(In French, On TV, October 2015) Something strange and unpleasant happens during Malena, which starts as the story of a boy’s infatuation with what’s quite obviously presented as the most beautiful woman of his small WW2-era Italian village. The first chunk of the film feels endearing and nostalgic, light and only creepy in the way that young men think back about their first big crushes. The subjective nature of the story being told can sometimes take almost absurdly comic turns (Such as when Malena turns every male head, causes car crashes, sends men in uncontrollable lust) and the gentle rhythm of the film suggests a far different film that the one we then get: Because as soon as Malena becomes a war widow, her situation in the small village society becomes untenable: out of desperation, she turns to prostitution with the fascist elites, something that turns her life into living hell once they are ousted from power. The tragedies don’t stop there, as further cruel twists pile on and definitely sour the film. In retrospect, the story told in Malena is predictable in its own way… just not the one that the film initially suggests. This narrative rug-pulling aside, Malena does leave an impression. Few other actresses than Monica Bellucci could credibly pull off a “most beautiful woman in the world” kind of role, but she makes us believe. The film is usually shot well, clearly mixing subjective sequences and fantasies with the rest of the story, often cruel and mean-spirited. It could have been more enjoyable had it stuck to is comedy beginning, but that’s quite obviously not the story that was meant to be told.
(In theaters, July 2010) There’s a lot of generic familiarity in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but don’t despair yet: Under Jon Turteltaub’s sure-footed direction, genre-aware script and quirky performances, this fantasy film actually manages to save itself from embarrassment. Nicolas Cage fans won’t be disappointed by his portrayal of an eccentric sorcerer, while Jay Baruchel more than holds his own as a sympathetic science nerd turned magician. (Plus: Monica Bellucci, even in a too-brief role.) There is a lot of special-effects eye candy, and as many different magic tricks as the first four Harry Potter movies combined. New York locations are effectively exploited, whereas the editing finds a good pace. But never mind the technical credentials: The real charm of the film is to be found in the script, which correctly assumes that we’ve seen a lot of movies of this type: as a result, a significant portion of the required exposition is sarcastically telescoped. (The best instance of this happens during the obligatory but well-handled car chase, as Cage’s character quickly deals with his apprentice’s questions without even waiting for him to ask them.) The one sequence that really doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a too-goofy clean-up scene that pays homage to the Fantasia animated segment of the same title without bothering to rein in the CGI excesses. Both Baruchel and Cage are oddball enough that they can do justice to their respective characters and if their delivery could occasionally be improved, the net effect is a film-long smile. Baruchel, in particular, has an irresistible puppy-dog charm –especially when he comes to enjoy his magical talents. Frankly, it’s hard to resist a protagonist who charges into the final battle shouting something like “I came armed with SCIENCE!” For a film that could have been considerably dourer, there’s a refreshing competence at play in this latest Bruckheimer vehicle that is enough to make us forget about the familiarity of it all.