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Romance Language
By Shawn Stone

Italian for Beginners
Directed by Lone Scherfig

This Danish film about a group of more-or-less-normal, more-or-less-unhappy thirtysomething people who bring love, sex and meaning into their lives through the unusual vehicle of an Italian-language class is thoroughly charming. In fact, it will be a surprise if Italian for Beginners doesn’t turn out to be one of the best two or three films to reach local screens this year.

There are no opening credits, save a handwritten title card confirming that the picture is, officially, a Dogme95 film. Since film ratings are now discreetly tucked away after the endless end credits, the fact of this “certification” is as peculiar as an old movie carrying the imprimatur of the Kansas Board of Film Censors. While the virtuous Kansans of long ago might have cleansed a film of smoking or drinking references, the virtuous Danes of the Dogme movement have purified their cinema of what they consider to be artifice, by, among other things, using a single handheld camera and eschewing genres. I suppose this means Italian for Beginners is a romantic comedy only accidentally.

Set in the cold Copenhagen winter, the story concerns an engaging cast of characters including a recently widowed, still-mourning pastor named Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen); Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), a shy hotel clerk with sexual performance issues; and Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), a comically obnoxious hothead with the misfortune (for his customers) to be in restaurant business. Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen) is an Italian waitress out of place in the pale North; Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen) is a kind hairdresser with a monstrous mother; Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk) is a klutz with the misfortune (for her customers) to work in a bakery. Everyone has his or her own private, quite real pain, and everyone is related to everyone else in inventively serendipitous ways. Seeing this all sorted out is very enjoyable.

One can laugh at the Dogme95 movement for its idealism and restrictive cinematic rules, but judging by this result, there is a lot to be said for believing in something and sticking to your creed. As employed by director Lone Scherfig, the handheld photography is intimate and immediate without becoming overbearing, and the fast-paced editing is unobtrusive and adds immeasurably to the film’s light (not lightweight) tone. Scherfig also isn’t afraid of wit; when Olympia’s grotesque father rants that he could have left her on the floor to rot when she was a baby, Scherfig dutifully pans to a spot on the floor, as if that forlorn baby were still there. The studied Dogme95 proscription for cinema proves as liberating as the film’s trip to Italy.

Also, consider that a story about a group of repressed Northern Europeans loosening up through contact with Southern
European/Mediterranean culture isn’t exactly a shiny new concept; dour Scandinavians and stiff-upper-lip Brits have been cavorting through romantic Italy in search of fun for a couple of centuries. That the Dogme95 gang can revitalize romantic comedy and create a film as funny, heartfelt and satisfying as this should be a lesson to Hollywood. Perhaps Julia Roberts should make her next film in Copenhagen.

Blood Runs Cold

Queen of the Damned
Directed by Michael Rymer

The vampire Lestat was last seen inhabiting the body of Tom Cruise in Interview With a Vampire, but he appears in Queen of the Damned—the feature-length music-video adaptation of the Anne Rice vampire chronicle—in the form of Stuart Townsend. Townsend, who looks (and moves) like a Greek statue, has about as much magnetism as chiseled marble, and not a drop of the charisma required of a rock star. This is really bad juju for the film, which posits Lestat as the latest MTV sensation. The parallels between rock stars and vampires—waking after dark, decadent attire, fabulous wealth, slavish acolytes, and the nightly pick of willing victims—are too obvious to be interesting, except for one point: Both vocations are isolating.

And underneath all the high-fashion cinematography, homoerotic posturing, blood-sucking fetishism, techno-metal soundtracking and orgiastic gore, Queen of the Damned does seem to be about loneliness. Or at least it’s got a lot of lonely characters in it. Lestat is abandoned by his “maker,” Marius (aging French pretty boy Vincent Perez), after he bites into an ancient statue of Queen Akasha (the late R&B singer Aaliyah), and gets a transfusion of extra-premium vampire blood, bringing the homicidal queen back to life in the process.

Fast-forward 200 years. Lestat’s biggest fan is Jessie (Marguerite Moreau), a 20-year-old antiquities scholar and member of a vampire neighborhood-watch group in London. Jessie is lonely because her Auntie (Lena Olin) cast her off in childhood. Disguising herself as a groupie, Jessie pleads to Lestat “Let me be with you,” with all the forbidden passion of ordering a textbook on Old London street grids (Moreau would’ve been more convincing as a zombie). As if this weren’t enough silliness, Akasha shows up just as Lestat’s band is making its debut appearance—in Death Valley (and drawing an infinitely larger crowd than even a double bill of Marilyn Manson and N’Sync could). It’s bye-bye to Jessie and all the goth-club poseurs on two continents: Akasha wants Lestat, and she does not like to share. It’s also bye-bye to about half the population of California, who supply the queen with her nightly Slurpees.

Akasha is just a walking special effect, but then, so is everybody else. And for such a ridiculous film, the damned are rather humorless, despite some pallid attempts at camp (Lestat to Marius: “How did you get through the ’50s in red velvet?”). Townsend’s mechanical hauteur casts Cruise’s delectably sardonic performance (one of his best, as it turns out) in a halo of fresh appreciation. And though Queen of the Damned rips off whole tableaux from Interview, it never comes within hissing range of that film’s creepy intensity. This chronicle is much closer in mood to The Crow: City of Angels, another senseless, soundtrack-
marketing gimmick based on nightclubgoer wish-fulfillment and starring Perez.

Those Who Know tell me that Queen of the Damned is the least suitable of the vampire chronicles for screen adaptation, and that Rice fans would have much preferred a movie of The Vampire Lestat, which serves as a prequel of sorts to Interview. But then, early baroque can’t compete with techno metal when it comes to selling soundtracks.

—Ann Morrow

I See Dead Spouses

Directed by Tom Shadyac

If you see M. Night Shyamalan anytime soon, kick his ass. For while the writer-director of The Sixth Sense is hardly the only culprit behind the ongoing boom in nebulously spiritual entertainment—if anything, Shyamalan simply tapped into the zeitgeist with his millennial tale of voices from the great beyond—he absolutely is the person to blame for current movies about faithless Americans trying to wrap their heads around new levels of reality. The recent Richard Gere bomb The Mothman Prophecies was a stylish Shyamalan rip-off that packed some solid chills, but Dragonfly, the latest turd from Kevin Costner, takes everything that was annoying about The Sixth Sense and couples those attributes with a jaw-droppingly moronic narrative.

Costner, who proved with Thirteen Days that it’s still conceivable for him to appear in a quality film, plays to all of his weaknesses in this deadly dull “thriller.” He plays Chicago doctor Joe Darrow, whose wife died recently in Colombia, where she gave medical assistance to impoverished folks. (And let’s not talk about the flashbacks in which the dead doc flits through the Third World with hair and makeup straight out of a Vidal Sassoon commercial.) Anyway, Joe is working himself to death so he doesn’t have to deal with his grief, and he starts encountering people while they have near-death experiences. Joe believes his expired missus is using these people as conduits through which to send messages from the afterlife.

OK, fine. Dead wife, supernatural voices, near-death experiences . . . perfectly good ingredients for something creepy or at least distracting. But when the filmmakers hit us with gobbledygook about spirits traveling through rainbows and using images of dragonflies to imply the presence of the dead doctor—she had a dragonfly tattoo, see, just like the one a relative of hers had on his ass—the bullshit piles so deep that even Costner, by all reports a tall and virile individual, can’t wade through it. The movie also is disrespectful of those who believe in the spirit world, because Dragonfly makes the spirit world seem like a brightly colored playland so noxious even the Teletubbies wouldn’t hang out there.

And, yes, the movie’s got a Sixth Sense-style trick ending, but the ending of Dragonfly is so ludicrous and saccharine that it’s more like a slap in the face to people who trudged through everything that preceded it than a reward at the end of an interesting journey. Even Costner seems to lose interest in the movie within the first 10 minutes—he shuffles through the film with the enthusiasm and emotional expression of a No. 2 pencil. Hell, sitting through The Postman again would have been more fun than enduring Dragonfly for the first time.

—Peter Hanson

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