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Films I Neglected To Review: Mothers And Daughters
by Peter Sobczynski

In this latest round-up of short reviews of films I didn’t have time to analyze at lengths, Miley Cyrus tries to make the transition to more adult fare (not that kind, you perv), a mother is determined to prove her child is innocent of murder and another mother is equally determined to prove that her son is indeed the son of Benito Mussolini.

Like so many past teenage stars, Miley Cyrus is at the point in her career where she is trying to move away from silly kid stuff like the “Hannah Montana” juggernaut in order to shift into more adult-oriented roles. The only problem is that the project that she has chosen for her first foray outside of her comfort zone, “The Last Song,” is the kind of bathetic and overwrought melodrama that Sandra Dee might have rejected a half-century ago for being too schmaltzy for its own good. In it, Cyrus plays the world’s least convincing Goth girl--a once-promising piano prodigy transformed into a troubled teen following the divorce of parents Greg Kinnear and Kelly Preston--who is shipped off from New York City with her aggressively adorable little brother (Bobby Coleman) to spend the summer with Dad (whom she loathes for abandoning the family and presumably for starting the Iraq War a couple of weeks ago in “The Green Zone”) at his lavish beach home in Georgia (which he can somehow afford solely through his work as a stained glass window maker) and in between saving a nest of turtle eggs (which I suspect may be symbolic) and getting involved in the problems of an equally troubled little girl, she winds up reconnecting with her father and beginning a tentative romance with local rich kid Liam Hemsworth, a good-looking and gangly dope who has plenty of baggage of his own and who sweeps her off her feet by quoting one of the few lines from Tolstoy that everyone knows. The film marks the screenwriting debut of best-selling author Nicholas Sparks and is virtually indistinguishable from his earlier efforts--the characters are paper-thin, the dramatic revelations are lame as can be and what little dramatic tension there is comes from trying to figure out which character is going to suddenly croak in order to help the main character come to terms with things. As for Cyrus, she tries hard to shed her apple-cheeked persona but she never quite pulls it off because you are always conscious of the effort she is putting into being a “serious” actress. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t have the talent to make it in more adult roles but if she doesn’t develop a taste for better material very quickly, a “Hannah Montana” reunion show may not be that far off in the future.

Having thoroughly goosed the serial killer and monster movie genres in his previous films, “Memories of Murder” and the international hit “The Host,“ Korean cult filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho trains his sights on the mystery genre with his latest effort, “Mother,” and the results are just as strange and spellbinding as ever. In this film, which was South Korea’s entry for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, a young woman is found viciously murdered and a local man who is on the slow side is arrested for her murder based largely on evidence that seems circumstantial at best. After getting nowhere with the police and being let down by a lazy lawyer, his loyal and determined mother (Kim Hye-Ja) decides that it is up to her to bring the right people to justice and save her son and even though it appears at first to be a lost cause, she soon makes a series of surprising and unexpected discoveries regarding the case that I wouldn’t dream of revealing here. Although perhaps not as overtly audacious as his earlier films, Bong once again pulls off the impressive trick of telling a story that manages to work as a splendid, straightforward example of a time-honored genre as well as a slyly subversive take on its conventions. This time around, he is aided immeasurably by the central performance from Kim as the mother who will go to any lengths to help her son, even though her smothering manner towards him may be equally destructive--her place in the rankings of the great domineering screen mothers is all but assured.

If you ever wondered what a film combining the visual, aural and dramatic excesses of “Pink Floyd The Wall” and “Evita” might be like, look no further than “Vincere,” the latest work from acclaimed Italian director Marco Bellocchio. “Bombastic” doesn’t even begin to describe his account of the strange and largely unknown life of Ida Dalser (Giovanno Mezzogiorno) Benito Mussolini’s secret lover and the mother of his son from back in the time before he became a player on the world scene and of Il Douchebag’s cruel attempts to deny their existences by first ignoring them entirely and then throwing them into separate asylums. It sounds like standard biopic fodder but Bellocchio presents it as a grand exercise in sensory overload of a kind that hasn’t been seen since Ken Russell’s string of similarly demented stylistic exercises in the Seventies. While I did not particularly take to this approach the first time I saw the film last fall during the Chicago International Film Festival, I must admit that it did play a little better for me the second time around--presumably because I was a little more prepared for Bellocchio’s singular approach. And yet, while this approach is certainly an unusual one for this type of film to take, it doesn’t really help matters much--outside of a strong and fearless performance from Mezzogiorno, Bellocchio’s touch is so heavy-handed here that it makes one long for the comparatively restrained biopics that Ken Russell used to make back in the day. On the other hand, if you do go to see this one, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t fall asleep during it.

After the death of founder Walt Disney in 1967, the entertainment conglomerate that he founded began a creative and financial tailspin that, by the early 1980’s, left them literally living on their gloried past (the re-releases of their backlog of classics were their only box-office successes) with their animation department all but shuttered. However, in a miracle as startling as any to be found in one of their famous fairy tales, the arrival of executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells and a new crop of animators inspired a creative revival that would eventually result in such enormous hits as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King.” The story of how this turnaround came to pass, not to mention the behind-the-scenes power grabs that would come as a result, is one of the more famous showbiz stories of the last couple of decades and the new documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” chronicles the saga via interviews with the participants, clips from the films in question and behind-the-scenes footage of how they came to be made. For those coming into the story cold, the film provides a solid overview of this period of Disney history but if you are already familiar with the events (and I suspect that is the case with virtually everyone thinking of seeing this), it doesn’t really have much to offer aside from some fascinating glimpses of the likes of John Lasseter and Tim Burton toiling away in anonymity. Although it is critical of some of the goings-on here and there, the film feels too often as though it is pulling some punches so as not to enrage its corporate parents--for the most part, it feels like one of those “Vanity Fair” articles that is filled with enough superficial gossip to keep audiences interested but lacks any real teeth. Animation buffs are likely to find it fascinating, at least when it deals with the nuts-and-bolts of the filmmaking process, but for everyone else, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is essentially a lengthy DVD extra that Disney is charging people to see.

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originally posted: 04/02/10 22:09:07
last updated: 04/02/10 23:07:14
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