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Sweet Land
Directed by Ali Selim
Reviewed by Emily Guendelsberger
Opens Fri., Dec. 22

Sweet Land employs two of the most tired movie frames out there: the memory-evoking aftermath of a funeral and a grandmother telling a grandchild about her life. These frames, in addition to being cliched, feel completely tacked on.

In the beginning the story flounders confusingly between the various levels of narrative before settling into the main love story between Inge, a mail-order bride just arrived in 1917 Minnesota, and her soon-to-be husband Olaf. It gets so settled in the past, in fact, that you forget there's anything but this storyline, and it's pretty jarring to be briefly yanked into one of the other stories for no apparent reason.

But the film does have a lot of extremely pretty pictures. The image of the couple's white house against the Technicolor green grass and blue sky pops up so often it's practically a visual mantra--you're just starting to want to move out to the country and live the simple life when Selim hits you with the jaw-droppingly brutal visuals of exactly how much work it took to harvest a crop before the advent of farm equipment.

What Sweet Land lacks is interesting characters. The lovers-frustrated-at-every-turn-by-society--although portrayed with class by Elizabeth Reaser and Tim Guinee--have been done many times before. John Heard's bigoted pastor is a caricature, more a plot device than an actual person whose motivations are made understandable. So is Ned Beatty's greedy banker, who puts our heroes' farm in danger of being auctioned off to other greedy bankers, who practically twirl their mustaches in anticipation of getting their hands on sweet, sweet money.

Sweet Land feels like a coffee-table book on Minnesota farming in 1917: visually stunning, intellectually empty.

Directed by Pedro Almod�var
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Opens Fri., Dec. 22

As Penelope Cruz is best remembered on these shores for a desultory tour of duty as Tom Cruise's pre-Katie arm candy, plus a few lousy performances in a string of high-profile duds like Captain Corelli's Mandolin, most folks can be forgiven for not knowing a dirty little secret about the woman: She can act.

Granted, in English she's always stiff and unconvincing, but let's cut the pretty lady a break here. The fact of the matter is, when allowed to speak her native Spanish, as she is in Pedro Almod�var's warm, welcoming Volver, Penelope Cruz is indeed capable of wonderful work.

The title translates as To Return, a concept that echoes in several sneaky ways throughout this relaxed, casually complex movie. As par for the course in any Almod�var film, the plot doesn't take very long to spin out of control and into a bit of a twisted homage to both Spanish telenovelas and Douglas Sirk melodramas. But Volver is surprisingly easygoing about its screwy twists, grounding the most bizarre turns in matter-of-fact fashion, and remaining focused on the character interactions and good-natured low-brow humor.

But what you'll come away most struck by is this filmmaker's sheer, unabashed adoration of women. The texture of the movie has such a rich, feminine radiance to it. Almost all of the scenes take place while these ladies are preparing food, styling each other's hair or somehow nurturing one another. There's something very striking and almost primal about Almod�var's vision of these females as healers and caregivers--they are the community's life force.

It's a lovely little movie, but also sort of a wispy one. All that lingers is the maternal glow, and lots and lots of long, loving cleavage shots. The fellow sitting next to me confessed he couldn't follow the story because he kept forgetting to look down and read the subtitles.

We Are Marshall
Directed by McG
Reviewed by Matt Prigge
Opens Fri., Dec. 22

With a Judd Apatow script and John C. Reilly slated to star, the recently announced Walk Hard--a parody of earnest, self-important musical biopics like Ray and Walk the Line--couldn't have higher expectations associated with it. Can it be long before someone gets along to spoofing the recent glut of nostalgic sports movies? Something perhaps entitled Remember the Invincible Marshalls of Glory Road?

Then again, the phenomenon practically hit self-parody right from the start, with Remember the Titans dutifully erecting the square, unironic template: oh-so-'60s-through-'70s auburn hue, eccentric, aggressively monologuing coaches and a soundtrack that alternates between sticky-sweet orchestral and, for montages, well-worn radio hits you like but would possibly benefit from never hearing again. (Sorry, CCR.)

Only in a subgenre so self-cannibalizing and just plain screwed-up as this could a joyfully shallow director like McG (of the Charlie's Angelses) turn in the one that bears the closest resemblance to reality. Granted, McG's We Are Marshall, which relates the aftermath of the 1970 plane crash that wiped out most of the football team of West Virginia's Marshall University, still hits every one of the aforementioned marks.

Hoping to prove he's grown up (but not so much that he bothers exchanging that corporate logo-esque moniker for the real one: Joseph McGinty Nichol), McG initially looks to have simply gone Stepford, with an introduction to the film's Anywhere, America, setting that's pure autopilot. Call them vacuous, but the lovingly overdesigned Angels movies demonstrated 50 times more heart.

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