At The Movies

Directed by Roland Emmerich
A seemingly literary period drama seems like an odd choice for Roland Emmerich (or vice-versa) given that he’s more well known for movies like “Stargate” and “Godzilla.” And he doesn’t have much of a reputation for historical accuracy, or any other kind of accuracy for that matter, after a film like “10,000 BC.” But that may not matter in a story that rehashes old conjecture about William Shakespeare and whether or not he wrote the plays that bear his name.

The film starts and ends with modern day bookend scenes in which Derek Jacobi (himself known as a Shakespearean actor) sets up a tale of doubt and intrigue. The premise is largely based on oft-repeated assertions that Shakespeare was barely literate, raised an illiterate family, and left no original manuscripts in his will. All of which would seem odd for a prolific playwright.  

But what seems like an interesting basis for a new movie is almost peripheral to the actual story being told. Instead, the plot revolves around a nobleman and his involvement with Queen Elizabeth and her court – the idea being that writing plays would have been unseemly for such a person and so he seeks out a stooge with whom to associate his plays. Shakespeare isn’t his choice, but manages to infiltrate the plan, being depicted as a relatively crude and opportunistic career actor.

The end result of all of this is somewhat messy. We’re not asked to ponder the origin of the work – that authorship is not in doubt within this story. However, what is in doubt is who the story is really about – there are multiple, relatively central characters and no really clear protagonist for the audience to identify with. We’re given fairly clear villains to boo and hiss at but nobody to cheer on – and that’s a fundamental problem, regardless of who wrote what when. [Editor’s note: Shakespeare would have never written something so poorly planned-out.]

Love Crime
Directed by Alain Corneau
My favorite movie of the week is a twisted tale of workplace competition and backstabbing. This French production starts with a young executive in a company engaged in international agribusiness witnessing her boss taking credit for the subordinate’s idea. This doesn’t sit well despite the boss assuring her, essentially, that all is fair in love and business. But things escalate as the subordinate attempts to get ahead only to discover just how ruthless the game can become.

The boss here is played well by Kristin Scott Thomas, who is as comfortable in the French language as she is in English. Her younger colleague is played by Ludivine Sagnier, who does well in riding an extreme emotional rollercoaster onscreen. It’s also a wonderfully engaging combination of mind-games and police procedural as developments escalate rapidly into illegal territory. Watching it was fun, but trying to stay a step ahead of the plot was even more enjoyable.

The Skin I Live In
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Antonio Banderas (having a good week as the voice of “Puss in Boots”) plays a successful surgeon and medical researcher in the latest from acclaimed director Pedro Almodóvar (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” “Volver”). But he’s also a troubled individual, with a tragic past that contributes to his amoral decision-making. It quickly becomes apparent that his research into new types of skin and grafting isn’t confined to labs and mice, but somehow involves a mysterious patient who lives in a locked room in his vast house.  

This disturbing tale of identity, control, and revenge is not for everybody and possibly not even for all fans of Almodóvar’s previous work, much of which is either more amusing or at least less dark than this. This thriller almost crosses into mild horror territory, in the sense that Banderas’ doctor is a modern day monster of sorts. In that regard, it might just as well have been the work of a filmmaker such as Guillermo del Toro (“The Devil’s Backbone,” “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”) who revels in the creation and depiction of monstrous characters. It doesn’t have the gore and imagery of classic horror (or the trend towards ‘torture porn’ seen in franchises such as the “Saw” films) but it’s equally creepy and violent in the main character’s psychopathic disregard for others.  

Tower Heist
Directed by Brett Ratner
This is a moderately fun movie with a big and noteworthy cast – and it succeeds, also moderately, by never trying to be any more than that. Set in a full-service, high-rise apartment building in New York, it has a timely plot that revolves around a Madoff-like resident who has allegedly swindled many people out of their savings, including the staff of the building. Naturally the ‘help’ aren’t happy and when a core group of them learn that he probably has a stash hidden somewhere in his penthouse, they hatch a plan to repatriate their funds.  
The humor is good-natured and the plot is appealing, although the actual action that develops is eye-rollingly silly at times. Aside from that, I probably most enjoyed being reminded that Casey Affleck is a more watchable actor than his brother, and that Matthew Broderick could spawn a sub-genre of films that involve both him and ill-fated Ferraris stored in buildings with floor-to-ceiling windows.

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