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Archive for March, 2010

Rated MA

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Stars: Robert Pattinson, Gwen Stefani, Albert Finney, Denzel Washington, Jet Li, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Paxton, Nia Vardalos

***

THE PLOT: In early 20th-century Tsarist Russia, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (Pattinson) attempts to reconcile his desire for agrarian reform with his love of song-and-dance routines, and his quest to win the heart of Anna (Stefani), the peasant girl he has lusted after ever since having her father hanged.

The musical has come somewhat back into fashion in recent years, with films like Chicago, Hairspray and Hellraiser vs Mame lighting up the box office. Given we have had musicals about Eva Peron, PT Barnum, and Dr Jekyll, a musical about nearly-known Russian PM Pyotr Stolypin was a no-brainer in more ways than one. And who better to mount a lavish historical musical epic than king of the musicals Vincente Minnelli? “Lots of people,” would be the answer from many, given Minnelli has been dead for some time. Yet, undeterred, the folks at 20th Century Fox used old notebooks, diaries, and sketches, to allow Minnelli to direct the film from beyond the grave. Given the difficulties inherent in constructing a movie without a director, issuing instructions to cast and crew from a series of sources that were in no way related to the movie being made, and which were mainly written 50 years ago by a man who never heard of the project, the result came up remarkably well, even if you can, for example, occasionally see that Robert Pattinson has been working in some scenes from notes intended for Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me In St Louis.

The film is in some ways a triumph of style over substance – we are given glimpses of the socio-political issues of pre-revolutionary Russia, without ever truly getting to grips with them. For example, on seventeen different occasions we are shown a slow-motion depiction of one of Stolypin’s political enemies being hanged, but each time, instead of exploring the deeper resonances of the violence inherent in the Tsarist system, we cut away to a picnic.

Narratively, though, the film cannot be faulted, as it follows the classic three-act structure: we see young Pyotr go through university and meet his wife Olga, and rise to the position of Prime Minister; before then meeting and falling for Anna (a surprisingly sensuous portrayal by pop star Stefani, who made the brave but ultimately triumphant decision to play the character as a triple amputee – all the more impressive given all of her limbs are clearly visible throughout). We then see him fight against the Tsarist bureaucracy, who wish to stymie his plans for reform and the development of a successful middle class, while simultaneously seducing Anna and plotting to kill Olga and his six children in a series of escalatingly comical vignettes. The final act is concerned with Stolypin’s attempt to forge a career as a graphic designer after losing his job, and his final zany flight from his assassins, which creates a spectacular, Busby Berkeley-style death scene, complete with singing blood.

At the core of the story is Pattinson’s dark, brooding performance as Stolypin. Pattinson, in a major shift away from his dark, brooding performances in the Twilight series, delivers his best dark, brooding performance yet, accurately conveying the inner turmoil of a man who dreams of a better future for his country, but is beset by self-doubt, political opposition, and a wife who won’t die. His sex scenes with Stefani are also tastefully yet pornographically done – you feel you are actually there in the room being splattered with tomato sauce. Pattinson’s deep, soulful eyes, combined with his compellingly tremulous singing voice and little acting flourishes, such as his dramatic removal of his false beard in moments of high emotion, or his habit of wandering offscreen in the middle of conversations, leaving his co-stars talking to nobody, make up for a mesmerising picture of a man in moral crisis.

Stefani’s performance, as noted earlier, is equally impressive, although in several of the musical numbers she struggles with high notes, and in some shots the welts on her back are visible from the beatings meted out by Fox executives whenever her voice failed necessitating retakes.

The rest of the cast is solid, if unspectacular. Nia Vardalos is reliable as ever as Olga, Stolypin’s harridan wife who claims to be acting her husband’s best interests, but is actually secretly selling homemade videos of him in the bath. The only quibble to be had with her performance is that she is Nia Vardalos, but to be fair she cannot help this.

Elsewhere, Albert Finney brings quiet dignity and an amusing pair of novelty spectacles to Tsar Nicholas II, while Denzel Washington is by turns crafty and epileptically violent as Lenin. Jet Li’s Rasputin steals several scenes, while Bill Paxton, as Stolypin’s best friend Arnie, shines both in the numerous picnic scenes, and in several charming quiet moments at the winter palace, where Arnie and Pyotr retreat to play chess, discuss existential matters, and kill strippers.

Michelle Pfeiffer, unfortunately, is a disappointment as Stolypin’s feisty schizophrenic Aunt Millie, reciting her lines as if reading them off a piece of cardboard, and making the crucial error of holding the cardboard in her hand as she reads them. It is also never explained why she is, in every scene, sitting on a penny farthing bicycle. In fact it is never explained why she is in every scene at all. She is a minor peripheral character, making her appearance in the background of sex scenes in rural barns, cabinet meetings with the Tsar, and on the deck of the battleship Potemkin during the uprising, all the while sitting silently on her bicycle, somewhat ludicrous.

However, as always, it is the songs that make or break a musical, and this film has a bunch of beauties. Pattinson’s big show-stopper, “Tsars In My Eyes”, will no doubt gain a lot of the plaudits, but Stefani’s belter “Stolypin Won’t You Stop Stolypin’ Me?” equals it for power and emotional heft. On the lighter side, Finney and Li’s jaunty polka number “Disputin’ With Rasputin” brings a smile to proceedings, while a brilliant cameo by Sting for the song “Quit Stalin!” will be talked about for many years. From “Necktie of Love” to “Bowled Over By A Bolshevik” to the touching torch song “My Agrarian Contrarian”, it’s an all-killer, no-filler line-up of toe-tapping thrills.

Minnelli can be congratulated for an effective slice of pure entertainment, which makes up in energy what it lacks in historical authenticity or sets that don’t fall over. If one really wished to criticise Minnelli’s efforts, it would be to note that entire scenes within Stolypini are verbatim repeats of scenes from Father of the Bride and Brigadoon, and it must be admitted that all of the cast look uncomfortable when Stolypin and Tsar Nicholas face off over the question of peasants’ rights, and segue awkwardly into a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz routine from The Long, Long Trailer. Nevertheless, for a dead man, he did remarkably well, and it is doubtful that any living director would have brought quite so much chutzpah to the job.

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Rated R

Director:  Kenneth Branagh

Stars: French Stewart, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Dane Cook, Stanley Tucci, Adam Sandler, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Billy Crystal

****

PLOT: The colourful Professor le Spindle (Stewart), feeling restless seven years after having renounced his life of adventure for one of domesticity with his wife Erma (Bonham Carter), sets out to discover the underground city of Hobdenville, which his brother (Sandler) disappeared while searching for. On his dangerous quest he meets various strange and wonderful creatures, including a talking mouse (Hathaway), a man-eating bowl of soup (Crystal), and Mark Twain (Depardieu), all of whom aid him in his quest before then betraying him, repenting, aiding him some more, and then dying. Eventually he reaches the end of his journey and discovers that the city of Hobdenville was inside him all along, and is forced to admit some hard truths about himself and his self-destructive drug addiction.

For guaranteed movie success, there’s no doubt that you can’t go past a lengthy title. In recent years, we’ve seen such masterpieces as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, its less-lauded imitator The Execution of Cardinal Richelieu by Sexy Nude Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the steampunk stylings of Harry Wilstetter and the Magical Computer Virus of Doom that Travels through Time and Shoots Lasers and is Witty, and the multiple Oscar-winner Sarah, Macy, Lucy, Annette, Isabel, Hilda, Jolene, Nina, Amanda, Olivia, Catherine, Terri, Tenielle, Rosario and Henrietta, the Dangerous Murdering Prostitute Sisters of Late 19th-Century Carson City. And yet nobody before Kenneth Branagh has had the courage to meld a genuinely long title with a good old-fashioned globetrotting romp.

The Peculiar Adventures doesn’t start all that promisingly – many viewers in the preview screening were left scratching their heads trying to figure out why this heavily-promoted action-adventure flick was starting with an explicit sex scene between Adolf Hitler and a Japanese geisha. Fortunately, all becomes clear soon enough: Professor Herman le Spindle is not only the illegitimate son of Hitler and the geisha, but also dresses himself in a curious combination of traditional geisha garb and SS uniform to constantly remind himself of his roots. We too are reminded of this throughout the film thanks to le Spindle’s repeated flashbacks to images of Hitler’s swollen genitalia and a booming off-screen voice shouting “Remember this?” It’s helpful, and doesn’t intrude on the story as much as you might think.

And the story is an absolute cracker. Incorporating the principles of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and tragicomic riffs on classic narratives such as the Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast, The Chronicles of Narnia, Catcher in the Rye, Field of Dreams, the Book of Revelation, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Little Women and Star Wars, we watch, fascinated, as the good professor journeys through worlds both bizarre and mundane, meeting new friends, learning valuable lessons, and regularly singing catchy songs about helping each other and eating a balanced diet. It is these songs in particular that make the five and a half hour running time seem barely half that long, while also keeping a strong emotional core to the action. It would be easy to become detached when watching Herman and his newly befriended bowl of soup giggling shrilly as they hack a tribe of sleeping Bedouins to death while in the throes of an acid trip; but when, five minutes later, Herman stands sadly, singing to the desert moon, “I know I’ll feel better/if I eat my breads and grains”, you are hit with the full force of the Professor’s lonely yet nutritious quest.

Branagh is not necessarily known for his mastery of special effects – witness the several scenes in Frankenstein when the monster’s head briefly turns into an audience shot from The Price is Right – but here he excels himself, melding CGI, stop-motion animation, traditional make-up and marionette puppetry to create wondrous backdrops and stunning set-pieces that reach their zenith in the climactic battle in the Icelandic wastes, when le Spindle dons full body armour to battle a dizzying horde of giant snow-beasts, lion-riding berserkers, many-headed dragons and mid-90s Serbian death squads. What’s truly amazing about this scene is that the nudity never feels gratuitous, even though in a lesser movie the viewer would himself wondering just how the girls avoided freezing to death.

A film like this, of course, rests most of all on the shoulders of the leading man, and Third Rock’s Stewart delivers in spades. Of course, canny observers had always thought he possessed enormous talent, but up until now nobody had suspected it was in acting. And yet in The Peculiar Adventures he pulls off the not-insubstantial task of sympathetically portraying a half-mad, rickets-stricken, bisexual self-loathing Nazi Swiss spelunker with aplomb, switching smoothly between le Spindle’s array of comedy accents and performing every scene with an odd, loping, horse-like walk that perfectly represents inner turmoil and physical deformity. It would be difficult to recall a better performance this year, although I’m sure I can if I try.

The rest of the cast is almost uniformly excellent, from Bonham Carter as le Spindle’s screeching, chickenpox-ridden wife – balancing her enormous Dutch hat skilfully throughout – to Crystal, whose turn as the foul-mouthed bowl of soup is full of blistering invective and savage violence rarely seen from Crystal during his film career, which suits him well. Hopefully we can see him torturing whores more often in future. It must also be said that the decision to cast Dane Cook as Hitler was inspired, and pays off in spades, as the popular comedian brings a sense of brooding sexuality and easy wit all too often lacking in portrayals of the Fuhrer. Cate Blanchett and Stanley Tucci are, as always, great fun as the two-headed bank manager from whom the professor must gain a large personal loan in order to cross the bridge of death.

The only let-down is Hathaway. As talking mouse Gilberto – a part sh3e was seemingly born for – she struggles with the lengthy rhyming speeches she is required to give, and seems intent on reacting to every piece of news her character receives with an horrific sort of demented rictus and high-pitched puffing sound. Of course, her well-documented falling-out with Branagh over costumes – which saw her refuse to don the mouse costume and therefore appear throughout the film in a dowdy field hockey uniform – didn’t help either, and her entire demeanour is that of an actress who not only doesn’t want to be there, but who is actively trying to spot the director behind the camera so she can shoot him. The revolver she points off-screen for no discernible reason during several scenes adds to this impression.

Fortunately, it is a small fault. Hathaway is not a major character, and her graphic dismemberment hides a multitude of sins. In fact, it’s the genius of the movie as a whole that every time it seems in danger of dragging, a scene of vivid, nightmarish violence springs to life before our eyes to jolt us anew.

If you love movies the way they used to make them – with cameras, and actors standing in front of them saying things – then certain aspects of this movie will appeal to you. If you like rollicking adventures full of loveable eccentrics, spectacular stunts and gut-wrenching emotion such as the sight of a man standing on a mountain crying over a dying Barbary sheep whom he had only just summoned the courage to declare his love for, you will LOVE it. It may even change your life.

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