In case you were wondering, yes, there is a scene shoe-horned into Disney's blandly slick, National Treasure-ized, adaptation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice when Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) attempts to clean up his lab by enchanting various brooms and mops with a poorly executed spell. The cleaning implements come to life and do the job for the lazy acolyte only too well, flooding the laboratory, nearly destroying it before Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) returns to put a stop to the magical mayhem. It's even set to a rearranged version of the jaunty, Paul Dukas score.
I was reminded of that Veruca Salt song, "Volcano Girls," when in the middle of their ersatz, over-produced, boring new track they broke into a riff from their previous hit, "Seether." As if to remind the listener, "Hey, we did something you liked once, remember?"
That feeling kind of pervades much of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a glossy, predictable, family-friendly exercise that reunites the creative team behind the National Treasure franchise.
It's also exactly the sort of cookie-cutter crock pot film making -- with no less than five writers -- that renders me nearly ambivalent to its existence. If I had to say something nice about its nerdy conventions: at least it's not pretentious.
Balthazar (Cage) is a centuries old sorcerer who (back in the days of King Arthur) imprisoned the treacherous Horvath (Alfred Molina) in a magical Grimhold when Horvath joined forces with the evil Morgana (Alice Krige) in an attempt to kill Merlin.
In the ensuing battle, Balthazar managed to defeat and imprison all of the evil warlocks, but not before Merlin is killed and Balthazar's love, Veronica (the radiantly beautiful Monica Bellucci) is absorbed into the soul of Morgana. Her soul can only be released once Balthazar finds and trains Merlin's successor, who is the only one powerful enough to defeat them.
In the year 2000 -- every time I say that it reminds me of Conan O'Brien for some reason -- Balthazar crosses paths with a young Dave Stutler who fatefully winds up in his Manhattan magic shop after chasing a wind-blown note from his school girl crush, Becky.
Balthazar instantly recognizes the kid as the "Prime Merlinian" when Merlin's dragon ring comes to life and wraps itself around Stutler's finger.
But young Dave accidentally releases Horvath from the Grimhold, and Balthazar, in order to save Stutler, imprisons himself and Horvath in a magical Chinese vase, not to be paroled for 10 years.
A decade later, Stutler is still an introverted geek, crushing on Becky (Teresa Palmer), while he works toward a physics degree. When Balthazar and Horvath escape the vase, they both go on a hunt for the Grimhold. Horvath has a nefarious plan that involves releasing Morgana and bringing about the end of the world, which Balthazar must stop. Of course, he'll need Stutler to do it.
I keep coming back to words like "slick" and "glossy." The look of The Sorcerer's Apprentice has a highly polished sheen that belies its shallow narrative depth, a lot like a Stephen Sommers film but without Sommers' sense of scope.
If this were a Stephen Sommers flick, some major Manhattan landmarks would have gotten the Roland Emmerich treatment. Under John Turteltaub's more matter-of-fact direction, the mid-film busting up of Chinatown by a dragon come to life -- as our heroes battle an Asian wizard who controls it -- turns out to be the most well-conceived and destructive set piece in the movie.
It shares some other things in common to Sommers' stylistic sensibilities, from the overuse of occasionally bad/occasionally decent computer FX, to hammy over-the-top performances particularly from the villains -- even the similar nature of Cage's perfectly coiffed, copious locks and his leather duster, recall Hugh Jackman from the awful Van Helsing.
If only The Sorcerer's Apprentice could inspire enough of an emotion in me to hate it or love it. It's just so ... there.
That's what happens when a team of writers buffs away all the edges from a script.
But I guess it is a Disney film. Where Sommers would blow past the faults in a script with oodles of eye-candy, athletic camera work and tons of bloodless violence (see G.I. Joe for Sommers in peak form), Turteltaub dials it back into family-friendly smoothness, much as he did with the National Treasure flicks.
In fairness, I think The Sorcerer's Apprentice was intended to be in the vein of Disney young adult classics such as the Witch Mountain films and Something Wicked This Way Comes -- and those weren't particularly great movies themselves. But they did feel like real movies, and at the time, they signaled Disney's willingness to take risks with material.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice feels designed for the broadest possible appeal, and as such, it fails to garner any real emotional involvement.
The only thing that really saved The Sorcerer's Apprentice from being an utter bore is the fairly inspired turns by Cage and Molina. The film is well cast, for the most part, though I'm really failing to see why Jay Baruchel needs to be in movies. I heard She's Out of My League wasn't bad. I'll give him another chance because for all I know he's just a simple case of miscasting.
Alfred Molina oozes slimy menace with a gravitas unique to the great British legend. He's magnetic, deftly walking that tight rope between chewing scenery in a silly film while never winking it away.
Cage is winking a bit but also having enough fun here to earn the reluctant good will that keeps the film just barely afloat. Yeah, the plugs are ridiculous, but as in his last several performances -- notably Kick-Ass and Bad Lieutenant -- there's a sense of the slightly nutty, charmingly unhinged qualities that make Cage the star he is.
But that doesn't change the fact that this new, pixel-wrapped, update of The Sorcerer's Apprentice builds a house of cards on the back of a 70-year-old animated short that was more memorable, magical and entertaining in 11 minutes than its "re-imagining" is in its entire two-hours.
A Loving Predicament
Are rich people who aren't famous or influential in any notable way -- say a wealthy, industrialist family in the textile business -- interesting? I don't think that's a question posed by writer/director Luca Guadagnino's languid and sumptuous I Am Love. It's just one I was asking of myself.
I Am Love is a naturalistic look into the lives of the Recchi's, a wealthy family with an industrialized background. The film opens on the birthday celebration of the family patriarch, Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) as he hands over the reins of the family business to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti).
Emma (Tilda Swinton) is Edo's mother who married into the Recchi clan after meeting Tancredi in her native Russia. She has since assimilated herself so completely into Italian life that she doesn't even remember her real name, "Emma" being the name Tancredi bestowed on her.
When she meet's Edo's friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a talented chef who plans to open a restaurant with Edo, passions that had long since been dimmed by a marriage that's more business than pleasure, begin to stir in Emma.
And, eventually, we get some fairly hot sex scenes.
It's the leisurely pace of I Am Love that some will find hypnotic -- the film's painterly, Kubrickian-visual sense helps considerably to that end -- and others will find tedious. It's a slow burn of a movie that pulls back the layers of the familial dynamics, and the inner lives of its characters, stripping them bare, figuratively and sometimes literally. Emma is the centrifuge that sets in motion their entropic downfall.
It's a lush film, and the amazing cinematography by Yorick Le Saux beautifully captures the northern Italian summertime vistas in Caravaggio-esque compositions, and the almost post-war cold grays and blues of winter in Milan, with the eye of a master. Director Guadagnino's penchant for long takes, slow tracking shots and extended Stedi-Cam runs -- all tools straight from Kubrick's chest -- combine with the lovely images to create a film that's hard to look away from, even before Antonio starts boning more than just the carp.
But the fact is the film meanders and when I Am Love does begin to take off, it builds more and more into melodrama as the film takes the character threads it so naturalistically developed and ties them together in ways that become nearly operatic. There's a sort of D.H. Lawrence vibe to all the outdoor lovemaking that graduates to parlor drama that left me looking for deeper themes and coming up dry.
Performances were fine, though, with Tilda Swinton leading the pack in a tightly controlled, precise, yet utterly genuine turn. Emma's malaise and desires are brought to life by every considered movement of her face and body and also her mastery of Italian, allowing her to blend into an ensemble of native actors.
Other notables include Edoardo Gabbriellini as Antonio, whose buoyant performance allows the emotional consequences of his actions to achieve more weight than their dramatic conventions alone would have. Coupled with the fine turn by Flavio Parenti, the two make convincing best friends, with Parenti investing Edoardo with a care-free, adolescence that contrasts Antonio's more introverted, mature nature.
I Am Love left me wanting for something deeper, considering how deliberately it maps out the inner architecture of its protagonists. It left me grasping for a theme; what, if anything, it was trying to say.
Am I supposed to celebrate the collapse of a rich, bourgeoisie family or mourn it? Am I meant to pity their banality or be disgusted by it? Am I just supposed to let it all wash over me and treat it like a fly on the wall dramatic vacation amongst a class of people I'll never truly experience? Or is it just a gorgeously shot, overblown soap opera that I'm reading too much into?
Luca Guadagnino's assured and deliberate direction aside, he doesn't seem all that interested in answering questions -- just throwing them out there.
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