By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, The Legend of 1900) has always been a master of cheap sentiment, but in his latest nostalgic ramble, he takes it to a new level. At the outset of World War II, in a small Italian town, 13-year-old Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) has fallen in love with Malèna (Monica Bellucci), a lush beauty whom Tornatore fetishizes long before we see her face, in a sequence detailing the intricacies of attaching stocking to garter belt. When her beloved soldier husband is reported killed in action, Malèna is stranded amid the town’s vicious gossips and lecherous menfolk. Over time, she is denounced in court by a jealous wife, molested by her attorney, reduced to whoring for occupying Germans, then beaten and shorn in the town square. At every turn, Renato, who is gradually growing into manhood, hides nearby, taking it all in with a wide-eyed expression of concern. If Tornatore was trying to craft some sort of metaphor for Italian fascism, he’s failed dismally, denouncing the town’s collusion in Malèna’s ruin — from actual aggression to passive non-action — when he himself has had such an important hand in her dehumanization. To position her tragedy as just another part of a boy’s wondrous coming of age betrays the filmmaker as someone more emotionally fucked than any of his previous work could have revealed.
Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is an ace FBI agent, but not quite a lady: Her clothes are stained, her hair unbrushed, her doe eyes hidden under heavy black frames. Slovenly and tough (she can hold her own against a male agent), Gracie is nevertheless chosen to go undercover as a beauty-pageant contestant to catch a mad bomber and, as the film intimates, learn a thing or two about being a woman. Bullock, despite intermittent glimmers of her trademark frisk, all but throws up her hands with the role, radiating the sullen frustration of an actor who’s seen her career devolve to the point where her character’s most crucial conflict is whether a makeover will take. (How mystifying, then, to discover that she is the movie’s producer!) The film’s concept of femininity would be offensive if the picture itself weren’t so pathetic. The screenplay is by Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas, who, among them, have written the ill-conceived Mary & Rhoda reunion as well as episodes of Family Tiesand The Nanny, while director Donald Petrie, who made his debut with the sweet sleeper Mystic Pizza, has also helmed Grumpy Old Men, My Favorite Martianand Richie Rich. All of which gives you an idea of the bottom-of-the-barrel indignities visited upon Bullock, Michael Caine (as a gay pageant consultant) — and Benjamin Bratt, who, as Gracie’s FBI colleague, takes off his shirt.
NOWHERE TO HIDE
“Wasting time is what detectives do,” says Woo (Park Joong-Hoon) to his impatient partner, Kim (Jang Dong-Kun), as they wait to shake down a drug dealer for information about a vicious assassination-style killing. It’s an ironic line in a strikingly laconic film that itself has no patience for inactivity. Right from the opening fight scenes, which establish Woo and Kim as cops who prefer direct and violent confrontation — their weapon of choice is the baseball bat — Korean writer-director Lee Myung-Se doesn’t hesitate to strip away dialogue and plot, as if such elements were excess fat clogging the action film’s true heart. A hit at this year’s Sundance, where it screened in the World Cinema category, Nowhere To Hide is almost all hypnotic image and exhilarating movement. In following the two Inchon detectives from set piece to set piece as they pursue a murderer, Lee pulls out all the stylistic stops — slow-motion, fast-motion and step-motion photography, morphing, multiple film stocks, rapid-fire edits. In so doing, he dares his audience to complain about a lack of narrative substance while he’s so clearly and effectively confronting them with essence. Rain is a barrage of vertical lines; blood, in the Godardian sense, is just the color red. Which isn’t to say that Lee completely abandons meaning, at least with regard to investigating the nature of the genre. Throughout the film, Lee pays homage to John Woo’s operatic style, but, late in the story, when Kim falls into depression after killing a suspect, the sudden shift in tone — from the acceptance of police brutality as routine procedure — highlights the forced, theatrical quality of Woo’s brand of melodrama. Such baroque emotionalism is here presented as an alien presence, a distraction from the task at hand, which is nothing short of an attempt to achieve pure cinema.
O BROTHER, WHERE
In Preston Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels, the film from which Joel and Ethan Coen derive the name of their latest feature, Joel McCrea’s comedy director sets out to commune with victims of the Depression before making his social-problem film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Along the way, McCrea’s bleeding heart learns that the downtrodden don’t want downer pictures, they just want to be entertained. Know-it-all filmmakers, the Coens regularly invert this lesson to give art-house audiences vacuum-sealed stories about poor folk (Raising Arizona), regional caricatures (Fargo) and lovable lowlifes (The Big Lebowski) whose ways of being in the world are given as inherently entertaining. When such characters escape the bounds of the Coens’ ironic clutches, it’s usually because the actors portraying them (Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Jeff Bridges) have more faith in their personas than the filmmakers can muster. In George Clooney, who leads a ragged trio of escaped convicts (with John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson making up the remainder) on a picaresque sojourn through the Depression-era heartland, the Coens have an actor who takes his self-aggrandizing yokel at face value. Clooney’s Everett Ulysses McGill and his cohorts are never more than buffoons offered up for our amusement. And to be fair, O Brother is frequently amusing as a nostalgia-tinted tall tale about three losers who stumble into a series of American myths as they’re being born — Robert Johnson, “Babyface” Nelson, Huey Long — and who, with a touch of grace, become smalltime legends themselves. It’s also a faux musical, and this may be the Coens’ biggest misstep. While their framing of the Ku Klux Klan as a travesty of a Busby Berkeley number is a stroke of biting genius, the authentic, plaintive sounds of the bluegrass and gospel songs that elsewhere punctuate the story only heighten the one-dimensionality of O Brother’s central clowns. The songs stand as genuine period expressions of faith and camaraderie in the midst of turmoil. Too bad, then, that every laugh in the film comes with the nagging sense that it’s at some undeserving fool’s expense.
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