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Casanova as good looking as its stars

By Lady Liberty
web posted January 16, 2006


*** out of ****

CasanovaCasanova opened in limited release on Christmas Day. The film is now more broadly available (currently showing in just over a thousand theatres, about a third the number of wide releases), and continues to garner mostly good reviews. The word of mouth was at least good enough that we were willing to drive some distance to a larger city where Casanova was showing. Before I go any further, I'll tell you now that the drive was well worth it.

Casanova tells the much fictionalized story of Italy's infamous lover, Giacomo Casanova (Heath Ledger). The film focuses on his time in Venice, and takes place in the year 1753 when the city was a bizarre mixture of extremes. On one end of the scale were such things as the licentiousness of Carnivale; on the other was the Inquisition which Rome was keeping very much alive. Casanova toed a line between the two worlds, but often found himself on the wrong side of that line. The movie actually opens with such a stumble when he is discovered taking advantage of young novices in a nunnery.

The Doge of Venice (Tim McInnerny) comes to his rescue for what is patently not the first time, and tells him sternly that he must behave himself or face the dire consequences on his own. Casanova reluctantly teams with his manservant Lupo (Omid Djalili) to find a suitable match. He believes he's done so when he sees the ethereal Victoria (Natalie Dormer), the innocent daughter of a wealthy Venetian (Stephen Greif). His reputation unsprisingly precedes him, and the father promptly turns down his request for the girl's hand. It's that same reputation, however, that causes Victoria to beg her father to change his mind.

Meanwhile, Victoria has long been worshiped from afar by the mooning Giovanni Bruni (Charlie Cox) who lives just across the canal. Bruni's sister Francesca (Sienna Miller) tries to push her shy brother into confessing his love, but he wants nothing to do with actions he seems to see as indelicate. In fact, his sister is more of a man than he is, which comes in handy when Giovanni challenges Casanova to a duel over Victoria's affections and finds himself hopelessly overmatched.

Francesca, who has no idea that the man her brother has challenged is Casanova himself, finds him intriguing. She knows there's no point in going any further, though, because she's betrothed to a man she's never met courtesy of a father who signed a contract on her behalf when she was a small child. The rich Genovese merchant Paprizzio (Oliver Platt) is, however, the answer to her impoverished family's prayers, and her mother, Andrea (Lena Olin) isn't about to let her forget it. She may not find it so easy to forget Casanova, though, when he in turn finds himself fascinated with her.

As these various threads of the story begin to interleave, Rome's most fearsome inquisitor, Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), shows up in Venice. It seems that Casanova's reputation has gone well beyond the bounds of the city and the Catholic powers that be aren't thrilled that he's still on the loose. Of course, the Bishop is self-righteously pleased when it seems he can also bring a few heretics to justice along the way.

Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller are both very good in their roles, and both seem to fit right into the period of the piece (Ledger even manages to look good in a wig). Lena Olin is an eye-fluttering flirt, and Omid Djalili is just plain fun. Natalie Dormer conveys the sexual frustrations of the supposedly innocent Victoria, while Jeremy Irons captures the smug Bishop perfectly. But in the midst of these perfectly fine performances, Oliver Platt is a stand-out. His wide-eyed innocence and his earnest hopes are almost enough to make you feel bad for him. Almost.

The screenplay, which was written by two inexperienced writers, is clever and surprisingly funny; direction is ably handled by Lasse Hallström whose earlier efforts included the acclaimed (and far more serious) What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. The costumes and sets are sumptuous; the cinematography shows everything off beautifully. There are a few special effects fumbles, but on balance Casanova is a good looking film.

Casanova doesn't depict history, even the improbable one told by Casanova himself in his autobiography. There are some authentic elements not the least of which is the fact that the Inquisition really was after him (interestingly, Casanova once studied for the priesthood but was kicked out for "scandalous conduct"), but the movie really can't be considered anything but fiction. Still, I suspect most people aren't going to see Casanova for educational purposes. I myself went to see performances that had been lauded and to hopefully be entertained. I got all that and then some, and recommend the movie accordingly.

POLITICAL NOTES: There will probably be some Catholics who find the depiction of the Catholic Church in Casanova to be offensive. The truth of the matter is that, of all the elements of the movie, those portions depicting the Inquisition and its inherent unreasonableness may be the most historically accurate (though they fall well short of showing the real horror of those who, whether guilty or innocent, were taken by inquisitors for "questioning"). For those who want to look beneath the surface of those scenes, there's also a real lesson where living under a rule with far too much religious power inherent in it is concerned.

I don't doubt that there are people in parts of the Middle East who could tell modern-day Americans what such a government is like, but some tend to dismiss those circumstances because the religion involved is Islam. The bottom line is that Christianity was once at least as brutal. That there are some who even today rail to bring more religion (theirs, of course) into government is a frightening prospect that should have us all doing everything we can to ensure the First Amendment holds strong and inviolate.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Casanova is rated R for "some sexual content." I've rarely seen a rating so inappropriate. Sure, there's innuendo running rampant, but it's PG-13 innuendo at worst. If your 14 year-old daughter likes period costumes or Heath Ledger, or your 15 year-old son thinks sword fights are way cool, there's no reason for you not to let them see Casanova. As for you, well, I'd suggest you buy a ticket, too. We laughed throughout Casanova, and left the theatre smiling. Is there really a better recommendation for a movie than that?

Grizzly Man

** 1/2 out of ****

Grizzly ManI'd heard, at least peripherally, about Grizzly Man when it was first released. I had little interest in it, though, until a friend of mine rented the DVD and raved about it. That, in a nutshell, is how I ended up in front of my TV one evening last week to watch the documentary for myself.

Grizzly Man refers to an activist by the name of Timothy Treadwell who became famous for spending his summers camping with the grizzly bears in a remote part of Alaska. During his summers alone, he captured some astounding video tape of the bears in their day-to-day lives. From the playful gamboling of cubs to fights for dominance; from the desperate search for enough food to gear up for hibernation to lazy naps in the sun, Treadwell got it all on tape. He also recorded his own comments from positions both behind and in front of the cameras, some of which were exeedingly blunt.

Perhaps Treadwell's primary claim to fame was less the information he gathered about the bears than his attitude toward them. While other biologists take a more documentary stance, Treadwell named all of the bears he spent time with and often talked to them as if they were his children. He never carried weapons, and in fact took note on camera that no other human had lived so long with the grizzlies without such protection. At the end of his thirteenth summer living with and watching the grizzlies — in fact, on the night before he was due to return to civilization for the winter — the 46 year-old Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard (who kept him company for a portion of that summer) were killed and eaten by a grizzly.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog obtained literally hundreds of hours of Treadwell's video tape. Armed with that overabundance of material, Herzog edited the film and spliced it together with interviews of the coronor who examied the bodies of Treadwell and Huguenard; the pilot who discovered the tragedy at the camp site; Treadwell's friends and familiy; and a wildlife biologist with an expertise in bears. Accompanied by Herzog's narration, Grizzly Man does little to describe how it was that Treadwell began his relationship with the grizzlies, but conveys in depth his commitment and experiences of the last dozen or so years of his life.

The unique insight into the lives of the bears offered by the film is fascinating. In an entirely different way, so, too, is the revealing look at Treadwell himself. As the film moves closer to the time of Treadwell's death, it's painfully obvious that his love is turning to obsession, and his bellwether warnings becoming an all consuming paranoia. His motives are unquestionable. His actions, however, are another story entirely.

After its release last year, Grizzly Man won numerous Film Critics Association awards for Best Documentary and/or Best Non-Fiction Film (Chicago, Los Angeles, and the National Society of Film Critics among them). It also captured the Sundance Film Festival's Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film award. While I'm not as enamored with the movie as was my friend, I did find myself caught up in the story and can't argue with the various honors it's received.

The footage of the Alaska scenery and the bears themselves is just wonderful. Treadwell's befriending of a family of foxes offers a little comic relief and some truly touching moments. Meanwhile, the unfortunate end to the story is, in some ways, less about Treadwell's death than it is his obvious descent into a state of mind that will cause many to question his life.

For those interested in the magnificent grizzlies, Grizzly Man offers a look into their habitat and habits not offered elsewhere. But at the same time, the glimpses into the psyche of the troubled Treadwell (not to mention his questionable technique of getting much too close — both physically and emotionally — to the objects of his study) append an unfortunate coda to both the movie and a man's life.

POLITICAL NOTES: Treadwell is, shall we say, less than impressed with government efforts to protect grizzly bears. He has a point. Though the area remains remote, tourism is gaining in popularity, and poachers are often a problem. Traditionally, while some claim government protective measures to be successful, they've often caused more problems than they've solved (the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park is an example). After learning so much more about Alaska's grizzly population, it would be a terrible shame if something comparable were to happen there, and the more direct government involvement is increased, the more likely it is to happen.

Timothy Treadwell founded an activist group he called Grizzly People. For more on Treadwell's work and the ongoing efforts of the group to preserve grizzly habitat and protect the bears, visit the Grizzly People web site.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Grizzly Man is rated R for "language." The language is, indeed, rough, but the average 13 year-old hears that sort of talk on a consistent basis. Despite the violent subject matter of the film (Treadwell's death), there's no onscreen blood or gore; though an audio recording of the last moments of the couple's lives does exist, you don't hear it here. Grizzly Man isn't a film like The March of the Penguins where even the littlest ones can learn and appreciate a wild animal, but at the same time, I can't condone an R rating.

The Constant Gardner

** out of ****

The Constant GardnerI didn't have much interest in seeing The Constant Gardner when it was first released. A numer of awards nominations later, however, I decided that I had to at least take a look. Since the film is now out on DVD, I took the opportunity to see it this weekend. While I don't regret for a moment the time I took to watch, I also found the movie to be something of a mixed bag. Given the relevance of the subject matter, I think that's too bad.

The Constant Gardner follows the months a low level British diplomat spends in Africa with his young and beautiful wife. But before it does that, it begins with the end when a white woman is found tortured, raped, and dead along the shores of a remote lake. The diplomat identifies the body as being that of his wife, and in his grief, he begins to live partly in his memories. Even as he mourns, when his thoughts are in the present his sole focus is to find out why his wife was murdered and to bring her killers to jusitce no matter what the personal cost may be.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) actually meets the vivacious Tessa (Rachel Weisz) shortly before he's to leave for a post in Kenya. Tessa, who is a staunch human rights activist, begs him to take her along as his "mistress, lover, or wife," and he's unable to refuse her. While Justin tends to his extensive hobby garden and performs his assigned duties, Tessa befriends a local doctor. Along with Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), she visits families who live in Nairobi slums where she offers whatever help she can as she works to further her own goals.

Tessa's husband knows nothing of her efforts which are centered in large part on uncovering possible wrongdoing in connection with the ongoing pharmaceutical trials of a new tuberculosis medicine. But the closer Tessa comes to learning some very dirty secrets, the more danger she's in from a shockingly broad number of sources. Because Tessa doesn't want to endanger Justin or his job, she goes instead to another British authority stationed nearby. Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston) promises to help her. But despite Woodrow's assurances, it's eventually apparent that some will stop at nothing to prevent Tessa from telling what she knows.

Justin, of course, finds he must begin almost from scratch to discover the dead woman he still loves. As he picks his way along the trail of her earlier discoveries, he, too, descends into danger. But via ongoing flashbacks to happier days with Tessa, Justin determines to do whatever it takes and to brave whatever might come to finish Tessa's work and give himself closure in the matter of her sudden and violent death.

Ralph Fiennes gives an understated performance as the stoic Justin Quayle, but when his emotions do break through, he's especially powerful. Rachel Weisz's strong performance has been nominated for several awards including a Golden Globe (in fact, the movie itself is a Golden Globe Best Drama nominee). Hubert Koundé is fine though he's given little opportunity to show what he might be capable of as an actor; Danny Huston is also okay. Bill Nighy (who plays the rich and powerful Sir Bernard Pellegrin), however, takes a very limited role and shines.

The direction of The Constant Gardner is capable, but the editing undermines some of it (though I'll confess I really loved the interspersing of "personal" video clips within the movie). While flashbacks are a common enough technique to flesh out a story, they're needlessly confusing at times in this movie. Filmed largely on location in Kenya, the scenery is authentic if stark, and the slums of Nairobi are eye-opening (the movie makers actually established a fund for those living in the slums after filming was finished). So, too, is the subject matter.

The Constant Gardner is a good movie, but not a great one. Sadly, with better editing and cleaner storytelling, it could have been significantly better. Is The Constant Gardner worth seeing? Sure. But is it a must see film? Unfortunately not.

POLITICAL NOTES: The primary subject matter of The Constant Gardner involves the greed of pharmaceutical companies, and the amorality — and sometimes the outright immorality — of those who will do anything to make another buck. There's likely some truth to that (the artificial manipulation of the availability and price of AIDS drugs in Africa reported in recent years are a prime example). At the same time, such abuse wouldn't occur (or would at least be far less prevalent) if it weren't for the corruption of so many African governments and officials. That the movie barely addressed that corruption, and then only from a highly localized standpoint, seems to undermine the message somewhat.

Also objectionable was the apparent endorsement (or at least a lack of any criticism) of the United Nations. Although UN aid workers appeared only long enough to establish that air drops of food and medicines were ongoing, nothing was mentioned about the misdrection of those goods by government officials, nor about the utter inability of the UN itself to address those problems or their underlying causes. If the film had time to slap the hands of those Brits who support the War in Iraq (and it did), or to disparage the United States and its foreign policies (it did that, too), then surely it could have spared a moment to present the UN in other than strictly good and humanitarian terms.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Constant Gardner is rated R for "language, some violent images, [and] some sexual content/nudity." Aside from the fact that a few of the images are very violent indeed (though not graphic), the subject matter alone is quite mature. If the viewer isn't mature enough to understand — at least in general terms — some of the politics and the implications of same, then he or she isn't mature enough to see and appreciate this movie. I'd restrict The Constant Gardner to those well informed teens of about age 15 or 16 and up.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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