Friday, July 20, 2007

Four Last Songs

Four Last Songs takes place on an idyllic Mediterranean isle where residents move at a relaxed pace, seemingly on a never-ending summer vacation. The wine flows freely and nobody seems to have a sustainable career of any kind. It’s a haven of sorts for American ex-pat Larry (Stanley Tucci), a middle-aged piano player who originally came to the island for inspiration from a famous composer but eventually settled into a meaningless existence as a small-time lounge act. He’s motivated to make a mark somehow, although not so motivated that he would consider leaving the safe confines of his island paradise, so he comes up with an idea to stage a concert of the famous composer’s works in an amphitheater that has been off-limits since the composer’s death. Unfortunately, the rights to the location and the music belong to the composer’s widow, and she has no interest in complying with Larry’s dream, setting Larry off on a quest to change her mind.

So far so good, but then other characters come into play. There’s Larry’s girlfriend Miranda (Jessica Stevenson) who is generally supportive but also suspicious of his motives and loyalty. There’s the deceased composer’s mistress/muse (Emmanuelle Seigner), still living near the widow (Marisa Paredes) and butting heads with her whenever their paths cross. And then there’s the refined Sebastian (Hugh Bonneville) and his completely unrefined brother Dickie (Rhys Ifans), both with their own motivations and revelations. But wait, there’s more: as if the movie wasn’t already teetering under the weight of so many characters and subplots, a mysterious teenage girl (Jena Malone) arrives with the surprise proclamation that she’s Larry’s daughter he never knew he had.

With so many stories fighting for attention, the film fails to adequately service any of them. Tucci carries the primary plot and his story comes closest to a fully realized idea, but the rest of the characters and their situations become also-rans that fail to add much of anything to the film. On the upside, the actors all seem to be enjoying themselves, a fairly simple task in such beautiful surroundings. It’s almost as if the cast decided to go on holiday together and cobbled a film together while they were at it. There are far worse ways to spend two hours than watching actors at play in an exotic locale, and the film makes for enjoyable escapism and almost mandatory wine consumption, but there’s little substance to savor when it’s all over.

Four Last Songs is now available on DVD, for more information visit the film’s website.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sweet Land

Following a string of film festival honors and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, Sweet Land is finally available to the general public with its DVD release this week. The film was made on a shoestring (reportedly around $1M) but looks very polished, partially due to its scenic rural setting in the pristine farmlands of Minnesota.

Elizabeth Reaser stars as Inge, a young German woman who travels to the US in the 1920s to marry a man she’s never met, a Norwegian immigrant named Olaf (Tim Guinee). There’s limited back story provided about why Olaf arranged for the marriage, as well as why Inge was willing to leave her home behind, leaving the focus fully on their budding relationship.

Olaf is a gruff, quiet farmer and a respected member of his community. Inge’s arrival causes an immediate commotion in his neighborhood, especially when she is exposed as a German instead of the Norwegian everyone was expecting. In the aftermath of WWI, the community has an extreme problem with Germans to such an extent that the local minister (John Heard) refuses to marry them, casting Inge’s future into doubt.

Inge takes refuge with kindly neighbors played by Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston, learning US customs and adapting to life in a large family during her stay. The neighbors have some financial problems endemic to the farming community, with the constant threat of foreclosure hanging over their heads from the local fatcat banker played by Ned Beatty. This presents another dilemma for Inge as she continues her American adventure, hoping for resolution to her marriage as well as her host family’s financial future.

As Inge, Reaser plays the wide-eyed innocent to nearly sappy extent, appearing so naïve and overly accepting that it seems miraculous that she ever found the resolve to leave her home or navigate her way to the States. That innocence helps to explain how she could commit to marry a man who didn’t even bother to provide her with a viable photograph of himself in advance, but tends to become a bit wearying as the film meticulously tracks her golly-gee-whiz discovery of all things American. The rest of the cast seems just a tad off as well, especially Heard as the unconvincing minister and Cumming as the flighty dandy of a neighbor who seems completely out of place on a farm.

While the film is good-natured and a gentle glimpse of our idealized rural history, it really doesn’t have much to say. There’s little question about how Inge’s story will work out in the end, and it takes too long to get to that inevitable conclusion in light of its flimsy plot. The cast is game and the cinematography is suitably scenic, but in the end it feels more like a quaint, throwback TV movie of the week rather than a full-fledged feature film.