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Monday, October 20, 2008

ICE COLD IN ALEX (1958)

Captain Ansen (John Mills) and cohorts ponder the most hard-won cold brews ever.

I'm not all that keen on war movies as a genre, but when Garth Ennis recommends a particular film as one of the all-time best of its kind I feel inclined to give it a look. The film in question is the 1958 adaptation of Christopher Landon's chronicle of some of his experiences in World War II, ICE COLD IN ALEX, and I'm surprised to say that it comes from out of nowhere to establish itself as my favorite war movie.

The story is a model of simplicity: when the British base at Tobruk falls under siege by German forces, the personnel must evacuate and an ambulance (dubbed "Katy" by its original driver) driven by combat-fatigued borderline alcoholic Captain Ansen (John Mills) must make its way to safety after becoming separated from its unit. Also on board for the journey are MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews), a pair of nurses (Sylvia Syms and Diane Clare) and an Afrikaans and German-speaking South African captain (Anthony Quayle) whom they find along the way. The direct route to their destination, Alexandria, is inaccessible since the bridge leading to it was demolished, so the ambulance must traverse a perilous course across over six-hundred miles of desert, where the characters must contend with heavily-armed Nazi patrols, treacherous mine fields, blistering heat, dwindling rations, fraying nerves and the suspicion that one of them may be a Nazi spy (gee, guess which one). When a bullet claims the life of one of the Brits, Ansen swears off drinking until they arrive safely in "Alex" and belly up to a bar that he knows that serves lager in glasses so cold that you can carve the ice off the surface with your fingernail. So, basically, the guy focuses on a beer as his motivator. There have been times when I could totally relate to that, and when you see what these characters go through you'll need a tall, frosty one yourself, especially after the episodes involving traversing a minefield and getting the overheating ambulance over a steep sand dune. That may not sound like much, but I swear you'll see what I mean.

What makes this movie so enjoyable to me is that it's a WWII flick totally devoid of the jingoistic action figure stereotypes that I so utterly loathe in many films of the genre, and is instead about a group of human beings that the viewer can relate to and root for whether you're into the whole war movie thing or not. Theirs is a journey through a crucible in which, for better or worse, the human spirit and will are tested to their utmost, and even the enemy are portrayed as people who happen to be soldiers and not just a bunch of stock goosestepping drones. And the Nazi spy proves to be not only sympathetic but also quite heroic, contributing hugely to helping in the mutual goal of crossing the desert and reaching Alexandria alive.

Everything about this film works and treats the viewer with intelligence, so I urge you to see it if you get the opportunity. It's not available on DVD in the States, but it is easily obtainable for those of you who wisely invested in an all-regions DVD player. TRUST YER BUNCHE and seek out this absolute classic.

Monday, October 13, 2008

MALENA (2000)

Monica Bellucci, as the beautiful and justly-melancholy Malèna Scordia, ignites the fancies of young Sicilian lads in WWII Italy.

NOTE: in a strange bit of serendipitous timing, this review of an Italian movie finds itself being posted on Columbus Day. Fuhgeddaboudit!

I love Italian women. I don't know where that fascination comes from, but I wear my appreciation on my sleeve and appreciate few of the Babes from the Boot the way I do Monica Bellucci. Just say it with me: Mon-ih-kuh Bail-oo-chee. It's a name that brings one's lips and tongue into full, sensual play and is a pleasure to speak, a name utterly befitting of one of, in my own humble opinion, the most beautiful women on this planet. A model turned thesp, Bellucci enthralls me to the point of Yer Bunche being willing to sit through two hours of her reciting the ingredients and nutritional information of side of a box of instant mashed potatoes, so it's a good thing that she sets her sights on projects of loftier content. Sure she was in those lousy sequels to THE MATRIX and the painfully mediocre BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992), but I won't hold that against her as long as she keeps making decent slice-of-life melodramas and the occasional bit of silliness like SHOOT 'EM UP (2007).

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, the visionary behind the incredible CINEMA PARADISO, crafted MALENA as a coming of age tale set in Sicily that covers the period of Italy's involvement in WWII and follows 12-year-old Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro) as the percolating hormones of puberty hit him and his equally horny cronies like a sledge hammer. The object of their adolescent yearnings is Malèna Scordia (Monica Bellucci), their incredibly hot new Latin teacher who has just moved to their town with her husband, but when Italy enters the war her spouse leaves for service in the army. Now alone, Malèna endures the leers of the town's men and the not-so-quiet jealous whispers of the women, as well as the sleazy rumors and imaginings of both groups while Renato and his pals follow her around like a pack of hungry puppies. But while nearly every other male in town lusts after Malèna in various degrading ways, Renato's spying upon her reveals the sad and lonely truth behind the goddesslike beauty and lends him a unique perspective on her silent suffering. As the war progresses Malèna receives word that her husband has been killed in battle and her fortunes take a turn for the worse as the town's imaginings about her escalate, eventually resulting in her father (an ageing teacher at the local school) receiving a letter that paints her as a disgraceful slut who has slept with most of the town's men, after which he more or less disowns her. Her father is subsequently killed in a bombing raid and when her money runs out Malèna must become a whore in order to survive, bringing the town's imaginings to stark life. When the Germans arrive, Malèna dyes her hair blonde and begins servicing them, but throughout this spiraling cycle of misery Renato remains her most ardent admirer and worships her from afar, being the only witness to the truth of her existence and secretly avenging her abuse in small ways like pissing into the purse of a vicious gossip or spitting into the drink of a braggart at a men's club.

Renato's love for Malèna goes unexpressed, but some of his fantasies of her are seen in humorous bits that reflect his love of the movies, casting himself and Malèna in the romantic leads in his mind's eye, and when not thinking cinematically he pictures her in seductive situations and clad in sexy outfits or simply nothing at all. His horniness soon boils over into chronic masturbation and leads to some very funny sequences involving his family's horror at his behavior, culminating in his father's no nonsense declaration that his son "needs to fuck." Choosing the obvious solution to this problem, Renato's dad takes him to lose his virginity at a local whorehouse where the lad imagines his first woman to be his adored Malèna. As Renato becomes more of man with each passing day, Malèna's situation worsens and his role as her guardian angel takes a major turn when...

I'd better stop there.

This is not a "great" work of cinema by any means (some critics have even called it "slight"), but it struck a chord in me while watching it and reminded me of the painful years of early adolescence and the sheer frustration thereof with surprising clarity. While Malèna would seem to be the main focus of the story (and the marketing), her suffering and position as an earthily beautiful focus of desire serve to give Renato a sense of purpose that evolves into a clumsy form of the most sincere chivalry, and the viewer learns to love the boy for it. In short, I picked it up so I could sate my Bellucci cravings and ended up with a surprisingly realistic boy-lusts-after-older-woman story that allows the boy's yearnings for his madonna to go unfulfilled. Similar territory has been mined many times previous to MALENA, most notably in the American film SUMMER OF '42 (1971), but what lifts MALENA into the "better than average" category is a solid script, Tornatore's directorial eye and the excellent performance of Giuseppe Sulfaro as Renato. I was totally invested in his story, and thanks to his perspective Malèna's story become compelling and not just a collection of war widow "weepie" clichés. But in comparison with Renato, Malèna herself is less of a character than a lovely walking plot motivator; sure, we care for her as we witness her various struggles, but her real purpose is to be that unattainable goddess who arouses the first feelings of manhood in a callow youth, and Bellucci conveys this quite well in a role that is largely silent. It's Renato's show, so keep that in mind when checking this one out, fellow Bellucci worshippers.

My only real complaint about MALENA comes from knowledge gained after seeing it: the American version of the film heavily trims material deemed too the graphic nature of some scenes involving Renato's fantasies about having sex with Malèna, including the scene in the whorehouse that was apparently much more, er, interesting.

One of the sequences cruelly trimmed by those assholes at the MPAA.

Maybe there was some ludicrous concern that the scenes in question skirted dangerously close to "kiddie porn," which, judging from the rest of the movie, they wouldn't have been. The squeamish MPAA called for similar trimming of Luc Besson's excellent 1994 action masterpiece LEON (released here as THE PROFESSIONAL) involving the twelve-year-old Natalie Portman telling Jean Reneau in no certain terms of her intent to seduce him. That sequence was admittedly a bit disturbing, but that film was dealing with rather disturbing material in the first place so it was not inappropriate in the least, plus there was no trace of nudity and Reneau's character set her straight that it wasn't gonna happen (he'd developed a paternal relationship with the orphaned girl), so I guess the MPAA has issues with such stuff, even when handled tastefully, as was the case in MALENA. Buncha pussies.