Mother of Tears (La terza madre)


Mother of Tears

Not a position you want to find yourself in when making a movie for Dario Argento.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Mitropoulos) Asia Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Udo Kier, Moran Atias, Adam James, Cristian Solimeno, Valeria Cavalli, Philippe Leroy, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Robert Madison, Jun Ichikawa, Tomasso Banfi., Paolo Stella Directed by Dario Argento

 

Dario Argento is as highly regarded in the horror community as Judd Apatow is in the comedy community; only he doesn’t have the worldwide hits that Apatow does. Still, his works – including Suspiria, Inferno and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage are some of the most influential horror films ever made. The first two are also the first two segments of a fairly informal trilogy known as the Three Mothers trilogy, concerning powerful witches. This new one comes nearly 20 years after the last.

Sarah Mandy (Argento) is an American art expert working in an Italian museum when an ancient Etruscan vase is unearthed in an Italian cemetery. The urn is unremarkable but it has a tunic in it and attached is a tablet warning of an ancient evil – a warning which in movies like this always go unheeded. An innocent art historian meets a particularly gruesome death because of it.

That’s not the last particularly gruesome death that is to come. Soon, it becomes clear that a thousand year old witch – Mater Lachrimarum – has risen to fill the tunic with a lithe, sexy body that doesn’t look a day over 25. She begins to accrue acolytes, sexy witches who look like they stepped out of a circa 1984 Whitesnake video and all sorts of mayhem begins to occur. Women toss their babies off of bridges, men commit suicide, women are raped and murdered. All in a day’s work.

Sarah discovers that her mom (Nicolodi) was a witch of uncommon power and that she has inherited her mother’s gifts. She manages to resurrect the spirit of her mom who guides her into battle, along with a disbelieving Italian detective (Solimeno) and a world-weary priest (Kier) who must stop the witch before Rome falls a second time – and with it the Western World.

This is more closely related to Suspiria and Inferno than Inferno was to Suspiria – in all likelihood Inferno wasn’t originally intended as a direct sequel to Suspiria, it just played in the same sandbox. Here, there is a definite connection to both films and in some ways that makes it more enjoyable.

Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, has become quite a leading lady in her own right, having done such movies as xXx and  Marie Antoinette. She is solid here in a role that isn’t perhaps as well-defined as some of her better performances but she gives a good try, turning Sarah into a rip-snorting ass-kicking horror heroine, not so much a scream queen (although she does some of that) as she is a kick you in the spleen queen.

The murders and mayhem are pretty much over-the-top although not as lovingly dwelled on as the traps in the Saw movies or the torture in the Hostel movies. The gore here is graphic and gruesome but you don’t get the sense that there is an almost pornographic lust for it – the gore serves its purpose only and nothing else.

The plot is pretty scattershot and there are times when the ludicrous alarms are well-sounded, such as when a Japanese follows Sarah and must be stopped by the doors of a train – not once but several times. Nothing exceeds like excess.

Still, Argento is masterful at framing shots, setting a mood and using color and texture in his films to help create an atmosphere that is second to none and all of that is in use here, even though today’s digital filmmaking is a bit more clinical looking than the film stocks and sets of yesteryear, Argento still manages to create the right mood of eeriness and suspense.

This isn’t his best work by any stretch of the imagination but this isn’t his worst either. It’s a welcome return to a series that has needed some closure – and needed some connective tissue as well. Mother of Tears provides both.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Argento man – one of the best horror filmmakers of all time. Even his weaker attempts are better than most of  his peer’s best efforts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This isn’t one of Argento’s best. The plot stretches logic from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic, gruesome violence, plenty of bad words and a lot of sexuality and nudity. Perfect grindhouse/drive-in fun..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daria Nicolodi is Asia Argento’s mother in real life as well.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the legendary giallo director hints at a prequel to the Three Mothers trilogy somewhere down the line.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Act of Valor

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

Angels and Demons


Angels & Demons

"What's the plot doing way over there?"

(Paramount) Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Victor Alfieri, Elya Basin, Rance Howard . Directed by Ron Howard.

Any institution that is around long enough is bound to acquire opponents, if not enemies. For the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest institution on the planet, those opponents are many. But, as they say, it only takes one.

The Church is mourning the sudden and unexpected death of the pope, considered a progressive and fair-minded pontiff, beloved by his flock. As the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new leader for their church, two very disturbing events occur. The first is the theft of a small but significant amount of anti-matter, a substance manufactured in an experiment partially funded by the Church. The second is the kidnapping of four respected cardinals, all of them considered favorites for the papal election, or as they are known more commonly in the Vatican as the preferati.

The powers of the pope are invested in Patrick McKenna (McGregor), the assistant to the previous pope (or Camerlengo as the position is titled), and he is given further reason for misgiving when he receives a cryptic but menacing note, as well as a live cam feed that indicates that the missing anti-matter is somewhere in the Vatican.

To help in the investigation, Inspector Olivetti (Favino) of the Vatican Police Force recruits an unlikely ally – Robert Langdon (Hanks), the Harvard professor of symbology whose investigations in The DaVinci Code brought down the Opus Dei group and caused much embarrassment for the Church. He arrives in the Vatican along with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) who was working on the anti-matter project and whose father was gruesomely murdered during the theft. She reports that the battery-charged electronic cannister holding the anti-matter would eventually fail when the battery died; when it did, a sizable chunk of Rome would be vaporized.

Langdon determines that the note was written by the Illuminati, an ancient society of scientifically-inclined Catholics who underwent extreme persecution in the days of Galileo. Deciphering the note, he figures out that the plan is to execute the four cardinals, once every hour in four locations sacred to the Illuminati (each having to do with one of the four elements). Langdon must follow a variety of clues to discover where each cardinal is going to meet a grisly end and arrive there before said cardinals get an early opportunity to see God live and in Person.

He is opposed by Commander Richter (Skarsgaard), the head of the Swiss Guard who are kind of the secret service of the Vatican. To let you know how he feels about the situation, he growls in a voice dripping with disdain “What a relief, the symbologist is here” when Langdon arrives at the Vatican. Also conservative Cardinal Strauss (Mueller-Stahl) is suspicious of the openly non-religious Langdon.

This is a very slick-looking thriller that utilizes its Roman locations effectively (although the Vatican locations were all recreated on a set – as you might imagine, the Church refused to allow the filmmakers permission to film there). Howard is one of the best directors working today, and his skills are one of the movie’s outstanding features. The pacing is brisk and doesn’t give you time to think about all the implausibility in the script.

The script is one of the major downfalls of the film. Writers Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp – both of whom have delivered some really well-written scripts in the past – aren’t entirely to blame for this. Dan Brown, author of the novel, is a talented writer of page turners, but sacrifices a lot of common sense for the sake of a good plot turn. Are you telling me that the combined minds of the Swiss Guard and the Vatican Police Force, who guard some of the most important people and treasures in the world, were unable to turn the note upside down to figure out that it was sent by the Illuminati?

The script is also rather talky. Hanks spends a lot of time cogitating and then delivering a pronouncement like an explanation point “Why didn’t I think of it before? The Church of San Whoever, patron saint of Earth Wind and Fire!” It’s not that Hanks does a bad job – he’s quite believable inasmuch as he can be as an academic who isn’t fazed by being shot at and have any number of murder attempts made on him. In some ways he’s more of an action hero than scholar, but Hanks makes sure the scholarly side is well-represented.

The international cast (with actors from Israel, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, China, Russia, Denmark, Austria and elsewhere) are solid. McGregor just about steals the movie as the pious Camerlengo. I like him as an actor more and more in every role I see him as. Zurer is likewise solid in a role that literally has no reason to be there – she’s eye candy, nothing more but she at least makes a credible attempt at being at least physicist-like. Skarsgaard and Mueller-Stahl, veteran character actors both, lend gravitas to their roles.

I’ve really spent a lot of time dwelling on the movie’s faults, and that’s a bit unfair. Granted, they are glaring imperfections, but quite frankly this is a solid summer thriller with plenty of mindless entertainment. The trouble is it kind of bills itself as a smart thriller which is a bit of a disservice. This is the kind of movie that if you think too much about it you’re not going to like it as much. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a pretty good one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nonstop thrill ride that doesn’t pause long enough for you to catch your breath. McGregor is becoming a much more watchable actor than he was in the Star Wars prequels. Breathtaking sets, special effects (particularly one sequence in St. Peter’s Square) and use of Roman locations make this extremely watchable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is full of holes and lapses in logic that detract from the action. While it bills itself as an intellectual thriller, it works better as mindless entertainment. Some egregious factual errors, particularly as to historical context and Catholic  

FAMILY VALUES: Some rather spectacular and gruesome murders occur, some of which may be too intense for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While filming in Rome, the crew and equipment were blocking the passage of a bridal party on the way to a church for their wedding. Upon hearing about the situation, Tom Hanks personally escorted the party through the filming area and prevailed upon crew to move equipment so that the party might pass. The grateful family of the bride invited Hanks and director Howard to stay for the reception but their busy filming schedule prevented it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a feature on CERN, home of the large hadron collider and the world’s largest particle physics factory. The crew were permitted to film on the premesis (although not in sensitive areas) and the achievements of CERN are discussed in some detail.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Soloist