Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Review: Pope Joan

Film:  Pope Joan

Starring:  Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham, John Goodman, Ian Glen, Edward Petherbridge

Director: Sönke Wortmann
Screenwriter:  Donna Woolfolk Cross (novel), Heinrich Hadding (screenplay), Sönke Wortmann (screenplay)

Although not released in the US yet, I was able to obtain a DVD from Germany and see this film.  Mired in controversy, Pope Joan is about a woman (played by German actress Johanna Wokalek) who apparently became Pope without anyone realizing that she was female until she gave birth to a child.

The film and the novel carry the story a bit further by introducing a love interest named Gerold (David Wenham), who would do anything for her, including keeping her dark secret.

The film depicts Joan's life from childhood through to adulthood where she is often met with resistance from her peers when she demonstrates her knowledge for the Catholic teachings.  The idea of a female going to school, especially a Catholic one, was forbidden in those times, and yet she was allowed in by people who saw the intelligence she had.

But it is in the midst of war that she rushes off to join a monastery, cutting her hair and hiding the fact that she is a woman.  When she encounters Gerold sometime later, she tells him it's too late for her to go back, to leave the monastic life and her duty to the current Pope.

And so the story goes.  When I first saw this film I was concerned about whether it would see any screens in the US due not only to the fact that it's about a female Pope, which is blasphemy in the Catholic Church, but also because she practices infidelity as a monk and as a Pope, breaking her vows.  The latter is so relevant to today's scandals with the church that I suspect it would cause some controversy to see such a film released here.

Sure enough, last week the press was filled with reports of the Vatican denouncing the film.  Newspapers from all over the world have carried the story, while countries such as Germany (where the film was made) and Italy saw a strong showing at the box office for the movie.

I think the story is interesting, although parts of it made me a bit uncomfortable, and I'm not even Christian.  Despite the fact that Gerold doesn't show his love to Joan until she's a young woman, one has to wonder what thoughts were in his head when he met her as a child in her early (or pre-) teens.  And the fact that she broke her vows with him while living the monastic life also is a cause of discomfort.

My favorite scene is when Gerold suspects Joan is alive and nearby when her predecessor uses a cunning trick both Gerold and Joan had learned earlier on in the film.  The look on Gerrold's face is priceless, and who wouldn't laugh at John Goodman as the Pope acting out that scene.

I'm a big fan of David Wenham and while he does a great job here, he looks too close to Faramir (his role from Lord of the Rings).  David manages to always choose the right parts, though.  He rarely takes a role on a film that gets unnoticed.  Occasionally he'll take small roles in big films and that pays off just as much as taking on a major part in another project.  It always works out for him and his career always gets a bit of a boost from the experience.

I feared John Goodman would take the film down, but I forgot what a good, likable actor he is.  I always liked him, even in Roseanne, a TV show I loved to hate for many reasons I won't go into here.  He's terrific as the Pope who precedes Joan, and he does an excellent job.  I just wish he had never done that silly King Ralph movie years ago.

Johanna Wokalek is excellent as Joan.  She's easy to watch and very likable.

The ending is terrific.  It's a nice touch.

It'll be interesting to see if this film gets released here in the US, and - if so - what the reaction will be to it by the general audience.

DVD-Review: Angel-A

Film:  Angel-A

Starring:  Jamel Debbouze, Rie Rasmussen, Gilbert Melki, Serge Riaboukine

Director:  Luc Besson
Screenwriter:  Luc Besson

French with English Subtitles

Luc Besson is one of those filmmakers who can really surprise you.  Some of his films are truly amazing, while others feel a little flat.  One thing's for certain, he always experiments with this work and never restricts himself.  Angel-A is one of those films.

Angel-A is a fairly recent film (2005) shot entirely in black and white, giving it a 1940's film noir appeal to it.

The film is about a man whose at the end of his rope and in debt to the mob when out of the blue a woman enters his life and changes it.  And we soon learn why.  As the title suggests, she's an angel, but it's not as easy as all that as the movie reveals.

Jamel Debbouze is terrific as the troubled André.  I found his first scene amusing, because as he's trying to buy himself from time to acquire the money he needs to pay back his debt, he tells his "creditors" that he's originally from New York.  What makes this interesting is not the fact that I'm watching a French language film about a man from New York, but the fact that the details aren't missed in the scene.  He speaks slowly and carefully either as one trying to find the right words to say, or - better yet - as an American still finding his tongue in the French language.  I was really amused by that scene.

Another amusing thing is the casting of Rie Rasmussen as Angel-A.  She's excellent, but I found myself reminded somewhat of Milla Jovovich's character in that other Luc Besson film The Fifth Element, or Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.  Tall and leggy, Angel-A is dressed in a black leather micro-mini and is sporting a sexy, platinum blond, bob haircut.  As expected she enamors all the men she encounters, and yet, she's smart and sassy to boot.  She's definitely a woman of the 21st Century... at least on film.

Both main characters are lively, multi-dimensional and fun to watch.  Sometimes one has to question why an angel would do the things Angel-A does, but as the film unfolds the answers become crystal clear and sometimes what you think you see or hear, isn't exactly what's really happening.

I highly recommend this movie.  It's one of Besson's best of the ones I've seen so far.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: City Island

Film:  City Island

Starring:  Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Steven Strait, Dominik García-Lorido, Ezra Miller, Emily Mortimer, Alan Arkin

Director:  Raymond De Felitta
Screenwriter:  Raymond De Felitta

Sometimes before I write a review I'll troll around the internet to read others views of the film.  It doesn't influence what I write about.  Instead it inspires me to forge ahead with my own views.

A few critics complained that this film was too overloaded.  I disagree.  When you have a dysfunctional ensemble cast, and when the plot synopsis tells the audience that each family member has a secret, you're bound to have to follow a lot of subplots.  In this day and age of Lost, Heroes, Flash Forward and all the other ensemble works out there, this is an inevitable path to be taken.

Ironically, I had a much harder time getting into the TV shows above than I did this movie.  The multiple characters and their stories didn't bother me as much as some of the implausible, silly, and over-the-top scenes.  I had trouble with the tension and the arguing, but I knew we'd get past that eventually.  I was as uncomfortable as Tony (Steven Strait) who spends his first day in the Rizzo household listening to the yelling around the table between Vince Sr. (Andy Garcia), his wive Joyce (Julianna Margulies) and their kids (Dominik García-Lorido and Ezra Miller).  The tension in the room was deeply felt by me, which means I guess it worked.

As for the secrets, yes they all have them, but they're not so monumental that they're unsolvable.  That was the other complaint some critics had.  They said the ending was predictable or too easy.  My view is after all the hiding and arguing for an hour and forty minutes, resolving the problem is the only way to calm down from this roller coaster adventure.  I loved the ending.  It was the best part.  Maybe it was the fact that the film was over, or the hope that they'd stop being so suspicious of each other.

The daughter, Vivian (I wonder if Joyce complained about how all the kids are somewhat named after her husband), has her own secret, but the plot device used in the film bothered me.  She'd be on the phone complaining about how badly she wanted to get back to work.  It's almost like she loved her job.  She occasionally sounded as if she didn't enjoy college, which sort of defeats the ending.

Vince Jr., meanwhile, has a fetish, but he's also an annoying prat, who thinks he's better than anyone, but in the end I realized he just felt the same way toward his parents as they did each other.  He was following their model.  He wasn't proud of them, and thought they were as childish as he was.

I'm not going to do what the other critics do and give away the plot and its secrets, however, they're a bit on the unbelievable side.  Some are really mild, such as smoking when they had said they had quit, etc.  Others are somewhat more tangible and deal mainly with self-esteem issues, especially considering the fact that Joyce and Vince tend to argue about each other's lack of a college education and a real job.

There are parts that are a bit silly, like imitating Marlon Brando during an acting audition for a Martin Scorsese movie.  What happened immediately after was fun and somewhat believable, but the Brando bit was ridiculous.

Some parts are endearing, like one involving the next door neighbor.  At first one has to wonder where that was going, but soon enough it turns into a really nice side story.

Andy Garcia is a good actor and I often enjoy his work, although sometimes I wonder if he's channeling Al Pacino in some of his films, this one being no exception.  That said, his performance was the richest, most enjoyable of the whole movie.  I think he did a great job with the material.

The rest of the cast did well too.  There were scenes I truly enjoyed from each one of them, despite not loving the film wholeheartedly.  Emily Mortimer is in this (see my review of Harry Brown), but again she shows quite a bit of insecurity.  I'll admit that I've only seen her in three films including this one, but so far they all show a very soft, somewhat vulnerable person.  I need to see some of her other work, before I make a solid judgment of her acting choices.

Alan Arkin is totally underutilized here.  His role looked more like a cameo than anything else.

If you like to watch a bunch of Italian-American New Yorkers argue a lot, then this is your film. Otherwise, rent it or wait until it's on TV somewhere.