DVD reviews
June 1, 2007

 

All reviews by Loey Lockerby

The Fountain

You don't just watch a Darren Aronofsky film — you experience it. The director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream has an intense, almost avant-garde style that defies logical analysis. The Fountain continues that tradition, blending science fiction, romance and epic fantasy into something that comes very close to visual poetry.

The Fountain contains three distinct but interconnected stories, each featuring a couple played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (Aronofsky's real-life fiancée). In one, Jackman is a conquistador sent by Weisz's Queen Isabella to discover the secret of eternal life in the New World. That secret figures into another segment, in which he is a doctor trying to find a cure for his wife's cancer. Finally, the film jumps into the distant future, where she has become a vision in the mind of his interstellar traveler.

Weisz serves mostly as an ethereal muse (you can tell the director is in love with her), so Jackman carries most of the script's emotional weight. He commits fully to every outrageous thing Aronofsky asks of him, and his talent and conviction bring the material down to earth even when it's flying through the stars.

Aronofsky makes no particular effort to explain what's going on, either in the movie itself or in the series of short documentaries that make up the DVD's extras. Plenty of deserved attention is given to the crew, especially the set designers, cinematographer and special effects technicians. All of them helped turn this odd, low-budget production into something truly beautiful. But the real meaning behind The Fountain is left entirely to the viewer's imagination. This can be frustrating in such an esoteric, unconventional film. Then again, maybe it's for the best. Knowing too much might ruin the experience. (PG-13) Rating: 4.


Venus

It takes someone as charming as Peter O'Toole to make an old lech lovable. That's what he accomplishes in Venus, in a role that no one else could possibly have pulled off.

Of course, the character of Maurice Russell isn't much of a stretch. He's an elderly actor with a colorful (often inebriated) past, still working as he fights off the inevitable health problems of his age.

Maurice's routine is shaken up when he meets Jessie (terrific newcomer Jodie Whittaker), the great-niece of his best friend (Leslie Phillips). She's a surly, uncultured delinquent, but she's also gorgeous, and Maurice becomes smitten with her. She indulges him up to a point, yet also seems put off by his attentions. They connect in some vital way, however, and develop something more than a friendship, even if it's never quite a romance.

The uncertain nature of this relationship is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of Venus. People's motives aren't always clear so making Maurice and Jessie hard to pin down adds to the film's realism. It also means that the audience is at arm's length throughout, never getting a sense of who these people really are and what they want. Hanif Kureishi's script is witty and literate, but it lacks insight, depending on the actors to bring what they can to the material.

They bring plenty. Besides O'Toole and Whittaker, Venus also features Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths, any one of whom could recite the phone book in pig Latin and still be utterly fascinating. Director Roger Michell just lets them go, which is wise, given the general blandness of his own contribution. Even his commentary track, which he shares with producer Michael Loader, is dry and technical.

The making-of doc and deleted scenes are more interesting, if only because they showcase the cast. Without them — especially without O'Toole — Maurice would just be another dirty old man. (R) Rating: 3.5.


Seraphim Falls

This western, from veteran TV director David Von Ancken, starts with a silly action scene and ends with an even sillier desert freak-out. The 90 minutes in between save it from itself.

The opening features Pierce Brosnan, as a Civil War vet named Gideon, literally falling down a mountain as he runs from Carver (Liam Neeson), a former soldier from the other side who has gathered a posse to capture him. As Brosnan slides down hills, slams into rocks, even goes over a waterfall, the sequence becomes increasingly comical, bringing to mind that commercial where the guy can't stop tumbling as he holds desperately onto his soda can. Not a great dramatic beginning.

Fortunately, Von Ancken doesn't insist on keeping this up and Seraphim Falls settles into a tense game of cat-and-mouse, as an increasingly desperate Gideon eludes his zealous pursuer. The reason for Carver's vendetta is eventually revealed, but not until the characters have driven each other to the brink of madness and death.

This is where the film gets goofy again, as the two men stumble across an arid landscape, encountering a vaguely menacing Indian (Wes Studi) and a mysterious woman (Anjelica Huston), both of whom could be figments of the leads' imaginations. Or they could be demonic figures welcoming the men to the hell they've made for themselves. Either way, it's absurd and makes the script's previously subtle anti-war message insultingly obvious.

So does the disc's behind-the-scenes documentary, in which the current conflict in Iraq is mentioned a couple of times, in a way that borders on cynical. The rest of the feature is OK, as is the low-key commentary track with Brosnan, Von Ancken and production designer Michael Hanan. The three share some entertaining anecdotes about their on-set adventures, discussing everything from the ghastly weather to the parties Huston threw at the local motel. They never do explain that ending, though. Perhaps no one can. (R) Rating: 3.


The Italian

Based loosely on a true story, The Italian presents a gloomy portrait of post-Soviet Russia where children are routinely abandoned by their impoverished parents. Sent to live in orphanages, these kids either get adopted by wealthy foreigners or grow up to be criminals in their home country.

Six-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridinov) has other ideas. Although he has the chance to leave with a nice couple from Italy, he decides he wants to find his birth mother instead. A clever boy with street smarts well beyond his years, Vanya sets off on his quest with the greedy adoption agent (Maria Kuznetsova) in hot pursuit.

Director Andrei Kravchuk takes a straightforward approach to his subject, showing his country in all its hardscrabble despair. He also sees the goodness in many of its people, several of whom help little Vanya just when things look bleakest. Kravchuk avoids creating obvious heroes and villains, preferring instead to present things as they are and (perhaps more importantly) as they could be.

Spiridinov is a remarkable young actor, with a combination of hardness and innocence befitting Vanya's situation. Even the potentially cartoonish characters are given layers of humanity, and many of the performances come close to matching Spiridinov's. The story is too contrived to be completely realistic, but it never sinks into cheap sentiment, and the cast deserves much of the credit for that.

There are no extras on the DVD, which is disappointing. It would have been nice to get some information on the story that inspired the film, if not some insight into filmmaking in modern Russia. As it is, The Italian provides a glimpse into a world most Americans can barely imagine, but in this DVD release, it's only a glimpse. (PG-13) Rating: 4.

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.


              
              
                 

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