"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

6 Posts from January 2010


Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Scott Cooper's CRAZY HEART

CRAZY HEART - written and directed by Scott Cooper

CRAZY HEART is a sweet and poignant character study about Bad Blake, a 57-year-old alcoholic country musician who finds himself at the crossroads of self-destruction and redemption in modern day New Mexico.  The love he finds with a young, sympathetic, divorced mother may be the key to saving Blake whose music career is on the rocks while he slowly kills himself with whiskey.  You can't get much more country music than CRAZY HEART's storyline.  It is also an old warhorse of a movie scenario, echoing the oft-filmed A STAR IS BORN and specifically the alcoholic rock star played by Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 version.  What elevates CRAZY HEART from cliché to exceptional is Jeff Bridges's achingly beautiful portrayal of a talented musician whose spirit is nearly burnt out, struggling with self-loathing and his sense of failure as a man.

Bad Blake was once a well regarded country songwriter/singer, but now his career is running off the road and into a ditch.  He drives his old rusty Suburban around the American southwest, singing and playing guitar with pick-up bands at gigs in bowling alleys and small town bars.  Bad is a mess.  He will get so drunk that during mid song he has to run off stage to puke in a garbage can.  He barely makes enough money to sustain himself and relies on local fans to keep him soaked in booze.  He spends drunken nights in cheap motel rooms where he beds cheap women from the audience of last night's show.  Bad's long suffering manager is trying to convince him to perform the opening act on the current tour of Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a highly successful "new country" singer whom Bad mentored several years ago.  But Bad's insufferable pride prevents him from playing second fiddle to the young man he took under his wing.  Bad's inner shame over his lost career and his torment over abandoning his family years ago is the pain that he deadens with the bottle, putting him one cowboy boot in the grave. 

At one small town gig, Bad meets reporter and single-mother Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who asks Bad for an interview.  Bad grants the interview but is evasive about his past.  When Jean gently presses on Bad, she taps into something personal and hurtful from his family history.  Her sensitivity draws them into a gentle intimacy; not just sexual, but a compassionate connection to their mutual humanity.  Notwithstanding her history with dubious men, Jean falls into a circumspect romantic relationship with Bad and soon her young son bonds with him, too.  Jean's love for Bad deepens, although she is disturbed by his dependency on alcohol for self-medication.  Bad is never overtly bad, he doesn't become physically or verbally abusive, but Jean is concerned that his drinking has squashed something very special in the man and she is rightfully disturbed that his self-destructive behaviour will be harmful to her son.  The inciting incident at the end of the film's second act, which overturns their relationship and forces Bad to literally make a life or death decision, is the most predictable aspect of the film.  The outcome of this sequence is virtually a foregone conclusion, however the third act unfolds in subtly unpredictable ways.

After 40 years of movie acting, the always ingratiating Jeff Bridges is like your favourite pair of old jeans: well worn in, a little frayed at the hems, and so very comfortable.  As Bad Blake, Bridges earns your sympathy for his boozy, broken-down loner by exuding a weary tenderness and a tattered heart.  It's a relaxed, melancholy performance that evokes the understated acting of Gary Cooper.  This is the kind of role and story that could easily induce histrionics, but Bridges, and the rest of the cast, are working on a restrained level, allowing intense feelings to naturally simmer through their characterizations. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal is heartfelt, sincere and quietly sensual as the single mother who falls in love with Bad.  Her soft, considerate gaze goes a long way in how we as an audience relate to him.  Gyllenhaal's chemistry with Bridges is unaffected; it feels natural, amorous, vulnerable and you ache for their relationship to work out.  Collin Farrell, in what amounts to a guest role, is quite good in a surprisingly subdued performance as the country star Tommy Sweet, whose success is the envy - whether he'd admit it or not - of Bad.  Robert Duvall (one of the producers of the film, along with Bridges) has a wonderful supporting role as an old friend who tries to keep Bad on the straight-and-narrow.

Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell sing in their own voices and both men do just fine, especially Bridges who could have a second career as a country singer.  The songs - a mix of Texas blues, country, and a touch of zydeco - were written by American roots musicians T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton (who died before the completion of CRAZY HEART - the movie is dedicated to him), and they are stirring, raucous, poetic, and sad - just like Bad Blake.  It is some of the most touching music I've heard in any contemporary movie.

CRAZY HEART is the impressive directorial debut of American actor Scott Cooper.  His script (based on the novel by Thomas Cobb) and his direction display a sure hand and a lovely heart.  The exquisite wide-screen cinematography by Barry Markowitz visually expresses Bad's loneliness and taciturn despair while the warm colours suggest the beauty of Bad's musical talent and the potential for his spirit to heal in his romance with Jean. 

CRAZY HEART is that rare film on today's multiplex screens: a loving exploration of authentic people told with a strong cinematic voice unfettered by computer effects or 3D glasses.  It feels like a character-driven film from 1970s American cinema, a time when filmmakers focused on stories that examined the human condition and the dark side of the American dream.  Though CRAZY HEART may not have the edgy personalities of a Bob Rafelson film (FIVE EASY PIECES - 1970), or the moody visual sweep of a Terrence Malick film (BADLANDS - 1973), or the incisive character dissection of a Robert Altman film (NASHVILLE - 1975), it does possess Scott Cooper's love for a story about real relationships set within a genuinely American milieu and told without hyperbole.  Cooper's sensitive direction and Bridges's elegiac performance extol the need for films about human frailty, yearning, resolve and redemption.  This is, and will always be, the crazy heart of a good film.


THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (1973) - directed by Victor Erice

The fantasy life of children has always been fanciful fodder for filmmakers.  Alice in Wonderland (1933 & 1951), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.  (1953), The NeverEnding Story (1984), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) are examples of fine films that explore the unfettered imagination of children and, in so doing, allow the viewer to escape the  realities of - or heightening his or her response to - the real world.  One of the most beautiful films in this wondrous film genre is neither a big special-effects extravaganza nor a highly-stylized work of whimsy, but a small, haunting and luminous Spanish film released in 1973 – The Spirit of the Beehive, directed by Victor Erice.

The film opens with a credit sequence consisting of children’s crayon drawings, followed by a variation on the traditional fairy tale introduction: “Once upon a time . . . somewhere on the Castilian plain, around 1940.”  A truck pulls into the tiny community of Hoyuelos, Spain to deliver a movie.  This is such a major event that the screening is verbally announced in the town square by an elderly woman.  The enthusiastic audience packs into a make-shift theatre to watch the movie, James Whale’s 1931 seminal horror classic, Frankenstein.  This is a truly delightful sequence that evokes the genuine appreciation of a pre-television/videogame/Internet audience for the communal movie-going experience. 

The children are captivated by the movie, including young Isabel and her younger sister Ana, who is positively awestruck.  The key scene from Frankenstein that fires Ana’s wonder is when the monster encounters the little girl Maria by a lake.  Maria is not afraid of the monster and sees it as a playmate.  Together they throw flowers into the water to watch them float.  When the monster runs out of flowers he continues the floating game by naively tossing Maria into the water, which results in her drowning.  Taking the movie for real life, Ana questions why the monster killed the girl.  Isabel explains that the movie is fake, but Ana is too young to truly differentiate between fact and fiction, so Isabel tells Ana that the spirit of the monster lives in an abandoned stone building in the middle of a wheat field.  The rest of the story follows Ana’s search for the Frankenstein monster’s spirit as she confronts elemental notions of death and the meaning of her individuality.

Ana Torrent in The Spirit of the Beehive

Ana is played with an exquisite purity by 7 year-old Ana Torrent in her film debut.  Doe-eyed Torrent astonishingly achieves an artful blend of innocence and pensiveness that never feels false; her poignancy is beguiling.

Bathed in a delicate honey-coloured light, The Spirit of the Beehive is a subtly dream-like and contemplative expression of a child’s obsession with a fantasy creature and what it represents as she steps into a real world fraught with danger.  Director Victor Erice’s shot compositions are poetic, simple and clean – an uncluttered canvas for a lyrical movie that feels less like a collection of scenes and more like movements in a piece of classical music. 

* * * * *

If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the Criterion DVD of The Spirit of the Beehive from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.



Saoirse Ronan and Susan Sarandon in Peter Jackson's, The Lovely Bones

THE LOVELY BONES - directed by Peter Jackson

THE LOVELY BONES is director Peter Jackson's foray into a more contemporaneous fantasy than his gargantuan THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.  Instead of an evil wizard as a villain, THE LOVELY BONES - set in 1973 - presents Stanley Tucci as an unfortunately all too familiar modern villain: the child murderer.  The murdered child of this story is a vivacious fourteen-year-old girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) who lives with her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), her mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and her older sister and younger brother.  Living next door to the Salmon family is a quiet, single, middle-aged man, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who tends his garden, builds doll houses and plans the vicious murders of young girls.  George lures Susie into one of his traps, kills her, and promptly hides the body.  Because of the nature of her violent demise, her love for her family - especially for her father - and a desire to will vengeance on her murderer, Susie is stuck in a heavenly way station called "The In-between" as she ponders on how to ease her family's pain and to punish George Harvey. 

The story, based on the novel by Alice Sebold, is compelling and a natural for a movie adaption, but the execution is overly sincere, torpidly sombre and wretchedly false.  For a movie cast with strong actors, it's sad to witness an almost across the board blandness in the performances.  Massive blame for the weak characterizations and the lacklustre pall over the entire movie falls on the three screenwriters, Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and director Peter Jackson.  The script gives the actor's nothing more than the most superficial melodrama and lifeless characters to work with.  Mark Walhberg is useless as the father who senses his daughter's troubled essence and is obsessed with finding her killer.  He is shockingly pallid and is deader than his fictional daughter.  Rachel Weisz, who has proven herself to be an exceptional actress (in 2006 she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for THE CONSTANT GARDENER), is wasted in her role as Susie's grieving mother.  She is all tepid reaction and when her character decides to leave her family because the pain is too overwhelming, I was appalled the filmmakers would expect audiences to buy this action when the film does not show us a gradual emotional and psychological breakdown.  She just leaves the family and the story and it rings hollow.  This is lazy scriptwriting.

Susan Sarandon is a momentary breath of fresh - actually, more nicotine laced - air as the chain smoking, boozy Grandma Lynn who visits the family to help put their house in order.  But Sarandon's joy is fleeting as we realize she serves no purpose for the story other than being a faintly amusing distraction from the plodding plot.  In a very silly montage, director Jackson shows Sarandon incompetently managing the household: sweeping dirt under a rug; tossing the contents of a vase, water and flowers, into a pan of flaming food; overloading the laundry machine with so much soap that a mess of suds fills the room in which this "kooky" grandma and her grandson dance in.  This sequence is filled with lame jokes right out of  "The Brady Bunch".  And actor Michael Imperioli, so wickedly amusing and grandly pathetic as Christopher, the gangster nephew to Tony Soprano in David Chase's great HBO series, THE SOPRANOS, is strictly mechanical in his shallow role as the detective on the murder case. 

Saoirse Ronan as the murdered Susie is a lovely presence on screen.  She bears a gossamer quality with her angelic looks and piercing blue eyes.  Ronan's acting is as good as the screenplay allows her to be; she exudes a vitality and pathos.  However, I found her flowery voice-over observations to be overwritten, which may be from the book, but on screen I did not believe this fourteen-year-old all-American girl would possess such an austerely sophisticated vocabulary. 

Stanley Tucci comes off best of all the adult actors.  He displays a sad and quiet gravitas through subtle looks and reactions (he wisely underplays his role) that transcend what is essentially a stock sociopath character.  The film includes a dark, Goth-type teenager who has the ability to see the dead Susie.  Because she is a lonely, misunderstood artist who uses too much black mascara is, I suppose, the reason why we are to accept she has a "sixth sense".  It's one of the hoariest clichés in modern fantasy and horror movies, but we should be thankful that the filmmakers amateurishly abandon this character for a good deal of the picture. 

The cinematography by Andrew Lesnie is mostly honey hued during the Earth bound scenes; a nostalgic glow for 1973 small town America, a time when the lonely creepy guy living next door was the last person suspected of being a child murderer.   Peter Jackson and his visual effects team create an "In-between" world that reflects Susie's shifting emotions.  This ephemeral landscape can be a snowy mountain range that melts into a rolling verdant field in the span of a breath.  There is an inviting gazebo representing a kind of watch tower that connects Susie to her father, but it rots and crumbles when all hope looks lost.  Susie meets a little girl name Holly, also a victim of George Harvey, who guides her through this spiritual plane.  In a moment of accepting her situation, Susie joyfully frolics with Holly through the "In-between" as it morphs into a digital sunshine-and-lollipops New Age theme park.  One of the film's best images occurs when Susie is on a beach where life-size tall sailing ships encased within bottles the size of an airplane hanger float towards the shore.  This is a potent reminder of her father because his beloved hobby is building miniature ships in glass bottles.  When her father explodes in rage over the futility of finding Susie's killer, he smashes his bottled ships which in turn cause the mammoth bottled ships on Susie's beach to shatter.  But Jackson spoils the scene by heavy-handedly reflecting her father's rampaging image in the giant glass bottles.  The director is not trusting (or was it a studio decision?) the audience to understand the visual metaphor he so beautifully set up.  The art direction of the "In-between" world is a mixed bag, ranging from suitably haunting to downright kitschy, looking like those calendars with cheesy photographs that accompany inspirational maxims.

Jackson's use of the camera is also heavy-handed; he moves it too much.  Most of the camera moves are superfluous, not motivated by story or character dynamics or by just pure action.  Characters will be sitting or standing and the camera swirls and pushes and pulls for no good reason.  It's as if Jackson knows the characters have little or no spark so he's moving the camera to artificially add some energy to the lethargy.  Brian Eno's music score is effectively ethereal, but many of his music cues are ponderous and obvious in telegraphing fear and suspense.

THE LOVELY BONES suffers from over length, but, for a moment in its final act, it manages to pick up much needed life in a taut Hitchcockian suspense sequence involving Susie's sister and the killer.  The tension here is further amplified by its lack of music.  Unfortunately, the film goes slack again as it climaxes in a ridiculous and precious scene of Susie making a spiritual connection with a swarthy teenage boy she had a crush on at the beginning of the film. 

It's a shame that for all the talent involved in THE LOVELY BONES, it offers nothing more than the skeleton of a potentially decent movie that is ultimately just a good looking cadaver.


Timothy Olyphant as Dick in HIGH LIFE

HIGH LIFE - directed by Gary Yates

HIGH LIFE is a new Canadian caper comedy set in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1983 about four young criminal drug addicts who band together to steal money from those newfangled ATMs that have suddenly sprung up around the chilly city.  This being a somewhat conventionally plotted caper story, the envisioned "perfect crime" predictably gets as fried as the brains of the controlled substance abusers attempting to pull off the idiotic heist.  Given that Canadian's are well known for smart, dry, black humour, director Gary Yates and writer Lee MacDougall (basing the film on his play) have made a stoner/crime film that is less black comedy in tone and more the shade of a Winnipeg winter sky, drab and gray.  There are some mildly amusing moments in HIGH LIFE, but it feels as morphine addled as the main characters.

Timothy Olyphant is Dick, a once aspiring lawyer who has served time in prison (inside he was known as "The Counsellor") and is now sweeping floors in a Winnipeg hospital.  Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre), a fellow criminal friend and certifiable psychopath just released from prison, visits Dick and manages get him fired from his job when they are caught stealing hypodermic needles.  Down and out and very broke, Dick schemes a plan to rob his local bank's Automated Teller Machines.  He pulls together a doped-up crime ring consisting of Bug; Donnie (Joe Anderson), a hypochondriac pickpocket; and Billy (Rossif Sutherland), a charming pretty boy who will be the front-man for the caper.  Too much drugs, ill planning, a corrupt bank teller and Bug going ballistic throws the caper into the crapper with the foursome scrambling around Winnipeg to the rockin' tunes of April Wine.

Stephen Eric McIntyre's dead-on dangerous and viciously funny performance as the April Wine loving Bug is the only genuine spark in this commonplace story.  Joe Anderson's nervous and paranoid Donnie and Rossif Sutherland's overconfident and narcissistic Billy give the team a kind of goofy yin and yang.  However, lead actor Timothy Olyphant as Dick, the roasted ringleader of the high heisters, is way too vapid.  When he should be reacting with a nervous anxiety to the unravelling circumstances, he plays the role as if his character is bummed out from running out of rolling papers.  And the fact that his character uses morphine is no excuse for Olyphant's flaccid performance that squelches any potential interest and sympathy from the audience.

HIGH LIFE does contain a few laughs - particularly in the third act involving an armoured car, Donnie, his security guard cousin and a jackhammer wielding Bug - but the humour is mostly of the soft chuckle variety.  The most disconcerting aspect about the film is in its construct; the movie is an uneasy mix of Martin Scorsese's GOODFELLAS (1990) and Quentin Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS (1992).  Director Yates goes so far as to blatantly reference the opening freeze frame and voice-over introduction of gangster Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS for HIGH LIFE'S introduction of Dick.  What begins as perhaps an affectionate low-life variant on Scorsese's brilliant gangster film is just the tip of the gun barrel in HIGH LIFE'S too heavy evocation of  not only GOODFELLAS, but of Tarantino's unique stylistic twist on the caper film.  Sure, RESERVOIR DOGS is influenced by Hollywood Golden Age director Howard Hawks's recurring theme of a group of professional men whose relationship to one another is defined by working at a common goal (you see this in PULP FICTION and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, too) and from such classic caper films as John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) and, most emphatically, from Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING (1956).  But Tarantino distills these themes and story conventions into highly flammable revisionist cinema.  HIGH LIFE has none of the genre spinning savvy or savage ironic wit of Tarantino, let alone the cinematic brio of Scorsese.

In one drawn out sequence from HIGH LIFE, the four would-be ATM robbers sit nervously in a car parked outside of the bank as a police officer sits in his cruiser a few feet from the boys.  The panicky, syncopated bickering of the boys suggests a Tarantino moment, but it lacks the barbarous and piquant poetic banter that is a Tarantino trademark. 

HIGH LIFE wants to be a giddy and subversive dark crime comedy, but what you get is a mild buzz, not a euphoric high.


AVATAR - directed by James Cameron

One of the things that movies can do better than any other medium is take the viewer into fantastic worlds through picture and sound.  KING KONG (1933), THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), PINOCCHIO (1940), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), STAR WARS (1977), THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001/02/03) are pinnacles of the fantasy and science-fiction film genres that have transported audiences into strange and wondrous worlds.  Now we can add James Cameron's crazily anticipated and insanely high-tech AVATAR to this list. 

Because of the hype, I went into AVATAR carrying a degree of skepticism,  but I walked out of the theatre shaking my head in disbelief at what Cameron accomplished: he not only pulled off the technical challenge of producing a truly awesome (and I don't use that word lightly, unlike most people who kick "awesome" around like a hacky-sack ball) 3D experience and created the most fascinating and multi-layered film world since George Lucas's STAR WARS saga, Cameron also gives us a well constructed story that is engaging, thrilling and touching.  AVATAR is also an allegory for our own earthly green movement and an indictment on the military-industrial complex of waging war for economic supremacy; mind you, it's a not so subtle allegory, but subtle has never been one of James Cameron's strong suits. 

After his brother is killed in action, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is recruited to replace his brother in a mission to the earth-like planet of Pandora, inhabited by the Na'vi; peaceful, humanoid creatures - blue, slim, muscular and about 12 feet tall - who live in a unique culture, speak their own language and are spiritually symbiotic with the land and the animals of their planet  The mission is controlled by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the leader of a avaricious corporation, and supported by military recruits commanded by the gung-ho Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).  The Colonel is on the verge of waging war with the Na'vi for the acquisition of a precious mineral which is necessary for helping an ailing earth and will garner enormous profits for the corporation.  Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) heads the mission's scientific unit and is leading the shaky diplomacy campaign with the irresolute Na'vi.  Her program enables mission specialists to operate "avatars", genetically engineered high-bred Na'vi, on Pandora from the safety of the ship in order to interact with the real Na'vi because the planet's environment is not sustainable for human beings.  On the sly, Colonel Quaritch convinces Jake Sully to acquire intelligence from the Na'vi in order to support a successful military campaign against them based on the increasing likelihood diplomacy will break down.  If Sully is successful, Quaritch will see that Sully will freely receive a costly spinal operation to fix his damaged legs. 

While on Pandora, Sully encounters, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a young, powerful female Na'vi who at first distrusts Sully, but eventually warms up to him and teaches him to protect himself from the wild creatures of the planet and, more importantly, how to live harmoniously within this strange and beautiful world.  They do fall in love and as tensions escalate between the humans and the Na'vi, Sully must decide which side he will take.

James Cameron fills the frame with incredible images of a world never seen on screen before: floating mountains of rock; rampaging creatures, the size of massive earth movers, that resemble a cross between a rhinoceros body and the head of a hammerhead shark; delicate and affectionate wispy floating entities that look like a jellyfish genetically spliced with a floating dandelion weed; a glowing weeping willow tree that stores the life spirit of deceased Na'vi.  AVATAR is as exciting as an action movie can get and it is supremely beautiful to behold.  The forest scenes are rendered in a palette of pastels and evoke Impressionist paintings.

3D has always been a dubious technology in the movies.  It has rarely, if ever, been a convincing improvement over 2D realism.  Filmmakers have utilized 3D for mostly hurtling objects at the audience for pure sensation.  It has never made watching a movie a more "real-life" dimensional experience - that is until AVATAR.  I am still very good with flat, or 2D, films; but Cameron's incredible advances in 3D (he was working diligently on the technology ever since his last picture way back in 1997 - a little thing called TITANIC), as evident in AVATAR, makes a persuading case for his 3D to be a respected tool in a filmmaker's creative arsenal (albeit, a hugely expensive tool).  With AVATAR, Cameron teaches filmmakers how to creatively, and wisely, employ 3D in shot composition and camera movement to realize an immersive environment.  (Alfred Hitchcock experimented with this type of 3D application in the early years of the technology in his excellent thriller, DIAL 'M' FOR MURDER [1954]).

AVATAR is inarguably the most intense high-bred of live-action and CGI animation in film history.  Along with the highly sophisticated 3D visuals, the films amazing Na'vi characters were created using extensive "motion performance" capture of the live actors integrated with exceptional CGI animation. 

Of course all this spectacular technology would be just meaningless eye-candy if the story and the characters were not in place.  AVATAR's basic story is familiar and most of it is predictable, though its heart and sincerity makes it difficult to dismiss.  Much has been said in the reviews of AVATAR that it is just a high-tech version of the Pocahontas story and shamelessly stolen from the Kevin Costner western, DANCES WITH WOLVES.  There is condescension by many film's critics regarding these story parallels, but who cares!  Screenwriters and directors have a history of drawing inspiration from other movies, literature and so on.  STAR WARS was ripped from Homer's Odyssey, 1930s Flash Gordon movie serials, and Akira Kurosawa samurai films.  George Lucas's raiding of literature and pop culture is the least of the artistic criticisms levelled at his film career. 

What James Cameron has done with AVATAR is take the ancient story pattern of the hero's journey, weaved it with the timeless story of greed versus humanity and used these solid themes as the bedrock for a compelling and riveting motion picture experience that has little rival in the history of fantasy/adventure films.  Look carefully and you will see these basic themes in most of Cameron's pictures, such as the TERMINATOR movies, ALIENS, THE ABYSS and TITANIC.  Cameron is a very generous filmmaker when it comes to giving the audience a rousing show supported by solid, if not unconventional, storytelling.

The inescapable weakness of AVATAR is Cameron's dialogue, which is pedestrian and pedantic (he has never been a writer of sharp or sparkling repartee).  The acting ranges from outstanding: Zoe Saldana as Neytiri is remarkable, her strength and humanity permeates her motion performance/CGI; to serviceable, Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver; to comic book scenery gobbling, Stephen Lang as the muscle-packed, war mongering Colonel (though I admit I found Lang a lot of fun).

AVATAR is no masterpiece, but it does achieve greatness for its unquestionable and stunning advance in visual effects that are inexorably and poetically united to a heartfelt story.  Now that's awesome!


Penélope Cruz, Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard in Rob Marshall's screen musical, NINE.

NINE - directed by Rob Marshall

If you have never seen 8 1/2, Federico Fellini's 1963 semi-autobiographic fantasia of the filmmaking process, then you may be mildly entertained by Rob Marshall's screen version of the Tony award-winning musical, NINE.  If you have seen 8 1/2, then you will know that NINE is the Chef Boyardee to Fellini's trattoria of rich Italian cinematic cuisine.

Fellini's 8 1/2 is about an internationally renowned Italian director and world-class womanizer, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), who experiences a mid-life breakdown, creative constipation and a crisis of faith just as he is to start directing his latest, most anticipated film.  Marshall's NINE is about an internationally renowned Italian director and world-class womanizer, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose life crises seems more like severe indigestion. 

Guido's troubles in NINE - artist's block, a heartbroken and angry wife, using women as sex toys, a busted moral compass - are treated so superficially that the film is aloof and emotionally obscure.  As Guido's movie is swiftly nearing the first day of shooting, he finds himself creatively debilitated about the meaning of his new work, he cannot finish the script, and he is unable to answer the incessant questions that his crew bombards him with.  He searches for inspiration by invoking his muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman), Guido's favorite actress and his ideal of womanhood; and he obsesses over the meaning of his life  by holding discussions with the spirit of his dead mother (Sophia Loren), by confiding to his patient costume designer, Lilli (Judi Dench), and by scouring the memories of his childhood.

All this soul searching takes Guido - and the audience - into scenes from his past as a young boy growing up in the overpowering shadow of the Catholic Church while pulled to more earthly and lustful delights as represented in the voluptuous gyrations of the prostitute, Saraghina (Fergie).  Musical numbers mostly explode (as is in director Marshall's 2002 screen version of CHICAGO) into Las Vegas-like show-stoppers to comment on Guido's life but say very little about the creative impulse. 

Daniel Day-Lewis is effectively angst ridden as the confused Guido, however it comes off as mostly surface work (which is surprising coming from this usually exceptional actor), all hunched over and mopey as if he is suffering from a hangover.  There is no weight to what plagues him.  Marcello Mastroianni's Guido was subtly terror stricken by his loss of artistic vision and his overwhelming sense of irrelevance.  But the big thing missing from Day-Lewis and NINE is the overriding sense of guilt - guilt of adultery, guilt of leading a meaningless life, guilt of pandering to the ego - and just good old crushing Catholic guilt which permeates Fellini's masterwork.

NINE is studded (or the more appropriate verb here is babed) with some of the most gorgeous women working in the movies today.  It's a shame that most of them have little to do than sing and dance and look hot, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Penélope Cruz, coming off her Oscar win for her portrayal as Javier Bardem's furious and fiery ex-wife in Woody Allen's VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, is Carla, Guido's highly insecure mistress.  Cruz balances Carla's sexual cravings and fragile vulnerability with tenderness and her one big song, "A Call From The Vatican", is a delicious bump 'n' grind that virtually melts the celluloid. 

Kate Hudson, as an American reporter who writes about Guido's cool and hip Italian style while tempting him to her bed, is sprightly and game.  She delivers a go-go dance inspired performance (evoking her mother Goldie Hawn, big time) in her spotlight number, "Cinema Italiano", but her part is a throwaway. 

Pop-star Fergie (a Pea in the Black-Eyed pod) is sultry and earthy as the prostitute from Guido's boyhood.  Fergie has one of the best numbers, "Be Italian"; she's exudes a sexual danger as she belts out the most memorable song in the movie. 

Marion Cotillard is touching in the role of Guido's cheated upon wife, Luisa.  She is the best thing about NINE, and after her sweetly plaintive song, "My Husband Makes Movies", your heart goes out to her and I wished the story was told through her character's perspective - now that would be an inspired twist on Fellini's 8 1/2. 

Nicole Kidman's statuesque and delicate visage as Claudia, Guido's muse, brings nothing but fragile beauty, an emptiness of spirit, none of the delicate mysteriousness that Claudia Cardinale brought to the same role in 8 1/2. 

Sophia Loren, the Grande Dame of cinema Italiano, is Guido's long dead mother that he envisions and her first entrance is kind of magical and heart-stopping if you are above 40-years-old and know a little something about movie history.  However, she is merely a presence in NINE - a cliché symbol of Guido's insatiable need for a Madonna figure - but what a presence! Loren is the sexual and nurturing embodiment of the idea of Italy - enough to perfume NINE with a lovely nostalgia. 

Real-life Dame Judi Dench as Guido's costume designer and voice of reason is solid, if unremarkable.  She sings and struts to "Folies Bergere" as if performing on the stage of the famous Parisian music hall, but the number falls like a waiting soufflé.  

When Federico Fellini was about to embark on 8 1/2 (the title indicates that this film would literally be number eight and a half in the succession of films he directed), he was going through a creative vacuum after the success of his previous internationally acclaimed films such as LA STRADA (1954), NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957) and his mega-hit, LA DOLCE VITA (1960).  He had no idea what this new film would be about so he made a film about a director not knowing what his new film was about.  This brilliant conceit gave the world, arguably, the best movie about making movies and all the pain, passion, money, sex and egos that are part of the process.  And deeper than that, 8 1/2 is a moving meditation of the influences, for good and bad, which shape the artist's sensibilities.  8 1/2's story does not follow a traditional plot, it follows the images from Fellini's head through the potent cinematography of Gianni di Venanzo to take the viewer on a one-of-kind, almost meta-physical tour of the dreams, the fantasies, the memories and the avalanche of production pressures a creative filmmaker like Guido/Fellini must sort through for inspiration in order to create a personal and meaningful motion picture.  There is pain and suffering beneath many of the most poignant works of art.  Rob Marshall, the director of NINE, gives the audience all the beauty without a sense of the beast. 

Unquestionably, NINE is gorgeous to look at; the musical numbers are splashy and flashy, the faux-Italian design is resplendent, the glitz is eye-popping and the dancer's high kicks are dazzling, but like a fireworks display, once the sparkles dissipate you are left with nothing but a big, black empty space.