely more passionate about his restaurant than he is about Sophie and in some ways I can’t blame him.

The charm here is easy to digest, perfect for mindless cuddling. There is a sense of romance that is missing from most romantic comedies these days, which seem to concentrate more on buffoonish physical gags and formulaic script writing than in making an interesting story about believable people. There is a little bit of that here – as in Charlie and Sophie detesting each other so much that you know they’ll be together by the final credits. That does knock down the final score a bit, but it’s still an enjoyable, charming little romance. Unfortunately, it’s little else.

WHY RENT THIS: A bit of sweetness here, particularly when Redgrave is onscreen. Plenty of gorgeous Italian countryside to feast your eyes upon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pretty much by-the-numbers romantic comedy. Seyfried is curiously de-energized here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of bad language (but only a smidge) and an inkling of sexual behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redgrave and Nero are a couple in real life, marrying 40 years after meeting on the set of Camelot; also real are the secretaries for Juliet, who actually do answer letters left behind in Verona and are known as the Juliet Club.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a five minute feature on the actual courtyard in Verona where letters to Juliet are placed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $79.1M on a $30M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

The Twilight Saga: New Moon


The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Couldn't you just DIE?!?

(2009) Romantic Fantasy (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Ashley Greene, Rachelle Lefevre, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Nikki Reed, Kellen Lutz, Jackson Rathbone, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Anna Kendrick, Chaske Spencer, Christopher Heyerdahl. Directed by Chris Weitz

Some movies are aimed squarely for a specific audience segment and you just have to go with that particular flow. It you don’t mind accepting that you’re not the target audience, you can enjoy the movie at least on an intellectual level.

The Twilight saga continues with the second installment of the four-book series. Edward Cullen (Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Stewart) are deeply in love and looking forward to Bella’s 18th birthday, which she intends to spend at a celebration at the really nice Cullen place in the woods. When she accidentally cuts her finger, it sets off Jasper (Rathbone) and ends up with Bella getting hurt. Edward recognizes that it is far too dangerous for Bella to remain with his kind and he dumps her, heading off to Italy to hang out with the Volturi, the eldest of the Vampires.

Bella is devastated by this and spends much of the movie in a funk, crying and brooding and in general, acting as if her life is over. Most teenage girls can relate to this – when you can’t be with that cute boy you love, you just want to die and so Bella does, convinced that each time she is on the brink of death, Edward’s spirit comes around to save her so that, at least that way, the two of them can be together. Mothers of teenage daughters please take note – this is very unhealthy and should be discouraged.

Bella is taken under the wing of Jacob Black (Lautner), the Native American who has buffed up quite a bit since the first movie and spends much of his time not wearing a shirt to make sure you know how buff he is. He has taken to hanging out with the Wolf Pack, a bunch of equally buff and shirtless Native Americans led by Sam (Spencer) who like Jacob and the rest of the Wolf Pack, harbors a secret – they’re all werewolves (although this is treated as a secret plot point, it is well known enough that I don’t mind revealing it here). Jacob and Bella begin to get a little closer than just besties.

In the meantime Bella is being stalked by Victoria (Lafevre) who has vowed vengeance on her after the events of the first movie and the Wolf Pack mean to protect her – as do some of the Cullens, especially Alice (Greene) who has come to warn her that Edward, lovesick and moping around, means to reveal himself to non-vampires which would mean his death by Volturi.

The success of the first movie meant a much bigger budget for the second, which means this is a much better-looking film than the first, where the special effects were bargain-basement. Here, they are more extensive and a bit better-realized but all in all the point of the movie isn’t the special effects, it’s the romance at the center. Or, in this case, romances.

The whole Team Edward vs. Team Jacob thing is set up here. Certainly Bella is firmly entrenched in Team Edward at this point. There is a Romeo and Juliet thing that seems to be pulsing through the movie, from its Italian denouement to the reading of the play in class at the movie’s beginning. The star-crossed lovers thing is reinforced by the looks of aching and longing that is supposed to be soulful but sometimes comes off more like Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Part of my issue with the film is that Bella is so damn bland. Most of the movie, people are telling her how special she is, from her dad (Burke) to Jacob to Edward to Alice to…OMG, like, everyone. I just don’t see it. When Edward dumps her, she falls apart and not just for a little while, I mean for almost the entire movie she can’t breathe, she hurts so much.

We’ve all been there. Most of us who have ever had their hearts broken (and that’s most of us) can relate to her pain. What I can’t relate to is how long it goes on, her obsession driving her every move, including bringing herself into near-death experiences just so she can see the apparition of her lost love. While it’s highly romantic and appealing to adolescent girls, it is somewhat disturbing that this unhealthy behavior is seemingly celebrated here as the right way to behave for a loyal loving heart. It really isn’t ladies…trust me on this.

Like the first movie, the performances are as good as you’d expect – not really outstanding but not bad either. The addition of Sheen and Fanning to the cast adds a little bump up in the talent, but they aren’t seen much. The movie mainly resides in the hands of Stewart, and she spends most of the time moping. It isn’t her fault – Stewart is proving to be a pretty decent actress although she mostly gets to show that in other films – the story is set up that way. Still, it’s hard to get behind a character that you just want to shake and scream in her face “Enough, already!”

Lautner is much more integral to the movie and he’s an appealing young actor who has better things ahead of him, but to this point his role is essentially a one-dimensional nice guy who is meant to be the thankless best friend role that is blossoming into maybe something else but never will because Bella is “meant” to be with Edward. Hmm.

I have to say that overall, I didn’t like this movie as much as the first – which, to be fair, is usually the case with sequels. As in the case of the first film, this review is pretty superfluous – girls gonna see it no matter what anyone writes. There is nothing more loyal and steadfast than a teenage girl in love, and there are few things that teenage girls are in love with more than a tragic love story that appeals to the drama in their lovely teenage hearts, bless them all.

No, I’m not the audience this movie is meant for and for those who aren’t this movie isn’t as compelling or engaging as the first. However, for those who love the books and the first movie, this isn’t going to disappoint and while it likely won’t convert any new fans, it won’t dissuade any old ones from their rabid devotion to the series.

WHY RENT THIS: For the adolescent or pre-adolescent girl in your family – and their mom.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Well, you’re not one.

FAMILY VALUES: If you don’t mind a little bit of fantasy vampire/werewolf violence, it’s pretty much acceptable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weitz also directed The Golden Compass based on a bestselling young adult fantasy series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Summit chose to market a variety of different editions that were exclusively available at specific retailers, each with their own unique features which made choosing the edition you wanted difficult and confusing. Common to all were a series of features which included one on how the success of the first movie affected the lives of the actors. In addition, the Deluxe Edition (available only at Target) had a featurette on the music of the film and at the die-hard nature of the series’ fans, as well as one on the Volturi. The Ultimate Fan Edition (Wal-Mart) had a documentary about the impact of the series on Forks, Washington – the real life town where the series is set (and some of the scenes are filmed), and a look at the love triangle and the rabid fans who choose Team Edward or Team Jacob. The Medallion edition (Borders) comes with a medallion necklace that has a wolf head crest on one side and the Cullen family crest on the other. Finally the Steelbook Package (Best Buy) comes in a special steel case and comes with a free cell phone skin.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $709.8M on a $50M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Tenderness

The American


The American

George Clooney takes aim at those exit poll guys.

(Focus) George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen, Filippo Timi, Anna Foglietta, Irina Bjorklund, Giorgio Gobbi, Samuli Vauramo, Raffaele Serao, Sandro Dori, Antonio Rampino, Lars Hjelm, Silvana Bosi, Guido Palliggiano. Directed by Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn made his start as a still photographer, and he is quite frankly responsible for many wonderful album covers, mostly from European bands. He graduated into making music videos (mostly for Depeche Mode) before doing a full-fledged concert video (also for Depeche Mode) until making his feature film debut in 2008 for Control (which was about Joy Division’s front man Ian Curtis, not Depeche Mode). Corbijn has a very recognizable style; what would he make of a spy thriller?

Well, the fact of the matter is that The American isn’t so much a spy thriller as it is a character study, and it certainly isn’t a Bourne-like action movie as it was marketed over here. That may have contributed to the truly horrendous word-of-mouth it got from people who saw it (it got a D- rating from the service that gauges audience reactions to movies they’ve just seen, an unusually low score). That may have frightened some people away from seeing it. That’s a shame because this is a pretty good movie.

Jack (Clooney) is canoodling in Sweden with a comely brunette before he is ambushed by armed hunters while taking a walk in the snow. It turns out that Jack not only carries a gun but he knows how to use it. The scene is shocking in its violence and we are treated to the sight of a stone cold killer, literally speaking.

Jack escapes Sweden and makes his way to Rome, where his handler Pavel (Leysen) advises him to get out of Rome and to a small town where nobody would think to look for him. Jack takes a Fiat into the mountainous Abruzzi region of Italy but he doesn’t like the vibe of the town that Pavel sends him to – too many nosy people. He instead makes his way for another charming little mountain village where he hopes to lay low and not attract any attention. “And above all,” Pavel warns him, “Don’t make any friends. You used to know that.”

So Jack – who is calling himself Edward here – takes the guise of a travel photographer and makes friends with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Bonacelli). So much for listening to good advice, it seems. In any case, Pavel gives him an assignment – to assemble a rifle with particular qualities for a contact named Mathilde (Reuten) who looks like she just stepped off of a Vespa in Fellini’s Rome – and maybe she did.

So Jack – or is it Edward? Or some other name entirely? – enlists the help of the good padre’s cousin Fabio (Timi), who runs a garage in the middle of nowhere which beggars the question; who on earth is going to drive a car that isn’t working right all the way out there? Anyway, Fabio gives Jack the run of the place, so Jack takes some tools and materials in order to make a noise suppresser for the rifle (a silencer wouldn’t work for the kind of range Mathilde is looking for). The weapon is obviously the weapon of an assassin, but Jack asks no questions so Mathilde tells him no lies.

Jack begins to utilize the services of Clara (Placido), a local prostitute. Quite improbably, the two of them begin to fall for each other – you can tell Clara has feelings for him because she stops charging him for sex. Now Jack is tired of running, tired of being chased, tired of dodging taciturn men with guns who mean to do him murder. He wants out, but this is the kind of business that is very hard to leave once you get in.  

There is actually very little action except at the very beginning and the very end, and some moments in between (such as when Jack is playing a cat and mouse game with a Swedish assassin out to make him pay for his antics in Sweden). Corbijn’s training as a still photographer serves him very well; every shot is meticulously set up and looks like it could be easily hanging in a European gallery. Corbijn forces you to look at what he wants you to see. For example, the opening credits run over a continuous shot of Clooney driving through a long tunnel; yellow mile markers flash by the vehicle in the artificial light of the tunnel. At the very end is a bright white light; will Clooney arrive at that destination? In a sense, this is emblematic of what the movie is all about – an escape from darkness into light for a soul that has dwelled in the darkness for far too long.

This is not your father’s George Clooney, or even Danny Ocean’s George Clooney. Jack/Edward is a very hard man; most of the time his face is rigid, his mouth set in a thin hard line of disapproval. There is no twinkle in this character’s eyes, only steel. This is not a role we’re used to seeing from Clooney.

Those who are offended by the nude female body should take into account that this is a very European movie in a lot of ways; the nudity doesn’t bother European audiences, nor does explicit sex. We even get a gratuitous shot of Clooney’s derriere as well, just to balance things out for the ladies.

There is very little dialogue in the movie and what dialogue there is comes out in terse, brusque staccato, like someone ordering a cappuccino at the local coffee house. There is also a good deal of existential philosophizing about the nature of souls, good and evil, particularly in dialogue between Father Benedetto and Jack. Most American audiences won’t have the patience for it, but there are at least some insights to be found if you choose to look for them.

Part of the problem with the movie is one of the strengths I mentioned earlier. Still photographers have a tendency to make their scenes very static, and so Corbijn does. There may be movement in the frame, but the camera itself does not. That contributes to an overall feeling of languor that can be off-putting at times, even though you tell yourself “Hey, this is about a guy cooling his heels in rural Italy; how exciting is it going to get?” The answer? Not much.

Still, this is as finely crafted a film as I’ve seen this year and I can appreciate it as a work of art if not a crisply told story. Clooney may not be the next Eastwood (and Leysen not the next Terrance Stamp, whom he resembles facially – if Stamp and Scott Glenn had a love child together, that is) but he does the brooding bit very well. Much of the movie is tight on Clooney’s face, and the world-weary demeanor is what draws you to him. Some have complained that Clooney doesn’t reveal much of the inner Jack/Edward but a man like that would have learned early on that revealing your emotions is tantamount to death itself, for it can be used against you in that line of work. This is a very different movie than we’re used to seeing, and for that alone I can commend it highly.

REASONS TO GO: The crafting of each shot, the composition of every frame is simply amazing. There’s a good deal of depth in the script.

REASONS TO STAY: This is not an action movie even though it was marketed as such; if you’re looking for a new Bourne, stay away. Clooney does the brooding, silent killer pretty well, but this isn’t one of his more compelling performances.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some explicit sex and nudity, some fairly violent and disturbing images and enough swearing in more than one language to make this very much for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clooney’s character prefers using a Walther PPK just like a certain British secret agent of our acquaintance.

HOME OR THEATER: I will admit some of the vistas worked very well on the big screen but by and large you can get away with seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

Eat Pray Love


Eat Pray Love

Julia Roberts looks soulfully at the Eternal City.

(Columbia) Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Tuva Novotny, Luca Argentero, Giuseppe Gandini, Rushita Singh, Hadi Subiyanto, Christine Hakim, Anakia Lapae, Arlene Tur.  Directed by Ryan Murphy

Most of us, at one time or another, undergo a rigorous self-examination of the soul, one usually brought on by some kind of crisis. We are forced to face our own deficiencies, define who we are and compare ourselves to who we need to be. Most of us must do us all by our own lonesome; some of us use the benefit of a therapist. Others take a different route.

Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is a successful freelance writer who’s married, lives in a great apartment in Manhattan and is surrounded by a coterie of friends and admirers. Of course, this means she’s absolutely miserable. Her husband Stephen (Crudup) is a bit of a self-involved dweeble, perpetually trying new careers in an effort to find something that’ll stick. He has announced that he is going back to school to get his masters, just as Liz is looking forward to spending some time in Aruba. When he asserts “I don’t wanna go to Aruba,” she replies tearfully “I don’t want to be married.”

Stephen contests the divorce and doesn’t want to let go. Liz does what any sensible woman just getting out of a marriage to a decent enough guy that she was miserable in – she leaps into the bed of David (Franco), an off-Broadway actor who has adopted Eastern philosophies and follows an Indian guru. He is just as superficial as Stephen is, and Liz decides to leave on a year-long journey of to find out who she is since she feels numb inside, as she tells her best friend Delia (Davis). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that despite being cleaned out in the divorce, her publisher paid for the trip with an advance on the book that Liz would eventually write (a fact not mentioned in the movie).

Her first stop is Rome, where she meets Sofi (Tuvotny), a Swedish ex-pat; Giovanni (Argentero), Sofi’s Italian boyfriend and Luca Spaghetti (Gandini), who claims his family invented the namesake pasta. Here, she dives headfirst into Italian cuisine, from Neapolitan pizza to Roman pasta to gelato and everything in between. She eats without feeling guilty, launching herself into La dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing. Check.

From there, she goes to the ashram of the Indian guru that David follows. Here, she meets Richard (Jenkins), a garrulous Texan who, as she puts it, speaks in bumper stickers. He chides her into finding a way to meditate despite the attacks of mosquitoes and an inability to clear her mind. He calls her “Groceries” because of her appetite and the two wind up being pretty good friends, enough so that Richard confesses to her the reason he’s there in one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.

She also befriends a young girl (Singh) who is about to enter an arranged marriage, which troubles the both of them. Eventually she gets with the program, but Liz not so much, the wedding reminding her inevitably of her own. Eventually, she finds some inner peace. Check.

After that, it’s off to Indonesia – Bali to you and me – to meet up with the medicine man Ketut (Subiyanto) whom she met a year earlier and predicted that she would be back to teach him English. She stays in the area, translating old parchments for him in the mornings and exploring Bali in the afternoons. It is here that she meets Phillipe (Bardem), a Brazilian ex-pat who runs an import business. The two begin to fall for each other, but Liz doesn’t need a man anymore – does she?

This is based on the New York Times bestseller, and it’s appeal to women can be measured by its appearance on Oprah (the daytime talk diva devoted two entire shows to the book) and the number of women in the audience at the movie, which was roughly about 80%. There is certainly an empowering element to the book and the movie, which teaches women that they need to find fulfillment from within.

At least, that’s the message I think is intended, but the movie doesn’t really bring that across so much. Most of the wisdom that Liz arrives at comes from others, be it the irascible Texan in India, or the gentle healer in Bali. She seems to bring little to the table internally other than a penchant for whining about how unfulfilled she is.

I don’t know the author personally so I can’t guess at how accurate the portrayal of her is. I’m sure she couldn’t have been disappointed to have Roberts, one of the most beautiful women on Earth, playing her. Roberts is a fair actress in her own right, as Erin Brockovich conclusively showed, but this won’t be measured as one of her finer performances. To be fair, it can’t be easy to portray someone whose chief trait seems to be inner emptiness but you never get a sense of that emptiness being filled in a significant way. Perhaps that’s a subtlety I overlooked.

She is also matched with two of the best actors in the world in Bardem and Jenkins, and neither one disappoint. Jenkins’ rooftop soliloquy in the Indian portion alone may win him Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor, if Academy members remember that far back come voting time this winter. Bardem plays a wounded divorcee who desperately loves his children, but is terrified of getting his heart broken again.

Murphy crafts a very slick, good-looking movie that runs a very long time – I was definitely shifting in my seat right around the India sequence – and doesn’t have as much depth as it purports to. As Liz accuses Richard of speaking in bumper stickers, so is the movie a series of motivational posters of cats hanging from ledges and eagles gliding into sunsets. There is nothing truly profound here, other than the simple advice not to worry so much about what you eat, find balance in your life, and then find a hot Brazilian to fool around with. Sage advice all, but especially for those who can afford to take a year off and embark on an all-expenses paid journey of self-discovery. Most of us don’t get that kind of opportunity.

The secret to finding self-realization is to look inward. You’re simply not going to find it in a book or a movie, although those desperate enough will look in those places first. As Richard says repeatedly to Liz (repetition is a theme in the movie), you have to do the work. Nothing comes easy in this life, not even something simple like a plate of spaghetti. Realizing that is the first step towards wisdom.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem and Jenkins are two of the best actors working and are worth seeing in their roles. Gorgeous cinematography makes this worth checking out.

REASONS TO STAY: Spiritual aspects are a bit hazy. Quite frankly, this seems quite self-indulgent and new age-y.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and occasionally bad language, as well as a bare male derriere; otherwise, it’s suitable for teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Murphy is responsible for creating the hit Fox Network show “Glee.”

HOME OR THEATER: There is some beautiful cinematography here, but not the sweeping majesty that would compel home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Trucker

Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna

If you mess with these guys, they'll sic the kid on ya!

(Touchstone) Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins. Directed by Spike Lee

It all begins with a post office and an old man trying to buy some stamps. This leads to a senseless murder, a nearly-retired postal worker pulling a gun on the old man and shooting him dead in cold blood. Further investigation turns up something startling; hidden in the apartment of the postal worker is the head of an ancient Italian statue, worth a ridiculous amount of money. What was it doing in the home of a postal worker and why did he kill that old man apparently at random?

See, it all really begins with World War II, and the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers during the invasion of Italy. Four servicemen – straight-arrow SSgt. Stamps (Luke), huge child-like PFC Train (Miller), steady Cpl. Negron (Alonso) and skirt-chasing asshole Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) – survive the brutal crossfire of a Nazi ambush coupled with the artillery barrage from their own commanders who didn’t believe black soldiers could have advanced that far that quickly. They flee across a river to relative safety where Train befriends an injured Italian orphan boy (Sciabordi) who refers to the lumbering Train as his “chocolate giant.”  

Train carries around the head of a statue he picked up in Florence, which he believes makes him invisible or invulnerable when he rubs it (Run, Forrest, RUN) which fascinates the boy. The four soldiers and the boy make their way to a small Italian village which has suffered cruelly under the yoke of the Nazis and the Fascists. They welcome the soldiers in, and nurse the injured boy back to health.

The soldiers feel at ease here, as Stamps comments “I feel freer here than I do at home.” The bond between the soldiers is tested when both Stamps and Miller chase after the same white Italian woman, while an Italian partisan shows up trying to find out why a small Italian town nearby was massacred by the Nazis. The interlude allows the men to talk about why they’re fighting. However, it becomes clear that it isn’t a matter of if the Germans are going to come back to town but when, and getting the four soldiers back to their unit is going to take a miracle.

I’m deliberately withholding a good deal of plot points here, mainly so that they don’t get spoiled, although to be honest it makes the plot sound like a bit of a mess. It all winds up making sense, even though it takes nearly two and a half hours to get there. Lee hasn’t directed a war movie before, but he does a credible job. Some of the battle scenes are brutal indeed, with limbs flying everywhere and blood spattering everywhere else. It might even be argued that the battle scenes are too brutal, although I found them to be no less visceral than Saving Private Ryan, I can see where sensitive sorts might feel a little queasy.

The problem here is that the movie tells a story that is about an hour and a half long in two and a half hours. The bookending sequence of the post office murder and its aftermath seems a bit unnecessary and there are places where the plot gets bogged down. I think it might have been a mistake to let novelist James McBride adapt his own novel; it is difficult for writers to edit their own work and the script could have benefitted from someone less emotionally invested in it cutting some of the fat.

The battle sequences, while gory, are really well done, particularly the final Nazi assault on the town. There is a bit of a mystical background that I won’t get into that plays a role nicely here; the movie could have easily ended at this point, although it goes on for some time after that.

This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with none of the actors really standing out, but here that’s actually a compliment. Luke, Ealy, Miller and Alonso work off of each other to make a good movie rather than a star turn; it shows professionalism and sacrifice on the part of each man and they should be applauded for that if nothing else. However, you can also applaud them for bringing some humanity to their roles which could have easily descended into one-note caricatures.

I have always blown hot and cold about Spike Lee. When he is at his best, as in Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It, he is one of the best directors of this generation. When he’s at his worst, as in She Hate Me and School Daze, his work can be mind-numbing. Miracle at St. Anna falls somewhere in between; while it raises the conversational bar about racism in the military and the motivations of African-American fighting for freedoms that they didn’t enjoy at home, it fills so much space with soap opera and extraneous material that the film’s message gets lost in the noise. Still, when you have a director as technically proficient as Lee is, even the noise is entertaining.  

WHY RENT THIS: A sometimes brutal look at World War II from a different angle than the more mainstream films we’ve seen lately like Saving Private Ryan and A Flag for Our Fathers.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie runs overly long and some of the combat sequences seem to be carnage for their own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: As this is a war movie, there is some battle carnage, also a good deal of salty language. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations; rent this for viewing after the kids are in bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wesley Snipes was originally cast in the film, but had to drop out due to his tax evasion trial.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Exclusively on the Blu-Ray edition there is a roundtable discussion between Lee, McBride and veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen regarding racial prejudice in the armed forces, and a featurette on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Yes Man

Quantum of Solace


Quantum of Solace

Bond's morning after is always so much more interesting than everybody's elses.

(MGM) Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Jesper Christensen, Joaquin Cosio, David Harbour. Directed by Marc Forster

After Casino Royale, fans of the James Bond franchise were over the moon. Despite early misgivings, Daniel Craig had turned out to be a magnificent 007 – maybe the best since Sean Connery. A gripping storyline that adds more detail and background to the Bond mythology than any single movie ever has whetted the appetite of fans for more, but did the follow-up deliver?

Following the events of Casino Royale, the new one picks up literally minutes after the last one left off. Bond, who has captured Mr. White (Christensen), is being chased on the mountain roads of Italy by a cadre of thugs in black cars who can’t shoot straight. Bond eludes them and manages to deliver the banker to M (Dench) in Portofino, I think – it might be Siena. Somewhere in Italy, anyway.

It turns out that the organization that Mr. White works for (identified later in the film as Quantum, although nobody explains what this stands for – at least SPECTRE and SMERSH actually were acronyms that stood for something) has agents everywhere, including in that very room. A shoot-out ensues followed by a chase across Italian rooftops, ending up in a church undergoing refurbishment.

M is understandably shaken and pissed off. How could there be an organization so well-financed, so large with fingers in so many pies but MI6 doesn’t even have a clue about who they are? She sends Bond to go get some answers.

I won’t give a lot of the plot away because it really is unnecessary to. Nobody goes and sees a Bond film because of the plot. People want the same elements from their Bond movies – great action, beautiful women, clever gadgets and exotic locations. That’s it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to keep Bond fans happy, but they’ve gone and done that anyway.

Some of the changes are definitely for the better. The relationship between Bond and M becomes the most important relationship in the story. That’s a new twist for the series and one which I quite like. Dame Judi Dench need play a second banana to nobody, and she makes a fine foil for Craig. The chemistry between them exceeds that between Bond and Kurylenko as Camille, this edition’s Bond girl. Trust becomes a central theme to the film, which is bloody revolutionary for a spy film.

I also like that Daniel Craig’s Bond is cold, vicious and driven by the events at the climax of Casino Royale. First of all, a little continuity between movies isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Secondly, it lends a new edge to James Bond and while he does toss a quip out every now and again, he is all business. That has its pros and cons, but I don’t mind that we take Bond a little more seriously with Craig than we did with, say, Roger Moore.

Some of the changes, however, leave something to be desired. The action sequences should have an element of the unbelievable to them, a sense of scale; these are action sequences that are straight out of the Bourne movies (which is, I admit, a bit of an unfair comparison but it does make a useful reference point) and they are a bit rough, the shaky hand-cam which works in other action franchises just seems out of place here. The James Bonds of yesterday always seemed to get into brawls without so much as messing up their impeccably tailored tuxedo or immaculately coiffed hair, but this is a James Bond that gets dusty, bloody, filthy…he survives a plane crash and looks it. I kind of want my James Bond to step out of the wreckage, arch an eyebrow and loose a devastating witticism that gives you the comfort of knowing that Bond is going to save the day in about 20 minutes, and that the megalomaniac of the moment is going to get his comeuppance in a gruesome and deserving manner.

In short, I want to have fun with my James Bond movie and to be honest, I didn’t here. Despite the work of Daniel Craig who is as perfect a Bond for this era as Connery was for his, I didn’t feel exhilarated after watching Quantum of Solace as I usually do for other Bond movies. I felt I’d endured it, survived it but not enjoyed it.

That’s not to say that this is a movie totally without merit. I like some of the changes, as I said and I hope they continue to explore them. I might have liked a more vicious villain than Amalric as Dominic Greene, and a more urgent plot than to – horrors! – steal Bolivia’s water supply.

Unlike other critics, I don’t think that the franchise needs to be burned to the ground and rebooted again but some tweaking is definitely in order. Less grim, more fun I say. Now, I’m going to namedrop a little – I went to college with Bond executive producer Barbara Broccoli and actually shared several classes with her (we shared the same major) although we weren’t ever close. In fact, the odds that she reads my blog are about a hundred trillion to one, but I kind of hope she does. Not that I’m any sort of cinematic genius or anything, but if I had one word of advice to pass along to my fellow alumni of Loyola Marymount, it would be to ratchet up the fun quotient.

That’s the key. At the end of the day, I want to live vicariously through James Bond. I don’t want to see him shot, bloodied, beaten or bruised. If I wanted to be those things, I’d pick a fight with a NASCAR fan. I want to be pampered with the very best luxuries that the taxpayers of Great Britain can afford. I want to be with the most beautiful, seductive women on earth. I want to look great in a tux, use my license to kill and save the day. In short, I want to be stirred, not shaken.

WHY RENT THIS: It is James Bond, after all – the action sequences are second-to-none.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The reboot of Bond is moving a little too far from the original concept for comfort.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and sexuality but no more than any other Bond movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the first time, Felix Leiter is played by the same actor in two consecutive films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: For a 100-minute movie, there are a ton of locations and a feature called “Bond on Location” discusses the logistics of all of them, as well as living up to the expectations raised in Casino Royale.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Iron Man 2

Nine


Nine

As you can see, film directors really do have a God complex.

(Weinstein) Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson, Ricky Tognazzi, Giuseppe Cederna, Elio Germano, Andrea di Stefano. Directed by Rob Marshall

The creative process is a tricky one. The moment you put pen to paper, image to film, something dies a little bit. It is not a pleasant process; it is violent sometimes, turning savagely on the artist.

Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) is one of the most acclaimed film directors in the world, certainly in the Italy of the mid-1960s. Referred to affectionately as “Maestro,” he has been on a bit of a cold streak of late, his last two movies having been as he put it “flops.” His latest, Italia, starring his regular leading lady Claudia Schaeffer (Kidman), is meant to put him back in the drivers’ seat. At least, his producer (Tognazzi) hopes so.

Guido, on the other hand, is falling apart both personally and professionally. He is suffering from an excruciating case of writer’s block and has been unable to write down a single word or idea about the movie with filming set to begin in only ten days. He is under enormous pressure from his producers, the studio and the press; after another banal press conference at his home base of Cinecitta Studios in Rome, he flees to a spa on the Italian coast. 

There his personal shortcomings begin to catch up to him. Guido is a charming womanizer; he married Luisa (Cotillard), his first leading lady and is having an affair with Carla (Cruz), who is also married. He confesses his anxieties to his friend and therapist of a sort Lilli (Dench) the costume designer. All of them show up at the spa, throwing his marriage into disarray – where it was heading anyway. He is having flashbacks of his late mother (Loren) and Saraghina (Ferguson), a prostitute he had known in his youth. To make matters even more complicated, an American reporter (Hudson) with a passion for his style makes it clear she wouldn’t mind sharing his bed. What’s an artiste to do?

Director Marshall won an Oscar for Best Picture for Chicago and no doubt the producers were hoping that lightning would strike twice. After all, this was a Tony-winning musical based on the great Italian director Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2. Unfortunately, this musical simply doesn’t measure up to Chicago. Whereas Chicago didn’t take itself terribly seriously in many ways, Nine certainly does, full of sequences that take place in Guido’s tortured mind that come off as self-indulgent. Perhaps that is as well, since Guido clearly is guilty of that particular sin.

My issue is that if you’re going to have a musical, the music should be memorable, no? Unfortunately, there are no songs here that are going to make you rush out and buy the soundtrack. The closest number that comes to it is ”Be Italian” as sung by Fergie – who knew that she would be one of the best features of this movie – and even that number is sabotaged by an egregious misuse of sand. Clearly the movie would have benefitted from an Andrew Lloyd Weber who, for all his detractions, definitely knows how to write a song that will stick with you.

When the musical numbers are the weakest part of your musical, you know you’re in trouble. The movie is saved by the depiction of Fellini’s Rome, taking you back to an era of Vespas, skinny ties, sophisticated women in cocktail dresses and cool Ray-Bans on the faces of suave men. Also, any opportunity to see Sophia Loren is worth taking. Ms. Loren is in her seventies now, but she still grabs your attention every time she’s onscreen. Modern movie goddesses like Kidman and Cruz simply can’t compete.

Because the musical numbers take place in the sexually-obsessive Guido’s mind, most of the women are clad in lingerie during them. Normally I don’t object to that kind of thing but you eventually come to a point of overload and quite frankly while I admire Judi Dench as the great actress she is and believe she is a beautiful woman, seeing her in a bustier trailing a feather boa the length of a Winnebago behind her was just disconcerting.

Even so, I enjoyed myself somewhat despite the many failings of the movie, which I guess is damning it with faint praise. If the music had been better, perhaps Marshall might have had something here but quite frankly, he was sunk before he even rolled cameras. I think Guido might have understood that completely.

REASONS TO GO: Recreates Fellini’s Rome very nicely. Sophia Loren is the epitome of Italian glamour and worth seeing alone. Day-Lewis does a credible job in a role he probably shouldn’t have taken.

REASONS TO STAY: The musical numbers are not terribly memorable, despite all the glitz and lingerie. Too over-the-top in places.  

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of lingerie, incessant smoking and a lot of sexuality make this not a kid-friendly musical.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The late Raul Julia originated the role of Guido Contini on Broadway.

HOME OR THEATER: In order to more closely replicate the Broadway experience I recommend you see it on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Final Destination 3