Thursday, November 27, 2008

QUICK TAKES: Ustinov's Nero & Mortimer's femme-not-quite-fatale

In TrustMovies' memory MGM's grandiose QUO VADIS (1951) came to us in wide-screen. Wrong. 20th's The Robe, from '53, was the first Cinemascope movie. QV does provide a lot of spectacle, however, much of it stagy and obvious. Even an actress as fine as Deborah Kerr seems to have some trouble connecting, but since that connection is to the usually wooden Robert Taylor, the viewer can at least forgive. It's Peter Ustinov's Nero that fascinates most. Nominated for an Oscar, he didn't win, though he copped a Golden Globe. (Nor did the movie; with eight nominations, it still went away empty handed.) Ustinov (above, left) is funny, creepy, sad, scary and certainly the best Nero I've seen or am likely to in time to come. I confess here to having watched only Disc One. (At its three-hour running time, the entire film could easily have been given us on a single disc.) I am toying with the idea of renting Disc 2, but with so much else to see and so little time to view it, I haven't yet made up my mind.... Oh, yes: Note the red circle (and its enclosed copy) at the bottom of the poster, above. "Not Suitable for Children"? I saw the movie as a child when it first appeared, and I don't recall any warnings for kids. Hmmm.... Did church groups perhaps imagine that children seeing Christians thrown to the lions might not be in the best of taste? Still, compared to what kids can -- and do -- see today (that PG-13 rating gets sleazier and nuttier by the month), Quo Vadis seems piddling indeed.

Brad Anderson seems incapable of making an uninteresting movie: Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents, Session 9, The Machinist and now TRANSIBERIAN. I occasionally have problems with his work (particulary with Happy Accidents) but I am always pleased to have seen one of his films. He's at home in various genres -- romance, fantasy, adventure, horror, (and in fact, likes to elide these) but it's more his grasp of character that counts. As good as is every one of Transiberian's five leads (Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kinsgley, Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega), it's Mortimer (above, right) whose character matters most. This is probably her best role -- complex, pivotal, elusive, indelible -- and she brings the movie home. That the film also offers lots of twisty, genre-jumping fun should be another inducement to view. About a pair of do-gooder Americans abroad who encounter other folk of the not so do-good variety, director/co-writer Anderson's film explores, especially via Miss Mortimer, those shifting, grey areas between who we would like to be and who we are.

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