From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: Two movies: ‘Hollywood Ending,’ ‘Italian for Beginners’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the May 23, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

In March at the Academy Awards Woody Allen gave a moving tribute to New York City. It was unusual in that, if memory serves me right, he never comes to the Academy Awards when he is nominated, or even when he wins.

For some, Allen’s humor is an acquired taste. For others, he causes belly laughs that won’t stop.

His newest film made me laugh out loud 10 or 15 times. It was a pleasant diversion.

Hollywood Ending is traditional Allen, taking on Hollywood, psychological therapy, and the world of the celebrity, plus lots of other areas of modern life.

But at age 66 or so Allen is too old for the part of a director of films who is cranky to work with but has had an impressive career in the past. He needs to turn over the main character acting to others and stick with small character parts.

Val Waxman (Allen) is a famous director who has such a bad reputation as being very difficult to work with, he now finds himself at the bottom of the barrel doing deodorant commercials in the heavy snows of Canada.

His former wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni) is a studio executive engaged to Hal (Treat Williams), the head of Galaxy Pictures. Ellie thinks a new project called The City That Never Sleeps would be just the right picture for the quintessential New Yorker Val. She puts her reputation on the line as she gets a go-ahead for the $60 million film.

Val is excited and appreciative as he lets out anger over the breakup of their previous marriage. The film is just beginning to shoot as Val comes down with a case of psychological blindness. True to Allen’s neurotic characters it is not physical blindness.

The fun begins as Val’s manager, Al (Mark Rydell) urges Val to go ahead and direct the movie, despite the blindness. Al and, eventually, Ellie, with the help of a Chinese interpreter who is the communicator between the Val and the prickly cinematographer, do attempt to pull off the filming of the already started movie. Of course they try to keep the truth away from everyone involved.

The result is lots of laughs. But the whole set-up becomes over-the-top as there are so many opportunities for the rest of the crew to pick up on the fact that the director can’t see a thing. The viewer is asked to suspend all notion of reality for most of the film.

Hollywood Ending is mostly derivative in its story and jokes. The acting by Tea Leoni as the film executive is excellent. Mark Rydell stands out as the faithful agent who knows this is the last time for his client to come out of a slump. Debra Messing as Lori, Val’s live-in girl friend with not a lot of smarts, pulls it off. You hardly recognize her from her main role in television’s Will and Grace. Woody is Woody, and we have seen him play the same role for many a year. He does a good job, but shall we say he is really past his prime. Someone needs to get a hook and pull him off the set.

Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is one of my favorite films of all time. So I have come to appreciate Allen through the years.

If you want some laughs that are similar to previous Allen films you will enjoy Hollywood Ending. If you want to remember what Allen can really do, rent Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Hollywood Ending is rated PG-13 for sexual situations and drug jokes. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Hollywood Ending A-III — for adults.

*****

Last August I had the opportunity to spend three days in Copenhagen, Denmark. One day while buying some British papers in the newspaper stand in the tourist hotel, I started talking with the clerk about Danish movies. She said her daughter had been in a film or television series by the famous Danish director Lars Von Trier. The store wasn’t busy so she talked for 15 minutes about the Danish film industry, which she knew a great deal about and loved.

In 1995 some Danish directors led by Von Trier published a series of principles known as “Dogma 95.” They include ideas like always using natural light and hand-held cameras.

The new film Italian for Beginners, directed by Lone Scherfig, is delightful film that uses the “Dogma 95” precepts.

Before you go any further I must warn you that the film is in Danish and Italian with English subtitles. If you can’t adapt to subtitles you will not enjoy this wonderful film.

We really don’t see much of Denmark except the interiors of apartments, places of business, hotels, and churches. Into this world we meet six individuals who are all lonely people. They are very appealing, yet wounded. Looking for some sense of community they sign up to take a class in Italian.

There is a bungling, shy new Lutheran pastor (Anders W. Berthelsen) who can’t move into the pastor’s quarters because the previous pastor, who has been acting very erratic, won’t move out. So he stays at a local hotel where one of the managers, named Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), is very kind to him and seeks his advice.

Jorgen is very shy about his fondness for an Italian waitress in the hotel’s sports bar. His best friend Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund) manages the bar but treats customers with an outspoken anger. Jorgen has been told to fire his best friend.

A woman baker is a klutz. She keeps dropping the baked goods and has trouble responding to the customers rapidly. Her name is Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek). She discovers after the death of her father that she is a sister to Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), whom she has never met.

Well, all these very interesting characters end up taking Italian together and Halvfinn, after losing his job, becomes the teacher. An event happens that enables the class of nine or so to travel to Venice. And like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, people fall in love with each other.

The Lutheran pastor’s wife had died six months or a year ago. He is pictured swimming many times in the pool at the hotel as he talks with Jorgen. This may be a stretch but for me the pool symbolized the observation of the old prayer that we live in a “vale of tears.” I admit the pool of water would be a lot of tears.

If you want a film about ordinary people struggling with lots of sadness that leads to new beginnings and lots of joy, then Italian for Beginners is the film for you. It is tender and human, warm and sad. It is a story of life. It is a story that is really about all of us.

The acting is excellent. The characters are lovable. It is well worth the effort to read the subtitles.

Italian for Beginners is rated R because of language and sexual situations. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Italian for Beginners A-IV — adults, with reservations.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and ecumenical relations officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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