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Films I Neglected To Review: Prince Albert And The Van
by Peter Sobczynski

In this latest round-up of films that I didn’t get around to writing about at length, Matt Dillon steals, Penelope Cruz suffers, Michelle Williams mopes and Emily Blunt rules.

Since being dumped out into the marketplace a couple of weeks ago by a studio that clearly didn’t believe that it had much potential for success, “Armored” has struggled to find an audience amidst all the other heavily hyped movies glutting the market and by the time you read these words, it may well have disappeared completely in order to provide more space at the multiplex for the likes of “Did You Hear About the Morgan’s?” and “Avatar.” That is a bit of a shame because while the film, in which the seemingly foolproof plan by a group of armored car drivers (including Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishbone and Jean Reno) to hijack one of their own deliveries worth $42 million goes haywire when one of the plotters (Columbus Short) grows a conscience, is no masterpiece, it is a lean and efficiently made B-level thriller of the kind that simply doesn’t get made anymore. The screenplay by James V. Simpson is simple and straightforward without pushing the bounds of credulity too far, the actors throw themselves into their frankly caricatured characters without ever appearing to condescend to the material and director Nimrod Natal keeps things humming along nicely enough (although one wonders what a truly inspired action filmmaker--say Walter Hill at his peak--might have done with the material). “Armored” isn’t perfect by any means--there are a few gaping plot holes here and there and a subplot involving Short’s troubled younger brother seems to have been shoehorned in solely to get it up to feature length--but it is a film that knows exactly what it wants to do and does it with a minimum of muss and fuss and that is more than I can say for a lot of the other movies that I have seen lately.

Although Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has legions of admirers around the world who simply adore his flamboyant filmmaking approach, I have to admit that I have never been one of them--with the singular exception of his beautifully understated and disarmingly direct 2006 drama “Volver,” his patented blend of highly stylized campy humor, dark melodrama and kinky eroticism always struck me as being too overtly arch and ironic for its own good. That said, his latest work, “Broken Embraces,” is such a wonderful film that I am now tempted to revisit those older films in order to see if I might respond to them better than I once did. Almodovar’s story--a convoluted tale in which a once-successful filmmaker (Lluis Homar) reflects back on the production of his last movie and how it went tragically awry when he began a passionate affair with his leading lady (Penelope Cruz) despite her being the mistress of the powerful businessman (Jose Luis Gomex) funding the project--is as self-consciously stylized as his earlier work but the end result is infinitely more interesting and entertaining here than it has been in the past. For one thing, he has finally figured out a way to deploy his more audacious stylistic flourishes--the dual timeline structure, its tendency to veer wildly from comedy to melodrama (sometimes in the same scene) and in-your-face homages to his own films--in ways that accentuate the main story instead of burying it completely. For another, even though the basic plot will seem fairly familiar to most viewers, he invests the material with enough genuine human emotions to serve as an effective counterpoint to the more flamboyant elements on display. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film once again proves that the combination of Almodovar and Penelope Cruz is one of the most inspired and effective filmmaker-star collaborations in recent memory. Each one seems to bring out the best in the other and while their work here may not quite hit the peaks that they achieved with “Volver,” the results are nevertheless pretty spectacular and serve as a reminder (if one is still necessary) that Cruz, in the right hands, can be one of the most powerful actresses around as well as one of the most beautiful. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, “Broken Embraces” is the work of a masterful filmmaker at the peak of his powers and is one of the few genuine must-sees of the season.

“Mammoth” marks the English-language debut of acclaimed Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson but anyone hoping for something along the lines of his lovely debut work “Show Me Love” or such singular follow-up efforts as “Lilya 4-Ever” or “A Hole in My Heart” is likely to be disappointed with what he has to offer this time around. Instead, he has given us a “Babel”-like melodrama in which the lives of a group of seeming disparate people--a well-to-do New York couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams) with a daughter they barely get to see because of their work schedules, the Filipino nanny who is essentially raising the kid in order to provide for her own kids that she left behind in order to work in American and Thailand’s friendliest and most conscientious prostitute, who is naturally hooking in order to provide money for her own spawn--wind up affecting each other in surprisingly ways despite their cultural, economic and geographical differences. Alas, once the characters and their circumstances have been established, Moodysson allows them all to play out in the dullest and most predictable ways possible and while it is a relief to discover that he hasn’t decided to emulate the timeline-twisting efforts of other films of this ilk, this approach just means that the average viewer can figure out where it is heading in less time than normal. The point of the film, I presume, is to examine globalism and the effects that it has on contemporary family life but Moodysson doesn’t appear to have much to say about the subject, or anything else for that matter. The one element of “Mammoth” that does work--though not nearly enough to warrant that you rush out and see it--is the performance by Michelle Williams, who is fast becoming one of the most intriguing actresses on the scene today. The character she is playing is arguably the least interesting of the bunch on paper but she invests the role with enough personality and emotion to transform a crashingly (or is that “ ‘Crash’-ingly?) obvious portrait of walking white liberal guilt into something resembling a genuine person. Aside from that, “Mammoth” is an excruciatingly draggy and painfully earnest melodrama that has nothing new to offer viewers except a reminder that if you are a young boy in need of an explanation of the intricacies of the flesh trade in the Philippines, do not under any circumstances get it from your grandmother

Considering the fact that it combines the talents of director Jean-Marc Vallee, who cause a stir a few years ago with his off-beat debut “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who beautifully subverted the conventions of the British class struggle with his screenplay for Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” and actress Emily Blunt, one of the most exciting presences gracing the big screen these days, one might expect “The Young Victoria” to offer viewers a decidedly unusual take on its subject, the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria and the various tumults, both regal and romantic, that surrounded her at the time that she took the throne. Alas, the film couldn’t be more square or old-fashioned if it tried and it quickly becomes just another collection of actors (including Miranda Richardson as her domineering mother and Mark Strong as a behind-the-scenes rotter) encased in uncomfortable outfits pacing through sets that look more like museum showrooms than places where people might live and uttering flat dialogue that is more concerned with keeping viewers up to historical speed than in sounding like the anything that people might have actually said for themselves. As for the romance between Victoria and Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), the Belgian royal who winds up winning her hear, that is clearly meant to be the center of the film, it is undone by the lack of chemistry between Blunt and Friend (who similarly failed to strike sparks with Michelle Pfeiffer earlier this year in “Cheri). Vallee and Fellowes simply give us the standard “Masterpiece Theater” approach to the material and while I generally adore Blunt, this is by far the least interesting performance that she has ever given. The one actor who manages to cut through the torpor is Jim Broadbent, who gives an cheerfully scenery-chewing turn as King William--however, as history buffs no doubt know, he isn’t long for the movie and when he eventually dies, the movie does as well.

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originally posted: 12/18/09 22:29:03
last updated: 12/19/09 00:55:32
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