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Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (11/19/11)

Movie Poster: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg

Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black
Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan
Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen

How long is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1? 117 minutes.
What is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 rated? PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, sexuality/partial nudity and some thematic elements.

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

A fairy tale saga gets a dab of sophistication from Bill Condon, remains perfectly overwrought.

 

What do you think of when you think of Twilight? You think of screaming teenage girls; you envision the crazies sitting outside in the rain for 2 days before the L.A. premiere, the 40-something women who gasp at the site of a teenage boy’s bare chest. You think of Mormons, tabloids, and truly terrible writing. What you probably don’t think about is that, while Stephenie Meyer is no genius, she sure did strike a collective nerve with her overwrought saga. We live in a world where marriage rates are declining and people are choosing not to start families. One in which the economy is in the toilet, Occupy Wall Street protests are creeping ever closer, and women’s healthcare is under a constant barrage of malicious darts from conservatives. So really, what better way to engage your mind than a fairy tale? The Twilight saga is a fairy tale romance, complete with shape-shifters, vampires, raging hormones, and an entirely unassuming protagonist. (I prefer the Harry Potter series, myself, but someone had to fill that void following the culmination.)

Breaking Dawn Part 1 is the fourth film in the series, based on the fourth book. It’s also the series’ fourth director; Summit ousted Catherine Hardwicke after the first movie, replaced her with The Golden Compass’s Chris Weitz for New Moon, and then got 30 Days of Night’s David Slade to helm last year’s Eclipse. When Summit somehow enticed Bill Condon to direct Breaking Dawn, heads turned all about Hollywood. Condon is an Oscar winner who consistently churns out critically acclaimed work. So what on earth is he doing directing a YA supernatural romance series? Well, though he can’t redeem the series, he does his best.

When last we left off, that ethereal angel Edward (Robert Pattinson) had proposed marriage to his one true love, the clumsy and “completely average” Bella (Kristen Stewart). This entails Bella’s one true desire: that she be turned into a vampire too, and before she gets too old, thanks. Poor Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the shape-shifter (werewolf with no need of that pesky full moon) who’s also head over heels for Bella, ran off to Canada to be alone for awhile. Breaking Dawn zips straight through the traditional wedding and into the honeymoon. Logistics of vampire sex aside (inquiring minds want to know, if you have no heartbeat, how does blood get to the places necessary for the act itself?), Edward fears he’ll hurt Bella with his rock-hard muscles if they have sex before she becomes a vampire. However, unable to help themselves, they indulge in hazy, peach-colored lovemaking on Isle Esme, a private island off the coast of Brazil. It isn’t until a few days later that Bella realizes she’s pregnant…and already beginning to show.

What’s growing inside her is a monster, a thing capable of shattering her bones and reducing her to a corpse. And yet she won’t consider letting anyone touch it. So when the thing decides it’s coming, ready or not, it actually eats Bella from the inside out. And – get this – Edward has to bite her body all over to turn her into a vampire before she dies of massive hemorrhaging. What is actually a really brutal birth scene in the book translates quite well to a PG-13 format with some smart editing and fuzzy filters.

Meanwhile, Jacob’s tribe of shifters, the Quileute, experiences a massive upheaval when Jacob flip-flops on the subject of Bella. He finally decides to splinter from the main pack, bringing with him totally adorable fifteen-year-old Seth Clearwater (Booboo Stewart) and his shrewish sister Leah (Julia Jones). When the pack thinks Bella has died, breaking the long-standing peace treaty between sworn enemies vampires and shifters, alpha dog Sam stages an attack on the Cullens. Fortunately, though, Jacob has imprinted on Bella and Edward’s newborn baby girl, Renesmee. Yes, a seventeen-year-old boy has fallen deeply, irrevocably in love with a newborn. All of this is pretty twisted, but Condon and writer Melissa Rosenberg focus on Jacob’s visions of “future Renesmee” to make the whole situation a little less uncomfortable.

In case the abstinence-before-marriage and anti-abortion stances weren’t clearly sketched for you, here they are: kids, sex can be a lovely and wonderful thing – but don’t do it until you’re married, remember you might get pregnant, and that if you do you better plan on keeping that thing forever, even if it’s a danger to you and the world at large. And then when your best friend falls in love with it, you better just incorporate him into your family, too. Phew. Did I lose you yet?

Frankly, as much as I jest, the story is one that’s so ridiculous it’s hard not to keep reading/watching. Meyer’s fantasy is a too-perfect fairy tale with a too-neat culmination, but between the covers of books one and four, the events that come to pass are seriously twisted and totally engrossing (so long as you can ignore the 25% of the books that is Bella’s describing Edward as an archangel).

In Breaking Dawn, the Twilight cast is coming into its own. Pattinson and Stewart, who are no longer trying to hide the fact they’re dating in real life, have real chemistry in the film; though they have trouble with the awkward sex scenes and lengthy, deep kisses, it’s clear they actually enjoy one another’s presence. Lautner has genuine charisma as impetuous, lovable smartass Jacob. Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick, who was the best part of the first movie, gets a few choice opportunities to run with her comedic charm. Billy Burke is, as always, thoroughly entertaining as protective, downtrodden dad Charlie (I wrote in my notes that his face does more acting all by itself than the rest of the cast put together, but that’s a little unfair).

The film’s pacing is extremely erratic – it dodders along when it should be sprinting, and it sprints when it should take its time. Each time it could end, there’s another segment still to come. Carter Burwell’s score is entirely wrong for the movie – more often than not it’s a distraction, an upbeat piano jangling in the background of a meaningful scene. In Breaking Dawn, the wolves look more realistic than in the previous films. Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography takes full advantage of the beautiful Washington forests and Brazilian beaches. All in all, the movie is better than the last by far…which maybe doesn’t say much.

Most sane people wouldn’t brave the theater on opening night of a Twilight movie. Luckily, that’s what I’m here for. I couldn’t go to a midnight show (and wouldn’t have even given the choice), and the crowds on opening night were more subdued at this film than the last two. Perhaps the Twilight phenomenon is dying out; perhaps people are growing weary of the studio’s blatant attempt to reach into your pocket by dividing one book into two films. One way or another, the theater was packed with young women in UGG boots and sweatpants, Converse and skinny jeans. It was chock full of mothers leading gaggles of preteens, bored-looking boyfriends who surely wish their girlfriends would turn their starry eyes away from Edward and Jacob and back to the real world. But why would they do that?

Meyer’s fable is convoluted and strange, as unsexy as True Blood is oversexed. But in a world devoid of Muggles and Death Eaters, in a country plagued by serious cultural and economic difficulties, it’s a damn good way to turn off your brain for a few hours. Bill Condon’s talented hand lends an air of elegance to the series, tamping down the camp and turning up the heat (for better or worse). With one more movie yet to come, the series isn’t quite done yet – and the highly anticipated movie versions of The Hunger Games series will then take its place. While Breaking Dawn Part 1 may leave fans eagerly awaiting Bella’s transformation into vampiric magnificence, the rest of us aren’t holding our breath.

Movie Review: The Thing (10/15/11)

Movie Poster: The Thing

The Thing

Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Lloyd
Joel Edgerton as Braxton Carter
Ulrich Thomsen as Dr. Sander Halvorson
Eric Christian Olsen as Adam Goodman
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Jameson
Paul Braunstein as Griggs

How long is The Thing? 103 minutes.
What is The Thing rated? R for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language.

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Movie Still: The Thing

Photo by Kerry Hayes/Universal Pictures

Dear Hollywood: if it’s not broken, quit trying to fix it.

 

There’s a whole cadre of snowbound horror films that includes The Shining and 30 Days of Night. These flicks utilize their settings to compound their extraordinary aspects, pitting vampires and ghosts against the intrinsic crazy that emerges when humans are trapped together – anyone who’s ever been confined in a snowstorm knows the truth of cabin fever. One of the most impressive of sub-zero-set movies is John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi/horror shocker The Thing. Ostensibly a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks enterprise The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s The Thing is alternately reviled (famously by Roger Ebert) and beloved. It’s a visceral, frigid exercise in paranoia and claustrophobia, compounded by its Antarctic setting. This weekend we’re seeing yet another The Thing. But if it’s not broken, why fix it, you ask? Well, this weekend’s release, also titled The Thing (are we confused yet by all these ambiguous things?), is a prequel.

In Carpenter’s The Thing, a team of scientists on an American base in Antarctica find themselves stranded by a hellacious storm, trapped with an extraterrestrial life form that devours and becomes a replica of its victims…but perhaps more importantly, they are trapped with their own paranoia. In Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s new movie, a team of Norwegian scientists (the very same from the opening of the original) are the first to find the creature that haunts the dreams of many a horror fan. When the Norwegians literally stumble upon some kind of a structure buried for 100,000 years beneath the ice, they bring in apparently renowned Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The investigation begins mundanely enough, but when the team realizes the creature they’ve unearthed is still alive, things go straight to frozen-over hell. This version delves deeply into the origins of the Thing – which is problematic.

Detractors of Rob Zombie’s Halloween know that the cardinal rule of a classic monster is this: don’t reveal too much. In the same way Michael Myers was a far spookier fiend when he hid behind the impassive mask, tilting his head in fascination at his kills, the alien in The Thing was wholly horrifying when it was an unknown life form. When Zombie strove to tell us the story of how Michael Myers became a monster, we quit listening. Unfortunately, van Heijningen falls into the same trap with his prequel. Those of us who love the original don’t want to see the creature in its original form. We don’t want a closer glimpse at its vehicle than we got in the opening shot of the first movie. Here, we get those things.

Carpenter’s movie featured a large cast of men, including Kurt Russell in the role of MacReady, the levelheaded helicopter pilot. These men are confined to the bowels of a base nestled within the harshest climates in the world. A whistling wind pervades the entire film, and subconsciously we feel the chill. It’s forty below zero and there’s no civilization within hundreds of miles. Under those circumstances people get a little nutty. The addition of women to the new cast (Winstead as Kate and Kim Bubbs as French scientist Juliette) adds another complicating layer. It’s clear from the beginning that we should regard Kate as a sex object despite her apparent disinterest in men. Halvorson treats her like an insect, while a few other men leer or cringe. Kate of course takes on the role of Final Girl while also slipping quietly into the role that Russell built for her. It’s a superficially interesting gender switch, but not particularly effective since no character in the film really stands out.

The genius of the original was in the fact that these snowbound men were, mostly, friends. When the alien could have been any one of them, it was duly terrible because they had to stare into the eyes of people they’d known for months or years and decide whether these friends were still human. The Norwegians and Americans in the prequel are at best suspicious of each other, and at worst downright xenophobic. The unfamiliarity, cultural differences, and language barrier in the prequel take away the horrid, creeping dread of the first film.

Although he only received a “Special Thanks To” credit, Stan Winston was largely responsible for the mind-blowing, stomach-churning effects in the original; the creatures, including a severed head on arachnid legs and a tentacled husky-alien, were arguably the most visually memorable part of the film. In the new movie, the effects are (of course) largely digital. Image Engine, the company responsible, does a totally passable job. Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (doesn’t that sound sort of ominous?) is accountable for the physical effects, and they too managed to create a version of the creature that pays homage to the first while taking it to the next level. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Black Xmas) enormous brown eyes are perfect for horror – but it sure would’ve been nice if Kate Lloyd had a real personality. Finally, composer Marco Beltrami is no Ennio Morricone.

The new film features the same credit font and the same heartbeat guitar rhythm as the original, and a scene during the credits takes us up to the very minute the older film picks up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table and instead feeds us a lot of schlock we didn’t really need. There have been some truly brilliant horror remakes in the last decade (though they’re admittedly rare). This just isn’t one of them. If you’re in it for the gore – and many of us are this time of year – then by all means, this movie is a fun, disgusting, jumpy B-movie. True fans will be in theater seats this weekend, but you might do yourself a favor and give the original another chance.

Movie Review: Nightmare on Elm Street (5/1/10)

Movie Poster: Nightmare on Elm Street
A Nightmare on Elm Street

Directed by Samuel Bayer
Screenplay by Wesley Strick, Eric Heisserer

Jackie Earle Haley – Freddy Krueger
Kyle Gallner – Quentin Smith
Rooney Mara – Nancy Holbrook
Katie Cassidy – Kris Fowles
Thomas Dekker – Jesse Braun
Kellan Lutz – Dean Russell
Clancy Brown – Alan Smith

CLR Rating: 1/5 stars

Movie Still: Nightmare on Elm Street

Katie Cassidy as Kris, Thomas Dekker as Jesse and Rooney Mara as Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street
[Photo by Peter Sorel]

Unnecessary Remake
Leeches All the Fun from the Original

The man with knives for fingers is back for his ninth jaunt on the silver screen in twenty-five years, and this one is the least satisfying. With a select few exceptions (Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead, 2010’s The Crazies) horror remakes are mostly pointless cash cows, but with Jackie Earle Haley donning the grotesque mask of Freddy Krueger, audiences had high hopes for this one. The original films, featuring characters created by horror maestro Wes Craven, were chock full of fantastic gore, creepy imagery, and some silliness to lighten it all up. Unfortunately, the new Nightmare on Elm Street will leave even those uninitiated to the original films wanting.

In idyllic suburban paradise Springwood, Ohio, bleary-eyed teenagers band together to fight the man who’s haunting their dreams, a horribly burned creature with blades on his fingers and a striped sweater. As he picks them off one by one in their sleep, Nancy (Rooney Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner) decide to get to the bottom of Fred Krueger. Without revealing too much, Krueger’s past relationships with the kids is one of the movie’s biggest flaws. True evil doesn’t need an intricate back-story, but writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer chopped together bits and pieces from the original and made Freddy’s vendetta even more personal. Instead of clarifying things, this serves to narrow Krueger’s killings to a small, specific group of kids who were his “favorites” in life. The filmmakers tried to emphasize Krueger’s child molester background, and though this adds a new ick factor, we don’t need it pounded into us that, yes, Krueger was a creep in real life and continues to be in the afterlife.

The film opens with exhausted Dean (Kellan Lutz) chugging cup after cup of coffee at the Springwood Diner, fighting to stay awake. The blinking neon signs flash red, green, red, green; colors are overly saturated and shadows are deep and long; the “this-is-a-spooky-place” factor is through the roof. The horror tropes are enough to clue us all in to the fact that Dean’s dreaming. The movie continues to dumb down the dream sequences for new audiences, giving them neon flashing arrows that forewarn “hey, this kid’s going to run into Freddy soon.” It doesn’t improve on the first film, whose seamless transitions between dreams and reality made it truly creepy.

The new Springwood is a land of green lawns, money, and white-trimmed colonial houses where teenagers with flight attendant mothers drive brand new VW convertible bugs, wear UGGs, and are generally gorgeous. The original cast included Heather Langenkamp, whose quirky girl-next-door looks were perfect for the role of chaste sweetheart Nancy, and a young Johnny Depp in his first movie role as Nancy’s sweet, obedient boyfriend Glen. The new cast, though not downright bad, is terribly boring. Statuesque, slender blond Katie Cassidy’s role relies solely on her ability to look pretty while crying. Mara, Gallner, Lutz, and the rest of the cast are good-looking, thin, and tedious. Connie Britton, who’s brilliant in TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” and Clancy Brown, a great character actor, play the vengeful parents who doomed their kids to Freddy’s wrath. They’re suitably shady, but John Saxon and Ronee Blakley as Nancy’s original parents were sympathetic and flawed, giving the original movie an adult aspect the new one misses. Finally, Craven’s movies always follow the rules of horror (watch Scream if you want a rundown), one of which is that anyone who has sex dies. Not to complain about lack of sex in a horror film, but part of the fun of the seventies’ and eighties slashers was knowing the promiscuous would get their due punishment. Fans will recognize many of the iconic scenes from the original, with slight, effects-laden alterations that are completely unnecessary.

Finally, let’s talk about Freddy. Jackie Earle Haley is a slight man with a high voice, but when given the right role (such as Watchmen’s Rorschach or Little Children’s Ronnie McGorvey), he can transform into a disturbing weirdo. Unfortunately, the original Freddy, Robert Englund, left a legacy that just can’t be enhanced, and Haley is unmemorable as scarred, baritone-voiced Krueger. Without giving away too much about the way Freddy looks, let’s say the new mask doesn’t improve on the old. The new is perhaps more realistic, but Freddy haunts nightmares because he’s a figment, an ancient evil with a visage to shock even arrogant teenagers—and the realism was never the point.

Strick and Heisserer leeched every bit of humor from the original and quashed it. Part of the fun of the first Nightmare (1984) was Freddy’s over-the-top jokiness combined with his insane brutality. Subtract that predatory gleefulness and you have an unsatisfying flick with a villain as unmemorable as the kind that capers through eighty-minute low-budget slashers that end up going straight-to-DVD. Michael Bay produced the new Nightmare on Elm Street, which is the sixth slasher remake in the last decade with his name in the credits, and as with the others, Nightmare is completely unoriginal and unnecessary. Loud noises, a few good gory scenes, and a pretty, dull cast of characters fuel the new movie, and it’s a real shame. Take it from one who adores horror film: watch the original. It’s far more entertaining.

Movie Review: Legion (1/23/10)

Movie Poster: Legion
Legion

Directed by Scott Stewart
Screenplay by Peter Schink, Scott Stewart

Michael – Paul Bettany
Jeep Hanson – Lucas Black
Kyle Williams – Tyrese Gibson
Charlie – Adrianne Palicki
Percy – Charles S. Dutton
Gabriel – Kevin Durand
Bob Hanson – Dennis Quaid
Gladys Foster – Jeanette Miller
Ice Cream Man – Doug Jones

CLR Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Legion

Paul Bettany stars in Legion
Photo By: Lewis Jacobs. ©2008 Bold Films LP. All Rights Reserved

The Apocalypse on a Tight Budget

Good horror movies are rare. This year’s second scary movie (following last week’s Daybreakers) is certainly not one of them. As a nation we seem preoccupied at the moment with the apocalypse. This fad comes and goes often, but with 2012 (the end of the Mayan calendar and the date of the supposed prophesied apocalypse) looming on the horizon, studios are banking on our social anxieties—which are already high due to the recession, our political climate and the threat of terrorism. Legion doesn’t present the same kind of apocalypse depicted in the movie 2012’s trailers (which seem to show the whole world literally falling apart), but it is the End of Days nonetheless.

According to the script, God has lost faith in humanity, ostensibly because he grew “tired of all the BS.” Thus He orders the angels to exterminate mankind—just to switch it up a bit, since last time He went with a flood. The angel Michael (Paul Bettany) disagrees with God’s order and falls from heaven to save the human race. Michael chooses a tiny town called Paradise Falls (a clever but gauche touch of Dante), at the edge of the Mojave desert, in which to prove that humans are worth saving. Michael’s been keeping an eye on homely Jeep (Lucas Black) and pregnant, single Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) for years, and has pegged them as proof that humans are worth saving. In particular, Charlie’s unborn child is lined up to be the savior—although this is never quite explained. Bad fortune brings a number of strangers to the diner at which the two work and live, and there the battle plays out.

In Legion, God is neither infallible nor merciful. The angels are not lovely and ethereal—no halos for these soldiers. Instead they are dark, cruel minions who inhabit humans to ensure the End of Days. This might’ve been an effective take on the Biblical apocalypse if it weren’t for the ridiculous special effects. Before the battle gets underway, a very old woman with a walker comes into the diner, all smiles and sweetness. Unfortunately, the trailers already revealed that she’s evil, and sloppy filmmaking creates such ominous foreshadowing (elongated shadows, stalker view—from behind rather than ahead) that the audience simply lies in wait for her to do something nutty, which of course she does. In The Exorcist III, an elderly woman in a mental hospital (who happens to be possessed) crawls on the ceiling behind the characters’ heads, and it’s one of the most unsettling moments in the film. Legion’s effects budget evidently didn’t cover anything that looks realistic, and as such the audience guffawed at a moment that should have been disturbing. When the special effects of a movie made twenty years ago trump one made last year, there’s a problem. Shortly thereafter, an ice cream truck appears, cheerily amplifying that song so familiar to kids in the summertime. The ice cream man, played by Doug Jones, whose acting is most recognizable by his magnificently exacted bodily movements (he was Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies as well the Silver Surfer in the eponymous movie) is supremely underutilized when the terrible CGI takes over.

The film’s script is fairly run of the mill. It’s funny at times, but leaves characters completely undeveloped—a technique best used in movies like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre—the difference being that at least Chain Saw’s rather deplorable, one-dimensional characters had some really horrifying death scenes. Most of the murders in Legion are not typical of the horror genre, which mostly relies on hand-to-hand combat: knives, chainsaws, and other weapons. Guns and explosions are plentiful in Legion, which nearly crosses into the action realm. Though it has a dearth of good computer imagery, the makeup effects and gore are well done. The movie’s rated R for violence and language, and rightfully so, but a curious aspect of the film is that a few of the “good” characters smoke cigarettes, one while pregnant. The MPAA decided in 2007 that any amount of smoking in a movie automatically raises its rating, so it’s interesting to see a focus on cigarettes in a culture that’s becoming less tolerant of the habit.

Legion is an effects-laden and silly movie that tells yet another rendition of the apocalypse in which the Christian God smites mankind for our numerous sins. Whether or not you believe the apocalypse is upon us, this is an especially farfetched version of events, entertaining but neither new nor particularly well told; loose ends and underdeveloped characters abound. Paul Bettany is a pleasure to watch in any medium, and Adrianne Palicki may be headed for a healthy film career (her role in TV’s “Friday Night Lights” showed she is in fact quite talented). However, the movie isn’t worth seeing in theaters unless you want to spend an evening chuckling and cringing.

Movie Review: Nine (12/26/09)

Movie Poster: Nine

Nine

Directed by Rob Marshall
Screenplay by Michael Tolkin, Anthony Minghella
Based on the musical with book by Arthur L. Kopit
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston

Guido Contini – Daniel Day-Lewis
Luisa Contini – Marion Cotillard
Carla – Penelope Cruz
Lilli – Judi Dench
Saraghina – Fergie
Stephanie – Kate Hudson
Claudia – Nicole Kidman
Mamma – Sophia Loren

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Nine

Penelope Cruz stars in Rob Marshall’s Nine
[Photo by: David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.]

Nine’s Fantastic Cast Can’t Save It From
Sloppy Pacing and Boring Music

Rob Marshall’s Chicago was a pitch-perfect Broadway-to-film adaptation that used the best of both mediums to create a film that left you smiling. No one really expected Marshall to duplicate that success with Nine, a movie based on the life of Federico Fellini and more full of Oscar nominated actors than almost any other movie this year—but with such talent as Sophia Loren, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, and Marion Cotillard aboard, the movie could’ve been so much better. Poor pacing and unmemorable music are only the film’s most obvious flaws. All in all it’s a disappointment.

Rob Marshall takes a cue from Fellini’s 1963 classic  (and he is certainly not the first nor the most talented director to do so), which is about a director with writer’s block whose imagination runs wild as he strives to compose another film. In Nine, Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) wracks his brain for a script for his newest movie even as he does press conferences and begins costume design. His horrifically self-centered flailing draws his mind to all the women in his life, each of whom is given approximately fifteen minutes of screen time. His wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), mother (Sophia Loren), and costume mistress (Judi Dench) occupy the most time in his mind as well as onscreen. A whore he encountered as a child (Fergie), an American reporter he nearly beds (Kate Hudson), and his cinematic muse (Nicole Kidman) also dance in and out as he struggles for his latest greatest plot. With a cast like this, the movie should’ve been a triumph; Day-Lewis, Cruz, Dench, and Cotillard have won well-deserved Oscars in the last few years, and Loren is one of the screen’s original sirens. Unfortunately, most of these stellar acors perform no more than a few minutes’ worth of lines.

Day-Lewis is a notorious method actor, and he adopts a kind of stoop, shoving his hands in his pockets and donning shades and a fedora as he tries to slouch past the constant onslaught of paparazzi that follow his every move. Though he seems to be a born performer, he’s not really built for singing, and while his numbers aren’t terrible, they’re not good either. Kidman’s chops as a singer and dancer were already tested to fine results in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and she holds her own as Claudia. Dench is a pleasure to watch in her role as dour costume mistress Lilli and her song “Folies Bergére,” largely because the woman is incredibly versatile and genuinely seems to enjoy her turn as songstress. Kate Hudson, whose thin physique and bouffant fit perfectly in the mod styling of the era, either can’t dance well or is not given the chance; her number’s a miniskirt-and-skinny-tie-clad disaster. Marion Cotillard is perhaps the film’s brightest star as Guido’s long-suffering wife Luisa. As Luisa realizes the extent of her husband’s philandering, Cotillard drowns herself in the role. It doesn’t hurt that the actress is achingly beautiful, nor that her song-and-dance number is the sexiest and also the saddest in the film. She pulls these elements together with utter aplomb. The Black Eyed Peas’ lead singer Fergie also shines as Saraghina, a whore who helped shape Guido’s approach to women—but she is of course a singer and not an actress.

Marshall apparently strove for the early 60s New Wave Cinema feel, which relied heavily on shaky camerawork and frenetic editing—except during musical numbers, which are proscribed so heavily as to be cloying. As the filmmakers strove to pay homage to 1960s Italian cinema, they lost the meaning behind the art, leaving a messy result. Chicago touched all the right buttons as it jumped from reality to imagination and back, then deftly wove the two together. Nine slides clumsily back and forth between Guido’s self-absorbed womanizing and the imaginary world in which he’s the center of each woman’s world. The movie fails to knit together its fantastic and authentic elements as artfully as Marshall’s last film, and the pacing doesn’t help: though it may be reasonable to assume each woman is allotted about fifteen minutes of time in Guido’s overworked brain, that doesn’t help the film move along. Instead it leaves a trail of loose ends. The film’s music is also utterly unmemorable, which in itself is a death knell for a musical.

Critics and audiences alike had high hopes for Nine as a worthy Oscar contender this year. A cast of solidly great actors should’ve built a strong foundation for homage to a Fellini film, but the end result is a house of cards, some sections weaker than others, the whole of which collapses under the slightest pressure. Marshall has a lot to live up to after Chicago, and hopefully his next film will fare better.